Land, water, rocks, sand. You name it, the hovercraft deals with it. It’s off-road to the max as you’re riding on air. Always keen to try out something new, this month Enjoy the Algarve tries hovercrafting near Portimão.
See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine October 2017
They look like a cross between an oversized bumper car and a jet ski, with an inflatable air mattress underneath. They don’t care about obstacles on the road and can cross a lake as easy as a field. They don’t have any wheels, gears or brakes and turning is done at full speed. Hovercrafts are proper action hero style. In other words, they’re just my cup of tea (no, not because I’m an action hero, more because I’ve wrecked a few car bumpers by assuming they’d be able to deal with a couple of rocks. I mean, come on, what did they use to attach those bumpers in the first place? Glue stick?). The only challenge: in order to ride a hovercraft, one should have proper coordination skills, as well as some knowledge of flying and drifting. Not my strengths, to say the least. However, if there’s anyone who can teach me, it’s Nuno Mourão (45, pictured below).
Living in Lagos, Nuno isn’t only a hovercraft specialist and mechanic, but also a rally driver, with a couple of years of experience as a track responsible on the Kartódromo Internacional do Algarve. In the beginning of this year, he set up Hovertrack Portugal. “Already in the 1990s, while watching the Portuguese national hovercraft championship on TV, I fell in love with hovercraft racing,” he explains. Now, he’s the owner of the country’s first hovercraft experience. Currently there’s only one track in use, a dry and dusty dirt road, but Nuno’s plans for next year are to have three different tracks, all covered in grass, as well as 10 hovercrafts. Also on the planning for the not too distant future: championships. Nuno enthuses: “Hovercraft racing is a different feeling altogether. Unlike a car or motorbike, there’s no brake on the hovercraft. You go really fast and you can’t make a single mistake; it’s pure adrenaline.”
Hovercrafts were invented in the UK. Also called air-cushion vehicles (ACVs), they function due to a large volume of air that’s blown below the hull, producing lift as well as propulsion. They come in all kinds of sorts and shapes, from the personal craft I’ll be driving today to gigantic ones that transport passengers over the English channel, and from hovercrafts that leisurely cruise at around 30-40km/h to racing ones that reach speeds of 200km/h (no, I won’t be driving the latter). Apart from fun vehicles, hovercrafts are also often used in disaster relief and military missions. Nuno explains: “They have big life-saving potential in coastal areas. Imagine a swimmer is about to drown here in the Algarve. Currently, the lifeguards rescue that person with a jet ski and bring him to land. There, they start resuscitation, call an ambulance, carry the person across the beach and wait for the ambulance to arrive and take him to hospital. If they’d use a hovercraft, the driver of the craft could get him to land whilst the other lifeguard could already start resuscitation in the vehicle. After arriving on the beach, they could just continue driving the hovercraft towards the approaching ambulance, so no time is lost.”
Nuno isn’t the only one enthusiastic about hovercrafts. According to ex-Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, they’re ‘THE most fun you can have with an engine’. Photographer Kyle and Nuno are soon discussing various Top Gear hovercraft races. I remember watching Clarkson nearly crashing into some beach goers during a race in St Petersburg (Russia) and the Top Gear team causing a rower to fall in the water after they’ve collided with his boat on the river Avon in the UK on their second go (they managed to sink the first Hovervan). Great success for TV, not so much reassurance for the novice hovercraft driver. I comfort myself with the thought that here there’s no-one else on the circuit to bump into…
Also, I’ll be wearing a helmet. After suiting up, Nuno explains the driving position; sitting on your knees in the middle of the vehicle and keeping your body as straight as possible. In order to turn, three things need to happen simultaneously: steering to one side, having your bodyweight to that same side, and full throttle acceleration. Uh, full throttle on a turn in a vehicle that doesn’t have a brake? “Yes, but don’t worry,” Nuno replies. “When you sit back and release the throttle, the hovercraft will stop straight away.” After these encouraging words it’s time for the real thing. The four-stroke engine splutters into life and immediately I’m surrounded in a cloud of noise and dust. I start by practising some turns, which seemed really simple a minute ago when talking, but turns out to be a bit harder than expected. Luckily Nuno is used to beginners, so he’s pretty quick with jumping out of the way. At first it feels unnatural to lean in the same direction you want to turn, but soon I’m sliding all over the place.
