Boat, ship or yacht – what are the differences?

The difference between boats, ships and a yacht is in the size, the number of masts and the uses

In its origin, a boat is a small, open water craft. The term comes from the Middle Low German and Old English language and means “hewn out trunk”. So, according to the word origin, the boat is a canoe or rowboat. Today, the term has a broader meaning. Nevertheless, the types of different watercraft merge smoothly. The cabin cruiser is considered a boat, although it has at least one enclosed space in the form of a cabin. A submarine is usually a ship because of its size.

A first clear distinction between yachts and ships is in their use. Yachts are residential in design and are not used to carry cargo. Ships, in addition to cruise ships, are tankers, container ships, and general cargo carrying vessels. Skippers like to use a special distinction. According to this, boats can never carry a ship, but ships can very well carry a boat. The Navy distinguishes boats and ships by the command on board. In general use, this definition is not very helpful. An attempt by the Federal Court of Justice to formulate a meaningful definition of boats and ships fails for lack of precision. According to the jurists, a vessel is “not of insignificant size.”

The obvious distinction is between boats, yachts and ships based on size. The result leads to the following distinction:

  • up to 12 meters in length boat
  • up to 20 meters length yacht
  • over 20 meters length ships

Most insurance companies now subscribe to this definition. A group of experts continues to distinguish watercraft according to their use. According to them, boats and yachts serve private use, while ships fulfill commercial tasks.

Whether a watercraft under sail is a ship or a boat can also be explained by the number of masts. If it has more than two masts, it is a sailing vessel, otherwise it is a sailboat. However, a three-master should always reach the length of a ship.


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