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The rise of expedition yachts

by Sarah Mackenzie/West Nautical 1 Mar 19:25 PST
Helo operations are a big part of expedition vessel life. © Damen Yachting

As the superyacht industry and, superyachts themselves, grow larger, so does the need for new and exciting designs, more on board amenities and the ability for the yacht to travel to each and every corner of the globe.

In the last few years, we have seen an increase in expedition or explorer style yachts, which are distinct in their design and abilities. Expedition yachts have often been built with a particular purpose in mind such as scientific exploration, while others have been converted from commercial vessels into privately owned yachts.

Expedition yachts, while more rugged in design on the exterior, still contain all the luxuries of a superyacht. They feature impressive interior design, a gym, spa, beautiful dining and relaxation areas and a private crew catering to the yacht’s guests, all while being able to embark on extensive long-range passages and reach remote cruising destinations.

The increased interest in expedition style yachts is due to the fact that owners and guests have become curious about the isolated destinations of the world and have the desire to enjoy adventurous, once in a lifetime holiday experiences such as whale watching in Antarctica, going to a famous shipwreck in the yachts very own submarine or visiting the untouched islands of the Galapagos for the incredible diving.

What are some of the key features of an expedition yacht?


Expedition style yachts vastly differ in design from a traditional superyacht because they are designed to be stronger and more robust to handle the conditions in off the beaten track destinations, particularly the Polar Regions.

Exploring remote areas of the world makes a strong, steel hull the most popular choice for expedition yachts as it can be strengthened in order for the yacht to be certified with ice class, as well as the steel increasing the tonnage of the yacht making additional ballast unnecessary. Steel can also withstand impact better than other hull materials such as aluminium or fibreglass and is easier to repair.

A displacement hull, typically found on explorer yachts, is a round-bottomed hull and allows the vessel to move through the water by pushing the water aside and is designed to cut through the water with very little propulsion. This causes the yacht to be limited to slower speeds. This hull design creates a more fuel-efficient vessel due to the fact that smaller engines with less horsepower are required. An expedition yacht will cruise at hull speed and often have specialised propellers, stabilisers and engines for optimum efficiency.

Other typical design traits of an expedition yacht are larger aft deck space to hold an array of toys and tenders, and a helicopter pad.


Because explorer or expedition yachts travel long distances, they have the need for larger amounts of storage and living space for crew and guests than on a traditional yacht. The yacht needs to be able to store the essential equipment, spare parts and provisions required when on long ocean crossings to ensure the guests and crew have a luxurious and comfortable stay on board. Superyacht charters are typically one week whereas a charter on an expedition yacht can be longer depending on the nature of the charter guests and the length of their exploration project.

Increased space means that the yacht is able to have sufficient holding tanks, which therefore allows the yacht to adhere to the regulations and restrictions about emptying tanks into the ocean in the remote destinations they travel to. The displacement hull, being wide and deep in its design, creates increased interior storage space. They also allow for larger water tanks to hold the fresh water produced on board.

Long range

Due to the fact that expedition yachts have large storage space, they also have large fuel tanks, which permits an extended cruising range. This is extremely useful when they are travelling long distances between uninhabited destinations where fuel is not easily obtained. Most yachts measuring over 40 metres in length will have the cruising range of around 3000 nautical miles whereas explorer yachts need to have a range of 5000 nautical miles or more in order to reach their destinations.

Expedition yachts need to be designed in such a way that they can enjoy limitless cruising. Some expedition yachts are fitted with solar panels in order to offset their energy consumption when running things such as lighting or generators, which would ordinarily use fuel.


Because of the fact that expedition yachts are built with steel and often reinforced hulls, they are designed to be stable and withstand unpleasant weather conditions in large offshore seas, therefore making them very safe vessels.

It is also not uncommon for explorer yachts to be fitted with commercial grade safety equipment such as lifeboats and the on-board fire system and equipment. The on-board helicopter pad is also extremely useful in emergency situations.

