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When Does a Boat Become a Ship? Boat vs Ship: What’s Difference?

Written by Anthony Roberts / Fact checked by Jonathan Larson

when does a boat become a ship

When does a boat become a ship? The difference comes down to the sizing of these two. If a vessel reaches 100 feet or more in length and can carry a small boat, it becomes a ship. To put things simply, ships are much bigger than boats. But there’s more to that.

Since novice boaters often have the definitions of these two mixed up, today’s article helps identify the factors to differentiate a boat and a ship.

Definition of Boat and Ship


By definition, a boat is a small or medium-sized vessel that floats on water. It is typically used to provide water passage in freshwater and protected coastal waters. In addition, a boat can refer to vessels with or without engines.

What about the definition of a ship? A ship, 0n the other hand, is a large ocean-going vessel, usually over 100 feet, propelled by multiple engines. In addition, it needs to have at least three square-rigged masts.

With that said, you can’t really ask the difference between vessel vs ship, or vessel vs boat, because the word vessel is a generic term used to refer to both boats and ships.

Difference Between Boat and Ship


Boat versus ship, what’s the difference? As mentioned, the biggest difference between the two is the size. Then, how big does a boat have to be to be considered a ship?

To answer your question, a watercraft that exceeds a length of 100 feet will typically be considered a ship. Meanwhile, most boats fall between 15 and 30 feet in length. A very large boat, however, can exceed this size, as seen in offshore fishing vessels.

Veterans often say you can use a ship to carry a boat, but you cannot use a boat to carry a ship. That’s a fun and easy way to explain to the landlubbers the difference between a boat and a ship, and people follow that rule of thumb from time to time.

Aside from size, you can rely on the few key differences below to tell the two types of vessels apart:

  • Operational Areas: You often find ships in oceanic areas and high seas, whereas boats ride on coastal protected waters.
  • Crew: A ship always requires a licensed captain and professionally trained crews, which include navigators, engineers, designated watchmen, sailing masters, and even cooks.

On the other hand, while there are exceptions, a boat typically doesn’t feature such a large crew. In fact, one person can realistically navigate a boat, whereas the same can’t be said for ships.

Other Factors to Distinguish Them


You can take the aspects below into consideration to distinguish a boat and a ship easier. If your boat meets most of these requirements, that’s the point does a boat become a ship.

  • Navigation and Technology: Ships are equipped with more advanced technology and machinery for operation. Boats, on the other hand, are quite straightforward in terms of sailing equipment and navigational systems.
  • Cargo Capacity: Compared to a ship, a boat has much less cargo capacity. They’re made mostly for recreational purposes, including transporting people or fishing. Ships, on the other hand, are specifically made to hold cargo or people in large quantities.
  • Construction And Design: Ships are rigged with more sophisticated construction and numerous machinery systems, while boats are built with significantly fewer machines and complexities.
  • Propulsion: While some boats can be manually rowed to go on the water, all ships are run by dedicated internal combustion engines.

At the end of that day, is a ship a boat? Yes, you may call a ship a boat if you want, but the skipper won’t be very happy about that.


Why Is A Yacht Not A Ship?

According to the rule of thumb, you can use a ship to carry a boat. Some yachts fit into this category. However, yachts are not considered ships. The line between a yacht and a ship is somewhat thin, but it’s there.

A yacht refers to a private vessel used for non-commercial purposes. Over the years, the word yacht has come to mean any pleasure craft through common usage. So ship vs boat vs yacht, what’s the difference?

Let’s make it simple by saying this:

  • Ships are the biggest among the three types of vessels. They’re made for commercial or naval purposes.
  • Boats are small in size and designed for water transport in freshwaters and limited water areas.
  • Yachts are fancier boats made for recreational purposes. A yacht can only be considered a “ship” when its purpose is not purely recreational, such as for maritime commerce, which is often not the case.

At What Point Does A Boat Become A Yacht?

Technically speaking, what you get is what you have. A boat doesn’t magically grow bigger overnight.

However, if your ‘boat’ happens to be 35 feet or more in size and is designed with luxury in mind, you may call it a yacht. A yacht is basically just a boat made for specific purposes—transatlantic crossings. Most of the time, people use their yachts for leisure.

This matter raised another question, can a yacht become a ship? As stated above, a yacht can only be considered a ship when it has purposes other than recreational. However, as a yacht is designed for luxury and relaxation, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see it being used for anything other than recreational activities.


Boats and ships are most definitely not the same things, even though people tend to use them interchangeably so much that they lose their correct meaning.

So, when does a boat become a ship? When it reaches the size needed and meets all the requirements in terms of operational areas, technology, propulsion, as well as the other factors mentioned. I hope this has cleared things up for you.

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