Maritime Monarchs

King Charles III’s ascent to the British throne could mark the end of the country’s centuries-old tradition of building impressive, innovative Royal Yachts.

King Charles III’s ascent to the British throne could mark the end of the country’s centuries-old tradition of building impressive, innovative and iconic Royal Yachts. 

The acclaimed ability of her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, to promote highly influential international ‘soft power’ on behalf of the United Kingdom, ran, for many years, in tandem with the many happy times she spent aboard her beloved Royal Yacht, HMY Britannia.  

Launched in April 1953 at the John Brown & Company shipyard on the banks of the River Clyde, Scotland, the 412ft (126m) Britannia would go on to spend the next 44 years travelling more than a million nautical miles, while conducting almost 1,000 state visits, as a vital UK ambassadorial asset that helped generate billions of pounds in global trade deals. 

Equipped with twin steam turbines powering 12,000 hp (8,900 kW) and speeds beyond 21 knots, Britannia boasted a range of 2,400 nautical miles, luxurious accommodation for 250 guests, and a complement of 220 naval crew, which always included a detachment of Royal Marines.  

Designed to be converted into a hospital ship at any time if required, Britannia sported three masts — a 133ft (41m) foremast, 139ft (42m) mainmast and 118ft (36m) mizzenmast. The top 20ft (6m) of the mainmast was hinged to allow her to pass under low bridges.

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - APRIL 18: The Royal Yacht Britannia is now open to visitors at Leith Basin, Edinburgh. April 18, 2010 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The HMY Britannia is open to visitors at Leith Basin, Edinburgh. Credit: Shutterstock

War zone

In January 1986, while on passage to New Zealand, and without the Queen on board, Britannia diverted its voyage to help rescue more than 1,000 people who had found themselves caught up in the violent fighting at the beginning of a vicious civil war which had just broken out in the former UK colony of Aden, now the capital of South Yemen.  

Mooring as close as possible to the beach in heavy surf and within the range of gunfire, Britannia used her six boats to bring the evacuees safely aboard over a two-day period.  

Decommissioned in 1997, Britannia is now berthed permanently in the Port of Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland, as a star tourist attraction, drawing in over 300,000 visitors per year. 

The 63ft (19m) Camper and Nicholsons racing yacht Bloodhound — built in 1936, owned by the Queen from 1962-1969, and the yacht on which King Charles III and his sister, the Princess Royal, learned to sail — can often also now be seen berthed alongside Britannia.  

Plans for a new Royal Yacht, however, appear to have now been put on the back burner amid reports that King Charles and the new Prince of Wales believe that the substantial expense involved in building such an auspicious vessel might not be in keeping with their long-held views of a how a modern, slimmed-down monarchy should present itself. 

Merry Monarch

Ironically, it was the previous King Charles — Charles II — who began the tradition of building, often extravagant yet always technologically innovative, Royal Yachts.   

His love of sailing began while in exile in the Low Countries before his restoration to the English throne in 1660, when he was gifted a 66ft (20m) yacht which he named HMY Mary.  

The pleasure loving, some say hedonistic, King would go on to build more than 20 Royal Yachts for himself. The one on which he spent most time was the Cleveland, a 53ft (16m) gaff-rigged yacht built specially for his favourite mistress, the Duchess of Cleveland.  

Charles and his brother James (who would later become King James II of England and Ireland and King James VII of Scotland) also built two racing yachts for themselves which they famously raced from Greenwich to Gravesend and back again in 1662 for a £100 wager. 

The Royal Yacht Cleveland with King Charles II aboard Bonhams
The Royal Yacht Cleveland with King Charles II aboard by Jacob Knyff. Credit: Bonhams

Victorian trio

Two centuries later, Queen Victoria was also to be found spending time aboard her five Royal Yachts, including the steam powered, paddle-driven Victoria and Albert I, launched in 1843, so that she could enjoy cruising Britain’s coastal waters.  

A second main yacht, Victoria and Albert II, was launched in 1855, while a third, Victoria and Albert III, was launched, this time screw-driven and fitted with steam engines fired by water-tube boilers, in 1899. Victoria never, however, sailed aboard the Victoria and Albert III as she believed it to be too top-heavy and therefore unsafe. It was, though, used enthusiastically by the next three monarchs — George V, Edward VIII and George VI — before being decommissioned in 1939, and finally broken up for scrap at Faslane, Scotland, in 1954. 

Royal barge

The twenty-first century has seen the first Royal Barge to be built in more than 250 years. The 88ft (26m) 18-oared Gloriana was constructed, in the style of a Viking clinker long boat, especially for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, using oak, iroko and chestnut. 

Although designed to reflect the splendour of the Thames’ 18th century ceremonial row barges, Gloriana has also been fitted out with a fully modern technological approach, being equipped with wheelchair-friendly access and an electric propulsion system incorporating 16 x 24V 100Ah Lithium batteries to provide enough power for six hours of cruising. 

London, England - September 24 2022: The Gloriana and other boats make their way under tower bridge as part of the reflections flotilla in memory of the late queen Elizabeth the 2nd
The Gloriana taking part in a flotilla in memory of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Credit: Shutterstock

The Anarchy

The most unfortunate royal vessel in British history must surely be the wooden longship — the White Ship — which sank off Normandy, France, in November 1120, while carrying a substantial number of important Anglo-Norman nobles. 

The 130ft (40m) fifty-oared vessel had set off, late, from Barfleur bound for Southampton.  

Its passengers and crew, who had been drinking heavily all day, were in very high spirits by the time the White Ship set sail. Overly boisterous, they soon put pressure on the captain to go as fast as possible in order to overtake the ship ahead, which was carrying King Henry I.  

Within minutes the White Ship struck a partially submerged rock and quickly capsized.  

Around 300 people drowned including 140 knights, 18 noble women and, most importantly from an historical perspective, William Adelin, the only legitimate son and heir of Henry I. 

It was a major maritime tragedy that would throw Henry into a life-long depression and lead, eventually after his death, to a power vacuum, severe breakdown in law and order, and the start of the murderous 15-year civil war historians now refer to as The Anarchy

Dennis O’Neill is a freelance journalist specialising in maritime.