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On their Majesty's Service

History

Royal or State yachts have long been used to convey members of the Royal families of the world or heads of state and date from times when it was sometimes easier to travel by water than road, though sea-travel could be fraught with danger. William Falconer’s Dictionary of the marine, first published in 1769 records: ‘Yacht, a vessel of state, usually employed to convey princes, ambassadors, or other great personages, from one kingdom to another.’

The ancient empires of Greece, Rome and Egypt had splendid galleys and barges that conveyed their heads of state. A Thebes wall painting dating from circa 1360 BCE depicts a Royal barge. The Bayeux Tapestry has a depiction of Mora, the personal ship of William the Conqueror (1027-1087) on which he sailed to conquer England in 1066.

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Depiction of the yacht Mora from the Bayeux Tapestry © Image on web site of Ulrich Harsh., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Dutch burghers introduced the concept of the jaght in the 17th century, when they built small, splendidly fitted and decorated vessels, to be used for pleasure. On returning to England from exile in the Netherlands in 1660, Charles II brought with him his Dutch jaght Mary, presented to him by the city of Amsterdam and the Dutch people, and so began what was to be known universally as yachting.

Mary (1660); Royal/ceremonial vessel; Yacht © National Maritime Museum Collections

Scale model of Mary (1660) © National Maritime Museum Collections

The 19th century saw the building of many magnificent steam yachts. The Royals and heads of state of the world quickly saw that a steam yacht could provide grand but comfortable accommodation, privacy and the ability to travel independent of wind and tide. Many of the yachts were used for other naval duties when not required by the Royals. The Dutch led the field and built the first Royal steam yacht in 1827. De Leeuwe was a paddle steamer built at the Rotterdam Navy Yard for the use of King William II. A small vessel of 37 metres, she had a simple steam engine, developing 50 horsepower. The vessel was used extensively by the Dutch Royal family until withdrawn from service in 1882 and replaced by Valk.

Until the mid-19th century the world’s Royal yachts were built almost exclusively in naval shipyards. From then onwards an increasing number were built in commercial shipyards and this became the golden age of the Royal yacht, a period that was to last for almost 100 hundred years. From Argentina to Zanzibar, royals, rulers and presidents had their own splendid yachts, and many countries continue the tradition today.

There are a surprising number of survivors from the golden age of the Royal yacht, some of them still used by the descendants of the Royal families for which they were first built. Others are preserved as museum ships or have been sold and gone on to have a second career.  The following is not meant to be an exhaustive list of them all, but instead a look at some of the interesting survivors.

Argentina - The full rigged ship, Presidente Sarmiento was completed by Laird Brothers, Birkenhead in 1898 for use as a cadet training ship by the Argentinian Navy. She was also fitted with an auxiliary steam engine developing 2800 indicated horsepower. Her career as a sail training ship lasted from 1899 to 1939, and she undertook 37 cruises. She participated in many historical occasions including the Naval Reviews to celebrate the coronations of King Edward VII and King Alfonso XIII, and the inauguration ceremony of the opening of the Panama Canal. She was used as the Presidential yacht for the Naval Review to celebrate the Centenary of the May Revolution in 1910, carrying Argentinian President Jose Figuroa Alcorta and Infanta Isabella of Spain.

Her career was far from over in 1939, Presidente Sarmiento continued as a cadet ship making short sea trips and in 1956 was again used as a Presidential yacht. In 1962 she was designated as a national historic monument and was inaugurated as a museum ship on May 22, 1964 moored at Buenos Aires. 

Presidente Sarmiento

Photograph of Presidente Sarmiento © MacAllenBrothers, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Denmark - The motor yacht Dannebrog, the second to hold that name, was completed by the Naval Dockyard, Copenhagen in 1932 for King Christian X. This elegantly beautiful steel yacht with a clipper bow, has a Royal apartment that contains furniture and fittings taken from her predecessor. She is used for State visits and cruising. The State accommodation within Dannebrog can also be used for patients if she is used as a hospital ship. The last major overhaul of the vessel was undertaken in 1980-81 in order to ensure she would last well into the 21st century. Many improvements were carried out including the replacement of her engines.

