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Sailing Yacht Britannia

In April 1893, some 20 years into G. L. Watson ’s trail blazing career, the royal sailing yacht  Britannia was launched. The prestige associated with this order from the Price of Wales, Britannia’s revolutionary design, enduring beauty, speed and a 43 year career in the ownerships of King Edward VII and King George V have all contributed to the Britannia legend.

The Royal sailing yacht Britannia racing Career

Britannia was built at D&W Henderson’s shipyard on the Clyde alongside her near sister, the America’s Cup challenger Valkyrie II . Her spoon bow was controversial and Watson was initially condemned for experimenting on such a prestigious commission, but it was not long before her admirable qualities were recognised and the perfection of hull form became known as the ‘ Britannia ideal’.

In the great season of 1893, Britannia acted as a trial horse for America’s Cup challenger Valkyrie II and saw off the challenge of the Herreshoff designed Navahoe to dominate racing in British waters. The following year when America’s Cup victor Vigilant raced in Britain in what was mooted as a re-run of the America’s Cup races, Britannia dominated; upholding British racing prowess after the loss of Valkyrie II .

The introduction of a new rating rule in 1896 gave Watson the opportunity to out-design Britannia , but the arrival of the Kaiser’s Meteor II killed off both the King’s pleasure and his prospects of winning. In 1898 Edward VII sold Britannia , but soon regretted it and by 1902 she was back in his ownership and once again became a regular sight on the British regatta circuit. Inherited by George V in 1910, Britannia was updated and again raced successfully in the British Big Class. The lead provided by George V in fitting out Britannia for the 1920 season re-established the Big Class in the aftermath of World War I and paved the way for the likes of Cambria , Astra and the J Class.

Conversion to J-Class

Following Watson’s early death in 1904, all leading British yacht designers were involved in the regular updating of the royal sailing yacht  Britannia . In 1930 it was Charles E. Nicholson ’s turn and he designed what remains the world’s tallest wooden mast for her. In 1931 Britannia emerged rejuvenated to race competitively with the J Class against which she would add a further 15 firsts to her racing record.

Britannia’s last season was the summer of 1935, when the American J Class Yankee visited British waters, in what was the last great flourishing of Big Class racing. Then with the King’s health failing she was withdrawn from racing and on 10th July 1936 her great career came to an end. As per the dying wishes of George V, she was towed out to St. Catherine’s Deep off the Isle of Wight and scuttled.

Although not a sailor, King Edward VIII fully appreciated the affection that surrounded Britannia and after she was scuttled, he commanded that G. L. Watson & Co. be presented with a memento of what remains the most successful racing yacht of all time. This souvenir of Britannia is held in the G.L. Watson Archive together with the original drawings.

G.L. Watson & Co. Ltd. 20-23 Woodside Place, Glasgow G3 7QL, Scotland

Tel: +44 (141) 501 0480

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The Royal Yacht Britannia Has a Fascinating History—Here's Everything You Should Know

It doesn't get more majestic than Queen Elizabeth II's yacht.

“Britannia is special for a number of reasons,” Prince Phillip once said. “Almost every previous sovereign has been responsible for building a church, a castle, a palace or just a house. The only comparable structure in the present reign is Britannia. As such she is a splendid example of contemporary British design and technology.”

Although she retired from service in 1997, today the Britannia, one of many of the world's grandest yachts , is docked in Edinburgh, where she is open as a visitors’ attraction and host of private events. Below we give you all the Royal Yacht Britannia facts you might want to know, from who owns the yacht now to why she was decommissioned to how fast she is to how to get tickets to visit. Britannia was, after all, the one place the queen said she could “truly relax,” so why not see why for yourself?

queen royal yacht britannia in usa

Royal Yacht Britania Facts and History

On February 4, 1952, John Brown & Co shipyard in Clydebank, Scotland, received the order from the Admiralty to build a new Royal Yacht to travel the globe and double as a hospital ship in times of war, according to the royal yacht's website . King George VI passed away two days after, sadly, and so on April 16, 1953, the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II announced the yacht’s new name as the ship was revealed.

