When we travel to different corners of the world, I’m always amazed how often our experiences somehow link back to the St. Lawrence River. Our stay in Scotland in February provided two such links. I wrote about the St. Lawrence River Tartan last month. This month I’ll share our tour of the Britannia, the Royal Yacht of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.
The 415-foot, 5,000+ ton vessel was the floating home of the royal family for 44 years. The elegant blue-hulled beauty sailed over a million miles around the world on 968 official voyages. Two of those voyages took her under the Thousand Island Bridge and sailing past Grenell Island.
The Britannia was decommissioned in 1997 and is now moored in Leith Harbor near Edinburgh, Scotland. My husband, Gary, and I were only two of the quarter of a million visitors she’ll attract this year. We spent an entire morning aboard the yacht exploring her nooks and crannies.
The interiors scream 1950s, which is no shocker as it was launched in 1953. The Royal Apartments reminded me of the pictures in my mother’s McCalls and Better Homes & Gardens with their crisy, clean style. Think of Rob and Laura’s bedroom in the Dick Van Dyke show. Yup! The Queen and Prince of Wales slept in twin beds…twin beds in separate rooms. The only double bed on the yacht was added for Charles and Diane’s honeymoon.
The twin beds are much bigger than the cramped quarters where the crew slept. The berths were an upgrade, the crew slept in hammocks until the mid-1970s. The crew were all volunteers and members of the Royal Navy. Instead of being called sailors they were called yachtsmen.
The State Dining Room was the largest room on the ship, with seating for 96. I was most intrigued with the collection of souvenirs and gifts from visiting dignitaries that were displayed on the white-paneled wall: boomerangs from Australia, spears from Papua New Guinea, a shell horn from Tahiti and a whale bone that the royal couple found on a beach in the South Pacific.
The State Drawing Room with it’s cheery chintz and coal burning fireplace looked more like a British country home than a sea-faring yacht. It’s so homey. It’s easy to understand why Queen Elizabeth once said that Britannia was “the one place where I can truly relax.”
Although less grand, the day room for the yachtsmen and the officers’ mess were both cozy. They were both overflowing with memorabilia and cherished traditions. Even though the queen had a lovely large comfy state drawing room, she always relished those occasions she was invited to the officer’s mess or the yachtsmen’s day room. No wonder many of them stayed aboard for several decades.
As we stood in the helm, I imaged how it looked to approach the Thousand Island Bridge. On June 26, 1959, Queen Elizabeth and President Eisenhower dedicated the first lock of the St. Lawrence Seaway. This was just the beginning of the Queen’s 45-day visit to North America, which culminated in Chicago.
On June 28, 1959, Britannia sailed under the Thousand Island Bridge. When we stood on the back deck, I imagined what Queen Elizabeth might have seen as she passed Grenell . There would have been a flotilla of small boats lining the seaway as she headed toward Lake Ontario. Lots of Grenellians remember watching the Royal Yacht pass.
Britannia passed Grenell again in 1967. Queen Elizabeth attended Expo ‘67 in Montreal, then cruised from Montreal to Kingston. The Queen disembarked in Kingston, traveled to Ottawa, then flew back to London.
While I didn’t see Britannia on the St. Lawrence, I’ve seen the pictures and heard the stories. But I think of the other vessels like the Roseway, which I saw in St. Croix and then in the Seaway; the Staten Island Ferry, which was en route from it’s builder on Lake Superior and was on its way to New York City. We will be arriving for the 2013 season next month and I have to wonder what special vessels I will see on the Seaway this year. How blessed we are to be a part of this grand river that connects us with the rest of the world.
By Lynn McElfresh, Grenell Island
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. We have learned a great deal over the past three years from Lynn McElfresh’s musings, from moving pianos to island weddings or from plumbing problems to meeting old friends, taking nature walks and the importance of trees. Recently she presented several articles about Grenell for its 100th Birthday.
Lynn brings us an interesting link to the Thousand Islands that she found on a recent trip to England – the Royal ship “Britannia” which travelled through the islands on several voyages.
Editor’s note: Lots of memories for our family as we were honored to salute the Britannia and Queen Elizabeth in 1976 during a “sail past” for the Montreal Games of the XXI Olympiad. The sailing portion of the Games were held for two weeks in Kingston.