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Issue 9 - Britanniarulesthewaves

Scotland Magazine Issue 9
July 2003

 

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Britanniarulesthewaves

NEILGUNNSTEPSONBOARDTHEROYALYACHTBRITANNIA,NOWOPENTOTHEPUBLICATTHEEDINBURGHPORTOFLEITH

Onasummereveningin1997,asthetorrentialrainsweptoverthedarkenedharbour,thefireworksexplodedandcascadedabovetheassembleddignitaries.PrinceCharlesinthefinalmomentsofBritishruleremindedthepeopleofHongKong,“Weshallnotforgetyou…“

Withtheceremonycomplete,CharlesandthelastgovernorofthecolonyChrisPattenboardedtheroyalyacht,leavingHongKongtoitsnewmasters.AsBritanniaslippedhermooringsandheadedslowlyintotheSouthChinaSea,herroyalpassengermusthavereflectedthatthistoowasnearlytheendforanelderlyladywhohadgiventheroyalfamilyover43yearsofloyalservice.

Theyacht’slifewaslikethatofthegreatoceanliners,QueenMaryandQueenElizabethII,whichbegantheirlivesonJohnBrown’sshipyardontheClyde.PlanstobuildanewyachttoreplacetheageingVictoriaandAlbertIIIhadfirstbeenconsideredin1938duringthereignofKingGeorgeVI,butinausterepost-warBritain,itdidn’tseemappropriate.

In1951,withtheking’shealthfailing,thegovernmentdecidedtopushaheadwiththeirplans.Theyfeltthatanewyachtmightplaysomepartinhisrecovery.ButGeorgeVIdiedbeforetheworkwascompleted.Britanniawaslaunchedin1953,andafterseatrials,wascommissionedforRoyalNavyservicethefollowingyear.

Shewasthelatestinalineofroyalyachtsthatstretchesbacktothe17thcentury,whentheDutchgavetheworld’sfirstroyalyacht,Mary,toCharlesIIasagift.

OriginaldesignsofBritanniahadspecifiedadualrole–ahospitalshiptobeusedintimesofconflict,andaroyalyacht.Shewasneverusedintheformercapacity,althoughinJanuary1986,whenenroutetoAustraliawithouttheQueenonboard,shewasdivertedtoAdentohelpintheevacuationfromthebeachesofthosetrappedbythefighting.Over1,000terrifiedpeoplewererescuedandcrammedintoeveryavailablespaceonboard.

QueenElizabethandPrincePhiliptookakeeninterestintheyacht’sdesign,workingwithSirHughCassononplansfortheinteriordecoration.Fabrics,furnitureandpaintingswereselectedbytheyoungcouple,manyofthemtakenfromtheVictoriaandAlbertIIIinanefforttokeepcostsundercontrol.

Thestateapartments,aftofthefunnel,arenotextravagantlydecorated.Insteadtheyhaveatraditional‘countryhouse’feel,particularlyinthedrawingroom,wherechintz-coveredarmchairsandsofassitonaplainsilver-greycarpetoverlaidbyamagnificentPersianrug.

Anelectricfiresitsinthecentreofthewallatthefarendofthedrawingroom,andyetotherroyalyachtshadhadopenfires.ItwasintendedthatBritanniashouldhaveonetoo.However,navyregulationsstatedthatincaseofemergency,asailorwithafirebucketmuststandbythefireplaceatalltimes.

Thebabygrandpianointhecorneroftenprovidedafter-dinnerentertainment.PrincessesDiana,AlexandraandMargaretwereallknowntoenjoyplaying.BrianHoeyremindsusofthenightSirNoelCowardcametodinnerduringaCaribbeancruise.

“Heliterallysangforhissupper,playingmanyofhisowncompositionsintotheweesmallhours.Evenontheroyalyachtthereisnosuchthingasafreemeal.”

‘Supper’inthediningroomcouldbeasumptuousaffair.Inpreparationforastatebanquet,theburnishedmahoganytablewaslaidwithmilitaryprecision.Beforetheguestsarrived,thefloraldecorations,candelabrasandexquisitecrystalwineglasseswereputcarefullyinplace,beforethefinalpositionofeachshiningpieceofsilvercutlerywasmeasuredwitharuler.MenuswereprintedandseatingplanswerediscussedandfinalisedbeforeBritanniasetsail.Nothingwaslefttochance.

RajivGhandi,SirWinstonChurchill,BillClintonandMargaretThatcherarepartofalonglistoftheworld’smostpowerfulpeoplewhoenjoyedroyalhospitality.

TheQueenandPrincePhiliphadtheirownbedroomsandsittingroomsdecoratedtoreflecttheirpersonaltaste.ChintzandfloralwaspreferredbytheQueen,whiletheDukelikedwoodpanelling,amorefunctionalstyle.

Britanniawasafavouritewithallgenerationsoftheroyalfamily,butparticularlytheQueen,whoalwayssaidthatitwastheonlyplaceshecouldtrulybeatease.Fourroyalhoneymoonshavebeenspentonboard,andalthoughnoneofthemarriageshassurvived,therelaxedcharmofonememberofthefamilyinparticularisfondlyremembered.

AsBritanniawelcomedayoungPrincessDianaaboard,itwasimmediatelyapparentthatshewashappiestwhenproceedingswereinformalandrelaxed.Shewasnotcontenttoremainontheupperdeckandwasoftenfoundexploringbelow.

Ononememorableoccasion,shewasfoundintheJuniorRatingsMessleadingtheyachtsmeninachorusofWhatShallWeDoWithTheDrunkenSailor.

Butoneremarkinparticularsumsupthefeelingandaffectionthecrewhadforher:“Thereare275menonboardBritannia,andeveryoneofthemisinlovewithPrincessDiana.”

TheRoyalYachtwasmorethanafloatinghotel.ItwasanunofficialambassadorforBritain.OnwhatbecameknownasSeaDays,BritanniawouldthrowopenitsdoorstotheworldofcommerceandletBritishbusinessmenpromotetheircompaniesandproductstotheworld.TheOverseasTradeBoardestimatedthatbetween1991and1995,theExchequerbenefitedtothetuneof£3billion($5billion).

Duringitslongservice,theshipsailedoveronemillionmiles,callingat600portsin135countries,usingthesamegleamingsteamturbines,atestamenttotheengineers,includingthiswriter’sfather,atJohnBrown’sshipyard.

BritanniawasfinallydecommissionedinPortsmouthon11thDecember1997.ItisnowmooredinEdinburgh’sPortofLeithandopentothepublic.Since1998,1.3millionvisitorshavewalkedherpolisheddecksandpeeredintoroyalstaterooms.

SirPatrickMayhewmusthavethelastword:“Tothosewhosawher,tosaynothingofthosewhohadtheprivilegeofbeinginvitedonboard,theexperiencewasbrilliant,symbolicandunforgettable.”