Lesson #413: Armed Yachts

As promised, this week we take a look at armed yachts. Because it amuses me when disparate things come together to make a frankenthing.

Sometimes when I look into things, I come out of it feeling like I don’t have a good understanding of what the story is. This is one of those times. I think maybe my understanding of what a yacht is not as fluid as it should be. I also think I’m unclear about who actually owns the yachts, particularly in relation to the Royal Yacht Squadron. All the reading makes it seem like membership in certain yacht clubs — in this particular case, those yacht clubs that are part of the Royal Yacht Squadron — means that one’s vessel may be commandeered by a country’s Navy in times of need. So I guess I own the boat until I don’t, but then I might again? But also, these vessels were staffed in ways that suggest that these yachts were not the size of the boats I’m imagining in my head, so how big were they and what function were they serving in peacetime? I have a lot of unanswered questions.

Anyway, the requisition and use of private yachts in times of war has been used by the American, British, and Canadian Navies. The former two used them in both the First and Second World Wars, the latter in only the Second World War. While the British Navy appear to have operated under a volunteer system — in which a yacht-owner would become a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, which could commandeer the vessel at any point — the US Navy appears to have bought most their yachts from the previous owners and then retrofitted them with weaponry. The Royal Canadian Navy seems to have done the same, though they had only a small fleet of a dozen armed yachts.

The earliest reference I can find to armed yachts is a tally of yachts belonging to the Royal Yacht clubs in England in 1846, which the authors of The Royal Yacht Squadron estimate had a total of 530 vessels carrying 1500 guns. These yachts were outfitted with guns anywhere from one-and-a-half pounders to nine pounders. Some World War II era American armed yachts were outfitted with .50 caliber guns. That seem like a lot for a yacht, but, as previously mentioned, my yacht knowledge is nil. So, you know, what do I know? Scholars suggest that arming yachts was a remnant of the days of privateers and piracy — which will come full circle later.

I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find out how many of the 700 vessels of the Little Ships of Dunkirk were armed yachts because I felt like that would give me a better grasp of exactly what I was looking at, as far as the size of the vessels. Most of what I found was about the historical accuracy of the use of the Little Ships in the film Dunkirk. I could find only one mention of armed yachts, a record of the sinking of the HMS Narcissus off the coast of Dunkirk on 1 June, 1940.

I can find no information on the Royal Yacht Squadron’s website about whether their vessels are still armed, nor whether vessels belonging to the Royal Yacht Squadron may still be commandeered in times of war.

There is actual art dedicated to armed yachts, in case that sort of thing interests you.

Finally, armed yachts are not a historical blip, though obviously there’s a different context for arming yachts these days.

I just wrote a whole lesson about something I still don’t understand at the end of it. This a. must be how astro- and theoretical physicists feel all the time and b. is why I was never good at bullshitting research papers. This post feels like it’s five separate posts that only vaguely connect together, and nothing is clear at all. This is the point in writing where I’d scrap the entire thing and go back over the research to find a different topic.

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