HMY Britannia (Royal Cutter Yacht)

His Majesty's Yacht Britannia was a racing yacht built in 1893 for RYS Commodore Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. She served both himself and his son King George V, with a long racing career.

Britannia in the 1890s
United Kingdom
Name: Britannia
Ordered: 1892
Builder: D&W Henderson Shipyard Ltd
Yard number: 366
Launched: 20 April 1893
Fate: Scuttled (10 July 1936) at St Catherine's Deep near the Isle of Wight
General characteristics
Class and type: British Big-class gaff-rigged cutter
Displacement: 221 tons
Length: 121.5 ft (37.0 m)
Beam: 23.66 ft (7.21 m)
Height: 164 ft (50 m)
Draught: 15 ft (4.6 m)
Sail plan: 10,328 sq ft (959.5 m2) (1893)


Britannia was ordered in 1892 by the Prince of Wales and designed by George Lennox Watson. She was a near sister ship to the Watson-designed Valkyrie II which challenged for the 1893 America's Cup. Details of the commission were arranged on the Prince's behalf by William Jamieson who represented him and liaised closely with Watson. The build cost was £8,300 and like Valkyrie II, Britannia was built at the D&W Henderson shipyard in Patrick on the River Clyde. With two such highly important commissions underway in the same yard, Watson delegated his protégé James Rennie Barnett to oversee both yachts.

Racing career

Britannia was launched on 20 April 1893, a week ahead of Valkyrie II and joined a fleet of first class cutters that was growing fast as others followed the royal lead. In a highly competitive fleet, Britannia soon set about achieving the race results which would eventually establish her as one of the most successful racing yachts in history.

By the end of her first year's racing, Britannia had scored thirty-three wins from forty-three starts. In her second season, she won all seven races for the first class yachts on the French Riviera, and then beat the 1893 America's Cup defender Vigilant in home waters. In the Mount's Bay Regatta of 28 July 1894 the Vigilant owned by George Jay Gould I, was piloted by Benjamin Nicholls, and the Britannia was piloted by Ben's brother Philip Nicholls. Both brothers were Trinity House pilots of Penzance. People came by train from all over the south west to watch Britannia win by just over seven minutes.

Despite a lull in big yacht racing when the new linear rating rule came into effect in 1897, Britannia served as a trial horse for Sir Thomas Lipton's first America's Cup challenger Shamrock, and later passed on to several owners in a cruising trim with raised bulwarks. In 1920,[1] King George V triggered the revival of the "Big class" by announcing that he would refit Britannia for racing. Although Britannia was the oldest yacht in the circuit, regular updates to her rig kept her a most successful racer throughout the 1920s. In 1931, she was converted to the J class with a bermuda rig, but despite the modifications, her performance to windward declined dramatically. Her last race was at Cowes in 1935. During her racing career she had won 231 races and took another 129 flags.

King George V's dying wish was for his beloved yacht to follow him to the grave. On 10 July 1936, after Britannia had been stripped of her spars and fittings, her hull was towed out to St Catherine's Deep near the Isle of Wight, and she was sunk by HMS Winchester, commanded by Captain W.N.T. Beckett RN. This fate marked the end of big yacht racing in Europe, with the smaller and more affordable International Rule 12 Metre class gaining popularity.

Four known examples of Britannia's racing flags are preserved, one presented by Philip Hunloke to the Royal Cornwall Yacht Club, in whose Regattas Britannia was often a competitor between 1894 and 1935, the second at the Royal Northern and Clyde Yacht Club at Rhu and the third at the Royal St. George Yacht Club, which held two regattas in Kingstown for the first season of the RYA linear rating rule in 1896. Britannia's skipper William G. Jameson had lost both races to the new Meteor II and Ailsa. The fourth known flag is held in the vexillology collection in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.[2]

Britannia's 51-foot (16 m) long gaff, the king's chair, tiller, some mast hoops, blocks and rigging, anchor chain and clock are preserved in the Sir Max Aitken Museum in Cowes High Street and the remains of her spinnaker boom are at Carisbrooke Castle, also on the Isle of Wight. The spinnaker boom was given for use as a flag pole on the keep (where it twice suffered lightning damage), and the present flagpole is a fibreglass replica. In an episode of Antiques Roadshow from Pembroke Castle, broadcast in April 2017, a relative of a crew member brought photographs, and a damask tablecloth and some cutlery from the yacht, to be appraised.


K1 Britannia is a project to create a replica of the original vessel where K1 designates the Britannia's sail number when she was converted to a J-class yacht in 1931. In 1993 a syndicate headed by Norwegian Sigurd Coates purchased a stake in the Solombala shipyard in Arkhangelsk in order to create a replica of the Britannia in pinewood and laminated oak. Between 2002 and 2006 the shipyard changed hands several times whilst joinery was nearing completion. In 2006 she was rechristened Царь Пётр (Tsar Pyotr; "Peter the Great") and held back for NOK25,000,000 until 2009, when a Russian court ordered the hull to be launched and delivered by the shipyard to her original owner Sigurd Coates. The story behind this 16-year saga was captured on film by director and producer Ann Coates and released in a documentary called The Dream of Britannia.

