7 Differences Between a Ship and a Boat

Although everyone knows the difference between a ship and a boat, there are quite a few who often get confused between the two terms. Technically, there is a thin line between them and this often leads to major confusion.

While talking about the difference between a ship and a boat, the first thing that comes to one’s mind is their sizes. Traditionally people consider a ship as a large ocean-going vessel, whereas boats are comparatively quite smaller in size.

To understand the differences between ships and boats, a number of aspects need to be taken into consideration.

Mentioned below are seven main aspects which are taken into account to differentiate between a ship and a boat.

Ship and boat

1. Size of Ship and Boat

The most important aspect that is considered while stating the difference between a ship and a boat is the size. It is said that the best way to differentiate between a ship and a boat is to remember that “A ship can carry a boat, but a boat cannot carry a ship.”

 Technically speaking, a mode of water transport that weighs at least 500 tonnes or above is categorised as a ship. In comparison, boats are stipulated to be quite compact in their structural size and displacement.

2. Operational Areas

A major difference between ship and boat is that of their areas of operation. Ships are vessels that are operated in oceanic areas and high seas. They usually include cruise vessels, naval ships, tankers, container ships, RoRo ships, and offshore vessels. They are mainly built for cargo/ passenger transportation across oceans.

Boats, in contrast, are operable in smaller/ restricted water areas and include ferrying and towing vessels, sail vessels, paddle vessels, kayaks, canoe, patrolling vessels etc.  Boats are mainly used for smaller purposes and mainly ply in areas near to the coast.

 3. Navigation and Technology

Technologically, boats are simple vessels with less complicated equipment, systems and operational maintenance requirements.  Since ships are required to be operable for longer time-duration and travel across oceans, they are manned using advanced engineering, heavy machinery, and navigational systems.

4. Crew

This is one of the major differences between a ship and a boat.

Ships are huge in size and therefore they are operated by professionally trained navigators and engineers. A ship requires a captain to operate the ship and guide the crew.

On the other hand, the size of the crew on a boat depends on the size of the boat. It can be one person or a full-fledged crew depending on the size and purpose of the boat.

5. Cargo Capacity

A boat is small to the mid-sized vessel, which has a much lesser cargo-carrying capability as compared to a ship.

Ships are specifically made to carry cargo or passengers or boats, whereas boat is a generic term used for a variety of watercraft.

Mainly boats are used for recreational purposes, fishing, or ferry people.

6. Construction and Design

When it comes to construction and design, ships are complicated structures having a variety of machinery systems and designing aspects for the safety and stability of the ship.

A boat is much simple in construction and build, and has lesser machines and design complexities.

7. Propulsion

A boat can be powered by sails, motor, or human force, whereas a ship has dedicated engines to propel them. (Ships can also be propelled by sails or other advanced propulsion technologies)

Even though all vessels operating in the high seas are referred to as ships, submersible vessels are categorically termed as ‘boats.’

This is mainly because of the fact that in the earlier centuries, submersible vessels could be hoisted on ships till they were required to be used in naval operations.

However, while talking about differences between a ship and a boat, vessels floating on the water surface is mainly considered.

shipyard maersk

The usage of the term ‘ship’ or ‘boat’ also depends on the region it is being used in. People from several countries often refer a medium-sized fishing vessel as a boat, or a medium-sized ferry or a recreational boat as a ship. As can be seen, people have a tendency to generalise a vessel on the basis of its size.

However, it is to note that the difference between a ship and a boat depends on a number of factors as discussed above.

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Disclaimer: The authors’ views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Marine Insight. Data and charts, if used, in the article have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Marine Insight do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendation on any course of action to be followed by the reader.

The article or images cannot be reproduced, copied, shared or used in any form without the permission of the author and Marine Insight. 

