10 Facts About Royal Yacht Britannia | History Hit

10 Facts About Royal Yacht Britannia

Peta Stamper

28 Nov 2022
The Royal Yacht Britannia departs Cardiff for the last time
Image Credit: Ben Salter from Wales, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The 83rd and last in a long line of royal yachts, HMY Britannia has become one of the most famous ships in the world. Now permanently moored at Edinburgh’s Port of Leith, the floating palace is a visitor attraction welcoming some 300,000 people aboard each year.

For Queen Elizabeth II, Britannia was the ideal residence for state visits and peaceful royal family holidays and honeymoons. For the British public, Britannia was a symbol of Commonwealth. For the 220 naval officers who lived aboard Britannia, and the royal family, the 412-foot-long yacht was home.

Having travelled more than a million nautical miles over 44 years of service to the British Crown, Her Majesty’s beloved boat was decommissioned in 1997. Here are 10 facts about life aboard HMY Britannia.

1. Britannia was launched by Queen Elizabeth II on 16 April 1953 using a bottle of wine, not champagne

Champagne is traditionally smashed against a ship’s hull during launching ceremonies. However, in a post-war climate champagne was seen as too frivolous, so a bottle of Empire wine was used instead.

Britannia launched from the John Brown & Company shipyard in Clydebank, Scotland.

Dan Snow and royal historian Prof. Kate Williams reflect on Elizabeth II’s remarkable life.
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2. Britannia was the 83rd Royal Yacht

King George VI, Elizabeth II’s father, had first commissioned the royal yacht that would become Britannia in 1952. The previous official boat had belonged to Queen Victoria and was rarely used. The tradition of royal yachts had been started by Charles II in 1660.

George decided that the Royal Yacht Britannia should both be a regal vessel as well as a functional one.

3. Britannia had two emergency functions

Britannia was designed to be converted into a hospital ship in time of war, although that function was never used. Additionally, as part of the Cold War plan Operation Candid, in the event of nuclear war the ship would become a refuge off the north-west coast of Scotland for the Queen and Prince Philip.

4. Her maiden voyage was from Portsmouth to Grand Harbour in Malta

She carried Prince Charles and Princess Anne to Malta to meet the Queen and Prince Philip at the end of the royal couple’s Commonwealth tour. The Queen stepped aboard Britannia for the first time in Tobruk on 1 May 1954.

Over the next 43 years, Britannia would transport the Queen, members of the Royal Family and various dignitaries on some 696 foreign visits.

The HMY Britannia on a visit by the Queen to Canada in 1964

Image Credit: Royal Canadian Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

5. Britannia hosted some of the 20th century’s most notable figures

In July 1959, Britannia sailed the newly opened Saint Lawrence Seaway to Chicago where she docked, making the Queen the first British monarch to visit the city. US President Dwight Eisenhower hopped aboard Britannia for part of the journey.

In later years, Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton would also step aboard. Charles and Diana, the Prince and Princess of Wales, took their honeymoon cruise on Britannia in 1981.

6. The crew were volunteers from the Royal Navy

After 365 days’ service, crew members could be admitted to the Permanent Royal Yacht Service as Royal Yachtsmen (‘Yotties’) and serve until they either chose to leave or were dismissed. As a result, some yachtsmen served on Britannia for over 20 years.

The crew also included a detachment of Royal Marines, who would dive underneath the ship each day while moored away from home to check for mines or other threats.

7. All royal children were allocated a ‘Sea Daddy’ on board the ship

The ‘sea daddies’ were primarily tasked with looking after the children and keeping them entertained (games, picnics and water fights) during voyages. They also oversaw the children’s chores, including cleaning the life rafts.

Queen Elizabeth II has died after 70 years on the British throne. Born in April 1926, Elizabeth Windsor became heir apparent, aged 10, when her uncle Edward VIII abdicated and her father George VI became king. In 1947 – She married navy lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, a Greek Prince, at London’s Westminster Abbey before being crowned there in 1953 in the world’s first televised coronation. In this reflection of her life and illustrious reign, Dan is joined by historian Professor Kate Williams to look at The Queen’s childhood, adolescence in WWII and the upbringing that made her a monarch admired around the world.
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8. There was a ‘Jelly Room’ onboard for the royal children

The yacht had a total of three galley kitchens where Buckingham Palace‘s chefs prepared meals. Among these galleys was a chilled room called the ‘Jelly Room’ for the sole purpose of storing royal children’s jellied desserts.

9. It cost around £11 million every year to run Britannica

The cost of running Britannia was always an issue. In 1994, another expensive refit for the ageing vessel was proposed. Whether or not to refit or commission a new royal yacht entirely came down to the election result of 1997. With repairs at a proposed cost of £17 million, Tony Blair’s new Labour government were unwilling to commit public funds to replace Britannica.

HMY Britannia in 1997, London

Image Credit: Chris Allen, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

10. All the clocks on board remain stopped at 3:01pm

In December 1997, Britannia was officially decommissioned. The clocks have been kept at 3:01pm – the exact moment the Queen went ashore for the last time following the ship’s decommissioning ceremony, during which the Queen shed a rare public tear.

Peta Stamper