Explorer yachts - the spirit of adventure.

Explorer yachts - the spirit of adventure.

Brokers Ian Sherwood and Matt Pinckney on the rise of explorer yachts and how it reflects a growing need for natural experiences and emotional encounters.


It is difficult to pinpoint when the phenomenon of explorer yachts first emerged but a clear marker in recent history is the well documented exploits of Jacques Cousteau in the 42.4m (139ft) research vessel CALYPSO.

CALYPSO arrives in Montreal in 1980
CALYPSO arrives in Montreal in 1980 Photo: René Beauchamp / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

The former minesweeper, commissioned in 1943, was refitted by Cousteau in 1950 with laboratories, dark rooms, a helipad for its helicopter, a three-tonne crane for launching two mini submersibles, underwater scooters and an observation chamber in her bulbous bow. Many of these are familiar explorer yacht features today.

Converting vessels into yachts

Conversion is still popular, repurposing existing vessels as explorer yachts, but the process has evolved. 'In 2020 the most exciting explorer yachts, like the 68.2m (223.8ft) former ice-breaking offshore support vessel RAGNAR, highlight the demand for a luxury interior and a guest experience closer to the superyacht standard but without any compromise in capability or capacity,' says broker Ian Sherwood.

The yacht is chartering in the Caribbean this winter but current plans are to head for Antarctica next winter.

'OLIVIA and ITASCA have those great romantic backstories,' he adds. 'Both are shining examples of the conversion of a rugged functional platform. The 68.8m (225.7ft) OLIVIA was delivered in 1972 as a Russian hydrographic research vessel and rebuilt in 2011 as a superyacht. She still has the 15,000nm range and ice classed hull she had when delivered but she is now supremely luxurious. She has acres of deck space for toys of all sorts and cranes fore and aft to deploy them.'

'The 53.6m (175.9ft) ITASCA was formerly an ocean-going salvage tug built in 1961, repurposed as a yacht in 1979 and completely refitted in 2000,' adds Sherwood. 'She has an ice-classed hull, a 13,000nm range and a fully certified helipad and has circumnavigated the planet three times since her conversion. She also has the honour of being one of the first private yachts to transit the Northwest Passage.'

Purpose-built explorers

In terms of yachts on Burgess' books, there is one apex, purpose-built explorer. 'The 126.2m (414ft) OCTOPUS is clearly the benchmark in terms of toys, facilities, capability and even the ethos of the yacht,' says Sherwood. Delivered by Lurssen in 2003, she is quite remarkable. Features include two helicopters and a hangar for both, a large SUV, a dive centre with hyperbaric chamber, seven tenders, one of which, a 13m (43ft) Hinkley Talaria, stows in the yacht's dry dock along with a 10-seat submersible that can dive for up to eight hours.

She also has an ROV that was used to recover the ship's bell from the WWII wreck of HMS Hood, resting in 2,845m (9,333ft) of water. A genuine explorer that has been involved in a great many expeditions that have pushed back the boundaries of science, she is a pioneering yacht in many ways. Her hybrid propulsion system, one of the first in any yacht, gives her a top speed of 19 knots and a range of 12,500nm.

Sherwood continues: 'She was built with a clear, adventurous design brief by the owner and she was created without compromise.'

Not all explorers are leviathans. To take a couple of examples, the sleek 49.9m (163.7ft) Picchiotti-built EXUMA has a slender Vitruvius series ice-classed hull that has been designed to be easily driven, efficient and therefore very eco-friendly, with a transatlantic range of up to 5,500nm. Quirky explorer toys include a small hovercraft and an amphibious vehicle. She won a hatful of environmental awards as well as Best Displacement Motor Yacht Under 500GT at the World Superyacht Awards in 2011.

Cruising Western Australia and The Kimberleys is the 34m (111.5ft) Alloy Yachts-built pocket explorer AKIKO, also a winner of the Best Displacement Motor Yacht Under 500GT at the World Superyacht Awards in 2008 and other interior design awards for its open plan main deck.

Difficult definitions

These yachts, while all explorers, are very different beasts. How do you define an explorer yacht? 'The best definition I have heard is that it is a yacht with a larger volume and a higher level of functionality,' says Sherwood. 'That then covers a lot of features like longer range, higher capacity, more stowage, greater autonomy, bigger tenders and so on.'

LA DATCHA, one of the Amels SeaXplorer range
LA DATCHA, one of the Amels SeaXplorer range

If that is accurate, then there are many exceptions that prove the rule. 'The boundaries are getting blurred by the evolution of explorers,' concludes Sherwood. 'Support yachts are being built with guest accommodation. Shipyards are developing multi-appeal platforms with an explorer edge to them - the Amels SeaXplorer range of cross-over yachts fits into this niche.'

Another exception is the 42.6m (139.7ft) ADASTRA, a yacht of composite construction and certainly not ice classed. With a range of 10,000nm and a draft of just 1.2m (3.9ft), she can reach places others can only dream of cruising. She has covered nearly 80,000nm and dropped anchor in the South Pacific, Asia and the Middle East, destinations off the beaten track, as well as Europe and the Caribbean.

A state of mind

For broker Matt Pinckney, these represent an important distinction. 'You don’t have to have an explorer yacht to explore,' he says. 'Exploration yachting is an owner's mindset. It's an adventurousness of spirit, a desire for owners to take their families to far flung places to learn about the planet, to appreciate the richness of what we have and how keenly we will mourn its loss if we don't alter course.'

Burgess Yachts

Again, this is a known and growing phenomenon. Organisations like Nekton can pair marine scientists with yachts that have a spare berth, are between charters or even for clients who want to spend their holiday assisting with scientific research, learning about the ocean and the life in it. Perhaps this is how the next generation of passionate and committed naturalists will emerge?

Snorkel Point, Cockburn Islands, Myanmar, Andaman Sea
Snorkel Point, Cockburn Islands, Myanmar, Andaman Sea

Pinckney knows explorer yachting is not a mainstream pursuit. 'Ninety-five percent of yachts cruise the Mediterranean in summer and the Caribbean in winter. The market for explorer yachting is still fairly niche but there is an increasing number of tenders and toys being built for yachts to increase guests' options in hard to reach areas. The development of personal submersibles, custom rugged tenders, over-snow and all-terrain vehicles make going to these remote places more fun as clients can do a lot when they get there.'

Some explorer yachts have submersible capability, transforming the underwater experience
Some explorer yachts have submersible capability, transforming the underwater experience

What have we learned about explorer yachts? First, they're not for everyone because most clients use their yachts to relax in comfort, warmth and privacy. Explorer yachts are for the endlessly inquisitive, those who won't choose the path most travelled but will strike out on their own in search of original, often challenging experiences. Owners of explorer yachts want to learn, about their environment and perhaps also about themselves and their place in the world. In that respect explorer yachting has remained true to the course set by Cousteau and CALYPSO all those years ago.

There is no feeling like discovery
There is no feeling like discovery


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