“Boat” vs. “Ship”: Chart A Course To Understand The Difference

boat leading a ship

Ahoy, me hearties! A true seadog worth their salt would never let aboard a landlubber who calls their ship a boat. That kind of mixup is the talk that gets you walking the plank!

In this article, we’ll sail the seven seas of nautical knowledge to define the difference between the words ship and boat, explain what they refer to in technical and casual use, provide examples of different kinds of both ships and boats, and we’ll even clear up the meaning of the word yacht.

🚢 Quick summary

In casual use, the word boat is often used to refer to any watergoing vessel, regardless of its size or how it’s powered. However, large oceanfaring watercraft—those that use multiple sails or engines—are more properly called ships. In contrast, the word ship isn’t commonly applied to smaller craft. The word yacht is typically used to refer to any larger noncommercial vessel—one used for sailing or other recreation, as opposed to business.

What’s the difference between a boat and a ship?

By definition, a boat is “a vessel for transport by water,” “a small ship,” or “a vessel of any size built for navigation of rivers or inland bodies of water.” In casual use, the word boat is used to refer to any vehicle used to travel on the water—anything from a canoe to an ocean liner.

In this kind of casual and general usage, the word boat is often used to refer to watercraft of all sizes and types, as you can see in the variety of terms that include the word, such as sailboat, motorboat, fishing boat, rowboat, tugboat, paddleboat, and lifeboat.

In contrast, the word ship is typically reserved to refer to a large, ocean-faring vessel propelled by multiple sails or engines.

(Of course, the word ship is also used to refer to large, nonwater craft, such as airship and spaceship.)

In technical, nautical contexts, the word ship sometimes specifically refers to a sailing vessel that has three or more square masts. As is the case with boat, though, the word ship is applied in the name of a variety of large watercrafts, including cruise ship, cargo ship, pirate ship, battleship, longship, and steamship.

In contexts where it’s important to distinguish the difference, the distinction made between ship and boat is typically based on the size of the craft being discussed and if it is used only for ocean or sea travel. Additionally, the word boat can refer to vessels that don’t have any sails or engines, such as a kayak or a rowboat, whereas the word ship usually refers to vessels with many sails or large engines. Even in casual usage, it’s very uncommon for someone to call a small craft a ship, unless they’re doing so jokingly.

One distinction made in nautical contexts is that the word ship often refers to vessels too large to fit inside other vessels. By contrast, the word boat is often used to refer to smaller craft that can fit inside larger ones. For example, a massive cruise ship may have a large number of lifeboats inside it.

What are you sailing? An ocean or a sea? Learn the difference here.

Yacht vs. boat

The word yacht typically refers to a vessel used for private, noncommercial reasons (those other than business), such as sailing or racing. As a general term, the word yacht can refer to any watercraft that isn’t intended to be used to make money, which includes anything from racing sailboats to billionaires’ floating ultra-luxury mansions.

The word yacht is not used to refer to small vessels, such as row boats or canoes. In casual usage, a yacht may be referred to with the more general terms boat or ship, but certainly not all ships and boats are yachts.

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