A 38-foot ocean yacht sank off the shore of Palm Beach, Fla., last weekend. What is a yacht?
A sailboat or motorboat used for recreation. Most yachts are privately owned and big enough to contain a cabin, but even small, cabin-less dinghies are sometimes described as yachts. The Dutch term jacht, meaning hunt, originally applied to light sailboats that were used to pursue pirates. Such boats eventually gained popularity as leisure vessels, and the term was anglicized in the 17th century when King Charles II returned from his exile from the Commonwealth of England—part of which he had spent in Holland—with a newfound passion for yachting. The term later came to be associated with steamboats and motorboats that were used for leisure purposes, and during the Gilded Age, yachts became a status symbol among wealthy Americans. J.P. Morgan, for instance, owned a 240-foot yacht, the Corsair (which was later acquired by the U.S. Navy and converted to a gunboat). Yacht clubs—exclusive associations of yachtsmen—also became popular around this time and helped associate yachting with wealth in the popular imagination.
Yacht mania dissipated during and after the Great Depression, but when conspicuous consumption came back into style in the 1980s and 1990s, American financiers began vying to see who could acquire the biggest motor-powered yacht. Sometimes called megayachts or superyachts, these large, expensive, privately owned vessels regularly exceed 200 feet in length and can cost tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars to build. Though very large yachts offer ample space for wine cellars, private screening rooms, and basketball courts, they have drawbacks, too; some of them are too big to enter smaller harbors and thus must dock at commercial marinas with oil tankers and other non-pleasure boats. In 2010, business magnate Larry Ellison decided his 450-foot Rising Sun was too big for his needs and sold it to record executive David Geffen. (Ellison downgraded to a 288-foot vessel.) Ironically, though part of a yacht’s appeal stems from the privacy it offers its owner, very large yachts (those with a gross tonnage in excess of 299) are required by the International Maritime Organization to publicly transmit their location at all times via an Automatic Identification System transponder.* (You can see the current location of all such yachts—and other very heavy boats—at marinetraffic.com.)
Yachts of all sizes typically cost about 10 percent of their sticker price to maintain each year. Large luxury yachts often require a full-time staff including a captain, engineers, stewards and stewardesses, chefs, and deckhands. Many yacht owners charter their boats when they’re not using them to recoup some of the maintenance costs. American yachts tend to be registered abroad, both for tax reasons and because yacht crews are often not American citizens and therefore can’t work on an American ship without a visa.
In other English-speaking countries, the term yacht isn’t as closely associated with wealth as it is in America, and the term is commonly applied even to very small sailing vessels. Middle-class Brits, Australians, and New Zealanders who enjoy sailing might describe themselves as yachtsmen.
Luxury Explainer thanks Tom Cunliffe and G. Bruce Knecht, author of Grand Ambition: An Extraordinary Yacht, the People Who Built It, and the Millionaire Who Can’t Really Afford It.
Correction, Dec. 13, 2012: This article originally misstated the minimum capacity of ships required to publicly transmit their location at all times. It is a gross tonnage of 299, not a weight of 299 gigatons. (Return to the corrected sentence.)