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Is It Correct to Say “Drive a Boat”?

You probably already know that we “drive” a car, but we “ride” a horse or a bicycle. But what if you’re traveling over or across a sea, river, or lake? Is it correct to say “drive a boat”?

Though the noun and verb combination “drive a boat” conveys the idea that there is a boat moving along the surface of the water, native English speakers don’t really use the verb “to drive” with “boat.” Instead, verbs like “to pilot,” “to steer,” and “to navigate” are more popular, while the most popular is “to sail” if the boat is motorless.

There are also a few other contexts where we can use the verb “to sail.” Here, we’ll take a deeper look at verbs that show command over movement and explore the nouns that we can use as their objects. Finally, we’ll check out some more popular verb and object combinations in English.

Is It Grammatically Correct to Say “Drive a Boat”?

Technically speaking, it is grammatically correct to say “drive a boat.” Many people — especially non-native English speakers or English language learners — might use “drive a boat” to explain maneuvering a boat from point A to point B.

However, the meaning of the expression changes based on which definition of “to drive” you are using. For example, the verb “to drive” has both a transitive and an intransitive definition, which can make all the difference.

The intransitive verb “to drive” has several meanings, but the most popular refers to steering or directing the course of a motorized vehicle (source). Because it’s an intransitive verb, it doesn’t need a direct object every time.  

On the other hand, the transitive verb “to drive” usually means to use physical force to move something forward or in a specific direction (source). For instance, we use the transitive verb “to drive” when talking about driving cattle or driving a home run.

For more information about verbs with specific pairings, check out our article “‘Speak to’ or ‘Speak With’: Which One Is Correct?

Is It “Sailing a Boat” or “Driving a Boat”?

The verb “to sail” usually refers to directing a boat using wind power. However, if the boat has a motor, “driving a boat” could make sense in context. Still, “to pilot” or “navigate” would be best when directing the course of a motorized boat.

So, “sailing a boat” is the most appropriate choice of words when discussing using a wind-powered boat to proceed from point A to point B.

Of course, we also use the verb “to sail” when talking about something moving quickly and fluidly through the air. We can also use the verb “to sail” to explain how abstract things — like thoughts or feelings — move through a situation.

Take a look at these examples and how we can use the verb “to sail” in all of these contexts:

  • The crew sailed the boat through the treacherous waters, but it was slow going.
  • While she was sailing the boat under the bridge, she had to lower the sails. 
  • He spiked the volleyball, and it sailed over the net. He scored the winning point!
  • The music from the concert downstairs sailed into my apartment. 

Here you can see how the verb “to sail” fits perfectly in each situation. In the first two examples, the verb “to sail” explains moving a boat with wind power. In the last two examples, “to sail” refers to a fluid and consistent motion (source). 

Sailing Boat, Sail, Lake Constance, Boat, Sea, Leisure
Image by blende12 via Pixabay

What Does “Drive a Boat” Mean?

When people talk about driving a boat, they are usually talking about propelling a boat along the water’s surface. This meaning is easy to catch, especially if the boat in question has a motor or engine. 

However, most native English speakers might think that “drive a boat” sounds a bit weird. Even though the meaning is clear and correct in context, it doesn’t fit with the collocations we usually use when discussing directing a boat.

When we’re talking about directing or controlling a boat as it moves along the surface of the water, we’re using the definition of “to drive” that refers to operating a vehicle, usually with a motor or engine.

However, there is another definition of “to drive.” This verb can also mean to push something forcefully, usually in a forward direction or in another specific direction. With this definition of “to drive,” you can talk about an outside force acting on the boat. 

How Do You Use “Drive a Boat”?

If you want to use the perfect verb to describe how a person directs a boat from one place to another, try using the verb/object combinations “sail a boat,” “pilot a boat,” “navigate a boat,” “row a boat,” or “steer a boat” rather than “drive a boat.”

These specialized verbs give a clear idea to the reader or listener about the direction of the boat and the role of the captain or operator of the boat. Plus, they sound much more natural and normal to native speakers of English. 

While the verb/object combination “drive a boat” might sound correct to non-native English speakers or English language learners, it actually sounds really strange to native English speakers. 

That’s because the verb “to drive” hardly ever appears with the object “a boat,” except for in specific contexts that we’ll explore below. 

If you’re talking about a huge vessel, then you might prefer the verb “to conn.” However, the verb “to conn” doesn’t usually take the object “boat.” Instead, it often comes with “ship” or “vessel,” since the verb implies that the object is a huge vehicle, much bigger than just a boat.

For example, in the US Coast Guard, a deck officer will navigate or “conn” the ship from a conning tower (source).

When Can You Use “Drive a Boat”?

The only context where you can correctly use the phrase “drive a boat” is if you’re explaining how an outside force — not a person or captain of the boat — is forcefully pushing a boat. For example, the waves can drive a boat ashore, or the wind can drive a boat into sharp rocks. 

