The primary difference between a boat and a ship is size. Other factors include crew, design, (sailing) location, and propulsion. That said, the boating space has a lot of variation. Boats are mainly subdivided into fishing boats, entertainment boats, and racing boats, with lots of overlap between the classes. So let’s look at the different boat types and their key features.
Different Boat Types
1. Row Boat
This is the most basic type of boat, and you can probably make your own at home. The boat has oars and can seat at least one person. The sides are low for easy control, and the hull can be flat or V-shaped. Row boats include log rafts, canoes, gondolas, and kayaks. These manual boats have no sails, so they’re best used for inshore trips. They can’t handle rough waves.
2. Sail Boat
Sails add power to your boat because they let you harness the wind. The sails are triangular pieces of fabric and are commonly made of canvas, nylon, polyester, or plastic. A sail boat can have oars and motors as well as sails. You need specialized sailing skills to manage those massive swatches of sailcloth – this is not a boat for beginners. And you need lots of gear!
3. Motor Boat
A motor boat or speed boat is any vessel that has an engine attached. The engine is generally mounted on the transom, which is the flat rear section of the stern. A speed boat can run using its motor alone, or the motor can be paired with sails, oars, or other devices. It takes less technical skill (and a smaller crew) to run a motor boat, so it’s a safer choice for newbies.
4. Inflatable Boat
Inflatable boats range from those bright orange emergency rafts to blow-up pontoons. Some shops classify hovercrafts and float tubes as inflatable boats. These boats are best for short trips and/or skinny water (one foot or less). The boat is prone to puncturing and is tricky to steer in deep, rolling waves. You can use them in lakes, bays, rivers, pools, or slow currents.
5. Walkaround / Runabout / Day Boat
- Bow riders – front seating area
- Deck boats – front + back seating area
To qualify as a runaround or walkabout boat, your vessel should have ample space to walk around the boat, pun intended. It has guardrails for safe viewing and comfortable seating.
6. Fishing Boat
This is probably the broadest category of boat types. You can fish with(out) motors and oars, so any boat counts as a fishing boat. But the truest fishing boats have extra features like rod holders, livewells, tackle boxes, and other storage options for both your gear and your catch. They range from aluminium and bass boats to hi-tech types with fishfinders, WiFi, and GPS.
7. Watersport Tow Boat
In some ways, a watersport boat is a type of runaround boat. The difference is these boats are specifically designed for towing sports. Meaning the boat has a reinforced mast that lets you attach ropes for water-skiing, kite-surfing, tube-floating, wake-boarding, and similar sports. The boat has a ladder and an open back, plus extra storage space for the boards and gear.
8. Paddle Boat
This water vessel is used for transport and casual sightseeing. Sometimes called pedal boats, these mini-boats are built for one to four people. You drive it by pedaling your feet, just like you would on a bicycle. Some pedal boats are classified as aqua cycles and they use a pair of pontoons as their hull. Paddle boats can be covered or open, and are used inshore.
9. Cabin Boat
Here’s another kind of walkabout boat. The main difference is a cabin boat has a section where you can sleep. Cabin boats can be small – a cuddy boat, for example, only has a small sleeper cabin tucked under the bow. But a luxury cabin cruiser e.g. a yacht can have beds, bathrooms, meal areas, dance floors, hot tubs, and enough overnight space for 8 to 10 guests.
10. Skiff Boat
Here’s another generic boat type with lots of features tucked underneath. A skiff has an angular bow, a boxy stern, and a flat-bottomed hull. Its main purpose is directional high-speed navigation so it’s likely to be a planing boat with a strong motor, even if it has oars. The motor helps reduce drag, and this boat is primarily for cruising, rescue, and military use.
11. Banana Boat
You don’t have to work too hard to imagine a banana boat – it’s a bright yellow leisure boat that is often inflated but can also be lightweight wood or aluminum. The boat can have built-in motors or it can be towed by a bigger watersport boat. You might also see a deeply arched banana boat ride at amusement parks. These are not the West Indian fruit trading boats.
12. ACV (Hovercraft)
You’ve heard of ATVs? Now try ACVs! These air-cushion vehicles are sometimes called hovercrafts. They have hollow hulls that release high-pressure air that slips under the hull to cause flotation. They sometimes have propellers and can work on swamps, rivers, lakes, or even ice. Because of their low weight and high power, you can drive them offshore as well.
Dinghies are small supplementary boats that are often mounted on the sides of larger ships. It has a flat-bottom hull and an open deck, so it’s only intended for short distances on calm waters. A dinghy is mainly for emergencies, so it can be a row boat or an inflatable version. It should be small enough to fit onto a bigger boat or ship, so it has to be extremely lightweight.
14. Catamaran Boat
A catamaran is a boat whose hull is made of multiple v-bottoms. These planing boats ride high and fast, so they’re commonly used for competitive purposes. The boat typically has two or three hard chines and might have oars and sails in addition to high-performance motors. You can distinguish catamarans by the sharp angles (also called chines) on their front hulls.
15. Pontoon Boat
A pontoon boat is a buoyant boat with a shallow draft. That means the bulk of the hull is above water, with only 8 to 10 inches submerged. The hull is made of hollow tubes or logs called pontoons. These aluminum cylinders keep the boat balanced and sturdy, especially on calm waters. Apart from those distinctive pontoons, the boats have a solid centralized fence.