46 Comments

  1. Please i am a National Diploma student of Maritime Academy of Nigeria Oron studying nautical science, i want to know more about the course

  2. As a profesional mariner of over 25 years I would like to “weigh in” on this subject. What I will say is not about the currently accepted distinction between ship and boats, but rather historical.
    When ships (powered by sails) began to start losing trade to vessels powered by engines (boats) they as an industry attempted to associate these vessels with unplesant attributes like noise, soot, vibration, and in some cases slower speed. The sailoing industry (both cargo and passanger) would say that you could SAIL on a quiet, clean, calm, fast ship or go one of those dirty loud vibrating slow BOATS with an engine.
    The concept a ship being superior and a boat being inferior was sucessfully instituted. The engine powered vessels simply side stepped the ridicule bestowed on the term “boat” and made bigger, faster, clean, quiet vessels and took the market from the sail powered vessels along with the defination of SHIP for themselves.
    i wont step into the curret debate of what constitutes a boat or a ship but the origins of the debate stem from new technology (steam engines) fighting over market share.

  3. A large freighter (1000′ x 85′, think of the Edmund Fitzgerald) hauling iron ore on the great lakes is referred to by her crew and company as a boat, never as a ship!

  4. “Boats in contrast, are operable in smaller/ restricted water areas and include ferrying and towing vessels, sail vessels, paddle vessels, kayaks, canoe, patrolling vessels etc. Boats are mainly used for smaller purposes and mainly ply in areas near to the coast.”
    “Technologically, boats are simple vessels with less complicated equipment, systems and operational maintenance requirements.”

    Correct me if I am wrong but, isn’t a submarine classed as a boat? That kind of contradicts what you have stated above.

  5. comment:the any where abroad/indian officers
    you can any time call me on 30 year’s on merchant officers

  6. What is the difference between a boat and a ship?

    1. The boat leans to the right when turning right

    2. The ship leans to the left when turning right.

    This is what I have been told by a old (90 Year old boat capt)

  7. Great reply’s. some years ago while on the QE 2 a passenger asked one of the officers when does this boat dock? The young officer replied. “Madam, this is a Ship not a boat, a boat is those you get into when this ship is sinking!

  8. Hello. May I please ask for some assistance from the forum?

    I am writing a blog/journal on the differences between ships and yachts. What has prompted this conversation is the plethora of ‘superyachts’ now plying the international oceans and performing well on deep water passages.

    Surely some of these can come under the category of ‘ship’, and not yacht, since many are being built on a larger scale than anything we’ve seen in past years. My understanding of the determination of a ‘ship’ is : Length, Tonnage, Draft and Displacement.

    I have read your forum discussion regarding use, but I am still unclear as to where the line is drawn for this category. Many of the ‘superyachts’ carry cars, helicopters, pools, and require very advanced equipment, captain and crew. Perhaps we will soon see this as a real conversation in the industry.

    Appreciatively,
    Rosanne Allen-Hewlett
    For ‘The LUXE Report’
    ( Sailor, racer of only boats and yachts )

  9. I was told that the difference between a ship and a boat is that a ship has a funnel and a boat doesn’t, no matter it’s size….

  10. David Musselwhwite’s comment is the best way to determine a boat of a ship. This holds true for submarines (boats). If it leans into the turn, it is a boat. If it leans out on a turn, it is a ship.

    In response to comments about the Edmund Fitzgerald, when you spend your life on one you can call it whatever you want. I am sure they all knew it was a ship, I served 20 years in the Navy and always said I was heading back to the boat even though I knew it was a ship.

  11. While in Boot camp in 1964, US Coast Guard, we were told that a ship is 95 feet or longer and a boat is 94 feet and under. That makes it pretty simple.

  12. With over 30 years in the marine industry including working at sea, ship building and ship repair, I would offer my comments.

    Yes all above is true. My understanding is that the bottom line is ” a Ship carries boats ie Lifeboats”.
    If it doesn’t have a proper lifeboat, it is not a ship.