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Image © Jean-Pierre Bazard Jpbazard, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Egypt - The 3,417 gross ton paddle steamer Mahroussa (also known as El Mahrousa) was built to Lloyd’s Register class at Samuda Brothers, Poplar, London to a design by Oliver Lang, the designer of Queen Victoria’s steam yacht Victoria & Albert II. Completed in August 1865 for the Khedive Ismail of Egypt, this iron-hulled yacht has undergone several refits and alterations through her life including the replacement of her steam engines and removal of her paddle wheels. This beautiful yacht is the oldest of these yachts to have survived. Her fittings include the sumptuous Pharaonic Hall and is still home to the piano presented by Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, on the inauguration of the Suez Canal. It is thought to be the world’s oldest and most expensive piano. Mahroussa was the first ship to cross the New Suez Canal extension in 2015, 146 years after she had led the inauguration of the newly constructed waterway. Mahroussa is under the care of the Egyptian Navy and is usually berthed at Alexandria. She is used as an historic site for important State guests and is also occasionally taken to sea.

Half Midship Section Plan for <i>Mahrousse</i>,

Half Midship Section Plan for Mahrousse © Lloyd's Register Foundation, Heritage & Education Centre

Great Britain- The steam yacht Britannia was launched by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 16 April 1953 at the shipyard of John Brown & Co Ltd, Clydebank. The yacht was completed the following year. She was designed to be used as hospital ship during a national emergency though this never happened. She did however evacuate more than 1,000 refugees from Aden during the civil war in 1986. The yacht was used extensively by the Queen and the Royal family during her career, both for royal tours and for their annual cruise in August. It is thought Britannia steamed more than 1,087,623 nautical miles during her royal career. Britannia was decommissioned in December 1997 and is now moored at Leith, Edinburgh and owned by the Royal Yacht Britannia Trust.

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Photograph of Britannia © East Riding Archives, via Wikimedia Commons

Monaco – The motor yacht Deo Juvante was originally named Monica after her owner, Santiago E Soulas’ daughter. She was completed by Camper and Nicholsons Ltd, Southampton, to Lloyd’s Register class in 1928. Soulas kept her for four years before selling her to Zarch Couyoumbian who renamed her Rion. Sold again in 1938, her new owner Sir George Tilley, could only enjoy his yacht for a short period before she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy for anti-submarine service during World War 2 under the name HMY Noir. She was returned to Sir George after the war. He died in 1951 and she was acquired by Aristotle Onassis who renamed her Arion and took many celebrities and Sir Winston Churchill on cruises. Onassis presented Arion as a wedding gift to Prince Rainier and the actress Grace Kelly. Miss Kelly arrived in Monaco on the USS Constitution and the Prince welcomed her from Arion.  The couple renamed her Deo Juvante II and the yacht was the scene of their honeymoon, a cruise along the coasts of Corsica and Sardinia. Sold by the Principality two years later she has since had a variety of names and owners. Since 2007 she has borne the name Grace to reflect her royal heritage and is used as an expedition yacht to cruise the Galapagos Islands.

The Netherlands - Piet Hein was completed in 1937 by Amsterdamsche Scheepswerf G. de Vries Lentsch Jr, to a design by Henry de Vogt. The yacht was the official wedding gift of the Dutch people to Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard in 1937. The yacht was used by the Royal family until 1940 when the German Wehrmacht seized the vessel. Returned to the Netherlands in 1945 the yacht was refurbished and returned to the family. The yacht was used for rescues and evacuation during the North Sea floods of 1953. In 1979 Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard set up a foundation for the yacht to become a museum and the yacht is currently owned by the Foundation Piet Hein.

Norway – The motor yacht Norge was originally named Philante and completed in 1937 to Lloyd’s Register class by Camper and Nicholsons Ltd of Southampton for Thomas Sopwith, an aviation engineer and industrialist who had a love of yachting. Sopwith used her as a base when he was yacht racing, including his attempts to win the America’s Cup. Philante was the largest motor yacht to be built in the UK and was appointed like a small luxury cruise liner.

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Image © Ein Dahmer, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Philante was requisitioned by the Royal Navy in 1939 serving throughout World War 2 and used variously as a training vessel, for convoy duties, and Admiral Max Horton’s ship for the surrender of 33 U-boats at Loch Eriboll.

After the war a nationwide appeal was made to the people of Norway to purchase a yacht as a gift for their much respected monarch, King Haakon and Philante was chosen as their gift. In 1947 she was refitted as the Royal Norwegian Yacht and renamed Norge. King Haakon made many voyages on her, both to visit the coastal communities of Norway and to voyage abroad. King Harald, the grandson of King Haakon, is now the third generation of the Norwegian Royal family to use the yacht for their summer cruises to the coastal regions of Norway.

