Will Royal Bruitannia still rule the waves?

What will become of the Royal Yacht Britannia when it has completed its final voyage later this year? Michael Evamy looks at some ideas for its redesign, assuming it is not scrapped

Fancy a second-hand luxury yacht? Plenty of room for you and all the family. It’s got a few miles on the clock, granted. Well over a million, actually. And getting a trailer the right size might be a problem. But I kid you not, this is a once-in-a-lifetime offer…

The Royal Yacht Britannia faces an uncertain retirement. In six months’ time, following its role in the British withdrawal ceremonies from Hong Kong, the 43-year-old boat will be pensioned off. But no one knows what will happen to it once the return to the UK, with Chris Patten aboard, is over. With the airheadedness that has characterised its disposal of national cultural assets, the Government has taken more than three years to reach no decision on the vessel’s future, whether to sell or scrap her, or to turn her into a floating museum like HMS Victory, the only Royal Navy ship that is older than the Royal Yacht.

The question of whether to replace Britannia has also proved too much for the Government. At first glance, the decision looks like a tough one. As the General Election approaches and the Royals face pressure to adopt a more modest lifestyle, giving the thumbs-up to a new floating palace to be built at public expense would probably only help in burying the Tories on polling day. But there may be votes for boats after all. Campaigners for a replacement vessel claim that, while the public appetite for a Royal Yacht is close to nil, there is strong support for a new national or state yacht to continue the work of promoting British enterprise and culture overseas: in a recent newspaper poll 83 per cent wanted such a vessel, and 5000 people signed a petition at London’s International Boat Show this month. One estimate puts the value of trade secured by the UK with the help of Britannia at 2bn-plus. In addition, business groups behind concept designs for a new yacht have demonstrated that private investment, rather than taxpayers’ money, could be raised to cover the cost. One option suggests the Government would lease back the yacht for state and diplomatic occasions and trade missions.

There seems to be no doubt that a brand new vessel would offer the UK a floating showcase for the country’s expertise in marine design and technology. Since the decision to retire Britannia was announced, seven consortia have developed concept designs for a replacement. The world-respected elite of British naval architecture and design has been roped in, and all have designed vessels that could be built in British dockyards, with just a small portion of components having to be sourced from abroad.

There’s plenty of choice in the designs that have been put forward. What unites them is the desire to build a technologically advanced vessel, and one that addresses all the issues that have forced Britannia into retirement. For instance, the crew, the royal entourage, the security surrounding it and the receptions staged on Britannia are of a different scale to those in the mid-Fifties. A new boat would have to be more easily serviced and maintained, and include the latest in business and leisure facilities.

The design proposals ebb and flow in their expression of technology, from a high-tech, ocean-going nerve-centre approach to a more restrained blend of tradition and 21st century shipbuilding. At opposite ends of this scale are a spectacular, 150m luxury motor yacht and a 112m “royal sail training ship”, complete with square rig. One attempts to overcome the limitations of a linear, ship-shaped space; the other glories in the act of being at sea.

The design by Winch Projects, in conjunction with GEC Marine, is, in the words of designer Andrew Winch, “a floating workstation”. It was actually conceived as a generic design that GEC could use in marketing itself to extraordinarily wealthy private clients anywhere in the world, and only later cast as a potential British state yacht. “We’ve included a lot of advanced technology,” says Winch. “Satellite communications, TV systems, video conferencing. There’s no problem in making this vessel, like any of our other yacht projects, a place from where clients can trade on the international markets, 24 hours a day, wherever they are in the world. Full security, full communications.” There would be an on-board heliport and an internal dock in the stern where Royals and VIPs would board launches to go ashore. A set of doors in the hull and a system of mini-cranes and forklift trucks would handle luggage and provisions.

The central feature, though, would be a four-deck, Georgian-style glass atrium acting as the entry point and core for circulation around the vessel. It would not be the first on-board atrium, but it would be the first in the style of a neo-classical house. Quite what a Georgian townhouse has to do with anything is unclear, except that, perhaps if you half-close your eyes and ignore the elevators, you might imagine you’re in a building put up at the same time as Buckingham Palace.

Winch used the atrium to offer passengers an escape from the confines of a ship’s space. “It is like a building, but in a space a bit like a railway carriage – long and thin. It’s not like designing a house, where you can stretch the accommodation in any direction; you’re pushed into that fore-and-aft design, so you try to create features that take your mind away from it. One way is to walk into this truly 3D space.” On the top deck, a glass dome covers the atrium as well as a solarium area with pool, Jacuzzi, sauna and gymnasium. This conspicuously extravagant item might be the first to go if the design was ever constructed as a vessel for use by the Royal Family.

Some distance from the luxury motor yacht concept is that of Colin Mudie: He advocates a national sail training vessel which would combine the functions of royal transport, business venue and training ship for up to 180 naval cadets beneath 3400m2 of sail. Mudie is the country’s leading sailing ship designer and argues keenly for the sport. Single tall ships events have attracted up to two million visitors in the past and, reports Mudie, police figures show that while ships are in harbour for such occasions, crime rates in the host town fall. He would like to see the value of sail training recognised in the form of a national vessel, and he has the backing of an influential group connected with the marine establishment.

“We’re applying modern materials and methods to classical square-rig. For instance, we’re going to have steel masts, but with aluminium yards with carbon-fibre ends. Many of the ropes will be run inside the masts, like a modern yacht, so we’ll clean up the whole rig. The sails will be of modern materials, and we’ll use computers to monitor the whole thing, with the wind flow through all the horizontal slots in the rig, and the vertical slots, which are critical to performance,” explains Mudie.

Mudie plans his vessel to be the first zero-emission ship, washing the exhaust from its seven diesel-electric power plants. The hull will be of steel protected by layers of sophisticated coatings, and the superstructure will be of fibre-reinforced plastic, which won’t corrode in the saline air and is bulletproof. Beneath the stirring, traditional exterior lies a very modern boat.

Many would say the idea of swanning into foreign ports to do business is decades, if not centuries, out of date. In an old ship, it does begin to look a bit sad. But, represented by a state-of-the-art vessel, the UK could go some way towards reinventing itself as a technologically advanced nation.

As a spectacle, if nothing else, it would be sad to see Britannia disappear. As Winch says: “You can’t arrive with anything more stupendous and motivating than Britannia in harbour. It’s knockout. It would be typically British to say we no longer need it, and then end up losing this incredible advantage.”

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