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Owning a Sail Boat

What is an Expedition Yacht?

The mission statement of most pleasure boats is to provide its owners and friends a safe and satisfying experience in coastal and inland waters. For some that might also include a short hop across the Gulf Stream to cruise the Islands, or they might tackle the Strait of Juan de Fuca to reach the upper Northwest and Alaska. But these boat owners do so in good weather when conditions are right. They enjoy boating in craft of all shapes and sizes, under power and sail. This is the most popular form of the boating lifestyle.

While well-found sailboats have been going over the horizon to distant shores for most of the last century, it was rare to find a motorboat that could safely follow in their wake. The history of passagemaking under power is dotted with the occasional story involving specialty boats outfitted for this purpose. Larger fuel tanks and some form of stabilization enabled the early pioneers to prove the concept, most notably Robert Beebe on his own Passagemaker. While he never circumnavigated, his book on this new form of cruising caught the attention of many aspiring cruisers. Voyaging Under Power set the stage for a new niche in power cruising.

While early long-range cruisers, such as the Hatteras LRC, enjoyed this extended range cruising, it was the introduction of the Nordhavn 46 in 1989, and the debut of PassageMaker Magazine in 1995, that interest in cruising under power really came together within the larger community of boating and cruising. People started going to distant places on their trawlers and long-range cruisers, enjoying the fun and sharing their adventures of visiting new destinations with all the safe comforts of home. The discomfort and vagaries of sailing were of no interest to couples not wanting a glorified camping experience. The trawler industry really took off, and dozens of new designs and boat builders appeared each year.

Owning a Sail Boat

The very essence of this trawler crowd involved moving from one popular destination to the next, for however long interest and budget allowed. Crossing an ocean was a point-to-point passage, from one harbor to the next. And with most pleasure boats, there were the inevitable breakdown of equipment, electronics, or systems. Provisioning and refueling were always top priorities when one reached a new destination.

As the years go by, the world has gotten smaller and interest in world travel has matured. Previously unpaved paths are now well traveled, as evidenced by the cruise ship and luxury resorts in romantic places such as Tahiti. Interest is still there for the next adventure. But to do so without the crowds, one must get off the vacation travel circuit and seek adventure experience elsewhere, far away from cruise lines, airports, resorts, and population centers.

Enter the Expedition Yacht

Imagine a yacht that is exceptionally seaworthy, can be completely self-sufficient for weeks or months at a time, and able to provide comfortable, luxurious accommodations and living experience while exploring remote areas of the world, as well as all the fashionable hotspots. A yacht that doesn't need to stay put in port, near services and airlines, waiting for parts and repairs. A yacht that can travel the waterways of the world. The Mediterranean to the Amazon, Alaska to the South Pacific, Patagonia to the Galapagos, New Zealand to Norway. And still fit into the cruising scene at the world's popular cruising grounds, such as Monaco, Greece, and the Caribbean.

That is an expedition yacht, also called an explorer yacht. It has significant tankage for fuel and water, enormous storage space for provisions, parts, and toys. It also has comfortable living spaces for owners and guests. Some of these yachts come from commercial designs, with rugged looks and built with heavy duty equipment and construction. They can withstand bad weather and sea conditions not normally associated with pleasure boating.

Some of these boats carry more fuel than is necessary simply to cross an ocean. This is handy if the destination does not have easy access to fuel sources.

The upper limit in size for an expedition yacht that can be operated by a couple is about 85 feet. Modern controls systems aid in vessel operation, so a husband and wife can manage the boat quite well. Beyond that, expect there to be crew, along with crew quarters and other requirements, as the yacht becomes too large to safely handle shorthanded.

In the world of luxury mega and superyachts, the demand for luxury expedition charters is at an all-time high.

What Makes an Expedition Yacht?

