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Royal Yachts Under Sail

11 Aug 23


(Seaforth – £50.00)

ISBN 978 1 3990 9291 3

160 pages

Sometimes it is the title or the subject matter of a book that encourages us to pick it up:  occasionally, and this happens rarely in non-fiction it is the name of the author. Brian Lavery, the doyen of those writing about the age of sail, is one of those writers; more than 30 books to his name and none of them dull or uninformative. That, after all these years, he has turned his attention to royal yachts well indicates that he has a tale to tell – and illustrate – the book benefitting from the author’s knowledge of the National Maritime Museum’s collection of which he was once the curator.

The design and building of yachts primarily for the sovereign’s personal pleasure owe their origin to the time spent in the Netherlands by the exiled Prince Charles after the Battle of Naseby in 1645 and his departure from their escorted by numerous Dutch vessels.  Indeed, so impressed was Charles by the Amsterdam yacht he sailed in that, “he said to his deputies, that he would cause one to be made of the same manner as soon as he arrived in England”. Thus, began centuries in which the nation’s best skilled shipwrights, such as Anthony Deane, were employed in creating pleasure craft for the monarchy. The names of the early vessels are quite interesting. Deane’s first royal yacht was named Cleveland, after the duchy of Charles’s mistress, Barbara Palmer. Fubbs, designed by Phineas Pett and built in 1682, was given the king’s pet name for another mistress, Louise, Duchess of Portsmouth (after whom the royal yacht Portsmouth was also named), she was in service until 1781 – the yacht not the mistress! James II was served by nine royal yachts, but fewer mistresses, in his short period on the throne but things changed when William succeeded him.

Now, for the first time in centuries the crown had continental domains and William had constantly to use his yachts to ferry him across the North Sea on business.  He also arrived in Ireland ahead of the battle of the Boyne in the yacht Mary. The Hanoverians also needed to visit their continental domains and did so by royal yacht. George II was ferried over in Royal Caroline to take command of his troops at the battle of Dettingen in 1743.

In 1749, Fubbs and William and Mary, were ordered to take part in a trial race against the new Royal Caroline which the latter won, heralding the competitive desires of the monarchs to show off their yachts that was to reach its peak in races at Cowes once Victoria had moved to Osborne.  The very successful racer, Britannia, built for Edward Prince of Wales in 1893, carried a total sail area of 10,000 sq,ft.  She won 24 of her 43 races in her first year and 36 of her 48 in 1894 – a record that the late Duke of Edinburgh, racing in the royal yachts Dragon-class Bluebottle and the Flying-Fifteen Coweslip must have envied.

It is with the royal yacht Britannia that Lavery brings this detailed and very readable story of royal yachts to a close, with the question, “Is the age of the royal yacht finally over?” He leaves little doubt as to his view.

The hardest part of a book review is the last paragraph, to recommend or not.  I enjoyed this book, and its wonderful illustrations hugely. Would I pay £50 for the pleasure of having it on my bookshelf? I do not think so but, I hope, many members might disagree. I intend handing my copy to a friend who served for some years onboard Britannia, knowing that he will have much pleasure in possessing it.