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What Is the Difference between a Ship and a Boat?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The distinction between a ship and a boat varies depending on regional definitions, but as a general rule, a boat can fit onto a ship. A ship, in other words, is a very large ocean-going vessel, while a boat tends to be much smaller. Additionally, a ship usually is defined as having a displacement larger than 500 tons. During the age of sailing, a craft with three or more rigged masts was considered to be a ship, but this definition has been superseded, as different methods of power generation are used on modern ships.

Watercraft that we typically associate with the category of “ship” include cruise ships, container ships, aircraft carriers, destroyers, tall ships, and frigates. All of these ships are extremely large, and designed to endure potentially long ocean voyages. Traditionally, they required a very large crew of skilled sailors to manage them, although some, especially container ships, are growing increasingly easier to run with only a small crew. This is thanks to the development of sophisticated computer systems and improved mechanization, among other things. They are also capable of carrying a large volume of cargo, people, or a combination of both.

Submarines are technically classified as boats, because early submarines could be hoisted on board a ship. Several specially outfitted submarine rescue ships are also capable of lifting and towing distressed modern submarines, although they cannot lift them on board. More typical examples of of boats include powerboats, rowboats, canoes, kayaks, umiaks, catamarans, and tugboats. They tend to be easier to maneuver than ships, but they are not capable of carrying nearly as much cargo. Boats are also not equipped for long voyage, and some will not fare well on the open ocean.

A ship requires a crew of people to run smoothly, while a boat can often be handled by one person alone. The system of authority on board the larger vessel is also very clear-cut, with crew members organized into ranks. When a boat is large enough to have a crew, the members of the crew often work together under the captain in a much more casual fashion. Ships also usually carry boats on board, in the form of life rafts and rescue boats. These smaller watercraft are also sometimes used to ferry people and supplies between the vessel and the shore, since very large ships cannot fit into some harbors, due to their draft or inability to fit under a bridge.

In conclusion, the main difference between a ship and a boat is their size and purpose. Ships are larger and used for trade, transport, and military operations, while boats are smaller and used for pleasure, recreation, and private boat tours. No matter which one you choose, they both offer a special experience on the water.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WikiMotors researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon990252 — On Apr 13, 2015

If you can take it out of the water, and put it on a trailer, it is a boat.

By anon980968 — On Dec 08, 2014

The center of gravity on all ships and boats must be below water level or freeboard to stop it from tipping over.

By anon356665 — On Nov 27, 2013

A Master Sergeant told a Master Chief Petty Officer, "The Army has got more boats than the Navy." The Master Chief replied, "You put gravy in a boat."

By anon285861 — On Aug 17, 2012

According to the Royal Navy, a ship is above the water and a boat is a submarine.

By anon272107 — On May 30, 2012

A ship is a vessel with a continuous deck above the water line. A submarine has all its decks below the water line.

By anon191555 — On Jun 29, 2011

A ship is a vessel with two or more decks below the waterline.

By anon175631 — On May 13, 2011

The submarine is operated sort of like two planes in formation. The rear controls are operated to follow the front and to make it an efficient turn. The front can turn by rolling in our out as it chooses but by leaning into the bend the captain's tea is not spilled.

By anon146293 — On Jan 26, 2011

Try keeping your boat ship-shape for an inspection!

By anon144897 — On Jan 21, 2011

As a ex-navy man,I was taught that a ship rolls outward during a turn. A boat rolls inward during a turn. Does this make a sailboat a ship? shouldn't it be called a sailing ship? I'm not sure! I'm so confused.

By anon144725 — On Jan 20, 2011

There is no difference between a boat and a ship. A ship is traditionally used to describe a large boat. Today there is no difference and the two words are used interchangeably. The biggest thing is a sailor will usually call them ships, and a landsman will usually call them boats but they mean the same thing

By anon139004 — On Jan 03, 2011

I'm not sure of that, but the difference could lie in the presence or absence of funnels. that could be the reason why submarines were called boats regardless of size.

By anon122924 — On Oct 30, 2010

A ship has boats but a boat does not - hence why a submarine is a boat!

By anon111947 — On Sep 18, 2010

Boats are less than 50m LOA. Ships are larger than 50m LOA.

500 gross tons can also be argued. We used to build boats that were 49.9 m at 499.9 GT. Cross the 50 and 500 limits and the regulators come down hard on you.

