The internet is full of dictionaries with different definitions of what is and is not a boat. You may be surprised (or maybe not) to see that some describe a ship as a boat and a boat as a ship. Here are two ways to define both boat and ship.

Boat Definitions

  • a vessel for transport by water
  • a small ship

Ship Definitions

  • a vessel, especially a large oceangoing one
  • a boat, especially one propelled by power or sail

While some definitions rely on using one term to define the other, some of them also include a reference to size, which is at least mildly helpful and is at the core of the difference between a ship and a boat.

Large Vessel vs Small Vessel

Generally speaking a ship is a large vessel and a boat is a smaller one. Of course, size is pretty relative. If an 18 foot vessel is a boat is a 200 foot vessel a ship? What about a 500 foot one? Where’s the line between ship and boat?

There’s a popular saying that goes “a ship can carry a boat but a boat can’t carry a ship.” Another popular one is that a ship leans left when it turns right. A boat leans right when it turns right.

According to some definitions a ship is a vessel weighing at least 500 tons. A boat would therefore be anything that is smaller in size, which encompasses most leisure craft and the sorts of vessels any of us are likely to be using at sea.

Operating Ships vs Boats

U.S Coast Guard Boat Requirements For Recreational Vessels

Ship Operations

Ships have a lot of serious and heavy engineering going on. They need to be operated by qualified technicians, not to mention all the additional systems from communications to navigation that are all highly specialized as well and not something an average boater will have the knowledge to operate.

Larger vessels like ships all operate using extreme amounts of power to offset the incredible size of weight. A Nimitz class aircraft carrier has a small nuclear reactor to keep it in motion. The Wonder of the Seas has six marine-diesel sets of engines. Each set is made up of three 16 cylinder engines and three 12 cylinder engines. The 16 cylinder engines can each burn through over 1,300 gallons of diesel fuel per hour. Compare that with what the outboard motor on something like a bass boat may be burning through. The fuel used to start the cruise ship the Wonder of the Seas could very well be more than your boat will ever use.

Sailing ships do exist though they are less popular these days. In the time before commercial vessels with big engines out in the deep water these would have three or more masts, and travel the oceans on sails rather than engine power.

Boat Operations

Boats have a variety of ways that they can be operated. You paddle a small boat like a canoe around, after all. If you have a catamaran you can hoist a sail and use wind power or you can use a motor to propel it. Even those boats that do operate under power have some variety as well. Outboard, sterndrive and inboard engines are all possibilities. There are also jet boats that use jet propulsion rather than motors with propellers for many smaller vessels.

Ship vs Boat Capacity

The size of a ship versus the size of a boat is key to understanding how they are used.

Ship Capacity

The largest shipping container ship in the world is over 1,300 feet long and weighs 240,000 tons. In 2021, a ship of similar size broke a world record when it carried 21,710 20-foot long shipping containers carried aboard in a single journey.

Ships carry a lot. That can be cargo as in the case of that massive shipping container ship or even crew and passengers. The US Navy Nimitz class aircraft carriers are capable of carrying a permanent crew of 5,680 people at one time. That said, Royal Caribbean has a cruise ship called the Wonder of the Seas that can handle 6,988 passengers when maxed out plus 2,300 crew for a total of 9,288 people on board.

Clearly, a ship is a vessel built to handle large numbers of people with a large cargo capacity.

Boat Capacity

The largest yachts may be able to accommodate a large number of people. Some mega yachts are so big they even have room for smaller boats to dock inside of them. These are, obviously, very rare. Most boats are not designed for cargo or massive crew transport. Instead, their purposes range from cruising to fishing to search and rescue. The cargo and crew capacity is considerably smaller than a ship.

Ship vs Boat Design and Layout

Boat Design and Layout

A canoe can literally be a hollowed out log, so there’s something to be said for the simplicity of a boat. As they get more complicated they can have cabins and berths, pilothouses, fly bridges, and more. But even the most luxurious of houseboat or yacht will still be fairly simple overall. Living quarters, operational areas, an engine room, a deck. That’s about it.

Ship Design and Layout

The Wonder of the Seas has an actual park with 10,000 real plants growing in it. There’s a ten storey zipline on that ship somewhere, not to mention an ice rink. And that’s just the leisure areas. If we go back to the Nimitz class ships, remember, these have nuclear-powered engines in massive engine rooms. There are aircraft hangars below decks to hold the planes.

Ships are vastly more complex and their layout can often be similar to a city built in three dimensions. Put another way, it’d be all but impossible to get lost on a boat. The same can’t be said for some of these massive ships.

Owning Ships vs Boats

Owning a Ship

There’s technically no rule saying you can’t own a ship, or at last certain kinds of ships. But let’s be honest, most people do not and will not ever own ships. The largest ships cost hundreds of millions of dollars.  Ships are, by and large, used by organizations which may be military, governmental, or commercial.

Owning a Boat

Boats are designed for small scale use and are typically owned and operated by individuals and smaller businesses. Most reasonable-sized boats may cost am owner a price within range of a car or, on the most luxurious end, a house.

Types of Ships vs Types of Boats

Common Ship Types

These vessels are most often seen in the open waters of the ocean.

  • Naval ships
  • Cruise ships
  • Shipping containers
  • Oil exploration or drilling ships
  • Construction vessels
  • Offshore barges
  • Jack Up and Crane Ships
  • Roll on/Roll Off ships

Common Boat Types

In contrast to ships, boats chiefly include many of the vessels you’ve likely seen in lakes, rivers and coastal areas including:

One point of distinction when it comes to the difference between a ship and a boat rests on submarines. Any vessels like a submarine that operate underwater are generally considered boats.

Is a Cruise Ship a Boat? Areas of Operation

A Heavy Ship Moored

Ships travel the high seas. A cruise ship isn’t going into coastal waters along a beach unless it’s docking or you’re about to see how a ship sinks. Royal navy vessels don’t usually show up in the Thames over in England, for instance. Likewise, your jon boat should never be in an international shipping lane.

In other words, boats typically operate in restricted areas near coasts and along inland waters like the Great Lakes. Ships are out on the open ocean for long periods.

The Bottom Line

The key things to remember about a boat are that they are:

  • Smaller than ships
  • Able to hold far less crew and cargo
  • Not as expensive as ships
  • Often used for recreational purposes by individuals or smaller organizations
  • Chiefly used on inland and coastal waters.

The key things to remember about ships are that they are:

  • Much larger than boats
  • Able to carry massive crew and cargo
  • Extremely expensive
  • Often used for commercial, government or military purposes
  • Chiefly used in open waters

While both boats and ships are technically vessels that travel by water, the distinct differences make it clear that they’re pretty different. But whether you’re on a boat or a ship, make sure to stay safe and have fun.