The Secret Language of Ships

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The Secret Language of Ships | Hakai Magazine (Hakai Magazine)

A ship’s markings may look like hieroglyphs, but to industry insiders they tell an important story.

Mysterious markings on the side of a continer ship

Approaching the container ship in San Francisco Bay, the tugboat looks like a pit bull puppy chasing an eighteen-wheeler. When the vessels are an arm’s length apart, the ship’s mate throws down a line. Now leashed to the ship, the tug can push and pull it around the bay. Big ships can’t easily slow down or maneuver by themselves—they’re meant for going in a straight line.

Tugboat crews routinely encounter what few of us will ever see. They easily read a vessel’s size, shape, function, and features, while deciphering at a glance the mysterious numbers, letters, and symbols on a ship’s hull. To non-mariners, the markings look like hieroglyphs. For those in the know, they speak volumes about a particular ship and also about the shipping industry.

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