October 19, 1998 12:00 PM

If these decks could talk…you can be sure Her Majesty would not be amused. In 44 years of sailing the seas, the Royal Yacht Britannia served as an invaluable refuge for the Queen and her family, a place where the monarch could let her hair down (or at least cover it with a scarf), Prince Philip could clown in a Beatles-style wig, and young Charles and Anne could pitch in like ordinary deckhands. “The beauty of it was the privacy it afforded the royal family,” says Dave Morris, 59, one of a series of onboard photographers whose pictures, recently released for publication by the Palace, appear on these pages. “It was a real haven for them.”

Those days are gone. Deemed an unnecessary expense—upkeep was $14.5 million a year—by Tony Blair’s government, the 412-foot yacht, whose dining room alone seats 50, was decommissioned last December in a ceremony that brought tears to the Queen’s eyes. (“It took the demise of an old yacht for them to show [their human side],” sniffed a tabloid columnist.) And this month the Britannia, now at Leith Docks in Edinburgh, will open as a tourist attraction. Some 200,000 visitors a year are expected to tour the spruced-up vessel, which dropped anchor in 135 countries and hosted four sets of royal honeymooners. A visitors’ center will feature film footage and more shipboard happy snaps, as Morris calls them. “We were lucky—as official family photographers, we could get pictures others couldn’t,” he says. “Of course, you knew just how far you could go.”

Some Windsors, believed to be displeased about Britannia’s forced retirement, apparently think the ship did not go far enough. Says Brian Hoey, author of The Royal Yacht Britannia: Inside the Queen’s Floating Palace: “Princess Anne thought it would be fitting to strip Britannia of her royal artifacts, take her out to sea and sink her.” Anne’s reasoning? “It would be a romantic and dignified end,” Hoey says, “to a gallant old lady.”

Christina Cheakalos

Simon Perry in London

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