High fliers riding on the low and fast track

Andy Martin is overwhelmed by optimism for the future when he meets the men and machines at the Hovercraft Championships

Coming away from round three of the National Hovercraft Championships, I felt rather like HG Wells' Time Traveller after his visit to the year 802,701 AD: in the grip of "nostalgia for the future".

At Gang Warily Sports Centre near Southampton, the lakes and green fields were transformed for the weekend into a 1960s-style science-fiction vision of a Brave New World, a hymn to Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology".

The hovercraft happening, with its masses of strangely garbed levitating Utopians, was a high-speed scientific Woodstock. Only the free love and the pot were missing (at least, I didn't get any).

Hovercraft races are not a duel between competing cross-Channel ferries. The vehicles in question are one-seater flying-saucers that cruise at a height of roughly one-sixteenthth of an inch over earth and water alike at speeds of up to around 80mph.

The overall leader in Formula One is Paul McCollum, the national champion several times over, who has been hovercrafting since the age of eight. Saturday's winner was Paul Hibbard, a 20-year-old student of aeronautical engineering who built his own craft.

But the competition is strictly secondary to the collective love affair with the machine itself. This weekend Gang Warily was the scene of an immense hover-in, an orgy of aerodynamic thrusting.

In this respect alone - akin to the more brutal, ruthless world of motor racing - hovercraft racing is a laboratory, a test-bed for the latest fantasies of the R&D men. Many of the vehicles bore the signature BBV, short for Bill Baker Vehicles. "With a few of these," said the bearded Bill Baker, whose son, Rupert, is the world junior champion, "We could have avoided all those casualties in the Falklands."

In the hovercraft history of the world, it was withdrawing a couple of giant hovercrafts from their base in the Falklands that encouraged General Galtieri to seize the islands in the first place. Similarly, we could have retaken them much more cheaply if only we had eschewed the traditional landing craft and hovered across the kelp-strewn shores, thus cunningly evading Exocet ambushes.

"The hovercraft would have given us much greater versatility," he said.

The first hovercraft patent, Baker told me, goes back to 1860 and the Jules Verne glory days of flying submarines, when a man called Thorneycroft thought of pumping air under his steam ship to make it go faster, but it took almost another century and Sir Christopher Cockerell and vacuum- cleaner technology (hence the original "Hoovercraft") to turn the funnels upside down and succeed in balancing a vessel on a column of air.

In the euphoric 1960s, when Baker and other pioneers started building the dream, hovercraft were as exciting as rocket ships to the moon. We saw a clean, friction-free future ahead when the wheel was dead and we would all hover everywhere. Perhaps it was the realisation that hovercraft could not even go along a tarmac road without being punctured that led to the demise of the future. British military enthusiasm waned and a navy Hover Corps was disbanded. The Hoverclub of Great Britain is already trying to establish a hovercraft museum at HMS Daedalus at Lee-on- Solent.

But this futuristic machine is not doomed to be an exhibit of the optimism of the past. Now, with 25 years of evolution under its skirt, with greater efficiency and bigger fans and reduced noise, hovercrafts have found a secure niche, boldly going where no other vehicles can go.

"I sell a lot of craft to Sweden," Bill Baker said, "they are ideal for travelling over ice or water or snow or whatever - they use them for delivering the mail or taking the kids to school."

Desert sheikhs use BBVs in preference to camels. In Australia and in the Nile Delta they out-manoeuvre armies of aquatic weed. United Nations troops hovered into Somalia. Kip McCollum, father of Paul and founder of Marine Flight hovercraft, is selling them on licence to the Philippines, where kelp-collectors will be able to speed their valuable cargo over shallow coral reefs. Baker wants the emergency services to be able to hover over flooded streets and rivers.

One hovercrafting casualty was Keith Smallwood, who passed on his lore to Formula One numero uno Paul Hibbard at Bradfield College, near Reading. Smallwood was a contender in this year's Formula One until his craft shot up vertically, he caught his leg under the exhaust and the whole thing came down again with a crunch.

"Perfectly safe sport," he assured me as he hovered about on crutches with a titanium plate in his ankle. In the summer he will be going on the annual "Rhone Raid", when hovercraft blow all the way up from the Mediterranean to Geneva, feted on their way by local dignitaries. In the winter, Smallwood and McCollum are planning a new "F25" race series that will take place in football stadiums before the match and be "the cheapest motor sport in the world".

Outside the pages of Dan Dare I have rarely come across such a band of dedicated fanatics, bubbling with bonhomie and confidence and know-how. "The next 50 years will see some fabulous developments in transportation," Baker prophesied. "I can see a time when all vehicles will be electric powered. And not with ruddy great batteries either. The electricity will be transmitted by radio waves.

"Come back here 50 years from now and there will not be any petrol: all you will have is a central generator distributing pure clean power." The hovercraft championships renewed my faith that there is still a future for the future.

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