Understanding the Differences Between a Ship and a Boat

You’re not the only one who doesn’t understand the distinction between a ship and a boat. As this guide will make clear, not even the US Navy can agree upon a common definition.

This was not always the case. A ship was a square-rigged vessel with three masts or more during the age of sail. Even the common landlubber could distinguish between a ship and a boat at a glance during that time.

But this isn’t a straightforward distinction anymore. Rather, we are left with a few meanings that overlap, some of which are illogical. Given this misunderstanding, let’s examine the distinctions between a ship and a boat in more detail.

The first thing that springs to mind when discussing the distinctions between a ship and a boat is their size. Boats are often much smaller than ships, which are traditionally thought of as enormous oceangoing vessels.

Several factors must be taken into account to comprehend the distinctions between boats and ships.

Difference Between a Ship and Boat

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Boats are small and ships are large

In this context, the most straightforward distinction between ships and boats is that the former are larger than the latter. According to the official requirements of US Naval Education and Training Command, it is permissible to transport a boat on a ship, but not the other way around. This means that a craft is regarded as a ship if it is big enough to hold its lifeboats or dinghies.

Having saying that, there are still a few clear exceptions to this rule. For instance, police boats frequently carry small life rafts during search and rescue missions. However, nobody calls a thirty- or forty-foot police boat a ship.

The ability of a vessel to operate for extended periods on its own is a more valuable criterion for this classification. A ship can transport enough fuel, water, and food to last for several weeks at sea. Conversely, a boat must frequently return to land or accept supplies from assisting ships.

However, there are also several exceptions to this rule. For example, commercial fishing vessels are often called boats. This is true even though they frequently spend days or weeks at a time cruising the oceans by themselves. The same applies to the big shipping vessels, or “boats,” that are common on the Great Lakes.

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Ships also have the added characteristic of always having a crew and a commanding officer, at least military ones. A ship will always have a maintenance staff and a commanding officer, even when it is in port. A boat, on the other hand, may function without a crew and only needs a commanding officer while it is in use.

All of these general guidelines have one thing in common: boats are little (generally speaking) and ships are large.

Ships Can Navigate Wide Seas

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Another way to categorize boats and ships is based on the kinds of conditions that each sort of vessel can withstand. Are they specifically designed to withstand challenging circumstances on open water?

As previously said, a ship can sail across the ocean safely and spend days or weeks at a period hundreds of miles from the coast. For this reason, ships must be massive enough to withstand adverse weather and choppy waves, as well as exceptionally sturdy and well-equipped.

However, boats can only be safely used in coastal waters. For example, it would be absurd and unfeasible to travel from Boston to London in a thirty-foot law enforcement boat. In addition, it wouldn’t be sturdy enough for choppy ocean waves, and any sizable wave would eventually cause the craft to capsize.

However, these too have their exceptions, much like the previously mentioned rules. The aforementioned “boats” that transport thousands of tons throughout the Great Lakes must withstand storms on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior that are as strong as those that occur on the open sea. You can be confident that these ships are more stable and better designed than many others.

Technology and Navigation

lifeboats on cruise ships

In terms of technology, boats are straightforward vessels with simpler systems, equipment, and maintenance needs. Because ships must be able to sail across oceans and stay operational for extended periods of time, they are manned with heavy machinery, sophisticated engineering, and navigational systems.

Crew One of the main distinctions between a boat and a ship is the crew.

Engineers and navigators with formal training are responsible for managing ships because of their enormous size. To navigate and lead the crew, a ship needs a captain.

In contrast, a boat’s overall size determines the size of its crew. Depending on the boat’s size and intended use, there may be a single person on board or a full crew.

Capacity for Cargo

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A boat is small compared to a mid-sized vessel, which can carry significantly less cargo than a ship.

Boats are a general phrase used to refer to a variety of watercraft, while ships are specially designed to carry passengers, cargo, or both.

Boats are mostly utilized for fishing, tourism, and passenger transportation.

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Design and Construction

Ships are intricate constructions with many different equipment systems and design elements intended to ensure the stability and safety of the vessel.

A boat has fewer machinery and intricate designs, and it is much easier to create and manufacture.


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A ship uses specific engines to propel itself forward, whereas a boat can use sails, a motor, or human strength. (Sails and other cutting-edge propulsion technology can also be used to propel ships.)

Submersible watercraft are unquestionably referred to as “boats,” although all vessels used for maritime transportation are called ships.

This is primarily because submersible vessels could be hoisted on ships until they were needed for naval operations in previous eras.

However, boats that float on the water’s surface are the primary consideration when discussing the distinctions between a ship and a boat.


The way that the terms “ship” and “boat” are employed also varies depending on the context. Individuals from various nations frequently call a medium-sized recreational boat or ferry a ship, and they also frequently refer to medium-sized fishing vessels as boats. People prefer to generalize about a vessel based only on its size.

It should nonetheless be noted that the distinction between a ship and a boat is dependent upon several criteria, as was previously mentioned.


Ultimately, distinguishing between a ship and a boat is largely based on a broad rule of thumb, with numerous exceptions and outliers. Many of these classifications are ambiguous and subject to interpretation based on a wide range of variables. We therefore hope that some of these distinctions have been described in a way that makes them slightly easier to recognize, even though there isn’t a single, unchanging difference between a ship and a boat.

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