Three weeks ago the first HSS, the Stena Explorer, pulled out of Holyhead and headed across the Irish Sea for Dn Laoghaire. Its four jet engines took it there in 99 minutes, compared with a ferry's 210 minutes. It is no faster than a hovercraft or hydrofoil - flat out it reaches 43 knots or 50mph - but it is much bigger.
"I think of her as a block of flats that can go at 50mph," says Gareth Cooper, managing director of Stena UK. The HSS is the biggest catamaran in the world, 410 feet long and an astonishing 30 feet wide - about the size of football pitch. Its carrying capacity is similar to a ship's, 375 cars and 1,500 passengers; and it is equipped with onboard necessities such as a McDonald's.
If the HSS were a one-off design it would be interesting, and perhaps worrying for Stena's shareholders. But it is not - it is simply the highest- profile example of a new commercial phenomenon that is trying to erase the red ink from ferry companies' balance sheets.
Competition on Britain's maritime trunk routes has never been more intense. Cut-price air fares and the Channel Tunnel have been biting into ferry operators' revenues. Their response has been defensive - last week's request by P&O that it be allowed to talk to Stena about merging is an example - and also offensive. Apart from cutting prices, operators have moved towards both luxury and speed, where their principal weapon is the fast ferry. This year Stena alone will take delivery of pounds 350m worth of craft, and almost every other operator has been on a high-speed shopping spree.
Which might seem surprising, given the reception that the first fast car-carriers received. When Sea Containers introduced a Seacat catamaran on the Portsmouth to Cherbourg route in 1990, it received a terrible drubbing as sea-sick passengers told of hours of nausea. Sea containers withdrew the service, and those who took a passing interest may have assumed the high-speed ferry had been dropped as an idea.
How wrong they were. Though the numbers are still tiny, the market is growing at an explosive rate. There are now 20 fast car ferries in the world, but another 40 are on order. Meanwhile, Alan Blunden, editor of Fast Ferry International, says: "If you have a high-speed vessel to charter, you're a rich person.
"The vessels already in service have been commercially successful. Wherever they have been introduced, they have captured 20 per cent of the market, and have also increased the market by a similar amount."
The trend is gathering force. A year ago there was one fast ferry, a Seacat, running between Scotland and Northern Ireland. This summer Stena will put an HSS on the route and P&O will introduce its first fast boat, an aluminium monohull that owes much to warship design. They will each make the crossing in an hour. Other fast craft are being introduced on the Channel, across the North Sea and in the Mediterranean. "If a company is going to remain a serious player, it will have to introduce high-speed ships," Mr Blunden says.
Although fast ferries are being introduced around the world, UK-based operators will be running more than others. A marvellous opportunity, surely, for Britain's beleaguered shipbuilders to dig themselves a new niche.
Sadly, no. Even as the failing Swan Hunter was frantically looking for new naval orders, its rivals in Spain, Holland, Italy and France were developing designs for high-speed ferries, and are now busy as a result. Only FBM, a small Isle of Wight company building passenger-only craft, has its own designs. Vosper Thorneycroft of Southampton builds stabiliser systems for fast ferries but says it has been prevented from building complete ships by EU rules. These are disappearing and Vosper says it will "not rule out" moving into construction - but it has no design of its own. The contrast with Kvaerner, the Norwegian marine giant that has a complete "ship for the future" programme, is stark but unsurprising.
There is nothing new about the quest for faster passenger boats. If air travel made a nonsense of liners chasing the "Blue Riband" for the fastest transatlantic crossing, it did nothing to stop maritime technology rushing ahead on short routes. Oddly, high-speed craft started with a couple of real breakthroughs, but have become gradually more conventional ever since. The hydrofoil, pioneered by the Russians and Italians in the 1950s, is still one of the most elegant solutions - it gives a superb ride and barely creates a wash. The hovercraft, a British invention, was seen as the great hope in the 1960s, and is still the only ferry
that needs no more than a beach on each side to operate. But both have been pushed into niches precisely because they are so sophisticated and therefore expensive.
The Norwegians developed catamaran ferries 25 years ago to provide speed at an acceptable cost. Catamarans are naturally fast, because they have two long thin hulls that slice through the water. Fit a powerful motor, and you have a craft that will surge along at 30 knots-plus.
You will also have upset tummies, because the cat tends to pitch back and forth. Boatbuilders wondered how to tackle the poor ride and in 1983 an Australian named Robert Clifford came up with the "wave-piercer". This was a catamaran that sat low to reduce pitch, but also had a mini-hull to stop the craft becoming a submarine in heavy weather.
