The Difference Between a Boat and Ship (Compared)
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The Difference Between a Boat and Ship (Compared)

While most of us tend to use the terms boat and ship very loosely, the truth is that the two do not necessarily refer to the same things.

Of course, they both have the same concept of being vessels that float on water, there are, in fact, very big differences between different water vessels, differences which enable us to define them as either being boats or ships.

So, what are these differences? 

It’s all down to the size of a vessel and what it’s used for. For example, fishing boats are much more different in terms of size and scope compared to sailing ships!

So, let’s take a closer look at these differences and see what makes a boat a boat, and a ship a ship. This will also help you understand what kind of boat insurance you need.

A Ship Vs a Boat: What’s the Difference?

You’ll know if your ship is not a boat depending on size, areas of travel, cargo held, available crew, and equipment involved. Let’s go a little deeper.


The biggest difference between a ship and a boat that people tend to note is their size. An easy way to remember their difference is that ships can carry boats – but boats can’t carry ships.

While a boat can technically be a very large vessel, and most can carry other boats (such as kayaks, canoes, lifeboats, etc.), ships are in part built to carry other boats as well as heavy machinery, complicated equipment, a captain and crew, and more. 

To get technical, most seafarers refer to ships when they are at least 550 tons in weight.

Cargo capacity on a ship, of course, is therefore likely to be much larger than a boat’s.

Area of travel

Operational areas for boats and ships tend to vary. While some boats do travel across oceans, it is not common for them to do so. They tend to stick closer to their home coastlines, traversing small passages of water.

Ships, meanwhile, are built to take on the high seas, travel across deeper waters, and reach various countries around the world. 

They are commonly used by organizations such as the Royal Navy, or for delivering international cargo.

Ships are also built to traverse deep water – a boat sinks easily if you take it too far off the coastline. That’s why when a ship sinks, it’s normally got a very good reason!

Boats will take to inland waters – and while not all boats stay on shore, it’s rare you’ll see them taking to the sea.


While some boats can technically carry cargo, ships tend to carry a lot more and a lot farther. Boats generally aren’t built to carry extensive cargo – meaning large transfers and sea trading normally takes place on ships.

cargo boat - Difference Between Boat and Ship

Crew and demand

While some boats do indeed carry a small crew, especially if they are being used for commercial purposes, they vary wildly from ship crewing standards.

Naval ships, fishing vessels, and commercial vessels tend to have far bigger crews that are trained for different circumstances.

A ship spends months at sea at a time and has to face different kinds of challenges to those of boats, with crews that can spend up to a few weeks away from land.

Although both certainly have their challenges, ships tend to have bigger and more trained operatives on board.

Ships also demand their own ship’s captain in order to keep the crew in line and organised, whereas boats can be less strict. 

A boat’s captain, for example, may sometimes be the only crewman on board.


While boats can be used for different purposes, including for commercial reasons (such as fishing boats, tourism, etc.) and even rescue (lifeboats), boats are also commonly used for recreational purposes.

On the other hand, no one buys a ship for recreational purposes. They are largely used for commercial, military, trade and research purposes. 

The exception to the rule here is, of course, cruise ships – but these are large-scale commercial vessels.

How they work

This point is a little more complicated to define. While it isn’t the case for all boats, there are some smaller vessels that can move without engines at all, such as sailboats, canoes, kayaks, etc.

On the other hand, ships have a different propulsion system and need to be moved forward by very powerful engines.

Although one could argue that motorboats are not considered to be ships and yet have engines, this is a slight distinction between the two that is worth noting. 

When Is a Boat a Ship?

Again – there are no real set rules! Some suggest that a boat is a ship when it has three, square rigged masts, or when it’s over a weight of 550 tons, as mentioned above.

Generally, however, many people refer to any small vessel as a boat – regardless of purpose or intention.

If it has less complicated equipment, and fewer demands than your larger sailing vessel, it is likely to be a boat.

Types of Boats and Ships

Just when things couldn’t get more complicated(!), there are of course a variety of different boats and ships out there with specific roles and names.

Here are just a few of the more commonly used boats and ships you’re likely to have come across over time.



  • Cruise ships
  • Naval ships
  • Tankers
  • Carriers
  • Container ships
  • Offshore vessels
  • Other passenger ships
cruise ship standing - Difference Between Boat and Ship


So – what is the difference between a boat and a ship? It turns out there are plenty of distinctions – and it might not always be so easy to tell between the two definitions.

On the whole, you can expect a ship to be larger, to cover more distance, and to sail almost exclusively offland or offshore.

Boats, meanwhile, are much smaller and are likely to be recreational – and will usually stick to waterways onland (though bigger bluewater boats do make trips offshore).

We found this discussion on The Guardian interesting where people and boaters added their own definitions of what a boat and a ship is.

However, if you happen to mix up the two terms, then don’t worry – we can help you define your ship or boat, especially where boat insurance or commercial ship insurance implications are concerned.

As it happens, most people have no real idea that there is any difference between the two – but if you run a commercial vessel of any kind, it’s worth keeping aware of the key differences.

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