"I name this ship Britannia,” she said. “I wish success to her and all who sail in her." Britannia was commissioned into the Royal Navy in January 1954 and by April of that year sailed into her first overseas port: Grand Harbour, Malta.

royal yacht britannia facts staircase

The queen and The Duke of Edinburgh worked with interior designer Sir Hugh Casson for the ship to serve as both a functional Royal Navy vessel and an elegant royal residence. Queen Elizabeth II selected deep blue for Britannia’s hull, instead of the more traditional black. Its Naval crew included 220 Yachtsmen, 20 officers, and three season officers—plus a Royal Marines Band of 26 men during Royal Tours.

All of them might have had to change uniform up to six times a day, so the laundry service on board worked nonstop. The yacht also engaged in British overseas trade missions known as Sea Days and made an estimated £3 billion for the Exchequer between 1991 and 1995 alone.

royal yacht britannia facts drawing room

The ship’s wheel was taken from King Edward VII’s racing yacht, also named Britannia, according to Boat International , and the 126-meter ship could reach speeds of 22.75 knots, or a seagoing cruising speed of 21 knots, according to Super Yacht Times . Other fun facts: The yacht could produce her own fresh water from sea water, and shouting was forbidden aboard to preserve tranquility, favoring hand signals for Naval orders instead.

royal yacht britannia facts dining room

Over the next 44 years, the Britannia would sail the equivalent of once around the world for each year, in total visiting 600 ports in 135 countries. Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones were the first of four couples to honeymoon on the ship in 1960, gifting them all privacy to sail to secluded locations. Prince Charles and Princess Diana followed in 1981 on the Mediterranean as well as Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips before them in 1973 in the Caribbean and Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson in 1986 in the Azores.

diana and william

For family vacations aboard the ship, games, treasure hunts, plays, and picnics were organized, and on warm days the children could play in an inflatable paddling pool on the Verandah Deck.

royal yacht britannia facts sun lounge

In the Sun Lounge, the queen especially enjoyed taking breakfast and afternoon tea with views through large picture windows, a space you can see replicated in the TV show The Crown. Although no filming took place on board the Britannia for the show, researchers ensured scenes aboard it were accurate. In the queen’s bedroom, the resemblance is seen down to the decorative wall light fittings and embroidered silk panel above her bed that had been specially commissioned.

queen crying at britannia

In 1997, the ship was decommissioned after the government decided the costs to refit it would be too great. On its final day in her service that followed a farewell tour around the U.K., the queen openly wept as the Band of HM Royal Marines played "Highland Cathedral."

"Looking back over 44 years we can all reflect with pride and gratitude upon this great ship which has served the country, the Royal Navy and my family with such distinction," Queen Elizabeth II said. All clocks on the ship stopped at 15:01, the exact time the Queen disembarked from the yacht for the final time, and they would remain at that time until the present.

royal yacht britannia facts clock

How to Tour the Royal Yacht Britania

Today the yacht is owned by Royal Yacht Britannia Trus t, and all revenue it generates goes to the yacht’s maintenance and preservation. Ticketed entry allows you to step into state rooms like the Sun Lounge, the State Dining Room and State Drawing Room, in addition to the working side of the ship in the Crew’s Quarters, Laundry and gleaming Engine Room. Along the way you will see original artifacts from the shop—95 percent of which is on loan from The Royal Collection.

the royal yacht britannia

How to Visit the Royal Britania

You can visit the Britannia any day of the year on Edinburgh’s waterfront. Hours vary by season, and you can find them listed and purchase tickets on the yacht’s website . Private tours are also available, and you can visit the Royal Deck Tearoom, where the Royal Family hosted cocktail parties and receptions, for drinks, meals and scones. Additionally, the Britannia hosts special ticketed events for New Year’s and other occasions, and event spaces can be booked as well.

