What is a Yacht? What is a Superyacht? What makes a Yacht a Yacht?

May 26, 2022

What is a yacht? What is the specific definition of a yacht? And what is so super about these mega-rich toys, anyway?

In this lesson we will explore the differences between these larger boats and the rest of the boating community. Everyone knows that a superyacht is an extremely large boat, but is there more to it? I will explain the different sizes between larger superyachts and their even larger counterparts. By analyzing the size range and gross tonnage of these vessels we can classify the main difference between each different type of yacht. These magnificent feats of naval architecture have exploded in size in the last 30 years and every year's new build dwarfs the previous model. Operated by a full crew composed of interior staff, bridge personnel, deck crew and a world-class team of professionals these floating marvels are explained below. For more information regarding the yacht crews that operate them, see our previous lesson.




Current Standard Yachts


As of the writing of this article in 2022, the superyacht industry employs nearly 40,000 crew members worldwide[1] with anywhere from 8,000[2] to 15,000 yachts worldwide requiring professional crew.[3] Other sources estimate that at least 10,000 luxury yachts measure at least 80 feet.[4] This industry also serves basis of a few television series in mainstream media, one of them most notable spanning over 9 seasons and 4 spinoff series.[5] It is a worldwide industry that encompasses nearly every region of the globe and generates more revenue than the GDP of countless nations. In 2021 while nearly all of the world economy shrank, the super yachting community grew 77% and commissioned nearly 900 large yachts.[6] Boat builders are fighting to keep up with demand as luxury yacht ownership continues growing in the coming years.

These luxury vessels are designed by renowned naval architects and interior designers in a variety of sizes to craft the best yachts. A gleaming white boat with large windows, luxurious interior spaces and luxury amenities is the only manner yacht owners travel long distances aboard their modern yachts. Many yacht builders are situated along Netherlands and Germany and the build process can take years due to the sheer size of these new launches. The most expensive yachts can surpass half a billion us dollars and showcase luxury features such as a: beach club, hot tub, helicopter pad, squash court, swimming pool, dance floor, jet skis, countless water toys, high-speed chase boats and countless special features. These types of yachts compete for the title of biggest superyacht and are commonly spotted along the French Riviera, Monaco Grand Prix, and even Florida in the United States. A modern yacht can also feature state-of-the-art navigation systems, a steel hull, and very large large diesel engines.

If you're reading this and unfamiliar with the industry then you may be asking yourself what all the popular terms mean, exactly. What is the difference between larger yachts and superyachts? Are these bigger yachts all motor yachts? Motor-powered yachts may rule the topic of conversation, but you would be mistaken to think sail boats are obsolete. Yacht A is a sail-assisted motor yacht that turns anyone's head. Jeff Bezos' new 417 foot sailing yacht, with an estimated cost of $500 million, might rival a cruise ship to an untrained eye, right? Is it true rival a cruise ships? Is the world's largest yacht owned by Vladimir Putin, Roman Abramovich or another oligarch? At what length or price tag does a boat become a dream yacht? Why does the English language use so many words to describe these floating toys?


Origin of the Word Yacht


Before we dive too far into technicalities, let's start with boating history. In Dutch jaght (pronounced /ˈjɒt/) means hunting or hunt. This Dutch word is the precursor to the modern term yacht. Although best known for their more recent (and fun!) exploits in cannabis tourism, the Dutch Navy were shockingly more famous and well-known for their sailing expertise. During the 16th century, these Dutch jaghtschepen were originally defined as light, fast sailing vessels used by their navy to pursue pirates and other transgressors.

Later, in the 17th century as the wealthy class grew during the Dutch colonial period these leisure vessels were commissioned for the higher society as racing yachts and shifted to recreational use. These small boats were the first yachts. From this moment on, the wealthy and boats became inseparable. These pleasure craft ranged in sizes around 40' and were soon raced for fun, which eventually transitioned to England. This also explains why the definition for the term yacht later shifted to describe recreational, or pleasure crafts.[7] These pleasure crafts eventually came to be known for their ability to accommodate guests comfortably overnight and also for their luxury aesthetic qualities.


