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The Best of Britannia

by Dougal Henshall 2 Nov 2020 12:00 GMT
BRITANNIA takes flight in Auckland © C Gregory

Although the UK has never won the America's Cup, the waters of the Solent, on the coast of Southern England, are richly intertwined with the romance that goes hand in hand with trying to win what many see as the 'toughest prize in sport'. Yet for all the glitz and glamour that surrounds the Cup, there is also a darker side that runs through the many challenges, that ties together both the boats and the people, with allegations of cheating, of fortunes spent without success and of bitter disappointment.

Yet it would be so wrong to dismiss all of the UK's previous challenges as 'doomed to failure', but at the same time, too many attempts have been dogged by lack of funds, personality issues or just being behind the curve of development, or sometimes even, 'all of the above'. Thankfully, the INEOS Team, now gearing up for competition out in Auckland, can happily say that our latest challenge suffers from 'none of the above' and what is more, they have even taken on the talisman of the name of what has to be one of our greatest yachts from past history, the Britannia.

The name certainly conjures up plenty of jingoistic pride, with the assumption that this refers to the song that gets belted out each year at the last night of the Proms, but actually Britannia, the lady with the trident and the shield, refers to a Roman goddess hailing from the 2nd century. The emphasis would change during the era known as the 'English Renaissance', a 200 year period that started during the late 15th century, in which many of the foundations were laid for the current English identity that we have today.

With the image of Britannia, sat on her throne and ruling the waves, appearing on coins from 1672 onwards (and on banknotes from 1855) the term was rich in regal connections, as was thus a name for a boat that was 'worthy of a king'. That said, the boat was commissioned for an owner who was in fact a King in waiting, for in the early 1890s Albert Edward was still the Prince of Wales.

This was the era of the Big Boat class, a glamorous, almost F1 like series of race meetings that would take place at popular venues around the coast. This chimed in perfectly with the growth of both the railways and the readily accessible newspapers, that together fuelled a massive surge of interest amongst the general public.

With the boats owned by some of the most well-known personalities high society, the crowds were now able to flock in great numbers to the events, with the helms being something of celebrities of the day, though little attention was paid to the 40+ members of the crew as these were considered to be mere paid hands.

It was only natural that Edward, the Prince of Wales wanted the best yacht, which could mean only one thing, a boat from the drawing board of Scottish naval architect George Lennox Watson, who in Glasgow had set up the world's first design office focused on yachts.

For nearly 20 years Watson had cemented his reputation for designing yachts that were winners both out on the racecourse and in the appearances stakes. The news that not one but two identical boats were being built at the David Henderson boatyard at Partick, on the Clyde, attracted a great deal of interest, as side by side with the yacht for the Prince of Wales would be a near sister ship for Lord Dunraven.

The hulls would be laid up with wooden planks on iron frames, with their 100ft + hulls being balanced by many tons of ballast in the beautifully shaped deep keel. Aloft, the towering rigs would carry over 10,000 sq.ft of sail, though perhaps the most striking features of the new Watson hulls would be the shapely profiles of the 'spoon' bows.

The Prince of Wales would launch his boat first, in early 1893, with his yacht being christened Britannia, with Lord Dunraven, not wanting to upstage the future monarch, launching Valkyrie II a week later. From the outset the two boats would set the benchmark for performance, with Valkyrie II quickly gaining a reputation for being 'a demon in light airs but a devil in a blow'!

The two sisters would soon part company, as Valkyrie II was prepared for her transatlantic crossing to challenge the American yacht Vigilant for the America's Cup (back then the Deed of Gift for the Cup stipulated that any challenger had to arrive 'on her own keel' - no shrink wrapped air freight back then!) but Britannia would stay on the domestic circuit, based at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, taking 33 wins from 43 starts in her first season.

After her unsuccessful challenge, Valkyrie II would return to the UK circuit, only to get rammed by another yacht in a start line collision, before sinking in just three minutes. Meanwhile, Britannia would go from strength to strength, beating all comers, including Vigilant, who had come across to the UK to partake in that season's racing. There was some talk that Britannia should have competed herself for the America's Cup, but an issue with her rating would intervene and the challenge was never issued.

In the following years, the high levels of interest in the 'big boat' series would start tailing off and with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, Albert Edward, now King Edward VII would be occupied with the affairs of state. Britannia would then move into private ownership and apart from a spell as a tuning partner for the Shamrock challenge for the Cup, she was re-rigged and used as a fast cruiser.

Edward's reign would last less than a decade, before he was superseded by King George V, who took Britannia back as a 'royal yacht', intending to once again see her active on the racing circuit. The four years of war were a bad time for the 'Big Boat' class, with many being broken up, as the lead in their keels was needed to make bullets and the copper sheathing on the hulls used in the making of shell cases. Part of that darker side of the story emerges here, for at low water springs at Wotton Creek, on the eastern side of the Isle of Wight, the keel bolts of a couple of the 'Big Boats' can still be seen, the last remaining remnants of these majestic yachts.

With the world back at peace, King George V refitted Britannia and with an improved rig, she was once again a successful competitor on the coastal courses. The 1930s would see the arrival of the J Class yachts, with Britannia undergoing her final major change that saw her stepping a Bermudian rig, but her age was beginning to tell against her, with her performance falling behind that of the newer, faster boats. Nevertheless, by the time she retired from competition in 1935 she had won an amazing 231, plus another 129 podium places races in a career that spanned 42 years and 635 races.

Her retirement though would be brief, as the following year King George V would also die, leaving a stipulation in his will that his beloved Britannia should be taken out and scuttled following his death.

