In service from 1954 until 1997, HMY Britannia is the former royal yacht of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. She was the 83rd such vessel since King Charles II acceded to the British throne in 1660 and had HMY Mary built for him by the Dutch East India Company, and the second royal yacht to bear the name, the first being a racing cutter built for the Prince of Wales in 1893.
During her 43-year career, the yacht travelled more than a million nautical miles around the globe. Today, she is an award-winning visitor attraction and evening events venue permanently berthed at Ocean Terminal, Leith, in Edinburgh.
HMY Britannia was built in Scotland at the shipyard of John Brown & Co. Ltd. in Clydebank, West Dumbartonshire. It was launched by the Queen on 16 April 1953 and commissioned on 11 January 1954.
She sailed on her maiden voyage from Portsmouth to Grand Harbour, Malta, on 14 April 1954, carrying Prince Charles and Princess Anne to Malta, to Malta in order for them to meet their parents at the end of the royal couple’s Commonwealth Tour.
On 20 July 1959, Britannia sailed the newly opened Saint Lawrence Seaway en route to Chicago, where she docked, making the Queen the first Canadian monarch to visit the city. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower was aboard Britannia for part of this cruise; Presidents Ford, Reagan and Clinton were subsequently welcomed aboard the yacht.
Britannia was designed to be converted into a hospital ship in time of war, with space for an estimated 200 patients. Although the ship was never used in this capacity, as she sailed down the Red Sea in January 1986, en route to Australia, she was asked to play the equally challenging role of rescue ship, to evacuate British nationals and others trapped in South Yemen, where civil war had broken out. Moreover, in the event of nuclear war, Britannia was to be used as a refuge and base of operations for the Queen. The plan, codenamed “Python system”, would have had the ship located on the northwest coast of Scotland in sea lochs with Her Majesty, the Duke of Edinburgh, and the Home Secretary safely on board.
The royal yacht played host to four royal honeymoons: Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones visited the West Indies in 1960; Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips also chose the Caribbean in 1973; Prince Charles and Princess Diana travelled around the Mediterranean in 1981 and finally the Duke and Duchess of York visited the Azores in 1986. Most recently, Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall held their pre-wedding reception on board the yacht in July 2011.
Britannia’s last foreign mission was to Hong Kong for the transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China on 1 July 1997. The ship set sail for Hong Kong in January and served to escort British Governor Christopher Patten and the Prince of Wales back to the UK.
In 1997, the Conservative government committed itself to replacing the Royal Yacht if re-elected, while the Labour Party refused to disclose its plans for the vessel. After Tony Blair’s Labour won the general election in May 1997, it announced the vessel was to be retired and no replacement would be built. The previous government had argued that the cost was justified by its role in foreign policy and promoting British interests abroad.
The Queen has since chartered the MV Hebridian Princess, a private charter cruise ship, on two separate occasions for family trips around the Scottish islands.
When HMY Britannia would come into port, blowing its foghorns, the Queen herself would reportedly imitate the foghorn noise, much to the amusement of anyone in earshot. Then she and the Duke of Edinburgh would travel ashore on the royal barge, built in 1964 to replace to previous one, which had originally belonged to the royal yacht Victoria and Albert III.
Unlike most ships, Britannia was the only ships in the world where the captain was always an Admiral. The crew were volunteers from the Royal Navy, officers were appointed for a period of two years, while enlisted crew (known as “yachtsmen”) served for one-year periods, after which they could be admitted to “The Permanent Royal Yacht Service”. If accepted the Royal Yachtsmen were permitted to serve until they left the Royal Yacht Service or were expelled for medical or disciplinary reasons. An attachment of Royal Marines would also be stationed on the yacht when the Royal Family was present. Service on the royal yacht attracted no extra pay, allowances or leave.
Everything was done to preserve the Royal Family’s tranquillity: most orders were not given verbally, but by hand signal; soft-soled plimsolls were worn and any work near the royal apartments had to be completed by 8.00AM.
HMY Britannia was the last ship in the Royal Navy to have hammocks in sailors’ quarters.
During her career as Royal Yacht, Britannia conveyed the Queen, other members of the Royal Family and various dignitaries on 696 foreign visits and 272 visits in British waters. In this time, Britannia steamed 1,087,623 nautical miles (2,014,278 km).