DWARFED by the 40ft hull towering above him, a painter gets up close and personal with the parts of the Royal Yacht Britannia only barnacles usually get to see.
They, however, had already been consigned back to the brine – power-washed off in preparation for the application of 2500 litres of paint, just three coats’ worth, while the ship was in dry dock for the first time in 14 years.
The work carried out on the former floating holiday home of the Queen and her family, which stretches 380ft in length and weighs 5862 tons, was part of a major overhaul to get Britannia shipshape for the Diamond Jubilee later this year. But it also gave the public a chance to see just what the grand old lady looks like below the waterline.
A team of 30 worked round the clock from January 6 when she was tugged from her berth at Ocean Terminal into dry dock in Leith, until she glided back into position and opened her doors again to the public yesterday.
Getting the iconic vessel to dry dock wasn’t all plain sailing though. Fire crews had to be called out after the ship started taking in water and began to list after a leak sprang in a door seal. There had also been concerns that her mighty engines may have seized since they had been silent since she became a leading tourist attraction, however, they burst into life when tested.
Once back in her rightful place the work began on recreating the interior as it should be across her five decks. Painstaking cleaning was carried out, spirit levels were wielded to ensure the equilibrium of tables and lengths of string were employed to arrange dining chairs in straight lines. Cutlery was polished to a bright shine, while crystal glasses were made to sparkle, all to make sure the yacht was back to her royal best.
Although Britannia herself won’t be attending the Diamond Jubilee events in London later this year, her royal barge and escort boats will be in the Thames pageant in June.
Bob Downie, chief executive of Britannia, says: “It’s great to have Britannia back at her permanent berth and open to the public again after undertaking an enormous amount of work while we were closed. The good news is that our insurance surveyors have given Britannia’s hull a very clean bill of health and it should be another 20 years before having to go back into dry dock.
“This is a great testament to the work that was undertaken when Britannia first arrived in Leith in May 1998 and to the original builders at John Brown’s Shipyard in Clydebank.”
He adds: “We have also taken the opportunity to repaint the masts and funnel, as well as many other jobs on the visitor route that could only be done while closed to the public. All this work has been financed by visitors to Britannia and we are fortunate that 2011 was a record year, with visitor numbers up by 12 per cent to 278,000.”
Launched in April 1953 – although this year is also the 60th anniversary of the laying down of Britannia’s keel – the vessel travelled 1,087,623 nautical miles before being taken out of service in 1997. She was the most famous ship in the world and proved the perfect royal residence for glittering state visits and official receptions as well as royal holidays. However, it was decided that at the age of 44 she was too expensive to refurbish, but rather than scrap her she was to become a tourist attraction.
Leith eventually won the campaign to become her new home after a bid by Forth Ports and massive support from thousands of Evening News readers. So, on April 8, 1998, the decision was made to send her to the port – becoming the centrepiece for the whole regeneration of the area, and a major tourist magnet. Last year the yacht was named Scotland’s best visitor attraction after receiving the highest rating, 95.85 per cent, ever awarded by VisitScotland.
Bob adds: “Britannia was last in dry dock in May 1998 when she first arrived in Leith and ever since then we have been conscious that, like all ships, there would be a future requirement to take her out of water again and have her hull surveyed and repainted. That said, every year Britannia is subject to a comprehensive independent maintenance survey and divers also inspect the hull to ensure that all is in good order, and while there was no particular need to undertake this work when we did, our insurance company was keen that their own surveyors could inspect the vessel, with a view to not having to dry dock Britannia again for another 20 to 25 years.
“We were very pleased with the progress, but more importantly, the marine surveyors advised us that the hull is in a great condition. Before she left dry dock a full test was carried out to adjust her ballast and to ensure there was no repeat of the listing problem that occurred when she was moved. The faulty door seal was also rectified.”
He adds: “With the Diamond Jubilee year ahead Britannia is in great shape and we are looking forward to a very busy year.”