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Title: Fathom  
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Subject: Koi Turnbull, Obsolete Polish units of measurement, Hvat, Mach number, Conversion of units
Collection: Human-Based Units of Measurement, Nautical Terms, Units of Length
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1 fathom =
SI units
1.82880 m 182.880 cm
US customary units (Imperial units)
6.00000 ft 72.0000 in

A fathom = 6 feet or 1.8288 metres, is a unit of length in the old imperial and the U.S. customary systems, used especially for measuring the depth of water.

There are two yards (6 feet) in an imperial fathom.[1] Originally based on the distance between a man's outstretched arms, the size of a fathom has varied slightly depending on whether it was defined as a thousandth of an (Admiralty) nautical mile or as a multiple of the imperial yard. Formerly, the term was used for any of several units of length varying around 5–5 12 feet (1.5–1.7 m).

The name derives from the Old English word fæðm, corresponding to the old Frisian word "fadem" meaning embracing arms or a pair of outstretched arms.[2][3][4] In Middle English it was fathme. A cable length, based on the length of a ship's cable, has been variously reckoned as equal to 100 or 120 fathoms. At one time, a quarter meant one-fourth of a fathom.


  • International fathom 1
  • British fathom 2
  • Use of the fathom 3
    • Water depth 3.1
    • Line length 3.2
    • Burial 3.3
    • On land 3.4
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

International fathom

One fathom is equal to:

  • 1.8288 metres exactly (1 metre is about 0.5468 fathoms)[5]
  • 2 yards (1 yard is exactly 1/2 of a fathom)
  • 6 feet (1 foot is exactly 1/6 of a fathom)
  • 18 hands
  • 72 inches

In the international yard and pound agreement of 1959 the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom defined the length of the international yard to be exactly 0.9144 metre. With the adoption of the metric SI system the use of fathoms declined.

British fathom

The British Admiralty defined a fathom to be a thousandth of an imperial nautical mile (which was 6080 ft) or 6.08 feet (1.85 m). In practice the "warship fathom" of exactly 6 feet (1.8 m) was used in Britain and the United States.[6] No conflict in the real world existed as depths on Imperial nautical charts were indicated in feet if less than 30 feet (9.1 m) and in fathoms for depths above that. Until the 19th century in England, the length of the fathom was more variable: from 5½ feet on merchant vessels to either 5 feet (1.5 m) or 7 feet (2.1 m) on fishing vessels (from 1.7 to 1.5 or 2.1 m).[6]

Use of the fathom

Water depth

Most modern nautical charts indicate depth in metres. However, the U.S. Hydrographic Office uses feet and fathoms.[7] A nautical chart will always explicitly indicate the units of depth used.

To measure the depth of shallow waters, boatmen used a sounding line containing fathom points, some marked and others in between, called deeps, unmarked but estimated by the user.[8] Water near the coast and not too deep to be fathomed by a hand sounding line was referred to as in soundings or on soundings.[9] The area offshore beyond the 100 fathom line, too deep to be fathomed by a hand sounding line, was referred to as out of soundings or off soundings.[10] A deep-sea lead, the heaviest of sounding leads, was used in water exceeding 100 fathoms in depth.[11]

This technique has been superseded by sonic depth finders for measuring mechanically the depth of water beneath a ship, one version of which is the Fathometer (trademark).[12] The record made by such a device is a fathogram.[13] A fathom line or fathom curve, a usually sinuous line on a nautical chart, joins all points having the same depth of water, thereby indicating the contour of the ocean floor.[14]

Line length

The components of a commercial fisherman's setline were measured in fathoms. The rope called a groundline, used to form the main line of a setline, was usually provided in bundles of 300 fathoms. A single 50-fathom skein (300 feet (91.4 m)) of this rope was referred to as a line. Especially in Pacific coast fisheries the setline was composed of units called "skates", each consisting of several hundred fathoms of groundline, with gangions and hooks attached. A tuck seine or tuck net about 70 fathoms long (420 feet (128.0 m)), and very deep in the middle, was used to take fish from a larger seine.

A line attached to a whaling harpoon was about 150 fathoms long (900 feet (274.3 m)). A forerunner — a piece of cloth tied on a ship's log line some fathoms from the outboard end — marked the limit of drift line. A kite was a drag, towed under water at any depth up to about 40 fathoms, which upon striking bottom, was upset and rose to the surface.

A shot, one of the forged lengths of chain joined by shackles to form an anchor cable, was usually 15 fathoms long (90 feet (27.4 m)).[15]

A shackle, a length of cable or chain equal to 12.5 fathoms or 75 feet.[16] In 1949, the British navy redefined the shackle to be 15 fathoms.[17]

In Finland, fathom (syli) is sometimes, albeit seldom, used as a maritime unit, 11000 of a nautical mile and 1100 of cable length.


It is customary, when burying the dead, to inter the corpse at a fathom's depth, or six feet under. A burial at sea (where the body is weighted to force it to the bottom) requires a minimum of six fathoms of water. This is the origin of the phrase "to deep six" as meaning to discard, or dispose of.[18]

On land

Until early in the 20th century, it was the unit used to measure the depth of mines (mineral extraction) in the United Kingdom.[19] Miners also use it as a unit of area equal to 6 square feet (0.56 m2) in the plane of a vein.[2] In Britain, it can mean the quantity of wood in a pile of any length measuring 6 feet (1.8 m) square in cross section.[2] In Hungary square fathom ("négyszögöl") is still in use as an unofficial measure of land area, primarily for small lots suitable for construction.

See also


  1. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica eleventh edition 1911.
  2. ^ a b c Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989;
  3. ^  
  4. ^ Fathom - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.
  5. ^ "Sea measures". Admiralty Manual of Seamanship.  
  6. ^ a b Fenna (2000: 88-89)
  7. ^ "NOAA Chart". Retrieved 2008-05-22. 
  8. ^ Sounding lead. By James Mathews. Navy & Marine Living History Association.
  9. ^ Burney: "Vocbulary of Sea Terms", 1876.
  10. ^ - Nautical Glossary. - Marine Directory ( and Reference Directory (
  11. ^ The new way and the old; how the sounding machine has superseded the deep sea lead. The New York Times, June 6, 1892, page 5.
  12. ^ , National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Office of Coast Survey.Field Procedures Manual May 2008. In chapter 7, Glossary, page 252.
  13. ^ .Hydrographic Manual By Captain Karl B. Jeffers. Publication 20-2, Coast and Geodetic Survey, U. S. Department Of Commerce. Posted by the Hydrographic Society of America.
  14. ^ Glossary of Marine Navigation. Page 763. I'd Rather Be Sailing.
  15. ^ Dept. of the Army Technical Bulletin TB 43-0144: Painting of Watercraft. U.S. Government Printing Office. 1990. pp. D–2. 
  16. ^ "Shackle n.1, 9.". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 23 February 2015. 
  17. ^ Jerrard, H. G.; McNeill, D. B. (1986). A Dictionary of Scientific Units. Springer Science & Business Media.  
  18. ^ Hirsch, Jr, E.D.; Kett, Joseph F; Trefi, James (2002). The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.  
  19. ^ "Mining Encyclopaedia". U.K. Mine and Quarry Information and Exploration. Retrieved 2007-05-28. 


  • Fenna, Donald (2002). "fathom". A Dictionary of Weights, Measures, and Units. Oxford: University Press. .  

External links

  • An explanation of the fathom marks used at sea (retrieved Sept 2005).
  • Fathom - LoveToKnow 1911. 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica - Free Online.
  • Hungarian web page that refers to the length of a "bécsi öl"
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