Clifford's Tasmanian company Incat designed many passenger-only craft in the 1980s. Then in 1988 James Sherwood, the American head of Hoverspeed's owner Sea Containers, placed a A$100m (pounds 50m) order with Incat for five car-carrying wave-piercers, which he intended to call Seacats.
It seemed for a while that Sherwood may have made a terrible mistake as reports of nausea on the first Seacat, the Hoverspeed Great Britain, came flooding in. But he was committed and started looking for systems to cure the problem. Now, most fast ferries are fitted with computer-controlled stabilisers that minimise unwanted movement.
The problem was not big enough to deter customers who wanted to transport themselves and their cars fast. They were prepared to pay a premium fare, because they saw that these ferries could save them time and money. If, say, they needed to take their car to Guernsey, they would previously have travelled overnight, paying for a cabin. But when Condor, a Channel Islands-based operator, started running Incat catamarans
from Weymouth, they crossed in two hours and saved a cabin fare.
also found that fast ferries opened up longer routes to the day-return market. By turning them round rapidly they could make two trips for every one a ship could. They could be moved around the world in search of business. Condor 10, an Incat wave-piercer, worked between Weymouth and the Channel Islands for two years, then linked North and South Islands of New Zealand, then moved to the Baltic and is now about to start on the Fishguard to Rosslare run.
Meanwhile, Stena was working on a monster design of its own, the HSS. The Swedes decided early on they wanted a catamaran, but were worried about sea-sickness. They came up with a new shape for the twin hulls - narrow at the water line but swelling out beneath the sea where the wave effect was less marked. They also decided that a large vessel would solve many ride problems - though the HSS does not have ride control, Stena claims it is smoother than a conventional ship. It might also be safer: the car deck is clear of the water, so the sea cannot flood in as it did at Zeebrugge.
The Australians are not taking the Scandinavian challenge lying down. The latest Incat design carries 700 passengers and 150 cars. Condor and Stena have ordered one each.
Neither side can, however, afford to ignore a threat from a third force: traditional - often naval - shipyards. Some, such as Royal Schelde in Holland, are building catamarans. Most have built on their traditional expertise, constructing ferries that owe much to destroyer design.
P&O, which has been watching fast ferry developments
from the sidelines, will introduce a 310-foot monohull on its Scotland to Northern Ireland route this summer. The Jetliner, built in Norway, looks like a small if sleek conventional ferry - the difference is that it is made of aluminium and is powered by water jets that take it to 35 knots.
More significantly, Sea Containers is shifting towards monohulls. It has placed a $200m order for six Superseacats, carrying 800 passengers and 175 cars at 38 knots. The builder is a former naval yard, Fincantieri in Genoa. Just as the move from hovercraft and hydrofoil to catamarans was driven by cost, so, too, is the shift towards conventionality.
Several conventional yards in Europe are now building fast ferries - so will the British now decide that they too should leap aboard? The signs are not too hopeful, although John Gilbertson, group development director of Vosper Thorneycroft, says he does not rule it out. Post-privatisation restrictions by the EU made a move into commercial ships difficult, he says, because Vosper was not allowed to pick up subsidies as other yards were. Now the shipbuilding subsidy scheme is being scrapped. "We are always reviewing the options," he says.
Meanwhile, the modest British flag is being flown by FBM Marine of the Isle of Wight, which has just delivered five passenger-only catamarans for the Hong Kong to Macao route. Now another five are being built.
"We just haven't got the space to build anything bigger but we have been talking to various yards around the world," says chief designer Nigel Warren. It is odd, he agrees, that none have been built in the UK. But then it is odd that many things that should be built in Britain are not. A thought to ponder as we skim across the water in our Scandinavian, Australian or Italian high-speed ferry.
Strangely, the technology has been becoming less sophisticated. Despite its futuristic look, the HSS is far less complex than a hydrofoil or a hovercraft.
Fast car ferries in service
Route Craft Introduced Built
Stranraer-Belfast Stena HSS July 1996 Finland
Cairnryan-Larne P&O Jetliner June 1996 Norway
Stranraer-Belfast Sea Containers 1993 Australia
Seacat (Incat 74m)
Holyhead- Stena HSS April 1996 Finland
Fishguard-Rosslare Stena Lynx May 1996 Australia
Weymouth- Condor 12 1996 Australia Channel Islands (Incat 81m)
Newhaven-Dieppe Stena Lynx April 1996 Australia
Dover-Calais Stena Lynx July 1996 Australia
Dover-Calais Sea Containers 1966 UK
Folkestone- Sea Containers 1990 Australia Boulogne Seacat (Incat 74m)
Harwick-Hook of Stena HSS early 1997 Finland Holland