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Whatever happened to hovercraft ?

(this page is a 'work in progress', I'll ramble here until I finish telling my story)

In the 1960's, hovercraft were seen as the transport of the future - we all would have our personal hovercraft instead of cars, hovercraft would cross the Atlantic, old 'rail' trains would be replaced by smooth, almost silent hovertrains and much much more. Now we are in 'the future' and hovercraft are now much rarer than they were in the 1960's (at least around the Solent). Of the six manufacturers of the pioneering 1960's, none are now actively involved with hovercraft.

So why were we wrong ?

Well, the 1960's was the time of Harold Wilson's 'white heat of Technology', and hovercraft were new, so they were the future - unfortunately, as has been so often said, hovercraft was a solution waiting for the problem.

Hovercraft passenger ferries

To consider the Solent area of the 1960's, there were a total of 5 routes:

  • Cowes to Southampton (Seaspeed)
  • Cowes to Portsmouth (Seaspeed)
  • Ryde Pier Head to Portsmouth Harbour (Seaspeed)
  • Ryde Esplanade to Southsea (Hovertravel)
  • Ryde Esplanade to Gosport (Hovertravel)

Of these, only the Hovertravel Ryde to Southsea route is operating using hovercraft today (2004 - using the AP1-88).

The Cowes to Portsmouth and Ryde Esplanade to Gosport routes never really took off (excuse the pun!), there wasn't competition from conventional ferries, but also there wasn't the demand, so these two routes only operated for a short time in the 1960's.

In the 1960's, the Cowes to Southampton and Ryde Pier Head to Portsmouth Harbour routes were in direct competition with conventional ferries, these took about 40 and 30 minutes for the journey while the hovercraft took about 20 and 10 minutes respectively, so there was an obvious time advantage (the down side was that if you travelled by the ferries, there was the bar which opened when the ferry left the quay or tea/coffee and a sandwich).

Over the years, Red Funnel introduced Hydrofoils (starting 1970'ish with 'Shearwater') to initially run with their HM2 hovercraft and later the Hi-Speed Catamarans (1991 - 'Red Jet 1' - 138 passengers) onto the Cowes - Southampton, the crossing time for these was/is about 20 minutes. Both the Hydrofoil and Catamaran (see these craft at the Red Funnel website 1981-2010) have the advantage that they could operate from simple pontoons positioned alongside the existing Cowes and Southampton terminals, there was no need for slipways and landing areas. Another advantage was that the craft were more conventional than hovercraft and cheaper to operate and maintain.

Similarly on the Ryde Pier Head to Portsmouth Harbour route, Sealink (now Wightlink) introduced Hi-Speed Catamarans which have a 10 minute crossing time.

Where can hovercraft be used ?

Hoverwork used to have 4 basic questions to assess the suitability of a route for hovercraft. These 4 simple questions are:

  1. Can the proposed Hovercraft route be easily and efficiently operated by a displacement vessel, high speed or otherwise ?
  2. Is the proposed operation in an open ocean or long sea route where the sea state is likely to exceed 1m much of the time ?
  3. Is there sufficient revenue in the project to support a fully amphibious hovercraft? As a general rule the operational costs of a hovercraft will be slightly higher than those of a high speed boat of comparable capacity.
  4. If the proposed route was in direct competition with a road would there be very considerable time saving to be made by using a hovercraft ?

If the answers are 'No' to the first two and 'Yes' to the last two, then there appears to be considerable benefits in using amphibious hovercraft. A simple checklist which seems to address the salient points.


Other hovercraft websites: