Collections: Hovering close to obsession: It began with a 46-footer too big for his parents' garden. Now, his 33 hovercraft would fill a museum. Mike Gerrard meets a man with a fleet larger than Hoverspeed's

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The Independent Culture
WHEN the police found a hovercraft abandoned at the side of the motorway - well, these things happen - there was only one person they could think of telephoning to ask, 'Is it one of yours?' It wasn't, but - unclaimed after six months - it is now.

'There's not a lot you can do with a dead hovercraft,' Warwick Jacobs says, 'except give it to me. Oh, there is a man in Cornwall I recently heard of, who also collects them, but he's only got about six. I've got 33.

'I can't understand why everyone in the world isn't as keen on hovercraft as I am. Why can't they see how wonderful they are? There's probably not a day gone by since I was four years old when I haven't used the word 'hovercraft'. But I've been very careful not to buy any anoraks recently.'

Warwick Jacobs was four in 1967, the year the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper and people everywhere were turning on, tuning in and dropping out, but he was more excited by orange mixer lorries. 'They were my passion. My dad built me a sandpit so I could play with them. I've still got my collection of mixer lorries. Not the sandpit. Then the same year we went on holiday to the Solent, and we had a ride to the Isle of Wight on an orange hovercraft. It was like the ultimate mixer lorry. I loved it so much that we had four rides back and forward in one day. Then we actually moved from Birmingham to Gosport in about 1970, so I was in heaven.'

Heaven, too, was Jacobs's first job - as a beach boy. He didn't sing songs about 'Good Vibrations', but worked on the Isle of Wight hovercraft ferry, jumping down on to the beach and helping passengers in and out: 'Twenty-three crossings a day, and I got paid for it. I could have done it forever, but my parents packed me off to college. They're both artists - my father's a fifth-generation artist, my mother third-generation - but they wanted me to get some qualifications. I did a geography degree, with a thesis on hovercraft transport.

'I was later asked to become secretary of the Hovercraft Society, which is a learned society - it's not for enthusiasts, it's for designers, inventors, manufacturers. I was young and impressionable and thought it was quite an honour, till I discovered no one else wanted the job. I'm still doing it.'

Now 31, Jacobs has more hovercraft than Hoverspeed. In fact Hoverspeed recently gave him one of its old craft, provided he collected it from Dover and paid the costs of getting it to Gosport, where he lives. It was a challenge he could not resist, as the hovercraft on offer is the biggest ever made in Britain, a cross-channel vehicle with room for 32 cars and 238 passengers.

'It had been on the market for two or three years at about pounds 2m,' he explains, ''but they had no takers so they gave it to me.' Raising the necessary funding and using fuel begged from BP, he arranged to have it delivered to HMS Daedalus, a naval base in Lee- on-Solent where he already had one machine in store and where he hopes one day to open a hovercraft museum. Some of his smaller craft are kept in a farmer's barn, where they are slowly being restored by volunteers. A few are loaned out to other museums, and the rest are scattered about in storage sheds.

'This big craft,' Jacobs says, 'is 138ft long, 78ft wide and 45ft high, so it's going to be the ideal building for a museum. The car deck has room for 32 vehicles, so I could get my 32 small hovercraft inside and still have room for 238 visitors. Mind you, I've just been offered a Russian hovercraft which is even bigger than the cross-channel one, so maybe I could put the cross-channel one inside the Russian one, like Russian dolls.'

The Russians, who have about 1,000 hovercraft, also have the biggest in the world - eight of them weighing in at 400 tons. 'They don't use them much now,' Jacobs says, 'because they can't afford the fuel, so they're selling them off. I think they want dollars 600 for one. Cash, of course. But I'll wait until the price comes down. I was offered a Russian submarine the other day. I think wires were crossed. The Submarine Museum is just up the road, then us, then the mental institution. We're all down here.'

Jacobs earns his living as an artist, doing commissioned work: portraits, planes, ships and, naturally, hovercraft. He also sells his work alongside his father from the railings at Hyde Park in London every Sunday morning. 'It's the biggest art market in Britain. I've actually sold stuff to Ronald Reagan and Robert de Niro.' He was also the first to paint a portrait of Falklands hero Simon Weston, whom he met on a Raleigh International expedition. Jacobs joins about two Raleigh trips every year, as expedition artist. 'Simon Weston was a staff member on one trip, and his burns injuries looked worse then than they do now. He was obviously sensitive about being painted, but I was flattered that, having seen my work, he asked me to do it.'

Jacobs acquired his first hovercraft in 1986, when one of the machines he had worked on as an 18-year-old was being sold for scrap. He telephoned the ferry company to commiserate; then, when the scrap dealer didn't turn up to collect it, the company phoned him back and offered it to him.

'It was an SRN-5,' he enthuses, 'the last 18-seater of its kind, and had been built in 1963 - the same as me. I went home and said to my mum: 'I've been offered a hovercraft, can I keep it in the garden?' She said: 'How big is it?' I said it wasn't very big, and she said: 'How big?' I said it was 46ft long, which was almost as big as the garden, so that was that. Anyway, I found somewhere else to keep it and that was the start.'

As he had been collecting hovercraft postcards, magazines, books and bits since he was four, expanding his collection to the real thing didn't seem such a big step. 'I collect everything to do with hovercraft - I've got some sick bags if you want to see them.'

Very few of the machines have cost Jacobs any money. 'I've been given every craft bar one, which cost pounds 400. That was from the Museum of Wales. They'd no idea where it came from, or why they'd got it. It had no Welsh connection at all. I negotiated with them for about four years; the price started out at about a couple of thousand, but it came down as no one else wanted it. Then I had to pay pounds 120 for the Sultan of Oman's hovercraft, which had ended up in a boatyard in London, where it was vandalised, but the money was for the rent arrears so I could take it away.'

Two of the craft came to Jacobs brand new, through companies going into receivership. 'One was a Marine Swift, which had been on Tomorrow's World. I think it hovered over Raymond Baxter then the next week it was in my collection.'

The first craft he bought is badly in need of repair, though he would love to see it working again in pristine condition. 'That first one's my favourite. I've been quoted pounds 38,000 to restore it. I wrote to Challenge Anneka but she never wrote back. Eight of mine actually work . . . sometimes.'

One of Jacobs's most prized possessions is the original model of a hovercraft made by its inventor, Sir Christopher Cockerell. His first experiments in 1955 were with a cat-food tin inside a coffee tin, with a hair-drier blowing hot air down between them to create a cushion. 'The original model was found in about 500 pieces in a skip,' says Jacobs. 'I had it renovated with a Carnegie grant.'

The fate of Cockerell's first model reflects the fate of the hovercraft industry in Britain, where it is seen as a mode of transport past its sell-by date. 'But,' Jacobs says, 'every country is developing hovercraft except us. The French Navy have them, the Belgians, the Germans. The Norwegians are currently investing in a large fleet. The Italians are developing a 1,000-ton craft which will be the biggest ever made, using British know-how. In the Gulf War, every country supplied hovercraft except Britain - and we invented it] It was ideal for the desert and marsh conditions. Saddam Hussein has his own personal hovercraft. The British government has put about pounds 10m into the hovercraft industry, that's all. More went into Concorde's nose. They scrapped the Hovertrain project, which is exactly what the Germans are using now to build high-speed train links between cities.

'So what I've got are the remnants of a once-great British industry. If I didn't collect them, they'd have all gone, been broken up. There's not much you can do with old hovercraft but put them into a museum, so I only hope I can raise the funds to do it.'

The Hovercraft Society can be contacted at 15 St Mark's Road, Gosport, Hants PO12 2DA (0705 601310).

(Photograph omitted)