I have three half models to my name; all by Peter Ward of Poole. The first is of Sally, of which you’ve probably heard enough (Vertue No2, love of my life, etc). The second is of the yacht America, the low black schooner which, in 1851, took the cream of the British yachting fleet to the cleaners or, if you like revisionist history, was a slow, black schooner which just happened to meet the cream of the British fleet on a bad day. And she went the wrong side of a mark to boot. Again, enough said.
The third, and probably my favourite, is of the King’s yacht Britannia; or kings’, the kings being Edward VII and his son George V, both of whom loved her in a way that any wooden boat owner will understand. In 635 races she won 231 firsts out of a total of 360 prizes - a record that is unlikely ever to be equalled, let alone bettered.
‘Britty’ was a prodigious creation, measuring 121ft 6in overall on a waterline of 87ft 9in. With a beam of 23ft 4in, she drew just over 15ft, and displaced 154 tons. Under her original gaff rig she spread 10,000 sqft of canvas. The base of her sail plan from tip of bowsprit to end of boom was 172ft. With her 3-ton Oregon pine lower mast measuring 80ft and her topmast 58ft, her sail plan towered over 142ft above deck.
George Watson designed her and Henderson’s on the Clyde built her. ‘So proud,’ wrote James Meikle, a yachting correspondent, ‘over her building were the men that the putting of her together was a real labour of love. Really it was not difficult to imagine that the framework was woven together, so beautifully were the many parts joined in to and on to each other.’
Composite built of wood planking over steel frames, she had been refitted extensively in 1935, at her end (she was scuttled off St Catherine’s light) her Lloyds classification would have been current until 1940.
My modest part in her story is simply that, one fine day in April 1983 found me in the Public Records office in Kew, enquiring after the log books of HM destroyers Amazon and Winchester, the luckless pair that were detailed to preside over her scuttling.
After a lengthy wait, a box emerged from the vaults, containing the documents that were to form the core of an article I was preparing on the anniversary of her building. Winchester’s log, unopened until that day, was typically to the point. It reads: ‘0245 slipped and sank Britannia in position Lat 50 34 18 N, Long 1 1 0 W.’ It was only later, following a tip-off from an old colleague, Bill Beavis, that I chanced upon the one living eye witness of the event.
Able Seaman Torpedoman Cyril ‘Bods’ Bodsworth, as his naval chums called him, was 19 years old, the youngest member of Winchester’s crew. He was 76, by the time I spoke to him, and living quietly in retirement near Portsmouth with his memories and a single memento of the night when he blew Britannia’s bilges and deckhead apart with four carefully prepared gun cotton charges.
All did not go according to plan, that July night in 1935, he told me. The charges failed to blow. ‘Those who had made them were beginning to sweat. We thought “Oh dear we are going to be in dead trouble”. Luckily someone must have opened the seacocks,’ ‘Bods’ recalled. ‘After about a quarter of an hour we heard just a gentle pop.
‘A bit later we heard this much larger explosion, and one solitary deck plank shot up out of the water and did a gentle parabola in the light of our searchlight. We spent the rest of night looking for the wreckage. We never found that plank.’
Bods did not go home completely empty handed, however, from his night’s work. ‘In spite of what we had been told about no souvenirs, there was this cocktail cabinet, wooden Victorian-style furniture, with wooden spikes to keep in the bottles,’ he remembered. ‘One of them was a bit loose, and just fitted my rule pocket. It’s in my attic. No one can prove where it came from but I know it came from the Britannia.’
Now that, not the dry conservation or the patient recreation of an old boat, is history. For without people, boats are just artefacts.