On June 11th 2005 I joined four other fledgling hovercraft enthusiasts for a day hovering around the national racetrack at High Cross, Sharnford in Leicestershire, organised by Jeremy Kemp, proprietor of hovercraft-hire.co.uk.
I was taking the day out with my son Ingo and partner Chris Lyle, who had bought me the outing as a birthday present earlier in the year. Some images have been deleted from this page at Ingo's request. Please respect his privacy.
There were two hovercraft there (just as well, as it turned out) and Jeremy started out by giving us all a safety briefing (ditto) and letting us chose well-fitting hard hats (tritto).
I'd had a couple of quick goes as a hovercraft pilot during a corporate 'team-building' fun-day organised by my former employer Attention to Detail Ltd, but was looking forward to having more time to get to grips with this eccentric mode of transport.
The first exercise was intended to teach us all how to control the craft. Unlike the one I'd driven at ATD, power, steering and forward motion were all controlled with a single stick on this machine, inconveniently - speaking as a left-hander - manipulated with the right hand. Left and right movements shift the rudders on the back of the hovercraft, in the draft from the fan, directing power to one side or other. Forward and backward movements control the throttle of the single engine: a low weight, heigh-reliability unit originally designed for use on snowmobiles, with about the same power as the engine of of a small car.
Some of the power is diverted from the lower part of the fan into the skirt, so that as you increase the throttle the hovercraft rises up off the ground and starts to hover on a thin film of air. After that a small further movement of the stick allows the craft, now detatched from the ground, to be blown forwards, or sideways if the rudders are offset to either side. With a bit of practice, and a lot of leaning left and right to shift the centre of gravity as you kneel at the controls, you can pretty much spin the whole vehicle round in its own length.
After completing the slalom course, and being advised on controlling the power, avoiding the long grass to either side of the main course, and how to get unstuck after running off there, we were all able to drive round a circuit mown into the long grass on one of the fields which forms part of the UK National hovercraft race course.
These single-engined craft are tuned for a compromise between lift and forward power in a fairly wide rev-range, having no gears, so they're not capable of more than about 40 miles per hour, but I found that quite fast enough.
There are no brakes so it takes a lot longer to stop than it does to start, unless something gets in your way. The long grass comes in handy in this respect - being softer than many of the rival ways of stopping - along with judiciously throwing your weight around to shuffle the distribution of air under the skirt.
The later courses in the five-part day out involved travelling across the lake, as well as the land. The water level was fairly low, making the transitions between surfaces tricker - it's important to lean back when approaching the bank so there's plenty of skirt to cushion your craft as it leaps from water onto land, in particular.
We were not the only creatures playing in the lake that day; the spectators were horrified to see a duck and her row of ducklings take up position on the transition as one of the hovercraft turned at the top of the field and powered down the slope towards them. They were tucked near the waterline just out of site of the driver, who in any case was concentrating on reaching the bank at the right speed and angle, and not skidding into the island that made the lake resemble an aquatic roundabout. No brakes, remember?
Despite the noise the ducks didn't move till the vehicle was just a few feet away, at which point the entire family leaped from the bank into the water, just in time for the hovercraft to roar through the space they'd just occupied, hop briefly into the air, and come down with a splash of spray that obscured them all. Luckily ducks are waterproof and float; a few seconds later - though it seemed longer - mother and a succession of her offspring bobbed to the surface and made a dash for cover in the reeds.
One of the great things about hovercraft is that they work as well - in
fact better, in some ways - on water as they do on land. The difference is
that getting stuck on water, and getting unstuck again, is potentially rather
more of a challenge. To find out more about this, and how my outing ended up,
this exciting picture:
Many thanks to Chris for another imaginative present - sooner or later I`m sure a sub-orbital hop will be the only thing she's not given me! - to Ingo for sharing the experience with us, and to the Kemps for organising it all and keeping us safe.