you can have a boat on your ship, but you can’t have a ship on your boat

you can have a boat on your ship, but you can’t have a ship on your boat

San Francisco
September 5, 2012
281 days until the Arctic Circle expedition

So yesterday I promised to help us all avoid future humiliation when hanging out with sailors: what to call his or her vessel, or more importantly, what not to call it.

So the first distinction: boat or ship? Though there is argument about the particulars, there seem to be two main determinants: size and range. Ships are larger: hence, you can carry a boat on your ship, but you can’t carry a ship on your boat, well, unless you have one of those ships in a bottle in your boat, but come on, this is very serious. Ships are bigger than boats, which is not a comment about power, I mean a tugboat can push/pull a cargo ship out of the harbor. This is not a size contest, ok? Sheesh. Which is where the second determinant comes in: range. Boats are designed to stay near land, while ships are built to cross oceans.

But of course it’s not that simple. Now add masts and sails, and you have a whole new world of ships, barques, barkentines, brigs, brigantines, and sloops, oh and yawls, ketches, schooners, cutters and snows, caravels and something called a freedom. When I first saw this chart, I thought,  “Hooray!” But I was also that kid who liked to spend saturday morning watching cartoons and memorizing cat and horse breeds from one of those encylopaedic books. So I fully understand that “Hooray!” is not going to be the typical response to this chart. So, because I like you and want you to continue on this journey with me, I’ve provided crib notes below.

In the realm of tall ships, the word “ship” is very specific. Did you study the very simple chart I gave you yesterday?  Here it is again:

How to tell what a tall ship is called in three simple steps:
1. Count the masts.
2. What types of sails is it rigged with? (Square*, fore-and-aft**, or both?***)
3. If it has both types of sails, how many masts are square-rigged?****

*square sails hang on yards that are perpendicular to the mast, and are rigged perpendicular to the keel of the vessel.
** fore-and-aft sails are triangular, and are rigged parallel to the keel of the vessel.
**the long, triangular sails (jibs) hung on the bow do not count, only sails on the masts.
****although sometimes, with a topsail schooner, just the upper part of the foremast is square-rigged.

Don’t give up! Ships are like the English language: there seem to be more complications and exceptions than rules. There is always that silent e that makes the vowels go long, but seriously the music of language and the music of ships is totally worth getting it wrong.

So because I am feeling confident enough to offer some very basic rules about naming tall ships, and because I’m about to be late for work, I’m gonna break it down:

Three (or more) masts

1. A true “ship” has three or more masts, and they are all square-rigged. (#1 above).

2. If it has three or more masts, all square-rigged, except the last mast is rigged fore-and aft, you have a barque/bark). (#2 above).

3. If it has three or more masts, but only the first mast is square rigged, and the rest are fore-and-aft, you have a barquentine (barkentine). This is what we’re sailing the Arctic Circle on! (#3 above).

Two masts:

1. If you have two masts, both square-rigged, you have a brig. (#4 above)

2. If you have two masts, and only the foremast is square-rigged, you have a brigantine. (#5 above)

3. If you have two or more masts, and all are fore-and-aft rigged, you have a schooner. (#7, 8, 9, 10 and more above.)

One mast:

1. If you have one mast that is square rigged, you have a disaster.

2. If you have one mast that is fore-and-aft rigged, you have a sloop. (#16 above).
I fully expect (and deserve) to now be schooled by you die-hard sailors out there.

3 thoughts on “you can have a boat on your ship, but you can’t have a ship on your boat

  1. I thought the difference between ships and boats was the number of decks… ships have three or more and boats two or less. This is why a submarine is a boat.


  2. Need to go a bit smaller on some details. The difference between the yawl and ketch. Both are sloops with the addition of a smaller “mizzen” mast aft of the “main” mast. The difference is the location of the mizzen mast. If the an imaginary line drawn straight down through the boat from the mizzen occurs aft (behind) the rudder “pin”(the place where the rudder pivots from, or the top “pin” of the rudder hinge if the rudder hinge is not exactly vertical-I’m not 100% certain of this last distinction, but have seldom seen a boat where there is much question), then the boat is a yawl. If the mizzen is forward (in front of) the rudder pin, then the boat is a ketch. The Bermudian Schooner in your chart is one I have not encountered, off the top of my head. Most “Schooners” with which I am familiar, have a shorter forward mast.

    Foresails matter(jibs, genoas, storm sails, drifters, gennakers and the like). A “cutter” rig is typically single masted (gaff main(triangle with the top cut off-but much more difference than that) or sloop (triangular main), but with two or more “permanent” (as opposed to removable) foresails designed to be flown together or individually. Typically the foremost (farthest front) sail is mounted on a bow sprit (pole extended from the bow of the boat) or bow pulpit(larger platform extension of the bow, typically holding anchor rollers and/or room for a crew to move forward with railings on the sides). The second sail abaft (term describing a location further toward the stern(back) of a vessel) is typically mounted at the bow or further abaft.

    I am curious about, and now much research, whether there is a difference between a “Bermudian” ketch/yawl/sloop and simply a ketch/yawl/sloop. It could be simply a distinction between gaff rigged sails and triangular sails, that seems to ring a bell.

    BTW, there are many more types and distinctions among sailing craft, but your chart makes a good start. Something to note, is that the time periods when the various vessels in the chart where in predominant use spans 400+ years. The caravelle, for example, was employed extensively in the Med, possibly as far back as the Cruisades, another point I must now research. I love the internet.

    Fair winds.


  3. The way to remember the difference between a yawl and a ketch is that, on a yawl the mizzen mast is “yawl the way back there.”


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