Today's Definition of Yacht


Now that we understand the historical origins of the word, we can begin to define it by today's standards. As stated previously, the English King Charles adopted yachting from the Dutch. And as their former empire shows, the English are really persuasive at convincing everyone else to adopt their ideas. In 1997, the British Maritime Coastal Agency partnered with the Large Yacht Industry to put forth a code of standards for yachts, coined The Megayacht Code (LY1). This regulated safety equipment, ship construction, crew manning, and other specifications more relevant to yachts rather than impose the strict or impractical standards used on large commercial vessels such as tankers and cargo ships.[8]



In this code, it lists application to motor and sailing vessels over 24 meters (78 feet) in length, or if they pre-date 1968 that they measure over 150 GT. For more explanation on gross tonnage (GT), see our previous lesson. In addition, neither category can carry cargo or more than 12 passengers. Slightly broadened rules are explained for large sea vessels over 500 GT. Later revisions such as LY2 in 2007 also added the specification that the vessels must be under 3000 GT. They also included special considerations for Short Range Yachts measuring under 300/500 GT for smaller vessels staying less than 60 NM from a safe haven. These smaller yachts do not require such strict safety measures as larger vessels encountering rough weather and longer voyages.

Following this guideline, then it seems that the modern British system considers the minimum length for a yacht to measure as 24 meters. To confirm this, it is necessary to consult with the MCA's Marine Guidance Notice 280,[9] Small Vessels in Commercial Use for Sport or Pleasure [...]. This document lists its application to vessels measuring under 24m and does not use the term yacht as a descriptor.[10] Thus, it seems that in the British system there is no mention of yachts under 24m. 

Does that define a yacht as a vessel measuring over 24 meters in length and between 150 - 3000 GT? Let us explore one other consideration before accepting this to be the true definition.

For the sake of simplicity, yachts are all registered to and abide by the rules of a specific country, their flag state. This is indicated by the flag flown on their stern. Over nine other countries (known as the Red Ensign Yacht Group)[11] subscribe to the same regulations as the UK, including the popular flag state Cayman Islands. However, are there any other popular countries that might have differing opinions on yacht length? Marshall Islands, another popular choice makes a specific note in their yacht code[12] that a private yacht means "any yacht 12 meters (40 feet) or more in length not carrying passengers [...] and being used solely for pleasure or recreational purposes [...]." Furthermore, Malta flag lists in their latest commercial yacht code[13] that one category of yachts that they regulate are those measuring 15 - 24 meters (50 - 80 feet). In short, both Marshall Islands and Malta recognize the category of yachts starting at 40 - 50 feet, much different than the 78 feet we saw previously!

As difficult as setting a lower limit on a yacht definition seems, it is just as difficult to understand what constitutes the upper extreme. Super, mega, and giga- yachts are all terms being tossed around quite often yet rarely well-understood. After synthesizing countless sources, listed below, as well as the International Superyacht Society and World Superyacht Awards, here is a fusion of all prevailing theories. Please keep in mind that some theories were conflicting, or slightly out of order, but these categories and the following justifications help create better defined categories.[14-22]



Superyachts are yachts ranging from 130'/40m and higher. This is a reasonable cutoff due to the building materials employed. Yachts under this size are commonly made of FRP (Fiberglass), whereas yachts above this range incorporate aluminum or steel into their design. 



Megayachts range from 195'/60m and come with the presence of expanded luxuries such as helipads, movie theatres, spas, and other facets. The term mega yacht is less agreed upon than the term superyacht. They typically have 4 exterior decks: main deck, upper deck, bridge deck, and sun deck. Megayachts have various water toys, chase boats with outboard motors, and smaller boats for excursions carried inside their garages.



Gigayachts, the least defined group of all, begin at 295'/90m and 3000 GT. These yachts are replete with incredible level of luxury, crews of 50 crew and above, ability to carry up to 36 passengers, and carry an insensible amount of exotic toys and other types of crafts. These vessels are intimately bespoke to each client and are not manufactured to previous designs by the ship builder. Similarly, for safety regulations and crew manning, the vessel falls under Unlimited tonnage restrictions and will require commercial licenses to crew. 



What lies across the horizon for the yachting scene is yet to be seen. However, every year the prior records of the largest yachts and other engineering feats continue to be shattered. Designs that once seemed impossible are becoming the norm. Some experts even believe we will soon need to add another classification for these ships called terayachs, coming from the Greek word (τέρας) teras, meaning "monster".


