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What’s the Difference Between a Boat and a Ship?

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The Supreme Court ruled last week in the case of Fane Lozman vs the City of Riviera Beach, Florida. They decided that Lozman’s 60-foot, two-story, motorless, rudderless floating home was not a boat or a vessel, and hence should not have been seized under maritime law and destroyed by the city.

With the line between house and boat a little bit clearer, reader Steve asked us to clarify something else: “What defines a boat, versus a ship?”

One of the quickest ways to reveal yourself as a landlubber is to refer to a ship as a boat, but there’s no absolute distinction between the two, and even experienced mariners rely on local custom and usage to differentiate them. 

Back in the Age of Sail, a ship was pretty well defined as a vessel with three or more square rigged masts. As different methods of power generation replaced wind and sail, the ships of old became more specifically known as “sailing ships,” and the usage of ship broadened to cover a wide, ill-defined variety of vessels. 

One thing that sets a ship apart from a boat is size. According the U.S. Naval Institute, a boat, generally speaking, is small enough to be carried aboard a larger vessel, and a vessel large enough to carry a smaller one is a ship. Or, as Steve says his Navy Lieutenant father put it to him, “You can put a boat on a ship, but you can’t put a ship on a boat.”

Now, this Naval convention is a good rule of thumb most of the time, but there are a few exceptions, among both naval and civilian vessels. Some yachts, ferries, tug boats, fishing boats, police boats, etc. can carry small lifeboats or dinghies, but they usually don’t graduate to ship status because of that. On the other hand, a large container ship or the USS Cole can be carried aboard an even bigger ship without getting demoted to a boat. 

The U.S. Navy seems to want to have it both ways with their submarines. One component of each vessel’s official name is USSthat is, United States Ship—but seamen, the Naval Institute says, usually refer to submarines in general as boats, regardless of size. 

Another factor the Naval Institute considers is the vessel’s crew, command, and use. If it has a permanent crew with a commanding officer, it’s usually a ship. If it’s only crewed when actually in use and has no official CO, then you’re probably dealing with a boat. Ships are also usually intended and designed for deep-water use and are able to operate independently for long periods of time. Boats, meanwhile, lack the fuel and cargo capacity for extended, unassisted operation. 

Again, though, there are some exceptions in actual usage. Most commercial fishing vessels, for example, are large and can go out alone on the open ocean for weeks at a time. They’re almost always called boats, though, and rarely “fishing ships.” 

Without any hard and fast rules about boats and ships, we humbly suggest another loose guideline that will ingratiate you to the captain of any sort of vessel: Call it whatever the skipper wants you to call it. 

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Why You Should Never Take Your Shoes Off On an Airplane
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What should be worn during takeoff?

Tony Luna:

If you are a frequent flyer, you may often notice that some passengers like to kick off their shoes the moment they've settled down into their seats.

As an ex-flight attendant, I'm here to tell you that it is a dangerous thing to do. Why?

Besides stinking up the whole cabin, footwear is essential during an airplane emergency, even though it is not part of the flight safety information.

During an emergency, all sorts of debris and unpleasant ground surfaces will block your way toward the exit, as well as outside the aircraft. If your feet aren't properly covered, you'll have a hard time making your way to safety.

Imagine destroying your bare feet as you run down the aisle covered with broken glass, fires, and metal shards. Kind of like John McClane in Die Hard, but worse. Ouch!

Bruce Willis stars in 'Die Hard' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

A mere couple of seconds delay during an emergency evacuation can be a matter of life and death, especially in an enclosed environment. Not to mention the entire aircraft will likely be engulfed in panic and chaos.

So, the next time you go on a plane trip, please keep your shoes on during takeoff, even if it is uncomfortable.

You can slip on a pair of bathroom slippers if you really need to let your toes breathe. They're pretty useless in a real emergency evacuation, but at least they're better than going barefoot.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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