LONDON — It was the reign that launched a thousand ships, a vast flotilla that sailed down the Thames on Sunday to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s 60 years on the throne.
Canal boats, yachts, gondolas and tall-masted ships were among the hundreds of vessels that plied the river under gray skies, led by the barge carrying the woman who has served as British monarch longer than anyone except her great-great-grandmother Victoria.
The water-borne pageant down the Thames, the first such procession in more than 300 years, was the central event of a four-day weekend of celebrations of the queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Undeterred by sporadic rain and chilly wind, tens of thousands of spectators lined the seven-mile route, which snaked past some of Britain’s most iconic landmarks, including the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament.
“We wanted to be in the atmosphere. There’s nothing like it really,” said 51-year-old Jackie Armstrong, who, like most Britons alive today, has never known any other monarch. “Sixty years is a remarkable achievement.”
Security was tight, with some of London’s bridges closed and military and police vessels offering protection. Authorities were keen to avoid a repeat of a security fiasco in April, when a swimming protester disrupted the annual boat race between Oxford and Cambridge.
But perhaps they were also mindful of a famous satirical TV sketch from nearly 50 years ago showing a BBC presenter reverentially describing the sinking of the royal barge: “And now the queen, smiling radiantly, is swimming for her life. Her Majesty is wearing a silk ensemble in canary yellow.”
On Sunday, the 86-year-old queen -- who was wearing white -- was joined by her son Princes Charles and grandsons William and Harry aboard the royal barge, making it a bonanza target for anyone wanting to take out the reigning sovereign and the first, second and third in line to the throne all at once.
In large part because of the queen’s longevity and her continued diligence in dispatching her duties, support for the monarchy in Britain is at its highest level in at least 15 years, according to a recent poll.
“I wouldn’t describe myself particularly as a royalist, but ... I respect the queen for her adherence to duty,” said Cathy Coleman, a Londoner who declined to give her age except to say she was old enough to remember celebrating Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, the year after George VI’s death. “I thought I should be here to complete the cycle.”
A few republicans turned out in good-natured protest, waving signs with such slogans as “Don’t jubilee’ve it!” But they were so outnumbered that none of the many monarchists around them suggested even a brief banishment to the Tower of London.
There were other touches of humor to the festivities, including an orchestra on one of the boats that played “Singin’ in the Rain” to cheer up soggy spectators and the "James Bond" theme tune when the ship passed the riverside headquarters of the secret service.
On Monday, a public concert with a lineup including singer Elton John will take place at Buckingham Palace. On Tuesday, the queen is to attend a thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, followed by a formal carriage procession.
Besides Brits, the jubilee has drawn visitors from the 15 other “realms” over which the queen reigns, such as Canada, Australia and the island where London resident Nevaeh Rowe’s forebears come from: Jamaica.
Eleven-year-old Nevaeh (“it’s ‘Heaven’ backwards”) was happy to be out Sunday to honor a silver-haired woman who’s her senior by three quarters of a century.
“She’s very popular,” Nevaeh said. “She rules the country. She cares for people, and she supports the law of the land.”
--Henry Chu. Janet Stobart contributed to this post.
Photo: A flotilla of boats sails toward Tower Bridge on Sunday during the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant in London to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II's 60 years on the throne. Credit: Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA