What is a Yacht?
A yacht does not have to meet any specific requirements to be considered a yacht. For our purposes a yacht is any recreational boat of around 30 feet or more that includes at least one cabin and is used for cruising or racing. This definition is not a hard and fast rule to go by as there is no settled definition for the word at all or what specifically makes a boat into a yacht.
Because a yacht is not a specific type of easily identified vessel like a pontoon boat or a fishing boat, we’ll cover the features of what makes a yacht worthy of the name so make it easier for you to identify one in the wild.
Defining What a Yacht Is
The difficulty in defining the term “yacht” is that, unlike the specific vessels mentioned above, a yacht is more of a description than a type. Yachts can be sailboats or motorboats, center console boats, house boats or any other kind of vessel that meets the generally accepted size and feature expectations of a yacht.
The definition I gave above includes a few key points:
- A yacht is a recreational boat
- A yacht is 30 feet long or more
- A yacht has at least one cabin
- A yacht is used for cruising or racing
This description allows you to weed out some things such as:
- Boats under 30 feet which most recreational boats are
- Specific purpose boats like commercial fishing vessels, barges, tugboats
- Most pontoon boats, speed boats for racing, jon boats and recreational fishing boats
Reaching a Definition
Usually when people think of yachts they’re thinking of a medium to large vessel that is well appointed and higher end with a lot of luxury features. The word evokes a sense of value and expense. We consider a yacht to be an expensive boat.
Yachts can be very similar to a cabin cruiser or day sailing boats, but the difference seems to be in size and what may be included above and beyond a “normal” boat. For these reasons, “yacht” as a term is sometimes hard to define and definitions will not be consistent from one source to another.
Motor Yacht Vs. Sailing Yacht
The initial definition of yacht that we provided doesn’t specify if a yacht is a boat that requires wind power to move or an engine. But the fact is that a yacht can be a sailing vessel or a powered vessel and either one can still qualify as a yacht.
The power source for a motor yacht is an engine. Some yachts are hybrid vessels which can run under sail but also have a backup engine in case of emergencies or if the wind is not reliable. These are sometimes called motorsailers.
Motor yachts are considered leisure vessels more often than sailing yachts due to how they work. A motor yacht takes less skill to operate than a sailing yacht.
Sailing yachts run strictly on wind power. Most larger sail boats with cabins could be considered yachts. Many boaters still consider a sailing yacht a boat for people who are more adventurous and a little wild as they represent that idea of cutting loose at sea. A sailing yacht is harder to operate than a motor yacht and requires more skill.
A motor yacht is going to get you where you want to go faster than a sailing yacht. That’s not to say these aren’t fast sailing vessels as modern yachts can reach great speeds, but they are still at the mercy of the wind. For that reason you’ll often see far more motor yachts around than sailing yachts as they tend to be more convenient for most boaters.
Motor yachts have no concrete average speed thanks to numerous factors that go into what makes a yacht. The largest yacht in the world is nearly 600 feet long. Obviously a boat of this size has many variables that will affect its speed compared to a 60 foot yacht. That said, yachts of any size tend to have cruising speeds that range from 20 mph to 30 mph.
Because a sailing yacht is powered by wind only it will be slower, on average, than a motor yacht. Sailing yachts often reach speeds of just 5 mph to around 10 mph. The size and construction of the vessel, its weight, and the skill of the captain can all affect these numbers.
A motor yacht has to make space for an engine room, which can get quite huge especially on large yachts. Space is also needed for fuel tanks. On some mega yachts they have fuel tanks that can hold over a million liters of fuel, which is absolutely staggering and requires a large portion of the vessel.
Motor yachts are more likely to devote space to luxury amenities like hot tubs or even swimming pools. The largest motor yachts have multiple luxury cabins, helipads, tenders, gyms and more. Some motor yachts can have up to 8 decks. You can expect a motor yacht at 150 feet to have around 50% or more space available than the exact same length in a sailing yacht.
Sailing yachts can be designed smaller than motor yachts because they don’t need engine or fuel space. So a smaller sailing yacht can hold as many passengers as a larger motor yacht without sacrificing comfort or luxury. A sailing yacht is going to have a smaller and probably narrower structure than a motor yacht.
