For the Children
It began with too many projects. We’d subdivided the old farmhouse property, sold the old house and built our new place out back. We moved in, but much work remained, inside and out. The new house shared space with the shop, still full of an unfinished airplane project, the Pitts. Yet another project, a wooden seaplane, graced the garage of our new home. Three major long term projects with no end in sight had me feeling like a circus clown running frantically from one teetering plate to another.
That’s when Linda brought our 11 year old son out to the shop. I suspect she was tired of catering to his boredom in the house.
“Joseph would like to work on a project with you,” she said.
Joseph and I had spent many hours in the shop together. He enjoyed working the power equipment, cutting wood and pounding nails, but his skills were not well developed. I worried that his efforts on the plane might end any prospect of it ever flying.
“I won’t let him work on the plane—I’ve seen his work,” I replied.
“Maybe you could build something else—together?”
It was her idea.
“Joseph, what do you want to build?”
He looked a bit sheepish, shrugged a little and said:
I thought, for sure, he could think bigger than that.
“How about a hovercraft? It’s like a go cart that can go on water, too.”
“Okay…” He responded more to my enthusiasm than much else, but came around after seeing a video of a little hovercraft in action.
I informed Linda of our intent to build a hovercraft, including a budget of about $2500 and described the educational benefits of the project. He could learn basic fiberglass, a little welding and small engine repair. He’d learn how to follow plans and attain many other valuable skills. The other kids would enjoy and benefit from the process, as well.
“Okay…” she said, a little unsure.
I ordered the first parts and materials right away.
It was her idea—for the children.
Construction and a Narrow Focus
We crammed the seaplane into the shop with the Pitts, leaving room in the garage for the hovercraft and one car. The scent of polyester resin wafted throughout the yard and into the house as we gamely brushed layers of glass weave onto foam panels. Joseph worked well—at first, but lost interest after a week or so. He rejected my invitations in favor of playing with friends, video games or simply reading. I suppose the project was too big for him—he couldn’t see the end from the beginning. I figured he’d catch on if I could show bigger or faster progress, so worked quickly through the drudgery of basic glassing in order to assemble the various panels into a larger hull.
Sure enough, he came out to help once in a while, and took interest long enough to look at the project occasionally, but not much more.
For me, on the other hand, the hovercraft represented one project with an end in sight. This became a little intoxicating—seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Airplanes and houses were years away from completion, but the hovercraft could be done by August. This powerful idea motivated me to practically ignore the other projects in favor of the hovercraft. I just wanted to finish something.
This did not sit well with competing interests who wanted progress elsewhere. Linda called the hovercraft a distraction.
A Learning Curve
It’s quite a thrill when something starts for the first time. The skirt under the hovercraft inflated with a rising crescendo of engine noise and the whole thing rose in the garage like a bounce house at a latin birthday party. After building a couple of rudders for steering, I pulled it onto our gravel driveway for a test drive.
“Drive” is not the right word. A hovercraft is like an oversized puck from an air hockey game. It is affected by slope, wind, momentum and thrust. As I added power, the craft drifted down our driveway into the neighbors yard—a direction it was NOT pointed. I maneuvered to avoid some fruit trees, only to swing the tail and its propeller around into their branches. It sounded like a leaf shredder—some of the noise an authentic pruning of the trees, and louder snapping sounds of my propeller breaking.
I needed a new propeller right out of the box. $220.
The alfalfa field next door seemed a better choice for a little practice, except the hovercraft lacked the power to push through the taller plants. With some effort, we made a track using an ATV and then another attempt around the track with the hovercraft. It goes pretty fast, but does not steer like a car. You must play the momentum—like the little spaceship on the old asteroids arcade game. The momentum determines direction of travel and the craft can be pointed in almost any direction while zipping along. The fastest way to stop is to point backwards and go to full power. Turns require advance planning and I found myself going around the corners sideways, like a car in full drift—a scary proposition at first, so I cut the power.
Cutting the power deflated the skirt which slammed the craft into the ground, sideways, at 30 mph. It tipped up on its side and ejected me and all my tools into the alfalfa. Unhurt, I’d learned lesson one—don’t cut the power unless you’re ready for a quick stop.
I never did find all my tools.
With a little practice, I could keep it on the driveway, which compelled the neighbors to close their windows and doors. They came to visit with dust in their eyes and teeth.
Lesson number two: The hovercraft disappears in a Sahara dust storm if it’s used in the dirt.
I’d been prohibited from the grass near the fruit trees, leaving the best option the park across the street. It featured a large grassy area and a gentle slope—surely a place made for testing hovercraft. As I crossed the street, the machine did not even notice the curb and gutter—it went right over without a thought. Pretty cool.