While you are in Edinburgh, you can also stay on the Fingal , a neighboring yacht-turned-floating-hotel, which is a seven-minute walk from the Britannia, and dine at its Lighthouse Restaurant & Bar, which serves breakfast, afternoon tea, dinner, and cocktails.

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Secrets of the Royal Yacht Britannia

Town & Country took a tour of the famous vessel which served the royal family for more than 40 years and has reopened as a tourist attraction.

the royal yacht britannia

Wondering about the royal family's yacht as you watch this season of The Crown ? In light of its appearance on the Netflix series, we're resurfacing this story from 2021 :

While plans to build a successor to boost Britain’s trade continue to attract criticism, Britannia is once again attracting hordes of visitors after being forced to close because of COVID-19. And it’s no surprise, because from being able to look right into the Queen’s bedroom to learning about what life was like for the up to 220 yachtsmen on board, this is a boat with some fascinating stories to tell.

Town & Country went aboard to learn the secrets of this much-loved vessel. Here’s our pick of the best royal tales.

the royal yacht britannia is now open to visitors again following covid19 closures

The ship was altered with royal skirts in mind.

Many photographs of the Royal Yacht Britannia show the family waving from the Royal Bridge as the vessel departed from or arrived at its destination. And the bow of the ship was specially adapted to make sure these public moments did not reveal more than was intended. “The curved teak windbreak was a later feature, added for modesty’s sake, to prevent sea breezes from lifting royal skirts,” visitors to Britannia are told.

britannia exterior

It was a struggle to get the royal car on board.

When the 412-ft yacht was built in 1953, it was considered important that it had a garage to house the Queen’s Rolls Royce. However, getting the car on board was no easy feat. “First, the car, in its transporter, had to be hoisted onto the special track that is fitted into the deck. Even then, it could only be squeezed into the Garage by removing its bumpers,” Britannia’s guide notes. Thankfully, in later years the Queen usually traveled in a car from the country she was visiting which meant that the garage was eventually used as a beer store.

crown binnacle

Britannia was designed to avoid any peeking into the royal bedrooms.

Now, visitors to Britannia get a full view of the Queen and Prince Philip’s (separate) bedrooms, albeit through glass. However, when the ship was in use it was important that no-one could peek into these rooms. Pointing out that the windows looking into these areas are “higher than anywhere else on the Yacht,” Britannia’s guide explains: “By placing them at this height above the deck, any accidental glimpses into the royal bedrooms could be prevented.”

staff cubbies

There were lots of people on board—but not everyone traveled in style.

One of the most fascinating things about touring the yacht is looking into the living quarters—from the relatively luxurious rooms of the Queen and Prince Philip and the ship’s Admiral, to the officers’ comfortable sitting room and dining room, to the approximately 220 yachtsmen who lived, slept, and worked, as the guide describes “in fairly cramped conditions.” Tourists are told: “Britannia was a ship in which hierarchy was strongly defined.” And there were plenty of people to accommodate. Some 45 working members of the royal household accompanied the Queen on her overseas visits.

stairway

The Queen favored neutrals while Philip liked darker colors.

As the yacht was build with their use in mind, the Queen and Prince Philip both had a say in the ship’s design and as such, it gives a some insight into their taste. The Queen’s (single) bed has a specially-commissioned embroidered silk panel above it, and her room is decorated in pale and neutral colors. By contrast, Philip’s room features vibrant maroon linen and curtains and, at his request, his pillows, unlike the Queen’s “do not have lace on the borders.”

sundeck room

There is only one double bed.

The honeymoon suite on the yacht is opposite the Queen and Philip’s bedrooms. “This is the only room on Britannia with a double bed which was brought on board by Prince Charles when he honeymooned on the Yacht with Princess Diana,” tourists are told. “When the Royal Children were small, this bedrooms and the adjoining room were used as nursery suites.”

dining table

The royal children liked to eat jelly on board.

