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Revolutionising Transport: The Evolution of High Speed Crafts!
Written by Ana Casaca Posted on 02 March 2024 | Updated on 22 March 2024 Reading Time 30 minutes

1. Introduction

Ever since the European Union, in 1992, released its common transport policy communication advocating the shift of goods from road to underused waterborne and rail transport capacity to curb the impact of transport on the environment, much has been talked about short sea shipping. From 1995 onwards, several communications on the subject were released, including a roadmap comprising many strategies to streamline its development and integration with the other modes of transport to improve its effectiveness and efficiency, given that short-sea shipping is part of broken transport chains.
A broken transport chain refers to one which suffers from disruptions or failures in its logistical process of transporting goods from one point to another. These disruptions or failures can occur at any stage of the transport process, including loading, unloading, transit, or delivery. It can result from various factors such as the size and features of the transport mode used, mechanical failures, accidents, logistical errors, natural disasters, or labour strikes. Unlike a direct transport chain, a broken one can lead to delays, increased costs, loss of goods, customer dissatisfaction, and disruptions in supply chains. It highlights the importance of effective transport management and contingency planning to mitigate risks and ensure smooth operations.

As part of the possible envisaged solutions, one concerned the integration of short sea shipping with other transport modes, in which short sea would account for the long transport leg. Developing integrated transport systems supported by information technologies/information systems and operational strategies leading to synchronising the pertaining transport modes could help overcome some of the above-mentioned disadvantages.

Another solution concerned the introduction of new ships with shipborne cargo facilities to call at small ports. While this solution allows short-sea shipping to widen its market share relative to other transport modes, it goes against shipowners who benefit less from economies of scale. Additionally, shipowners are faced with increasing running costs due to increased maintenance because small ports often need the employment of geared ships rather than gearless ones. Conversely, these ships favour port operators in small ports since the latter are prevented from investing in equipment that requires substantial capital commitments that are not feasible from an economic perspective due to the low cargo volumes handled.

Another possible measure was the introduction of high-speed craft in the carriage of goods. As known today, the origin of high-speed craft resulted from the continuous progression and improvement in technology, leading to the development of new tools, processes, systems, or products. These numerous technological advancements often result from innovation, research, and development efforts in various fields, namely hull design, lightweight materials, propulsion systems, stability control, power management, navigation and control systems and safety features, many of them drawn from aircraft development and military advancements.


2. History of High Speed-Craft

The paragraphs that follow address the history of high-speed craft development. They will cover air cushion vehicles, hydrofoils, multihulls and ground-effect vehicles. The development of these four types of high-speed craft constitutes the pillar of the many models designed and built.

2.1. Air-Cushion Vehicles

The concept of high-speed craft is not new. In 1716, Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish designer and philosopher, coined the concept of surface-effect crafts for the first time. Later, in the nineteenth century, the idea of high-speed craft was revived by Sir John Isaac Thornycroft, a shipbuilder, who patented, in the 1870s, an early design for a hovercraft, more precisely, a hollow-bottomed air cushion boat filled with compressed air, for which there were no suitable and powerful engines available. Critical advancements in marine engineering, naval architecture, and propulsion technology had to occur before they became a reality.
During World War I, Russian and German naval designers carried out numerous experimental attempts to design vehicles using the ground-effect principle, i.e. flying at an altitude of just a few metres over the ocean or ground, and build their prototypes. The ground-effect principle is a phenomenon in aerodynamics where an aircraft or vessel experiences increased lift and reduced drag when flying or travelling at an altitude of just a few metres over the ocean or ground. Ground-effect vehicles are a type of hovercraft. The remaining types are air-cushion vehicles and surface-effect ships.
One such prototype example is the ‘Versuchsgleitboot’ (see Figure 1). Designed by Dagobert Müller von Thomamühl and submitted in March 1915 to the Austrian Naval Technical Committee, this high-speed experimental gliding boat had a 32-knot speed and an endurance of 550 nautical miles. This craft, considered the first hovercraft, was designed for military purposes.
Figure 1: The Versuchsgleitboot
Source: adapted from Bilzer and Sieche (1981)
With a 16.3*6.6*0.75m rectangular hull shape and a 12.25-tonne displacement, she had two aircraft engines of 120 horsepower (hp) each for surface propulsion and one 65hp engine, driving an air compressor that debited 450 cubic metres (m3) of air per minute to a fan located on the hull forward section (see Figure 2). This fan produced an air cushion over the bottom’s length, allowing the boat to rise nearly 25cm. This experimental gliding boat had skirts at both sides to prevent the air from escaping but none at the stem and stern.
Figure 2: The Versuchsgleitboot Design
Source: Bocquelet (2019)
However, her performance at sea proved problematic; her instability on the high seas prevented her from being a good platform for launching torpedoes or depth charges, thereby limiting her military effectiveness. Moreover, the engine was not sufficiently reliable. This hybrid craft was never ordered in series.