Quick Definitions

  • Commercial Yacht - Any yacht of at least 12 meters overall length legally registered and able to be engaged in lawful trade, commerce, or chartered for commercial use in sport or pleasure, but carrying no more than 12 passengers.
  • Jaght - Dutch. hunt, hunting.
  • Jaghtschepen - A Light, fast sailing vessel used by their navy to pursue pirates and other transgressors. Commonly a 40-foot boat
  • Passenger Yacht - Any passenger ship registered as a passenger yacht and therefore may be engaged in trade, commerce, or chartering carrying more than 12 but no more than 36 passengers under limited operational conditions.
  • Passenger Ship - A vessel carrying more than 12 paying passengers.
  • Private Yacht - Any yacht of at least 12 m not carrying passengers for hire, not engaged in trade or commerce, and being used solely for pleasure or recreational purposes of its owner
  • Gross Tonnage - A volumetric measurement used in maritime to classify different types of yachts.
  • Recreational Vessel - A vessel being manufactured or operated primarily for pleasure; or leased, rented, or chartered to another for the latter's pleasure but excludes "passenger vessels" and "small passenger vessels."
  • Short Range Yacht - A vessel under 500GT (or under 300GT depending age) restricted to operating in winds up to Beaufort Force 4, for a motor yacht, and Force 6 for a sailing yacht within 60 nautical miles of a safe haven, with possible exceptions to 90 nautical miles.
  • Unlimited - A commercial license authorizing service on vessels of any tonnage or any propulsion power.
  • Vessel - The word “vessel” includes every description of water craft, including non-displacement craft, WIG craft and seaplanes, used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water.
  • Yacht - A vessel propelled by sail or motor, mainly used for leisure activities in recreational and/or commercial operations. See below for categories.



  • Early jaghts were developed by the Dutch to pursue criminals and other wrongdoers.
  • These ship designs began to transition into a sport for the wealthy class. Later, this spread to England through King Charles II and other nobility.
  • Yachting reached America by 1844 at the New York Yacht Club.
  • Various regulations passed by local administrations such as the MCA's LY Yacht Codes (and later Red Ensign Yacht Code) and other nations established a limits for what legally defines a yacht.
  • International organizations such as the International Superyacht Society, World Superyacht Awards, and countless other yacht manufacturers, brokers, and the community have created further classifications such as: super, mega, giga, and possibly even tera- yachts. However, there is no standard definition for these kinds of boats.
  • Yacht Definitions: Size Classifications
    • Yacht: 12m/40ft - 39m/129ft
    • Super yacht: 40m/130ft - 59m/194ft
    • Mega yacht: 60m/195ft - 89m/294ft
    • Giga yacht: Above 90m/295ft/3000GT
    • Tera yacht: The limit does not exist. 


Further Reading

  1. LY1 - The Code of Practice for Safety of Large Commercial Sailing & Motor Vessels
  2. LY2 - The Large Commercial Yacht Code (MSN 1792)
  3. MCA - MGN 280
  4. LY3 - The Large Commercial Yacht Code (MSN 1851)
  5. Red Ensign Yacht Code - Part A
  6. Red Ensign Yacht Code - Part B
  7. Marshall Islands Yacht Code 2021
  8. The Merchant Shipping Regulations - MSN 1781 (M+ F)
  9. Yachtmaster's Handbook - Cayman Marine



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  15. What is a yacht? Princess Motor Yacht Sales. (n.d.). Retrieved from  

  16. When is a Boat a Yacht? Van Isle Marina. (n.d.). Retrieved from  

  17. The Anatomy of a Yacht. HMY Yachts. (n.d.). Retrieved from

  18. Nineham, Laura (August 22, 2016). "Megayachts explained". Boat International. Retrieved 2019-04-21.

  19. Superyacht. Wikipedia. (n.d.). Retrieved from

  20. McVinney, R. (n.d.). What Is A Superyacht? Is A Megayacht Bigger? Yachtworld. Retrieved from  

  21. What is a Yacht? Everett Yacht Sales. (n.d.). Retrieved from  

  22. McGrory, R. (n.d.). Super Giga Mega. Dockwalk. Retrieved from


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