The ability to travel to arctic regions

Not all expedition yachts are able to travel to the arctic regions due to the fact that in order to do so, the yacht needs to be assigned an ice-class certification by becoming Polar Code B compliant. Factors that would make the yacht compliant include how robust the hull is and the vessel’s ability to deal with ice in the ocean.

Certified yachts will follow the International Polar Code, which was established in 2017 and provides details and requirements of how a yacht can be designed to receive this certification as well as how to operate when cruising in polar regions, high latitudes and extremely low temperatures.

Reduced maintenance means increased use

Because of the materials that most expeditions yachts are built with i.e., steel hulls and aluminium superstructures, repairs are easy to complete making the maintenance of expedition yachts simpler than traditional superyachts. This ensures that the yacht spends less time in shipyards undergoing extensive refits on a regular basis and more time cruising the untouched parts of the world.

Increased number of crew

Because of the nature and distance that expedition yachts typically travel, more crew are required to run the yacht and serve the guests for longer passages or charters than a typical charter yacht. Specialist crew members are often required such as helicopter pilots, submarine pilots, sports instructors, videographers or specialists depending on the owners and guests’ hobbies, the purpose for which the yacht was built and the destination the yacht is going to visit.

Extra equipment and toys

Most expedition yachts are fitted with an impressive array of equipment and toys depending on the nature of the expedition and purpose of the yacht. For example, a yacht built for scientific exploration might be fitted with specialise deep-sea diving equipment, decompression chambers, personal submarines with 4k cameras, an ROV (remote operated vehicle) or a helicopter to explore the ocean, coastline and wildlife from above.

Expedition yachts will host a vast amount of gear and gadgets for terrain exploration; some even have sailing yachts on board. They will also be fitted with tenders, snorkelling equipment, surf boards, jet skis, landing crafts to transport quads and bikes, sea bobs and inflatables to enjoy water sports activities.

What are some of the destinations an expedition yacht can visit?

Superyachts travel to many corners of the globe but as we can see, expedition yachts are designed to go just a bit further. Destinations include Antarctica, The fjords of Norway and secluded paradise islands in the South Pacific.

Expedition yachts have also been known to visit Greenland, Iceland, The Falkland Islands, Patagonia, The Galapagos islands and Alaska as well as fitting in superyacht hotspots such as Monaco, St Barts and Croatia to their busy schedules.

Some well-known expedition yachts include Ulysses, a 116-metre yacht built in 2018, which has an impressive assortment of toys and equipment including a helicopter hanger on the top deck, a helicopter and a fleet of speedy tenders including a 21-metre Princess 68. Ulysses is able to accommodate up to 66 guests.

M/Y Octopus is one of the most well-known explorer style yachts, which was built in Germany in 2003. Her original owner was the late Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft. Octopus has the facilities for two helicopters, with heli pads on the aft and fore decks as well as a hanger on the aft deck to house the helicopter in rough seas.

Paul Allen and the crew of M/Y Octopus used the yacht as the platform to search for a sunken ship. This search took eight years and in 2015, they finally discovered the wreck of Japanese ship Musashi, which sunk during World War II.

The impressive M/Y Luna, a 155-metre Lloyd Werft yacht launched in 2010, was originally built for Chelsea Football club owner and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. Her swimming pool made headlines for being the largest ever seen on a superyacht at the time of her delivery. She also features two tender garages, a gym and expansive beach club wrapping around a spa. Luna is ice-classed allowing her to travel to the Polar Regions as well as enjoying summers in the Cote d’Azur.

Are expedition style yachts the future of yachting? Why not visit untouched corners of the globe, fly over Alaska in your private helicopter or go to the depths of the ocean in a submersible submarine to discover unseen marine life? Owners may have visited the Monte Carlo Casino, been diving in the Seychelles or sipped a Pina Colada in the Caribbean, but very few can say that they have explored the ice sheets in the North and South Pole.

We can definitely see why more and more owners would be enticed to buy or build a yacht with these capabilities and limitless travel opportunities. Expedition yachts are certainly taking the experience of the superyacht lifestyle to the next level.

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