From the middle of the 18th century the Island developed a significant shipbuilding capacity, with boatyards in Douglas (reopened in 1826), Peel (1833), Ramsey (1832) and Castletown. The range of craft built and sold was impressive, from small boats, schooners and other vessels built primarily for local fishing and communication (represented by the small schooner PEGGY, built Castletown 1789 and which survived incarceration in a small boathouse from the time of the Napoleonic Wars to finally forming the centrepiece of the present NAUTICAL MUSEUM at Castletown) to the massive STAR OF INDIA, preserved and restored at the Embarcadero, San Diego, USA, which was originally built at Ramsey in 1863 as the ocean-going EUTERPE. Other yards such as Neakle & Watterson of Peel (1901) specialised in the production of particular craft, in this case "Nobbies". The most consistently successful and productive yard at Ramsey finally declined as the demand for still larger ships exceeded the space and facilities available. This shipyard was reorganised in 1963 and reopened by Booth W Kelly Ltd who have been successful in building and repairing highly specialised vessels (such as the marine research ship PRINCE MADOC) and this firm remains one of the most uniquely successful industrial enterprises in the Island.
Shipbuilding in turn led to the introduction of ancillary and allied trades and industries, such as sail, net and rope manufacturing, fish processing and so on.
The Manx mercantile marine was seriously inhibited by the negative restrictions imposed by Britain. Under the Navigation Acts importation was prohibited unless carried in British ships, and after 1689 the English customs tariffs were so onerous as to render mercantile trading unprofitable. The Island became a significant entrepot port for smuggled freight and contraband goods being legally imported from foreign parts and then re-exported illegally into Britain as opportunity allowed. The British Parliament went so far as to pass an Act specifically forbidding these practices, but implementation was virtually impossible. The bizarre situation was resolved (partly) by the Revestment Act 1765.Two years later, in 1767, the irregular Whitehaven-Douglas and Liverpool-Douglas services were augmented by a regular Whitehaven Douglas "packet" service established by the British government. By 1805 six sailing ships of approx 400 GRT were regularly engaged on Island services. The first steamship to visit the Island came from the Clyde to Ramsey at the end of June 1815. The Greenock firm of James Little & Co introduced regular steamship services between Liverpool-Douglas-Port Patrick-Greenock in 1818, sailing the service thrice weekly in both directions.
Other services were provided by David Napier between 1819 and 1830, In 1822 the St George Steam Packet Co of Liverpool introduced a Liverpool-Douglas service and a number of other operators appeared, including the Mersey & Clyde Steam Packet Co, the City of Glasgow Steam Packet Co, the Whitehaven Steam Navigation and others. In 1830 the Mona's Isle Company was formed, changing its name in July 1832 to the Isle of Man Steam Packet Co, becoming a public company in 1885. It maintained the Liverpool-Douglas service almost daily until 1985 (excluding the war period 1940-6 when Fleetwood was the main UK port) when the near-bankrupt company was merged with Sealink Manx-Line and Heysham became the Island's main UK port. The IoMSPC was taken over completely by Sea Containers, as succssors to Sealink, in 1995. Substantial seasonal services were (and are) provided to other ports such as Ardrossan (replaced by Stranraer for a time), Belfast Dublin and other ports by arrangement. A number of other shipping companies also maintained Manx services: the original James Little combined with the Furness and Midland Railway Companies to form the Barrow Steam Navigation Co; services were also provided by the Carlisle & Liverpool Steam Navigation Co, North British Steam Packet Co, R Henderson & Sons Ltd, Ardrossan Shipping Co, William Sloan & Co Ltd, Dublin & Silloth Steamship and others. Amongst the most important was the Midland Railway Co, which having separated from the BSNC, inaugurated direct Douglas services from their then-new port of Heysham Harbour on June 1 1905. Indeed the first ship to sail from Heysham to Douglas was the fast LONDONDERRY on August 13 1904; not only was it the fastest ship to visit the Island, but it was also the first steam turbine. The Midland Railway was incorporated into the London Midland & Scottish Rly in 1923, and LMSR steamships maintained the Heysham run until 1928 when it became operated by the IoMSPC until 1974. Substantial competition to the Steam Packet (IoMSPC) was provided by Manx Line (Manchester, Liverpool & Douglas Steamers) in 1887-8 which resulted in the IoMSPC having to yield equity and directorships to the Fairfield Shipbuilding group, and by Manx Line (1978-85) which resulted in the merger of 1985. Additional seasonal services were operated for many years by the Liverpool & North Wales Steamship Co which operated from 1891 until 1962.
Until the coming of the Island's railways, there were also Manx local coastal steamer services, particularly between Douglas, Laxey and Ramsey. Much if not most of the bulk cargo such as coal and grain was (and is) brought to the Island by a series of coastal traders, including notably the Ramsey Steamship Co, formed in 1913 and still trading as an independent, and Mezeron Ltd of Ramsey.