Food on board Britannia was prepared in three galleys—one for the yachtsmen, one for the officers and one for the royal household. Buckingham Palace chefs were flown out to prepare royal food and there was a room that, according to Britannia’s guide, was known as the Jelly Room “for it was in here that the royal children’s jellies were stored.”

dining room

There is a dance floor that hasn’t been used for 50 years.

The largest room on Britannia is the State Dining Room where lavish banquets were held. It could also be used as a cinema room. “The silver-grey carpet could also be rolled up to expose a wooden dance floor beneath, although the last time this was used was for Princess Anne’s 21st birthday celebrations,” the guide notes.

naval flags

Prince Philip kept a reminder of his naval career in his office.

Just like their separate bedrooms, the Queen and Philip had separate offices on board Britannia. Philip’s had a “specially designed display case,” the ship’s guide notes, in which he kept “a model of HMS Magpie, His Royal Highness’s first naval command.” The Duke of Edinburgh famously gave up his active naval career in 1951 to support his wife in her duties when King George VI’s health was ailing.

drawing room

The ship was ready for stormy seas.

The royal family and their guests relaxed in the drawing room, which featured a grand piano. The instrument was played by members of the family and even some of their famous guests, including composer Noel Coward. “The Welmar baby grand piano cost £350 when it was supplied in 1952, and is firmly bolted to the deck to stop it taking off in choppy seas,” tourists are told.

queen in turkey

Once the royal laundry turned blue.

Walking through the laundry at the end of the tour provides an insight into what was once a “hot and noisy environment.” Some 600 shirts could pass through the laundry in one day, with the royal family’s washing done on separate days to that of the crew. Britannia’s audio guide recounts “one occasion when the royal washing turned a delicate shade of blue, and Her Majesty’s Dresser was less than amused. The cause, it turned out, was a chemical reaction in the copper pipes, which was quickly remedied by adjusting the pH value of the water.”

laundry room

For more information and to book tickets visit royalyachtbrittania.co.uk

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Town & Country Contributing Editor Victoria Murphy has reported on the British Royal Family since 2010. She has interviewed Prince Harry and has travelled the world covering several royal tours. She is a frequent contributor to Good Morning America. Victoria authored Town & Country book The Queen: A Life in Pictures , released in 2021. 

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IMAGES

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COMMENTS

  1. HMY Britannia (Royal Cutter Yacht) - Wikipedia

    His Majesty's Yacht Britannia was a gaff-rigged cutter built in 1893 for RYS Commodore Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. She served both himself and his son King George V with a long racing career.

  2. Sailing Yacht Britannia | HMY Britannia | Royal Cutter Yacht

    In April 1893, some 20 years into G. L. Watson’s trail blazing career, the Royal sailing yacht Britannia was launched. Find out more information here.

  3. HMY Britannia - Wikipedia

    Her Majesty's Yacht Britannia is the former royal yacht of the British monarchy. She was in their service from 1954 until 1997. She was the 83rd such vessel since King Charles II acceded to the throne in 1660, and is the second royal yacht to bear the name, the first being the racing cutter built for the Prince of Wales in 1893.

  4. The Story Behind the Royal Family's Yacht, Britannia

    The royal family has a long history of seafaring—the first official royal yacht was the HMY Mary (HMY stands for His or Her Majesty's Yacht), gifted to Charles II by the Dutch in 1660.

  5. Royal Yacht Britannia Facts Everyone Should Know ... - VERANDA

    Below we give you all the Royal Yacht Britannia facts you might want to know, from who owns the yacht now to why she was decommissioned to how fast she is to how to get tickets to visit. Britannia was, after all, the one place the queen said she could “truly relax,” so why not see why for yourself?

  6. Secrets of the Royal Yacht Britannia - Town & Country Magazine

    Famously described by the Queen as “the one place I can truly relax,” the Royal Yacht Britannia was a home away from home for the royals from her maiden voyage in 1954 until she was...