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Explorer yacht vs motor yacht: What makes an explorer yacht?

17 October 2023 • Written by Holly Margerrison and Cecil Gauert

The trend for long-range explorer yachts has been well chronicled, but what exactly makes an explorer yacht? What's the difference between explorers, expedition yachts and motor yachts? And are explorer yachts capable of crossing the Atlantic?  BOAT unpacks what it takes to meet the long-range explorer checklist.

While all expedition yachts can be classed as explorers, not every explorer can come under the expedition yacht category. The term explorer yachts encapsulates more widely a range of motor yachts and sailing yachts, whereas an expedition vessel usually has more of a purpose behind it. This can appeal to both charter guests and yacht owners wanting to whet their appetite when it comes to research, scientific expeditions or learning more about marine life.

Essentially, explorer yachts have the range and capability to undertake an oceanic crossing unsupported. When it comes to the best design features on an explorer yacht, things like deep storage, emissions control and a high degree of maneuverability are some considerations – while things like dive centres, helicopters and snowmobiles enhance adventure capabilities. Compared to explorer yachts, expedition yachts need to be more autonomous when operating in areas with little access to shore-side support or infrastructure.

It's also not just the largest explorer yachts that have the most allure – small explorer yachts are enjoying their moment in the spotlight. The Global Order Book indicates 70 per cent of all explorer yachts fall within the 24- to 40-metre range and during the Explorer Yachts Summit 2023, BOAT International further analysed why owners are opting for pocket explorers as they embark on global adventures to far-flung destinations.

The five largest explorer yachts in the world

Nord | 141.6m| Lürssen | 2021

Solaris | 139.7m | Lloyd Werft| 2021

Octopus | 126.2m | Lürssen| 2003

Multiverse | 116.2m | Kleven | 2018

Luna  | 115m | Lloyd Werft | 2010

With the number of explorer yachts on order at an all-time high, deliveries from explorer yacht builders are expected every year until at least 2026. It seems as though the superyacht fleet has itchy feet, eager to venture to new pockets of the globe in search of ocean life, wildlife, shipwrecks and more. BOATPro reveals that the ten furthest-travelled superyachts alone recorded 151,955 nautical miles in the first half of 2023. The motivation behind a superyacht expedition is clear – but what are the criteria for an explorer yacht?

Read More/10 superyachts travel more than 151,000nm in first half of 2023

Ocean crossing range at a reasonable speed

Credit: Martin Sheehy

A common measurement for whether a yacht is a true explorer or not comes with its maximum cruising range – how far can it explore without needing to refuel? Most yachts measuring over 40 metres will be able to cross the Atlantic with a transatlantic cruising range of around 3,000 nautical miles, but serious explorer yachts will have an even longer range. 

EYOS Expeditions co-founder Rob McCallum said: "In one sense, an explorer is simply any reasonably seaworthy boat that can cover the 2,600 nautical miles between Gran Canaria and Barbados on a single tank of diesel. To be suitable for expeditions, however, a yacht must go further – much further."

Andrea Pezzini, founder of charter management and brokerage firm Floating Life, argues: “For us, the minimum range for a yacht to be considered a true explorer yacht is 5,400 nautical miles and a speed for long distances of no less than 10 to 12 knots.” The 90-metre Lürssen yacht Ice satisfies this criteria, as she can cruise for 6,000 nautical miles at 15 knots without having to fill up.

A robust hull

Credit: Thierry Ameller

Explorer yachts need to be able to withstand rough seas and expedition yachts especially need to be able to operate within the weather conditions at the destination they are travelling. When venturing to remote areas of the world, particularly the Polar Regions, a robust hull is an essential. Steel is the most popular material, with Ice Class being a common yardstick for measuring strength. This can range from Polar Class 7 vessels, able to stray into waters first-year ice less than a metre thick, through to Polar Class 1 yachts, capable of operating all year round in any ice conditions.

However, not everyone agrees with the supremacy of steel. Frederic Jaouen, managing director of JFA Yachts, argues: "Explorer yachts should be built in aluminium for the safety aspect — deformation in case of impact as opposed to a tear in a steel or composite hull — but also the weight aspect and performance: [higher] speed, seaworthiness and [lower] fuel consumption.”

Higher crew capacity

The rise of explorer yachts has seen many projects specified with far more crew space. Specialist crewmembers are often needed for long-range expeditions, such as local guides, helicopter pilots, ski instructors or even documentary videographers.

126-metre Octopus, regarded as one of the world's largest explorer yachts, is a fine example of this, with room for a colossal crew of up to 57 people.

Superior storage space

When exploring varied and unpredictable cruising grounds, it is a good idea to have a whole arsenal of tenders and toys at your disposal. As Captain Stan Antrim puts it: "What matters is what you hang on to them – the seaplanes, the helicopters, the sportfish yachts – the whole gamut. Even though you can do the exploring on a 40-metre yacht and be happy, you can’t take all of that stuff with you.”

Autonomous expedition yachts, sometimes on a 40-day operation away from fresh supplies, also need to be equipped with provisions for storage, garbage management and additional berthing for guides and researchers.

Size matters, but it’s not everything

Credit: Kusch Yachts

While the definition of a superyacht is longer than 24 metres, some would argue that explorer yachts should be at least 40 metres long to carry all the necessary equipment. However, there are exceptions to the rule, with Cantiere Delle Marche proving highly successful in building compact, yet long-range explorer yachts. The Italian yard’s fleet includes the 33.4-metre Narvalo, which has been designed to cruise with the narwhals that she was named after.

Read More/Top 10 largest explorer yachts in the world

More about this yacht

Lurssen   90.1 m •  2005
Lurssen   126.2 m •  2003

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