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Sail of the century for Britannia

The royal yacht could become a floating classroom in an ambitious Millennium project, reports Gillian Thomas.

An ambitious plan to convert the royal yacht Britannia into a floating classroom for a year-long "Voyage of Children" in 1999 is among 30 proposals for the ship's future.

If the plan is accepted, 2,000 11-12 year-olds and their teachers will spend between two and four weeks abroad - in groups of 100 - as she sails around the world.

The decision about the 43-year-old ship's fate after she is decommissioned later this year is to be made jointly by the Ministry of Defence and the Department for National Heritage.

Dubbed the "Sail of the Century", the voyage would include visits of around three days each to 40 countries, when local pupils would be invited aboard.

It would end in Greenwich in time for the Millennium with an exhibition on board featuring projects by the pupils. The ship would then sail around Britain giving more children the opportunity to see the exhibition.

"It's just the kind of visionary idea that children come up with," says Susan Stranks, the former TV presenter who, two years ago, founded Children 2000, a charity working to focus lottery investment on young people.

She is co-ordinating the seven-member steering group which has put together the Pounds 15 million proposal. Sponsorship would be sought from lottery and Millennium funds, the EU, industry and charities.

When details of the project were sent to the Queen, she wrote back saying that she had taken careful note of them. And UNICEF is among several international organisations backing the proposal.

Arts, crafts and computer rooms, science and photographic laboratories, a library and audio-visual production facilities would be provided on board as well as classrooms, a swimmingtherapy pool and gym.

"The voyage would perform a similar function to those made by the former classroom ship Uganda," says Michael Ann, managing director of Drusilla's Park in Sussex and also a member of the steering group. "The curriculum would be linked to the route of the voyage, with the added bonus of cross-cultural education as the British children would meet their peers each time the ship docked.

"It would clearly be a tremendous experience for everyone - much better than any normal lessons could possibly be. And of course children make terrific ambassadors".

Consideration of all the bids for "a suitably prestigious use for Britannia in the public interest", as Defence Secretary Michael Portillo told the House of Commons, has now been delayed until after the election. Acceptance of the proposal would involve temporarily reversing the decision he announced then that she would not put to sea again.

The ship's future is likely to be influenced by whether the plan to build a replacement, as currently proposed, goes ahead, as this would mean removing many of the fittings for possible re-use.

Portsmouth, Britannia's home port, has put in a bid to add to its collection of historic ships - the Mary Rose, Victory and Warrior.

Other bids have been made by a Docklands company which wants to moor her at Thames Quay, Brighton Marina, the Clyde Maritime Heritage Trust and Forth Ports which would display her at Leith and Dundee.

None of these, however, precludes the classroom voyage idea since it would make use of the ship for only two years.

Michael Ann stresses that this could provide a welcome "breathing space" after Britannia returns after the handover of Hong Kong.

Voyage of Children can be contacted on 01323 870656.

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