Even when a ferry is 150+ feet in length - clearly a ship, albeit a smallish one - why is it always referred to as a "boat" and not "ship" (As in "I'm going to catch the noon boat")?

  • 5
    The boat/ship distinction is vague at best - it's certainly not based on the idea that all boats longer than some arbitrary value suddenly become ships. Part of the distinction includes how long a voyage you might make - which in the case of ships is more likely to include crossing oceans. Ferries only make relatively short trips, which is a good enough reason to call them boats (unless like me you just call them ferries anyway). Oct 7, 2014 at 17:04
  • @FumbleFingers - your definition then allow large commercial fishing boats, which stay months in deep seas, to be called ships. It's more complicated than that. Oct 7, 2014 at 17:36
  • 4
    @medica Isn't that why he said "part of the distinction"? Oct 7, 2014 at 17:45
  • 1
    Net change in distance for deep sea fishing boats is usually zero: They typically return to point of departure without an intermediate stop at a port of call.
    – SrJoven
    Oct 7, 2014 at 17:51
  • 3
    It's a wonderful example of a graded, non-Aristotelian category, like Wittgenstein's 'game'. Good intuitive agreement between native speakers yet hard to formalize, the category members don't all share a list of definitive properties, and there are edge cases where people disagree and/or can't make up their minds.
    – Spike0xff
    Oct 7, 2014 at 20:25

5 Answers 5


TL;DR: The characterization is based on history and tradition.

There are many, many (some confusing) expressed differences between ship and boat, one of the pithier ones being

When a ship sinks you get in a boat, when a boat sinks you get in the water.

Submarines and ferries, as you noted, are boats. That would fit the above definition (most ferries don't have lifeboats) conveniently, but there has to be more. Some yachts, ferries, tug boats, fishing boats, police boats, etc. do carry small lifeboats or dinghies, but they usually don’t graduate to ship status because of that. (A tragic example being the Estonia [515.16 ft, 15,566 gross register tonnage]), a cruise ferry, which sank in the Baltic Sea. It is one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century, costing 852 lives. Anyone looking at it would not instinctively call it a boat. But it was built for coastal waterways, not deep, high seas. The coastal waterways puts it into the category of 'boat'. That it was used in high seas didn't make it high-seas-worthy, as history points out. It was not constructed[1] to be stable on taking on any water.)

Per Mental Floss

Another factor the Naval Institute considers is the vessel’s crew, command, and use. If it has a permanent crew with a commanding officer, it’s usually a ship. If it’s only crewed when actually in use and has no official CO, then you’re probably dealing with a boat. Ships are also usually intended and designed for deep-water use and are able to operate independently for long periods of time. Boats, meanwhile, lack the fuel and cargo capacity for extended, unassisted operation.

The obvious exception to deep-water definition are the commercial fishing boats that go out for months in deep water. However, they don't have a fixed crew.

Marine Insight lists seven differences, all of which must be taken into account. They are

  1. Size: The most important aspect that is considered while stating the difference between a ship and a boat is the size... “A ship can carry a boat, but a boat cannot carry a ship.” A mode of water transport that weighs at least 500 tonnes or above is categorised as a ship. In comparison, boats are stipulated to be quite compact in their structural size and displacement. (Submarines were once small enough to be carried on ships.)

  2. Operational Areas: Ships are vessels that are operated in oceanic areas and high seas. They are mainly built for cargo/passenger transportation across oceans. Boats are operable in smaller/restricted water areas and include ferrying and towing vessels... Boats are mainly used for smaller purposes and mainly ply in areas near to the coast.

  3. Navigation and Technology: Technologically, boats are simple vessels with less complicated equipment, systems and operational maintenance requirements. ...[Ships] are manned using advanced engineering, heavy machinery, and navigational systems.

  4. Crew: Ships... are operated by professionally trained navigators and engineers. A ship requires a captain to operate the ship and guide the crew....[T]he size of the crew on a boat depends on the size of the boat. It can be one person or a full-fledged crew depending on the size and purpose of the boat.

  5. Cargo Capacity: A boat is a small to mid-sized vessel, which has much lesser cargo carrying capability as compared to a ship.

  6. Construction and Design: [Ships] are complicated structures having a variety of machinery systems and designing aspects for safety and stability of the ship. A boat is much simple in construction and build, and has lesser machines and design complexities.

  7. Propulsion: A boat can be powered by sails, motor, or human force, whereas a ship has dedicated engines to propel them.

Finally, the most reasonable explanation is provided by The Shipping Law Blog which states:

Specifically, boats are small to medium-sized vessels with hulls, powered by sails, engines, or human force. Some types of vessel are always categorised as boats, regardless of their size or complexity. Their 'boat' status was designated when these types of vessel were small and has stuck despite their future growth.

So, in the end, it comes down to tradition, as so many things do.

[1] Causes of the disaster

  • The sinking of the Estonia, a cruise ferry, in the Baltic Sea is one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century, costing 852 lives. Anyone looking at it would not instinctively call it a boat. But it was built for coastal waterways, not deep, high seas. Oct 7, 2014 at 17:54
  • Your comment should probably be included in the answer, which otherwise implies that OP is "correct" (because of established tradition) in assuming ferries are always boats, not ships. In fact Google Books contains not a single instance of the words the boat Estonia. Whereas there are 181 instances of the ship Estonia, most of which are for exactly that "cruise ferry". Oct 7, 2014 at 18:02
  • Agreed, will do. There are at least three times as many references to ferry Estonia than ship Estonia. Oct 7, 2014 at 18:10
  • "Most ferries do not have lifeboats." Only because most ferries are very small and only cross rivers. Any seagoing vessel must, under Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations, carry enough lifeboats and liferafts for every person on board: see here, for example. Oct 7, 2014 at 19:43
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    A classic "pirate ship" conflicts with point 7 as it doesn't have engines. Oct 8, 2014 at 9:25

This is one of those ugly loose definition problems that English has from time to time. The answer is pretty much "because."

A boat is a watercraft of any size designed to float or plane, to work or travel on water. Small boats are typically found on inland (lakes) or in protected coastal areas.

A ship is a large buoyant watercraft. Ships are generally distinguished from boats based on size, shape and cargo or passenger capacity.

A ferry (or ferryboat) is a boat or ship (a merchant vessel) used to carry (or ferry) primarily passengers, and sometimes vehicles and cargo as well, across a body of water.

Ew. Ugly. There's no objective boundary between these two categories. The best I can give you is a subjective answer. Generally speaking, ferries historically referred to a non-seafaring (or possibly coastal) vessel or platform used to take people and goods across a body of water. They often did not resemble the classic concept of a "ship", that being a large, far-traveling, keeled vessel, often with sails or rows of oarsmen. Even though ferries these days can be ridiculously massive, I would wager that they were historically referred to as "boat" given their qualities, and the name has stuck.

Edit: Hit-and-run downvoting doesn't help improve answers. If it's because I gave a subjective answer, two responses:

  1. This question, as has been demonstrated by both myself and others, has no objective answer. Sometimes English doesn't follow nice rules.
  2. The current highest-rated response is better than mine. Let's get that out of the way first so nobody feels the need to bring my motives into question. My guess is that my answer was downvoted due to not citing sources. However, all resources I found (and indeed the ones used by the best answer) use the very same vague language that probably led to this question in the first place. Using citations is often fantastic, but sometimes they just don't contribute.

Regardless, if you downvote, please tell people why.

  • 2
    Just because we have trouble formalizing a concept does not mean it is "ugly" or "loose" or somehow random or irrational. And this has nothing to do with English, it is a lovely example of a well-known cognitive phenomenon - graded radial non-Aristotelian categories. G. Murphy, Big Book of Concepts, might be a good place to start. Or see "Family resemblance" on Wikipedia.
    – Spike0xff
    Oct 7, 2014 at 20:17
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    I've just upvoted this - but only to counter the negative net total. There are too many subjective elements in the original answer, and the later edit only makes things worse. Nevertheless, I think it makes the important point that OP's boat/ship distinction is far less "absolute" than he (or future visitors) might think. Questions like "How big can a boat be before you call it a ship?" are on a par with "How old can a girl be before you call her a woman?". Anything but the most gross distinction is inherently subjective and/or context-specific. Oct 7, 2014 at 20:33
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    @Spike0xff Fair. And trust me when I say that I didn't mean to call this phenomenon ugly, I write in my spare time and definitely appreciate the idiosyncrasies of language. What I should have said was: "cases like this are ugly in the context of this website because they don't reduce to a clear answer." Oct 7, 2014 at 21:13

The Royal Navy provides a modern definition: a ship is a vessel that leans towards the outside of a sharp turn and a boat is a vessel that leans towards the inside of a sharp turn.

These characteristics arise from the pitch of the engines and the design the the hull. It is sadly not applicable to craft under sail.

Source - a friend who is a naval officer.

The first ferries were small rafts or boats with a rope used to pull the boat from one side of a river to another. This name has stuck. In the case of chain ferries, it is clear why.

  • 1
    @Mari-LouA I made a pedant edit.
    – Gusdor
    Oct 8, 2014 at 8:50
  • You missed one. Dec 11, 2014 at 18:25

Actually some ferries are referred to as ships.

The Cape May Lewes ferries are termed ships by the Delaware River and Bay Authority. The ships are about 328 feet in length. Some of these ships were converted from World War II LSTs.

  • But are they called "ferry ships" or just "ferries"?
    – JenSCDC
    Oct 7, 2014 at 20:35

I always thought that the only ‘solid’ definition of ‘ship’ referred to rig: a vessel having three or more masts and square-rigged on all. This applies from late 16th Century onwards. A second, possible ‘definition’ is that having a complete main deck makes a vessel a ‘ship’. This, though, makes Viking ships become boats whilst almost all tugs, ferries etc. become ships.

The only sensible distinction is by size and use; generally, relatively small, inshore and short distance - boat. Relatively large and intended for offshore and long distance - ship.

I have heard cruise passengers waiting to ‘get on the boat,’ a 100,000 gross ton cruise ship. Similarly, a sign on Portsmouth and Southsea station guided intending passengers to ‘IoW Ships’.

It’s simply a question of historically based general usage. There is no ‘definition’ beyond that.

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