What Is the Difference Between a Boat and a Ship? …Think Bezos Knows?

When I began to seriously think about the difference between a boat and a ship, I thought I needed to seek information outside the boating community. It also dawned on me that I might need a broader global perspective on the issue. As an American sailor, the definition of each harkens back centuries to a time when the pervasive thought was that the earth was flat.
sailboat 6 photos
Photo: Reverse and Barreras Shipyard
I came away from my research unsatisfied and not feeling I nailed any sort of cohesive definition, so I retreated from that path and turned to the tried and true Merriam-Webster dictionary and got some clarity of the world view. It goes like this:

A ship is either “a large seagoing vessel,” “a sailing vessel having a bowsprit and usually three masts each composed of a lower mast, a topmast, and a topgallant mast,” while a “boat (especially one propelled by power or sail)” has a slightly narrower semantic range, including “a small vessel for travel on water,” and “ship.”

Rubbish! In my world and certainly to the boating community as a whole, that definition lacks detail and sounds as though it was drafted back in those 'the world is flat' days. Much like a broom smacking me upside the head on an accidental jibe, it dawned on me; the definition of each comes from the experienced boaters amid the chitter-chatter over rum and cokes.

Photo: Sailing Escape
As a youngster, I learned the relativity definition that compares two vessels; you can put on boat on a ship, but you cannot put a ship on a boat. Very simplistic at its core, to be sure, but flawed and well short of a defining perspective. For example, putting a kayak on a 27-foot (8.23 meter) sailboat does not convert the sailboat to a sailing ship.

Getting out of that comparative realm opens up a a great deal of hoopla and explanation.

Boats are smaller than ships; rowboats, sailboats, motorboats, speedboats, tugboats. The terms 'rowship' and 'motorship' sound ridiculous and do not exist in boating terminology regardless of the rum and coke count. Boats are described by their length and usage and are usually associated with recreational activities.

Ships are larger seagoing vessels capable of carrying many passengers or freight and also characterized by their means; passenger ship, cruise ship, cargo ship, et al.

Photo: Washington State Ferry
A small vessel that carries passengers over a short passage on a regular schedule is called a ferryboat. However, a larger vessel carrying passengers and automobiles over that same short passage on a similar schedule is just simply referred to as a ferry; maybe to avoid confusion.

It almost always costs money to board a ship, which is why I would always charge friends to board my vessel because I thought of her as my ship.

Side note: I charged friends $10 (9.81 euro) to board my ship, $10 for each drink they spilled, and $50 (49.05 euro) if they threw a cigarette or anything (including a spouse) overboard. I would then take the money, which after a wild night aboard could amount to $100s, and buy toiletries and candy to deliver to the inhabitants of the next salty piece of land I would visit.

It so happens, I had somewhat of a wild jump-up with 10-12 new friends aboard my ship in Bequia Harbor in the Grenadines awhile back that filled the ship's coffer. I took my inflatable boat ('boat' because it was smaller than my ship) ashore the next morning and purchased toiletries, snacks, and candy to take to my next stop in St. Vincent.

Photo: Reverso
I arrived later that afternoon on the island and gave two huge boxes of goods to Glendon, a local man I meet every time I visit the island, to place them in the community center for people to take.

A day later, as I was walking through town buying fruit, I passed by the community center and noticed the two boxes sitting in the doorway. Curious, I stopped to look in the boxes and saw everything was taken except for the tubes of toothpaste. A bit confused, I moved on about my day looking forward to a happy hour meeting with Glendon.

We met just before sunset and I asked him why nobody wanted the toothpaste. He smiled broadly, laughed and explained that all the people on the island go to the river and collect the ash sediment deposited by a volcano that blew years earlier and use that to brush their teeth.

I always wondered how the people there had such white teeth!

Photo: Barreras
Here is what my experience has taught me. Boats are small. Boats are fun. Boats are relatively inexpensive. Boats are popular. Boats are not high maintenance. Boats are easily operated. Boats are for recreational use. Those who use boats are referred to as 'boaters'. If a boater's boat qualifies as a ship because of her size, they are not called a shippers....skipper.

If any vessel in question does not meet the 'boat' criteria, it's a ship. As I always said, “mine was a shipload of work.”

Now, if someone describes their vessel as a yacht, three certainties exist; the owner has too much money, has no clue how to operate it, and refers to the place where one relieves themselves as the 'toilet.'

Confused? Perfect, I have done my job.
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