Donning a baseball cap, summer sailing shorts and an irrepressible smile, her long hair pulled back in a ponytail, the Duchess of Cambridge took to the high seas in August competing against her husband Prince William and six celebrity charity ambassadors in an eight-yacht sailing regatta in historic royal hangout Cowes, on the Isle of Wight.
The King's Cup was first presented by King George V in 1920, and the sporty Cambridge duo revived the event to launch what they hope will become an annual fixture to help raise funds and awareness for their charities.
As William and Catherine shift their royal work up a gear, there's something rather timely about the second-in-line to the throne reinvigorating his great-great-grandfather's race.
The Duchess is known for her competitive spirit and, as the more experienced sailor, she was certainly playing to beat her husband. So, it was pretty funny when a gleeful William handed his wife a giant wooden spoon for her yacht's position of last – his own crew came in third.
Watching his mother hamming it up as she covered her face, comically crestfallen at the ignominious trophy, was a gap-toothed Prince George in a captain's hat and sailor outfit, and Princess Charlotte who earlier had cheekily poked out her tongue when she spied grandpa Michael Middleton in the crowds below.
Catherine immediately collapsed into giggles at her daughter's naughty high jinks, and the throngs who had gathered to watch joined in with the laughter.
It was a delightful scene: a couple in love, their children having fun and the British public cheering the royals who will one day be their – and possibly our – King and Queen Consort.
Cast your mind back a decade to the indecorous "waity Katie" jibes that dogged the couple's courtship and you can see how far Kate Middleton has come.
Veteran royal photographer Arthur Edwards has watched what he describes as Kate's "cygnet to swan transformation" since those early days and says today, "she's absolutely become everyone's darling".
So how has this 37-year-old mother-of-three from a middle-class home in the south of England become such a key player in the heart of the Royal Firm?
Catherine Middleton was born in leafy Berkshire, the eldest of Carole and Michael Middleton's three children.
Her parents met while they were both working for British Airways and subsequently founded the family party planning and supplies business, the success of which allowed them to send their children to elite private schools.
A lot has been made of the fact that Catherine is one of a handful of commoners to marry into the royal family and that in a still class-riven nation she will be Britain's first middle-class queen, but her privileged upbringing certainly provided that extra polish needed for her future role.
"All three siblings are well-educated, polite and respectful of others and, like their parents, are smartly turned out. These are all useful qualities when joining the royal family," notes Majesty magazine's managing editor Joe Little.
Also, the Middleton family were not without their own royal connections. Catherine's aviator grandfather, Captain Peter Middleton, was Prince Philip's co-pilot when the duo toured South America for two months in 1962.
After prep school all three Middleton siblings attended the prestigious Marlborough College, and Catherine then headed to the University of St Andrews in Edinburgh to study art history.
Of course, it was there she met Prince William, who was on the same course, then later switched to geography. They lived together in a share house, like any other university students, and continued a normal, relatively unroyal existence.
By the time they came out to the public – photographed on a skiing holiday in 2004 – they had been dating for a while, and it wasn't until November 2010 that they were finally engaged.
Royal biographer Christopher Wilson says that although it may have looked as if William took his time to commit, the reality was very different.
"I think for William, when he finally met Kate, that was pretty much it. Certainly they were together a long time before they announced their engagement, but that was because everyone around them wanted them to be comfortable. They didn't want William pushed into marriage as finally happened with Prince Charles.
As a result, William was the first royal who could enjoy a live-in relationship without people drawing attention to it.
"Kate has a clear eye and a strong resolve, and when he was floundering in art history at university and was thinking of quitting, she encouraged him to switch to geography, and he emerged with a decent degree as a result. He was forever thankful that she saved him at this time of crisis, and that is the foundation of their relationship – she is strong, he can rely on her. They had a break in the relationship, but Kate played a shrewd waiting game, and in the end he came back."
Arthur Edwards says that unflinching integrity and stability is crucial for any royal but especially for a future King.
"I think what he saw in her was someone he could trust, because at the end of the day, when you become a partner to a member of the royal family, I think that's the thing they have to rely on, that everything that goes on between you is kept just between you.
"Of course, they split up temporarily in March 2007 for about three or four months, and I asked William about that. I said, 'Why did you do that?' He said, 'because I wanted to be sure this was the girl for me because I want this marriage to last forever.'
"When you think that William came from a broken home, I thought that was a pretty strong statement. And no doubt the fact that all during that time when the media was on her back and she acted with great dignity showed him she was the one."
