You may be surprised to learn that the difference between a yacht and a typical boat is not as easy to figure out as you’d think. This is thanks to the fact that there’s no specific definition for what a yacht actually is. In general, and as most people commonly use and understand these words, a yacht is a fast, often luxurious vessel used for recreational purposes. A boat, on the other hand, is typically a smaller vessel and it can have many purposes from recreation to fishing to rescue and more. 

Let’s get into some of the specific differences between yachts and boats to get a better idea of what each of these admittedly general terms is trying to refer to.

What is a Yacht?

Yacht comes from a Dutch word jaghte, itself from the word jaghtschip which means “fast pirate ship.” That gives you an idea of where people’s heads were at when yachts first came on the scene. These days, the pirate part isn’t really involved but you do tend to expect a yacht to have some speed. Not that these are necessarily speed boats all the time, but there are racing yachts out there that people use exclusively for that purpose. 

Because there is no specific definition for the word yacht in modern usage, you have to play it by ear a little bit. It’s one of those words that we all know what it means, even if we don’t have a proper, set in stone definition.

In general, and for most people, a yacht is a large recreational boat, capable of reaching high speeds and noted for its luxury and features. So what does any of that mean?

In terms of size, most people but not all would consider a yacht to be a boat that has reached at least 78 feet. Some people would acknowledge smaller vessels, as low as even 33 feet, as yachts, but this can be hotly debated even among yacht makers and yacht charter companies. 

What is a Boat?

One of the oldest words in any language, boat can be traced back through Middle English to Olde English to proto-Germanic to the proto-IndoEuropean word “bheid” where it may have originally meant “to split” or something along those lines. That would have referred to simply splitting or hollowing wood to make a boat. So, by that definition, a boat is incredibly loosely defined. 

In modern understanding a yacht is a boat but not all boats are yachts. Consider boat more of an overarching term like automobile while yacht is like an SUV. There are lots of other automobiles and SUV is just one kind.

Usually when people talk about boats today they mean smaller vessels. At some point, large boats become ships, and potentially even a yacht. Smaller boats could be anything from a fishing boat to a jon boat to a sailboat, a bass boat, catamaran, pontoon boat and more. Those boats often have very different forms and functions which allow for a heck of a lot of variety and usage.

Yacht Size vs Boat Size

As we mentioned above, people have different opinions about how big a yacht has to be. The bare minimum seems to be at least 33 feet. That said,I have even seen smaller boats called yachts but let’s say, at a minimum, any vessel under 30 feet will always be a boat of some kind and would rarely if ever be properly called a yacht.

Larger boats exist and are not yachts, of course, but these can be sport fishing boats, catamarans, even large pontoons, houseboats and more. 

Yachts can start at that low range and get up to incredible sizes which we will touch on in a moment. The largest yachts can get close to 600 feet. 

Mega Yachts vs Larger Boats

Once a yacht hits 120 feet people often call it a super yacht. There doesn’t seem to be an easy to find historical reason why 120 feet is the cut off that makes a super yacht. As yachts grew even larger, 200 feet became a sort of milestone for where a superyacht became a mega yacht. And nowadays, with even bigger yachts available, 400 feet is where the cut off often begins for yachts known as gigayachts. 

Now, when it comes to large boats, here’s where things get fuzzy. You can find sport fishing boats that are over 120 feet, or sailboats that reach the same length and much bigger. But these are often also called yachts. Sailing yachts, sport fishing yachts. So there’s a line there that boats can straddle even if, under a certain length, the same boats wouldn’t be considered yachts. 

Part of the transition from boat to yacht at large sizes comes from the fact that a massive boat is obviously expensive which means more luxury features are likely to be included which means it’s more likely to be considered a yacht.

But large commercial vessels, military and law enforcement vessels, and some search and rescue vessels used by government agencies or private companies can also reach lengths of 60 feet to 100 feet and more and these would obviously never be called yachts. It’s that key feature of being used for recreation that you need to factor in.

Yacht Engines vs Boat Engines

Obviously a sailing yacht won’t factor in here but motor yachts and hybrid yachts have very powerful engines because yachts tend to have a much higher gross tonnage than your average boat of even the same length. Keep in mind that some yachts, especially mega yachts, may have up to seven decks. You need a lot of power to keep that moving. Some of the biggest yachts in the world have a fuel tank capable of holding up to a million liters. That’s going to leave your normal outboard motors in the dust.

Boat Crew vs Yacht Crew

Yacht crews are often found wearing uniforms and have specialized training not just to run the vessel but also to see to the needs of the guests. Since yachts are often characters, the guests on board are like guests at a hotel and treated as such. Large yachts are a lot like a private cruise service.

Boats don’t always even need a crew and if a boat does have a crew it probably means the boat is a commercial vessel of some kind – think of a commercial fishing boat, for instance. 

Boat Amenities vs Yacht Amenities

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Here’s a place where boats and yachts often part ways significantly. There are some pretty luxurious houseboats and pontoons and cabin cruisers out there to be sure, but when you look at what you can get on a megayacht there’s barely a comparison. 

The most expensive yachts have multiple helipads, swimming pools, tender garages that contain things like jet skis, gyms, high tech yacht electronics, massage rooms, bars, movie theaters, mini subs, discos, you name it. These really are like private cruise ships. 

Now obviously it’s not fair to compare a 12 foot jon boat to the 600 foot Azzam yacht but these are clearly as different from each other as any two things can be. Yachts are known for their luxury and they can truly push the limits sometimes. 

Yacht Locations vs Boat Locations

Smaller boats are obviously more capable of handling coastal and inland waters than any yacht you’re likely to find because that’s what they’re meant for. Yachts are typically, but not always, found in saltwater, usually around vacation destination areas like the Bahamas, the Mediterranean, Florida, tropical islands and so on. Boats are at home anywhere you find water. 

There are definitely yachts on inland lakes like the Great Lakes, but they are decidedly less common. 

Yacht Price vs Boat Price

Here’s where things get really different. You can get a little fishing boat for a few hundred dollars if you want. The Eclipse yacht cost $1.5 billion. So that’s the range we’re dealing with in terms of yachts vs boats when it comes to cost. If you try to meet in the middle with a 33 foot sport cruiser boat you might pay $200,000. But the average price for a yacht in 2021, and this means a vessel between 56 feet and 79 feet, was $1.1 million. 

The Bottom Line

All yachts are boats but not all boats are yachts. In general, a yacht is a larger vessel that is used strictly for recreational purposes. It’s defined by its speed and its luxury and is often at the higher end of the price range. You tend to find yachts in popular vacation spots and they come in at an average price over $1 million.

Boats are generally smaller vessels and can be used for everything from fishing to cruising to commercial, police boats and military purposes. They can be extremely simple and, as a result, also incredibly cheap compared to yachts as well.