The grass proved to be everything I hoped for. With room to maneuver, I got the machine up to full speed and roared around the park for a few minutes—just a few, when I noticed a police cruiser pull into the parking lot. Suspicious, I zoomed over there to see what’s going on.
They don’t smile.
“You build this?” the officer asked.
“Yeah. It’s not finished yet, though. I’m still working out the bugs.”
“We’ve had a report of someone vandalizing the grass out here with an ATV.”
Annoyed that someone would make such a claim, I looked behind the hovercraft, at all the beautiful grass..
“You see any tracks?” I asked.
“No. Do you see that sign over there?” It says: “No motorized vehicles”
“I see it now.” Nuts.
“Better take it home.”
So I did.
Linda was not pleased.
“You got ARRESTED?”
“No. He just sent me home.”
“NO! He didn’t even ask my name…”
Linda was convinced, from that point, that the hovercraft was an evil influence that would surely get me in trouble with the neighbors and the police. She said I never should have built it and that I should sell it immediately.
I reminded her of the needs of the children, and promised to be good.
Why spend all summer building the darn thing with no place to drive it. I needed to get it out of the neighborhood to some open place where nobody would complain. It was too big to fit in a pickup truck.
I needed a trailer.
The Great Salt Lake and a Buddy from Work
Flying over Northern Utah makes me wonder why hovercraft are not more popular. Mud flats, salt flats, wetlands, snow and the Great Salt Lake surround the cities with huge areas tailor made for hovercraft recreation. Three million people living with a hovercraft wonderland in their backyard. I had visions of building hovercraft by the dozens and starting a fad—no, a recreational sensation!
I described all this to a buddy from work by the name of Wynn Lear. He described a trailer we could borrow. We loaded our new machine onto his trailer and three of us, including 11 year old Joseph, set out for the Great Salt Lake.
We threaded our way through the marina, admired all the sailboats, passed a little office, and backed down the boat ramp. Everything looked very official, with each boat permitted in its slip, registration numbers and names clearly visible. Little rule signs posted against gates and hand rails, I wondered if we must jump any legal restrictions. I could not imagine how. The hovercraft was not technically a boat, nor was it a land vehicle—in a category all its own, we figured to slide between the lines of the law. As it went, nobody said a thing and we launched the craft with out any trouble at all. To my surprise, it floated well in the water with the engine off, sitting a little low in the stern as though anticipating someone to fire a starting pistol.
We agreed to meet on the flat muddy beach just east of the marina. I started the hovercraft and zipped over there without a problem. Wynn drove it around the beach for a little while, then Joseph had a turn. I let him take it out by himself. It was perfectly safe. What could go wrong? My eleven year old son grinned, pushed the throttle to its maximum and shot out into the lake, quickly fading from view like a ship going over the horizon. From my vantage point on the shore, I could see the rudders fully deflected, but he couldn’t get it to turn. Uh, oh. Wynn and I both could shift our weight around to get the machine to turn. Joseph did not weigh much. This would be difficult to explain to my wife. I imagined the conversation in my head:
“Uh, Linda? It looks like he can’t turn around. At thirty miles an hour, he might be reaching the other shore in about 90 minutes…”
I glanced at the marina office for any sign of boat charter or rentals, to go get my son.
“He’s turning!” Wynn said. In the far distance, we could just make out the hovercraft turning gamely around with Joseph leaning way out to one side. He’d figured out how to shift his weight. I made a mental note to build bigger rudders.
Joseph hit the beach with wind blown hair, a grin and a story to tell. Wynn had another try when a sound like a garden hose hitting the lawn mower announced the failure of our drive belt. The hovercraft could no longer move forward, although it could hover in place well enough.
We worked an hour to get it around a rocky breakwater and back to the marina.
The hovercraft skirt had filled with water and brine shrimp as we pulled it onto the trailer. It became very heavy. I knifed a hole in the skirt to drain it and considered the many lessons of the day. They piled up.
A drive belt costs $40. Build belt retainers as described in the plans.
Rudders, as built, are worthless. Make new ones according to the plans.
The skirt fills with water. Make an outflow valve according to the plans.
Build hand holds for leaning over the side.
Repair the hull where it gouged against the rocks..
New rudders were big and round, with smiley faces painted on them. The remainder of the craft sported shiny paint, bright yellow. It said “Have a Nice Day,” across the stern.
Now ready to go, I planned to bring the little yellow marvel to our big family reunion at Pineview Reservoir.
