Celebrating 20 years of the Royal Yacht Britannia in Leith

Britannia arrives in Leith in 1998.
Britannia arrives in Leith in 1998.
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Excited crowds lined the dockside to watch as the Queen’s beloved Royal Yacht Britannia was towed to her final resting place in the Port of Leith.

Thousands turned out for the civic reception that welcomed Britannia to her new berth in the Capital in 1998 after a five-day journey from Portsmouth held up by gale force winds and turbulent seas.

Now, 20 years on, the vessel has welcomed 5.9 million visitors and given exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the Royals’ private lives.

In the first year of operating, more than 400,000 visitors boarded the yacht. For the last 12 years, it has been voted Scotland’s Best Visitor Attraction by VisitScotland.

Built by John Brown & Co in Clydebank and launched on April 16, 1953 to a crowd of 30,000 onlookers, Britannia soon became a safe haven for the Royals, especially the Queen who cherished her days spent on its decks. She considered her time spent on the floating royal residence as a true holiday where she was unfettered by her demanding daily duties. She said: “Britannia is the one place where I can truly relax.”

In 1986, Prince Charles and his new bride Diana were one of the four Royal couples who honeymooned on the 412-foot long yacht, while their sons William and Harry enjoyed summer holidays cruising the Western Isles with their grandparents and cousins.

Princess Anne remembered enjoying her time on board when she was young. She said: “We found, as children, there was so much to do and we expended so much energy doing it, that we couldn’t describe our time on the yacht as a rest.”

In 2011, the docked ship – with the capacity to host 250 guests – was the venue for Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall’s pre-wedding cocktail party, which saw a new generation of young royals enjoy time aboard.

Recently featured in the Net­flix blockbuster The Crown, Her Majesty’s yacht has reached an even wider audience and is expecting to break the six million visitor mark by December.

During her time in service Britannia sailed 1.1 million miles around the globe and visited 696 foreign ports. The ship was manned by a dedicated crew of 220 yachtsmen, 20 officers, three season officers and a Royal Marines Band of 26 men when on tour.

As the 83rd Royal Yacht, Britannia was the first to be designed for ocean travel, with the Royal Family previously relying on naval ships or cruise liners for foreign trips.

The ship, which could reach a maximum of 22.5 knots thanks to its 12,000 horsepower steam turbines, was redesigned to be less lavish in the wake of the Second World War. The resulting comfortable and homely interiors have stood the test of time.

Britannia was commissioned just two days before the death of King George VI, as it was believed that the sea air and travelling would be good for the ailing monarch’s health.

Two months before the new Queen’s coronation and just under a year since plans were received by the shipbuilder, Britannia was christened with a bottle of wine, as Champagne was considered too extravagant at the time.

The ship was built to be easily converted to a seafaring hospital with space for 200 patients in case of another outbreak of war. It was never put to this use, but it did serve as a rescue ship in 1986 evacuating British nationals from South Yemen.

After 44 years at sea, The Royal Yacht Britannia was entered into retirement in 1997 after the new Labour ­government announced that the ship would be decommissioned.

The Queen famously shed a tear after disembarking for the final time as clocks on board were stopped at 3.01pm – the exact time she was piped ashore.

After proposals were invited from potential host cities, Edinburgh was victorious and welcomed the yacht to her final berth, opening her doors to the public on October 19, 1998.