On the 10th July 1936, the bare hull, with all her spars removed, was towed around to the back of the Isle of Wight, to the deep waters off St. Catherine's Point, where a Royal Navy team, who had laid charges in her bilges, set them off to sink the hull. It may well be that there was a final twist in the sinking, with one popular version being that although the heavy hull sank without trace, her wooden decks broke free and had to be destroyed by the Navy!

Less than eighteen years later, the name Britannia would again be gracing the waters afloat, this time as the Royal Yacht, but bearing that name. The new Britannia would have a tangible link to the old, courtesy of the ships wheel that had been saved from the yacht before she was scuttled. Like her predecessor, the Royal Yacht Britannia would enjoy a long career, this time one of 43 years, in which she steamed for more than a million miles before being retired to become a popular visitor attraction in Leith, on the Firth of Forth.

The news that the name Britannia would once again be seen racing out afloat and that this time it would be competing for the America's Cup, speaks volumes for not only the status of the INEOS backed challenge, but the esteem and goodwill that the programme is generating here in the UK. In contrast to her earlier sister, who 128 years earlier had gone from commission through design and into build in a matter of months, the figures on the new boat are staggering. Just the design process accounted for over 90,000 hours of work, then the build, at the high-tech construction facility at Hythe, on Southampton Water, took another 46,000 hours.

Chief Designer Nick Holroyd was pleased that builder Jason Carrington had not only completed the build on time, which in itself was a fantastic achievement given the complexity of the construction) but that the boat was 'bang on' the design weight. In the new breed of foiling AC boats, this is a crucial factor and one that is even more amazing when one considers the difference in hull weights between the 2020 Britannia and the 1893 version. The new boat weighs around 6% of the old, has only 20% of the sail area, only requires a crew of 11, yet is expected to reach speeds close to the magical 50kt barrier.

Visually, the differences are even more stark, for the glorious sweeping lines of Watson's Britannia, with the iconic spoon bow and long overhang 'counter stern' aft have been replaced by a brutal functionality, yet it is clear that there isn't a single distortion in the hull line in the new boat that isn't there for an explicit purpose. Britannia 2020 is all about achieving that end goal, without any compromises in the search for the ultimate performance.

Looking back at UK challenges in the past, there have been times when our innovative designers have come up with great ideas that had the potential to be 'game changers' (who can forget the super-bendy top section to Lionheart's mast) only to either misuse or squander the advantage. The result has been that too many times in the past, the tag line to the UK campaigns has been "this is our best chance" but at least in 2021 the UK will be entering the fray, maybe not with any marked advantage but at least on level terms with the best of the rest.

And should Team INEOS turn 170 years of defeat into a stunning victory, then at long last the Cup could 'come home', which would then offer the UK the chance to host the next holding of the challenge. Although unlike that very first event which involved a race around the Isle of Wight, we are unlikely to see the foiling AC75s repeat the course, though it would be an amazing spectacle if they could do so. But in all the secondary media events, the hope would be that there would be one boat there on display, that would tie the boats of the present way back to that very first Britannia.

The name and the iconic beauty of the first Watson designed boat continues to attract a great deal of interest and on a number of occasions the talk has been of creating a replica. For a while there was talk of even trying to raise the remains of Britannia from the seabed, but these were quickly dashed by the cost, technical difficulties and that fact that she had been put there on the express wishes of the King. Instead, in the mid-1990s, a Norwegian businessman created a project to build a replica of the yacht and having gained Royal approval, set about building the hull faithfully to the original lines.

The construction work took place at a boatyard in Northern Russia and the work had progressed to the point that the hull was finished, when funding issues plunged the project into a lengthy legal battle. For over a decade the ownership of Britannia remained in dispute, until in 2011, the funds were raised to buy the hull and have it transported to Cowes. The plan was to restart the work to fully restore her, including a period interior which would allow the boat to become a centrepiece of whichever event she appeared at. The problems though were huge, as was the estimated bill of £6m+ for the work that the Britannia needed. The intention was to rig her as she had been in later life, with a Bermudian, rather than a gaff rig, with this one aspect creating a new set of records, for the proposed silver spruce mast, at 153 ft high, would have been the tallest wooden mast in the world!

For a couple of years Britannia's hull was something of a feature on the quayside in East Cowes, that caught the eye of both sailors and passengers on the Red Funnel ferries as they docked at the nearby terminal. The fate of Britannia though was still uncertain, with her next move being up to the top of Southampton Water, to a mooring just in front of the boatyard complex where her modern namesake would be constructed. And there, sadly, she has remained ever since, a beautiful, if sadly lonely hull, floating high on her marks courtesy of being no more than a bare hull, albeit one with a rough decking of ply to keep the weather out. More recently, surveys have suggested that the work needed on the hull is such that the plan now is to move on, with construction of yet another replica hull.

The K1 Britannia Trust, a charitable trust dedicated to worthy maritime based causes around the world, have proposed the building of a new, all-aluminium hull rigged with state of the art carbon spars, using where possible sustainable green technologies in the completion of the boat. This new boat would be configured to conform with the J-Class rules, enabling her to sail and race against the other great yachts of this kind, such as the well-travelled Velsheda. It was hoped that work would have commenced back at the end of 2019 only for funding and then the Covid pandemic to bring everything to a halt.

One thing though is for certain! Should the 'other' Britannia succeed in wresting the America's Cup away from not only the New Zealanders, but also the other nations who are vying for it on the waters off Auckland, then the interest in seeing a replica Britannia will reach the point that the new build will surely happen, 85 years after the original boat slipped beneath the waves. We can but hope that these things come to pass: firstly, the Cup win for one Britannia, then the rebirth of another. It's just one more reason for them to succeed next spring!

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