Sailing with kings

King George V, Cowes Week Regatta, 1932
King George V, Cowes Week Regatta, 1932

Built by D&W Henderson of Partick, Glasgow for Prince Edward, crowned King Edward VII in 1902, ‘HMY Britannia’ was designed by the Scottish architect George Watson. The Prince of Wales demanded the ideal racing yacht, within the limits of its class. His brief to Watson was that he should be able to enjoy a hot lunch on board whilst racing. Originally gaff-rigged, she became the first of the J-Class yachts on conversion to a Bermudan rig in 1931.

Following her launch in April 1893, the first Captain, John Carter of Wivenhoe drew most of his crew from Wivenhoe and Rowhedge on the east coast of England. Crew members included John Turner, mast headman in the 1920s, William Edward Percival, nicknamed ‘Darcy’ after his birthplace, Tolleshunt Darcy, on East Mersea, and his son Edward. There’s a story that ‘Darcy’ once fell 50 feet from the rigging, landing with a thud at the King’s feet. ‘Darcy’ offered his apologies, prompting the monarch to reply, ‘That’s alright, Percival. But don’t do it again.’

‘Britannia’ sailed and won her first race under the flag of the Thames Yacht Club in the Thames Estuary, 25 May, 1893. Her critics disliked her new-style ‘swan stern’. Although some exchanges were made between the King and other owners, she was never registered in his name, and there appear to be no Bills of Sale.

In 1933, the ‘Old Britty’ was outsailed by the newer vessels and laid up for the last time. Sailed by princes and kings for over 40 years, ‘HMY Britannia’ was stripped of her spars and scuttled in the Solent on 10 July 1936, on George V’s instructions that his yacht should ‘follow him to the grave’.

Reconstruction and refit at Venture Quays