Dover/Calais (dpa) - For 30 years riding on a cushion of air from the British port of Dover to Calais in France was one of the most spectacular ways of crossing the English Channel.
But not for much longer. Shipping company Hoverspeed is cancelling its hovercraft crossings between the British port of Dover and Calais in France, saying the vessels are uncomfortable for passengers and too expensive to operate.
The firm's "Princess Margaret" and "Princess Anne" vessels will make their last Channel crossings on October 1. They are the largest hovercraft in the world, 56 metres long and capable of carrying 360 passengers and 50 cars.
The air-cushion vehicles went into service in 1968 and are the fastest seagoing vessels ever to cross the Channel. It takes them just 35 minutes to make the journey from England to France at a speed of nearly 100 kilometres per hour - making them faster than the trains which use the Channel Tunnel.
The quickest-ever Channel crossing by a hovercraft took just 22 minutes, according to the Virtual Hovercraft Museum at the Internet address www.hovercraft-museum.org.
Hovercraft are a kind of seaplane. Propelled by powerful airscrews they ride over the surface of the water on a cushion of air contained within a rubber skirt.
The air-cushion raises the ferry three metres in height, cancelling out friction. A hovercraft can navigate seamlessly from the water onto a tarmac car parks, where passengers and cars board and disembark.
The Hoverspeed vessels are powered by four Rolls-Royce turbines each turning out 3,800 horsepower. They drive four giant propellers located on the ferry roof.
The air-cushion principle was invented by Christopher Cockerell of Britain, who began his experiments 50 years ago with a hairdryer, kitchen scales and two coffee tins. The first Channel crossing by Hovercraft was in 1959. The trip took two hours.
The first hovercraft service began just a few years later, initially between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, and later on the English Channel, where six hovercraft were operating by the end of the 1970s.
Hovercraft technology was even adopted by the military and a market also developed for smaller leisure craft used in competitions on lakes and soccer stadiums.
The end of the hovercraft era has been dictated not by technology but by economics. Although Hoverspeed's flagships were lengthened by 20 metres 16 years ago, they do not offer enough space for passengers and cars. They are uncomfortably loud for passengers on the high seas.
They are also expensive, said Hoverspeed spokesman Rolf Nielaender because they run on aviation spirit rather than the diesel fuel used by most ships.
Hoverspeed is replacing its hovercraft with streamlined SeaCat vessels. They travel at only 70 kilometres an hour and take 50 minutes to cross the channel, but they do carry 600 passengers and 90 cars.
British holidaymakers will not have to bid a final farewell to their hovercraft since shipping line Hovertravel still operates two smaller hovercraft, each carrying 98 passengers, between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.