As for Catherine, there was something more than the obvious attraction of dating a prince that laid the foundations for what has become one of the royal family's most successful unions.
"I think she was able to see through the glamour and the public image, and glimpse his vulnerability," says Christopher Wilson.
"People expect princes to be strong, positive, almost superhuman, but as William has since revealed, he's suffered mental anguish in his life and he needed help. It would be exaggerating to say Kate became his therapist, but in a way she was. I think that William felt people were expecting too much from him, and he took shelter in her arms. She will have enjoyed knowing that he needed her strength."
Arthur Edwards witnessed this special connection between the couple when he was invited to the Wembley pop concert Princes William and Harry organised to pay homage to their mother, Diana, Princess of Wales on the 10th anniversary of her death.
"I was lucky enough to be invited with my wife to watch the concert from the royal box, and I was watching all the people who were invited by the royal brothers, and Kate and her family were there.
"They were estranged at the time but I saw them sitting down talking together for a long while and I realised then that it was back on. Obviously he couldn't carry on without her. It's turned out to be a really great marriage and they've got three fabulous kids."
In Catherine, William found a second family which seemed far less complicated than his own.
The couple could kick back in the Middleton home in the village of Bucklebury.
"They were the family he never had," explains Christopher.
"They lived in a comfortable, small (by royal standards) house and did their own cooking and washing-up. Life was normal – no servants listening at the door! Mike was a genial, welcoming father-figure with sufficiently grand ancestors not to be overwhelmed by a prince coming to spend the night. Carole cleverly made William welcome, joked with him and watched carefully to be sure she didn't overstep the mark. And she and Mike made themselves scarce so William and Kate could have time alone together.
"I think for William it must have been such a relief to discover a group of people who would welcome him as one of their own. You might say that when he turned up at Bucklebury he left his crown at the door."
While Prince Charles managed to broker a deal with the UK media to leave his son in peace while he was studying at university, after graduation the scrutiny began once more.
As his girlfriend (and also in those months when she was his ex), Catherine was not afforded the protection of a royal and she faced a baptism of fire.
How she dealt with that intrusion would have impressed her in-laws, and given an early indication of the steeliness that has proved such an asset as a member of the monarchy.
"That willowy figure may appear fragile but she's as tough as they come. Whatever her origins, Marlborough College had a good social mix of aspirant middle-class families sprinkled with aristocracy, so by the time she emerged into public view she was socially confident and immune to criticism," says Christopher.
"Perhaps the best illustration of her steely backbone was in the period when she was William's girlfriend but not yet accompanied by police protection officers. It coincided with the rise of unaccredited paparazzi photographers in London, answerable to nobody, who would follow her night and day and shout insults at her in order to get a reaction and, hopefully, tears. This went on for quite a long time, yet she never once cracked. I think most people don't realise how brave she can be."
As the official royal photographer for The Sun newspaper, Arthur Edwards wasn't one of the rogue paparazzi harassing Catherine, but says he was called to a select committee of parliament to discuss what could be done.
"She coped with it, but with great difficulty," he recalls.
"It was just after her birthday when about 30 photographers who were outside her flat chased her down the street. It was not a very nice scene. I took some advice from one of her staff and he said this was happening quite a lot, late at night, when she leaves a party or she gets a taxi home, they were following the taxi on motorbikes and standing outside her flat and calling when she got out of the cab. Sometimes she was nervous and frightened. She had no protection then. Of course, William was bitterly angry about it, but it was just amazing that she coped so well."
For William, such scenes brought back memories of his own childhood and the paparazzi hounding that contributed to his mother's death.
Once the engagement was announced, Catherine was brought under the protection of the royal security team, but the experience definitely influenced them as parents.
Early on William and Catherine delineated strict boundaries around the photography of their children.
"Still to this day William has chosen not to have his children photographed. And now Catherine mostly takes the pictures," says Arthur.
"William is not prepared to watch his kids suffer as he did. I remember when William used to start school and nursery, there'd be a bevy of us outside the nursery and we were determined to be there for the end of term as well. I look at the pictures still. They'd come out, they were never smiling or happy, they were really miserable about it."
Of course, a huge part of the role of a royal is to be seen by the people, so both the Cambridges and the Sussexes are learning how to manage that expectation with their other role as parents.
Certainly when you compare those photos of harassed schoolboy Prince William with the joyous, laughing photos we see today of the Cambridge children, it's clear the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have found the right balance.
