skipper vs captain

Skipper vs Captain: Who’s Who and What is the Difference?

Skipper vs Captain – what’s the difference, you wonder. I’m here to clarify that for you and present my point of view. Without further delay, let’s find out who’s who and learn the difference.

Skipper vs Captain

Honestly, “Skipper” comes more heartwarming to me. It sounds romantic, wild, and free, rather than “Captain.”

The Captain is a synonym of the impeccable order on a ship; he stands tall, undisputed, and official. While skippers represent freedom. Skippers construe the image of seafaring, I think.

The skipper and captain words are not equal yet interchangeable: any skipper is a captain, some captains are skippers, and the context is mostly emotional.

Who is the Skipper?

With the word skipper, an image of a salty sea dog with a wooden pipe in his teeth immediately hits my mind, he bravely cuts the roaring ocean apart with his brig, and he must murmur a “fifteen men on a dead man’s chest.” Flying a jolly roger is optional, but yes, this is how in a nutshell, we define a skipper!

who is skipper
Skipper sounds romantic, wild, and free…

Define a Skipper

Both Cambridge and Merriam-Webster dictionaries, where the former stands for Classic English and the latter describe the American version of the language, state firmly that a skipper is a master of a ship (master and commander in one, to be precise).

Also, a skipper can serve as a word for one who leads a sports team or an aircraft. So he is a leader and the owner altogether.

Etymology of Skipper

To better understand who a skipper is, let’s dig up how the word has appeared in the language. Etymologically, Skipper as a word comes from Old and Middle English and shares the same root with the word “ship”:


Thus, Skipper is one with the ship, not only sharing the etymology but sharing a character. More important, he is an owner of himself, and the word “skipper” often means he is an actual owner of the boat. The latter is not too strict language-wise yet displays the idea of who is a skipper.

What is a Skipper on a Boat?

We see in the dictionaries a skipper is a soul of a boat and the only one responsible for everything (just like a captain). The Skipper is presumably an owner of the boat or may behave like one; indeed, he is always an owner of the situation, compared to Captain – the latter can be ordered to do something. Skipper belongs to no one; he is ideologically an owner to himself.

For example, in everyday speech, we usually refer to the captains of pleasure yachts as skippers because pleasure yachts are relatively small private ships, where the owner and a captain are frequently the same person. Even though you can hire a seasonal skipper for your yacht, forming a partnership, business relations, doubtfully an assignment. Skipper is yet a freeman, or a freelancer, in our case, once hired.

Skipper is an ultimate professional, the same as Captain, but this is a free choice of Skipper to be such. Skipper lives one life for his boat and himself. The skipper is the master of his ship.

A skipper is also a captain of the boat, as of what the official papers state.

The word skipper mainly stands for emotion rather than for rank.

Who is the Captain?

We already know a bit about Skipper, so let’s now define the Captain.

Define a Captain

We look for help in the Cambridge and the Merriam Webster again, the two most reliable dictionaries, both agree that a captain is a person in charge of a ship.

You can feel a tiny difference if we compare “a person in charge” to the definition of a skipper: “a master of a ship”. The former is assigned, the latter is just there.

Captain as a word may also define a rank in the force (navy, military, or police). So a captain is an official person, including one on a ship. More important he is assigned to be a leader, even if he has assigned himself. Captain as a word can refer to one who leads a sports team or an aircraft as well as the “skipper” term.

captain on a Boat
A captain is a person in charge of a ship.

Etymology of Captain

The “captain” word features a Latin origin, where “caput,” plural – “capita,” in Latin means “head.” There are many words like captain, capital, chapter, capsize, and many others, deriving from the Latin caput. All these words refer to a head but in a different measure.

What is a Captain on a Boat?

The existence of the skipper word does not make a captain anything less desirable. A captain on a boat is the one in charge of everything. If she is a big boat, like a trans-Atlantic cruise liner, he is in charge of thousands of lives and controls a huge amount of things alone!

Just a reminder, we still speak about the same person named either captain or skipper depending on the context.

A captain is always neat and trim, and you necessarily expect him to wear a snow-white uniform and a cap (we can see the same Latin root in the latter). The captain is the definition of order, he is a certified ultimate professional, he is the law on a ship, he is assigned for that, and it is his duty.

Difference Between Skipper and Captain

A captain is responsible for the ship, while a skipper has pulled it as a free choice!

Captain’s duty gives no right to be unpredictable, while Skipper is for that (but we speak about the same person named differently, remember?) The name of the principal penguin in “Madagascar” movie was Skipper, the leader of the penguin gang – just recall his commanding style and how he was driving an airplane. That’s the real Skipper.

We address a Skipper of a sailboat as Captain: “howdy, Captain?” but we refer to him using either word depending on what we want to express.

The “captain” word is also an official term but interchangeable even though being official: for example, my sailing license states I’m a skipper, but it means I can captain yachts.

You say “captain” if you want to compliment a person, as if you are giving him a rank of a captain, showing endless respect and obedience, also acknowledging his unreachable position.

You say “skipper” when your goal is to emphasize emotion and a wilderness of a captain. You refer this way to stress your captain is a dude. You hardly wish to call a “uniform” a dude, right?

difference between skipper and captain
Can you see the difference between skipper and captain?

A Simple “Official” Rule: Captain vs Skipper

  1. Usually, the captains of bigger ships are called “captains,” applying that there is a permanent crew of significant size. Such captains are assigned for the job and are subsequently on duty.
  2. The captains of pleasure yachts are usually referred to as “skippers” because there is no formal assignment, and they are free people going anywhere they want, at any moment they want.
  3. Yet, in the official papers in the ports, both types are “captains.”

A Simple “Unofficial” Rule: Captain vs Skipper

  1. Saying captain, you imagine a white uniform and a cap on top.
  2. Saying skipper, you imagine a confident pirate, yo-ho-ho, “and a bottle of rum,” adding up how skippers of pleasure boats tend to perform nearly insane maneuvers from time to time.

None of the two words is “higher.” Both words mean the masters of the sea.

Skipper or Captain?

So we can see “skipper” is an emotional word, while “captain” is an official term, and they both represent the same person (what we call interchangeable), but they stress way different contexts.

Here we have listed a bunch of definitions:

  • Skipper is the (life-) style.
  • Captain is the (official) position.
  • On a cruise ship, you are a captain.
  • Hunting whales you are a skipper.
  • On “Titanic” he was likely a captain.
  • On “Cutty Sark” he was definitely a skipper.

If you saw the movie “Master and Commander,” Captain Jack Aubrey owned HMS “Surprise,” he was not hired for her. As a navy officer, he bent his orders and put the crew at risk while chasing a wartime enemy; it was both his duty and a desperate wish to take the prize. Does it come as a conflicting definition? Let’s name him a skipper.

Yes, you can call even an aircraft carrier’s Captain a Skipper, then you emphasize that he is a reckless, pirate-minded type of commander, he is in love with what he is doing, and he acts as if she is his ship.

Skipper vs Captain – Bottom Line

What is the difference between a skipper and a captain – I have told you all I know; the words, however, are mostly interchangeable. The difference is purely emotional.

Till the next time, Skipper… or Captain!


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igor desperatesailors

Hi, I’m Igor, Skipper of S/Y "The Hooker". A decade ago, I conquered my childhood dream: to be a sailing skipper, own a sailing yacht. Yes, it knocked dullness out of my urban life — Read more →

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One comment

  1. Thanks for the information! This is really helpful and gives me a clear picture of the differences between skipper and captain.

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