Britannia (1893)


Britannia in the late 1890s
photograph by Alfred West & Son

A replica of Prince Albert Edward and King George V's racing yacht, the Britannia, is due home. The original yacht was designed by George Lennox Watson in 1893, which can be considered a vintage year: the Valkyrie II, Satanita, Calluna, Vigilant, Colonia, Navahoe, Pilgrim, Jubilee and the schooner Emerald marked a record year in First-Class yacht building. They all featured the spoon bow and widely extended overhangs making them far more suited to carry the giant rigs than the previous generation of crack yachts represented by the likes of the Iverna and Meteor, which had fiddle bows. These "freaks" were very much despised at first, but performance on the water quickly established them, and racing on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean made for interesting comparisons between yankee design and British design. That year the Britannia successfully defended the Cape May Cup from the American sloop Navahoe, but she lost the Brenton Reef Cup to the latter on a protest. The Britannia was successfully campaigned in the Mediterranean, on the River Clyde, and her home waters of the Solent from the onset. In turn, she faced yachts of increasing size and performance: the Vigilant in 1894, the Ailsa in 1895, the very large Meteor II in 1896, and she also served as Shamrock's trial horse in 1899. Despite tough competition from all these yachts, the Britannia kept showing strong performance in a breeze and her low handicap compared to later yachts enabled her to remain the most succesful racer afloat.

There was a lull in First Class racing in the 1900s and 1910s, during which time the Britannia sailed in cruising trim with raised bulwarks, a voluminous companionway doghouse, shortened spars and had her 4m tiller replaced by a wheel. During the morose rebuild of the British economy after the Great War, the Britannia's new owner King George V announced that she would be fitted for racing again in 1920 in a bid to revive the Big Class. In turn, the large cutter Lulworth (1920) was laid down to compete with the King's yacht, and the handicap cruiser Moonbeam IV (1914) was finally launched after a 6-year wait in the shed. More large yachts joined the Big Class, and the Britannia once again showed that she was the top performer in strong winds. She received many rig updates from yacht designers James Rennie Barnett, William Fife III and Alfred Mylne (marconi rig), but eventually her conversion to a J-Class bermuda rig in 1931 by Charles Ernest Nicholson showed a significant slop in her performance. A final rerig in 1935, a year before the King's death, proved disastrous as it yielded no wins at all. According to her owner's last wishes, the old Britannia was scuttled after his death in 1936. Thereafter, she remained for all British yachtsmen a glorious memory of a bygone era, and it is not surprising that the revival of classic yachting in the 1980s with the refits of Endeavour and Altair would eventually renew interest in G.L. Watson's masterpiece.

body plan, sheer plan, half-breadth plan and interior layout as published in John Irving's 1937 book The Kings' Britannia

In 1993, Norwegian entrepreneur Sigurd Coates bought the Solombala shipyard in Archangel, Russia, and started to build a replica of the Britannia. He sold his shares in the shipyard in 2002, and soon after lost control of everything: The shipyard rebranded the boat Tsar Peter and held the boata back for ransom. After a considerable amount of travel, energy and time spent in court, Mr. Coates eventually forced the shipyard to deliver and launch the boat, and he had her motored by way of the North passage to her current anchorage in Son, Norway in the summer of 2009. After his return, Mr. Coates sold his ailing electromotor company, but could not gather enough funds to carry out the final fitout that was required to launch the boat properly, so he has sought investors to help him fulfill his dream. Finally, according to SEILAS magazine, a foundation in Cowes has acquired a considerable stake in the boat at low cost last week, and the boat has a guaranteed future now. In 2012 she will make for Cowes, which she will call home, and where she will receive a new bermuda rig. If Mr. Coates has given out much responsibility to the foundation, he retains a stake in the new Britannia, so he will be sure to sail her once she is completed. The project can be followed on the Britannia Trust website.
The Britannia replica in Son, Norway
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