Yacht or Boat?: What’s the difference?

Yacht, Ship, or Boat – which is it?

Back Cove 37 Downeast - Luxury Motor Yacht

The English language is full of this kind of intriguing conundrum. Definitions of words like yacht, boat, or ship aren’t always sufficiently indicative of which is appropriate and when. The result is that most of us develop and use our own (unspoken) rules within our boating communities or, when the rules don’t apply, we just wing it!

If ‘winging it’ isn’t your style, or you’re new to the boating community, we have some guidelines to help you along the way to nautical fluency.


Back Cove 41 - single engine downeast motor yachtI don’t think anybody would argue that ‘yacht’ connotates something fancier than a boat or a ship. Interestingly enough,  outside of the United States, ‘yacht’ generally refers to a sailboat unless specifically called a motor yacht. Unhelpfully, those of us in the US still have to contend with the power/sail question, and ‘boat’ is still used interchangeably. Back Cove and our sister company Sabre refer to our products as ‘yachts,’ (if that wasn’t already obvious). We craft personal luxury vessels designed for recreation, relaxation, and comfort, so yacht certainly seems the most appropriate.


Cargo or Container ShipMost associate ‘ship’ with something larger than a boat, and less recreational than a yacht. In short, a “working” vessel. One person pointed out to me that a ship generally needs a full crew, while a yacht sometimes doesn’t, and a boat almost never does. For example, a 200-foot cargo ship (or mega-yacht) almost certainly requires a crew, but an experienced team of two can safely and masterfully handle any Back Cove or Sabre yacht. Meanwhile, if we consider the rowboat, a single person could well manage on their own – with a little practice.


A rowboat is a great example of the definition of "boat"Defining ‘boat’ seems to be stickier than ‘yacht’ or ‘ship.’ We hear many captains referring to their ‘boat,’ irrespective of size, function, or fit-and-finish. Short of being deliberately confusing, it seems as though the word boat has become a colloquialism, pet phrase, or slang term for any floating object more complicated than a raft. So, setting slang aside, the rest shakes out pretty cleanly. A boat can be used for recreation or pleasure but is generally smaller than either a ship or a yacht, and with fewer amenities. Boats tend to be powered either by small engines, or elbow-grease (again, think rowboat).

When in Rome…

As we mentioned above, everybody has their own ‘rules.’ Moreover, the plasticity of language means that any guidelines have a substantial amount of grey area. So always be aware of those familiar with the vessel in question. If you are invited out on ‘the boat,’ it’s safe to say that is an acceptable term. If a captain or owner refers to their vessel as a ‘yacht,’ then use yacht. When in Rome, do as the Romans do!

There is one bit of unequivocally good news in all this confusion – when it’s yours, you can call it whatever you like!

Back Cove 32 - A Downeast Motor Yacht

PS – Do you find any other nautical terms confusing or unclear? Let us know in the comments!

Yacht or Boat?: What's the difference?
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20 Responses to Yacht or Boat?: What’s the difference?

  1. Bentley says:

    If I were Dutch (that’s the origin of the word as I understand it) I could call my 2 meter row boat or my 60 meter superyacht “my yacht”. In Holland it is “my boat”. I can tell you that Google tells us that the word “boat” is searched for 10 times more often than is “yacht”

  2. KB says:

    The modern line drawn between the two is typically relative to the fit and finish of both the exterior and interior of a vessel. The fairness and finish quality of the surfaces, the quality of the materials and equipment, and the overall attention to detail need to be exemplary in order to warrant the term “yacht”; the size and/or price of the vessel take a back seat to these qualities. Also – just as importantly – a true and proper yacht exists to provide a means of recreation for the Owner,and must not be engaged in commerce of any kind. That line is really blurred when considering “megayachts” that are essentially finely finished charter boats upon which the Owner spends very little time.

    • Mario Tavares Da Silva says:

      All that is arguable and doubtful.
      What is a fine finish?
      A well vernished Snipe is more of a “yacht” than a 12 m rotten plastic powerboat?
      I think we should stick to the origin of the term. And indeed, it comes from the dutch word yacht, representing initially a fast leisure vessel, then any leisure vessel.
      This was before power boats exist.
      When they arrived, I see no reason why they might not be included.

  3. mtd says:

    In simplistic terms, a yacht does not have a capacity plate for persons and gear.
    A boat does.
    It is quite typical that a yacht is built to be superior to a boat and given a choice most prefer a yacht vs boat.

    • SailorJim says:

      This is not true, I drive a 30 foot Rinker. IT has twin inboard engines and has a Capacity plate with the words YACHT.

      • Donna Benson says:

        What length boat is considered a yacht?
        Yacht lengths normally range from 7 metres (23 ft) up to dozens of meters (hundreds of feet). A luxury craft smaller than 12 metres (39 ft) is more commonly called a cabin cruiser or simply a cruiser.
        Yacht – Wikipedia

  4. William says:

    motor yacht terminolgy over here in Europe is used from 50 feet upwards normally

  5. Nick says:

    If you have to ask, its not a yacht.

  6. J Funk says:

    My understanding is a boat becomes a yacht when it’s able to become a live-aboard. Full galley, sleeping quarters, etc. A ship is one used primarly for commercial purposes.

  7. ZB says:

    If it doesn’t have a sail, it’s not a yacht.

  8. Robert Krause says:

    I was told a boat over 35 feet long can be called a yaght.

  9. Bob Dylan says:

    The price?

  10. Mathew Parry says:

    Is it still called sailing if you have a motorised boat/yacht? I cannot seem to find anything out on google. Thanks

  11. Shannon says:

    We have a 62’ steel hull motorsailer. She’s rugged and yet beautiful. We live aboard as well as offer charter excursions. Because she feels more like a small ship I find calling her a yacht pretentious. Yet I need to get across to our potential guests that she is both a yacht and a ship. The connotation of “yacht” to us feels like something glamorous, although the definition is correct for the size and function.
    I think we need a new category for those of us who don’t feel comfortable with the term yacht but yet have one.

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  13. Lily says:

    Ok, don’t laugh, but I know zilch about yachts or boats but am writing a romance novel in which the heroine goes on a vacation in a seafront resort and falls in love with a man that has a boat (yacht?). Everything I write below I learned from google. So, I had a boat (yacht?) in mind while writing and I googled to try and find something that looked like what I imagined so I could be as accurate as possible in my description in the book. I couldn’t find anything like it, but I found two different things that, combined, could answer what I pictured in my mind while writing.
    So, after this long introduction, my question to you is – is there a yacht (boat?) that has 1) walk-around side decks like the Integrity 340 (thank you Google!), 2) without sleeping/cooking/lounge area and 3) that has a half-covered cockpit like the Sea Ray 51 Sundancer (i.e. located further to the back of the boat and is only half-covered) Cause that’s what I had in mind!! Now after you’re done laughing, can anyone pls help? 🙂
    P.s. would it be called a boat or a yacht?…..

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