Opinion | As Queen Elizabeth has ruled Britain for 70 years, Britannia once ruled the waves
P is for pomp.
With the United Kingdom in the thrust this week of the Jubilee — the thousands of street parties and corresponding hoopla marking the 70-year milestone of Her Majesty over the span of a four-day “bank holiday” — the spotlight lands squarely on a nonagenarian sovereign. Immutable and impervious. The proverbial rock. A living, breathing figure of history itself.
But as much as royal jubilees, even a record-breaking one like this, revolve around a persona — in this case Queen Elizabeth II — they are quite clearly as much about us. The sands of time. The weight of the past. The way we mark the years, in fact. Which got me thinking the other day about the one place, at least in the Windsor-y imagination, where time has literally stood still and that would be inside the Royal Yacht Britannia. There, the clocks read 3:01 p.m., now and forever. A nod to when the Queen stepped off the ship for the last time — 3:01 p.m., Dec. 11, 1997 — when the Britannia was oh-so-famously decommissioned.
The yacht, which at one point was the most famous such sea vessel in the world, now moored in Edinburgh, later lived to become a museum of sorts, a phantom of the sea, a royal corpse. It is one I have cruising around in my imagination because, as far as historic reigns go, it almost functions like a metaphor: the highest highs that Elizabeth has seen, but also the headwinds she has faced, including the crumbling of the “empire,” as it were, during her time.
By the time the Labour government pulled the curtain on the Britannia due to cost-cutting measures, it is noteworthy to consider the timing of it all. To think, it was mere months after Diana had died. A particularly turbulent time for the family and, arguably, the shakiest ground the monarchy ever was on. When it came to time to officially decommission the liner in a moving ceremony attended by most of the senior royals, the queen even visibly shed a tear.
But that was then. Conveying the Royal Family on 696 foreign visits, and steaming some one million nautical miles with a horsepower of some 12,000, the ship of course had seen no shortage of famous boarders: everyone from Noël Coward to Nelson Mandela. It was built by John Brown & Company, the same shipyard in Scotland where the Queen Mary was constructed and launched in April 1953 (just two months before Elizabeth’s coronation, so indeed synonymous with much of her rule). “I name this ship Britannia … I wish success to her and all who sail in her,” she famously declared when cracking a bottle against it.
Sometimes dubbed the “floating palace,” the Britannia was, in spirit, less like some of the oligarchic monstrosities that we sometimes associate with the term yacht and more like a country home of the sea. A teak-lined sun lounge, the queen’s favourite room, is where she took her breakfast and afternoon tea. The largest room on the ship was the dining room, which could seat about 56, and where the queen entertained dignitaries such as Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan. Technology on the ship extended to a phone system designed to match the unique configuration of Buckingham Palace telephones.
One la-di-da detail: in the early years of the Britannia’s life it also made room for the Queen’s Rolls-Royce Phantom V, which was hoisted and lowered from a special garage compartment at port so the Queen could drive her own car at each location.
Did I mention that four royal couples used the ship for at least part of their honeymoons, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon, and Di and Charles, among them.
Britannia’s final formal mission? A poignant one. An end upon an end. It took place on July 1, 1997, to transport the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, and Prince Charles back from the island after the handover of Hong Kong to China.
As far as the current jubilee goes, the royal yacht is getting in on the nostalgia, too. To mark the occasion, former crew returned this week for Yotties Week. “The teak decks will be bustling with the padding plimsolls of 65 former Royal Yachtsmen who are returning to their duties on Britannia once again,” as its official website previewed. Bring on the white overalls, gents! Also on the agenda: a special behind-the-ropes Platinum Jubilee Private Tour of Britannia — tea included (no need to carry your own bags, people).
One so-called Yottie, Dave Rushforth, who once worked in its engine room — handling the generators, the boilers, the steam turbines, etc. — walked down his particular part of memory lane in an interview with the Scotsman newspaper a few years ago: “The machinery ran 24 hours a day. Away from home, we rarely took shore power, so the boilers would have to be fired and the generators run to provide electricity. When we went deep sea, if we had a problem and needed a spare part, then we made one in the workshop.”
Along the way, Rushforth sailed to the American Bicentennial and the Montreal Olympic Games, through the Panama Canal, down to Rarotonga, Tahiti, through the West Indies and more.
Jeff Stoddard, who worked in the main gallery, chimed in about the food requirements at sea: “We had 250 hungry sailors to be fed three times a day. We had to prepare chips for two meals a day. If chips weren’t on the menu there’d be a mutiny.” Scotch eggs, croquettes, Danish pastries, everything was homemade. A favourite dish? One dubbed Babbie’s Heads was steak and kidney pudding. The Royal Family, of course, brought their own head chef.
If it’s good enough for the Windsors … it’s good enough for the Crawleys? So it would appear, given that the Jubilee year coincides with another big moment in the sun for the Royal Yacht. It actually is seen in the new Downton Abbey movie “A New Era,” which just hit theatres. Used mainly as a set, the ship is the transport of choice for the family as they set sail to a villa in the South of France that the Dowager Countess of Grantham has inherited. And though it looks, at times, like they are on the open sea, it is — I confirmed — just the magic of CGI. The Britannia no longer moves.
God save the queen. He could not save her yacht.
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