The other balance Catherine has managed with some success is with her royal work and motherhood. As a hands-on mum, albeit with significant help, her children have always come first.
"Unlike Diana, who in her early days of marriage would accede to virtually every request from courtiers as well as from her husband, Kate has been much firmer about what she will, and will not, do. Her priority is her children. They, and her family life, come first," says Christopher.
This commitment has resulted – perhaps unfairly – in criticism that Catherine's royal workload is thin on the ground, with her number of engagements significantly less than other royals.
But behind the scenes the Duchess has also grown a determined charity portfolio which is fiercely aligned with her own interests and, in the last couple of years, has increased its intensity.
Through her own research Catherine has become impressively expert in the field of early learning and I suspect in years to come this, more than anything else, will become the Duchess of Cambridge's legacy initiative.
"My own commitment is to the youngest and most vulnerable in their early years – babies, toddlers and schoolchildren – and to support those who care for them," said Catherine in a speech earlier this year at the launch of the Mentally Healthy Schools initiative, part of the Royal Foundation's Heads Together campaign launched by William, Catherine and Prince Harry.
In 2015 Catherine went to the children's Christmas party at London's Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. This is a charity dedicated to tackling mental health issues and by 2016 the Duchess had become its patron.
"Her contributions go way beyond supporting our work," says the centre's chief executive, Peter Fonagy.
"Her Royal Highness actually combines a real intellectual interest in mental health with a curiosity about wanting to find out more, as well as a compassion for people experiencing mental health problems. She has a real empathy and it's that combination of a person with her grace and style and appeal addressing this inherently not very appealing issue which is mental health, that has been a total game-changer, transforming the way people think about mental health."
Over time the Duchess has established a portfolio of patronages which address her determination to use her position to make a difference. This is not hand-shaking, ribbon cutting work, but rolling up her sleeves and getting involved in very gritty and important topics.
A little over a year ago the Royal Foundation, on behalf of the Duchess of Cambridge, assembled a group of experts on an Early Years Steering Committee.
"We were brought together to apprise the foundation and the Duchess about how she might realise her passion for the early years and how she might best make a difference in the lives of babies and toddlers in the UK," says Kate Stanley who, as director of strategy, policy and evidence at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, was a key player on the committee.
Kate was bowled over by the Duchess's involvement and dedication, meeting struggling mums personally so she could understand their problems firsthand.
"This is really not about simply putting the Duchess's face on something. This is about a genuine passion and I've really seen that."
Another of Catherine's key projects this year has been the Back to Nature Garden she helped design with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS)which was showcased at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Hayley Monckton from the RHS says the Duchess "couldn't have been more fabulous to work with". And when the Cambridge children tried the garden out, "it was such a special moment... what better example of what a wonderful time a family can have outside in a natural setting like that."
The "Kate effect", more usually seen in her fashion choices, was immediate.
"In May we achieved a record number of people joining up to become members. There's also been a peak in the children's programmes, it's been the most incredible collaboration."
In June it was announced that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex would split from the Royal Foundation which is now solely a Cambridge endeavour. And while gossip magazine reports portrayed a rift between the Cambridges and Sussexes, the reality is Catherine and William are now on a different trajectory.
"Given their future roles, it has long been clear the two families will have different agendas. I can see the Cambridges do need their own 'brand'," says Joe Little.
Having watched the evolution of the Duchess since she first joined the royal family, the change in the past 18 months is significant.
Catherine will be Princess of Wales in the not-too-distant future and Queen Consort further down the track, and she is proving to be ready for the task. She's much more confident when speaking in public and knows exactly where and how she can add value to the monarchy.
"Kate has become very regal and William has become hugely statesmanlike," notes Arthur Edwards.
The couple will be taking on arguably their most important tour to date, to Pakistan from October 14-18. This is an official visit on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Such soft diplomacy is more commonly the realm of Her Majesty and the Prince of Wales, so the fact that Prince William and Catherine are envoys shows how significant they have become.
Meanwhile back in Britain, Catherine is already the new Princess of Hearts.
"She is a special human being, astute, intelligent, compassionate; someone who richly deserves the affection in which she's held," says Peter Fonagy.
"How popular is the Duchess of Cambridge in the UK today? In my opinion she is the most popular member of the royal family after the Queen," adds Joe Little.
The new annual YouGov poll didn't fully concur, but Catherine was voted second most popular female royal after Her Majesty, who was in first place.
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