Hoverspeed's Last Day:
Monday November 7th 2005 was to be the last day of operation for a Cross Channel ferry company which has enjoyed a tumultuous history on the Dover Straits.
Hoverspeed was founded through the merger of Seaspeed (a subsidiary of British Rail) and the Swedish owned Hoverlloyd. The two companies were finding it increasingly unviable to compete at a time, twenty four years ago, when fuel was surging in price. The savings achieved by creation of Hoverspeed gave the hovercraft a lifeline. There was optimism for the future when a new generation of cleaner, quieter, more economical diesel powered craft were mooted. As it turned out, they never arrived and the original S. R. N. 4 vessels of 1968-9 completed the very last ‘flights’ of the Channel just over five years ago.
Meanwhile Hoverspeed put its faith in aluminium; the ‘wave-piercing’ catamaran that couldn’t pierce waves first came to Dover in 1991. The Tasmanian built Hoverspeed Great Britain and her four other sisters had erratic spells of service on the routes to Calais and Boulogne. The ‘Seacat’ was not everything it promised to be. Crossing times were originally advertised as thirty five minutes, but these proved unachievable. In the dying days of Hoverspeed, after intervention by the Advertising Standards Agency, the rather lacklustre ‘berth to berth in an hour’ claim was made. This only shaved ten minutes off the rival conventional ferry service by Seafrance.
Just as it had done so a quarter of a century ago, the rocketing cost of fuel was threatening the survival of Hoverspeed. Parent company, Sea Containers, were known to be impatient with the situation. The resurrected Dover/Oostende route was axed after 2001, with Newhaven/Dieppe following three years later. ‘SeaCo’ were also (according to informal conversations had with crew members) irritated by the fact their services relied so heavily on a rather dubious type of clientele – the ‘booze cruise’ people. The cheap tickets aimed at ‘beer and fags’ consumers helped to fill empty seats, but this was of no consolation when profit turned to heavy losses this year.
So, I walked along Marine Parade to the ‘International Hoverport’ that nestles next to The Prince of Wales Pier. This site was completed in 1978 for the two lengthened Seaspeed craft which were no longer able to operate from the Eastern Docks.
I found a small handful of foot passengers hanging around in the terminal building and I didn’t have to wait long at all to buy my £5 ‘flyer’ ticket to Calais.
Quite an impressive quantity of cars were waiting in the lanes on the pad and their occupants took the opportunity to get out and make their orders in the shop for their consignments of fags and booze at continental prices. The sun shone and Seacat Diamant rested at the berth ready for her 1000 departure. I strolled down to the shore (I expected to meet up with resistence, but was surprised to go unchallenged) and photographed the vessel in the company of her sister, Seacat Rapide tied up further along the pier.
When the call came for departure, I filed on to the old Leyland National bus in the company other travellers, going for various reasons no doubt. I spoke to some who had no idea it was the last day for the company.
The vessel was well loaded; an announcement over the tanoy confirmed there were over four hundred on board (about seventy percent capacity). I stayed outside on the meagre amount of open deck space astern and watched as she slid away from the berth on time. I wasn’t the only passenger to notice the magical appearance of a rainbow over Dover as we passed Seacat Rapide along The Prince of Wales Pier. It felt like a kind of goodwill omen from above to all those losing their jobs at Hoverspeed that day.
Having vacated the Western Entrance, she quickly picked up speed and we surged into the Channel. Speed One passed us to the west on her return from Boulogne whilst the new Maersk Dunkerque looked resplendent in her pale blue livery as she headed eastwards.
I took a wander around the vessel and was reminded her uninteresting these types of ferries really are inside. She featured comfy leather seating throughout, with a little drinks counter on the second passenger deck and a snack bar and shop below. That’s about it. Not much to entertain the passengers for the hour inside. Having said that, the three and half hours to the Channel Islands on board Condor seem like and eternity, especially at night when it’s not possible to see outside.
Arrival at Calais saw us pass Seafrance Berlioz and Seafrance Cezanne in the harbour as we headed towards the catamaran berth. Having filed off and along the linkspan, I headed along the quay for some more last day photos. During this time I neglected to notice the bus come and go and so I trailed along the seemingly interminable elevated roadway that connects the berth to the old Calais Hoverport.
As I wandered through the terminal building I was saddened to be reminded of the demise of the old hovercraft by several large photographs of Swift, Sir Christopher, and their sisters on display. I can still remember how dreadfully noisy they were. They could be heard some miles inland of Dover when there was an easterly breeze. It was always a fascinating and somewhat frightening spectacle watching them ‘lift off’ and roar by.
French television camera crew was present at the check-in desk. Staff and passengers were invited to give their feelings about the end of the company.
On the return leg of the journey there were fewer travelling, but I did note some French natives taking the trip, perhaps to experience the dying hours of a well known ferry operator like I was.
The wind got a bit stronger and the vessel heaved from side to side having left Calais. The Seacat is notorious for this unfortunate motion which occurs even in the slightest of seas. So much for ‘wave piercing’!
I got talking to a very pleasant stewardess who was on duty. I asked whether the end of Hoverspeed was much of a surprise and whether she had plans for the future. Apparently they were all expecting the company to finish last year, so the extra season was just a bonus. They knew too much money was being lost. As for working for another ferry company, she said it was time for her to get ‘a proper job’. By that, she explained, going back on shore! I was amazed at the general good spirit of the crew. I expected an inevitable slackening in attitude, but in fact they put on a very professional show.
The saddest aspect was the recorded message played out on our arrival back in Dover at 1245 which was something along the lines of thanking us for travelling with Hoverspeed and hoping to welcome us back in the future.
And that was that.
Seacat Diamant’s very last return to Dover was at 2015 that evening. I was told that over a hundred members of Hoverspeed staff were on board to mark the event. As The Prince of Wales Pier had already been locked up earlier in the day, it was only possible to witness her from the beach. It had been rumoured that the tug boats would be out to give her a soaking, but instead it was an almost routine arrival. Just a couple of blasts on her fog horn indicated that this was special.
A lone propeller from one of the hovercraft stands mounted at the vehicle check-in gates at Dover, a little reminder of years gone by.
So what future for the Hoverport? Some suggest that Speed Ferries would like to take it on as an exclusive terminal for its service to Boulogne. However, I suspect they will find it cheaper and more advantageous to remain situated at the Eastern Docks where they can share the infrastructure at less cost to themselves.
With the current property bonanza seemingly still raging, perhaps the Harbour Board will seek to ‘realise the asset’ and sell the Hoverport for development into luxury flats? Alternatively, the land would offer an impressive acreage of lorry parking?
Whatever, few would disagree that the passing of Hoverspeed and the Hoverport is a very sad episode in the history of Dover.