16. Centre Console Boat
The console is the steering section of the boat. It will generally have a control panel with a steering wheel and sailing technology. The console is sometimes exposed, but it can be placed behind a protective windshield. It could have a cover too. Centre console boats have the console positioned right in the middle of the deck. Some have independent dual consoles.
17. House Boat
You’ve probably heard horror stories of people living in their cars because their rent is too high. Others opt to live in RVs, caravans, or wheeled tiny houses. But if you live in a beach town, you could opt for a house boat instead. These boat houses have everything you need including kitchens and sleeping quarters. Many docks have pumps to empty your sewers.
18. Flybridge Boat
Any type of boat can be a flybridge boat, whether it’s a runabout or a tow boat. The distinguishing factor is the console, which ‘flies’ above the deck. This flybridge seems to hang at an awkward angle, but it’s pretty stable. It offers greater visibility for offshore sailing in rough waters and choppy waves. These boats can be classified as double or triple-deckers.
19. Tug Boat
Tug boats are small powerhouse vessels used to tow bigger ships. They typically have float tubes lined along their sides because tug boats are ideally used for rescue missions when a ship is stranded. You can also use them to park a particularly big ship onto the dock. The boat is smaller so it can easily maneuver the larger ship into tight turns and corner spots.
20. Barge Boat
Some barges are so big you may be tempted to call them ships! In reality, they’re inshore cargo ferries with a flat deck and a flat hull. They have a lot of drag so they move slowly and can support massive weight. Back then, horses walked on the shore beside the barge to tow the boat. These days, barges may have built-in engines and propellers for rivers and canals.
21. Rescue Boat
This is another broad category with different boat types within it. A rescue boat is any boat designated by protective services like fire stations, marine hospitals, coastguards, or security corps. It can be a dinghy, a row boat, a lifeboat, an inflatable, or a speed boat. These boats are often painted red, yellow, or orange for visibility. They’re fitted with hi-tech medical kits.
22. Fire Boat
A fire boat is a special type of rescue boat that specializes in fires. Water-based fires routinely involve fuel, so the water underneath can’t quench the flames. The fire may also be worsened by the greasy fish and oily sea creatures that might be on board. So fire rescue boats have special flame-retardant features and pumps, plus lots of first aid gear for burns and scorches.
23. Utility Boat
This catchall boat category covers any boat used for work purposes. This could be anything from towing trapped ACVs to hauling nets in a trawler. Utility boats are different from recreational boats or racing boats because their design is sturdy and rugged. You might have a sleeper cabin for the graveyard shift, but the emphasis is on functionality, not comfort.
24. Game Boat
A game boat is a specialized fishing boat for hunting large marine creatures. That boat in Moby Dick? Gaming boat. What about the whalers that are illegal in many parts of the world? Those are game boats too. But the most popular kind is fitted with harpoons and anglers and is used to hunt marlin, tuna, swordfish, and other types of pelagic fish.
You can fish in any kind of boat. But when you’re looking for a large catch, you should probably get a trawler. Row boats have low sides and sometimes have flat decks so you can reach into the water and grab the fish. Trawlers are industrial, with tall sides, covered consoles, massive storage, and better balance. They’re effective both offshore and inshore.
The ultimate status symbol, a yacht can be described as a personal cruise ship. It has many of the advantages of commercial cruisers, but it’s on a smaller scale. Yachts are sufficiently equipped to house your guests for days or even weeks, but it’s still significantly smaller than a cruise ship. The focus is on luxury and comfort, so expect leather and hi-tech gadgets.
27. Saltwater Boat
Visually, a saltwater boat may not be that different from a freshwater boat. But the emphasis is on designs and construction materials that can withstand sand and salt damage. Fiberglass works well, but it can get scratches and gashes if you don’t rinse it often. These boats also need non-skid surfaces, high sides to avoid sea spray and hulls that can handle rough waves.
28. Jet Boat
These aren’t as common as they used to be, but you can think of them as large jet skis. The boats use the same propulsion system you’ll find on a PWC (personal water craft, the formal name for jet skis). The boat uses a pump to pull water from below and force it up at high pressure. These boats often hold two to four people and are great for stunts and water tricks.
29. Hydrofoil Boat
A hydrofoil boat is a boat fitted with special underwater fins for extreme speed. These fins enhance the lift while planing. They’re quite expensive, so hydrofoil boats are mainly used for high-end competitive sailing. Think of it as an F1 vehicle, but for water. Or think of an aerofoil, but this one works with water instead of air. And yes, they’re called flying boats.
30. Ferry Boat
A ferry is most likely to be a pontoon boat, though slow-moving catamarans can serve as ferries too. Think of it as a barge boat, but for humans. Ferries are public transport vessels that carry passengers and commuters from an island to the mainland and back. They can sometimes carry cars as well. Most are run by governments, but private ones do exist.
31. Cruiser Boat
Our final boat category has lots of overlap as well. Look at it this way – some of us love sports cars, even in urban areas where you can’t reach full speed. If you have this temperament and you live in a beach town, you could buy a cruiser boat. They go extremely fast and don’t have much seating. But since you’re a daredevil, you can use them for surfing and offshore swims.
How many types of boats have you sailed in? Tell us your experiences in the comments!