Photo © Ian Coristine/
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When is a Ship not a Ship?

Answer:  When it's a Great Lakes freighter on the river.

Capt. Bill Millar of Carleton Island, himself skipper of a Lake Superior vessel, observed (at the annual Millar Chowder Party) that we don't have "ships" on the river and lakes. We only have "boats."

And exception might be "salties," the ocean-going vessels that are properly called "ships." The term "salty" seems to be of Canadian origin, originally applied to sailors coming ashore from ocean-going ships. Since construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, many salties pass our way, adding to the intrigue of boat-watching.

The Marlene Green passed by in November. This 468-foot "salty," with a Dutch flag, is owned by a Danish corporation. Note the sharper prow and location of the bridge (pilot house) amidships. Bob Dowson photograph.

Deb Kohlrust explains: "Most any Great Lakes freighter would be called a ship anywhere else but the Great Lakes. The tradition of calling them boats here started when farmers and early manufacturers needed to get their products to market. Since there were no real roads or railroads back in Revolutionary War times, they built their own 'boats,' mostly designed to look like ocean going 'ships.' That tradition still holds today. if it was designed and built mainly for Great Lakes use, it is a boat. If it spends much if any time on the ocean, then it is a ship.

Dave Obser adds: "In spite of some of the technical descriptions that you might hear or read, anything sailing exclusively on the Great Lakes is referred to as a 'boat'. This goes back to the days when Great Lakes boats were smaller than ocean 'ships,' and ocean sailors made fun of the 'boats.' Even though today's 1000-footers are bigger than most ocean vessels they are still called 'boats.' Ask any Great Lakes sailor what he does, and he will tell you he 'works on the boats.' It is an old tradition. When they leave home, they will also tell you they are 'going sailing,' and most of them have never been on a boat with sails. Old traditions die hard, and are nice to preserve.


Photo by Ian Coristine ©
A salty

An anonymous commentator recalls "My husband sailed on the ocean for twenty-five years and he sailed on a 'ship.' Now he's on the Great Lakes and I can't get used to calling them 'boats'; to me they're still 'ships.' I also say the 'bridge' (ocean) and not the 'pilot house' (Great Lakes). Confusing, the same but different."

Les Weston contributes: "It is a really interesting subject. My Father, who was Principal Surveyor for ABS great lakes, always called them 'boats' and, as a result, so do I. Furthermore, I have heard captains refer to them as boats. There are lots of terms used on the lakes that are not the same as saltwater."

    Salties passing

Photo by Ian Coristine ©
Ships that pass in the twilight: two salties

In government and court documents, no distinction is made between "ships" and "boats." Although the terms are often interchangeable in common use, in technical literature they are preferably all "vessels."

And then there's that popular saying, "A boat's on a ship, not a ship on a boat."

A long laker

Photo by Ian Coristine ©
A long Laker


Written by Paul Malo, 2007

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