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On the importance of names, part two. What’s the difference between a boat and a ship?


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I’ve been asked by the crew to stop calling the Knorr a boat. It’s a ship. “A ship can pick up a boat,” they tell me. The Knorr is also the largest ship in her fleet. Respect, my friends.

In fact, one intrepid questioner asked about this exact distinction. Maybe she was trying to tell me something.

What’s the difference between a boat and a ship? Jenny from Walla Walla Washington

According to The Straight Dope:

“Among sailing vessels, the distinction between ships and boats is that a ship is a square-rigged craft with at least three masts, and a boat isn’t. With regard to motorized craft, a ship is a large vessel intended for oceangoing or at least deep-water transport, and a boat is anything else.”

Basically, a ship can carry a boat, but a boat cannot carry a ship.

This is a boat. (Via: Flickr)

This is a ship.

Or, if you prefer you analogies in LEGO form.

This is a boat. (Via: Flickr)

This is a ship. (Via: Flickr)

The Guardian asked its readers about the difference, and got a couple of great answers.

“One answer is that … a ship’s captain gets annoyed if you refer to his vessel as a boat, but a boat’s captain does not get annoyed if you refer to his vessel as a ship.

Brian Robinson, Brentwood, Essex

I should also note that the Knorr has a small boat attached to it (correction, two small boats), which means she can definitely carry a boat. Thus, it’s a ship. So, from now on, the R/V Knorr will take her proper place as a ship on this blog, and not a boat.

During this trip, I’ll be answering your questions about the science, this boat, and life onboard. Want to know how we search for plankton, why we’re here, or what the food is like? Just ask me! And if you’re wondering how I got here, check out the groups that made this adventure possible: Mind Open Media and COSEE NOW.

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Previously in this series:

All Aboard: how you can be a part of our research blog
You wanted to know: what are these phytoplankton?
You wanted to know: what am I bringing to sea?
Greetings from Ponta Delgada! We set sail tomorrow.
Steaming North: how the scientists are trying to find plankton
The superstar sensor: what is a CTD?
Status Update: Day 3 at the Cyclonic Eddy
You wanted to know: what is this virus that infects the phytoplankton (Part One)
You wanted to know: what is this virus that infects the phytoplankton (Part Two)
Plankton hunting: Part art, Part science
You wanted to know: what’s the food like on board?
Wildlife watch!
Jumborizing: a brief history of the R/V Knorr
On the importance of names. Or, “are we at the hump or the hole?”
Arts and crafts day on the Knorr

Rose Eveleth About the Author: Rose Eveleth is a producer, designer, writer and animator based in Brooklyn. She's got a degree in ecology from U.C. San Diego, and a masters in journalism from NYU. Now, she makes sciencey stuff for places like The New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider and OnEarth. Follow on Twitter @roseveleth.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. PeterT 6:43 pm 07/6/2012

    Then, why is a submarine boat a boat???

    Link to this
  2. 2. oscar867 6:56 am 07/21/2012

    Submarines are the exception to the rule, all rules have to have at least one…

    Link to this

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