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I first thought it was mandatory unless moving would require paying tribute. But after having played the game that way, it feels too stupid to declare that the cargo-less ships move 2 spaces away and 2 spaces back to remain at the harbor.
From now on I'm going to house-rule that ships can move 0-4 spaces as suits the player controlling them. (Plus optional boost from fresh wool sails.)
Ships may be moved in the movement phase, but no player is either forced to move his ships or to use all his movement points. But in most cases it is usefull to move a ship as far as possible, even empty ships to discover new hexes. The movement ends immediately when a new hex is discovered, even when this ship still has movement points.
Dr. Reiner Düren