Plastic Screw Sidewall Hovercraft
Current / Last Route
Caledonian Steam Packet Co.
Hovermarine Transport Ltd.
Cummins Diesels, USA
3 Oil, 2 6 cyl 7 1 4 cyl
Hoist & Lifts:
Sorry, Not Compiled Yet.
This extraordinary craft – she was actually registered as an aircraft – was acquired for the CSP in May 1970 and operated for two seasons on the Upper Clyde, chiefly from Largs to Millport. She was not in fact the first Clyde hovercraft – one company, Clyde Hover Ferries Ltd, had run some Westland SR-N6 models on the Firth during the 1965-66 season – but she was the first and last to serve in CalMac history.
The new Scottish Transport Group was, in its first flush of enthusiasm, game for any innovation and made known that “fast taxi-type hovercraft”, catering for Clyde commuter traffic, was one of its wheezes to drag the CSP out of the Age of Steam. Car-carrying hovercraft seem never to have figured in STG plans, but various officials visited the Hovermarine plant at Southampton in the summer of 1969 and were sufficiently taken by what they saw to book a Mark II sidewall hovercraft for delivery in May 1970. There were anxious moments through the winter when it seemed at one point that Hovermarine might close, but the venture survived with the injection of some American capital. By the spring of 1970 a newly modified Mark II was ready for despatch to Scotland.
Costing £100,000, HM2-011 arrived at Greenock's James Watt Dock, aboard the coaster ST ANGUS, on Friday 8th May 1970. By Monday she was moored in Gourock Bay, ready for crew-training and trials. The new craft was black, with a blue and white passenger cabin, and the Caley crest was embossed on the after end of this saloon. Built largely of plastic, HM2-011 had three propellers driven by three diesel engines:two marine screws astern, which were encaged against driftwood and granted forward power, and one – under the foredeck – which sustained the vessel's “lift” - a design, Iain C. MacArthur records, “actually pioneered by Denny of Dumbarton.” This air-cushion was contained between two rigid sidewalls, which were always in contact with the water, and by flexible skirts fore and aft.
She could attain a whopping 35 knots and there was much local dispute as to whether HM2-011 was, in truth, air-borne or water-borne. Legally, she was an aircraft, and it was the Air Registration Board who finally issued her licence for 65 passengers; accordingly, her trips were always referred to as “flights”, records Iain MacArthur, “although under normal operating conditions she never left the water!”
Certainly the control panel in her wheelhouse looked to most more like the fascia of a cockpit. The “ship”'s hull was built of fibre-reinforced plastic and her passenger lounge was “panelled in vinyl with PVC upholstery and nylon carpeting.” It all sounds terribly late Sixties and, frankly, rather tacky.
Having bought this beast, the STG were naturally keen to employ it. The trouble was that the CSOP management – who had never pushed for such innovation in the first place – were never enthusiastic about the hovercraft experiment and saw no obvious role for her. Wisely, HM2-011 was based at Gourock, against the inevitable teething difficulties. She first carried some passengers on Thursday 28th May 1970 – CSP guests who had attended the commissioning of the new CALEDONIA. Because of her rigid sidewall design it was always evident that HM2-011 would operate between conventional jetties rather than loading and unloading by beach.
So a base was made at Gourock; she lay overnight in the Bay, just off the Admiralty Jetty, and used the old cattle ramp at Berth B of Gourock Pier during the summer; here, too, she was refuelled by road tanker. But the Largs-Millport run offered the best prospects for business; a stairway was duly hacked out in the stonebuilt Largs Pier and a stepway at Millport was renovated. HM2-011 duly made some experimental public flights on Saturday and Sunday 6th and 7th June, “leaving Gourock at 1100 hours for Largs and spending the rest of the day operating between Largs and Millport and cruising round Cumbrae and to Rothesay Bay. A regular daily service between Largs and Millport commenced on Wednesday 10th June. Calls at Dunoon and Rothesay were added finally to the schedule on Saturday 4th July.”
There was the inevitable argument over pier facilities. Neither Bute or Argyll County Council were keen to spend money on facilities for a service that was evidently but experimental, and they resented spending their own cash when the STG was, after all, receiving a “government investment grant” for the project. HM2-011 finally used the steps behind Dunoon Pier and, at Rothesay, an adjustable stepway was built at the main pier's west end; Bute wags soon christened this gantry 'the gibbet'.
By now HM2-011 had a good Clyde nickname of her own – the 'scooshin' cushin'”! And 26,000 passengers did brave the joys of Clyde travel by hovercraft; though early talk by STG Chairman Sir Patrick Thomas of charges comparable to steamer-fares – he was a great enthusiast for the hovercraft adventure – was sensibly forgotten and a premium rate was charged.
Yet HM2-011 was less than successful. For one, she had mechanical problems; and on this ground quite a few trips were cancelled. For another, the summer of 1970 was a dreich, wet affair and this served to dampen the Clyde excursion trade in the first place. In any event, HM2-011 was more restricted in certain weather conditions than most boats. She was not allowed to operate in waves more than four and a half feet high. “Those who travelled by hovercraft,” notes Mr MacArthur, “thought that more soundproofing was required and that the craft was uncomfortable even in moderately choppy seas.”
Despite the high fares, HM2-011 confounded STG optimism and failed to make a profit that summer; between that and her ongoing difficulties, plans for a promised winter service were tacitly abandoned., and the frail pioneer was taken ashore at Cardwell Bay early in November 1970 for a winter's hibernation.
Her service in the summer of 1971 was pretty erratic; no regular schedule was maintained and at the beginning of September HM2-011 was withdrawn. It became known that she was unlikely to be recommissioned in 1972, and early that year HM2-011 was sold to the American parent company of Hover Marine Ltd. It was the new Millennium before CalMac would again operate any sort of fast-ferry service and HM2-011 was the last the Company would own.
“The idea of a separate Scottish shipping authority to control, co-ordinate, finance and develop the essential island shipping services is worthy of serious consideration,” mused Iain C. MacArthur, concluding his 1971 history of the CSP, “for it is felt that the STG with all their bus bias have not lived up to the expectations placed in them in the late 1960s. The control exercised by the new regime has been so variable. The short-term exchange of ARRAN and IONA, the purchase of Arran Piers Ltd. and the Bute Ferry Co. Ltd. and the conversion of the Kyleakin and Brodick routes to drive-through operations have been clever and decisive moves; but the hovercraft venture has been a waste of energy and money, two commodities in short supply at Gourock.”