Many attempts were made by other designers and builders of hovercraft and other types of high-speed craft, often known as flying vessels. One of these attempts was performed by Toivo J. Kaario, a Finnish engineer specialising in aircraft engines. In the 1930s, Kaario began designing a more advanced version of an air cushion vessel. Kaario’s air cushion vessel, the ‘Pintaliitäjä’ or ‘Surface Soarer’, was designed to travel over snow and ice by utilising an air cushion to reduce friction. The prototype was built during the winter of 1934-35 and tested in January 1935.

From this moment onwards, a series of prototypes were built until the P-9, a fast torpedo and minelayer full-size prototype, was built and tested in 1939, achieving a speed of 70 knots. The success of these achievements led Kaario to introduce new modifications to the P-9, giving origin to the P-10 (see Figure 3) and later to the P-11, a full-metal fast torpedo and infantry assault craft. The P-11 had a length of 24 m, a width of 5.4 m and a tonnage of 8.6-11.3 tons; it was armed with 2×12.7mm machine guns and 1x20mm Hispano-Suiza 20mm cannon, carried two torpedoes, was powered by 2x1000hp Hispano-Suiza engines, and could reach 80 knots maximum speed. The P-12, a larger and longer-ranged prototype, would be built to overcome the shortcomings found during the P-11 operations.

Figure 3: Toivo J. Kaario P-10 Air-Cushion Vehicle
Source: Alternative Finland (2013)
During World War II, in the United States, Charles J. Fletcher designed the Glidemobile; this walled air cushion vehicle trapped a constant airflow against a uniform ground or water surface. However, Fletcher never patented the design because it was appropriated and classified by the United States Department of War. His work would remain largely unknown until a case was brought against the United States by British Hovercraft Corporation (British Hovercraft Ltd v. The United States of America), seeking royalties of $104 million; British Hovercraft Corporation maintained that its rights, coming from Christopher Sydney Cockerell’s patent, had been infringed.
In 1955, Christopher Sydney Cockerell, a British engineer and inventor, presented a new working prototype of the hovercraft, for which he obtained a patent in 1956. He realised that by trapping a cushion of air beneath a vessel, he could effectively reduce friction with the surface, enabling high-speed, smooth travel. For that purpose, he picked up the flexible skirt invented by Crowley in 1957.
Later, in 1958, the National Research Development Corporation took on Cockerell’s design, paid £1,000 for the rights, and established Hovercraft Development, Ltd. to develop the craft and exploit the early hovercraft patents for commercial use. In addition, the National Research Development Corporation paid to construct an experimental vehicle based on Cockerell’s design. Saunders-Roe Limited, a British aero- and marine-engineering company known as the Saro, was granted the task of building a full-scale craft, the Saunders-Roe Nautical One (SR.N1).
Still, testbeds indicated that the design hovered too close to the water’s surface. At 23 cm, even small waves would hit the bow, making the design impractical. Following the suggestion made by Arthur Ord-Hume in 1958 concerning the use of two rubber rings to produce a double-walled extension of the vents in the lower fuselage, Cecil Latimer-Needham refined the flexible skirt invented by Crowley and its implementation. For this achievement, he experimented with various materials and configurations to develop a skirt that could seal the air cushion while remaining durable and resistant to wear and tear since the skirt is essential for maintaining the air cushion and optimising the hovercraft’s performance.
The successful demonstration of the SR.N1 marked the beginning of the hovercraft era and revolutionised maritime transport. Hovercraft technology offers a versatile transport alternative capable of traversing various terrains quickly and efficiently, including water, mud, ice, and rough terrain. The SR.N1 was launched on 11 June 1959 and crossed the Channel for the first time on 25 July 1959. Later that year, the SR.N1 would cross the English Channel from Dover, England, to Calais, France. The SR.N1 would be part of a four-year test programme to validate the concept.
These improvements led to the development of military vehicles, search and rescue operations, and commercial operations. By 1962, various British aviation and shipbuilding companies, such as Saunders-Roe/Westland, Vickers-Armstrong, William Denny, Britten-Norman, and Folland, were working on hovercraft designs.
In 1962, small-scale ferry services began with the launch of the first passenger-carrying hovercraft, the Vickers VA-3. Hovercrafts developed into highly useful commercial crafts when Hoverlloyd and Seaspeed introduced, in 1968, the SR.N4 in the United Kingdom market offering a cross-channel service. The SR.N4, having 177 tons and four engines driving four pylon-mounted air propellers reaching a speed of 65 knots, had a capacity for 254 passengers and 30 cars. Table 1 presents the hovercrafts built based on Christopher Sydney Cockerell’s work.
Table 1: Hovercrafts built based on Christopher Sydney Cockerell’s work
Year Design Features Speed Capacity
1959 SR.N1 3.5 to 7 tons, single-engine, ducted fan propulsion. Between 25 and 50 knots.  
1962 SR.N2 19 tons, four engines driving two pylon-mounted air propellers. About 73 knots.  
1963 SR.N3 37.5 tons, four engines driving two pylon-mounted air propellers. About 75 knots.  
1964 SR.N5 3.5 tons, one engine driving a fixed, variable-pitch propeller. About 50 knots. 18 passengers.
1965 SR.N6 4.5 tons, one engine driving a fixed, variable-pitch propeller. About 60 knots. 38 passengers.
1968 SR.N4 177 tons, four engines driving four pylon-mounted air propellers. 65 knots. 254 passengers and 30 cars.
1969 BH.7 48 tons, one engine driving a pylon-mounted air propeller. The first three delivered craft were purely military versions. About 65 knots 72 passengers and six cars.
Source: Adapted from Britannica (2023)
Nevertheless, during this technological evolution, the British government policy forced the consolidation of around 20 aviation firms into three larger groups. Initially, Westland Aircraft took control of Saunders-Roe Limited helicopter and hovercraft interests. However, in 1966, the Saunders-Roe division of Westland Aircraft’s would be merged with Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) Ltd to form the British Hovercraft Corporation. The company shares would be split among Westland Aircraft (65%), Vickers (25%) and National Research and Development Corporation (10%).
Besides the British Hovercraft Corporation, other companies interested in the concept emerged in the United Kingdom, namely Cushioncraft Ltd (part of the Britten-Norman Group) and Hovermarine. Initially, Cushioncraft Ltd was created to foster the use of air-cushion vehicles to transport bananas from plantations in Southern Cameroons; however, later, it studied the use of air-cushion vehicles in other countries.
Hovermarine, a British company formed in 1965, is known for building the first commercial sidewall hovercraft. This hovercraft, with a 30 to 60-seat capacity and a larger car carrying capacity of up to 300 tons, initially displayed in 1966, would witness its prototype HM-2, later known as HM216, being completed in January 1968. In 1968, Seaspeed operated the first HM-2 sidewall hovercraft between Ryde Pier Head and Portsmouth Harbour.
British Hovercraft Corporation acquired Cushioncraft in 1971, and none of the Cushioncraft designs were developed further. However, British Hovercraft Corporation and other operators would witness their profitability being severely hit by the 1973 and 1979 oil crises, forcing operators into severe losses. While the British Hovercraft Corporation also produced hovercrafts for military use, the interest in hovercrafts for commercial use would only be revived when the Corporation developed its AP1-88, a 101 medium-sized hovercraft passenger, using four diesel engines instead of a gas turbine powerplant configuration, generating less noise while the craft was in operation. Later, in 1984, the British Hovercraft Corporation changed its name to Westland Aerospace. By this time, hovercraft design work had ceased as the company got involved in producing composites widely used in the aerospace industry.
By 2001, the large commercial hovercraft had disappeared from the United Kingdom waters, even though Hoverspeed, a company that resulted from the merger of Hoverlloyd and Seaspeed, went on operating catamarans on the same routes where it had operated previously hovercrafts. Despite these events, some companies still design and manufacture hovercrafts for passenger transport, surveying, military activities, rescue and patrol operations, leisure, and research activities. These include Griffon Hoverwork Ltd., Hov Pod Hovercraft, Hovertechnics Ltd. and The British Hovercraft Company in the United Kingdom, Bland Group International in Gibraltar, and Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc., Textron Marine & Land Systems in the United States.

2.2. Hydrofoils

While the hovercraft was being developed, the market witnessed the emergence of the hydrofoils. In 1898, Enrico Forlanini, an Italian airship designer, began working on the studies carried out by Emmanuel Denis Farcot in 1869 to develop the first hydrofoil. Simultaneously, Thornycroft developed a series of single-foil models between 1899 and 1901 that, in 1909, resulted in the Miranda III.
Forlanini started experimentations, and later, in 1905, created the first successful hydrofoil after building a small boat using a ladder foil system, and testing her on Lake Maggiore (see Figure 4). In 1906, William E. Meacham explained the principles behind the development of hydrofoils.
However, Alexander Graham Bell and Casey Baldwin, his chief engineer, would play an essential role in their development. Considering the work designs of Forlanini, Bell and Baldwin began hydrofoil experimentation in the summer of 1908, which a couple of years later culminated in the HD-4. Just before the end of the war, the HD-4, equipped with Renault engines, had a speed of 47 knots. In September 1919, Bell’s hydrofoil, built on Forlanini’s patented design, achieved a 62-knot (114km/h) record speed.
Figure 4: Forlanini Hydrofoil on Lake Maggiore, 1910
Source: Tecnoseal Foundry S.R.L. (2024)
In Germany, before and during World War II, the German engineer Hanns von Schertel continued the work on hydrofoils despite their commercialisation occurring only at a later stage, in the 1950s. After the end of World War II, von Schertel went to Switzerland, and established the Supramar company with Karl J. Büller, his chief designer. In 1952, Supramar launched the first PT10 commercial hydrofoil, the Freccia d’Oro, a surface-piercing type hydrofoil capable of carrying 32 passengers and travelling at 35 knots, in Lake Maggiore, between Switzerland and Italy (see Figure 5). From 1952 to 1971, Supramar designed many hydrofoil models, namely the PT20, PT50, PT75, PT100 and PT150; all are surface-piercing hydrofoils, except the PT150.
In 1953, Leopoldo Rodriquez Shipyard, a small shipyard located in Messina, started riveting the PT20, a 72-seat passenger-carrying capacity surface-piercing hydrofoil, first plates. The craft would be launched and named Freccia del Sole in 1956 (Rodriquez Consulting, 2023). Under the ownership of Aliscafi Shipping Company – SNAV – Messina, this newly built surface-piercing hydrofoil operated the world’s first scheduled seagoing hydrofoil service between Sicily and mainland Italy. Freccia del Sole stayed in service for more than 30 years.
Figure 5: Test driving the hydrofoil PT10 on Lake Lucerne in 1952
Source: adapted from Rickenbache (2021)
After the launch of the Supramar hydrofoil, Rodriquez was the only shipyard supplying surface-piercing hydrofoils during the 1950s. As the sole supplier, Leopoldo Rodriquez Shipyard offered one type of craft and two designs, the PT20 and the PT50, with an operating speed of about 32 knots. The difference between the two rested on their capacity. The PT50 had a 130-seat passenger-carrying capacity and could operate on new, longer sea routes.
During the 1960s, the hydrofoil and the Supramar design dominated the high-speed craft market. Supramar’s licences to other shipyards, namely Hitachi Shipbuilding of Osaka in Japan, General Dynamics in the United States, and Westermoen Hydrofoil in Norway explain this dominance. Interestingly, high-speed crafts made to the same design are still in service on the same route. Although Italy capitalised on the success of Leopoldo Rodriquez Shipyard, since the hydrofoil continued to be at the forefront of the market, it has been claimed that the Westamaran catamaran laid the grounds for today’s high-speed craft.

2.3. Multihulls

Like the previous high-speed craft, the catamaran has a long history. According to Fernández and Redondo (2022), Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, a naval architect, patented the first multihull sailing boat, a sail-powered catamaran named Amaryllis, in 1877, in the United States. Still, the authors claim that the catamaran, as it is known today, results from the studies of the Polynesian, Sri Lankan and Australian boats and work carried out by Leonardo Torres Quevedo, a Spanish engineer from Cantabria, who patented in 1916 the ‘Binave’ (in English: ‘Twin Ship’), a marine device launched and tested in 1918. Further studies continued, and later, Victor Tchetchet coined the term ‘trimaran’. During the twentieth century, catamarans were used for oceanographic research vessels, among other purposes.
The first successful catamaran, after Herreshoff, was designed and built by Woody Brown in 1947. The Manu Kai, a 40 ft asymmetrical catamaran, was made from plywood. The 1970s were characterised by the development of new multihull designs. The market witnessed the emergence of numerous multihulls besides the catamaran; they include the trimaran, the asymmetrical catamarans, the symmetrical catamarans, wave-piercing catamarans, and the small waterplane-area twin-hull, a modification of the catamaran design. The symmetrical catamarans had a more significant impact because their design improved performance and directional stability. Therefore, it is no surprise that they seized a more significant market share than the hydrofoils when they appeared in the market.
During this period, Westermoen started building catamarans, with a capacity for 160 passengers and a speed of about 25 knots, the Westamaran 86, described by some as “a monohull with a tunnel punched down the middle”. Shortly after the introduction of the Westamaran 86, Westermoen introduced the Westamaran 95, which has a capacity for 180 passengers and a speed of 28 knots. Towards the end of the 1980s, Westermoen Hydrofoil changed its name to Westamarin, but the shipyard closed at the end of the 1990s. One of the final ships produced in 1997 was the high-speed sea service (HSS) 900 catamaran Stena Carisma for Stena Line (see Figure 6). Shortly afterwards, Westamarin went bankrupt, with Stena Line unable to claim compensation for the corrosion found later on her aluminium alloy hull.
Figure 6: HSS 900 Stena Carisma
Source: Alternative Finland (2013)

