It was Carol Shelby, or Richard Petty – in any case, one of the US motorsport legends – that said of motor racing “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday.” Whilst that was more aimed at the marketing opportunity of a NASCAR win, to a degree, the same holds true for we hovercraft racing, even those that – like BHC – don’t manufacture racing hovercraft for sale.
The hovercraft we sell are used for a multitude of things, many for recreational cruising, driving events businesses, commercial and utility use. Some have found a home in rescue organisations, others for unexploded ordnance detection – one is even used for blowing the dew off of a golf course’s greens! But we don’t manufacture racing hovercraft which is a conscious decision, because the pace of development means pretty much every craft would be different as new methods, materials, designs and technologies emerge. We’re a manufacturer who designs, not vice-versa.
Hovercraft racing has been a passion of mine for many years – it’s an awesome sport which is largely untouched by commercial pressure, a big part of its appeal. Development is organic, and largely in the hands of amateurs with just one or two manufacturers – Leicester based RLG Innovations are absolutely at the forefront of design and innovation – other manufacturers such as Raider Hovercraft and BBV make superb machines too. Racing craft are fast – really fast in the case of the Formula One’s. Figure 0-60mph in under 4 seconds, with a top speed over 80mph and race tracks which take you from land to water at top speed – all this with no brakes remember! The thrill of pushing hard in a well sorted hovercraft you feel ‘in-tune’ with is truly an amazing feeling.
Here at BHC, we’ve raced for many years – certainly not ultra-competitively or in a totally committed manner, but we’ve picked up plenty of race wins, a national championship in Formula 503 and for two years, national championships in the brilliant but short-lived ‘Coastal Championship’ which saw hovercraft racing in one-hour endurance events on a rising tide over beaches and foreshores. The Marlin really lent itself to that, and cleared up in its class both years – certainly the most fun I’ve had in a hovercraft.
But what’s come out of all this racing is less about the marketing benefits (Sky Sports have yet to pick it up!) and kudos that the giant motor manufacturers enjoy – and more about how much technical information we’ve picked up, how much we’ve learned, and the development that has fed into our production hovercraft. It really has been a practical lesson – every single aspect of racing hovercraft design provides a benefit when the knowledge is applied to our customers recreational or utility craft. Skirt design – one year I tried three different designs before finding the right balance. Plenum chamber design – ie airflow within the craft. Fan setup – finding the best performance from the available power. Hull design – what breaks, where and why. Duct efficiencies – blade types, numbers and rotation speeds, together with duct design. Steering, materials and construction – every single aspect of hovercraft design can be tried and tested for performance and reliability at a hovercraft race.
And that’s not all – I make no secret of the fact I’ll stalk the paddock checking out what everyone else is up to! Literally no two craft are the same, and everyone is trying different things, some with more success than others, but everything I see and discuss simply adds to the knowledge base. And even now, when I haven’t raced for a few years, I still have regular technical discussions with racers and designers – people I’ve met through the sport (in fact the whole idea for this article came about during a chat with an Italian hovercraft designer yesterday, who’s found some real gains in flow design in the hull of his new F1.) Our hovercraft simply would not work as well, or as reliably, if I hadn’t hung out with some truly talented, creative and dedicated hovercraft designers and racers for so many years.
The reason I write this article, is that we’ve so often seen new manufacturers come along with new products. Sometimes they’re very stylish, pretty and shiny. Sometimes they’re plain outlandish, often they come with some gorgeous looking CAD images or computerised images. But rarely do they perform as they should. With just one or two exceptions, other than ourselves there are no manufacturers of small hovercraft in Europe that have any experience of racing, and it really does show in the products they sell. Without the impetus racing provides, the experience just isn’t forthcoming and this means they’ve not gained the experience required to build effective (let alone safe!) hovercraft.
Here’s a few examples. One UK Manufacturer builds two models of hovercraft. One is made of High Density Polyethylene. It’s the same size as our Marlin, but weighs nearly twice as much. It features a complex, unreliable 120bhp engine and despite the fact that the Marlin is just 37bhp, doesn’t even get close on performance and has a terrible reliability record.
They also build an integrated 6/7/8/9 seat (the claim keeps going up!) integrated hovercraft (ie one engine/fan) which anyone with any experience knows is way too big for a single fan set up. The Coastal-Pro is much smaller, yet it’s faster and lifts much more due to its twin engine/twin fan design.
Over in the US is a company making a hovercraft which is styled on a Bugatti – boy have they got some press attention! All the images used (to collect deposits…. ) were of course computer generated and there’s no film of it working because it simply cannot. Anyone who’s got any practical experience of hovercraft deign can see – it simply cannot work – ‘physics’ says so!
Here in the UK, one ‘collective’ without any sporting experience claim they are about to re-release a 1970’s hovercraft design back to the market, clearly unaware that design has moved on!
There’s lots more examples, but the reality is that there’s no substitute for practical, sporting experience. What sets BHC hovercraft apart from many manufacturers is that we’ve raced hovercraft for many years and then we apply that knowledge. Coupled with that is the fact that we then use our own hovercraft – a lot! And we use them, not in a grassy field, but in the harsh marine conditions where customers use their own craft. Salt-water is terrible stuff. It corrodes and rots everything it touches – which is why all our hovercraft feature stainless steel and alloy as the only two metals! There’s no mild steel, as used by some manufacturers who know no better.
Where does that leave us? Well, I guess it’s “Win on Sunday, Sell effective, working hovercraft on Monday!”