Over in America, specifically Alaska, a chap by the name of John Sturgeon is currently in the Supreme Court standing up for his right to use a small hovercraft to hunt moose in a national park. Back in 2007, John’s noisy old-fashioned and unreliable 1991 ‘Scat’ hovercraft broke down on his way to a moose hunting expedition. He was accosted by park rangers who told him he could not use his hovercraft in the national park and eventually had to remove it on a boat as, even when mended the Park Rangers would not allow him to drive the hovercraft out again! They were, according to John “real jerks!” But, it turned out they’d picked on the wrong man! To cut a long story short John has taken his case all the way to the Supreme Court. Now, whilst not pretending to understand American law it appears that John’s case centres around federal law attempting to overrule state law and his right to navigate on rivers in national parks.
You can read more HERE
I’m watching this case with considerable interest and it would appear it has far-reaching consequences for hovercraft use in America. Here in the UK, over the years, there’s been a few odd occasions where overzealous wardens have tried to prevent hovercraft owners exercising their right of navigation on tidal waters. This is usually done by stating that hovercraft cannot be used in the many environmentally protected areas around the coastline of the UK. In fact, pretty much every inch of UK coastline now has some type of environmental protection. Choose from SSSI, RAMSAR, SPA, AONB, LNR,NNR,MNR… To name but a few! The situation is confused further by the inevitable fact that there are protected areas designated by the EU present in the UK as well!
Of course protecting the environment is extremely important and in my experience the type of people who operate small hovercraft for recreational and pleasure purposes are not the type of people who set out to cause problems act irresponsibly or cause distress to animals, plants or Park Rangers. Occasionally however, you meet the type of warden who would prevent anybody from doing anything within “his area” and goes well beyond his given powers in trying to prevent anything he may perceive as threatening unwelcome or illegal. The most commonly cited reason for an objection to a hovercraft is that it may disturb birds feeding on the waterline. This is easily countered by observing an ‘offset’ of 100 m, something which we advise all our owners to do. But you can no more blame a hovercraft for scaring birds then you can blame a car for exceeding 70 miles an hour. Like all these things common sense needs to be applied on both sides.
Just to re-cap, hovercraft do not poison the water with exhaust fumes like boats do. They have no propeller water which means animal strikes are impossible and there is no underwater disturbance to damage the seabed or plant life. At anything over 8 knots, there is no wash meaning riverbanks are not washed away. They use a fraction of the amount of fuel of an equivalent sized boat which must be a good thing for both the owner and the environment! There’s no powered marine vessel which is more environmentally sound. Why then do they get such a bad rap? I believe it is because some hovercraft were/are noisy and this is a very obvious downside compared to the discrete poisoning of the water which boats are guilty of. Our own craft have slow fans, good exhausts, low powered engines and clever engineering which keeps noise down to very acceptable levels but to some their preconceptions will not be overcome.
Confronted by an intransigent council, warden or Harbour Master is there any defence? Well yes! Fortunately, getting on for 1000 years ago, King John signed the Magna Carta. This granted us all a right of navigation on tidal waters around the UK which persists today. You cannot use a bylaw to remove a common law right which brings us neatly onto Langstone Harbour which has a bylaw preventing the operation of hydrofoils, jet skis, skiing, seaplanes and hovercraft amongst other things. I often wonder if I should visit Langstone Harbour by hovercraft observing the speed limit and sticking to the Channel to see what would happen, as the Harbour Master has certainly prevented operation of hovercraft previously. This would make for a very interesting test case with the same far-reaching consequences that John Sturgeon’s case in the US may have across the pond. Whilst advocating responsible operation of hovercraft, and being somebody who would much rather avoid feeding the lawyers, in this case it is clear the Harbour Master has no intention of seeing reason. To prevent this type of behaviour in other locations it may be that some “direct action” may be required to prevent other authorities acting in a manner which they are unaware is illegal and beyond they given powers
However, we have never heard of any incidents where hovercraft have damaged the environment, owners have been charged or prosecuted or operators refused the right to launch (other than good old Langstone Harbour of course!) But sometimes a little education is necessary. Given the increasing numbers of small hovercraft regularly used every weekend throughout the country this is a testament to the responsible behaviour and low noise levels of modern hovercraft. One of the things I love about hovercraft is that they aren’t well-known or understood by the many and I enjoy educating people who go on to become lifelong hovercraft enthusiasts. However, I will fight to the very end to protect our rights and as I said above it would be better if situations such as that in the US were avoided. We work towards the day when there is was an acceptance that hovercraft do not represent any type of a threat to the environment through which they travel.
In the meantime good luck John, stick it to ‘em on behalf of the little guy!