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A ship is a large watercraft that travels the world's oceans and other sufficiently deep waterways, carrying passengers or goods, or in support of specialized missions, such as defense, research and fishing. Historically, a "ship" was a sailing vessel with at least three square-rigged masts and a full bowsprit. Ships are generally distinguished from boats, based on size, shape, load capacity, and tradition.

As of 2016, there were more than 49,000 merchant ships, totaling almost 1.8 billion dead weight tons. Of these 28% were oil tankers, 43% were bulk carriers, and 13% were container ships.

The first known vessels date back about 10,000 years ago, but could not be described as ships. The first navigators began to use animal skins or woven fabrics as sails. Affixed to the top of a pole set upright in a boat, these sails gave early ships range. This allowed men to explore widely, allowing for the settlement of Oceania for example (about 3,000 years ago).

The ancient Egyptians were perfectly at ease building sailboats. A remarkable example of their shipbuilding skills was the Khufu ship, a vessel 143 feet (44 m) in length entombed at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza around 2500 BC and found intact in 1954.

A panel found at Mohenjodaro depicted a sailing craft. Vessels were of many types; their construction is vividly described in the Yukti Kalpa Taru, an ancient Indian text on shipbuilding. This treatise gives a technical exposition on the techniques of shipbuilding. It sets forth minute details about the various types of ships, their sizes, and the materials from which they were built. The Yukti Kalpa Taru sums up in a condensed form all the available information. The Yukti Kalpa Taru gives sufficient information and dates to prove that, in ancient times, Indian shipbuilders had a good knowledge of the materials which were used in building ships. In addition to describing the qualities of the different types of wood and their suitability for shipbuilding, the Yukti Kalpa Taru gives an elaborate classification of ships based on their size.

Until the Renaissance, navigational technology remained comparatively primitive. This absence of technology did not prevent some civilizations from becoming sea powers. Examples include the maritime republics of Genoa and Venice, Hanseatic League, and the Byzantine navy. The Vikings used their knarrs to explore North America, trade in the Baltic Sea and plunder many of the coastal regions of Western Europe.

Maritime trade was driven by the development of shipping companies with significant financial resources. Canal barges, towed by draft animals on an adjacent towpath, contended with the railway up to and past the early days of the industrial revolution. Flat-bottomed and flexible scow boats also became widely used for transporting small cargoes. Mercantile trade went hand-in-hand with exploration, self-financed by the commercial benefits of exploration.

During the 19th century the Royal Navy enforced a ban on the slave trade, acted to suppress piracy, and continued to map the world. A clipper was a very fast sailing ship of the 19th century. The clipper routes fell into commercial disuse with the introduction of steam ships with better fuel efficiency, and the opening of the Suez and Panama Canals.

In 2002, there were 1,240 warships operating in the world, not counting small vessels such as patrol boats. The United States accounted for 3 million tons worth of these vessels, Russia 1.35 million tons, the United Kingdom 504,660 tons and China 402,830 tons. The 20th century saw many naval engagements during the two world wars, the Cold War, and the rise to power of naval forces of the two blocs. The world's major powers have recently used their naval power in cases such as the United Kingdom in the Falkland Islands and the United States in Iraq.

Lake freighters, also called lakers, are cargo vessels that ply the Great Lakes. The most well-known is SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the latest major vessel to be wrecked on the Lakes. These vessels are traditionally called boats, not ships. Visiting ocean-going vessels are called "salties." Because of their additional beam, very large salties are never seen inland of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Because the smallest of the Soo Locks is larger than any Seaway lock, salties that can pass through the Seaway may travel anywhere in the Great Lakes. Because of their deeper draft, salties may accept partial loads on the Great Lakes, "topping off" when they have exited the Seaway. Similarly, the largest lakers are confined to the Upper Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie) because they are too large to use the Seaway locks, beginning at the Welland Canal that bypasses the Niagara River.

Passenger ships range in size from small river ferries to very large cruise ships. This type of vessel includes ferries, which move passengers and vehicles on short trips; ocean liners, which carry passengers from one place to another; and cruise ships, which carry passengers on voyages undertaken for pleasure, visiting several places and with leisure activities on board, often returning them to the port of embarkation. Riverboats and inland ferries are specially designed to carry passengers, cargo, or both in the challenging river environment. Rivers present special hazards to vessels. They usually have varying water flows that alternately lead to high speed water flows or protruding rock hazards. Changing siltation patterns may cause the sudden appearance of shoal waters, and often floating or sunken logs and trees (called snags) can endanger the hulls and propulsion of riverboats. Riverboats are generally of shallow draft, being broad of beam and rather square in plan, with a low freeboard and high topsides. Riverboats can survive with this type of configuration as they do not have to withstand the high winds or large waves that are seen on large lakes, seas, or oceans.