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The Hovercraft: End of an Era

Archived Article


ABOVE: Hoverspeed's Princess Anne carried 396 passengers and 53 cars between Dover and Calais in 35 minutes.

On October 1, 2000, Hoverspeed ended more than 32 years of cross-Channel ferry service by hovercraft. The retirement of its two SRN4 Mark III hovercraft, the Princess Margaret and the newer Princess Anne (see photo), completed Hoverspeed's transitition to a Seacat- and Superseacat-based catamaran ferry service.

The following archived article, which was written to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Princess Margaret in 1998, describes what it was like to travel from Dover to Calais by hovercraft.

In July, 1998, Hoverspeed Fast Ferries celebrated 30 years of service by its first commercial hovercraft, the Princess Margaret (a sister to the Princess Anne, shown above). Both SRN4 Mark III craft remain the largest hovercraft in the world, and they continue to offer frequent daily service on the English Channel's Dover-Calais route.

If you've never traveled by hovercraft, you're missing a unique experience. You drive or walk aboard, then settle into an airline-style seat in one of the two passenger cabins that flank the vehicle deck. The car hatches are closed, the four 3,800-hp gas turbines rev up, and air fills the rubber skirts beneath the craft.. Moments later, four huge propellers send the craft blasting across the English Channel at more than 50 knots (58 mph or 98 km/h).

You can read a free newspaper, have a cup of coffee, and have duty-free goods delivered to your seat during the brief "flight" (as hovercraft journeys are called). When the channel is rough, you may feel a bit of chop despite the 3m/10-foot air cushion that separates the hovercraft from the water. This shouldn't be a cause for alarm--the craft are approved for operation in 50-knot winds and 3.5-meter or 11.5-foot waves.

As you approach the French or English coast, you may experience a moment of alarm as the hovercraft continues to speed ahead in a torrent of spray. But the craft makes a seamless transition from water to land, settling onto the concrete pad of the hoverport after its dramatic arrival. Elapsed time: 35 minutes, making Hoverspeed the fastest connection between England and France.

Hovercraft meets Seacat

Since 1991, Hoverspeed Fast Ferries has supplemented its hovercraft with fast catamarans.

Dover-Calais. The Seacat Isle of Man crosses the channel in 50 minutes, carrying up to 573 passengers and 85 cars.

Dover-Ostend. Two state-of-the-art catamarans, the Rapide and the Diamant, traverse this 152-year-old route between England and Belgium in just under two hours. The 81-meter or 266-foot boats feature computerized ride control and carry 674 passengers with 155 cars.

Folkstone-Boulogne. The Seacat Great Britain covers this route in 55 minutes. (In 1990, the Great Britain captured the Hales Trophy for the fastest transatlantic sea crossing with a time of 3 days 7 hours 57 minutes. The previous record, set by the S.S. United States, had been unbeaten since 1952.)

Newhaven-Dieppe. This newer route has two to three crossings a day, with the journey taking two hours. The Superseacat hauls up to 700 passengers and 175 vehicles across the Channel at speeds exceeding 40 knots.

Hovercraft background reading

Hovercraft Museum
The Hovercraft Museum in Hampshire, England features more than 60 hovercraft in three hangars.

Photo: Copyright  © Hoverspeed Fast Ferries. All rights reserved.