a giant passenger hovercraft speeds above the water with four huge propellers and a wraparound rubber skirt

Crossing Borders 7: The Hovercraft

This post continues a series of border-crossing adventures. For this episode, we go back in time to the period before the English Channel tunnel was completed.

Have you ever seen a hovercraft? No, I’m not talking about Michael J. Fox’s Back to the Future skateboard or a sci-fi series spaceship, but rather an actual flying vessel used to transport passengers over land and sea.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Channel Tunnel, an incredible engineering feat that allows passengers to go quickly by train between the great European capitals of London and Paris, crossing an underwater border in the process. And though I’ve never personally traveled through the tunnel, I have crossed the English Channel six times, once by ferry, once by freighter and four times by hovercraft.

passport stamps to Dover England
Passport stamps from Dover after riding the hovercraft across the English Channel

In this website focused on overland travel, which generally excludes air and sea travel, I’m not sure exactly which category the channel tunnel fits into. Technically, the Chunnel is a rail journey, but because it goes underground and undersea, is it really considered overland? And then there’s the hovercraft, which is neither an airplane nor a boat but floats slightly above the surface of the sea.

The hovercraft was a pretty incredible machine. Carrying 254 passengers and 30 cars, it floated slightly above the sea on a cushion of air trapped by a giant 12-ton wraparound rubber skirt. Downward-pointing fans created lift that held the craft above the waves. Mounted on top were four huge engines with the largest propellers in the world. These not only spun but also pivoted atop large columns to provide directional steering. And boy were they loud!

The white cliffs of Dover on the English Channel

What is now about a two-hour journey once took almost all day to complete. Departing from London, the first leg was a train journey to the white cliffs of Dover. Here passengers transferred to board the hovercraft. Because the vessel floated on a cushion of air, the trip was given a flight number, and travelers rode in assigned seats, just like in an airplane. Skimming above the waves, the unique vehicle was faster than a ferry and carried passengers across to the French coast, where another train waited for the third and final segment to Paris.

My first experience with the hovercraft was in 1985, the year the film Back to the Future was released. After a relatively uneventful first crossing, the return trip to London was quite an adventure. Bad weather greeted us at the French coast with crashing waves all around. No problem, I thought, because we’ll be flying above the water. As we slid down a concrete ramp into the sea, though, the big craft began shaking and rattling as we bumped and bobbled our way across rough water. One woman nearby began turning various shades of green, and I began wondering to myself whether she was technically seasick or airsick (maybe both?).

The weather forced us to take a roundabout route up the coast to circumvent the roughest seas. As we approached the other side, I figured the trip was over. However, a sudden sandy shower began coating the windows and blocking everyone’s view. Everyone seemed confused. I realized we had crossed the channel but were now traveling above the beach, the craft’s massive fans spewing sand sideways. A crazy but somewhat logical thought hit me – why disembark here? Why don’t we just ride all the way to London in this thing? As Doc Brown said in the movie, “We don’t need roads!” But land we did, taking a motor coach into London to complete the journey.

Central London with the Houses of Parliament and the clock tower that houses Big Ben

In another more humorous episode from 1991, I purchased a special Brit-France Rail pass, which included a round-trip hovercraft crossing, though advance reservations were required. As peak summer travel season was approaching, we saw TV news stories about frustrated travelers being stranded by the sea. Apparently, a labor strike by French seamen was wreaking havoc with travel plans, but we weren’t sure how it might affect us.

Our group of four made its way to a London railway station to make onward journey plans. After some searching, we found the Hoverspeed ticket office. Our self-appointed group leader stepped up to agent’s window to make the necessary booking. An official-looking man in round wire glasses peered back. After inquiring about the availability of seats on tomorrow’s trip, our spokesman then glanced furtively to his left and right, as if possessing some secret information only he was privy to.

Leaning into the window opening and lowering his voice, he asked, “But what about this French seamen’s strike we’ve been hearing about?”

“Well, we’re not French seaman now, are we?” came the dry reply.

I was nominated to be group leader after that.

Across the border.

A view of the Eiffel Tower along the Seine River in Paris

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