2.4. Ground-Effect Vehicles

From a historical perspective, the ground-effect vehicle is the last high-speed craft to be covered. While the principles underlying ground effect were likely understood to some extent in the 1920s following the technological advancements made during World War I, it was not until later decades that significant practical applications and in-depth studies emerged. During the 1920s, aviation was still in its early stages of development. While there were experiments and advancements in aerodynamics, the specific term ground effect may not have been widely recognised or utilised.
With the support of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Rostislav Alexeyev received the financial resources to carry out her development. Under their leadership, some manned and unmanned ground-effect vehicle prototypes were initially built for high-speed military transport. This effort led to the development of the ekranoplan, a 550-tonne military ground-effect vehicle of 92 m in length designed to travel at a maximum of 3 m above the sea. Still, it would be found that ekranoplans were most efficient at 20 m above the sea, reaching a maximum speed of 300-400 knots (560–740 km/h) in research flights. United States intelligence experts named this craft as Caspian Sea Monster (see Figure 7) when it was spotted on Caspian Sea area satellite reconnaissance photos in the 1960s. Under the Soviet ekranoplan program, other ekranoplan models were built; these include the 125-tonne A-90 Orlyonok, the120 Orlyonok-class ekranoplan and the 400-tonne Lun-class ekranoplan.
Figure 7: The Caspian Monster
Source: Pearce (2019)
Alexander Lippisch, a German pioneer in aerodynamics, also conducted experiments with ground effect vehicles, designing the reversed delta wing and T-tail models in 1963. Later, Günther Jörg, who had worked on Alexeyev’s first designs, developed a ground effect vehicle with two wings in a tandem arrangement. This evolutionary process results in ekranoplans having different wing designs, namely straight wings, reverse-delta wings, and wings in tandem. Still, it would be the work carried out by Alexeyev in the Soviet Union and Lippisch in the United States, from the perspectives of the ship designer and the aeronautical engineer, respectively, that contributed to the understanding of the ground effect.
Since the 1980s, ground-effect vehicles have been primarily designed for the recreational and civilian ferry markets. In 2021, some companies, namely Brittany Ferries in Europe, Ocean Flyer in New Zealand, Mesa Airlines, Mokulele Airlines, and Southern Airways Express in the United States, are considering using the Seaglider. The Seaglider is a 12-passenger or 1,600 kg cargo vehicle operating exclusively over water, traversing the sea in hull, hydrofoil, or flight in ground effect modes. Existing battery technology allows them to have a 160-mile nautical range, yet this distance is expected to increase to 400 nautical miles with next-generation battery technology. More recently, in 2022, the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched the Liberty Lifter project to create a low-cost seaplane to carry 90 tons over 6,500 nautical miles (12,000 km), using the ground-effect without ground-based maintenance, all using low-cost materials.
Despite these projects and advancements in ground-effect vehicles, their development has not been straightforward because of an unclear approach towards its classification and applied legislation. The International Maritime Organization International Code of Safety for High-Speed Craft was initially applied to hydrofoils, hovercraft, catamarans, et cetera. The 2000 edition of the International Code of Safety for High-Speed Craft still excluded craft whose hull was supported by aerodynamic forces to generate the ground effect; therefore, ground effect vehicles, including wing-in-ground-effect crafts, were not considered.
This situation would be resolved in 2002, when the International Maritime Organization approved the Interim Guidelines for wing-in-ground craft, claiming that wing-in-ground craft are classified as ships. The International Maritime Organization also recognised three types of wing-in-ground craft, namely those certified 1) for operation in ground-effect mode only, 2) to temporarily increase their altitude to a limited height outside the influence of ground effect but not exceeding 150 m above the surface, and 3) for operation outside ground effect and exceeding 150 m above the surface.

3. High Speed-Craft Definition

So the question is, ‘What is a high-speed craft?’. The body of the literature presents different definitions of what high-speed craft is. From a broad perspective, the International Maritime Organisation (2020) defines a high-speed craft as “a craft capable of a maximum speed in metres per second (m/s) equal to or exceeding 3.7^0.1667 where is the displacement corresponding to the design waterline (m3)” carrying more than 12 passengers.

Likewise, the American Institute of Marine Underwriters (2001) considers high-speed crafts as commercial vessels under 125 meters in length overall, engaged in domestic service, capable of providing a service speed of more than 25 knots and the ability to carry a minimum of 35 passengers and/or commercial cargo. From both definitions, a high-speed craft can reach speeds between 30 and 50 knots, although some vessels have broken down the 50-knot barrier.

Conversely, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency considers high-speed craft to be a particular category of seagoing vessels that includes hovercrafts, catamarans, and hydrofoils whose construction and operation are subject to similar legislation to the one applied to other merchant shipping.

Still, these definitions suggest that a high-speed craft differs from a fast ferry even though the terms are often used interchangeably. While the fast ferry definition provided by Fast Ferry International (1998) as “a vessel operated commercially that is capable of carrying at least 50 passengers, or the equivalent in freight, at a minimum service speed of 25 knots”, is very similar to the ones provided by the International Maritime Organisation and the American Institute of Marine Underwriters, fast ferries are a type of high-speed craft used in the movement of passengers, freight or both.

The interchangeable use of the concepts may be explained by the fact that fast freight ferries, as a type of high-speed craft, could eliminate cargo owners’ reservations about using short-sea shipping to carry their goods and, therefore, reduce the negative impacts of broken transport chains. Overall, a high-speed craft is a vessel designed to travel at significantly faster speeds than conventional ships. These crafts are engineered to offer fast transport across bodies of water, such as seas, rivers, or lakes.

