The Royal Yacht Britannia

Edinburgh, Scotland | C.1954

Photo Credit: Emma Stevens

Resting on the shores of Edinburgh lies a peculiar sea vessel–the last to serve the British royal family. Continuing a long-honored tradition of ships fulfilling the needs of the royals  (the 83rd such boat in fact), the HMY Britannia would travel the world for 44 years. By the time she was decommissioned, the yacht had traveled over 1 million nautical miles, taken part in 696 foreign visits, and seen a historic changing of the guard in Hong Kong. 

The idea for a new royal yacht was conceived in 1952 for the ailing King George VI to have an easier time traveling on duties around Europe. Passing two days after the order for the ship was put in, it would be his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, who would see out the commissioning and maiden voyage of Britannia in 1954. A favorite mode of transit for the queen and her family during the early decades of her reign for its privacy, the ship was used for trips throughout Britain as well as mainland Europe. In celebration of the opening of the North American St. Lawrence Seaway, Elizabeth and her husband Prince Phillip would sail the entire length of seaway and finish their journey in Chicago–becoming the first British royals to ever visit the city. 

While used mainly for royal functions and excursions compared to military operations, the yacht was officially a part of the British Navy. As such, nautical servicemen could serve on the yacht for 2 years as a part of their service in the Navy, with the unique opportunity of working directly for the Queen. Known as “Yotties,” there would be 3,296 crewmen who would have the privilege of working on the Britannia from 1954 to 1997. Forming an “Association of Royal Yachtsmen” in 1989, the surviving members meet every year on the old yacht to reminisce and celebrate their time aboard the noble boat. 

With repairs seen as too costly, Britannia was decommissioned in 1997. Her final act was to serve as the backdrop of the official handing over of Hong Kong from British officials to China, which had been under Britain since 1842. 

At the official decommissioning ceremony later that year, the Queen was reported to shed a tear with the passing of the prized yacht. If Britannia was ever worried about her status as a prized ship, talk about a royal seal of approval. 

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