Most yachts in this category are full displacement hulls, in most cases significantly more displacement than the typical cruising trawler. This is necessary to carry large fuel, water, and holding tanks, which are key to self-sufficiency. A yacht might carry 3,000 to 8,000+ gallons for long range at a 9-knot cruising speed. (For comparison, at the superyacht end of the expedition fleet are crewed yachts similar or even larger than the Halter Marine yacht Pangaea, which has a fuel capacity of 65,000 gallons for a range over 12,000nm. She also carries 8,500 gallons of water.)

Large water tanks are important because cruising isolated areas should not depend on watermakers. It is important to provide crew and guests with as much fresh water as they want for showers, washing clothes, and other general needs.

Large holding tanks are also necessary because in many of the protected areas there are strict restrictions about dumping sewage or garbage into the environment. So, it is necessary to carry it aboard until it can be responsibly disposed of. Larger yachts have sewage treatment systems, but for the typical owner-operated expedition yacht up to 85 feet, having a large holding tank is sufficient.

The large hull also allows better accessibility to systems, storage spaces, and accommodations. Some of these yachts have dedicated workspaces, or at least a workbench and tool and parts storage. This is very important because it's all about being independent of outside services. One is expected to fix, replace, or fabricate whatever is required to keep everything running.

Owning a Sail Boat

The best of these yachts take redundancy to the next level. Unlike production boats that might be ordered with a generator, these boats will typically have two large generators and perhaps a third smaller (and quieter) generator for night operation. This redundant power generation is critical because these yachts operate a lot of electrical appliances and systems, so there are generators running all the time, much like a ship. You will also find redundancy in steering systems, autopilots, navigation electronics, and most other important systems that are mechanical, electrical, or electronic. Thrusters will be commercial-grade hydraulic units, as will windlasses, davits, and other powered systems. Running gear will be protected.

Builders of large expedition yachts pay attention to installing above-average fire suppression systems and firefighting equipment, as fire remains one of the worst possible scenarios on any yacht. And in some distant corner of the world, there is no greater fear.

Expect to find dedicated freezer units aboard these yachts, and a galley fit for a chef. Gourmet cuisine goes hand in hand with luxury cruising, so this is an important element in the design spiral.

The yacht will have a dedicated heating system(s), not just reverse cycle heating from the air conditioning systems.

And while all cruising yachts carry a dinghy, the tender of choice on an expedition yacht will not be a standard RIB. If it is an inflatable, it will be a professional grade RIB, as used by fire and rescue services. The ideal tender for an expedition yacht must be unsinkable, able to endure rugged landings in remote areas without damage. Those white RIBs at boat shows will not survive.

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What may not be so obvious from the above description is that an expedition yacht is, by its very nature, a fabulous liveaboard home. The size, layout, and displacement of these yachts means living at a dock or anchor is very civilized, as they do not roll from a passing wake, nor are they as affected by winds like other kinds of powerboats. Owners can still cruise local waters on these boats along with fellow cruisers, of course.

Why is Steel Sometimes Used in an Expedition Yacht?

As many of these yachts are custom built by premier yacht yards, steel is the material of choice for larger expedition yachts. It is very strong, is often strengthened for ice, and its weight contributes to the boat, often making additional ballast unnecessary. It can withstand impacts better than other materials, and if a steel hull is damaged, is more easily repaired far away from yacht centers and services.

Other builders rely on superior technology and construction practices for ultimate strength and impact resistance. Northern Marine builds fiberglass expedition yachts, and its resin infusion construction and design details make for exceedingly strong and resilient yacht hulls. A full-length metal shoe runs from the bow to the transom, for added protection.

Yet other builders, such as Circa Marine in New Zealand, have expertise in aluminum construction, and Steve and Linda Dashews outstanding FPB yachts are superior in many ways to other yacht choices. Long and lean, these yachts offer exceptional efficiency and economical operation even at cruising speed. The strong aluminum hulls have great impact protection and the designs provides additional layers of safety with watertight bulkheads and reinforced sections.

