What Is the Prow?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The prow is the projection above the waterline at the front of a boat. It has a pointed design to reduce resistance and facilitate smooth movement of the boat through the water. Prow design requires careful forethought, as poor design can destabilize a boat, slow it down, or make it perform sluggishly in the water. These traits are undesirable, whether in a cargo ship or a sailboat. This is part of the overall structure at the front of the boat known as the bow, the complement to the stern at the rear end of the boat.

The prow is on the front of a boat, above the waterline.
The prow is on the front of a boat, above the waterline.

It is traditional to paint the ship's name on or near the prow, to make the ship easy to identify, and it may also have space for anchors and related equipment, including additional markings to provide information about the ship. If the boat has a figurehead, it is mounted on the front of the prow, attached to a projecting spar. It may also have markings indicating elevation above the waterline for the purpose of measuring how laden a boat is. This can be useful for calculating the ship's draft and determining whether it is dangerously overloaded.

Like the rest of the ship's exterior, this section is treated with rugged paints designed to resist corrosion and other problems. Many ships have an anti-corrosion system at or near the waterline to discourage the development of rust. Periodically the ship is taken out of the water so algae, barnacles, and other organisms can be removed, and the ship can be checked for signs of corrosion. The process finishes with resurfacing and a fresh coat of paint to protect the hull.

Icebreakers have a special prow design to help them punch through sheets of ice. These boats are useful for clearing shipping lanes or conducting research in areas where sea ice can make travel in a regular ship difficult. The prow is reinforced, and the whole bow is weighted. This allows the ship to break up ice, leaving a swath of clear and navigable water in its wake. The water will ice over again at varying speeds, depending on the width of the channel and the weather conditions.

Climbers also use the term “prow” to refer to an overhanging projection in the rock that may look like the prow of a ship from below. The intended meaning of the word is usually very clear from the context, as climbing and shipping occur in very different environments.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@croydon: His name was Plimsoll, not Pimsoll!


@umbra21 - They used to make those figureheads in order to ward off evil spirits. I don't know about today's sailors, but a few hundred years ago, people who worked at sea were really superstitious. Even a Viking ship prow would have an ugly figurehead in order to keep away the bad spirits.

They were also superstitious about other things, like thinking that having a woman on board the ship was bad luck.

Personally, while I do agree that figureheads are quite lovely, I'm glad most seafaring superstitions have fallen by the wayside.


I wish that modern ships still had figureheads.

I know that they are really impractical, and that the prow of a boat is weighed down by them, particularly the huge, elaborate ones they used to make out of wood.

But, you could make wonderful figureheads out of fiberglass that wouldn't be too heavy. And they just look awesome.

I think it's a shame that this kind of tradition died out, even though there are lots of other boat building traditions that survive.


It doesn't seem like much, but the line they paint on the sides of ships in order to ensure they aren't overloaded is extremely important.

It's called a Pimsoll line because a politician named Pimsoll managed to get the law passed that forbade ships from overloading past the line.

Previously, ship owners would put as much cargo on as they wanted, even dangerously overloading their ships, because they knew even if the ship sank they could always claim the insurance.

Of course, that couldn't bring back the lives of the people who would be lost if a ship went down.

Pimsoll fought for years to make the load lines compulsory, and eventually managed to get the law pushed through parliament, no doubt saving thousands of lives.

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