The motors stop, the skirt deflates. The era of the cross-Channel ferry is over

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The Independent Online

The final day in the life of Dover's hoverport turned out to be one of its busiest for years as fans of the cross-Channel hovercraft filled every seat on every trip to Calais and back.

The final day in the life of Dover's hoverport turned out to be one of its busiest for years as fans of the cross-Channel hovercraft filled every seat on every trip to Calais and back.

Eighty jobs were lost when Hoverspeed's two craft, Princess Margaret and Princess Anne landed for the last time on Saturday. But it was not the end of the hovercraft.

Hovertravel, Britain's other operator of the vessels, is thriving; it has a new craft on the drawing board and is exporting a spare to Cuba, where the craft will shuttle tourists.

Much like Concorde and the QE2, Sir Christopher Cockerell's hovercraft was one of the British technological triumphs of the Sixties, and when the SRN4 craft made its first crossings in 1968, the Channel was among the most expensive stretches of water in the world.

At that time, two new operators, Hoverlloyd and Seaspeed, brought much-needed competition and unmatched speed. Their craft were also built at a time when fuel was cheap and vehicle capacity was relatively unimportant. Huge, thirsty engines enabled them to reach France in about 30 minutes. Foot passengers could even take a special train from Boulogne to Paris, thus reducing the surface journey time from London to the French capital to a previously unheard-of six hours.

But 32 years later - during which time the Channel Tunnel has been built - fares have been forced down so much that at one stage Hoverspeed - as the merged companies become known - actually paid people to travel between Dover and Calais. Last summer's ending of duty-free sales within the EU rendered the economics of the service even bleaker and the company decided to withdraw its hovercraft service. It will now switch to slower, bigger catamarans but will keep the Hoverspeed brand.

Some reports have hailed this as the end of the hovercraft era. Not so. The world's longest running hovercraft service is the Hovertravel link between Portsmouth and Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, which began in 1965. Christopher Bland, the company's managing director, said yesterday that the craft was ideally suited to the conditions in the Solent; parts of the Isle of Wight are inaccessible by boat when the tide goes out - a problem that prompted the Victorians to build a half-mile pier at Ryde to overcome the shallow coastal waters.

Over a century later, the hovercraft proved an immediate success. Mr Bland said: "The crossing time is nine minutes, about the same time as it takes to walk Ryde pier."

Sea Containers, the company that owns Hoverspeed and thus finds itself with two obsolete hovercraft, has not found a buyer for the two cross-Channel craft. Hovertravel, however, has just concluded a £1m deal with Cuba for the sale of a spare hovercraft.

Most of Cuba's passenger vessels are Soviet-built hydrofoils or ex-Mediterranean ferries, but its tourism is developing on offshore islands in shallow waters - conditions that suit the hovercraft. The Courier will be used to ferry tourists between Batabano, south of Havana, and the offshore island of Cayo Largo.

A dozen Cuban pilots and engineers have begun training in the Isle of Wight, where the waters are much more challenging than those of the Caribbean. The drive to boost tourism may even lead Fidel Castro's government to consider the two redundant cross-Channel hovercraft as well.

The problem would be how to transport the much bigger Princess Anne and Princess Margaret to Cuba. The craft are too big to be carried on conventional freighters. But if US-Cuban relations continue to thaw, they could be taken to Havana on submersibles and eventually be used to carry passengers between Havana and Key West in Florida.

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