Saturday, Jun. 02, 2012

Diamond Jubilee River Pageant: A Thousand Boats Set Sail In Honor of Her Majesty

Queen Elizabeth and her royal progeny have a reputation for understatement. But in honor of Her Majesty's 60th year on the throne, they're throwing subtlety overboard.

On Sunday more than 50 members of the Windsors' extended family will sail down the Thames as part of the Diamond Jubilee river pageant. Cruising in a sumptuous royal barge designed to rival those of the 17th century, the Queen will hold court amid hundreds of red, gold and purple flowers, intricate carvings of animal heads and a three-meter banner decorated with more than half a million gold-colored buttons. Eight newly cast bells — each named for a senior member of the royal family — will ring from the ship's purpose-built tower. Church bells along the seven-mile route will respond to their call.

In case that isn't enough for the 1 million spectators lining the route, a 1,000-boat flotilla will trail the royal squadron. Those vessels — including Venetian gondolas, Chinese dragon boats, motorboats, kayaks and centuries-old ships — will steam forward to the sound of Bollywood hits and the theme song from the James Bond film "The World is Not Enough" blaring from the decks.

The spectacle may seem peculiar, but it actually reflects centuries of royal tradition. England grew wealthy through the sea, and the Thames served as London's central artery and its principle gateway. Celebrations have frequently played off that power and might. In 1553 all the King's horses and all the King's men gathered to celebrate Anne Boleyn's flamboyant river coronation. In 1662 King Charles II and Queen Catherine of Braganza threw the party of the 17th century when they staged a 1,000-boat flotilla.

"This pageant celebrates 60 years of a very unique and remarkable monarch, but it also symbolizes our link with maritime history," says Richard Fitzwilliams, the former editor of the International Who's Who and an authority on the royal family. "It's going to be a huge super-colossal super-spectacle."

But before the show revs up — and before the 20,000 passengers on the flotilla begin their tour of duty — the Queen will take a nostalgic trip on the Royal Yacht Britannia. Accompanied by Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, she'll board at the Chelsea Pier on what was famously her most beloved yacht. The ship, which Prime Minister Tony Blair decommissioned in 1997 after more than 43 years of service, took Elizabeth all around the world — it was one of the few places where she could really let her hair down. "When it was decommissioned she looked moist-eyed," says Fitzwilliams. "There are only two occasions when it has been alleged that the Queen has shown emotion publicly, and this was one of them."

Britannia is now moored permanently in Edinburgh. After an 800-yard journey, the Queen and her fellow passengers will disembark and move on board the 210-foot long Spirit of Chartwell, on which the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry will join them.

Other members of the royal family will spread out on several other ships — partly for security reasons, and partly to draw out the festivities. Prince Andrew, Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie (but not their mother Sarah Ferguson) will sail on the Havengore, the passenger boat that carried Winston Churchill's casket during his state funeral in 1965. Princess Anne, the Queen's only daughter, and her husband, Timothy Laurence, will travel on a small houseboat affiliated with a charity Anne supports. The Duke of Kent and Princess Alexandra will sail on a Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboat, which will enter service later in the year.

The Middleton family won't be sitting at home while Kate skims the Thames with the Queen. Kate's parents, Michael and Carole, and her siblings, Pippa and James, will mingle with the likes of Seb Coe, the chairman of the London Olympics committee, on board the Elizabethan. The 235-seat ship is a replica of an 1890s Mississippi paddle steamer. The ship will sail within the royal squadron — the small group of ships that includes the Queen's, all surrounded by armed navy ships. Their inclusion suggests that Her Majesty has accepted the Middletons into her inner circle.

After a three-mile journey, the royal family and their guests will disembark to board the HMS President, a warship permanently moored near Blackfriars Bridge. There they can sit back and admire the pageantry, as the flotilla drifts past at a leisurely 4 knots per hour. Gloriana, a hand-built rowbarge decorated with gold leaf, will lead the procession. Its 18 oarsman, who include Olympic athletes Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, will set the pace. It's expected that the flotilla will take 75 minutes to pass any given point.

The oarsmen's grunts will give way to the sound of music. Ten "music herald barges" will unite each section of boats taking part in the flotilla. They'll include choirs, live bands and orchestras— among them, the Ancient Academy of Music, which will perform Handel's "Water Music" using 18th century instruments — and, on the final barge, the entire London Philharmonic Orchestra, which will perform pieces associated with the buildings it passes on the river. When the ship passes the headquarters of MI-6, Britain's secret intelligence service, the orchestra's maestro will cue James Bond's theme song. Loudspeakers will broadcast the sound to those standing on the banks.

Amid all the flag-waving and Union Jack apparel, the boats will have a decidedly international flair: the diversity of vessels reflects Britain's mastery of the seas, across time and distance. The flotilla includes the Royal Shallop Jubilant, a replica of an 18th-century barge, and the Dim Riv, a half-size replica of a Viking longboat. Then there are the Venetian gondolas, a Hawaiian war canoe, and about 15 specially decorated dragon boats. Tug boats will follow, as will some 70 passenger boats, about 60 motorboats from yacht clubs, and a fleet of amphibious DKUW — the boats used in tourists' duck tours. Among the more playful vessels is Shaken Not Stirred, which was used in the opening scenes of the Bond film The World Is Not Enough. More solemn are the 45 Dunkirk little ships — some of the original vessels that, in 1940, aided in the evacuation of 385,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk.

When the last boat sails under Tower Bridge around 6 p.m., the water-born spectacle will give way to something slightly more understated. Ahead of the Diamond Jubilee, the city of London installed a new lighting system on the Tower Bridge, comprising some 1,800 energy-efficient LED lights and 2,000 meters of LED linear lights. Together they will light up the bridge, which will gleam "diamond white" all weekend. For a monarch who still captivates her subjects and the world six decades after taking the throne, it's an appropriately electric commemoration.