The decommissioning of Britannia in 1997 brought to an end a long line of British royal yachts, though it’s no surprise to see that there are sterling efforts to revive the tradition.
Our kings and queens have taken to the water since the establishment of the monarchy itself, though their reasons for cruising were invariably for some robust diplomacy – Richard I was on board when he led his fleet out of Portsmouth in 1189 to start the Third Crusade, though the Lion Heart didn’t have his sea legs and a bad case of seasickness meant he was put ashore in France and made his way to Marseille to rejoin the fleet on horseback.
It was the restored Charles II who introduced the sport of yachting to Britain in the 1660s. His fleet of yachts included Royal Escape, on which he had fled the country after the Battle of Worcester at the end of the English Civil War. It showed his playful approach to naming, which he continued by naming some of his fleet of yachts after his fleet of mistresses (another royal pursuit in which Charles was something of a trailblazer).
Queen Victoria was the first monarch to exchange sail for power after being annoyed at the procession of steamships overtaking her sail-powered Royal George en route to Leith in 1842. The steam-paddler Victoria and Albert was launched the following year. On the maiden voyage to France, Queen Victoria stationed herself in a sheltered spot on deck but soon noticed the crew going uneasy. The master soon explained: the royal party was blocking access to the grog locker and it was past the time for a tot. The Queen agreed to move only on the promise of a measure herself, after which she said: “I think it very good, but it could be a little stronger.”
Royal yachts began to grow, culminating in the sleek, steam-powered 120-metre Victoria and Albert, built at Pembroke Dock in 1899. The Tsar and the Kaiser had bigger yachts, Queen Victoria pointed out to the politicians credited with opening the public purse, and she was keen to play catch-up in an early ‘LOA war’. But misunderstandings between designer and builder meant the new yacht heeled alarmingly on launch, and much concrete was deployed in making her sit properly in the water. A gleeful Kaiser called the ship “the biggest turtle afloat” and the yacht was rarely seen in public. Soon, Europe’s royal houses were to find a rather more deadly form of war in which to compete.
Victoria and Albert was broken up in 1954 as Britannia was being commissioned. From a 21st-Century perspective, when you think of a young Queen on deck as Britannia glides serenely into the harbour of another welcoming dominion, it’s easy to forget how controversial the yacht was. Tabloids in those days were more deferential towards individual members of the royal family but the yacht was fair game. It was too expensive – £200,000 over budget at launch was the claim, and too much taxpayers’ money had been spent on gold leaf (£329). Britannia was also technically compromised – in the 1950s the Daily Sketch dubbed her ‘rock’n’roll’ and ‘the awkward lady’ after her alleged behaviour in rough seas. Her props were so noisy the Queen Mother couldn’t sleep, said one story. When The Sun dubbed her “HMS White Elephant” in the 1970s it was clear the days of HMY were numbered.