Boat vs. Ship

When the Ever Given was tragically stuck in the Suez Canal earlier this year, we all saw her unfortunate situation at various angles on our smart devices, thanks to technology. Satellite imaging, in particular, highlighted the regrettable situation. One news outlet even created a little game where you can practice steering a large vessel through the Suez Canal — and it’s more complicated than you think! 

Many people likely thought to themselves, "Wow, that's a huge boat stuck in a tiny canal." But it was actually a ship. So what’s the difference between a boat and a ship? How are they similar? Let’s break it down below.

First, Let’s Ask The Navy

  • If it has sails and three or more masts, it is a ship. Anything less than three masts classifies the vessel as a boat.
  • If it doesn’t have sails, a ship can carry a boat, but a boat can’t carry a ship.
  • Thus, ships are larger and heavier than boats.
  • Ships have dedicated crews. On the other hand, boats don’t.

First, let us ask the people who spend a lot of time on the seas — the Navy. In the pre-internal combustion engine era, large watercraft were often wind propelled. After all, there is a limit to how many strong-armed rowers one can accommodate on board a boat before you don't have space for things that generate revenue, like passengers or cargo. In the sailboat era, any vessel with three or more masts was considered a ship. Those with less than three masts were considered a boat.

However, as the types of watercraft got more diverse and internal combustion engines entered the fray, this definition couldn’t hold water. So, another way to look at it is that you can put a boat on a ship, but you can't put a ship on a boat. 

Another popular definition is that a ship has a commander and crew, while a boat does not. That also provides us some information — the larger ship will need more attention round-the-clock, while a smaller boat can be periodically used. In fact, most of the large ships worldwide are constantly “alive” — meaning there is always a set of people aboard.

Size And Weight

  • Ships can stretch to a thousand feet or more, and boats traditionally stay within a hundred.
  • Ships weigh hundreds of thousands of tons; anything below 500 tons is a boat.

Ships, of course, tend to be much larger than boats. A ship can stretch hundreds, or even to a thousand feet and more. The largest oil tanker in the world was the Seawise giant, at a length of 1,504 feet. It was broken up in 2009 after thirty years of service. The Valemax bulk carriers are the largest of their type in current service at 1,188 feet, while the largest container ships top out at 1,312 feet and are operated by companies like MOL, MSC, Evergreen, and others. Meanwhile, boats and yachts, a subset of boats, typically clock in at less than 100 feet. However, some yachts can be nearly 600 feet in length.

A standard benchmark for where a boat becomes a ship is when its weight exceeds 500 tons. If 500 tons seem immense, it is not that large a number. It’s not uncommon for cargo ships to cross hundreds of thousands of tons when fully laden.

Areas Of Operation

  • Boats operate in smaller areas and calmer waters, such as lakes and inland waterways. While some boats venture into the ocean, they tend to stay relatively close to shore.
  • Fishing boats and small ferries are exceptions.
  • On the other hand, ships cross oceans and seas, braving the most demanding and roughest conditions.

One popular way to differentiate the two vessels is by their areas of operation. Boats typically do not cross the high seas, except for special occasions. While ships routinely do this, which they can do better due to their larger size, heavier weight, and tougher construction. Typically, boats stick to inland waterways and lakes and operate in the areas close to shores, such as dolphin and whale watching or coastal fishing. Exceptions to this are small ferries that connect islands and fishing boats that may venture into international waters as permitted.

Revenue Or Leisure

  • Boats are typically leisure craft.
  • Some boats might be used for revenue operations, such as carrying passengers and cargo.
  • Ships, on the other hand, are almost exclusively revenue generators through the carriage of passengers and cargo. Although some may be used for defense and scientific purposes.

Boats are typically leisure craft, although some may be used for revenue generation, such as the carriage of passengers and cargo. Ships, however, are almost always exclusively revenue-generating crafts, moving much of the world’s cargo between places. Ships are also used for defense, such as the Navy, and for scientific purposes as well. Dr. Robert Ballard, the famous researcher who discovered the Titanic, operates a research vessel named Nautilus, which displaces 1,249 tons and is 211 feet in length; thus, it is firmly a ship.


  • Ships have a Captain and dedicated crew and are usually crewed at all times. When the Captain disembarks, the First Officer or Chief Engineer will be in charge.
  • A boat doesn't have a dedicated crew. Instead, whoever is on board and controlling it at the time. A boat can be without a single person on board at times.

The crew is a significant factor that differentiates these two types of vessels. Ships are colossal and complex vessels that require specialized roles to keep them running. There will be a Captain, First Officer, Chief Engineer, and a myriad of staff. A ship is crewed round-the-clock. If the Captain disembarks, the First Officer or Chief Engineer can assume control until they re-embark.

Boats, on the other hand, do not need a dedicated crew. The boat’s owner might be self-appointed as the captain, but that's the extent of the “crew” onboard.


  • Boats use sails, manpower (for rowing), or smaller gasoline and diesel engines.
  • Ships have engine rooms with large motors that burn marine heavy fuel oil. They are also often several stories tall.
  • Ships have bow thrusters that boats do not need.

Because boats and ships share similar means of propulsion, it can sometimes be tricky to differentiate them in this way. Internal combustion engines may power both, but boats still use sails while ships do not. 

Boats may use smaller outboard motors or dedicated ones installed within the hull. In contrast, ships use dedicated power plants in the “engine room” — a cavernous space where the engine and its ancillaries are housed. The engines of the largest ships can be several stories tall — dwarfing a human being! The engine room will be larger than the typical American suburban house! These engines also burn marine fuel oil or heavy fuel oil, while boats stick to gasoline and diesel. Without going into specifics, marine heavy fuel oil needs to be preheated before it can combust. Hence, they have boilers for this purpose, while boat engines sputter away with room-temperature gasoline or diesel.

Ships also have bow thrusters laterally mounted at the front and can provide thrust to either side, helping to reduce the ship’s turning radius and aiding maneuvering in tight harbors. The bow thrusters are typically electrically powered, fed off the electric generators on board. On the other hand, boats do not have bow thrusters, as they are constructed within the hull.


Ships are, in essence, big boats with a host of differences and similarities. Ships tend to be longer, larger, and heavier than boats, have dedicated crews, are typically used for revenue generation activities, routinely cross oceans, and have engine rooms larger than the average house. 

Now that you know the difference, you can teach anyone who uses the terms interchangeably.