A hovercraft is quite a radical tangent from the boating norm, so it is unsurprising that mainstream boaters tend either to overlook or misunderstand them. And yet the merits of a non-displacement craft are surprisingly extensive. Instead of attempting to operate in two different modes on land and sea (like amphibious cars), they do just one thing, which happens to suit both worlds. They hover, rendering the surface over which they fly largely irrelevant - and because this clever approach to amphibious operation enables them to be relatively simple, it also enables them to be relatively affordable.
So how does it all work?
A hovercraft is all about shifting air by means of a large rotor at the stern of the vessel. The engine rotates the blades, generating pressure in two directions. Around 25 per cent of the air is forced into the hull to fill the skirts and provide the lift; and the rest is forced backwards, through the twin rudders, to provide controllable forward drive. Simple as that.
Obviously, the non-displacement nature of a hovercraft requires everything on board to be as lightweight as possible. In the past, that tended to mean two-strokes were the favoured choice but in the case of the Flying Fish, you get a four-stroke, air-cooled Briggs & Stratton engine. This 35hp 1,000cc unit is designed to make the Marlin II quieter and more frugal than most hovercraft, leading the builders to claim that the useable range on a standard tank is an impressive 120 miles.
We can’t confirm that, but what we do know is that, despite being light in weight, the Marlin II is very robust. Underneath those skirts, the GRP hull is protected from scrapes and impacts by a pair of strong keel strips and a peripheral aluminium runner. With its double-skinned floor, it is also sufficiently buoyant to set off from a floating start - and because the skirt is segmented into individual sections, you can afford to destroy no fewer than eight of the segments and still get the lift you need to make your own way under power.
Inside the boat itself, everything is kept simple, lightweight and clutter-free. You get a step on the beam for easy embarkation, a useful grab handle and a single fore-and-aft seat for up to three people. The dash is basically a GRP base for the handlebars with some switches to start the engine, leaving just enough space for you to fit a portable GPS, a fuel gauge, a speedo and a compass. Beyond that, you really wouldn’t want to complicate matters.
From clueless novice to seasoned novice
The basics of driving the Marlin are every bit as simple as the concept. Plonk yourself on the jockey-seat, take hold of the handlebars and pull the right-hand finger-throttle. The rotors fill the skirts, lifting you up and if you keep the throttle on, you begin to slide and gather momentum. Just remember that turning the handlebars doesn’t directly alter your course. Instead, it alters the attitude of the boat, pointing it where you intend it to go - so you need to plan your desired route very early and make sure you are positive with the wheel and throttle in preparation for that turn.
Once you get used to it, it feels like driving a slow-motion rally car on ice. You can spin the thing on the spot or throw yourself sideways with enormously extravagant slides. But with 35hp on tap, a skirt that stands ten inches high, a huge fan and no deadwood in contact with the surface to directly regulate movement, the Marlin is obviously susceptible to the wind. Here, with a stiff breeze coming in off the sea, running parallel to the shore involves crabbing sideways and pointing the nose out at the water to compensate for its force with some of the fan’s thrust.
It’s great fun and it’s easy to get to grips with, but while the basics are very accessible, achieving genuine proficiency is more challenging. For instance, if you turn 180 degrees, you can find yourself coming to a complete stop, hovering on the spot and waiting for a long time to regain your forward momentum. And if you turn at pace on a loose surface without adjusting your weight, the outside edge of the skirt can fling dust and grit directly into your face - which (believe me) is deeply uncomfortable.
Soft, soft, soft
A ham-fisted pilot I may be, but even so, the ride is just sublime. You sit right up in the bow, looking straight down over the blunt nose at the open sea - and although you find yourself anticipating a thud as you head into the chop, what you actually get is a disarming absence of sensation. No impact, no noise and no sense that you’ve actually come into contact with the water at all. Instead, your cushion of air absorbs the impact, and leaves you gliding over a seascape in jolt-free serenity.
It’s a magical (and very unusual) feeling for a seasoned boater, but the real strength of a proper non-displacement craft lies in its ability to access remote and awkward cruising areas. In relatively calm weather you could easily visit a secluded beach to bask in the sun. No ropes, no anchors, no beaching. No checking the gradient, no planning the approach and no pouring over charts and tide tables. Just head up the beach, release the throttle and jump out. For a lover of boy’s toys, this thing undoubtedly has huge appeal.
Make no mistake - the Marlin II is loud, conspicuous and lacking in space both for people and equipment. It’s also affected by the wind in a way that makes a steep-sided cruiser look like a race-trained limpet. But none of these issues are faults of the Flying Fish. They are just anomalies of a non-displacement boat. So think instead about the affordable price, the extraordinarily soft ride, the engaging simplicity and the amphibious ability - and if you still want a hovercraft, make sure the Flying Fish Marlin II is firmly on your shortlist.
Hull material: GRP
Weight: 200 kg
Engine: 1,000cc Briggs & Stratton
Power: 35 hp