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How modern monarchs are keeping the sailing tradition alive

1 June 2022• Written by Keith Dovkants

For centuries, yachting has been a beloved pastime of monarchs. As Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Platinum Jubilee after 70 years on the throne, Keith Dovkants discovers how today’s royals are carrying on this noble tradition.

In a jaunty Breton-style top and with a confident grip on the helm, the Duchess of Cambridge made a favourable impression on a sailing outing in New Zealand a while back. She match raced her husband on America’s Cup yachts around the cans in Auckland Harbour – and won. Twice. It was a light-hearted foray during an official visit in 2014 and many a sailor was cheered to see a front-line royal clearly enjoying herself on a sailboat. The Duchess, who was a keen sailor as a youngster, went on to make another high-profile appearance on a Land Rover BAR America’s Cup catamaran and became patron of the 1851 Trust, a charity dedicated to getting young people into boats and maritime industries. “I hope we can engage and inspire a new generation into sailing,” she said.

Her enthusiasm gives a timely stimulus to the long-standing love affair between European royal families and yachting.

Princess Anne sailing in the Royal Lymington Yacht Club's Annual Regatta
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Britain’s royals were once the standard bearers of a tradition that stretches back centuries. The Prince Regent, later George IV, joined the Yacht Club – now the Royal Yacht Squadron – in 1817 and was a keen visitor at the annual Cowes regatta. Edward VII watched the first America’s Cup race as a child in 1851 and had a passion for sailing. As Prince of Wales he owned a succession of cutters, then in 1893 ordered what was to become perhaps the most famous racing yacht of all time – Britannia.

No other boat defines royal yachting like Britannia. She was designed by the maestro GL Watson and built on the River Clyde in Scotland from wooden planking on steel frames. She measured 36.8 metres overall, with a mast that soared 43 metres above the deck. With all sails flying, her canvas spread to 959 square metres. She had a luxurious saloon and four sleeping cabins with a full-size bathroom. Decoration included tapestries and cretonnes. The crew of around 20 men occupied the forecastle, sleeping on folding cots and hammocks.

The Duchess of Cambridge racing in Auckland Harbour
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Britannia was magnificent, the queen of the Big Class, and won again and again. But she famously lost to the newer and bigger Meteor II, also designed by Watson and owned by another royal, Kaiser Willhelm II, Emperor of Germany and King of Prussia. The Kaiser was fiercely competitive, prompting his British uncle to complain: “Sailing used to be a pleasant relaxation for me. Since the Kaiser took command, it is a vexation.” In fact, he put the beloved Britannia up for sale in 1897 but repurchased her in 1899 and cruised her until his death in 1910.

In the hands of Edward’s son, George V, Britannia dominated the Big Class racing circuit again in the 1920s and was still racing in the early 1930s after modifications to sail with the J Class. The King hoped his son and heir, the future Edward VIII, would keep up the family tradition. This was not to be. The new Prince of Wales’s sporting interests lay elsewhere, as history records.

Prince Frederik of Denmark and crewman Chris Masters competing in the World Masters Games, 2009
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When George V died in January 1936 and no other family member stepped up to take the yacht, Britannia’s fittings were stripped and sold for charity. The hull was towed south of the Isle of Wight by HMS Winchester and sunk with explosive charges, in accordance with the late king’s will.

Yachting was slow to recover after the Second World War, but in July 1947 Buckingham Palace announced the engagement of Princess Elizabeth to a young navy man who was mad about boats. Members of the Island Sailing Club in Cowes on the Isle of Wight bought a Dragon Class yacht for the couple as a wedding present. The Duke of Edinburgh fell upon the gift with an enthusiasm that gratified not only the ISC, but sailors everywhere. Suddenly, after the dark days of the war, their passion was being shared by one of the most glamorous and charismatic members of the royal family.

The Duke called his new boat Bluebottle. At Cowes he would happily pose for press pictures with the new boat if the photographers would keep out of his way on the water. But this, to his great annoyance, was to change.

Princess Victoria of Sweden takes the helm on a Volvo Ocean Race yacht in 2015
Credit: Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

He was still a serving naval officer and Princess Elizabeth had royal duties, so time for sailing was short. The future queen made one brief outing on Bluebottle, but mostly the boat was sailed by a sailing master and the Duke. Around this time he struck up a friendship with Uffa Fox, designer of the Flying Fifteen and other famous boats. “Uffa was a genius with a sailing boat,” the Duke later wrote. The people of Cowes presented him with a Flying Fifteen designed by Fox that he named Coweslip. She was kept at Fox’s yard and when the Royal Yacht Britannia became a regular visitor to Cowes Week, the Duke would take a launch from the ship straight to Coweslip’s mooring.