Expedition Cruising in High Latitudes

There is an additional consideration for expedition yachts expected to travel to the extremes of the world. Relatively recently, the IMO introduced the Polar Code, a classification system, developed to ensure ships are up to the challenges of safe polar operation. This system is complex, assigning an ice class to a ship, as well as identifying requirements to operate safely in extremely low temperatures.

Owning a Sail Boat

Additionally, cruising in high latitudes comes with further difficulties in the performance and availability of navigation and communications systems. It brings new meaning to off grid.

Another focus in the risk assessment process of the Polar Code is preparing for the maximum expected time of rescue. Anyone on a ship or expedition yacht in a polar or extreme latitude region can't realistically expect SAR resources to be readily available. The Polar Code requires this rescue wait time to be at least five days. In many areas, however, it will be significantly longer, so survival equipment and preparation must be ready for this emergency.

While few pleasure boats will venture into regions requiring such extreme measures, the considerations of this classification system should be of value to anyone preparing to be on their own far away from the rest of the world.

Are There Small Expedition Yachts?

As mentioned before, the term "expedition yacht" is interchangeable with "explorer yacht." Do a Google search with either term will produce all manner of grossly incorrect results, from high-speed motoryachts to classic trawlers. Understanding the design elements of an expedition or explorer yacht should make it easy to sift through and identify those elements that go into each design. A smaller hull shape limits fuel, water, and stores, making a true smaller expedition yacht unlikely. Except, of course, smaller boats can still have that rugged profile.

If one finds that a 2,500-mile range is sufficient, then one can work backwards to determine the fuel tankage required, especially if one isn't concerned with maintaining a nine-knot cruising speed. Taking a classic trawler builder, such as a Krogen Yachts, Grand Banks Yachts, or Nordhavn Yachts. One can calculate very long range if one slows down to a crawl. But there won't be near enough room for large water and holding tanks, dual generators, and all the other redundant equipment and systems.

Can an Expedition Yacht go Transatlantic?

In most cases, this is not an issue, as long range and self-sufficiency are needed for both crossing an ocean as well as exploring for long periods away from services and facilities.

However, it is important to understand a critical distinction. An expedition yacht may be able to cross an ocean. But a yacht capable of crossing an ocean is not an expedition yacht just because it has that range potential. There is a very important difference between a long range passagemaker and an expedition yacht.

Who Makes Expedition Yachts

There was a time when the term expedition yacht immediately suggested a profile and look taken directly from commercial fishing trawlers. A rugged, go-anywhere look. Over the past number of years builders introduced boats with that purposeful look, but without the capabilities that define an expedition yacht. Most are simply coastal cruisers that appealed to cruising couples with a certain look.

Today there is a wider range of designs, but reverse pilothouse windows are not necessarily a requirement these days.

There are few (if any) production builders of true expedition yachts. It all depends on one's interpretation of what is required, of course. There are just too many components to fit within a production boat building schedule. No production builder could possibly afford to build a standard line of boats with such capability, as buyers will have different ideas as to which they want, where they plan to go, and for how long. Each yacht must be built to fit the owners’ specific needs, and the design spiral gets complicated with the special requirements of tankage, system redundancy, improved access, commercial-level quality, and long-term accommodations and storage.

Explore the specs of production long-range motoryachts, many of which are outstanding passagemakers for long distance cruising around the world. However, they are pleasure boats designed for safe and comfortable cruising. The standard specs for these boats may show a single generator, and 12-volt or 24-volt electric systems for bow and stern thrusters, davits, and windlass. Ship motion control and stabilizers, get home systems, additional generators, duplicate navigation and communications systems, electric appliances instead of LPG, and installing hydraulics all significantly drive up the cost of the boat. And they are probably not possible in the first place in a facility to assemble production boats.

While most of these systems and gear aren't necessary to enjoy coastal cruising and the occasional offshore passage, they are required on an expedition yacht. Which is why the most competent examples of expedition yachts come from custom and semi-custom yards.

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