With Nuno’s hand signals as a guidance, I make it over the water without sinking the craft (watch that Jeremy & co!). Confident of my talent, I try to continue the rest of the track without visual aids. “Try to go for the flattest and smoothest ground as you’ll go faster,” Nuno calls after me. I listen, but the hovercraft doesn’t. I go straight over the rockiest patch before I misjudge my steering and turning abilities even more and almost crash into a pylon. Nuno comes running to the rescue and steers me through the next corner, his hands signalling the way I should move my body. It actually works very well when he’s doing that. It doesn’t work so well when he isn’t around. In the next corner I somehow find myself balancing on a ridge on the edge of the track. Why? I don’t have a clue; it certainly wasn’t planned.
“In a car, when you go too fast in a corner, you can brake and still turn at the same time, while losing some of the speed. In a hovercraft, this doesn’t work: you need the power of the fan to turn. If you lose the power, you don’t turn anymore, you’ll go straight. It’s similar to an airplane,” Nuno explains. “Or like in World Rally Car; although that’s way faster, the movements and feelings are the same. That’s what I enjoy so much: the adrenaline!” As I don’t have a clue of either aircraft or WRC, I’m still not 100% sure where I went wrong, so next corner I nearly crash into the tripod photographer Kyle has set up. Nuno comes yet again running to help me pulling me back on track. No wonder he stays so slim.
My initial inability to get around the course is probably due to the fact that half of the time I’m leaning one way and steering to the other, which doesn’t produce the desired result. It might also have to do with the wind, which has picked up a bit since we started and really influences the hovercraft driving. Which makes it half-scary; when the hovercraft doesn’t do what I want it’s like trying to drive a car on ice: no control whatsoever. But once I get the hang of it and the wind settles down, it feels like flying, particularly when going over the water. The small lake is my favourite bit, with droplets splashing up in my face before I reach the mud, turn in a cloud of dust and go for the water again. It feels really cool. Like action hero cool.
I finally start to understand the steering but and even manage to do a few turns on the water. Once you get the hang of it, it’s seriously amazing. Especially drifting around the corners gives a thrill. Unlike karting, this isn’t something you learn within a few minutes. “However,” says Nuno, “Once it clicks, you move your body automatically. To go fast, however, you really need to know how to drive well.” Real racers might also consider wearing some more layers of protective clothing because despite the kneepads, I feel the stones on the ground. Poor hovercraft is taking a proper beating. Nuno isn’t too worried though. “I’m always repairing the skirts. I’ve taking up sewing right after starting hovercrafts,” he laughs. Getting out afterwards, I notice that my knees are buckling and my legs are trembling. I’m literally shaking.
Afterwards, Nuno shows us a video of UK-based competitions, where hovercrafts go with nearly 200km/h straight from a park into a lake and over rivers, without any trouble whatsoever. It’s pretty inspiring and gets me thinking. “So, they could definitely be used on the roads, like the N125 for example?” I ask Nuno. “Well, yes theoretically of course they could,” is the answer. “However, you have to get permission first, as currently they aren’t allowed on…” I’ve stopped listening and am already working on a genius plan for when there’s no parking space near the beach in the Algarve in summer time. Plus, it’d be ideal for getting Gustave the Dog to Ilha da Armona without having to pay for a water taxi. My steering skills might need some work, but hey, the masterplan is there. Anyone who has a spare hovercraft lying around and wants to swap it for a crappy old Corsa, please contact Enjoy the Algarve.
When to go?
Whenever you want, as Hovertrack Portugal is open all year round. Summer months are likely to be busier and reserving in advance is recommended. All details can be found on their website.
Whether or not hovercraft is possible depends on the weather. If there’s too much wind, you can’t ride as it’ll be too dangerous. Rain is not a problem.
Hovertrack Portugal is located on the road towards the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve Autodromo; you’ll see the sign on the right hand side.
For action hero wannabes. This activity is also great if you like driving and/or flying and don’t mind a bit of dust and noise.
There’s no age limit – Nuno has even taken 3-year-olds along the track. However, the minimum body weight of the rider is around 45 kilos. Children who weigh less will be accompanied in the hovercraft by Nuno or one of his team members, who will help with the steering.
No previous driving experience needed, helmet and riding suit are provided. Don’t wear your nicest and/or newest clothes as they’ll get dusty despite the suit.
See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine October 2017