The Retirement of a Longtime Royal Yacht

December 11, 1997

Britannia, a vessel that had served as the royal yacht of British monarch Queen Elizabeth II for more than four decades, was decommissioned in a ceremony at the Portsmouth naval base on England’s south coast.  Along with highlighting Britannia’s “brass fittings gleaming in the winter sunshine and flags rippling in a brisk breeze,” the Associated Press (AP) focused on the royal couple who were on hand for this weekday ceremony.

“Queen Elizabeth II struggled with her emotions and Prince Phillip wiped away a tear as they bid farewell Thursday to the magnificent yacht on which they toured a diminishing empire,” reported AP. “As the setting sun cast its golden light on the yacht, the strains of ‘Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves,’ played by a pipe band, proved too much for even the long-practiced royal composure.”

In its account of this decommissioning ceremony, the Ottawa Citizen noted that “no royal yacht was ever as versatile or well-traveled as Britannia.” This newspaper also reported, “Few ships have sailed 1.92 kilometers [1 million nautical miles]. Only this one has done so using its original engines.”

The 412-foot (126-meter) Britannia had been built at the shipyard of the engineering firm John Brown and Company in the Scottish town of Clydebank. The yacht was launched by Queen Elizabeth on April 16, 1953, a little over a year after she ascended the British throne following the death of her father, King George VI. Britannia was officially commissioned into service  on January 11, 1954.

Britannia’s maiden voyage took place that April, when she transported Princess Anne and Prince Charles from Portsmouth to the British colony (now independent republic) of Malta so that they could reunite with their parents at the end of the royal couple’s Commonwealth Tour. The following month, Elizabeth and Phillip traveled on Britannia for the first time during a a visit to the port city of Tobruk in the Kingdom (now State) of Libya.

Britannia was the 83rd British royal yacht in an unbroken line of such vessels going all the way back to King Charles II, who formally reigned as monarch of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1660 to 1685. Charles used his pioneering 50.5-foot (15.4-meter) vessel named Mary primarily for racing. Britannia was only the second British royal yacht bearing that name. The first one was a racing cutter (a type of high-speed sailing vessel) built in 1893 for Queen Victoria’s son Edward, Prince of Wales, who later ascended the throne as King Edward VII after the death of his mother.

Elizabeth’s royal yacht Britannia ultimately transported her, other members of the British Roytal Family, and various dignitaries on a grand total of 272 visits in British waters and 696 foreign trips. One of the yacht’s more notable trips abroad occurred during the summer of 1959, when Elizabeth traveled on Britannia via the newly opened Saint Lawrence Seaway to get to Chicago. This voyage made Elizabeth the first British monarch to visit the Windy City. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was on board the yacht for part of the that cruise through the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Other U.S. presidents who spent time on board Britannia were Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.

During her many years of service, Britannia also performed significant roles that went well beyond providing a means of transportation for the British Royal Family. In 1986, for example, the yacht was used to evacuate over 1,000 refugees from the port city of Aden after a civil war erupted in what was then the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula.

At the decommissioning ceremony for Britannia in 1997, Elizabeth took time to say a few words about the yacht and its importance. “Looking back over forty-four years we can all reflect with pride and gratitude upon this great ship which has served the country, the Royal Navy and my family with such distinction,” said the queen.

In the time since she was retired from active service, Britannia has been berthed at the Port of Leith in Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh. The yacht, which has been included in the National Historic Fleet (a list of historically significant vessels located in the United Kingdom), is now a popular tourist attraction. A registered charity known as the Royal Yacht Britannia Trust is responsible for Britannia’s continued care and maintenance.

For more information on the British royal yacht Britannia, please check out https://www.royalyachtbritannia.co.uk/about/history/

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