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Channel Hovercraft era comes to an end
LONDON, England -- For sale: Two famous royals loved in both England and France, renowned for their workload and reliability, aging and slightly frayed, but still faster than any of their heirs.
Price: £7 million ($10.5 million), including spares.
It sounds like an unbelievable deal and to their loyal fans it is, but as no buyers have yet stepped forward, Princess Anne and Princess Margaret, the world's largest Hovercraft, are heading for retirement and possibly the scrap heap.
For 32 years the pair of car-carrying craft have continuously criss-crossed the Channel that separates England from continental Europe ferrying holiday-makers, but this Sunday night one of the world's most unique sea-going craft will depart the French port of Calais for the last time.
"It will be a very sad day," says Hovercraft enthusiast Warwick Jacobs, who has booked a ticket on the final Channel crossing.
"After 32 years, their time is up," he adds. "Alas, there's not a next generation to follow."
Moving with the times
Half aircraft, half ship, the Hovercraft can travel over land and sea on a cushion of air. It is powered by large propellers which leave a trademark cloud of dust or spray in its wake.
Its utility capabilities were once heralded as a transportation breakthrough, but now it is being replaced on the Channel by Seacat catamarans which are sleeker and offer more passenger comforts -- but take 10 minutes longer than their regal predecessors.
"It's a shame," Kevin Charles, a spokesman for the Hovercraft operator, Hoverspeed, said, "but they are getting on a bit and we have to move with the times."
The Seacat can carry twice as many cars and almost double the passengers and with cross-Channel business down 20 percent this year, every efficiency measure is being counted.
"They were built for a different era of travel and the fact is, people now want to take their cars with them on holidays whereas once, many were happy enough to catch a train, then a Hovercraft and then another train," Charles said.
Jacobs, who has made the journey about half a dozen times, says the record of the two remaining Hovercraft and four others which were phased out of service during the 1990s remains impressive.
"Between the six, they have clocked up a million hours of engine time and a million hours of propeller time which if you consider it an aircraft, is the most heavily used aircraft in history."
It also has the capacity to carry more payload than any other plane and, Jacobs says, rates just as well if classed as a transport ship.
"As a ship, it's the fastest ever made, able to do 60-H0 miles an hour (97-113 km) over rough seas," he claimed.
"And it is still the fastest way to cross the channel. It still beats the tunnel."
'Vibration and noise'
But for the hover-boffins, none of that compares to the experience of it all: "It's far more exhilarating than a conventional ferry -- the vibration, the noise."
"Even the most hardened traveller can't resist a smile when the Hovercraft cabin rises 12 feet (3.7 metres) off the ground," Jacobs said.
That is the height of the air cushion that is filled before the Hovercraft "takes off".
Former Hovercraft captain Alan Burns also laments the passing of the two final princesses that occupied his life for 15 years.
As one of only a hundred-odd commercial Hovercraft pilots ever accredited, he says he had one of the most fascinating aviation jobs.
"You drove the craft with aircraft controls but you were operating just above sea level so it was a very unique experience."
Like Jacobs, he has retained his links with what he refers to as "the beast" through a Hovercraft museum at Gosport in the south of England.
Both of them hope museum exhibitions are not the only future for Hovercraft travel and they predict a resurgence in interest by manufacturers now that the world's largest are being retired.
"They're not dead -- they have just reached their use-by date on the Channel," he said.
But their fate could be seen as echoing that of another transport revelation of the late 1960s -- the supersonic Concorde jet.
Both were invented amid the white-hot technology boom that followed man reaching the moon, both were predicted to lead a new age in public transportation and both now face the prospect of becoming obsolete.
Hoverspeed's Kevin Charles said Sunday's end would be low key. "We're running our regular services with the last departing Calais at 8.00 p.m. Then there will be a special event for the staff."
Some of the pilots have chosen to take early retirement, others will transfer full-time to the catamaran services.
Burns has chosen to be overseas when the axe falls, Jacobs will be onboard on the final sold-out journey -- ready to raise a glass to the end of the royal reign.
"These old giants were only built to last 10 years and they're still there after 32 ... so that's quite an achievement," he said.
Concorde flight may be last
Hovercraft History & Hovercraft Museum
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