11th Post: 1st BRITANNIA – A STOKER IN NEW YORK

The Royal Yacht Britannia

THE NORTH SEA – 1994 / ROYAL YACHT BRITANNIA

Owing to pure chance, I received an invitation to travel on the Britannia in October of 1994. Initially, this had nothing to do with the Wilde show at all.

My brother Nigel, who had spent the previous fifteen years working as a doctor in the Royal Navy and serving on such grim deployments as the Falklands and the Gulf, had finally landed the prestigious position as the ship’s doctor on the Royal Yacht. His job was to deal exclusively with the crew as the Royal Family travelled with their permanent individual doctors. As the average age of the crew was about nineteen, and particularly athletic nineteen-year-olds at that, the job was not onerous and he spent a lot of the time acting as an ad hoc entertainments manager.

This voyage had a particular significance as it included the first Royal Visit to Russia since the Revolution of 1917. The itinerary involved sailing the yacht from Portsmouth to Aberdeen, thence to Helsinki where the Royal party would board, and then on to St Petersburg to meet the Russian President Yeltsin. As a special favour, the officers and crew were allowed to invite relatives to accompany them on the Portsmouth to Aberdeen leg of the trip.

Nigel offered me a berth and I accepted.

1994 October: Wednesday

The Britannia looked magnificent as we walked up the gangplank, its sleek dark-blue hull contrasting with the fresh white superstructure. It was a pleasure simply to walk onboard. Two ratings stood to attention and saluted as we stepped onto the immaculate deck. I was in the hands of the Navy for the next three days.

Nigel took me to my quarters, Cabin 21 – apparently in normal times this was the Royal Maid’s cabin. He also informed me that, in the event of the ship sinking and if she had been aboard, I would have been allocated to the same lifeboat as Princess Diana. A mixed blessing – meeting one of the most beautiful women in the world but also in imminent danger of drowning at the same time.

We then adjourned to his own cabin, where he consulted with his orderlies about the medical stores. These appeared to be satisfactory, until the wine steward arrived to mutter darkly:

“Don’t reckon we’ll have enough booze for Russia, sir”.

As we had spent the previous evening visiting off licences in Portsmouth for precisely this reason, Nigel was able to reassure him that we had ordered sixteen cases of gin and twelve of whisky for the British Ambassador in Moscow: “so he can keep up with Boris Yeltsin.”

I was then taken to the wardroom to meet Nigel’s fellow officers. The extraordinary thing about them was that they all seemed to have been cast by a theatrical director. There was the eagle-eyed weather-beaten Admiral with a fondness for anecdote and grog; the dapper captain, beside whom Hugh Grant would appear uncouth (a custom of the yacht was to have an admiral and a captain in charge); the large, avuncular, reassuringly pipe-and-slippers navigator; the briskly alert second officers; the fresh-faced juniors resembling an Etonian boy band; even my own brother had a doctor’s bedside manner that could soothe a rhino with a grudge. It was like meeting the cast of a nineteenth century Boy’s Own Annual. Above all, it was the sheer good manners that stood out; I was meeting Navy Charm at full blast.

The Royal Yacht Britannia

Another curious oddity of the ship was that, whereas the crew (known as ‘yachtsmen’) could serve their entire naval life working on this one vessel, the Britannia officers could only serve two years in their jobs before being transferred elsewhere in the Navy. This meant that often the crew were more used to the nuances of everyday yacht-life than their superiors. It led to an unusual ease between the ranks.

After lunch in the company of my five fellow guests, (all fathers of crew members), Nigel called me aside for a quick gin and tonic of welcome from the engineer – a kind gesture, but one that was to lead inadvertently to an ongoing embarrassment throughout the voyage. Above decks the rest of the guests were being given briefings about safety, life-saving drills, fire alarms, etc. Due to my absence below, I had no idea what these instructions had been.

At 3pm, the Royal Yacht Britannia gently slid from its moorings and sailed majestically out into the Solent. The day was chilly but the sun sparkled on the waves. We stood on the Royal Bridge and watched the crowds waving farewell from the seawall and tower of Southsea, before we passed on between the Isle of Wight and the old Palmerston sea forts. In the wheel room orders rattled down the intercom as the ship veered to avoid a small boat in our path – then we were out into the open seas of the English Channel.

Nigel led me down to what he described as the pride of the yacht – the engine room.  He was correct. My only previous experience of seagoing had been a few weeks working on a Cornish fishing boat about twenty years previously. The ‘engine room’ there had been a tangle of oily, grime-coated pipes, with elderly newspapers and cigarette butts strewn around to complete the décor. Here, each pipe glistened, every tube glittered – sparkling stalactites of polished brass. In its own way, it was indeed a thing of beauty.

The Engine Room, R.Y.Britannia

Our next call was to descend to the ratings, or Yachtsmen’s deck, several layers of boat below, to attend a welcoming party in what was described as the Unwinding Room. As we entered the pleasant, oak-panelled, and very crowded bar, Nigel murmured:

“This is really an attempt to get the guests tipsy – to get them as unwound as a newt. I don’t think you’ll have a problem.”

A steady procession of lager pints began to arrive. I settled in to talk with three Royal Marine bandsmen who related some of the cherished yacht yarns.

