Hovercraft hobbyists take a float

Georgia resident Louis Bondurant, with the Hoverclub of America, maneuvers his hovercraft through Big Shoals on the upper Suwannee River on Friday. Bondurant is taking part in the club's River Cruise, which is an event taking place this weekend on the lower Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 29, 2008 at 11:59 p.m.

A boat that flies on air is far from science fiction, as folks living along the Santa Fe and Suwannee rivers will be able to confirm after this weekend.

Today and Sunday will mark the third year that the Hoverclub of America has come to the region for an event. Club members will cruise over area waterways on personal-size hovercraft, which float on a cushion of high-pressure air.

"Learning to fly a hovercraft is a challenge," said Louis Bondurant, a Georgia resident taking part in the event. "It's so different."

Bondurant is a former hovercraft racing champion, but this event will be a more leisurely river cruise to enjoy the region's natural attractions. About eight hovercraft are expected to ride on the Suwannee River from Bell to the town of Suwannee on Saturday, then ride up the Santa Fe and back on Sunday.

The cruise is part of a growing number of boating events on area waterways, said Donna Creamer, who promotes outdoor recreation in Dixie, Gilchrist and Levy counties through the group Florida's Pure Water Wilderness.

"It really helps our economy and brings attention to the fun things that can be done around here," she said.

While motorboats and kayaks are a common sight on the Suwannee, hovercraft have some eye-catching differences. They look like the lovechild of an airboat and a spaceship, capturing air underneath in a rubber skirt that keeps them aloft on an invisible bubble.

"You definitely feel the fact that you're floating," Bondurant said.

Hovercraft can travel over virtually anything, he said, except for jagged rocks that can puncture their hulls. Bondurant owns a professionally built hovercraft, which is constructed by a handful of manufacturers and costs tens of thousands of dollars.

Some enthusiasts have kit-built craft that can use lawn mower engines and other less expensive parts. Bondurant said high school groups have been able to spend as little as $500 to build hovercrafts, which they race in sort of a space-age version of the Soap Box Derby.

The Hoverclub of America has about 700 members who use the club's Web site to trade information on technology and events. The events range from the large yearly Hoverally to smaller gatherings in remote places called Hover-ins.

The pastime isn't for everyone. Bondurant said owners need to have the patience for the required upkeep and for learning how to move the vehicle through difficult surroundings.

"Learning to maneuver them is a bit of an art," he said.

The 54-year-old said he has slowed down a bit since his racing championship but still maintains his enthusiasm for flying the unusual vehicles.

"It's a serious adrenaline-pumper," he said.

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