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Port finds hovercraft idea worth supporting

"There are no hovercraft on Whidbey Island yet, but at least there is a captain.Hovercraft captain Burt Ward, who works in Alaska, was in the audience at Wednesday night's Port of South Whidbey meeting. He was lending moral support to Roger Scott, president of the Whidbey Island Transportation Association (WITA), who was seeking some moral support himself from the port for the hovercraft project.WITA, a non-profit organization, is hoping to operate hovercraft water taxis, linking the two ends of Whidbey Island and Camano Island to mainland points.Scott wasn't asking the port for money and he was warmly received by commissioners Jan Smith, Gene Sears and Jim Hawley. He simply asked that the port's Clinton dock adjacent to the ferry dock be made available for some future hovercraft service.Scott said WITA has received a lot of support since a story about the water taxi plans was printed in the April 5 South Whidbey Record. The group is working on a financial plan and lining up drop-off points for hovercraft service, Scott said.We'll have a proposal in a couple of months, Scott told the commissioners. Oak Harbor officials have expressed support, Scott added, because a hoped-for new dock in that city was stopped by the lack of passenger ferry service.Scott said concerns about the project have centered on the noisy reputation of hovercraft. Ten years ago that was an issue, he said. Noise is not an issue any more. Improved design has reduced hovercraft noise to the level of a similarly sized conventional boat, he said.Captain Ward pointed out the ease in which hovercraft can using existing facilities or even the beach to pick up and drop off passengers.It sounds like a viable program, responded Jan Smith, port president, as the other commissioners nodded in agreement. They also agreed the Clinton dock could be used by hovercraft with only minor modification.Hovercraft also have the reputation of suffering frequent breakdowns, Ward acknowledged after the meeting. He operates hovercraft for a company called Lynden, and parts have to be ordered from England. The long wait for parts resulted in the reputation for breaking down, he said.But Ward added that U.S. companies are starting to manufacture hovercraft, and they're using dependable Dietz diesel engines made in Germany. That's changing, he said of the break-down reputation, and he agreed with Scott that new models are much quieter than older ones. WITA contracted with Pacific Navigation, a subsidiary of Hornblower Marine Services, to come up with a vessel management plan for a passenger-only ferry service, a process that will include a look at the hovercraft option. That's one platform in a range, said Pacific Navigation's Greg Dronkert earlier this week. We never let the platform lead the solution, and it's not conclusive that hovercraft are the solution.But like many, Dronkert is intrigued by the idea of hovercraft whisking commuters around Puget Sound. They ride on a cushion of air, create a negligible wake, and can use existing facilities or no facilities at all. Where an amphibious ability is necessary a hovercraft beats a catamaran, he said, adding that his company is building up some expertise in the hovercraft area, working with interested groups in San Francisco and HoverTravel in British Columbia.Pacific Navigation will look at possible routes and what they can bear in tariffs, Dronkert said. The company is not looking for government help. Passenger ferries can be solved right from the fare box, he said. The days of free money are going away."

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