A little known part of Connecticut’s transportation history is that almost 40 years ago, there was hovercraft service from Bridgeport to New York City.
If you’ve never “flown” on a hovercraft, it’s quite an experience. The interior of the craft is filled with airline style seats and there’s often even an attendant serving beverages.
When it’s ready to depart, giant fans blowing downward lift the craft onto a bubble of air, captured by a huge rubber skirt. Then other fans push the hovering craft forward, guided by air rudders. Think of an Everglades airboat on steroids, except this one floated above the surface of Long Island Sound.
In June of 1976 I got to ride on a demonstration “flight” of the “Excalibur,” a $400,000, 51-foot-long, 60-passenger hovercraft. It was a weekend press junket showing off the soon-to-be launched private service run by Bridgeport native Robert Weldon, who founded Hovertransport Inc. with family, friends and local investors.
From what I remember about the ride, it was smooth but fairly noisy. What was really impressive was the speed: about 40 mph.
Weldon’s service was inspired by a British hovercraft service crossing the English Channel, which ran from 1969 until 2000 using two gigantic craft capable of carry 400-plus passengers and 60 cars. Each of these monsters cost 5 million pounds and could travel at almost 60 mph.
Weldon’s hope was to bring Long Islanders to Bridgeport’s then newly opened jai alai fronton while also whisking Connecticut and Long Island commuters down the Sound to a dock at Wall Street. This was to be the first commercial hovercraft service ever in the US. The planned 35-minute run would cost passengers $125 a month, a premium over the railroads’ then $80 monthly commuter pass.
Paying passengers boarded the first regularly scheduled “flight” of Excalibur June 26, 1976, departing Bridgeport at 6:45 am, enroute to Huntington LI and then New York City.
On the first day, Huntington officials were miffed when the craft gunned the engines leaving the dock, ignoring the 5 mph harbor speed limit designed to avoid a wake, despite the fact that a hovercraft makes no waves but rides over them. The Excalibur was regularly ticketed by the local harbor patrol.
But by November 1976, ridership had stagnated and service was suspended as passenger loads never exceeded about 30% of capacity, far below a break-even ridership.
Weldon then moved his craft to the Hudson River, launching commuter service from Nyack NY to Wall Street. After a three-week run that Hudson River service was also halted when only six passengers had signed up.
In December 1976 Weldon moved the Excalibur to Miami to dazzle the tourists.
By the following year Weldon was running out of money. A planned 1974 IPO never generated enough investors’ interest. Also, by early 1977 they’d lost their docking space in Bridgeport as a waterfront park was under development.
In Spring 1977 the hovercraft was repossessed and Weldon filed for personal bankruptcy moving on to another job. He passed away in 1997 at the age of 68. With him went the dream of commuting by hovercraft on Long Island Sound.