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Classification of Small Boats

In December 2004, I asked in the Yahoo!Michalak group about "what makes a pram a pram, a punt a punt, etc.". Small boat designers and builders are used to classify boats, but it is very difficult for a newbie to find the criteria on the Web.
I got great answers from Al, sword_king, Craig O'Donnell, Tom, Tidmarsh, xlifeplayx, John E. / Vicslliff, Lepage Roger, and especially from John B. Trussell, and Bill Kreamer, which I want to re-publish here, so that people who don't have access to that Yahoo! group can also read it. The descriptions below consist mainly of sniplets from different answers.

Here we go:
"Names in boatbuilding are not definitive. Names for boats are generally derived from local culture, and the boats themselves have generally evolved to fit the local requirements."
" ... people who pursue specialized activities tend to develop their own language and use their own slang. This is particularly true for small boat enthusiasts because many small boat terms have very specific meanings in a small geographic area and the same terms are used very casually by people outside that area."
"Part of the problem with nautical terms stems from the fact that ocean front communities were frequently isolated and either developed new words for existing boats or used existing words for new develpements. As a result, the same word can have a number of different meanings."
"The requirements for a recreational boat are sometimes quite different from those of a working boat. Nonetheless, one approach to designing a recreational boat is to take a traditional working boat as a point of departure. It is frequently useful to describe the new, recreational boat using the name of a traditional working boat. In some cases this is more generic (ie sharpie or dory) and in other cases, to be more specific (ie Cape Cod catboat, Freindship sloop, or Tancook whaler). And, of course, there are boats which are not derivative from any traditional type and you can name them to suit yourself!"
And then: "If you can get your hands on it, Howard Chappelle's American Working Watercraft contains a fairly complete description of many types of boats, to include how they were used, how they developed, line drawings, and in many cases, offsets. This will answer a lot of questions."
Unfortunately, I have no access to this book, nor is it online. This page will therefore give at least the basics for all who have to rely on the Internet, like me.


A dinghy is simply a small boat - originally used to transport one to three people from shore to a moored yacht. Hull shape can be anything.

Flat bottomed,
pointed bow
Flat bottomed,
square bow
Not (always) flat bottomed
Sharpie Scow Skiff Yawl
Flattie Garvey Pram ?
Dory Jon Boat Cat Boat ?
Drift Boat Punt Bassboat ?


XXX, a typical sharpie

A shallow-draft flat bottomed boat with a pointed bow. Original (i.e., New Haven) sharpies were flat- or round-transom boats, which allowed working over the stern with long oyster tongs. These were "sharp" primarily in their four- to six-to-one length-to-beam ratio. The working sharpie form migrated to pointed stern cruising and racing designs primarily to get marginally better speed and sea-kindliness. Sharpies were so successful that they have traveled around the world, changing for local purposes and conditions. One can see them all over the US, Europe (the French were early adopters), and Australia/New Zealand, where they are raced enthusiastically, having morphed into a boat with a relatively large sail area and wide beam. A sharpie may have "rocker", which is to saw a curve to the bottom fore and aft. Sharpies are generally bigger boats, normally a little narrower, and primarily rigged for sail. There can be considerable overlap between a skiff and a sharpie.

Flattie (Flat-Iron Skiff)

XXX, a typical flattie

A "flattie" (flat-iron skiff) is so-called because it resembles a flat-iron used to iron clothes. It is a simple flat-bottomed skiff with a pointed bow and a transom stern. Flatties are usually not as narrow as sharpies.


XXX, a typical dory

A flat bottomed boat with a pointed bow. Dories are ... boats with very narrow bottoms and sides that flare a lot. While skiffs and sharpies have cross planked bottoms, dories' bottoms are planked for and aft. Dories have little initial stability and are generally rowing boats.

Drift Boat

XXX, a typical drift boat

A drift boat is a specialized dory designed to drift down rivers with rapids.


XXX, a typical scow

A flat or nearly flat bottomed boat with square bow. Scows do not have an articulated transom or "bow transom". The bottom planking sweeps up in a curve at the bow and the stern. If there is a bow transom, then it is very low compared to its width. The main difference to a garvey (see below) seems to be, that a scow is usually fairly low and decked in over a major part of the hull. The garvey is higher and usually open. The scow does not have a flared bottom towards the bow, as some garveys have. It is flat throughout, or very slightly rounded throughout.


XXX, a typical garvey

It seems to be quite difficult to agree on the difference between a garvey and a scow. A garvey is a flat bottomed boat that might feature some flare towards the bow that is never pointed. The bow itself is either a square transom or the flat bottom just sweeps up. If it features a transom, the height of that transom, compared to its width, is larger than of a scow with square transom. One site says that the name of the Jersey Garvey originates from Jarvis (Gervas) Pharo who lived in West Creek, New Jersey. The design of garveys allows it to make little or no wake.

Jon Boat

XXX, a typical jon boat

A jon boat is a garvey which has evolved for use with outboard motors. The bottom of the boat curves up at the bow, but is otherwise straight. These boats are difficult to row but perform well and plane easily with an outboard motor.


XXX, a typical punt

A punt is more or less the simplest of all boats. It has approximately parallel sides, and a flat bow and stern. Originally, punts were a primitive barge; very cheap to manufacture with a large load-carrying capacity for their size. The "modern" punt, certainly in the UK, is a pleasure craft usually propelled by a long pole or quant, but also propelled with a paddle over deep water. A site in the UK says that a punt is a flat-bottomed boat which does not have a keel. Typically, a punt is approximately 21 feet (6 metres) long and 3 feet (1 metre) wide. It should be propelled by means of a 16 foot (5 metre) long pole, which is also used to steer the punt. This method of propulsion is known as "punting"; just using a paddle to move along doesn't count.


XXX, a typical skiff

A most often flat bottomed boat with a pointed bow. Skiff normally suggests a boat small enough to be rowed by one man and skiffs normally have a beam to length ratio of around 1 to 3.


XXX, a typical pram

The word pram (originally praam) is Scandanavian in origin and originally meant a round sided, lapstrake boat with a square bow. Pram dinghies have the lines of much longer craft with a point at either end. Pram dinghies may be considered to be longer boats with the ends cut off. The hull form is more complex, and in terms of passage through the water, more efficient than a punt.

Cat Boat

XXX, a typical cat boat

A catboat is a type of sailboat that originated in Cape Cod. Typically they have a beam of about one half length and a plumb stem and transom. They also have a cat rig: a mast with a single sail set far in the front of the boat. Traditionally, catboats have gaff sails, though some have a Marconi.


XXX, a typical bassboat

This term has great regional variation. In the southestern US, it referes to a type of outboard recereational fishing boat, usually either fiberglass or aluminum, with low freeboard, a shallow v-hull, wide decks and raised seats. They often have very large outboard engines.


XXX, a typical yawl

A yawl is a rig, but it can also be a ship's boat, powered by four to six oars. A yawl boat can also be a small boat with a very big engine used to push a larger sail boat which does not have its own engine. Example: Shellfishing regulations in Maryland used to (and may still) allow dredging for oysters , but only with sail boats without power. This regulation led to the development and preservation of the Chesapeake Bay skipjack (shallow V hull with a large bow sprit and a very low aspect, leg of mutton sloop rig). The regulations prohibited power, but obviosly some sort of power was usful when not dredging. The result is a small boat -10 to 14 ft- with an automotive v-8 engine. The boat was used to push the skipjack and referred to as a "yawl boat". Yet another example of local language. The yachting term "canoe yawl" is a double-ended boat about the size of a ship's yawl - say 18 ft waterline. It says *nothing* about the rig though most seem to have been yawl rigged.