Photo © Ian Coristine/
 You are here:  Back Issues      Archive

Her Majesty’s Royal Yacht

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. 

  • Royal Yacht Brittania

    Royal Yacht Brittania

  • Lifesaver


  • Gary makes himself at home in the Summer Lounge. The fold out bar is hidden behind a map on the wall

    Gary makes himself at home in the Summer Lounge. The fold out bar is hidden behind a map on the wall

  • The State Drawing Room looks like the living room of a country home.

    The State Drawing Room looks like the living room of a country home.

  • Gary looks comfortable behind the bar in the Yachtsmen’s Day Room

    Gary looks comfortable behind the bar in the Yachtsmen’s Day Room

  • Official Seal

    Official Seal


Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


Mary Johnson
Comment by: Mary Johnson ( )
Left at: 7:20 AM Monday, April 15, 2013
That photo brings back memories. Out family also had a cottage on Grenell (Earle Baxter, DVM before that his mother Harriet Baxter). We lived between the Smith's and the Ike and Sally Deutch. On the day that the Brittania was to pass by, we were all rounded up and went over to the other side of the island to wait her arrival (fishing as we waited of course). My grandfather was determined we would see the Brittania and we followed it for a while making sure we saw both sides of her. I have never forgotten that day.
Bob Graham
Comment by: Bob Graham ( )
Left at: 8:04 AM Monday, April 15, 2013
I too have memories of that 1959 visit of the Queen and HMY Britannia. On the evening of June 27, with the vessel anchored off Brockville, my then-girl friend and I stood on KIng Street in the city along with countless others and saw Her Majesty and Prince Philip as they passed by in a motorcade. Her car was lighted from within, and I remember being impressed by the radiant appearance of the young Queen. It was a hazy night, and the yacht herself presented quite a sight, brilliantly lit, but her lights blurred by the haze as she lay at anchor.

The following morning dawned with the same haze. Now in Morristown, I watched from that distance as Britannia and her naval entourage hove up anchors and proceeded up river, bearing the royal couple.

Over the years I saw Britannia a number of times, including several times up close, where her yacht-like character was most apparent. She remains on my list of favorite ships.
Lynn McElfresh
Comment by: Lynn McElfresh ( )
Left at: 9:52 AM Monday, April 15, 2013
Thank you Mary and Bob for your comments. I never had the pleasure of seeing the yacht on the St. Lawrence, but your comments have helped me imagine that day and the excitement.
Elizabeth Ristau
Comment by: Elizabeth Ristau ( )
Left at: 10:18 AM Monday, April 15, 2013
I also remember going out to see the "yacht". We saw many ladies-in-waiting, but were unable to pick out the queen. We later learned that she spent most of her time in her cabin as she was pregnant with - I think - her youngest. So I guess she missed a view of Grenell.
Todd hellert
Comment by: Todd hellert ( )
Left at: 10:21 AM Saturday, April 20, 2013
I first was introduced to the River by our friends, the Reeves family who resided on Grenell during the summers. I wondered if they had seen this ship pass by in their earlier years on the island, and behold they did since your one picture was from them. Thanks for your stories about Grenell.
Dave Montrois
Comment by: Dave Montrois ( )
Left at: 7:16 PM Sunday, April 21, 2013
We had just returned from Expo 67 on our family's cruiser, when we saw Brittania pass through. There is a painting that Michael Ringer did of that day in his book "River Life", that shows the boat going by. Lots of pleasure boats were out to see Brittania that day.
Debbie Hull
Comment by: Debbie Hull ( )
Left at: 9:48 PM Thursday, April 25, 2013
I remember seeing Brittania in 1967. We had learned that she was going to pass TI Park. My grandfather took us all to Goose Island for a shore lunch. We kids played all day on the little island. Finally in the late afternoon the Brittania sailed by. To this day I think the lady I saw on deck in a yellow dress was the Queen. What a thrill it was to see such a beautiful boat.
Bruce Seamans
Comment by: Bruce Seamans
Left at: 11:28 AM Wednesday, December 20, 2017
I was Stationed at Cape Vincent NY on the US Coast Guard Cutter WPB 82350, Point Franklin. We provided the lead security vessel for Brittania through the U S Locks and St. Lawrence river past Tibbetts Point Lighthouse. What an honor to be part of the crew.
K connop
Comment by: K connop
Left at: 5:11 PM Friday, August 24, 2018
Where did the rest of the family sleep?