Having finally taken possession of the Britannia replica, Sigurd Coates berthed the hull in Son for outfitting. As this period coincided with the economic recession, work was stalled and Coates decided to sell the boat to the K1 Britannia Trust in the UK. This charity was established with the goal of completing Britannia and using her as a flagship for charitable causes around the world.

Move to the UK

Britannia was towed to the South Boats yard in East Cowes in 2012. The Trust invested in the scaffolding, cradle, tools and workmen required and work began on the final stages of the Britannia build. This came to a halt in 2014 when the Southboats yard was declared bankrupt. While deciding how to proceed, the K1 Britannia Trust has gone forward with its maritime-related charity work. This includes the Personal Development & Maritime Skills Training Programme in the UK and the work of sister charities the K1 Britannia Foundation and K1 Britannia America in providing disaster relief to the inhabitants of St. Maarten and Dominica in the wake of the Irma and Maria hurricanes. A permanent Disaster Relief & Crisis Team called K1 DIRECT has now been set up with cruise lines and coastguards in the Caribbean region.

New replica announcement

In September 2018 the K1 Britannia Trust announced that it is to build an entirely new replica. This decision followed surveys of the existing replica and a full scope of the work still to be undertaken. The conclusion was reached that in the interests of sustainability, the new replica would have an all-aluminium hull and keel, a keel-stepped carbon mast, box boom and bowsprit, carbon continuous rigging, and a hybrid propulsion package.

The new replica will follow the lines of the original designer and also leverage on his vision to create the most modern boats possible at the time, as expressed during a lecture at the Glasgow Exhibition of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering in the 1880s:

"We have not exhausted the possibilities of form yet, and when we do arrive at perfection of shape we can set-to then and look out for better material. The frames and beams, then, of my ideal ship shall be of aluminium". (George Lennox Watson, February 1881)

The current goal is to start building in early 2019 and unveil the new Britannia at the Americas Cup in New Zealand in 2021

Predecessors and opponents

Previously Prince Albert Edward had acquired the 205-ton schooner Hildegarde in 1876, which he had replaced with the 103-ton cutter Formosa (Michael E. Ratsey, 1878) in 1879, and the 216-ton schooner Aline (Benjamin Nicholson, 1860) in 1881.[3]

Britannia faced many opponents in her 43-year career. The most notable were:

  • Meteor, Valkyrie II and Valkyrie III (America's Cup challengers by George Lennox Watson, 1887, 1893 and 1895)
  • Navahoe and Vigilant (Seawanhaka 85' yankee sloops by Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, 1893)
  • Satanita ("Length And Sail Area Rule" First Class cutter by Joseph Manston Soper, 1893)
  • Calluna and Ailsa ("Length And Sail Area Rule" First Class cutters by William Fife III, 1893 and 1894)
  • Meteor II ("Linear Rule" First Class cutter by George Lennox Watson, 1896)
  • Shamrock I (America's Cup Seawanhaka 90' challenger by William Fife III, 1899)
  • Merrymaid ("Big Class" handicap cruising cutter, Charles Ernest Nicholson, 1904, still sailing)
  • Zinita ("Big Class" Second Linear Rule 65' cutter by William Fife III, 1904)
  • Nyria ("Big Class" bermuda cutter by Charles Ernest Nicholson, 1905)
  • Brynhild II ("International Rule" 23mR cutter by Charles Ernest Nicholson, 1907)
  • White Heather II and Shamrock ("International Rule" 23mR cutters by William Fife III, 1907 and 1908)
  • Westward (A-Class schooner by Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, 1910)
  • Lulworth ("Big Class" cutter by Herbert William White, 1920, still sailing)
  • Moonbeam IV ("Big Class" handicap cruising cutter by William Fife III, 1920, still sailing)
  • Astra and Candida ("Second International Rule" 23mR bermuda cutters by Charles Ernest Nicholson, 1928 and 1929, both still sailing)
  • Cambria ("Second International Rule" 23mR bermuda cutter by William Fife III, 1928, still sailing)
  • Shamrock V, Velsheda and Endeavour I ("Universal Rule" J-Class cutters by Charles Ernest Nicholson, 1930, 1933 and 1934, all still sailing)
  • Yankee ("Universal Rule" J-Class sloop by Frank Cabot Paine, 1930)

Racing record

yearownerstartsfirst prizesother prizestotal prizes
1893Albert Edward, Prince of Wales4324933
1898Messrs. Rucker, Cooper, et al.
1899Albert Edward, Prince of Wales6000
1899Sir Richard William Bulkeley, 12th Baronet
King Edward VIIused only for cruising
1911King George Vused only for cruising
laid up during the Great War
1929not fitted out


  1. "King George to race his Britannia again" (PDF), New York Times, 10 March 1920
  2. Owner's distinguishing flag, HMY Britannia, National Maritime Museum
  3. Captain Seymour Fortescue, K.C.V.O. (1911), "King Edward VII as a yachtsman", King Edward VII as a sportsman
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