Sailing yachts often offer comfortable cabins but usually have few hotel-like luxuries on board. A sailing yacht needs a lower profile to function properly. They will have fewer decks as well.
Motor yachts lend themselves more towards really having fun at sea. These are true recreational vessels. This is owing to the fact motor yachts are more likely to have tender garages and include jet skis and other equipment for getting out and having fun.
Motor yachts also tend to be the ones that are more outfitted like small resorts. You can find dance floors, bars, swimming pools, jacuzzi tubs, gyms and more on some big luxury yachts. At some point they really start to look like small cruise ships. With the extra decks and of course because they don’t have masts in the way, there’s a lot more space for this kind of thing.
Modern sailing yachts have been designed with more luxury features than older models and it’s not unheard of to find a jacuzzi on a sailing yacht or even a cinema on some, but it’s still a rarity when compared to motor yachts.
Sailing yachts can be used for some more limited type fun at sea – lots of snorkeling, swimming, fishing and so on, just not to the extreme that a motor yacht will do. A lot of the appeal of a sailing yacht is the fact that it’s for sailing, so the act of sailing itself is the draw. Usually people who own and operate sailing yachts want to engage in the activity of sailing, rather than the extra things you might enjoy on a motor yacht.
Cost of Motor Yachts vs Sailing Yachts
Motor yachts are more expensive than sailing yachts. The initial cost can vary widely but it’s the long term costs that nail you. Fuel and maintenance costs over time for a motor yacht will always keep raising the price. The largest motor yachts may cost millions of dollars to buy outright and also have yearly operating costs in the hundreds of thousands or even millions if they are fully crewed. The highest priced yacht in the world has a $1.5 billion price tag.
A sailing yacht continues to coast along at a much lower cost in terms of necessary maintenance. After all, you never need to refuel your sailing yacht. Some smaller yachts may cost under $30,000.
Yachts are often classified by size. As we defined early, any vessel over 30 feet can potentially be a yacht. But if you are talking about a vessel that is over 400 feet in length, it’s not an accurate picture to use the same term.
We often classify yachts using common size or metric prefixes. You may have heard the terms “superyacht” and “megayacht.” These are ways of attempting to differentiate between the sizes of yachts because some of these vessels can get massive. The world’s largest yacht, the Azzam, is about 600 feet long.
According to the Commercial Yacht Code, a large yacht is any yacht that has reached 79 feet or more. At this size the boat needs to have an actual crew to keep it running. Anything under 79 feet would just be a standard yacht.
To qualify as a super yacht, a vessel has to be at least 131 feet in length. Obviously this size means it needs a fairly extensive crew and, if it’s not a commercial vessel, it’s probably owned by someone extremely wealthy in order to maintain it.
The term mega yacht is a bit sketchy which is no surprise given how there’s only a loose definition for the word “yacht” in the first place. Mega yacht and superyacht are often used synonymously. However, for some people, the term mega yacht can only be applied when the vessel reaches at least 200 feet. This doesn’t seem to be a definite rule though so if you hear the term it’s still best to look at the specs of the boat to see what’s being referred to.
You hear this term a lot less frequently but it’s been tossed around to account for those yachts that would even leave a mega yacht in the dust. After all, if a super yacht is 131 feet and a mega yacht is 200 feet then a yacht like Azzam, at 600 feet, should probably be known by a different term since it’s so much bigger.
Giga yacht is sometimes used to represent these largest yachts. But again, this is an informal label for such a large boat and there are no hard and fast rules about what size a boat has to be in order to be called a giga yacht. In general it just means the biggest of the big.
If the point of the yacht is specifically to be involved in racing, then it will likely be stripped down of many of the more luxurious but unnecessary amenities seen in recreational and cruising yachts. Usually a racing yacht has less space for relaxing or sleeping, for instance, but there are definitely yachts being built that offer a lot of nice features while still being designed to race.
The Bottom Line
There are no distinct rules for the size of a yacht or what it can even do. A yacht can operate under motor power or under sailing and you can use it to race, to just have fun, or for cruising. They can range in size from just 30 feet all the way up to the massive 600 foot Azzam.
A yacht is a vessel that is fairly luxurious and used recreationally for a variety of purposes. A luxury yacht may be chartered for business or events and come with a full crew while smaller motor powered yachts and sailing yachts tend to be used for pleasure cruising.