Inside a drab building on the south coast of England, a 20-strong team is building the latest version of a marine vessel once seen piloted by James Bond as he fled a hail of bullets in the 2002 film Die Another Day.
The two hovercraft have been commissioned at a cost of £10m and incorporate design and technology developed for use by security forces chasing real-life waterborne criminals. They may have a whiff of the action hero about them, but these two hovercraft are destined for a less hair-raising existence — they will be used to carry passengers on the four-mile journey between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.
The vehicles’ manufacturer, Griffon Hoverwork, is a privately owned company and the UK’s only maker of commercial hovercraft. It is one of two main companies globally that produce the craft. Their rival is Textron, a US manufacturer that supplies that country’s navy with big craft costing about £50m apiece. Griffon’s range of craft may be physically smaller — and sell at up to £11m each — but the company is world leader by volume.
Griffon exports up to 95 per cent of its craft, still made according to principles devised by the late Sir Christopher Cockerell in the 1950s. The company has deep roots — some of its 140 staff (headcount rises to 280 at peak production times) worked on the hovercraft in its early days.
Since 2008, when two small UK hovercraft businesses were bought by Bland Group, a privately owned group, and merged into Griffon Hoverwork, about £3.5m has been invested in research and development.
The hovercraft’s amphibious and versatile nature makes it highly suited to the activities of security services around the world, for example, in the Niger delta. Adrian Went, managing director of Griffon, made a recent trip to discuss using the craft in a mangrove swamp, where there are plans to extract natural gas. “Hovercraft could bring in equipment and materials,” Mr Went says.
Some 80 per cent of Griffon’s output is put to work by the security forces of governments around the world. Colombian and Peruvian marines use hovercraft in counter-narcotic activities. Small, nippy versions can zoom along the Amazon in pursuit of criminals.
In northern Canada, passenger craft serve an Inuit community operating on the water, or ice, of a river that freezes. Other customers include the British Royal Marines, the Swedish coastguard and Lithuania’s border police.
The technology behind such operations is being honed in Griffon’s research and development department, where staff have backgrounds from nuclear submarine design to aeronautics and mechanical engineering. But finding new recruits can be difficult
“We get some excellent practical engineers from the new universities with great vocational skills in computer aided design,” Mr Went says.
“But engineering graduates from the top universities, who could become our future thought leaders, like to either go to the big-name companies or depart engineering to become management consultants, accountants and the like.” Griffon would be a good start for an ambitious graduate who wants to become an engineering entrepreneur, he believes.
This is a niche sector, and for a small, private company, developing new markets is a slow process. “It’s very volatile,” says Mr Went. Turnover in 2013 was £34m, but fell to £17m the next year. It will be even lower this year, he says, but adds: “We have some strong prospects.”
Mr Went, who spent 22 years as a British army officer, foresees opportunities arising from improved living standards in the developing world and the effects of climate change. Hovercraft do not need the costly investment of a port, instead, plastic matting is placed on the beach. And, as the ice cap melts, shipping lanes open up in the Northwest Passage around the north of the Americas and the Russian land mass.
“Hovercraft are an ideal coastal patrol and rescue service that could access those shipping lanes regardless of ice conditions,” he says.
Until then, Griffon must persuade potential customers, many with little experience of hovercraft, “that there’s a cheaper, better way of doing things than dredging or consolidating land or using a helicopter”, Mr Went says.