Apr 2024

Do You Feel A Ship’s Movement While You Are Onboard?

April 11, 2024
Do You Feel A Ship’s Movement While You Are Onboard?

Have you ever marvelled at the vastness of the ocean, standing aboard a ship, feeling as if you were floating in serene stillness? Despite the immense size of the vessel and the churning waters below, there’s often a curious absence of sensation, leaving passengers to wonder: Why can’t we feel the ship’s movement while we’re onboard? The answer to this intriguing question lies in the realm of physics, where a combination of factors works harmoniously to create the illusion of tranquillity amidst the motion of the sea.

Inertia and Relative Motionlessness

To understand why we don’t perceive a ship’s movement in the same way we might feel the acceleration of a car or the turbulence of a plane, we must delve into the principles of physics governing motion and equilibrium.

First and foremost, let’s address the concept of inertia. Inertia, according to Newton’s laws of motion, is the tendency of an object to maintain its state of motion or rest unless acted upon by an external force. When a ship is sailing steadily on the open sea, it’s essentially in a state of constant motion. However, this motion is uniform, meaning there are no sudden changes in speed or direction to disrupt the equilibrium. As a result, passengers onboard the ship, along with all the objects within it, also remain in a state of uniform motion due to their inertia.

But what about the gentle swaying or rocking sensation often associated with being on a ship?

This perceived movement is largely a result of external forces acting upon the vessel, such as the rolling motion caused by waves or the yawing induced by wind. While these external forces may alter the orientation of the ship, they typically do so gradually and predictably, allowing passengers to adjust their position and maintain a sense of stability. In essence, the ship and its occupants are subjected to the same external forces, thus preserving the relative motionlessness experienced onboard.


Another crucial factor contributing to the sensation of stability onboard a ship is the principle of buoyancy.

Buoyancy explains why objects appear to weigh less when submerged in a fluid. In the case of a ship, its buoyant force—generated by displacing water—is what keeps it afloat. This buoyant force acts vertically upward through the center of buoyancy, effectively counteracting the downward force of gravity. As a result, passengers and objects onboard the ship experience a sensation akin to weightlessness, further diminishing the perception of movement.

The Human Body and Perception

Moreover, the human body is remarkably adept at adapting to changes in its environment, including variations in motion. Through a process known as sensory adaptation, our sensory receptors gradually become less responsive to constant stimuli over time. This phenomenon explains why passengers may initially perceive the motion of a ship more acutely upon boarding but gradually grow accustomed to it as their sensory systems adjust.

It’s also worth noting the role of the horizon in our perception of motion. When standing on the deck of a ship, our visual reference points are often limited to the expanse of the sea and the distant horizon. Unlike the confined spaces of a car or airplane cabin, where stationary objects are readily visible, the expansive vista of the open ocean can create an illusion of stability. The seemingly endless horizon provides a constant frame of reference, anchoring our perception of motion and reinforcing the sensation of stillness.


The physics behind why we can’t feel a ship’s movement while onboard is a fascinating interplay of inertia, buoyancy, external forces, and sensory adaptation. Despite the dynamic nature of the maritime environment, the combination of these factors works harmoniously to create a sense of tranquillity and stability for passengers at sea. So the next time you find yourself aboard a ship, marvelling at the vastness of the ocean, take a moment to appreciate the intricate physics at play, quietly ensuring your comfort and serenity amidst the ebb and flow of the waves.

If you’re interested in learning more, join us at Tution Physics. We provide O Level and IP Physics tuition in Singapore. Under the guidance of our experienced physics tutor, you are sure to ace your future tests and exams.

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