Probably the strangest ship ever built in Scotland, or elsewhere for that matter, was launched in the shipyard of John Elder & Co., in Govan, on the 7th July 1880. The ship was a great new steam-yacht, the Livadia, constructed for Emperor Alexander II of Russia.
Plans for the vessel had been prepared by Admiral Popoff, of the Russian navy, and were said to represent the latest development of ideas that were "revolutionary and subversive of all established principles of shipbuilding". The hull was the shape of a broad and shallow oval or as it was described at the time "following the form of a turbot". It was claimed that taking a flat fish as a model for the vessel would satisfy the exceptional design requirements, in combining speed and strength with spacious comfort and stability. It seems that the Emperor was prone to severe seasickness.
The experimental design of the Livadia was the talk of the shipbuilding world at the time and many of the leading naval architects visited the Govan yard during its construction. Despite the difficulties of the unconventional design and the serious doubts about the likely seaworthiness of the ship expressed by the yard workers, it was completed, under the supervision of Captain Goulaff of the Russian Corps of Naval Architects, within 8 months of the final plan being handed over.
The Livadia was 153 feet broad at its widest point, more than three fifths of the 235 feet length, weighed 7,700 tons and had a draught of only 6 feet. It was powered by three 16 feet diameter screw propellers, capable of 10,500-horse power and a speed of 14 knots per hour. A crew of 260 was required to sail her. The main steel superstructure contained accommodation for the crew and in the middle of the back of the vessel there was a wide flat space that supported a "marine palace", which rose 40 feet above the water. The apartments for the Emperor were sumptuously fitted out with "splendid decorative work", including a large fountain and flowerbeds, and were "comparable with those in some places on land".
On the day of the launch, both banks of the Clyde around the yard were packed with a crowd estimated at 40,000. The yard itself was thronged with a crowd of invited guests and workmen. Several stands had been erected, however, many of the workers took up vantage points on the sloping roofs of sheds and even more precarious perches.
At 12 noon, the Duchess of Hamilton arrived with His Imperial Highness the Grand Duke Alexis; Prince Lobanoff, the Russian Ambassador; Admiral Popoff, the designer of the Livadia; and assorted other Russian aristocrats. Three Russian priests chanted prayers and hymns, the responses being sung by 12 Russian sailors, who formed the Grand Duke's guard of honour. After the short service in which the bows of the ship were blessed with Holy Water, the Duchess of Hamilton "gracefully performed " the official launch. The enormous ship took to the water, with a Regimental band playing "God Save the Queen", and was brought alongside the yard by three tugs.
The scale of the Livadia made the launch a task of "more than common anxiety", but the whole thing went smoothly and there were no accidents. There had been particular concern for the crowd estimated at 10,000 people, which had gathered on the Partick side of the Clyde. Many were dangerously close to the river, however, despite the heavy swell created by the ship, no one was washed away.
After a tour of the yard and examination of the Livadia, there was a four-hour banquet at which Admiral Popoff expressed his complete satisfaction in the innovative design and the main toast was "success to the Livadia".
A few months later, when the saucer shaped vessel was fully complete, it sailed from London on its maiden voyage with the Grand Duke Alexis and various aristocrats aboard. Nothing was heard of the Livadia for almost two months until it finally turned up in Fuengirola on the southern coast of Spain. It seems that the ship had been hit by storms and, despite the claims for its stability, passengers reported that it had been tossed around like a cork, out of control and awash with water.
Many of the passengers had been so weakened by the constant seasickness that they had to be carried off the ship and taken away for treatment. A week later after the passengers had been given a chance to recover; the Livadia continued its voyage to Sevastapol, on the Black Sea. Even on the calmer waters of the Mediterranean, the ship performed no better and seasickness was again the order of the day.
The whole nautical experiment ended in tragedy, when revolutionary anarchists assassinated Tsar Alexander just as he was about to visit his imperial yacht for the first time. The Livadia was soon stripped of its luxurious fittings, had its engines removed for re-use in some old cargo boats and was itself used as a coal barge on the Black Sea. Finally this Clyde-built shipping curiosity was abandoned and lay rotting on a Black Sea beach until it was broken up for scrap in 1927.