The Coronation Spithead Fleet Review of June 15, 1953

by Captain Alec Provan 2013

Salt Horse

Salt Horse under full sail in the Solent (Photo from Beken of Cowes collection.)

Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne occurred in February 1952; however, the Coronation Ceremony did not take place until June 2, 1953. This was soon followed by the imposing spectacle of the Spithead Naval Review on June 15th. In order to celebrate the Coronation a fleet of over 300 vessels assembled in the waters of the Solent, adjacent to the major ports of Portsmouth and Southampton. The fleet consisted of major and minor warships representing the UK, Commonwealth and a number of foreign countries including the USA and Russia. In addition there were numerous merchant vessels, fishing vessels and private yachts – all assembled in assigned rows and/or specific areas where they could be reviewed by Her Majesty and Prince Philip from the bridge of the Royal Yacht,HMS Surprise.

Planning for this great event had commenced many months in advance and somewhere along the way it was decided that Gordonstoun, the school where HRH Prince Philip had received his education, should be represented at Spithead by an appropriate vessel. The choice of suitable candidates was severely limited as the schooner Prince Louis, the former Gordonstoun sail–training vessel, had been assigned to the Outward Bound Sea School at Burghead, leaving the ketch–rigged Salt Horse, owned by the Seamanship Master, Commander A.H. Godwin RN, as the next best choice.


The map of the route we followed from Hopeman, Scotland to the Solent. (Photo from the Alec Provan collection.)

Commander Godwin

Commander Godwin RN (Retd.) (Photo from the Alec Provan collection.)

During the winter and spring of 1953, many Seamanship classes were devoted to the preparation of the ketch for her voyage from the Moray Firth to the English Chanel. Hull, topsides, rigging and sails were overhauled and Salt Horse was in every respect ‘shipshape and Bristol fashion’ by the time she left on her intended mission.

Danny Mann

Danny Main, Harbour Master and Seamanship Instructor (Photo from the Alec Provan collection.)

On Saturday, May 23rd, we sailed from Hopeman Harbour for the first leg of our journey, a short trip to Inverness at the entrance to the Caledonian Canal. Mr. Danny Main, Harbour Master and Seamanship Instructor was in charge, assisted by Mr. Stokes as Mate and a crew consisting of Gordonstoun students.

Provan Swallow

Alec Provan and John Swallow (Photo from the Alec Provan collection.)

Jim Richmond

Jim Richmond (Photo from the Alec Provan collection.)

With a favourable wind we made good progress until the afternoon westerlies sprang up and we resorted to the venerable diesel engine to propel us the rest of the way. This engine had its own peculiarities; in particular the direct drive to the propeller (i.e. when the engine turned over so did the propeller). As the engine turned only in one direction we had no means of stopping or going astern without resorting to some fancy footwork by the crew, especially in the confined spaces of the canal locks and similar location. The normal procedure when approaching a berth was to stop the engine at a suitable distance from the berth and glide to a stop with the aid of a stern line secured to a convenient bollard, piling or lamp–post, occasionally assisted by an unsuspecting bystander.

Unfortunately this didn’t work too well in the stop and go transit of the canal locks as the engine could not be trusted to restart when the time came to leave the lock by skillful manipulation of the mooring lines we were able to keep the engine ticking over when secured to the lock walls and we transited the Caledonian Canal with only one major incident. Jimmy Richmond became the hero of the day when he dived into the icy waters of the canal to clear a fouled propeller. This was accomplished under the admiring gaze of spectators standing on the sides of the lock!While alongside in Inverness, Commander Godwin relieved Mr. Main and assumed charge of the vessel for the remainder of the trip.

Departing from Corpach at the south end of the canal, we proceeded down Loch Linnhe and the Firth of Lorne, then by way of Islay Sound to the open waters of the North Channel and Irish Sea where, only four months earlier, the ferry Princess of Victoria had gone down during a major North Atlantic storm, with the loss of over 100 lives. On Friday, 29 May we celebrated Commander Godwin’s birthday with cake on the quarterdeck.For reasons that I don’t recollect, but which probably had something to do with weather and tides, we bypassed our next intended stopover at Aberdovey and proceeded on to Fishguard near the southwest tip of Wales.At Fishguard we had a crew change, with the arrival of students, identified in my skimpy, illegible notes as Robinson and Plant, and the departure of Arnold, Pern and Richmond. Colin MacDonald spent some time tending to our unpredictable engine, ably assisted by John Swallow.

John Swallow

John Swallow (Photo from the Alec Provan collection.)

Leaving Fishguard under sail on June 1st, we ran into a tidal race off Strumble Head and I had an involuntary dip up to my waist as the bowsprit submerged into the chilly waters just as we were in the process of hoisting additional sail. In the process of hanging on to whatever might be available I accidentally dropped a shackle into the ocean. I expected to be severely castigated for my carelessness, however, no abuse came my way. Looking back over the years I suspect that Commander Godwin was so relieved to see his bowsprit and crew member emerging from the wave into which they had plunged, apparently with no permanent damage to either, that the loss of a shackle was the least of his concerns.

Eventually we had to resort to our much maligned engine to get us out of trouble and propel us across the entrance to the Bristol Channel, assisted by a strong northerly breeze. On June 2nd we rounded Land’s End and proceeded up the English Channel accompanied by numerous freighters and coasters. Later in the day we heard Her Majesty’s radio broadcast, following her Coronation ceremony. We also heard that Everest had been conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. The following day we entered Weymouth harbour and secured at the coaling wharf, where we would restore the vessel to her pristine condition before embarking on the final leg of our journey to the Solent.

Salt Horse

Salt Horse Alongside the ex–Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert (Photo from the Alec Provan collection.)

During our one week stay in Weymouth crew members Mann, Plant and Robinson left us to return to Gordonstoun and were replaced by Weatherall, Swallow, Broadbent and McGillivray, who would be with us for the remainder of the voyage. We left Weymouth on the evening of June 10th, and proceeded along the south coast with a fresh northwest wind. Around noon on the following day Salt Horse passed the Needles at the entrance to the Solent, and continued on to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, where we secured to pilings around 1700hr. The next day we continued up the Solent under full sail, with a close–up view of the fleet that had assembled for the Review.


In Weymouth UK – (left to right) Roger Broadbent, Godwin, Provan, Swallow, Weatherall, McGillivray. (Photo from the Alec Provan collection.)

The foreign vessels included an Italian square–rigged sailing vessel and the Russian cruiser Sverdlov. Salt Horse entered Portsmouth harbour in drizzling rain, and along with several other yachts which were replenishing their fresh water tanks, we tied up alongside the former Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert. The Royal Barge was also alongside, with gleaming paintwork and varnish. The whole crew took advantage of our stay in Portsmouth to visit HMS Victory and were greatly impressed by the complexities of the rigging and construction.


The USSR cruiser Sverdlov (13,200 tons), representing the Soviet Union, was the first large Soviet surface ship design after the Second World War and was the first of a fleet that mushroomed during the Cold War arms race. (Photo from the Alec Provan collection.)

HMS Vanguard

HMS Vanguard, a British fast battleship built during the Second World War and commissioned after the war was the biggest, fastest and last of the Royal Navy’s battleships, and the last battleship to be launched in the world. (Photo from the Alec Provan collection.)

HMS Devonshire

HMS Devonshire, a throwback in naval history and ship design. (Photo from the Alec Provan collection.)

HMS Duchess

The destroyer HMS Duchess (Photo from the Alec Provan collection.)

Canada was represented by the cruisers HMCS Ontario; HMCS Quebec; the aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent; and by HMCS Sioux and HMCS La Hulloise. Apparently the RCN also took part in the flypast, presumably with aircraft from the carrier HMCS Magnificent

Leaving Portsmouth, we crossed the Solent to Cowes where we anchored for the night in the company of numerous other yachts gathering for the Review. On Sunday June 14th, we proceeded to our assigned anchorage and undertook some last minute chores prior to the next day’s sail past. Monday, June 15th dawned overcast and dull; however, the presence of so many vessels of all description, dressed overall for the occasion, provided a colourful and festive atmosphere.

During the morning we were joined by a dozen or so former pupils, who shared our ringside seat and privileged view of the Royal couple as the Royal Yacht, HMS Surprise, made her way along the ranks of the assembled fleet. As she passed each vessel, the crew, standing smartly at attention on deck, joined in three hearty cheers for the Queen and Prince Philip. Later in the afternoon we enjoyed a flypast of naval aircraft including helicopters and fighter jets.

As darkness fell the fleet was illuminated by streamers of lights which replaced the flags shown during the day. Promptly at 22:40 hrs. the lights were extinguished and we were treated to a fireworks display which lit up the whole surreal scene. Most of our visitors had departed by this time but a few stragglers spent the night on board and were sent ashore in the morning by means of a passing patrol vessel. With a favourable tide we weighed anchor and proceeded down the Solent to Yarmouth, passing close by RMS Queen Mary while enroute. From Yarmouth we had an uneventful cruise to Weymouth, where the Salt Horse received a final cleanup before the crew disembarked for the return trip by rail to Gordonstoun.

Royal Barge

The Royal Barge (Photo from the Alec Provan collection.)

No doubt there was a public relations aspect to this particular cruise, but for those of us who went on to follow a career at sea, the voyage provided excellent hands–on practice in navigation and seamanship, especially the requirement to be vigilant at all times and to have a sound knowledge of the marine version of ‘The Rules of the Road’. Radar was still in its infancy at that time and other aids to navigation such as Decca Navigator, echo–sounder and Loran were reserved for warships and larger vessels of the Merchant Marine. Satellites and Global positioning systems were something for the future, so we relied on our paper charts, magnetic compass and hand lead line,supplemented by visual landmarks and lighthouse flashes, to keep track of our position. I have no recollection of a two-way radio on board, but we did have a battery–operated broadcast receiver, which enabled us to listen to the BBC marine weather forecasts and major news items.

Later that summer I took part in a cruise to Kristiansand South in Norway on board the Prince Louis; however, the Salt Horse cruise was undoubtedly the highlight of my eventful year as a Gordonstoun student. I still feel very privileged to have been a crew member on that occasion, and for the once in a lifetime opportunity to view the magnificent Naval Review which celebrated the Coronation of our present Head of State, Queen Elizabeth.

My one regret is that I didn’t make a better record of the trip, especially the names of all the students and staff involved – perhaps if I had known that 60 years down the road I would be writing an article about it I might have done better. An internet search for the key words "Spithead Review 1953" turns up a great deal of information including media film footage. On the other hand, a search for "Salt Horse" reveals only that this was the name given by sailors to the brine–pickled beef and pork which formed a major part of their diet prior to the introduction of refrigeration. If you precede "Salt Horse" with the word "ketch", you may find a brief reference to our Spithead adventure, in another Nauticapedia article.

To quote from this article please cite:

Provan, Captain Alec (2013) The Coronation Spithead Fleet Review of June 15, 1953. 2013.

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