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Saturday, 30 September, 2000, 13:34 GMT 14:34 UK
Well worth the bover?
A Hoverspeed craft (Pic courtesy of Hovercraft Museum)
Created in the 1950s, the hovercraft represented a revolution in sea travel. But now its most successful run - across the English Channel - has come to an end.

In the 1960s and '70s hover transport looked like the future. A British invention that embodied the "white heat of technology" spirit, it seemed to make so much sense.

Every schoolboy was thrilled at the thought that, because hovercraft were equally at home on land and sea, one day we would all drive hover cars.

We could nip down to the shops in our personal hover mobiles, speeding over rivers, lakes and grassland without a second thought.

Err, one day everyone will have one
The air-cushion principle could be applied to trains, cutting track maintenance costs because of the lack of friction. The idea might even be adapted to household equipment, like lawnmowers.

Alas, like the effect of hover technology itself, the idea of commercial hovercraft lifted but never took off.

Although scheduled services ran in the United States, Canada, Sweden and Italy, they were usually withdrawn after one season.

America drew back from developing the technology as the Vietnam War focused minds on improving established disciplines.

Specialist vessel

In specialist areas - the military, search-and-rescue, surveying - the hovercraft has prospered, but on the open market it is struggling to turn in a profit.

On Sunday, hovercraft services across the English Channel will come to an end after 32 years.

Hovercraft facts
Invented by Sir Christopher Cockerell (1910-1999)
Engine used to draw air under craft
Air cushion contained by rubber skirt
Hoverspeed, which operates two craft between Dover and Calais, cites cost efficiencies. The ageing vessels cannot compete against the Channel Tunnel, traditional ferries and high-speed catamarans.

It is a sad day for the hundreds of hovercraft fanatics, including Warwick Jacobs, a trustee of the Hovercraft Museum project.

"It's as representative of Britain as the Cutty Sark, the Victory and the Mary Rose," says Mr Jacobs, who has lost count of how many Channel crossings he has made on air-cushioned craft.

Compared to Concorde

Of course, the hovercraft belongs to more modern times, and is often spoken of in the same breath as that other "Great British" leap forward in transportation - Concorde.

Certainly, says Mr Jacobs, the sight of a craft sliding smoothly from the water to land, is still enough to wow the public.

Christopher Cockerell
Sir Christopher Cockerell, inventor of the hovercraft
"You still get a crowd watching it at each end. The great thing about the hovercraft is its amphibious nature. It can go anywhere: up a sandbank, over a coral reef. It can go over mud flats and it doesn't need a port or conventional ferry docks."

At 37, Mr Jacobs has been a fan ever since his first trip on a hovercraft at the age of four. Even now he gets a schoolboy thrill out of riding one.

"The Channel Tunnel is a wonderful way to get across, but it hasn't got the magic. You lift up 10ft and head out to sea. The noise; the spray; even the stewardesses are going to miss the hovercraft."

Plane-like experience

For passengers, the crossing is more like a plane journey than a ferry ride. Each person is allocated a seat and served by cabin staff.

Nimble mover: The craft skate on a cushion of air (Pic courtesy of Hovercraft Museum)
At 60mph, passengers can feel every wave in even mildly choppy sea conditions. It can lead to trouble for the serving staff, says Mr Jacobs, who acknowledges that often the coffee ends up in your lap rather than your cup.

Despite the advances in building high-speed catamarans, the hovercraft is still the "fastest ship" in the world. Channel crossing generally take 30 minutes, but can be as quick as 22 minutes.

But the speed comes at a high cost. Hoverspeed's surviving two craft, which are the biggest in the world and both more than 30 years old, have serious maintenance costs and guzzle almost a ton of aviation fuel per trip.

Quick crossings and the fact that passengers are rooted to their seats is costly in another sense - it restricts all-important retail opportunities.

Today, ferries are treated as mobile shopping malls, selling alcohol, cigarettes and perfume at knock-down prices.

Triumph of hover technology - the Flymo hover mower
With so much against it, is the hovercraft truly doomed? No, believes Mr Jacobs, who says there is a new generation of quieter, more efficient, craft just waiting to be made.

And if that's not enough to convince the travelling public then how about this? Unlike ferries, hovercraft are blockade-proof, says Mr Jacobs.

"If you've got a 20-mile stretch of beach at Calais you can virtually always get back to the hoverport. It's not like a dock, which you can put fishing boats across.

"Hovercraft have been running when no other ferries have."

But perhaps the most lasting legacy of hover technology can be found closer to home, in the form of the trusty hover mower.

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See also:

08 Jun 99 | UK
Hovercraft 'genius' dies
03 Jun 99 | UK
Life of a pioneer
03 Jun 99 | UK
Eureka! But what next?
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