Hovertravel: hovering on the fast route to success

The Island is proud of being unique, and nowhere is its individuality shown to better advantage than in Solent Express, the new BHT-130 hovercraft that has entered service on Hovertravel’s Ryde-Southsea route.

The BHT-130 design is not just the latest in hovercraft technology, but is also a symbol of the pioneer spirit and loyalty to the community that Hovertravel and its subsidiary company, Hoverwork, have sustained on the Island for over 40 years.

The Hovertravel story began in 1965 when six intrepid entrepreneurs introduced a passenger hovercraft service between Ryde and two mainland terminals at Southsea and Gosport. They used a 38-seater Westland SR.N6 hovercraft and within a few weeks had carried over 30,000 passengers.

There were few frills attached to that first service but what it offered was revolutionary. The hovercraft was the latest form of transport, first invented in 1956 by Sir Christopher Cockerell, whose ingenuity produced a craft that moved on a cushion of air, producing speed and, most importantly, an amphibious capability.

This was exciting enough, but for passengers on that Solent route, the hovercraft’s ability to travel both on land and water marked it out as a real winner. Tide variations meant that conventional passenger ferries coming into Ryde always had to berth well outside the town centre, but now it was possible to land within feet of the Esplanade, and avoid the trundle up the pier.

That remains true today. “The Solent provides perfect conditions for hovercraft,” says Hovertravel chairman Christopher Bland. “With a ten-minute journey time, we operate the fastest and best value-for-money route between the Island and the mainland, and our new Solent Express will further streamline our service.”

Hovercraft technology has become increasingly ingenious since the SR.N6 appeared on the Solent, and the new BHT-130 is an outstanding achievement for the Island. It was planned, designed and built entirely on the Island by the team at Hoverwork, and the new craft, with its imposing structure and sophisticated engineering, is a tribute both to the skills of that team and to the company’s contribution to the IW economy.

“We wanted a hovercraft that would take more passengers and give a more comfortable ride, particularly in adverse conditions,” says Hovertravel’s chief executive Richard Box.

The 29-metre Solent Express, with its 130-passenger capacity and smart new layout, has won the admiration of Hovertravel customers since it entered service in June. But it was also important that it should not just be more spacious and comfortable but that it should be ecologically sound.

“It has a low-emission rating,” says Richard Box. “Its design optimises the performance and efficiency of its engines. And the really important thing is that the BHT-130 gives us an exciting future, both at Hovertravel and at Hoverwork.”

The new design has modernised and enhanced Hovertravel’s service across the Solent, while its capabilities are attracting attention from other organisations much further afield. Commissioned by transport provider Stagecoach, Solent Express recently made a trip up to Scotland, to run a fortnight’s trial service between Edinburgh and Kirkcaldy. If successful, the future use of a hovercraft on that route will dramatically shorten the times of journeys that now have to be made across the Forth Bridges.

But the real potential for hovercraft use is in such areas as oil exploration, coastguard applications and humanitarian operations. The Hoverwork team played a large part in the design and construction of the hovercraft used for relief and welfare missions in the tricky waters of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, and are now working on a new vessel for the Canadian Coastguard, due for delivery next year.

At Hoverwork’s premises on The Duver at St Helens, it is already possible to see the aluminium outline of the hull that will be built up into a sophisticated craft, capable of negotiating ice, shallow waters, and terrain that could only otherwise be reached by the far more expensive use of helicopters.

Hovertravel and Hoverwork have always prided themselves on combining efficiency with friendliness, and the atmosphere at The Duver is noticeably good-natured and co-operative. But the work done there is, first and foremost, of the highest quality, with design and building skills that are among the best in the country.

“It’s a really good Island company,” says engineering director Bob Barton. “We try to keep as much work as we can on the Island, and by 2008 we will have earned over £10million in foreign currency in just two years.”

Solent Express, whose naming ceremony was performed by the Duke of Edinburgh,  has already proved to be a credit to the Hoverwork team. But every part of the Hovertravel and Hoverwork enterprise is vital to its success, and it says much for the company that it has so many long-serving staff.

Charlotte Larder, a cashier at the Southsea terminal, joined Hovertravel in 1984. “I enjoy it all,” she says. “It’s a unique service. In the summer we get so many people who just want a ride on a hovercraft. They go over and then come back again, and it’s very exciting for them.”

Stuart Guy, beach master at Ryde, has been with Hovertravel since 1976. “I’ve seen different terminal buildings, all the different hovercraft, and we’re a good crew of people here.”

Christopher Bland came to Hovertravel in 1966, and he sees its strength in its commitment to the Island and in the fact that, despite advances and improvements in its service, it retains its very personal characteristics. “We’ve never been sold,” he says. “No huge company has taken us over, and we have no debts. 90% of our workforce is employed on the Island, and we operate the longest established commercial hovercraft service in the world.”

That service has carried 22½ million passengers since 1965, and currently provides some 800,000 single passenger journeys annually. The achievement of the Solent Express as an Island success story will now provide even more opportunity for Hovertravel’s customers to enjoy this unique service.