What is the difference between a boat and a ship? I am posing this old question again because, try hard as I may, I cannot find a satisfactory answer that would put the matter to rest. If the conundrum can befuddle seafarers and other maritime professionals, what more in the case of the average person who is unfamiliar with watercraft?

Dictionaries are virtually useless for resolving the issue. The Cambridge Dictionary, for one, defines a boat as “a small vehicle for travelling on water” whilst a ship is “a large boat for travelling on water, especially across the sea”. This is begging the question. How large does a vessel have to be in order for one to call it a “ship”?

The information offered by Wikipedia is a bit more helpful:

A boat is a watercraft of a large range of type and size. Ships are generally distinguished from boats based on their larger size, shape, and cargo or passenger capacity, and their ability to carry boats.

A ship is a large watercraft that travels the world’s oceans and other sufficiently deep waterways, carrying passengers or goods, or in support of specialized missions, such as defense, research and fishing.

The above definitions are still vague, though. They fail to specifiy what length, breadth, tonnage and cargo or passenger capacity are required for one thing to be called a ship and another, a boat. The phrase “ability to carry boats” appears to provide a handle for dealing with the slippery question. However, one can make the argument that a boat can carry another boat provided it is large enough.

How large does a vessel have to be in order for one to call it a “ship”?.

Wading through legal definitions can be as tricky as walking on a minefield. Consider these two definitions from the United States Code, both of which seem to place boats under the same category as ships:

From Title 46 of the Code:

The term “ship” or “vessel” includes every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance, except aircraft, used or capable of being use as a means of transportation on water, whether or not it is actually afloat.

From Title 18 of the same Code:

“ship” means a vessel of any type whatsoever not permanently attached to the sea-bed, including dynamically supported crarft, submersibles, or any other floating craft, but does not include a warship, a ship owned or operated by a government when being used as a naval auxiliary or for customs or police purposes, or a ship which has been withdrawn from navigation or laid up;

The definition of “boat” laid down in the US Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971 offers some hope for addressing the boat-ship dilemma:

“Boat” means any vessel —

(A) manufactured or used primarily for noncommercial use: or
(B) leased, rented or chartered to another for the latter’s non-commercial use; or
(C) engaged in the carrying of six or fewer passengers

The six-passenger cap in this definition seems arbitrary. What if a seventh passenger jumped on board? Would the boat then be transformed into a ship? The Federal Boat Safety Act covers only recreational boats. What about boats used by Colombian drug lords to smuggle cocaine into the country?

Forget the international conventions dealing with ships. They don’t try to distinguish between boats and ships and may even trigger more confusion. Take this definition of “ship” in the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL 73/78):

“Ship” means a vessel of any type whatsover operating in the marine environment and includes hydrofoil boats, air-cushion vehicles, submersibles, floating craft and fixed or floating platforms.

So much for definitions. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Juliet tells Romeo in William Shakespeare’s play. She makes a good point. In the nautical world, does it really matter if it’s a boat or a ship if the captain is dumb enough to cause it to run aground or sink?

~ Barista Uno


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