The Isle of Wight is the 12th largest island in the British Isles and sits off the south coast of Great Britain close to Southampton and Portsmouth. Isolated from the mainland and with no bridge or tunnel connection, there are six ferry links to connect the island with its neighbouring towns and cities. Three of these are standard vehicle ferries that connect Yarmouth, East Cowes and Fishbourne with Lymington, Southampton and Portsmouth respectively, however the other three are slightly more exciting.
The remaining three ferry links are slightly more unusual with West Cowes and Ryde Pier Head being connected to Southampton and Portsmouth respectively by fast Catamaran services, which take about half the time of the vehicle ferries as they ‘cut’ through the sea. The final connection is unique in western Europe as it the last commercial link provided by a Hovercraft. This service takes around 10 minutes to connect Ryde with Southsea and it was this that I took to start my day on the Isle of Wight.
Due to historic links with British Rail (BR), you are able to buy through tickets from mainland stations to any station on the Isle of Wight which include a journey on either HoverTravel or the WightLink catamaran service. HoverTravel was initially a competitor of BR’s own hovercraft service ‘Seaspeed’ which operated between Cowes and Southampton, however HoverTravel then operated the route on BR’s behalf until it was scrapped leaving the Ryde to Southsea route the solo hovercraft service in the area. Its due to this that ‘Route Excludes: Southsea Hoverport’ appears on train tickets, although I have no idea why its included on Rugby to Coventry tickets like here.
With the closest railway station to the Southsea Hoverport being Portsmouth & Southsea, HoverTravel provide a shuttle bus between the city, railways station and hoverport which is included in through tickets. On my journey the timetable indicated a one-minute connection between the train from London and the shuttle bus, however I think the bus generally waits a couple of minutes before departing.
The Southsea hoverport is located on Southsea Esplanade next to Clarence Pier and was about a five-minute bus ride from the station. Due to getting a different train than planned and making the short connection at the station, I was actually running an hour early and so managed to get my reservation moved forward to an earlier ‘flight’. Although you can just turn up and go, it is recommended to make a reservation at busy times, especially during the current restrictions and social distancing which limits capacity on the route.
The ‘departure hall’ is a single room with some seating, a coffee machine and some very dirty windows looking out over the ramp and Solent. Thankfully the weather was good and so some of the windows were open, allowing me to get some decent photos of our hovercraft ‘Island Flyer’ arriving from Ryde. Arriving passengers head through a gate from the ramp direct to the Esplanade and so it was only a few minutes after the vessel’s arrival that we were beginning to board.
Interestingly the HoverTravel hovercraft have the logos of the NHS and Royal Mail prominently displayed on their sides and the connection makes sense. With the journey time being around 10 minutes, the hovercraft link certainly makes sense for time sensitive deliveries or patients who need to be rapidly transferred to a hospital on the mainland. This connection has become more prevalent during the Covid-19 pandemic and a temporary landing pad was constructed at Southampton to allow an even faster connection to the hospital.
Our journey across the Solent was quick, smooth and uneventful with the journey taking 11 minutes from doors close to doors open, less than half the time of the nearest competition. The hovercraft are Griffon 12000TDs which have a capacity on 78 passengers and can travel at a speed of up to 40knots (46mph). There are two entrances at the front of the hovercraft, one with steps and the other a ramp, allowing step free access for wheelchairs and stretchers.
The terminus on the Ryde side of the crossing is on Ryde Esplanade, just adjacent to the railway station and the pier. The tide was at about the half-way mark when I arrived, but a low-tide the hovercraft have to travel across around a mile of sandbanks to reach the shore. A bridge just outside the hoverport provides a quick connection to the bus and train stations, with me being on the platform just a couple of minutes after arriving on the Isle of Wight.
After only one ride on a class 483 (1938 stock) before the one serviceable unit failed (read about that next week), my day had had a lot more sitting around than planned. With no train service down the pier, I enjoyed a brisk stroll from the Esplanade to the pier head, from where the Wightlink Catamaran services depart to Portsmouth Harbour.
With a larger capacity than the hovercraft (260 vs 78), and my journey taking place in the evening peak, there was a lot more people alighting the catamaran when it arrived and so we had a short wait before we were able to board. The catamaran’s main deck is laid out in a 2-3-3-3-2 configuration, and the leg room was plentiful, especially for a 25-minute journey. During daylight hours and good weather there is also an open air ‘sun deck’ at the front of the catamaran that passengers can use.
The catamarans currently in use were introduced to the service in 2009 and were controversial at the time. Given the slower max speed (26knots vs 34knots) and less seats (260 vs 294) there were concerns that peak capacity was going to be greatly impacted. Fortunately, a new timetable and the fact that most of the journey is at a limited speed due to Portsmouth Harbour speed limits means that capacity wasn’t affected and reliability, after a few teething issues, has eventually increased.
As with the hovercraft link, the catamaran link is included in through rail fares and the terminal at the Portsmouth end is part of Portsmouth Harbour station. This provides an extremely quick link to the trains, with it being about 2 minutes from alighting the boat to boarding a train if you aren’t waiting for a specific one.
Overall, I think the total journey time on the hovercraft vs the catamaran is quicker if the connections work between the train, bus and hovercraft. However, with the catamaran terminal being directly connected to both Portsmouth Harbour and Ryde Pier Head stations, the catamaran can end up being quicker, again if the connections work. Either way, both journeys are well tested and painless, the only issue is if the Island line is suspended and you have to walk the length of the pier at Ryde.