Then came Bloodhound. Built in 1936, this 19 metre yawl was bought by the Duke and the Queen in 1962 and refitted for cruising and racing. Although the Queen sailed Bloodhound rarely, the yacht was very much part of the royal family’s life. The Duke raced her with Uffa Fox, and when Britannia took the family for their summer cruise around the Western Isles, Bloodhound went too. She was sailed by the Duke during the day with the royal children and their friends. Prince Charles was a keen sailor, but service in the Royal Navy seems to have cured any sea fever, although he did go through a windsurfing phase some years ago.

Even without a boat, the Duke of Edinburgh was a regular visitor to Cowes, notably as guest of the industrialist Owen Aisher on his Yeoman racing yachts during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Pierre Casiraghi leading Team Malizia during the Copa Del Rey Mafre Sailing Cup, 2017
Credit: Getty Images / Carlos Alvarez

But Britain’s royals were not the only ones keen on racing. Ex-King Constantine II of Greece commands immense respect. As a 20-year-old prince, he won a gold medal sailing in the Dragon Class at the 1960 Olympics. A regular at Cowes, he would often sail with the Duke of Edinburgh who, after all, is his cousin.

Constantine’s sister, now Queen Sofia of Spain, shared his passion for sailing and was a reserve in the gold medal-winning team. When she met the boat-mad future King of Spain, Juan Carlos, on a cruise around the Greek islands in 1954, they clicked instantly.

The Duke of Edinburgh with boat designer Uffa Fox competing at Cowes
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King Juan Carlos, who abdicated in favour of his son Felipe in 2014, was a Dragon Class competitor in the 1972 Olympics, although he didn’t win a medal. Juan Carlos and his son, who represented Spain in Solings in the 1992 Olympics, were keen competitors aboard Bribón, their very quick Judel/ Vrolijk TP52, placing second in the Med Cup and winning the Copa Del Rey in 2011. After his abdication, Juan Carlos sold the boat and now helms his classic Six Metre. In fact, during September 2017, at the age of 79, he and his crew aboard the Six Metre Bribón Gallant won the Classic Division for boats built before 1965 at the 6M Worlds in Vancouver, Canada.

Another Dragon aficionado was Constantine’s brother-in-law, Prince Henrik of Denmark, who died in February 2018 aged 83. He was a lifelong sailor and honorary chairman of the Royal Danish Yacht Club for 44 years. He owned six Dragons and sailed his last race aged 78. His son, Crown Prince Frederick, is also a keen sailor and he and his wife Princess Mary boarded the 30 metre super Maxi Wild Oats last December before a Christmas holiday in Tasmania, where the Princess was born. The Hobart-born royal beat her husband 2-1 in a match race back in 2005 after he contested the world Farr 40 championships off Sydney Heads.

King Harald of Norway racing in the 2004 Acura SORC
Credit: Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images

Scandi royals adore sailing and none more than King Harald of Norway. A three-time Olympian, the grandfather of six – now aged 81 – still sails his beloved eight metre Sira, which his father King Olav V had built in the 1930s.

“I’ve raced all my life,” King Harald said after a race in Canada two years ago. “You can’t stop playing, you know.” The King taught his children to sail and daughter Princess Martha Louise recalled in a recent biography that her father would undergo a “personality change” as an instructor. “He would… start shouting and shrieking and giving orders, just a completely different Harald,” she said.

His son Crown Prince Haakon and his wife Princess Matte-Marit both sail, but the Prince says he suspects his father may be disappointed he did not pursue the sport with the same passion.

The Dutch royal family aboard their yacht De Groene Draeck
Credit: Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/AFP via Getty Images

When the Royal Yachting Association celebrated the 50th birthday of its magazine, Princess Anne, its president, wrote a letter of congratulation, calling herself “a fellow sailor”. She certainly is – Anne and her husband, Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence, keep a Rustler 44, Ballochbuie, at Ardfern in Scotland and aim to cruise, sometimes as far as the Hebrides, at least twice a year. The Princess describes her role as “foredeck hand” – the boat has electric winches, in-mast furling and a bow thruster for ease of handling. At 13 metres, Ballochbuie (named after ancient woodland on the Balmoral estate), is a good size for a cruising couple.

On the Côte d Azur, where Britannia and the rest of the Big Class used to race every summer, Pierre Casiraghi, son of Princess Caroline of Monaco, is a highly competitive sailor, with Sydney-Hobart and Fastnet races under his belt. He skippers the Malizia racing team, and when he’s not competing offshore, he sails a high-speed foiling cat. Casiraghi also sponsors Sail for a Cause, a charity that supports humanitarian projects, including medical care for children. His uncle, Prince Albert II, Monaco’s ruler, owns Tuiga, a 23 metre Fife gaff cutter considered among the most beautiful of vintage yachts. Tuiga, sometimes with Prince Albert at the helm, is a regular on the classic regatta circuit, and at home is used to give youngsters sail training at the Yacht Club de Monaco.

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