    The best a boat has is dinghies or liferafts etc. Consequently a submarine does NOT carry life boats.
    There are many broader requirements Size and the ability to navigate very heavy seas, such as those whipped up by a tropical Revolving storm (TRS). It must be designed to travel in the open sea in all weather conditions and have lifeboats that can do the same. They carry cargo or passengers and have a substantial crew to operate it including engineers.

    As far as the Edmund Fitzgerald is concerned, these vessels are an enigma. They were large and qualify in most areas, but – was it capable of going to sea and did it have sea-going lifeboats?
    Ironically it suffered probably as bad a storm as it would have done at sea. The problem is that in fresh water the waters are more treacherous than salt water as they rise up far more quickly.

    But then again it sank meaning that it couldn’t handle it. Yes it was a large vessel but was it a Ship – ?

  13. Being the son of a WW II submariner. My dad cruised the Atlantic of the east coast of US and in many conversations about the war he always called his boat a boat never a ship.Thats it!!

  14. The simplest and most accurate definition I stay with is that a ship can carry a boat but a boat cannot carry a ship . SIZE MATTERS !

  15. I asked a friend of mine, “What is the difference between a boat and a ship?” He said, “About 100 feet . . .”

  16. Thank you for the information. My husband won this discussion. God Bless all who are bravely floating on/in one. I am terrified of the ocean or even a small lake. You have my utmost respect for your sacrifice. I love seafood but would never know the pleasure of eating it without you brave souls. Thank you.

  17. As a proud Submariner I have to disagree and will always say that I serve on a boat.

  18. There is the Boat of Millions of years,which is a very advanced spacecraft able to.travel the millions of light years betwen Galaxies.

  19. I was once told that a ship had multiple decks and a boat had only one.

    When I queried sailing yachts that had berths under part of the deck, it was modified to the deck on a yacht is as much structural as deck, but if a vessel has 2 or more non structural “floors” it is a ship.

    Then I mentioned tug boats and fishing boats and it all got confused.

    It’s a bit like the difference between horse and pony. Despite every one saying it’s size, the falabella is a horse and polo ponies are ponies.

  20. A naval architect (constructors) view is that to be a ‘ship’ a vessel must have at least one continuous internal deck running the length of the vessel. Large Submarines may have complete decks forward however, going aft, it is normal to have to descend a ladder onto a lower ‘engine room’ deck-level or platform. Some large freighters have a similar construction with internal split deck levels and that is why they are correctly known as boats, although in some cases the term ‘ship’ feels more appropriate because of their large displacement. The argument regarding leaning into or out of a turn is an interesting idea, however this may have more to do with hull and propulsion characteristics than vessel construction. In reality, as with most nautical expressions, whatever feels best to use is probably best and relying on the opinion of a sailor, with regards to an explanation of nautical expressions, puts you at the mercy of a sharp sense of humour.

  21. It might be worth mentioning that some might refer to a ship as “boat” as a diminutive term of endearment, similar to the personification of a car or a pet by assigning the human pronouns to them.

  22. IT SEEMS WE HAVE VERY KNOWLEDGEABLE SEA MEN IN THE HOUSE . BUT I AGREE TOTALLY WITH JEREMY MEYER

  23. It’s always been my info is that a boat can be up to 197’ whereas a ship is over that length. As with anything, I’m sure there are exceptions.

  24. some of the people got it spot on. Tilt away from direction of turn = ship. Tilt towards the direction of turn = boat.

    There are two points on every vessel. Center of buoyancy and center of gravity. A ship’s center of gravity is above its center of buoyancy. A boat’s center of gravity is below its center of gravity.

  25. Anyone can answer me why we only know the bareboat charter for any size of the ship? It never mentions bareship charter?

  26. “some of the people got it spot on. Tilt away from direction of turn = ship. Tilt towards the direction of turn = boat.
    There are two points on every vessel. Center of buoyancy and center of gravity. A ship’s center of gravity is above its center of buoyancy. A boat’s center of gravity is below its center of gravity.”