You shouldn’t use “drive a boat” when you actually mean “sail a boat,” “pilot a boat,” “navigate a boat,” “row a boat,” or “steer a boat.” 

In What Context Can You Use “Drive a Boat”?

You can use the verb and object combination “drive a boat” when you are explaining that an outside force — usually not a person — is directing the boat forcefully. 

For example, you can say, “The strong winds drove the boat into the sharp rocks. Here, the boat is the object of the verb “to drive,” but in this sentence, “to drive” isn’t about steering or directing a vehicle.

Instead, this transitive verb “to drive” explains the force something exerted onto the boat. It’s not about moving the boat to travel. Instead, it’s about moving the boat forcefully in a specific direction that usually isn’t in line with the captain’s will. 

Using “Drive a Boat” in a Full Sentence

If you’re trying to use “drive a boat” in a full sentence, first make sure that you have the right verb for the job. Remember, the verb “to drive” doesn’t mean “to steer” or “to navigate” when you’re talking about a boat. 

However, if you’re using the transitive form of “to drive” and you’re explaining how a bigger and more forceful thing is actively pushing or forcing a boat to a specific direction, you can use “drive a boat” in a full sentence. 

Check out these examples for some more clarity:

  • The strong wind drove the boat into the sharp rocks on the shore.
  • The waves were driving the boat off course, but the captain navigated it well.
  • The shark-infested waters drive the smaller vessels away from the port. 

These examples demonstrate how the verb “to drive” shows a force acting on the boat. Usually, this force is outside the control of the captain or pilot of the boat. Therefore, when we use the phrase “to drive a boat,” it implies that something else — not the captain or navigator — is forcing the boat’s direction.

When Not to Use “Drive a Boat”

Unless you are talking about something (and not someone) that is driving the boat, then it is better to use a more context-specific verb. Some of the most popular context-specific verbs for talking about a boat include “to sail,” “to pilot,” “to steer,” or “to navigate.” 

For more about using the right wording for every situation, have a look at our article “Is It ‘What Are You Up To’ or ‘What Are You Up Too’?

What Can You Use Instead of “Drive a Boat”?

You can use the verbs “to sail,” “to pilot,” “to steer,” or “to navigate” if you’re talking about controlling the direction of a boat to travel from one place to another.

These verbs are all directly related to boats, giving a clear image to the reader or listener. Also, they sound more normal to native English speakers since the verb/object combination “drive a boat” is not popular at all in native-spoken English.

Object-Specific Verbs

Some verbs match with certain objects in English, and we usually associate these objects with the verbs that precede them. However, there’s no rule for using these specific objects with these specific verbs.

Instead, these verb/object combinations just “sound right” to a native English speaker’s ear. Learning and acquiring them is just a matter of exposure and memorization. With enough practice, you’ll start to hear what “sounds right” with each verb.

A popular group of verbs that take specific objects are verbs that talk about transportation and traveling. For example, there are many different verbs that help us explain moving from one place to another, especially when there’s a vehicle involved. 

Let’s consider three of the most popular verbs that we use to explain travel and transport. Then, we’ll dive into some of the objects that we often see with these verbs.

Objects With “To Drive”

As we’ve mentioned, the verb “to drive” in the context of traveling and transport means to operate a motorized vehicle to get from point A to point B.

Some of the popular objects that we see with the verb “to drive” in this context are a car, a van, a tractor, a bus, or a truck. These are vehicles that are large, and the operator and passengers of the vehicle all ride on the inside.

If you are a passenger on these vehicles — that is, if you’re not the one steering and operating the vehicle — then you’ll use the verb “to ride” to describe your participation in the journey. This is true for a boat as well. 

Objects With “To Ride”

In addition to describing being a passenger in a car, a van, a tractor, a bus, or a truck, you can use the verb “to ride” to describe operating a bike or motorcycle. We also use the verb “to ride” when talking about using an animal like a horse or donkey as a means of transportation. 

Usually, we use the verb “to ride” when traveling on top of or on the outside of a vehicle. For example, we ride a bicycle because there is no roof or vehicle surrounding us. The same is true if we’re on a camel or a motorbike. This article was written for

Objects With “To Pilot”

We can use the verb “to pilot” in very specific contexts. This verb is pretty exclusive, and it usually only applies to boats and airplanes. 

Final Thoughts

Even though many non-native speakers might use the phrase “drive a boat” to describe moving a boat from point A to point B, it’s not a proper English collocation. 

Instead of using the verb “to drive” when talking about a boat, opt for a more context-specific verb such as “to sail,” “to pilot,” “to steer,” or “to navigate.” This will elevate your speaking and writing to a more native-like level.

There is one specific context in which “to drive a boat” is correct, and that’s if another thing is pushing the boat forcefully. 

In such a context, though, the boat is the object of a transitive verb. This means that it receives the action of the subject and that the sentence wouldn’t make sense without the object — in this case, the boat.