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.

News
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
businessUber, Snapchat and Facebook founders among those on the 2015 Forbes Billionaire List
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Homer’s equation, in an episode in 1998, comes close to the truth, as revealed 14 years later
science
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003