When Is a Ship a Yacht, and When Is It Not?

The difference between the two broad categories is determined by one key factor.

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A render of the Pangeos, the massive turtle-shaped ship.
It has multiple shopping malls, but they swear it’s a yacht.
Image: Lazzarini

Yachts have been in the news a lot more frequently in recent years. There have been stories like when a Dutch yacht builder requested to temporarily dismantle an iconic bridge in Rotterdam to get a 417-foot-long sailing yacht commissioned by Jeff Bezos out to sea, or when authorities around the world seized the yachts of Russian oligarchs in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Usually, the most notable yachts have the prefixes super-, mega- and even giga- attached to convey their truly enormous sizes relative to most other privately-owned vessels.

As a result, ‘yacht’ as a term has basically become meaningless just by the sheer proliferation of private ships in recent years that defy all potential superlatives. It’s like when you say a word so often that it loses all its meaning. Why are there so many more huge luxury maritime vessels in the world? Rising levels of global wealth inequality? Technical innovation? I don’t know. The Pangeos is the latest planned monument to ostentatious wealth. The 1970-foot-long turtle-shaped ship is the brainchild of Italian designer Pierpaolo Lazzarini. However, this self-declared terayacht is not a yacht by definition.

The only distinction between a yacht and a ship is simple: It is the vessel’s intended purpose. When you enter a foreign country, every customs agent will ask, “What is the purpose of your trip, business or pleasure?” It is the same when categorizing large water vehicles. The sole purpose of a yacht is recreation. If the craft has any other intended purpose, such as naval warfare or maritime commerce, it’s a ship. The U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford, a nuclear-powered U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, and the Carnival Celebration, a 5,280-passenger Carnival cruise ship, are both ships.

The Pangeos as viewed from above.
You shouldn’t be able to go shopping on a yacht. You just shouldn’t.
Graphic: Lazzarini

The plans for the Pangeos might feature private vacation villas and apartments. However, the absurd craft would also include also shopping malls and a hotel resort, making the Pangeos a ship. The Pangeos, named after the prehistoric supercontinent of Pangea, will likely never be built due to the ship’s $8 billion price tag.

Besides ship and yacht, boat is another commonly used term. The definition of a boat is much more vague and open to interpretation. Boats tend to be small personal craft and only carry a few people. Though, it’s common for sailors to refer to vessels of any size or purpose as a boat.