Safe as Sterling, the Royal barge will be all shipshape

This Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to gather by the banks of the Thames for a spectacular pageant led by the first royal barge to be commissioned for more than a century.

As the ornately decorated vessel, Gloriana, makes its stately progress along the river, one man will be watching with justifiable pride. Lord Sterling, the former chairman of the P&O shipping line, has been working on the project for four years. He has co-ordinated it, overseen its designs and construction and, most importantly, funded the barge with more than £1 million of his own money.

However, Lord Sterling, now 77, is still undecided as to whether he will take his place on the boat. “I’m lucky enough to have a balcony which overlooks the river – my family will all be there. So I might stay with them. I’ll have the best view on the river.”

The project goes back four years but the construction of the vessel was only started in November. Lord Sterling recalls: “We began to build her on November 10. It took just over 18 weeks. Our master boatbuilder brought in shipwrights from all over the country. They are all great individualists, so it was a bit like herding cats. But we had to build it quickly because we knew the Queen was coming on April 26. So they were working from six in the morning until 11 at night to get it done.”

Lord Sterling, chatty, amiable and hugely excited about the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, took his inspiration from an 18th century Canaletto painting of barges on the Thames. This new barge, like those of the previous era, will be powered by 18 oarsmen, including, this weekend, Olympic legends Sir Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent.

But unlike the old vessels, this one has had to pass stringent safety tests. It also has a motor, powered by lithium batteries, should the Olympian (and Paralympian) crew begin to tire on their progress down the river.

This is not Lord Sterling’s first contribution to public life. Indeed, his work has been hugely varied. Not only did he organise the celebrations for the Silver and Golden Jubilees, but he also founded the Motability charity, providing cars for people with disabilities.

Our master builder brought shipwrights from all over the country

He has long been involved with the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and also took over responsibility for co-ordination of the restoration of the Cutty Sark after it was damaged by fire. Internationally, he has been busy too – indeed, for a while he was involved in the Middle East peace negotiations – meeting the likes of Ariel Sharon, King Abdullah and Mahmoud Abbas, to try to move along the peace process.

He says: “I came to the conclusion that the only way Israel would have peace was by making sure her neighbours were economically viable. I thought I might be able to achieve something because although I was not a politican, I had access to governments. Sadly, we did not get very far.”

None of this lack of progress could be attributed to Lord Sterling himself, whose ability to get things done both in the charitable and business worlds is well known. Jeffrey Sterling, whose parents changed the family name from Steinberg, was born in the East End but the family moved to Surrey when he was two.

He studied the violin and had ambitions to become a concert performer before joining the RAF on national service. After demobilisation he went into the City, working initially for the renowned Jewish businesssman and philanthropist Sir Isaac Wolfson, before setting up on his own.

He became a non-executive director at P&O in 1980 and was made executive chairman of the shipping line in 1983. He stood down in 2005 and is now its life president.

His background gave him a grounding in business, but it was the the job with P&O which stimulated a growing interest in boats and ships. He says: “I’ve been involved with ships since I took over P&O. But I’m a Londoner and I’ve always loved the River Thames – I think it should be used as a proper thoroughfare like it used to be.”

So for Lord Sterling, the Gloriana project combines many of his loves. It is also a chance for him to show his appreciation for an institution for which he has unbounded admitration. He says: “This celebration has to reinforce the fact that the constitutional monarchy is something of importance. Nobody knows this better than we Jews, for the part we have been able to play in this country.”

And the establishment has shown its gratitude for the work Lord Sterling has done, giving him an honorary commission in the Royal Naval Reserve as Rear Admiral, one of very few Jews ever to hold the rank.

The barge, he maintains, is not an end in itself. “I built this as a lasting legacy. Although it will be used for the pageant I did not build it for that reason. It will be used by royal charities and others – and hopefully by young people to encourage them to use the river more. I’ve always been a strong supporter of that.”

And although the project cost more than he originally intended, he thinks it important that corners were not cut. “We could have decorated it with gold paint rather than actual gold. But three or four million will see it on the day, and as time goes by lots of people will be in it and on it. You want it to look better than a nicely painted shed.”

One suspects that as he watches his boat being rowed expertly down the Thames, Lord Sterling will breathe a sigh of relief. For not only has a huge amount of his time been taken up by the barge, he has also had an equally tricky and time-consuming job to do on the Cutty Sark, which was re-opened last month.

He laughs: “I’d be in Brentford every morning overseeing the barge, then rushing to Greenwich in the afternoon. To use an old phrase, I was going meshugah.”

    Last updated: 11:43am, May 31 2012