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HomeMaritimeIs it a boat, is it a ship, is it a vessel..??

Is it a boat, is it a ship, is it a vessel..??

  1. When is the boat with my container arriving..??
  2. When is the ship with my container arriving..??
  3. When is the vessel with my container arriving..??

These are some of the questions that I have heard in my time in the industry.. Many organizations and people in the industry (including me) use the terms ship and vessel terms interchangeably, while some are guilty of using the term boat to refer to a full-fledged cargo ship..

So, what is the right terminology to use in our day-to-day business for that big floating thing that carries our cargo from A to B..??

Is it a BOAT, is it a SHIP, is it a VESSEL..??

There seem to be a few different definitions for these terms depending on who you ask/read.. Based on the various definitions (legal or industry sources) available, in my opinion, below makes the most sense:

Vessel = anything that can float and can be steered/moved either on its own or by other means (for example – if it is towed) and used for transportation on water..

Ship = means any vessel used or capable of being used on the sea or internal waters, and includes any hover-craft, power boat, yacht, fishing boat, submarine vessel, barge, crane barge, floating crane, floating dock, oil or other floating rig, floating mooring installation or similar floating installation, whether self-propelled or not..
Definition: Admiralty Jurisdiction Regulation Act – South Africa

Boat = Any small craft or vessel designed to float on and provide transport over or under water.. In USA Naval slang, a submarine of any size is also called a boat it is also a term used in Canada and the United States for a ship of any size used on the Great Lakes.. Definition: Wikipedia..

When I looked at the top 10 container shipping lines in the world, 8 of them used the term vessel on their bill of lading with varied definitions while 1 line used the term ship while 1 line did not define the term vessel although they used it..

So based on the above, the popular opinion is that a vessel is the key and broad category that covers anything that floats and is used for transportation such as a ship, boat, barges etc..

Ship vs Vessel case study

And talking about barges, there was an interesting case from Singapore recently.. The Singapore High Court heard a case in which the central issue revolved around whether “ECO SPARK,” a barge converted into a floating fish farm could be classified as a “ship” under the High Court (Admiralty Jurisdiction) Act 1961..

Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of the shipyard owner, concluding that the modified barge did not meet the legal definition of a ship, primarily due to its lack of navigational features and its specific use as a stationary fish farm..

This decision was based on the assessment of various criteria, including the vessel’s physical characteristics, design, capability for navigation, and actual use, which in this case, did not align with the traditional attributes of a ship designed for navigation.


In concluding the topic, the difference between the terms “ship” and “vessel” in legal and maritime contexts can be nuanced and is not cut and dried as one would expect..

A “ship” typically refers to a larger, ocean-going vessel, especially those designed for transporting cargo or passengers over long distances..

The term “vessel” is broader and includes a wide variety of watercraft, including boats, ships, barges, and similar structures used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water..

This broad coverage may also be the reason why many shipping lines prefer the term vessel more than ship..

A ship is a type of vessel, but not all vessels are ships, and the specific criteria for classifying a vessel as a ship can vary based on legal jurisdiction and context, often focusing on factors like size, navigation capabilities, and purpose..

Article republished after critical updates

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Hariesh Manaadiar
Hariesh Manaadiar
I am Hariesh Manaadiar, the Founder of Shipping and Freight Resource.. I have been in the dynamic shipping and freight industry for over three decades and have worked in several sectors.. I share my experiences and knowledge of the industry through this blog for those looking for help in the industry.. Stay subscribed for more free useful content about shipping, freight, maritime, logistics, supply chain and trade..


  1. An easy way to remember is that a ship is a vessel that has other (rigid) boats onboard. These may be lifeboats or other craft. A boat does not have rigid craft aboard, only inflatables or RIBs. This is why a submarine is, technically, a boat.

    • Good question Archie.. While there is no textbook definition or reason why these ships are called carriers, my view is that some of the bulk vessels are referred to as “carriers” (like ore carriers, grain carriers, etc.) because their primary function is to “carry” large quantities of unpackaged bulk cargo which are homogeneous in nature and are loaded directly into the vessel’s cargo spaces without any intermediate form of containment..


    [From last paragraph of news, see below.] According to maritime rules, vessels are supposed to give way to ships on their starboard side.

    US Navy ship collides with oil tanker off Singapore

    6 minutes ago
    From the section Asia

    The USS John McCain was performing a routine stop when it struck an oil tanker

    Ten sailors are missing and five injured after a US destroyer collided with an oil tanker off the coast of Singapore, the US Navy says.

    The USS John McCain was sailing through the Strait of Malacca and preparing to stop in Singapore when it struck the Liberian-flagged vessel.

    A search and rescue operation is under way.

    It is the second serious collision involving a US Navy ship within two months.

    The latest collision, which was reported at 06:24 local time on Monday (21:24 GMT on Sunday), happened as the USS John McCain prepared to perform a routine port stop.

    Initial reports said that the ship had “sustained damage” to its port side. The US Navy said local authorities were assisting with “search and rescue efforts”.

    In June, seven US sailors were killed when the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship in Japanese waters near the port city of Yokosuka.

    In pictures: USS Fitzgerald crash

    Those who died were found in flooded berths on board the ship after the collision caused a “big gash” under the warship’s waterline, the US Navy said.

    According to maritime rules, vessels are supposed to give way to ships on their starboard side.

  3. Agreed !

    Please do not call a ship a boat.

    The Captain of a Ship would be offended if you called his ship a boat !

    A boat on the other hand is small craft used for pleasure.


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