What's the deal with hovercraft?

Seems like they are workhorse ferries on a very few routes, but never really caught on.
Why not? I know they are noisy and send out a lot of fumes, and that the ride is a bit rough so you are usually strapped into airline seats, rather than walking the deck like a regular ferry.
Is the technology dead? Are they money losers hanging on with government handouts?
What’s up with them?

They’re noise, inefficient, only practical in relatively mild wave and wind conditions (Sea State 4), and require a smooth, gently sloped surface to egress onto. On the whole, except for specialized situations (landings at areas that do not have a proper harbor but do have a beach, or areas with very shallow soundings) they don’t have much of an advantage over boats. They also require a considerable amount of maintenance due to the high speed turbine engines comperable to that of a helicopter.

The main use of large hovercraft seems to be military amphibious operations where their primary advantage is speed and immunity to submerged mines and barriers.


They also tend to fill up with eels.

Is this a joke? They blow, y’know? Unless you’re thinking of high-speed catamarans and the like, which have supplanted hovercraft on some routes such as the English Channel.

Can you elucidate, RealityChuck?

My hovercraft is full of eels.

“My hovercraft is full of eels.”

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CMC fnord!
Ya’ll’s been whoshed!



Ya! Ya! Ya! Ya!
Do you waaaaant…do you waaaaaant…to come back to my place, bouncy bouncy?

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I thought that small hovercraft had rescue and ice breaker applications that aren’t easily matched by conventional small craft. Can anyone comment on this?

Hovercraft crossed the English Channel from 1968-2000. Competition against the Channel Tunnel, traditional ferries and high-speed catamarans did them in.

Hovercraft are still faster than the more recently invented catamaran, but they gobble a lot more fuel.

Wikipedia tells me that one specialized use is in Alaska, where they can ferry across water, ice or snowpack. Alaska Hovercraft.

WAG which various googling inspired by this thread hasn’t answered: I am guessing that the enthusiams for hovercraft across the channel was because of the awkward entry to the harbour around a long sandbank, which hovercraft could cross? If so, then the ever-more-congested waters and the necessary diversions to routes were probably making the difference less and less meaningful.

The cross-Channel SRN4 hovercraft were popular with passengers because of their high speed and roll-on, roll-off (RORO) capabilities.

It was a very bumpy ride, though. I can personally attest to that, having travelled on all four of the cross-Channel SRN4s in service in 1969-71 (Swift, Sure, Princess Margaret and Princess Anne, operated by HoverLloyd and HoverSpeed). Mighty beasts though they might have been, you felt the smack of every wave. In anything but a pretty calm sea, you needed to be strapped into your seat. The toilets were complicated affairs too, for the same reason.

The landing facilities were simply large aprons of concrete, easily big enough for two SRN4s and ancillary vehicles such as tankers. You just drove through some booths, showing your passport and getting clearance, then parked near the apron waiting for a hovercraft to show up. When it arrived, you queued up and drove on, got out and found your seat. While this was going on, the previous passengers were disembarking and the craft was being fuelled up. The noisy engines would be started up, and you were off.

Half an hour or so later, you were in France. It was a remarkably quick and hassle-free journey, and (if memory serves) not much more in fares than the standard ship routes.

There wasn’t much of a view out of the windows during the journey, though. The spray pretty much obliterated any sign of the outside world. Did I mention that it was bumpy and noisy?

They were very, very cool things, dramatic to see and ride in, and it was a shame when the SRN4 cross-Channel services came to an end, even if just because of the lost coolness factor.

The BBC article Measure for Measure linked mentioned that one reason they were economically not viable was the lack of shopping facilities aboard. They’re not joking. Cross-channel ferries take a huge proportion of their profits from selling goods, especially “duty-free” goods such as booze, fags and perfume; plus snacks and drinks. Brits travelling abroad tend to stock up, both on outward and inward journeys, and we have itchy wallets while on holiday.

Operating a duty-free shop aboard an SRN4 would have been impractical for all sorts of reasons, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that was the major reason for the folding of the service. Opinion only, but I hope it helps.

What makes them good for ice rescue is that no matter what the ice thickness is they can glide over. An ATV or snowmobile would go through thin ice, and a boat could get stuck on thick ice. Helecopters work, but they are WAY more expensive than hovercraft.


I used to work at a remote gold mine in northern British Columbia. The mine was on the Iskut River, which was very shallow and braided from that point down to where it ran into the Stikine.

For this reason, the mine had a fairly large hovercraft which it used to transport ore and supplies back and forth. It was a pretty sweet machine. Apparently, on rare occasion, it would run over bears who where fishing in the river. The bears would come tumbling out the backside of the apron: A little shook up, but otherwise unharmed.

Dad got the aforementioned cross-channel hovercraft (for no better reason than it looked pretty cool I’ll bet) when he took his bike to France back before he got married. He mentioned the spray preventing any sort of view but he didn’t think it a rough journey and Dad does get famously sea sick on ferries, was it as smooth as a ferry or smoother when the water was relatively calm?

No it was not smooth.
I took the hovercraft from France to England way way back in 1978 or so. It was pretty unpleasant. I still remember the vibrations, the noise, and my queasy stomach.

Not smooth at all in my experience from the mid-80s. It was entirely different from being on a ship - the noise and vibration from the propellers was pretty overwhelming. I remember trying to drink a can of soda and having it splash all over my face. It was more like being on a plane in heavy turbulence than on a ferry.

So you were shaken to bits, but was the motion of being on a ferry on the waves there? Dad rode from Ireland through England and then onto France on an old Royal Enfield then flew from France to Poland via Aeroflot, so a boneshaking journey wouldn’t be too bad for him, its the waves that do it for him methinks.

Not the 9 O’Clock News did a good sketch on the hovercraft in the style of a 70s union official, demanding implementation of more hovercraft routes, as long as there’s a flat surface and no side winds.

They’ve just started a [trial] hovercraft service from Kirkcaldy to Edinburgh across the Firth. Hovercrafts are also used by the coastguard in Morecambe Bay - an area you really don’t want to get stuck in.