‘Never again, she’s damned if she will!’

This extract is from Tim Madge’s book ‘Royal Yachts of the World’. It includes the Queen’s rebuff during a storm on the Clyde in the 1920s and another stormy race at Babbacombe Regatta, Devon, in 1933, as ‘Britannia’ was nearing the end of her racing career.

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In the summer of 1923 when ‘Britannia’ was racing on the Clyde, 30 years after she had been launched there, the Queen was on board. The weather had moderated when she embarked, although it had generally been at gale force. Not long after the squalls began again sweeping down from the surrounding mountains. Halfway round the course the jib topsail sheet ran clean out of its blocks leaving the sail flying like a kite and the sheet whipped angrily across the deck, threatening anyone who went near it.

Queen Mary had gone below where the noise of this flailing must have been terrifying. When at last all had calmed down on deck, the King sent a hand below to ask after the Queen. When he came back the King asked him what the Queen had said. The man was hot and bothered and had to be asked several times before he would answer. She said, ‘Never again. She’s damned if she will,’ he finally replied. The King roared with laughter, the Queen did not sail on ‘Britannia’ again.

The yacht was getting old and by 1933 her share of the prizes was beginning to tail off. Yet she could still show her old form as this account by one of her crew on board in a race in the Babbacombe Regatta, south Devon, shows:

By the time we arrived at the starting line the wind had freshened considerably and shortly before the start we received a signal from HMS Sutton, our escort vessel, to say that a gale was predicted. We saw too that both ‘Velsheda’ and ‘Shamrock’ were reefing their mainsails in preparation for a blow. However as time was short and Hugh Paul in ‘Astra’ had evidently decided to carry a whole mainsail Phil Hunloke (‘Britannia’s famous sailing master) chose not to shorten sail.

Our course was a triangular one of 45 miles – three times round five mile legs. By the time the starting gun fired ominous black clouds had rolled up over the cliffs above Babbacombe and the wind had already freshened considerably. Soon after we came on a wind a few seconds ahead of ‘Shamrock’, Phil was calling for the sheets to be eased as ‘Britannia’ was beginning to wallow. The third leg of the course gave us a reach, with the wind a little for’ard of the beam, into the starting line. Now ‘Britannia’ heeled to a tremendous angle with the water up to the companion deckhouse. Phil, waist deep in water, was having difficulty steering her. Blinded by driving spray, he shouted to the second mate to give him a hand at the wheel and called for a lashing to be tied round his waist to keep him from being swept overboard. We were travelling at 14 knots and under the press of her whole mainsail and in the savage gusts of wind that crashed down from the high cliffs the old yacht was practically unmanageable. Her entire lee deck was under water and her main boom, with the sheet eased, but a few inches from the water. In a cloud of flying spray we tore through the pleasure boats, hollering at them to keep clear of us and leaving them pitching and rolling in our wake. We had to bear up to sail through the line at the end of the first round.

“She won’t bear up,” Phil shouted as he and the second mate forced the wheel over, the pair of them half buried in foam. Then with a crack, the clew of the jib carried away mercifully easing our sorely pressed ship. Now our nearest rival ‘Shamrock’ was minutes astern of us so in the gale and rising sea Phil refrained from taking any chances and did not even set the spinnaker off the wind. Now too ‘Velshed’ and ‘Astra’ had retired from the race, the latter having carried away most of the hanks on her mainsail. Soon after we rounded the weather mark more than five minutes ahead of ‘Shamrock’, which was lying over almost on her beam ends, I saw her mast go over the side with a mighty splash. So the old ‘Britannia’ was the only one left in the race. She raced on all on board praying that the Committee would declare the race over. Eventually they did and the yacht survived to race another day.

‘Royal Yachts of the World’ With permission from Tim Madge

Tim Madge