While ships and boats are both watercraft, they are different in size, cargo or passenger capacity, where they operate and their capabilities.

Comparison chart

Boat versus Ship comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartBoatShip
Operates in Usually inland (lakes) or in protected coastal areas. Oceans, seas, rivers, lakes; most deep water bodies.
Definition A boat is a watercraft of modest size designed to float or plane, to provide passage across water. A ship is a large vessel that floats on water.
Types unpowered boats, sail boats and motorboats commercial vessels, naval ships, fishing vessels and pleasure craft



A boat is a watercraft of modest size designed to float or plane, to provide passage across water. Usually this water is inland (lakes) or in protected coastal areas. In naval terms, a boat is something small enough to be carried aboard another vessel (a ship).


A ship is a large vessel that floats on water. In traditional terms, ships were considered to be vessels which had at least one continuous water-tight deck extending from bow to stern. Ships may be found on lakes, seas, and rivers and they allow for a variety of activities, such as the transport of people or goods, fishing, entertainment, public safety, and warfare.

Strictly speaking and quite uniquely a submarine is a boat as defined by the Royal Navy. Some boats too large for the naval definition include the Great Lakes freighter, riverboat, narrowboat and ferryboat.

History of boats and ships

Boats have served as short distance transportation since early times. Circumstantial evidence, such as the early settlement of Australia over 40,000 years ago, suggests that boats have been used since very ancient times. The earliest boats have been predicted to be logboats The oldest boats to be found by archaeological excavation are logboats from around 7,000-9,000 years ago, though a 7,000 year-old seagoing boat made from reeds and tar has been found in Kuwait.

By around 3000 BC, Ancient Egyptians already knew how to assemble planks of wood into a ship hull. They used woven straps to lash the planks together, and reeds or grass stuffed between the planks helped to seal the seams. The Greek historian and geographer Agatharchides had documented ship-faring among the early Egyptians: "During the prosperous period of the Old Kingdom, between the 30th and 25th centuries B. C., the river-routes were kept in order, and Egyptian ships sailed the Red Sea as far as the myrrh-country." Sneferu's ancient cedar wood ship Praise of the Two Lands is the first reference recorded (2613 BCE) to a ship being referred to by name.

Until the Renaissance, navigational technology remained comparatively primitive. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, ships like the carrack began to develop towers on the bow and stern. These towers decreased the vessel's stability, and in the fifteenth century, the caravel, a descendent of the Arabic qarib which could sail closer to the wind, became more widely used. The towers were gradually replaced by the forecastle and sterncastle. This increased freeboard allowed another innovation: the freeing port, and the artillery associated with it.

In the sixteenth century, the use of freeboard and freeing ports become widespread on galleons. The English modified their vessels to maximize their firepower and demonstrated the effectiveness of their doctrine, in 1588, by defeating the Spanish Armada.

During the first half of the eighteenth century, the French Navy began to develop a new type of vessel known as a ship of the line, featuring seventy-four guns. This type of ship became the backbone of all European fighting fleets. These ships were 56 metres (180 ft) long and their construction required 2,800 oak trees and 40 kilometres (25 mi) of rope; they carried a crew of about 800 sailors and soldiers.

During the 19th century the Royal Navy enforced a ban on the slave trade, acted to suppress piracy, and continued to map the world. A clipper was a very fast sailing ship of the 19th century. The clipper route fell into commercial disuse with the introduction of steam ships, and the opening of the Suez and Panama Canals.

Ship designs stayed fairly unchanged until the late nineteenth century. The industrial revolution, new mechanical methods of propulsion, and the ability to construct ships from metal triggered an explosion in ship design. Factors including the quest for more efficient ships, the end of long running and wasteful maritime conflicts, and the increased financial capacity of industrial powers created an avalanche of more specialized boats and ships. Ships built for entirely new functions, such as firefighting, rescue, and research, also began to appear.

Types of boats and ships

Boats can be categorised into three types:

Unpowered boats include rafts and floats meant for one-way downstream travel. Human-powered boats include canoes, kayaks, gondolas and boats propelled by poles like a punt. Sailing boats are boats which are propelled solely by means of sails. Motorboats are boats which are propelled by mechanical means, such as engines.

Ships are difficult to classify, mainly because there are so many criteria to base classification on. They are often classified based on their use:

Other classification systems for ships use criteria such as:


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