We needed a trailer, and quickly.
I scrounged a used axle with some old tires, still attached. We found an old hitch. A bunch of steel from Wasatch Metal, and four sheets of plywood rounded out the pile and I set to welding.
The completed trailer was 16 feet long and featured a flat deck that could tilt for loading. I had burns from the welder in my collar and elbows, chapped lips and a wicked sunburn, but we rolled into the marina at Pine View just in time…
To meet the local ranger.
His truck looked official enough, with a big rifle laying across a rack in the rear window.
“I see you don’t have any boat numbers on your boat.” He said.
“It’s not a boat. It’s a hovercraft.” Said I.
“Can it move, under it’s own power, on the water?” He asked.
“Then it’s a boat!” He declared.
“Yeah?” My voice rose, “What boat can drive around here in the parking lot before going in the water?” I said.
“It’s a boat!”
The months of frustration came out as I unloaded on an armed man.
“For crying out loud we’ve got a family reunion happing today I’ve been working on this thing all summer just worked the bugs out hoping to get it here in time can’t figure how to register the thing anyway the lousy government has no idea about recreational hovercraft and I’m sick and tired of obstacles everywhere I turn…”
“Hold it.” He said, raising his hand.
“Calm down. Truth be told, I’d kind of like to see it go, but if you sink, I’m not filling out any paperwork. You were never here, got it?”
Relieved, I went to Linda, who sat glumly, having heard my conversation with the ranger. She did not share my delight at a chance to play with the hovercraft with the whole extended family. She declared it unfit for service and cemented its status as an evil influence which could only get me in trouble with authority.
I hoped she’d at least enjoy playing with it that day.
We had fun. It was impossible not to. We enjoyed a big beach, a beautiful lake, food, boats and jet skis. The hovercraft got passed among several users who pronounced it easy enough to drive and kind of freaky going from water to beach and back. It would go about as fast as the boats, but not turn and cut around like the powerful jet skis.
Personally, I think the jet skis are more fun on the water.
The hovercraft had very large and responsive rudders, much bigger than called for in the plans. They tended to weathervane in the wind. Going fast presented little control problems, but when slow, the craft would pivot into the wind and stay that way until gaining enough speed to overcome it. This could make it difficult to turn around when going upwind. With Grandma Smith along for a ride, I had to cross to the leeward shore of the lake before turning around. She was not terribly impressed. Maybe I’d just drive it on calm days?
Paul, a brother in law, set out in the hovercraft with one of his girls. We heard a snapping sound crack across the water. I looked up to see Paul, in the distance, hovering around but getting nowhere. Motoring out in a jet ski to help, I could see the main propeller shattered. A closer look revealed one of the propeller mounting bolts had worked loose and let the prop smack into the engine mount, cutting the drive belt in the process.
We loaded up and went home.
“How much is this going to cost?” Linda asked with a big sigh.
“$220. Plus another $40 for the belt.”
“I hate the hovercraft!” She said.
I drove home sitting next to a storm cloud.
I Played Alone
Linda demanded I put the hovercraft on Ebay. Reluctantly, I set a reserve price of $3000. This would recoup costs, including the trailer. The bidding did not exceed $2300, so the little machine remained in our driveway for the next couple of years.
I found a few excellent places to go. Farmington Bay had no people, lots of open sand and water, wetlands and about a million little birds. It’s only fifteen minutes away but looks and feels like a different world. The city does not know what it’s missing, only a few miles away.
I invited everyone for a ride. The craft proved delightful in the winter. The local alfalfa field becomes smooth under a blanket of snow. The little hovercraft could skim around without a care, jumping irrigation ditches with athletic prowess and cushioning the whole adventure on a mattress of air. Steering becomes much less of a problem with experience and I found the craft could be maneuvered quite deftly with a little practice. .
Joseph lost interest, preferring to play with friends. Anna, on the other had, would emerge from the house with sparkling eyes every time the engine started. Although only 3 years old, she would grin with a lusty sense of adventure while climbing aboard. Whenever Linda strengthened her resolve against the hovercraft, I had only to ask Anna if she thought we should sell it.
“NO! I love the hovercraft.” She’d say.
“There you go. We can’t sell the hovercraft until Anna says so.” I said.
We had grand adventures gliding over the snow.
Best Toy Ever
As toys go, the hovercraft offered a lot in a single package. It could run easily over anything flat—water, snow, sand, grass, pavement, etc… It could carry three people at once or up to 600 pounds and got 30 miles to the gallon.
