Hotel wants to let guests travel on air
By AMY WIMMER
ST. PETE BEACH -- Coming soon to a beach near you: a 37-foot hovercraft that will whisk passengers from the TradeWinds Island Grande Hotel to downtown St. Petersburg on a cushion of air.
The TradeWinds is partnering with a St. Petersburg hovercraft company in what is believed to be the first commercial hovercraft endeavor in the United States. The canary yellow hovercraft, currently parked behind the company president's Weedon Island home, can carry up to 18 passengers.
The project's viability depends on permission from the St. Pete Beach City Commission.
Prices for round-trip tickets could range from $25 to $35. Children and senior citizens would ride for a discounted fare, according to the company's Web site, and the hovercraft would be open to the public as well as TradeWinds guests.
"As marketers, you're always looking for points and differences from competitors, and as hoteliers you're always looking for new services for your guests," said Michael Choiniere, vice president of sales and marketing at the TradeWinds. "We're the first place to have a hovercraft at our disposal."
Officials with Hover-USA, the St. Petersburg company that owns the hovercraft and hopes to market it for other destinations such as Tampa and, eventually, the Bahamas, Key West or the Cayman Islands, say they already have arrangements to load and unload passengers at the Vinoy Basin in St. Petersburg. They are working on plans to also stop at Fort De Soto Park and Egmont Key.
But first, the TradeWinds must get permission from the St. Pete Beach City Commission to launch the hovercraft from the navigational channel behind the TradeWinds Island Grande Hotel. Currently, the channel is used for parasailing, Shell Key cruises and other water sport operations.
Hover-USA plans to give city commissioners a ride on their hovercraft Dec. 11, minutes before commissioners vote on whether to allow the vehicle to use the beach for loading and unloading passengers. City staff and the Development Review Board already have recommended approval.
Commissioners will evaluate how much noise the hovercraft makes and what impacts it has on the beach.
The hovercraft floats 18 inches above the water on a self-generated cushion of air that is trapped in a skirt beneath the vehicle. Company officials say the hovercraft can even operate on land and is particularly useful in shallow water, and they plan to make it available to fire and police departments for use in emergencies. "You could drive it down Gulf Boulevard," Choiniere said.
The hovercraft technology was developed in 1959 and is most commonly used in Europe. The only hovercrafts in the United States are operated by the U.S. Navy and not used commercially.
In fact, said Robert Wagner, president of Hover-USA, the United States currently does not have air-cushion vehicle regulations, and the hovercraft sitting in the back yard at Weedon Island had to be certified by the Canadian Coast Guard because the U.S. Coast Guard has no regulations in place.
"No one has ever really decided to build one here in the United States that was viable enough," he said.
Wagner, who once was a consultant for Textron, the company that made hovercrafts for the Navy, said he has owned his hovercraft for 31/2 months. "This is a personal dream of mine," he said.
TradeWinds officials insist the hovercraft is a safe mode of transportation along the beaches.
"The hovercraft does not, by design, interfere or impact anything on the beaches," Choiniere said. "You could have someone lying on the beach, and we do not intend to do this, but the hovercraft could drive right over them."
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