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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
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

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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How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. But how does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

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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