A yacht fit for a queen

Our resident blogger joins the calls for a new Royal Yacht

There’s recently been a revival of interest in a Royal Yacht, some claiming the withdrawal of Britannia over a decade ago was a big mistake.

I say it was a mistake. I don’t claim to be a marketing genius, although I did spend much of my City career in this area, but apart from state occasions the Royal Yacht gave an enormous boost abroad to British industry. Far more important people than I could see the benefits but regardless of its commercially proven track record, the ship was withdrawn.

I mentioned in my old Motor Boat & Yachting column that while crossing the Solent to attend the America’s Cup Jubilee in 2001 I noticed the Royal Yacht of Norway anchored off the town.

The 1,700-ton Norge began life in 1937. She was built by Camper & Nicholsons for T.O.M. Sopwith as Philante, a twist on the names of Tommy and his wife Phyllis. She crossed the Atlantic to attend Sopwith’s 1937 challenge for the America’s Cup with Endeavour but after a spell with the Royal Navy in WWII was purchased as a gift for their King by the people of Norway.

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Now, I worked it out that in 2001 when the 48-year-old Britannia was about to be withdrawn the 64-year-old Norge was still going strong and indeed still is. The big difference was that Norge is diesel-powered whereas Britannia relied on steam turbines.

I mentioned this to the late Dick Hewitt, then editor of Motor Boat & Yachting and a retired naval commander who had served as chief engineer aboard the Royal yacht. He reminded me that Britannia had been built just after the war in the early 1950s when the country was tight with money.

With the growth in guided missiles outdating large battleships, HMS Vanguard was in the course of being broken up and many items from her engineroom such as generators, pumps, compressors and lots of electrical equipment found their way to Britannia.

This made economic sense at the time apart from one important aspect. All this second-hand gear was designed for direct (DC) rather than alternating (AC) current. Dick went on to tell me that during his several years aboard he found it impossible to get replacements and whenever anything electrical broke down he had to have it rewound which was both very expensive and time consuming.

He also pointed out that Britannia was the only ship operated by the Royal Navy requiring heavy oil to fire its boilers, again an expensive item in single ship quantities. In his opinion, apart from installing updated power, the ship would also have to be totally rewired, costing thousands.

I wrote in my column that I felt Britannia should be dry-docked, a hole cut in its side, the steam power taken out and replaced by a couple of large diesels: a practice then common with cruise liners, the QE2 being one example.

The result would see the old boiler room converted to a conference centre, but perhaps most important of all, using diesel power would considerably reduce running costs.
The response was almost immediate. A couple of chairmen heading large commercial organisations wrote to me offering to donate and install their equipment free of charge if only the old ship could be saved. I passed this information by letter to Barry Field MP, then Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on the Royal Yacht.

I said it was possible that other companies may also be willing to offer goods and services which would significantly reduce the costs of a refit. His reply was extremely sympathetic. It seemed that even if the entire refit was covered by outsiders there was no way Britannia could be saved. Her withdrawal was purely a political decision headed by John Major keen to reduce what many felt were outdated and expensive luxuries.

Now we see a new campaign headed by the Daily Mail calling for a new Royal Yacht to double as a sail-training ship. The proposed craft has been designed by Colin Mudie who was responsible for several modern square riggers including Royalist and Lord Nelson.
This new proposal has already had the same support from industry that I received a decade ago but I’m not sure if a craft of this type would attract the same level of affection as the old Britannia.

As far as I know Britain is not short of sail-training vessels and it would be the world’s only non-exclusive, multi-use Royal Yacht, hence unlikely to be received in the same way as the old ship by international business. To my mind it would be far better to build a conventional ship fitted with the ultimate British-made equipment.

I’m not sure if a new Royal Yacht would go down well with Her Majesty as I understand she’s not a good sailor when it comes to a heaving deck but I wish good luck to the Daily Mail. Let’s hope their campaign reaps a worthwhile harvest.

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