In commercial ship operations, the ship will usually quote the mean draft as the vessel's draft. However in navigational situations, the maximum draft, usually the aft draft, will be known on the bridge and will be shared with the pilot.
The draft of a ship can be affected by multiple factors, not considering the rise and fall of the ship by displacement:
The drafts are measured with a "banded" scale, from bow and to stern, and for some ships, the average perpendicular measurement is also used. The scale may use traditional English units or metric units. If the English system (Imperial units) is used, the bottom of each marking is the draft in feet and markings are 6 inches high. In metric marking schemes, the bottom of each draft mark is the draft in decimeters and each mark is one decimeter high.
Larger ships try to maintain an average water draft when they are light (without cargo), in order to make a better sea crossing and reduce the effects of the wind (high center of velic force). In order to achieve this they use sailing ballasts to stabilize the ship, following the unloading of cargo.
The water draft of a large ship has little direct link with its stability because stability depends solely on the respective positions of the metacenter of the hull and the center of gravity. It is also true, however, that a "light" ship has quite high stability which can lead to implying too much rolling of the ship (due to memory). A fully laden ship (with a large draft) can have either a strong or weak stability, depending upon the manner by which the ship is loaded (height of the center of gravity).
The draft of ships can be increased when the ship is in motion in shallow water, a phenomenon known as squat (nautical term for the hydrodynamic effect of lower pressure pulling the ship down as it moves).
Draft is a significant factor limiting navigable waterways, especially for large vessels. This includes many shallow coastal waters and reefs, but also some major shipping lanes. Panamax class ships—the largest ships able to transit the Panama Canal—do have a draft limit (and an "air draft" limit for passing under bridges) but are usually limited by beam, or sometimes length overall, for fitting into locks. However, ships can be longer, wider and higher in the Suez Canal, the limiting factor for Suezmax ships is draft. Some supertankers are able to transit the Suez Canal when unladen or partially laden, but not when fully laden.