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Issue 55 - Ruling the Waves

Scotland Magazine Issue 55
February 2011

 

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Ruling the Waves

Simon Whaley looks at the history of this magnificent Clyde-built ship

When I saw the launch coming in, with its White Ensign fluttering in the wind, I was very happy inside and there were tears in my eyes. The Queen’s Yacht turned back for me, just for me!” Those were the words of Yemenborn, London Bus Driver, Saleh Ali, 25 years ago, when the Scottish-built Royal Yacht Britannia undertook a daring six-day rescue mission to evacuate stranded British nationals caught up in South Yemen’s civil war.

At the time, Britannia was sailing through the Red Sea on her way to Australia, when the civil unrest flared up. Ships were urgently needed to rescue foreign nationals trapped by the fierce fighting. Britannia’s unique status, as a noncombatant Royal Navy ship, offered a diplomatic opportunity, to which the Queen gave her full backing. Originally designed to convert into a hospital ship during times of war, Britannia had never had to fulfil this medical obligation. Now, for this unforeseen duty, there was no time for any physical interior changes. The Royal Yacht’s State Dining Room and Drawing Rooms were cleared of furniture in preparation for the rescue mission.

On 17th January 1986, Britannia dropped anchor off Khormakasar Beach. With a Union flag fluttering from each of her three masts, the entire sleek yacht, built by the prestigious Clydebank shipyard, John Brown & Co, was floodlit from bow to stern. There could be no mistaking who she was, nor any suggestion that she was a threat to either side in South Yemen’s internal unrest. In the evening, the first of Britannia’s smaller boats was lowered into the sea and sailed for South Yemen’s beaches. Operation Balsac had begun.

Between 17th and 22nd January, Britannia’s boats shuttled back and forth between the beach and yacht, often under gunfire from Yemen’s warring factions. Alongside other rescue ships, Britannia’s efforts helped to rescue 1,068 of the 1,379 people of 55 different nationalities from the conflict. The State Dining Room and the Anteroom became one large emergency shelter, where civilians simply found a space on the floor, covered themselves with a blanket, and comforted each other now that they were now safe.

Eleven years after this dramatic rescue mission, on 22nd November 1997, following her last successful official duty during Hong Kong’s handover to China in June, Britannia’s engines were shut down and her duty as a Royal Yacht and a Royal Navy vessel came to an end. On 11th December 1997, the Queen was piped ashore as she stepped off Britain’s last Royal Yacht. Emotions ran high that day, resulting in one of the few occasions where press cameras caught the moment when the Queen shed a public tear.

In 1999, Britannia returned to the country of her birth, Scotland, to become one of the country’s most visited tourist attractions. Now berthed at Ocean Terminal, Leith Docks, Edinburgh, Britannia offers an intriguing insight into the private lives of the Royal Family. It remains today, the only place where visitors can see the private bedroom of our current reining monarch.

Britannia was the 83rd Royal Yacht; the first was a gift from the people of Amsterdam in 1660 to King Charles II. She was only the second Royal Yacht not to be powered by sail. Her predecessor, Victoria & Albert III, was the first not to be at the mercy of the winds, although, rumours of its instability led Queen Victoria to refrain from stepping aboard. Victoria & Albert III served four monarchs, but was decommissioned in 1939. After the Second World War, thoughts turned to a successor. What was needed was a yacht capable of sailing the world, enabling the monarch to travel to all countries in the British Commonwealth. The Admiralty turned to the Scottish John Brown & Co shipyard on the Clyde, builders of the hugely impressive liners like the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary. On 5th February 1952, King George VI confirmed the order to the shipyard, in writing, to build Britannia. Twenty-four hours later, George VI died, and Britannia became one of the first responsibilities of the new Queen Elizabeth II.

Both the Queen and Prince Philip were closely involved in the design and interior decoration of Britannia. It was their decision that Britannia’s hull should be painted blue, like their racing yacht, Bluebottle, which had been a wedding present.

The Queen wanted Britannia to represent a country house at sea, and the designer of the Royal Apartments, Sir Hugh Casson, said: “The Queen is a meticulous observer with very definite views on everything from the door handles to the shape of the lampshades.” There’s another reason why Britannia was so special to Her Majesty, which Prince Philip once pointed out. “Britannia is special for a number of reasons. 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.” The Queen didn’t always get her own way though. There were plans for a real fire in the State Drawing Room, but these had to be shelved when it was pointed out that Naval regulations would require a sailor to be stationed beside the fire at all times it was lit, with a bucket of water, in case of emergency. Whereas in other Royal residencies, State Rooms are for official duties, here on Britannia, the State Rooms were used every day as a place to rest by the Royal Family. Indeed, the Queen did say, “This is where I can truly relax.” A tour around Britannia’s decks offers visitors an opportunity to explore its split personality. From the main mast to the bow are the yacht’s operational areas. Housing the main engine room, stores, officers’ cabins, boiler rooms, the laundry, yachtsmen’s quarters, messes, workshops and kitchens, there was everything required to keep the yacht going on its long overseas tours. Behind all this, between the main mast and the stern were the Royal Apartments, the State Rooms and quarters of the royal staff.

The State Dining Room is the grandest room on the yacht and has entertained world leaders including Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin and Nelson Mandela. The 32-seater mahogany table, with accompanying Hepplewhite chairs, can be extended by adding two further tables from Britannia’s predecessor, Victoria & Albert III. And when not used for state functions, it doubled up as a cinema, was used for church services on a Sunday, and on Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday, the carpets were rolled up to reveal a hidden dance floor.

Britannia’s Engine Room is unlike any other engine room. The mat outside the entrance door was for staff to wipe their feet on when entering this immaculate wonder. And when USA’s General Schwarzkopf was shown around, he said, “Okay, I’ve seen the museum piece. Now, where’s the real engine room?” Those engines powered Britannia for 1,087,623 nautical miles, carrying the Royal Family on official tours, and also flying the flag for British business across the globe. Her trade trips are estimated to have generated an extra £3 billion of revenue for the Exchequer. It’s easy to imagine how the magic of Britannia enthralled those foreign business leaders. The next time you’re in Edinburgh, step aboard the Royal Yacht to discover the magic for yourself.