High-speed craft can be segmented from different perspectives. They can be segmented into military and civil categories used for various purposes, including passenger transport, military operations, search and rescue missions, and offshore activities. From a hull perspective, high-speed craft designs vary considerably, depending on the vessels’ supporting principles, namely static lift, dynamic lift or powered lift. Concerning displacement, Persistent Market Research (2022) segmented the global high-speed vessel market into 500 - 2500 tonnes, 2500 - 5000 tonnes, and 5000 tonnes and above.

However, civil high-speed craft can be further segmented from the perspective of the products carried, i.e. passengers, freight, or both. Civil high-speed craft can be split into four categories, namely,
a) inland water foot passengers,
b) open water foot passengers,
c) passenger with accompanying domestic vehicles and mixed traffic, and
d) pure freight carriers.
Given the European Union policy focus towards the use of more environmental transport modes, the chosen high-speed crafts rely on their ability to address the desired modal shift of goods from road to sea; in this sense, from a product perspective, the chosen high-speed crafts must be able to carry either passengers with accompanying domestic vehicles and mixed traffic or freight. From a marketing viewpoint, such differentiation is necessary as ship operators may enter new market niches and compete with faster transport modes (i.e. air transport) in the movement of seasonal and perishable cargoes that have a limited shelf life, can spoil, or even deteriorate over time thus requiring diligent handling due to its sensitive features.
In 2001, Austal Limited, an Australian shipbuilding company constructing high-speed craft, identified the market opportunities for its existing designs (see Table 2). While such market opportunities would be expected to fit the Australian market, they can be extrapolated to other geographic areas of the world, such as Europe. Austal considered that its existing designs could provide alternatives to air and road haulage while providing new high-frequency operations or offering direct feeder service from the city to the airport. Austal identified the corresponding market characteristics, the applicable vessel and the benefits derived from using high-speed craft in freight movement. Moreover, Austal claimed that fast freighters’ shallow draught and high manoeuvrability meant little or no need for significant port developments.
Table 2: Market Opportunities for High-Speed Craft
Market Opportunities Market Characteristics Applicable Vessel High-Speed Craft Benefits
Alternative to air route Up to 1000 nm Ro-Con Express
Ro-Ro Express
Reefer/Pallet Express
Up to 80% lower cost per kg.
Short sea route Roll-on roll-off, dominated Ro-Ro Express Sea journey time reduced by approx. 50%.
Increased frequency (greater operator and port attractiveness).
Combination Pax and Freight Optimum range determined by passenger comfort issues Ro-Pax Express Flexibility to cater to varying seasonal demands.
Project risk reduction.
Increased passenger satisfaction.
Feeder Service Containerised Ro-Con Express Increased frequency.
Ability to cope with later cargoes (late arrivals at spoke city can still meet hub city departures).
Wider catchment area.
Alternative to road haulage (non-perishables) Geographical advantage(s) of sea route
Borders/roads congested
Environmental pressures
Ro-Ro Express
Ro-Pax Express
Quicker door-to-door times.
Less emissions overall.
Less driver fatigue (safer roads).
Alternative to road haulage (perishables) Geographical advantage(s) of sea route
Borders/roads congested
Reefer/Pallet Express Later produce picking.
Longer shelf-life.
Lower costs of cargo care.
Replacement reefer vessel Uni-directional perishable trade Reefer/Pallet Express Vessel can be designed for backhaul Ro-Ro traffic.
Airport feeder Coastal airport and coastal city Air-Hub Feeder Fewer intermodal connections (ULDs effectively ‘fly’ into city centre).
Wider catchment area for airport feed.
Closed-loop systems E.g. Stora boxes in Europe Ro-Con Express
Ro-Ro Express
Pallet Express (Custom-made containers/cassettes?)
Total customisation of system realises best possible efficiencies.
New route development New requirements or dissatisfaction with current alternatives Ro-Con Express
Ro-Ro Express
Ro-Pax Express
Reefer/Pallet Express
Minimum port development requirements
Fully customised vessel solution.
Source: Austal Limited (2001)
In 2001, Austal Limited, an Australian shipbuilding company constructing high-speed craft, identified the market opportunities for its existing designs (see Table 2). While such market opportunities would be expected to fit the Australian market, they can be extrapolated to other geographic areas of the world, such as Europe. Austal considered that its existing designs could provide alternatives to air and road haulage while providing new high-frequency operations or offering direct feeder service from the city to the airport. Austal identified the corresponding market characteristics, the applicable vessel and the benefits derived from using high-speed craft in freight movement. Moreover, Austal claimed that fast freighters’ shallow draught and high manoeuvrability meant little or no need for significant port developments.

