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HMS Britannia: 10 facts about Queen Elizabeth's former royal yacht

1 June 2022• Written by Holly Overton

From humanitarian missions to hosting royal honeymoons, the HMS Britannia has a fascinating history serving the British Royal Family for over four decades. When she was decommissioned in 1997, Queen Elizabeth II shed a tear in a rare display of emotion. The occasion marked the end of long succession for royal yachts dating back to the reign of Charles II. As the country prepares to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee, we remember her beloved Britannia.

1. Britannia was launched in 1953

Britannia was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth II following the death of her father and was launched from John Brown & Co. Ltd - the shipyard that built the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary cruise liners - in 1953. However, there was to be no traditional Champagne-smashing against her bow. In a post-war Britain, Champagne was considered too extravagant so instead, a bottle of Empire wine was selected to do the honours at her official launch ceremony.

2. There are three masts on board

Unlike her predecessors, Britannia possessed a more modern profile with a clipper bow and cruiser stern. The ship was designed with three masts: a 41-metre foremast, a  42-metre mainmast, and 36 metre mizzenmast. The last six metres of the main mast were placed on a hinge so she could pass under bridges.

3. Britannia logged over one million nautical miles

Between family vacations and official tours, Britannia logged over one million nautical miles, which roughly equates to one trip around the world for each of her 44 years in service.

4. The wheel was inherited

The ship’s wheel was taken from King Edward VII’s racing yacht, a 37-metre gaff-rigged cutter also named Britannia. She was a near sistership to Valkyrie II which challenged for the 1893 America's Cup, and won over 230 races in her lifetime. At the end of her life she was stripped of her spars and fittings - the wheel was saved and fitted on Britannia

5. The engine room was hyper-clean

The engine room was hyper-clean  Rumour has it that the engine room on Britannia was kept in such pristine condition that any visitors were made to wipe their feet on a door mat before entering.

6. Royal honeymoons were hosted on board

A number of royal couples chose to spend their honeymoons on Britannia given its privacy and security. Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones started the trend with a six-week sail between Mustique, Trinidad and Antigua, followed by Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips, and Princess Diana and Prince Charles. The royal apartments were located on the shelter deck with access to a large veranda.

7. There were more than 200 crew on board

During royal tours, Britannia was manned by 220 yachtsmen, 21 officers and three season officers and a Royal Marine band of 26 on royal tours. Up until the 1970s, the crew had a daily ration of rum and she was the last Royal Navy vessel to have the crew sleep in hammocks.

8. Ready for war

Britannia was designed to be converted into a hospital ship in times of war. Although she was never used in this capacity, she did assist in the evacuation of refugees during the South Yemen civil war. The drawing room was used as a temporary dormitory for the evacuees.

9. The golden rivet

It was common for officers to send junior crew off on a fool’s errand to search for a single "golden rivet". It became a right of passage and engrained in maritime folklore. During a state visit, so the story goes, the Queen had caught wind of this elusive rivet and was keen to see it for herself, so the crew found some gold leaf and hastily created a golden rivet to present to Her Majesty.

10. Decomission

HMS Britannia was officially retired from royal service in 1997. Britannia is now permanently berthed in Edinburgh and has been converted into a museum. To this day, all the clocks on board remained stopped on 3.01pm which is the exact time the Queen last disembarked the vessel.