By Ian Cooper
How many of our older residents remember Orkney Islands Shipping Company having a hydrofoil on trial around our isles? How many of our newer residents have ever even heard of this? How many of you had a trip on the hydrofoil? And how many can still remember her name?
It was back in December 1962 that Orkney Islands Shipping Company first considered the use of a fast passenger launch for the North Isles and it was believed a hydrofoil could well be a suitable type of vessel to complement the services of the new ‘Orcadia’ by providing a passenger and light freight service for the isles.
Little is then heard of this service until March 1964 when OISC withdrew the ‘Earl Sigurd’ from service in anticipation of the new hydrofoil arriving on scene. After vociferous protests from residents on all the North Isles, the ‘Earl Sigurd’ was reinstated a few weeks later and sent off for a £12,000 refit before returning to active service.
Soon after this, on 7th June 1964, the brand new prototype hydrofoil ‘Shadowfax’, named after a mythical horse in The Lord of the Rings reputedly able to run faster than the wind, arrived in Orkney under charter to Orkney Islands Shipping Company. Owned by British company International Aquavion, she was built at the yard of Aviolanda Aviation Works at Dordrecht in Holland at a cost of £65,000. Originally designed as a passenger ferry for the English Channel, she had made her way from Holland to Orkney via France where she carried out sea trials between Calais and Dover. She was 39’ long, with a beam of 19’and a large and comfortable cabin able to accommodate up to 40 passengers. Her draft was 7’ 6”, this reducing to 3’ when riding up on her foils, which was achieved at a speed of anything over 17 knots. Capable of reaching speeds in excess of 30 knots, she was powered by two Boeing 300hp gas turbine engines which reputedly consumed 54 gallons of fuel per hour!
The ‘Shadowfax’ was beset by problems almost immediately, with one of her engines developing a fault the very next day. After ongoing problems, both engines were sent back to Holland to be over-hauled and repaired.
With the newly overhauled engines installed, her first operational trip was a mercy trip to Papa Westray to convey the island postman, 60 year old David Groat, to hospital in Kirkwall. Despite poor weather conditions, it was reported that the trip took little over an hour each way.
Continuing trials around the isles appeared to be successful as she visited each of the isles to let residents look over the new vessel and to take them out for a short trip. Most of the island seemed to turn out for this event and, as an eight year old schoolboy, I was very excited to be treated to a trip on the ship, going out of the harbour and doing a big loop in Sanday Sound before returning to the pier where the next party boarded. When on board there wasn’t quite the sensation of speed that I had expected but, when viewing the ‘Shadowfax’ from land, her speed was much more apparent as she rose up on her foils and seemed to practically fly out of the harbour!
With this success behind her, the ‘Shadowfax’ began a scheduled service to all the is-lands on 5th September. Sadly, this was to be short-lived as, on 22nd September, one of the engines caught fire soon after leaving Kirkwall Pier. The fire, thought to have been caused by an oil leak, was soon extinguished by the crew but the vessel was unable to continue her journey and the 10 passengers on board at the time were taken on board the ‘Earl Sigurd’ as she was passing on her routine passage to the North Isles.
This was the last trip the ‘Shadowfax’ was to make, as she returned to Holland soon after never to return. Although originally thought that the hydrofoil could be as reliable and effective as a plane service, this also brought to an end any thoughts of a hydrofoil service for the Isles in the foreseeable future. It does seem quite poignant to note that the old ‘Earl Sigurd’, whose place was set to be taken by the ‘Shadowfax’, should be the vessel that came to the aid of the hydrofoil and her passengers on the last trip the ‘Shadowfax’ was to make and that the ‘Sigurd’ would continue in regular service for a further 5 years!
As a matter of interest, timetables for the hydrofoil in 1964 and for the ‘Earl’s in 1961 are shown here.Quite some difference from what we have today, when we think the world is liable to come to an end when we move onto the refit timetable!
Does anyone have a better photo of the hydrofoil that I could copy? The only one I have is very poor quality.
This article first appeared in the July issue of the Stronsay Limpet. If you have more information on the Orkney Hydrofoil please click on the link and contact them.
Ed’s Note: There is an image of the Orkney Hydrofoil Shadowfax in the Orkney Communities Image Library