Whats the Difference between a Boat and a Ship?

The difference between a boat and ship

Two words that I commonly hear interchanged with little regard to their actual meaning are 'boat' and 'ship'. Have you ever wondered what the difference is between them? Regardless of if you have wondered or not, referring to a ship or boat erroneously can win you a couple of sidelong glances from boating elitists.

It doesn't effect me in any major way so I'll generally let it slide. After all, words are based on context. If we're rowing a dinghy and you ask me to take over and row the ship solo, I'll know that despite using the word very incorrectly you're probably referring to the watercraft that we're both sitting in. 

How can you ensure that you never get these two words mixed up? Well, it's a fairly simple matter once you know what you're looking for when it  comes to the differences between a boat and a ship. If you're looking at 60 meters or more, it's a ship. 60 meters or less means it's a boat. The boat vs ship distinction isn't usually so cut and dry. Where do jumbo yachts fall in? There are 4 or 5 key differences to take a note of that will instantly tell you whether a specified watercraft is a ship or a boat. Let's jump right in and find out what they are!

boat vs ship difference stars and boats

Size Matters

The most obvious difference when you're asking yourself whether a vessel is a boat or a ship is the size. Boats are much smaller in general, and ships can get absolutely massive. Some overlap does occur, and depending on the locale things can get changed up somewhat.

If you go to the Philippines a large fishing trawler might be called a ship. Taking that same boat to a port in California might transform the very same vessel into a boat. There are no hard and fast rules. Much of the decision relies on comparative measurements. Ships will outsize most of the boats around them.

Size also matters in the differences between boats and ships when you're looking at the size of the crew. Take a headcount if you're able, and if that number reaches into the double digits you're almost certainly looking at a ship. Boats can usually be manned fairly easily by just one or two people, whereas ships require a significantly larger number to operate safely.

Another subsection of size is whether or not the vessel in question is carrying cargo. Passengers do count as a form of cargo, and believe it or not they actually require a lot more space than inanimate cargo. You won't see anyone on a luxury cruise line packed into a cabin the size of a Toyota Camry.

boat vs ship difference container ships

Where Do They Operate?

Another easy way to tell if you're looking at a ship or boat is to consider what sort of waters they are generally operating in. I'd venture a guess that 70% of boats don't head out into the deepest blue unless they're really in search of adventure. You will almost always find boats within a few thousand yards of the harbor or shore.

Anything that is small enough to fit into a river or inlet should never be referred to as a ship. Ships on the other hand are the behemoths that patrol international sea shipping lanes and ferrying passengers to continents on the other side of the ocean. If a vessel primarily operates in the middle of the ocean, call it a ship.

Obviously there is some mixing regarding where vessels go. You will sometimes see ships near harbor, or might catch a glimpse of some brave soul headed to another continent on their sailboat but it should strike you as an odd thing to witness. However, when it comes to the overall differences between boats and ships, the question of where they operate should be one of generalities.

boat vs ship difference shipping containers

Method of Propulsion

As a general rule, one major difference between boats and ships is that ships will always have a dedicated built-in engine system in place for all of their propulsion needs. Boats get around via sails, motors, or human elbow-grease. There is a big difference between an engine and an outboard boat motor. The engine drives the motor, which turns the propeller. Ships cut out the middle man and have the engine turn the propellers directly.

There are cases that fall somewhere in the middle and blur the line between boats and ships, like those fishing trawlers that I mentioned but they are an exception to the rule. For almost every other watercraft out there, these three simple questions will be enough to cut a clear case on whether something is a boat or a ship.

boat vs ship difference rowboat colors

Last Word on Boat Vs Ship

As I stated at the very beginning, whatever you call a watercraft the context is what truly matters. You can call my boat a ship, and I'll call your ship a boat. It doesn't have much effect on anything. Do you want to know what does have a significant effect on my view of your vessel? If it isn't well maintained...

Put as much investment as you possibly can into your boat or ship and it will treat you right for a long time to come. Is your hull caked with grease, grime, or algae? That's going to make a statement about your level of professionalism. Don't hesitate to take a minute and apply some Better Boat Instant Boat Hull Cleaner so you can keep your vessel looking right!

On top of keeping a shiny outward appearance, keep up your standards of safety. No matter the size of your watercraft it is imperative to let others know your intentions. A large personal air horn can do just that. Don't risk losing your boat to a much larger ship, or chance a lawsuit when your ship obliterates a tiny boat. As always, better to be safe than sorry!