One story concerned a voyage that the ship had taken some years before. Although genuine stoking of the boilers had ended decades earlier, a section of ratings still held the title of ‘stoker’. On this particular trip, one of them had been a youth on his very first posting who, it appeared, had previously never been outside his home town of Birmingham. He had an air of unquenchable innocence about him.

The Yacht had arrived in New York on a goodwill mission, and on their first night there, the lad and his messmates had gone ashore for a night out. The weather was dreadful – a full driving blizzard had enveloped the city. The boy became separated from his friends and entirely lost in one of the most dismal areas of New York.

As he trudged through the snowdrifts amidst the decayed warehouses, distant gun shots, and the spectral baying of feral dogs, a car drove up behind, then settled to keep pace with him. A rear window slowly rolled down and a deep, dark voice growled:

“Hey, boy, don’t you know it’s real dangerous round here?”

In his sublime Brummie accent, the lad turned and nodded indignantly:

“Yes, I knaow. I’ve slipped over twoice already!”

R.Y.Britannia at Dartmouth

Although, as my brother had predicted, my own head remained relatively clear, some of my fellow guests looked decidedly the worse for wear as we were led on to Party No 2 – the Admiral’s Invitation Drinks on the Bridge. As the whiskies circulated, the Admiral gave a speech extolling the beauties of the yacht and regretting the Government’s threat to its continued existence (a threat that three years later became a reality). He made a good case for its retention.

Although seen as a royal toy, the family itself were only on board for about six weeks a year, usually on a summer voyage around the Hebrides. The rest of the time, the Britannia acted as a venue in which to carry out trade talks and deals for British interests. Over half a billion pounds worth of trade had been negotiated on board, as compared to the ten million it would cost to repair the ship. It provided a uniquely British base wherever in the world our representatives might find themselves; the alternative usually being the foyer of an American chain hotel. There was nothing quite so gloriously flattering and/or inhibiting to potential business partners or rivals than this historically and regally encrusted floating jewel.

Several of the guests, by now thoroughly unwound by the Invitation Drinks, gurgled patriotic agreement.

Party No 3 of the day, champagne in the wheel room to celebrate the navigator’s birthday, was swiftly followed by an invitation to Party No 4 in the Wardroom. On hearing this news, I gave Nigel a wary glance. He grinned:

“Don’t worry, it’s normal. I haven’t been sober since I came aboard”

The Wardroom party consisted mainly of a Quiz Night and gin. Each section of the yacht put forward its team, and the questions and answers were relayed by radio between the decks. By 7pm, despite the gin, our Wardroom team managed to win.

I then retired to my cabin to change clothes. This was an ongoing nuisance as about every three hours the civilians had to find a new set of apparel in order to match the Navy habit of changing uniforms at different times during the day.

A knock on the cabin door – a steward arrived with an invitation to a cocktail party now taking place back in the wardroom. Party No 5 and a switch to a screwdriver cocktail containing a ferocious amount of vodka. By now, I was starting to feel the effects. I talked with some authority to the Chief Engineer about golf – a subject about which I know absolutely nothing. Not a good sign. But a better one than a fellow guest who had begun to recite ‘Eskimo Nell’.

At 8pm, Party No 5 was succeeded by the Dinner Party. Although the excellent roast pork followed by lemon meringue pie managed to soak up some of the previous alcohol intake, this was nullified by the arrival of four separate rounds of table wine. The dinner itself proceeded with a complicated routine of naval customs and toasts. Nigel said that if any officer made a mistake or caused a mishap, he had to pay for the entire meal’s wine bill. With thirty officers plus guests present, this was not to be taken lightly.

By 9pm, the company retired back to the Wardroom for coffee, liqueurs, and cinematic entertainment. Although the film itself was a run of the mill Hollywood romance, there were two unusual features to this performance.

Firstly it was shown on an ancient reel-to-reel projector, one that I had not seen since the 1950s.

Secondly, the film was halted and the lights raised every half hour so that the stewards could circulate with fresh drinks and to hand out – ice lollies!

I was caught awkwardly with a pint of lager in one hand and a glass of Drambuie in the other. The officer next to me kindly held my ice-lolly so I could take a quick bite while I disposed of the drink. Thus, I ended up in the unlikely position of being fed ice-lollies by the Captain of the Yacht Britannia. The film ended at 11pm.

The Binnacle, R.Y.Britannia

It was then that the captain took me aside and asked if I would like to perform the Wilde show the following evening. This took me aback as I had had no warning at all. There were no costume or props but far more importantly, given the tsunami of booze already taken and potentially to come, I doubted if I had any memory left either. I said that I’d think about it.

At midnight, Nigel led me up to the Bridge for a nightcap. The Yacht was sailing east through the Straits of Dover with the shore lights of Kent on the ‘port’ and those of France on the ‘starboard’ – amazing how quickly one picks up the lingo. Stood in the strangely comforting intimacy of the darkened wheel house as the navigator steered us past the Goodwin Sands – just the five of us, the night sky littered with stars outside, the subdued green and red button lights on the controls, and the quiet orders to the engine room, as the huge ship ploughed forward through the waves.

Said goodnight to the company and wobbled back to Cabin 21 for the night.

Next week Tuesday August 22 – More stories of shipboard life on the most beautiful yacht in the world. 

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