A yacht is a recreational boat or ship. The term originates from the Dutch word jacht “hunt”, and was originally defined as a light fast sailing vessel used by the Dutch navy to pursue pirates and other transgressors around and into the shallow waters of the Low Countries. After its selection by Charles II of England as the vessel to carry him to England from the Netherlands for his restoration in 1660, it came to be used to mean a vessel used to convey important persons.
Modern use of the term designates two different classes of watercraft, sailing and power boats. Yachts differ from working ships mainly by their leisure purpose, and it was not until the rise of the steamboat and other types of powerboat that sailing vessels in general came to be perceived as luxury, or recreational vessels. Later the term came to encompass motor boats for primarily private pleasure purposes as well.
A few countries have a special flag worn by recreational boats or ships, which indicates the nationality of the ship. Although inspired by the national flag, the yacht ensign does not always correspond with the civil or merchant ensign of the state in question.
The US yacht ensign for example, has a circle of 13 stars and a fouled anchor in the canton instead of the 50 stars, being quite different from the ensign of the United States, which is the flag of the United States.
Yacht ensigns differ from merchant ensigns in order to signal that the yacht is not carrying cargo that requires a customs declaration. Carrying commercial cargo on a boat with a yacht ensign is deemed to be smuggling in many jurisdictions.
Sailing yachts can range in overall length from about 6 metres to well over 30 metres, where the distinction between a yacht and a ship becomes blurred. Most privately owned yachts fall in the range of about 7 metres -14 metres; the cost of building and keeping a yacht rises quickly as length increases. In the United States, sailors tend to refer to smaller yachts as sailboats, while referring to the general sport of sailing as yachting.
Many modern racing sail yachts have efficient sail-plans, most notably the Bermuda rig, that allow them to sail close to the wind. This capability is the result of a sail-plan and hull design oriented towards this capability:
- Day sailing yachts
- Day sailing yachts are usually small, at under 6 metres in length. Sometimes called sailing dinghies, they often have a retractable keel, centreboard, or daggerboard. Most day sailing yachts do not have a cabin, as they are designed for hourly or daily use and not for overnight journeys. They may have a ‘cuddy’ cabin, where the front part of the hull has a raised solid roof to provide a place to store equipment.
- Weekender yachts
- Weekender yachts are slightly larger, at under 9.5 metres in length. They may have twin keels or lifting keels such as in trailer sailers. This allows them to operate in shallow waters, and if needed “dry out”—become beached as the tide falls.This is important in UK waters where many moorings are in tidal creeks.
- Cruising yachts
- Cruising yachts are by far the most common yacht in private use, making up most of the 7–14-metre range. These vessels can be quite complex in design, as they need a balance between docile handling qualities, interior space, good light-wind performance and on-board comfort.
- Luxury sailing yachts
- In recent years, these yachts have evolved from fairly simple vessels with basic accommodation into sophisticated and luxurious boats. This is largely due to reduced hull-building costs brought about by the introduction of fibreglass hulls, and increased automation for yacht building, especially in Europe.
Yacht racing is a form of sport involving yachts and larger sailboats, as distinguished from dinghy racing. It is composed of multiple yachts, in direct competition, racing around a course marked by buoys or other fixed navigational devices or racing longer distances across open water.
As yacht racing became more prevalent, and yacht design more diverse, it was necessary to establish systems of measurements and time allowances due to the differences in boat design. Longer yachts are inherently faster than shorter ones; therefore, in the interests of fairness, in the 1820s a “primitive system of time allowance was introduced on the Solent.”
Ratings systems rely upon some formulaic analysis of usually very specific yacht-design parameters such as length, sail area, displacement, and hull shape. During the 1920s and through the 1970s the Cruising Club of America established a formula by which most racing/cruising boats were designed during that period.