    Except a kayak (or canoe) is like a ship – cg is above cb. If you get a ruddered kayak up to speed and hit the rudder hard it will heel outward like a ship. Since the paddler can easily influence heel, if you want to make a hard turn you heel the ‘boat” outward (to lessen the ends in the water) and sweep stroke on the outward side to spin the “boat”. Is a kayak then a “ship”? Hardly. This is exactly the problem with trying to make one pithy statement to define a ship or boat. It is far more complex than that.

  27. I completely agree with you that the difference between a ship and a boat is the size. One of my friends have a boat, she bought it from Boat Lagoon Yachting. Thanks for sharing!

  28. If you can haul it on the back of truck (even trailered), it’s likely a boat…but if the anchor weighs in like a truck it’s definitely a ship. Obviously, some subs are one or the other regardless of whether you can stuff a (non-inflatable) life boat inside. [Army logic from qualified ex-boat commander, combat support boats, bridge section, Corps of Engineers.]

  29. I grew up near the Welland Canal, and it’s true: vessels which plied the Great Lakes were called “lake boats”, or more commonly, “Lakers”. Oceangoing vessels a were always and reflexively called “ships”..

    I am wondering if the naval architect”s comment about internal decks makes the difference, as even a non-engineer can see that a deck extending stem to stern would provide more stability to a vessel’s structure.

    The lake boats are always longer than the ocean-going ships, so it’s not size.And we occasionally get a visit from “tall ships”, which are oceangoing sailing vessels, but relatively short.

  30. That’s really informative post. I appreciate your skills, Thanks for sharing.

  31. I will take a shot at this. The word marine is redundant before ship and boat. The word “marine” relates to the sea and one of the conditions of being a ship is that it is ocean going. This does leave the possibility of not being a river boat but a marine boat. I would use the expression sea-going boat.

    Marine craft is a useful expression when there is a need to make it cleat that you are not referring an aircraft, space craft etc.

    On a general note there are no absolute rules or definition. All we can do is give examples of how the words are used. Companies, governments, navies and anyone else are free to make gheir own definitions but nobody else is bound by them.

  32. I served on the U.S.S. CG-19 ‘THE DZLE & U.S.S. CV-63 KITTY HAWK FOR THE US NAVY in the 80’s.
    So what about the placement of the helm being center of Bridge on a ship & on starboard side usually on a boat?

  33. With many years of sailing lakes to blue water sailing and large power yachts I can offer this for abot of levity.
    Afterall,the SeaView had the ‘Flying Sub” flown or driven undersea,on the surface and flown by Captain,Admirals and sadly Polititians and insane quasi
    research criminals.
    The Flying Sub also had an inflatable Zodiac,so both could be considered
    Life saving vessels.
    Plus,it was really cool!

  34. Can be as difficult as we want. My training was as a NCO (enlisted man in the USN. As others have stated, A ship will lean away from its turn. A boat will lean into the turn. This is naturally due to there the center line of gravity is located. Cargo ships mass above that line.
    A boat can be loaded onto a ship (lifeboats).
    Regarding Submarines, they are affectionately referee to , by the crew, as boats and that goes back to WWI /II, the ELB. Electric Boat Div of General Dynamics, located Groton Connecticut .

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  36. I’ve been wondering about this since I was younger and saw The Hunt for Red October. The COB (Chief of the Boat) was an interesting character, and I wondered by a Sub Chief was called Chief of the Boat, if a sub was a naval ship. Some very interesting and fascinating answers in here! I like the one about how a ship turns, leaning into it or not. That makes sense to me. As for the tiny kayak/canoe exceptions to this, I’d guess that if a human weighs more than the ‘vessel’ and can manipulate it’s attributes of buoyancy or center of gravity whichever, with their own body, then it doesn’t really count as either a boat or a ship. It really has no deck, nor propulsion other than human muscle, no anchor, etc. I don’t see it as much more than a modern design for what used to be termed a ‘raft.’ But I am just spit-balling here, don’t blast me! lol

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  38. All the information that you shared with us is very useful for us. Thank you for sharing with us.

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