Remembering the Ramsgate to Calais Hovercraft

Can there have been any more uncomfortable means of travelling than by hovercraft?  And yet, on paper, it looked as though it should have been so different.  Imagine gliding over the top of the water; skimming over the waves; practically flying on air.  It sounded idyllic in comparison to the pedestrian predictability of the regular cross-Channel ferry, ploughing its plodding passage atop the high seas.

The Ramsgate to Calais service was operated by Hoverlloyd, while rival enterprise Seaspeed maintained Dover as its base, until the two companies merged to form Hoverspeed in 1981.

For me, the hovercraft was the means by which I first left this Nation’s Green and Pleasant.  Given the traumatic nature of the experience, it is a miracle that I have ever left its shores again since.

The year was 1975 and I was eight years old.  Like Concorde, the hovercraft brought with it a whiff of glamour.  My excitement levels for the prospective day-trip were high.  Depart Ramsgate in the morning, a full day to explore Calais, and back to Ramsgate and home that same evening.  The speed of the hovercraft, compared to the ferry, made this seemingly impossible schedule a reality.

From the outside, the hovercraft was enormous, particularly judged on the scale of an eight-year old.  Once inside, though, and everything became a bit smaller.  The seat space was tiny, positively cramped; the seats arrange airplane style, with a central gangway.  I was by a window––a small window––from which I hoped to enjoy a view of the Channel during the crossing; a hope dashed by the constant spray, which obscured all vision.

The outbound journey was noisy and bumpy, despite calm seas.  Far from silkily gliding over the top of the waves, the hovercraft felt as though it actively challenged even the most inoffensive breaker to a personal duel.  If the outbound journey had been bad, the return journey took discomfort to a different level.  The waves were higher now; the passage a test of endurance.  All my fellow, transient, day-tripping Brits, far from spending a day appreciating the cultural delights of Calais, had principally hit the town’s bars.  Add to this the liberal amounts of Duty Free booze, which was sold on board the hovercraft itself, and the entire vessel was converted into a mobile vomit-machine.

Everyone was sick; the passengers in the toilets; the passengers in their seats; the passengers in the aisles.  The crew battled valiantly to quell this vomit-tsunami, but they were powerless, pitted against overwhelming odds.

Ramsgate was achieved awave a tide of nausea, and will forever be associated for me with the rank smell of sick.

It was not so many years later that the cross-Channel hovercraft service was discontinued altogether.  I am not surprised.  The clean-up costs alone must have been huge.

© Beery Sue

Beery Sue finds her sea legs.

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