Crossing the Channel the Hard Way.
These days, by far the best way to travel between London and Paris is by high-speed train through the “chunnel” under the English Channel. Before it was constructed, you could get to France by boat, by train, by plane or by hovercraft.
On one of our European trips, simply as a matter of curiosity, I had resolved to try the hovercraft. They used a number of giant fans, mounted on the hovercrafts frame and pointing straight down, to lift the vehicle in the air a few feet above the ocean’s surface. Meanwhile, other fans—probably best referred to as propellers—pushed this ungainly vehicle in whatever direction you wanted to go.
The hovercraft all came and went from an area more or less opposite Calais on the British side of the channel. There were several of the machines anchored in an inlet, but ours was floating at the end of a gangway, its powerful engines idling.
It was, as I recall, a clear day with the continent barely visible low on the horizon. We boarded with a few dozen other passengers and everyone buckled up. The captain of our machine increased power to the giant fans under the vessel—I believe there were six altogether—and the craft lifted itself above the water’s surface and began to move slowly across the water toward the French port of Calais, pushed along by a set of smaller propellers.
Just a few minutes into our journey, and only a minute or so after we had left the harbor and entered to Channel itself, the huge propellers under the craft increased in speed, the noise became deafening and the hovercraft’s motion became irregular—skittering smoothly across the surface of the Channel for several seconds, then staggering drunkenly as it plowed into a large wave. And that was the pattern for the next half hour, inducing a wave of nausea in—judging by the looks on their faces—at least a third of the passengers.
I can report with a modicum of pride that I outlasted several of my fellow passengers, but in all honesty, I would have lost my breakfast if the ride had lasted another two or three minutes. In fact, I wasn’t back to normal with no queeziness until the following day.
I have no idea if any of these hovercraft are still in service. And I don’t care.