4. Some Remarks

Overall, numerous high-speed crafts have been in operation. Famous high-speed crafts include the P&O Stena Line fast ferries operated in the Northern European shortsea routes. Other operational geographical areas include the Baltic Sea, the River Plate, and the Philippines Archipelago.
Out of these, one of the most notable services was the one provided by Stena Line with the introduction of a semi-small-waterplane-area twin-hull catamaran, the Stena Explorer (see Figure 6), on European international ferry routes between Dun Laoghaire and Holyhead (Irish Sea Services). The aluminium construction, gas turbine and waterjet powered craft introduced in the Stena Explorer, an HSS 1500 model high-speed sea service craft developed and operated by Stena Line, resulted in a cruise speed of 40 knots or 75 km/h. Besides reducing the journey time to a ninety-minute milestone, while the conventional ferries required three and half hours to make the 56-mile journey, the catamaran offered a more comfortable and fast service.
Figure 8: Stena Explorer at Dún Laoghaire
Source: adapted from Bilzer and Sieche (1981)
Another noteworthy high-speed craft is the Express 5, classified as the world’s biggest catamaran ferry. Built by Austal Philippines, Express 5 set sail on its maiden voyage in March 2023, bound to the Danish market to be employed on the Ystad, Sweden and Rønne, the largest town in the Danish Island of Bornholm Motorway of the Sea route in the Baltic Sea. Valued at 83.63 million EUR, this catamaran ferry carries up to 1,610 passengers and around 450 cars (or 617 lane metres for trucks plus 257 cars) over 2 vehicle decks at an operating service speed of 37 knots.
Figure 9: Express 5, the auto Express 115 high-speed catamaran ferry from Austal
Source: Austal Limited (2023)
Throughout the years, the number of high-speed craft have increased in number, particularly in shorter trade routes. Shipyards worldwide have specialised in their production. Still, the decarbonisation process through which the industry is going through may raise doubts about their future role in the maritime industry, unless alternative fuels are identified to sustain their operations. The question to be answer is a simple one. Will the high-speed craft employed in the movement of freight be a myth or a reality?


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One knot is one nautical mile per hour. One nautical mile amounts to 1,852 metres.
SNAV means Società Navigazione Alta Velocità (in English: High Speed Navigation Company).

About the Author

Ana Casaca was, first and foremost, a Deck Officer responsible for navigational watches. Being at sea gave her a thorough perspective of the operational side of the shipping industry. She holds a B.Sc. (Honours) in Management and Maritime Technologies from Escola Nautica Infante D. Henrique (Portuguese Nautical school), an MSc in International Logistics from the University of Plymouth and a PhD in International Transport/Logistics from the University of Wales-Cardiff. Next, she became an Experienced Lecturer, Researcher and Peer Reviewer in Maritime Economics and Logistics. In between, numerous functions and roles. For 20 years, she has been an External Expert for the European Commission, evaluating R&D/CEF proposals within the scope of maritime transport. In parallel, she has carried out other projects. She has delivered training and has been invited, since 2002, to peer review academic papers submitted to well-known international Journals. She is the author of several research papers published in well-known academic journals and member of some journals’ editorial boards, namely, Maritime Business Review Associate Editor, Journal of International Logistics Editorial Board Member, Universal Journal of Management Editorial Board Member, Frontiers in Future Transportation Review Editor, and Journal of Shipping and Trade Guest Editor. She is also the founder and owner of ‘World of Shipping Portugal’ a website initiative established in 2018 focused on maritime economics. In addition, she is a Member of the Research Centre on Modelling and Optimisation of Multifunctional Systems (CIMOSM, ISEL), Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers (ICS) and Member of the International Association of Maritime Economists (IAME). Apart from Shipping, she likes Travelling, Sewing and Arts. All these elements bring her on the quest for creativity, always with the expectation of doing something extraordinary!
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