Still mired in huge projects, the hovercraft presented an easy break. Run it off the trailer, start the engine, wait for Anna to show up, then blast around the field for 30 minutes or so. Renewed, I could hammer on the projects again with fresh vigor.
I got the propeller bugs ironed out after the third prop broke. Linda began to refer to the vehicle as that “Damn hovercraft.” I could see the tide and general current of things not running in my favor. My time with the delightful hovercraft could blow away in the wind if Anna changed her opinion.
A Little Wind
It was very cold. The snow on the ground sparkled and billowed in the sunlight of a clear winter day. Too sunny, in fact to sit cooped up in the house. I pulled the hovercraft from its trailer and started the engine. The noise, as always, echoed around the neighborhood. As always, Anna popped outside about 30 seconds later. Love that girl.
We zoomed around the field at 30 miles an hour, making a 30 mph breeze on a very brisk and cold day. Anna got cold and began to sniffle. She wanted to go home. I made her sit up under the bow, to get out of the wind, and motored over to the house. We settled down in the driveway in time to see Linda at the door.
Anna saw her mother and began to cry.
Linda wrapped her up in a warm embrace and asked if she still liked the hovercraft. She has excellent timing.
“No. I don’t like the hovercraft anymore. It’s too cold.” Anna said.
That was it. A death knell from a 3 year old.
Linda stood up in the doorway after sending Anna in the house. She folded her arms, took on a commanding pose and said:
“It’s time to sell that Damn Hovercraft.”
Listed on Ebay with no reserve, the delightful hovercraft sold in auction for $2500 to an excited elderly couple from Saskatchewan. Counting all the propellers and belts, I’d lost $1000 for my trouble.
Linda didn’t care.
The money from the sale of the hovercraft was used to put up a vinyl rail fence between our yard and the neighbors. It’s a nice looking one, but not nearly as fun as the hovercraft.
I could build it better—bigger, enclose the cabin, add a heater, more power, more seats… The bare mention of this could make Linda curse like a church lady losing a bingo game. She suggested a weather forecast in hell required to make another hovercraft.
Ten years passed.
Then I met another buddy at work who wanted to build a hovercraft. He had parts and plans for a big one, enclosed, lots of seats—perfect. Lacking the space to build it himself, he offered to let me buy his stuff, cheap.
“No chance,” I said. “Linda would kill me.”
“Does she like raspberries?” He asked.
“Yes. Loves them.”
“I’ll let her have the first crop of my commercial raspberry patch if you’ll buy my hovercraft stuff.” He offered.
I said I’d ask, but offered no hope.
To my surprise she said yes. I had to pause for my brain to catch up to my ears. Wait…
“You’re going to buy it anyway, so at least I’ll get something out of the deal.”
I couldn’t believe it, until the other shoe dropped.
“You have to promise to register it with the authorities, not act like a hoodlum, take it only in approved areas, and finish the projects you’re currently working on..”
Tall order, but doable.
I got pulled over by the cops on the way to pick up the parts. They said I was driving a stolen vehicle. Not true, but Linda became convinced it had something to do with the hovercraft.
As we picked berries, she muttered angrily to herself.
“I feel like I’m prostituting myself,” she said—and muttered some more.
The parts sat for nearly four years in a corner of the shop as I finished the last project in line ahead of it.
I Have a Dream and the “Hovercraft Affirmation Statement”
The saga continues….
Hovercraft part two is growing in the shop. It fills the shop already, displacing tools and floorspace like a huge, swelling pumpkin.
Linda has misgivings, but has generally kept out of the way.
I have big plans to help Linda like the hovercraft. No, I have plans to help her love the hovercraft. Think of a beautiful trip along the shores of Lake Powell, for example. Warm breezes, sparkling water and huge red rock cliffs moving by as Linda sits in splendid comfort—shaded, fed and entertained in a craft more magic carpet than boat. We’ll glide right up onto a quiet beach, spread a table set with grapes, cheese, chocolate and sparkling grape juice.
After a quiet evening in complete privacy under a night sky filled with a diamond studded milky way, I’ll present the piece de resistance—a feathered pen and guilt parchment which says the following:
Hovercraft Affirmation Statement
I, Linda Bjork, do hereby affirm and ascertain that the hovercraft is a most excellent conveyance, full of comfort, joy, and rare life experience. I undersign this declaration to express my excitement at future adventures, my approval of the experience just savored and my appreciation of all things related to the hovercraft thus far.
And I hereby testify that my husband loves me.
Post Script (written by Linda): I will sign the “Hovercraft Affirmation Statement” if and only if it is true. At this point, I’m not signing anything.
Post Post Script (written by Linda): to read my version (aka the true story) please click here.