A fortnight ago, I was waiting on the dockside of the Greek island of Spetses at 5.30 in the morning. It was early dawn and the few others who’d got out of bed for their ride to Athens sat on benches, either zonked, wired to I-Phones or chatting quietly in little groups. I was standing on the end of the peier, eyes and ears straining. Then it appeared, a long tube of what looked like jetliner chassis, skimming effortlessly over the water on spindly, praying-mantis legs. The windows had net curtains and there was a tail fin at the end of its body. Finally, I would get my first ride on one of the most evocative transport icons of the 20th century.
The story of the mass-transport hydrofoil is almost comically allegorical in its rendering of the two principal nations who strove to perfect it : you guessed it – USSR and USA. It was the same time as the space race, modernity was still modern and mass transport ideas were flourishing; not long before, the Brtish inventor Christopher Cockerell came up with the hovercraft after playing with cups and saucers on his kitchen table. The jet age was young; concord and the Boeing 747 were on the drawing board. The Japanese had just come up with their bullet train and the French were dreaming of an even faster service, which they achieved a couple of decades later with the superlatively-styled, rake-snouted 1970s orange beauty, the TGV.
But back to the space race. Astronauts needed a way to write in space, under any circustances: in zero gravity, while wet or even submerged and so on: an absoutely reliable writing instrument. The story goes that the Americans spent a great deal of money and time coming up with a high-tech space pen. The Russians used a pencil. The race to produce large hydrofoils was ongoing at the same time – the 50s and 60s. Hydrofoils had certainly been invented before then, light machines for racing and speed trials. Larger versions for mass transit on river systems (primarily) were something of a holy grail, for the simple reason that a hydrofoil offers great speed and almost zero wash and with good fuel consumption. The Americans, in the same manner as they approached the pen, came up with a devilishly complicated electro-mechanical system to alter the attack of the foils, so as the boat rose up at higher speed the foil would present less resistance. The Russians simply welded plates of diminishing surface area to a steel pole, so as the boat rose up, it would climb the ladder onto smallest one.
During the 60s, 70s and 80s, thousands of Soviet hydrofoils were built and a few of them cling to active service, like the Hellenic Seaways Flying Dolphin I flew on in June. The sensation was of stepping onto an old jetliner and in motion, it was as smooth as flying – apart from the incessant vibration and creaking of the interior trim panels that is. In their day, they were a symbol of Russian power and of the stylish modernity that was supposed to have been the product of communism, a political ideology that we mainly equate with bread queues and drab clothes now. “Enough of stumbling around rivers in some rusty tubs. Let’s travel in style”, said President Kruschev of the glorious machines. These fast boats of the great Russian rivers had names like ‘Rocket’, ‘Meteor’ and ‘Sputnik’ and there were even aero-engined models hydrofoils capable of nearly 100 mph, a speed unheard of for waterborne transport these days. Like the Concorde, the hydrofoils have been replaced by much less magical machines – largely power catamarans, an idea that dates from seafaring antiquity.
The more I think about the 20th century (and it seems funny to refer to that century as history already), the more I realise than in the fullness of time, its greatest remembered icons will be automotive. From the Model T Ford to the Space Shuttle, it was an era defined and shaped more by human transport more than anything else. More posts on the great trains, planes and automobiles that shaped our world to come…
For an amazing collection of photos and information about the Soviet hydrofoils and other weird and wonderful things, visit the absolutely brilliant www.darkroastedblend.com.