His Majesty's Yacht Britannia was a gaff-rigged cutter built in 1893 for Commodore Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII. She served both himself and his son King George V, with a long racing career.
Britannia was ordered by Edward, Prince of Wales, who would later become King Edward VII, and she was designed by George Lennox Watson as his design number 270. She was a near sister ship to the Watson-designed Valkyrie II which challenged for the America’s Cup in 1893. Details of the commission were arranged on the Prince’s behalf by William Jamieson who represented him and liaised closely with Watson. The build cost was £8,300 and like Valkyrie II, Britannia was built at the D&W Henderson shipyard in Patrick on the River Clyde. With two such highly important commissions underway in the same yard, Watson delegated his protégé James Rennie Barnett to oversee both yachts.
Britannia was launched on 20 April 1893, a week ahead of Valkyrie II and joined a fleet of first class cutters that was growing fast as others followed the royal lead. In a highly competitive fleet, Britannia soon set about achieving the race results which would eventually establish her as the most successful racing yacht of all time.
By the end of her first year's racing, Britannia had scored thirty-three wins from forty-three starts. In her second season, she won all seven races for the first class yachts on the French Riviera, and then beat the 1893 America's Cup defender Vigilant in home waters. In the Mount's Bay Regatta of 28 July 1894 the Vigilant owned by Jay Gould, director of the American Cable Company was piloted by Benjamin Nicholls of Penzance and the Prince of Wales's yacht Britannia, was piloted by Ben's brother Philip Nicholls. The Britannia won by just over 7 minutes. People came by train from all over the south west to watch this race. Both brothers were Trinity House pilots of Penzance.
Despite a lull in big yacht racing after 1897, Britannia served as a trial horse for Sir Thomas Lipton's first America's Cup challenger Shamrock, and later passed on to several owners in a cruising trim with raised bulwarks. In 1920, King George V triggered the revival of the "Big Class" by announcing that he would refit Britannia for racing. Although Britannia was the oldest yacht in the circuit, regular updates to her rig kept her a most successful racer throughout the 1920s. In 1931, she was converted to the J-Class with a bermuda rig, but despite the modifications, her performance to windward declined dramatically. Her last race was at Cowes in 1935. During her racing career she had won 231 races and took another 129 flags.
King George V's dying wish was for his beloved yacht to follow him to the grave. On 10 July 1936, after Britannia had been stripped of her spars and fittings, her hull was towed out to St Catherine's Deep near the Isle of Wight, and she was sunk by HMS Winchester, commanded by Captain W.N.T. Beckett RN. This fate marked the end of big yacht racing in Europe, with the smaller and more affordable International Rule 12-Metre Class gaining popularity.
Four known examples of Britannia's racing flags are preserved, one presented by Philip Hunloke to the Royal Cornwall Yacht Club, in whose Regattas Britannia was often a competitor between 1894 and 1935, the second at the Royal Northern and Clyde Yacht Club at Rhu and the third at the Royal St. George Yacht Club, which held two regattas in Kingstown for the first season of the RYA linear rating rule in 1896. Britannia's skipper William G. Jameson had lost both races to the new Meteor II and the Ailsa. The fourth known flag is held in the vexillology collection in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.
Britannia's 51' long gaff, the king’s chair, tiller, some mast hoops, blocks and rigging, anchor chain and clock are preserved in the Sir Max Aitken Museum in Cowes High Street and the remains of her spinnaker boom are at Carisbrooke Castle, also on the Isle of Wight. The spinnaker boom was given for use as a flag pole on the keep (where it twice suffered lightning damage), and the present flagpole is a fibreglass replica. In an episode of Antiques Roadshow from Pembroke Castle, broadcast in April 2017, a relative of a crew member brought photographs, and a damask tablecloth and some cutlery from the yacht, to be appraised.
K1 Britannia is a project to create a replica of the original vessel where K1 designates the Britannia's sail number when she was converted to the J class in 1931. In 1993 a syndicate headed by Norwegian Sigurd Coates purchased a stake in a shipyard in Arkhangelsk in order to create a replica of the Britannia in pinewood. Between 2002 and 2006 the shipyard changed hands several times whilst joinery was nearing completion. In 2006 she was rechristened Царь Пётр (Tsar Pyotr; "Peter the Great") and held back for NOK25,000,000 until 2009, when a Russian court ordered the hull to be launched and delivered by the shipyard to her original owner Sigurd Coates. Subsequently the hull was towed to Son and berthed there until she was purchased by her present owners, a purposely-created British charity, and towed to East Cowes in 2012. Having also reached charity status in the United States of America in 2015, the project subsequently announced that it would raise funds there to finance the building of a new aluminium hull at a shipyard in Florida. The project has since fallen to a standstill and as of 2017 the unfinished hull has been moved to Hythe, Southampton and placed on a floating mooring.
Previously Prince Albert Edward had acquired the 205-ton schooner Hildegarde in 1876, which he had replaced with the 103-ton cutter Formosa (Michael E. Ratsey, 1878) in 1879, and the 216-ton schooner Aline (Benjamin Nicholson, 1860) in 1881.
Britannia faced many opponents in her 43-year career. The most notable were:
|year||owner||starts||first prizes||other prizes||total prizes|
|1893||Albert Edward, Prince of Wales||43||24||9||33|
|1898||Messrs. Rucker, Cooper, et al.|
|1899||Albert Edward, Prince of Wales||6||0||0||0|
|1899||Sir Richard William Bulkeley, 12th Baronet|
|King Edward VII||used only for cruising|
|1911||King George V||used only for cruising|
|laid up during the Great War|
|1929||not fitted out|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Britannia (ship, 1893).|