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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
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

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there