By anon105032 — On Aug 18, 2010

A ship does not have to be an ocean-going vessel. For instance, ships travel the great lakes (North America), but these ships are only around 600' long. Ocean going ships are ~1500'

By anon101590 — On Aug 04, 2010

The workshop next to us built a boat/ship, and as they were removing it to send to harbor i said "that's one nice looking boat" and the old guy next to me said "I don't know whether to correct you but it's not a boat. it's a ship." I stood there with a plain face.

The water vehicle is made from bamboo, has a mast and is a private ocean vehicle with sleeping quarters, kitchen and some other perks i forget and not a cargo/fishing/oil/aircraft carrier etc. Oh, and it's probably about 10-15m long *eye ruler.*

By anon87456 — On May 30, 2010

What is a Frigate? Some roll into and some outward. There is a set of engineering directives for L.,W.,Wt., and C of G.,and the speed and circumference of the turn. In other words, at a slow speed most ships will roll inward and at a certain speed will begin to roll outward. Then ballast comes into the picture.

So, the rule of thumb is that the longer the hull the bigger the circle is needed to stop an outboard roll.

By anon76107 — On Apr 09, 2010

I don't know if this is true, hence why I'm here, but I was always taught that a ship's hull sits above the waterline, while a boat's hull sits underneath.

For example, an aircraft carrier's hull is easily seen because its above the waterline, but, a fishing boat's hull is generally submerged.

By anon70711 — On Mar 15, 2010

ships carry life "boats." boats don't carry life "ships."

By anon67988 — On Feb 28, 2010

Incredibly, you're all wrong. Forget which way it leans during a turn, size, displacement, etc. A ship is a vessel with more than one weatherdeck. Submarines, along with surface craft, while affectionately referred to as "boats" are also considered ships -hence the "S" bit in HMS (Vanguard, etc). I'm a serving member of the Royal Navy and this is what RN recruits are taught.

By anon59153 — On Jan 06, 2010

Re: Whats the difference between a ship and a submarine. I don't know much about seagoing vessels, hence being on this page. However my understanding is that one isn't supposed to sink, the other is! Supercalifrag!

I also have a question: Does a submarine have keys and can it be hotwired?

By anon57290 — On Dec 21, 2009

I thought a boat had no mast, but a ship does.

By anon54499 — On Nov 30, 2009

The difference between a ship and a boat is which way they heel or skid, when turning. A ship will heel outward during a turn, a boat will turn inward during a turn.

In other terms, a motorcycle will lean inward during a turn, a car, truck, etc. will lean outward.

Same concept for ship vs. boat.

By anon54460 — On Nov 30, 2009

I would say a "ship" is a bigger kind of "boat". I would say all ships are boats, but all boats aren't ships. I live in Sweden, where most people even refer to ships as boats. It looks like it's the same in the USA, where even ships are referred to as boats while the UK differs boats and ships.

By anon51383 — On Nov 05, 2009

thank you for all the lovely ship and boat facts.

By anon46149 — On Sep 23, 2009

In the US the Coast Guard is the authority for this matter and the Coast Guard defines a boat as a sailing vessel less than 100 feet in length, while a ship is one greater than 100 feet in length.

By anon42151 — On Aug 19, 2009

If a ship sinks, it's a shipwreck. What is a boat that sinks called?

By anon36673 — On Jul 14, 2009

am i the only one that knows? a ship carries a life boat. a boat carries a life raft. this will always apply from naval vessels on down.

By anon34701 — On Jun 26, 2009

boat can be removed from the water, ship goes in a drydock.

By anon34670 — On Jun 26, 2009

anon 19335.

The C of G is *always* below the waterline otherwise it would simply fall over in the water at the slightest touch.

C of G is generally finely balanced so the vessel will 'lean' out as it alters course and will then return to the vertical in a gentle manner.

If C of G is to low down the vessel will 'jump' back up to the vertical and would be very 'wobbly'.

C of G is used for stability and roll dampening, finding the balance is the hard thing.

By anon30769 — On Apr 24, 2009

Ship and Boat:

I used to believe that a boat is an open vessel, such as a simple rowing boat; whereas a ship has at least one deck closing off the upper area.

By anon28558 — On Mar 18, 2009

I'm in the Navy and I agree with anon19335. It's common lore that a ship rolls outboard in a turn while a boat rolls inboard. I don't think whether one fits into another has anything to do with it.

By anon26035 — On Feb 07, 2009

What is the difference between ships and submarines?

By anon19335 — On Oct 10, 2008

There is a more technical definition:

On a boat the center of gravity is below the freeboard, on a ship it is above. In practice this means a boat, such as a submarine, will lean into a curve when turning while a ship will lean out.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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