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by Sara Cass

The hovercraft was invented in the mid 1950's. After that the technology progressed by leaps and bounds (which is why, some say, they were so uncomfortable to ride in!). The vehicle carrying services were introduced on the Channel in 1968. October 1st 2000 marked the end of an era, when the service was permanently withdrawn at the end of that day.

This is my experience of their last weekend in operation.

(Please note that I have used local time throughout, rather than try to accommodate the hour's time difference between Britain and France in the narrative)

image10.jpg (19426 bytes)Saturday, September 30, 2000: we arrived at Dover Hoverport about 14:45, we were booked for the 16:00 crossing. Something had gone a little awry, and we were offered the 'delayed 14:00 crossing, now due to leave at 15:30', which we accepted. After all a hovercraft in the port is worth two somewhere between Calais and Dover! Princess Anne had just arrived and even though it was not the last day of service scores of enthusiasts were milling around her. The ground staff were getting somewhat exasperated trying to clear the vehicle ramp to load up. We were able to drive the car on about ten minutes later, and we departed at 15:20. We sat at the front, the windows, long overdue for replacement but obviously not worth doing for this season, were almost totally opaque. We made out the shape of a SeaCat tied up against the outside of the eastern wall of the Western Docks, we later discovered this was SeaCat DANMARK. Our crossing was reasonably comfortable, our speed was 48 knots over a 'slightly choppy' sea, and we reached Calais in 31 minutes.

The business of getting settled in our hotel precluded lingering at the port, but on our way out to dinner later we were pleased to see the 'hovercraft festival' at the port over the weekend was being widely publicised in the town. Next morning we made our way there, when we arrived, Princess Anne was just loading for her 11:00am departure. There was quite a crowd, both in front of the terminal and where we took up a vantage point on the dunes outside the port fence. (Many of the spectators in the port were not travelling, but had just walked through vehicle check in and passport control in total disregard of attempts to stop pedestrian access!). Soon the propellers started and Princess Anne rose up on her skirts, then performed a graceful double pirouette in front of the terminal before sliding onto the sea in a cloud of spray.

image11.jpg (17531 bytes)We were delighted to find dozens of small hovercraft taking part in the festival, single and up to image12.jpg (20080 bytes)about six seaters, racing and giving displays, in between the arrivals and departures of their larger sisters. Princess Margaret arrived about 40 minutes later and the small hovercraft formed a 'guard of honour' in front of her as she drew up to the terminal.

Princess Margaret departed about ten minutes late at 12:10 pm, with a further ballet style display before a final jeté on to the water.

image14.jpg (14171 bytes)In the way that you have to on such an occasion, image13.jpg (17684 bytes) we had booked a day trip back to Dover on the Sunday, so as to be able to travel on a hovercraft on the very last day of service. We checked in for our 13:00 departure, and watched Princess Anne's arrival at about 12:35 from the front of the terminal. We gave the Captain 9/10 for artistic interpretation on this spirited arrival. We sat a little further back during this crossing, where the windows have not taken quite such a pounding from sand and spray. However, spray washes over the glass even towards the rear of the hovercraft, and gives a somewhat 'impressionist' view of passing shipping.

image15.jpg (13039 bytes)Princess Anne was by no means full, less than a third of the car deck was occupied and there were only 20 foot passengers. I was slightly surprised, as I had tried to book our foot passenger day return several times only to be told 'All crossings on Sunday 1 October are completely full'. I was glad I had persevered. We travelled at 50 knots in a light north-westerly breeze, another smooth and very enjoyable crossing. We passed Princess Margaret at almost the mid-point of the Channel. As we approached Dover the Captain made an announcement thanking the crew for all their years' service on the hovercraft. The passengers applauded and some of the crew seemed quite emotional.

image16.jpg (21440 bytes)As we disembarked, many passengers lingered for photos, causing the ground staff some consternation. I was among the loiterers, as the crowd cleared I got a good view of Princess Anne at rest. 'Please come this way?', 'Madam, this way please.' 'Madam, I must insist that you clear this area!' At least the (by now fairly rigidly) smiling steward stopped short of tugging my sleeve, or he might have found himself smiling through a lens for the rest of the day.

image17.jpg (18078 bytes)I just caught Princess Anne's 13:00 departure (under the nose of the RAPIDE, which was due to set off for Ostend at 14:00) from the end of the eastern wall of the Western Docks, where there is a small café called The Lighthouse, and there is a good viewing area. In contrast to the festival in Calais, Dover's marking of the occasion was somewhat less exuberant - the Lighthouse café was holding a barbecue. But still hundreds of enthusiasts crowded all around the port.

By this time I had run out of film so we took a break and walked into Dover in search of lunch and further supplies. We got back to the port about 15:00, and watched Princess Anne depart almost exactly on time.

image18.jpg (15779 bytes)

We rejoined the throng around the Lighthouse café and watched Princess Margaret arrive a few minutes late at 15:45. By now it was time to think about checking in for our 17:00 return crossing, as we wanted to shop for souvenirs in the terminal and perhaps get a cup of tea.

image19.jpg (15103 bytes)

Princess Margaret departed and Princess Anne arrived while we were drinking our tea. The day was wearing on and the shadows lengthened.

We boarded Princess Anne again and just on 17:00 the announcement image20.jpg (15935 bytes)that we were ready to depart was made. However, a slight delay was caused, when one of the vehicles on the car deck required attention and its driver could not be found. We left at 17:04, and achieved 60 knots during the crossing. The sea was a little less smooth, just enough to make the ride exhilarating. The Captain informed us that the crossing time would be 28 minutes, I did not time it accurately so do not know if Princess Anne managed this which would have equalled her 1998 record crossing time.

image21.jpg (22299 bytes)All too soon we were back in Calais; the Captain again made an announcement about the end of the service and thanking the crew. He also thanked the passengers, both regular travellers and those who might be experiencing the hovercraft for the first (and last) time that day. This announcement sounded rather more subdued than earlier addresses. The crew announcement was more upbeat 'Thank you for travelling with Hoverspeed, we hope you have enjoyed your crossing today. We hope that next time you travel you will choose to travel with Hoverspeed on one of our Seacats.' After a last picture from in front of the terminal we resumed our place on the dunes to see Princess Anne depart. The evening shadows were gathering, but still the loyal followers clapped and cheered from the terminal, the tarmac and the dunes as Princess Anne performed a final dizzying series of pirouettes, then was gone for the very last time.

We did not try to stay for Princess Margaret's swan song in the dusk, I feared I might get too emotional.

I was very sad that this was the end of the hovercraft service, they had been my favourite form of sea travel for nearly thirty years. However, I was also pleased to have been part of such a special weekend, and to have experienced the atmosphere of enthusiasm, admiration and fun that prevailed throughout the events.


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