Romania - The steam yacht Nahlin was constructed by John Brown & Co, Clydebank to the design of G L Watson. Completed in 1930 to Lloyd’s Register class, Nahlin was the first of three yachts ordered by Lady Yule who wanted to roam the world embarking on her cruise that same year. In 1936 Nahlin was chartered by King Edward VIII and used for a cruise to the Adriatic. Also onboard was Mrs Wallis Simpson who the King later married after his abdication. It is said that Helen Lepescu, the mistress of King Carol of Romania, was fascinated by the romanticism of Nahlin and the part she had played in the story of Edward and Mrs Simpson and persuaded King Carol to purchase Nahlin. Renamed Luceafarul the King made just one cruise on her before his abdication in 1940. The yacht was renamed Libertatea and was used firstly as a museum ship at Galati and then a restaurant. In 1998 she was purchased privately and returned to the UK for restoration. The yacht was beautifully restored and recommissioned in 2010 under her original name.

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Image © Franz62DE, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Turkey - The steam yacht Savarona was completed in 1931 at Blohm & Voss, Hamburg to the design of William Francis Gibbs for Emily Cadwalader, an American heiress. The yacht was acquired by the Turkish Government in 1938 to gift to their ailing leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who spent some weeks on board before his death. In 1951 Savarona was converted to a training ship and renamed Gϋneş Dil during that time. She was used for training for many years before being severely damaged by fire in October 1979. Abandoned for several years she was chartered by Kahraman Sadikoğlu in 1989 and refurbished by him at the Tuzla Shipyard.  Savarona was returned to the Turkish Government in 2010 and after further restoration was once more ready for official use. The first reception onboard was held by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in March 2015 and included a short cruise along the Bosporus. 

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Image © Alexxx1979, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

United States – The Sequoia was the second yacht to be built for Emily Cadwalader, who named her Sequoia II. The vessel was completed in 1925 by the Mathis Yacht Building Co of New Jersey to a design by John Trumpy. Constructed of wood, yellow pine, white oak, mahogany and teak were used for her build. She was used by the Cadwaladers for cruises to the coast of Florida before being sold to William Dunning, a Houston oil executive. In 1931 the US Bureau of Navigation purchased Sequoia II and she was used as a decoy ship to attract would be bootleggers during the Prohibition period. President Herbert Hoover liked her design and used her between 1931 and 1933 for both official and pleasure cruises. President Franklin D Roosevelt also liked the yacht and used her frequently between 1933 and 1935, during which time her name was changed to Sequoia.  As it became clearer that war was in the offing, it was thought a wood yacht was unsafe for the President, so the steel hulled Potomac was designated as Presidential yacht and Sequoia was used by the Secretary of the Navy. However, she was a favourite of many, and the US Presidents continued to use her until President Jimmy Carter, who ordered her to be sold in 1977, a decision it is thought he later regretted. Sequoia had several subsequent owners and in October 2016 was acquired by Equator Capital Group who have started her restoration at French & Webb shipyard at Belfast, Maine.

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Image ©  U.S. Navy photo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

United States – The Potomac was chosen to replace the Sequoia as the US Presidential yacht. Built by the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Co of Manitowoc, Wisconsin as the US Coast Guard cutter Electra in 1934, she was renamed Potomac in 1936 and converted to a yacht. She was used extensively by President Franklin D Roosevelt who required wheelchair accessibility. A dummy funnel hid a lift and pulley system enabling the President to transport himself to the boat deck. President Harry S Truman decommissioned the Potomac in 1945, choosing the larger Williamsburg as his Presidential yacht. Potomac’s later career was chequered. Until 1960 she served as a fishery enforcement vessel for the Maryland Tidewater Fisheries Commission. There followed a few years operating as a ferry between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. In 1964 she was purchased by Elvis Presley who gave her to the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis for them to sell her to raise funds. She went into private ownership but by 1980 was involved in a drug running operation. Although no drugs were found on Potomac, she was seized by the US Customs Service and towed to Treasure Island where she sank. Refloated by the US Navy, Potomac was sold to the Port of Oakland. In 1983 the Association for the Preservation of the Presidential Yacht Potomac was formed to restore her. The yacht is berthed at Jack London Square, Oakland and the Association continues to have an association with the Roosevelt family.  

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Image ©  Chris Wood, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

References:

Beaufort, His Grace the 8th Duke of, The Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes, Yachting, Volume II, (London, 1894)

Crabtree, Reginald, Royal Yachts of Europe, From the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century, (Newton Abbot, 1975)

Dixon, Conrad, Ships of the Victorian Navy, (Southampton, 1987)

Falconer, William, Ed., Burney, William, Falconer’s New Universal Dictionary of the Marine, (reprinted London, 2006)

Madge, Tim, Royal Yachts of the World, (East Molesey, 1997)

Major, Alan, Royal Yachts, (Stroud, 2011)

Phillips-Birt, Douglas, The History of Yachting, (London, 1974)

Simper, Robert, Victorian and Edwardian Yachting from Old Photographs, (London, 1978)