Southsea-based Hovertravel is investing £10m in two new hovercraft to take passengers from the city to the Isle of Wight. Reporter CLAIRE FRENCH went to the company’s sister business in Southampton, where they are being built, to see how far the hovercraft are progressing ahead of their testing at the end of next year.
Living near the sea does give one some interesting options when it comes to travel.
For instance, Hovertravel has been serving communities in Portsmouth for the last 45 years and is the only scheduled passenger hovercraft service in Europe.
Yesterday, the company, which connects Southsea and Ryde in the Isle of Wight, opened its doors to show The News its progress on two new hovercraft.
The company last year announced £10m of investment in its fleet.
Celebrating its 50th year in service next year, Hovertravel continues to build its fleet at its sister company’s factory along the Solent in Woolston, Southampton.
Griffon Hoverwork Ltd is producing two, 22.4m long and 10m wide craft for the company, seating 80 people and with the ability to travel more than 40 knots.
Peter Mulhern, chief pilot for Hovertravel, was able to help shape what the future fleet looks like.
He says: ‘I have been involved in this process from day one.
‘It was just a blank sheet of paper and we were asked what our ideal hovercraft would look like.
‘We are taking it down from four engines to two, which I thought was important.
‘The benefit of that is that noise is reduced by almost half. This will be of benefit to both people on board and outside of the craft.
‘We also have much bigger propellers which will have quite a dramatic impact on external noise.
‘One of our requirements for this was I said it needs to be sexy.
‘Most of our customers are tourists. We need to have a craft that people want to get on.
‘Another idea was to have the doors at the front. We identified this because we have a five-minute turnaround to keep the service on time.
‘By doing away with the steps and having to deflate the skirt every time it will be quicker.
‘People will be able to use a ramp and just get their bike or wheelchair straight on.
‘When I see it coming together using some of my own ideas, I feel a great responsibility.
‘A lot of our ideas have come from craft that have been successful.’
Once the craft are completed next year, they will be tested and a training package put together for Hovertravel pilots.
The first craft will be in service early 2016, followed by the second a few months later.
Neil Chapman, managing director of Hovertravel, says: ‘The craft will be front-loading and ensures we have efficient, simplistic and reliable craft for the future.
‘Our crafts are going to be slightly smaller, and people have asked why we have invested in a slightly smaller craft.
‘We are nearly into 50 years of service between Portsmouth and Ryde and we have data that shows that an 80-seat craft is fit for purpose for the future.
‘Those who use us know that we do cater for passengers who have mobility challenges but the new craft will offer a much better journey experience for them.’
Asked what the change will mean for customers in Portsmouth, Mr Chapman says: ‘Those people who travel with us love the hovercraft and the noise.
‘This is just another legacy for the future of us to make sure we are a prominent part of the seafront.
‘I think customers are ready for investment. Our two craft are nearly 30 years old.
‘Customers are very loyal to us but they want to see investment going forward. This brings it.’
Once the new craft enter service, timetables will remain the same.
‘This craft brings us efficiencies to bring extra services in when required,’ he added.’
A wooden model of the front of the hovercraft has been assembled to represent what the final product will look like.
It is complete with control deck, a seat that is similar to what will be installed in the finished product, and the front-loading steps and ramp design change.
Mike Chalkley, engineering director at Griffon Hoverwork Ltd, explains: ‘Griffon Hoverwork is also owned by The Bland Group. Last year we turned over £32m and we have 180 full-time staff. We have delivered more than 200 hovercraft across the world.
‘We have customers all over, including military. A lot of our business is in South America, with the Peruvian navy and Columbian navy. We have sent five hovercraft to Pakistan.
‘A lot of coastguard use our hovercraft.
‘We have the biggest contract in the world and delivered the largest hovercraft built in the UK since the 1970s to the Korean coastguard.
‘In the UK, our two main customers apart from the military ones have been the RNLI and Hovertravel.
‘Ninety per cent of what we do has been exported.
‘We build a fairly large range of hovercraft.
‘The critical thing for Hovertravel is how this works in terms of handling passengers, freight, and you can do so much these days with electronic design, but you can’t physically walk through it.
‘That is why we have made a mock-up, the front half of the craft so they can simulate loading the passengers, loading the freight, and we have altered this to really suit their requirements.’