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Golden Years Memories of 50 Years Ago

The cleverest inventions often fail at what they’re intended to do but then go on to succeed brilliantly elsewhere; one outstanding example being the hovercraft.

We tend to think of the hovercraft as a product of our own age, but the advantages of minimizing or even eliminating contact between hull and water have long been obvious. The first patent in hovercraft design was taken out by John Thornycroft in 1877, but his was the age of steam, and no suitable engine existed.

Once petrol engines were available, designers became interested in reduced‐ contact motorboats again, but now their inspiration was aviation technology. Between 1915 and 1940 prototypes of various stepped hull and hydroplane coastal craft were built in various countries around the world.

World War II put a stop to these developments, but in the 1950s a Norfolk boat‐builder, Christopher Cockerell, decided to revisit Thorneycroft’s patent. Light but powerful engines were plentiful and Cockerell was able to design a way of swirling the air cushion on which his hovercraft would ride that made it more efficient still.

Cockerell’s design won the support of the National Research Development Council, which licensed his 1955 patent to a number of builders including Saunders‐Roe and on 11th June 1959 the four‐seater 28mph SR‐N1 was launched. The craft was then shipped to Calais and on 25th July made the first Channel crossing by hovercraft.

It wasn’t the first into service, though; Vickers‐Armstrong 3 had started a scheduled ferry service across the Dee between Rhyl and Wallasey in July and August 1962. The

second, that year, used the SR‐N2 to cross the Solent between Ryde and Southsea, a service that still runs today, albeit with rather more modern craft!

But the Channel was the challenge, both technically and commercially. It was open sea, the weather could be rough, and hovercraft had not proved to be terribly robust. (The VA‐3’s career was ended by a storm). However, the potential pickings were rich; international travel was becoming both more affordable and popular and Dover and Folkestone were at full stretch. On 6th April 1966 the 38‐seater SR‐N6 raised itself up on its rubber skirt (an improvement designed not by Cockerell but by a naval officer called Latimer‐Needham), trundled down the Ramsgate beach that would be the service’s home for the next 16 years and set off on the 40‐minute, 35‐mile journey to Calais. Connecting coaches would take passengers on to Paris for £3.7s.6d or Brussels for £2.7s.6d.

Cheaper and faster they might be, but they never really challenged the ferry’s supremacy. The oil crisis of the early ‘70s made them less competitive and the opening of the Channel Tunnel proved a fatal blow. The last two were retired in September 2000, just a year after the death of their inventor.

Hovercraft are still in use around the world but they’ve never eclipsed conventional vessels as was once hoped. However, in 1964 a Swedish engineer, Karl Dahlman, saw an early hovercraft in action…...and invented the Flymo.

Ted Bruning Please menon The Lymington Directory when responding to adversements 15

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