What is a Yacht? (History, Types of Yachts, Styles and Sizes)

side view of yacht

In this article, we explain the definition, history and origin of the word yacht, and break down some of the more common types of yachts along with various styles and sizes.

Yacht Definition & Origin

The word yacht comes from the Dutch word “jacht”, which means to hunt, and refers to the quick and lightweight sailboats the Dutch navy used to pursue pirates and other enemies in shallow waters. Today, the word takes on a very different meaning. While there is no strict definition of the word today, a yacht is generally considered as a boat used for pleasure, whether you’re cruising open waters, racing or island-hopping for the weekend. Typically, we consider a boat to be a yacht if it has an overnight cabin onboard, is more than 33 feet long, and generally looks nicer than your average vessel.

Pleasure boats have been around for hundreds of years, which is no surprise when you consider our options for transportation around that time. Without planes, cars, bikes or scooters, humans turned to the one form of transportation they knew well for pleasure – the ship.

Sailing Yacht History

sailboat on open water

Sailing yachts have been a thing since at least the beginning of the 1660s in Europe, when King James of England commissioned a sailing yacht for his son Henry, the Prince of Wales. But it was Charles II, the Kind of Scotland, who brought the term “yacht” into the mainstream after spending time exiled in the Netherlands. Once Charles got home, he began commissioning royal yachts left and right.

Steam Yacht History

Steam Yachts also have quite the history, which started as massive and luxurious sailing yachts with steam auxiliary engines. These yachts were much larger, and carried full crews complete with a cook, captain, engineer, stewards and deck hands. By the late 1700s, screw propellers were installed and the engines became far more efficient. Eventually, compound engines came about and persisted until the internal combustion took over.

Power Yacht History

Powerboats with 4-stroke gas engines were first developed by Nicolaus Otto and Gottlieb Daimler in 1876. Then in the 1900s, diesel engines became the more popular option because of their lower cost and improved reliability.

Yacht Types

Today, yachts fall into one of two general categories – sailing yachts and motor yachts.

Sailing Yachts

A sailing yacht is a leisure craft that relies on its sails for the primary method of movement, made from natural, synthetic or carbon fibers. Sailing yachts are split into two main categories: cruisers and raisers.

Cruising Yachts

A cruising yacht is designed for comfort above anything else. These yachts are ideal for overnight and lengthy journeys, typically equipped with all the comforts of home, including full kitchens (galleys), bathrooms (heads) and beds. They’re also designed to be slightly easier to maintain.

At the smaller end, we have what’s called as a “trailer sailer”. These yachts are generally shorter than 25 feet, and can be pulled by the average car. But anything shorter than 33 feet is considered a small sailing yacht. The next level is 33-45 feet, referred to as near-shore yachts. Offshore yachts are the largest category, including vessels larger than 45 feet.

Racing Yachts

racing sailboat on water

A racing yacht is designed with performance top of mind, rather than comfort. World Sailing, the governing body for the sport of international sailing, recognizes 11 different classes of sailing yachts, but each share some general characteristics.

On a racing yacht, aerodynamics is prioritized. These yachts come in a variety of shapes and weights, but performance is the underlying motivation for all. Similar to aerodynamics but underwater, hydrodynamically efficient hulls allow boats to pull through the water with minimal drag or extra motion. Finally, for peak performance, these sailing yachts typically use full-battened Kevlar or carbon fiber sails.

Motor Yachts

Motor yachts come in all shapes and sizes, built with a variety of different materials. Generally speaking, they range from 30-130 feet in length, but there are superyachts out there exceeding 500 feet (that’s over 150 metres!).

The hull of a motor yachts comes in three basic styles. A yacht with a full-displacement hull moves the water up and away, creating waves. These boats have the potential to be plenty powerful, but their speed is limited. Semi-displacement hulls are slightly faster, because they’re able to partially rise above the water. Last are the yachts with a planing hull. These yachts are the fastest, because of a flat underside and enough power to lift them onto the surface of the water.

motor yacht in the water

The majority of modern motor yachts have at least one diesel engine. A boat with two engines is certainly more expensive, but well worth it when you consider the reliability and increased handling/performance.

When it comes to motor yacht styles, there are many. Here’s a brief introduction to a few different motor yacht styles:

  • Sport Motor Yacht: These powerful crafts are built with a semi-displacement and planing hulls, making them fast boats great for weekend adventures and short trips.
  • Trawler Motor Yacht: A trawler is known for its more traditional style with a displacement hull, designed for medium distance passage-making.
  • Cruising Motor Yacht: A cruising yacht is built for comfortable longer distance travel, equipped with a displacement hull.
  • Expedition Yacht: Similar to a cruising motor yacht, expedition yachts are built with a displacement hull for long distances, but these crafts specialize in passage-making in remote areas.
  • Mega Luxury Yachts: The mega luxury yachts is what you see and hear about on TV and in magazines. They’re hundred of feet long, designed for dozens of family and friends, and reserved for the super-rich.

luxury yacht near the shore

  • Sports Fisherman Yacht: These yachts have semi-displacement or planing hulls for quick fishing trips where you need to be able to move well. On a sports fisherman yacht, there will also be extra space for fishing gear and large fish.
  • Lobster Yacht: A lobster yacht is similar to but quicker than a trawler, built with a semi-displacement or planing hull. These yachts get their name from their unique style – looking like classic Maine lobster boats.

If you’re looking for a new yacht, browse our current listings of sailing and motor yachts at Van Isle Marina. You can also visit us in Sidney at 2320 Harbour Road to see our stock in person, and our staff will be happy to help you out.