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Hovercrafting in the Luleå Archipelago

Hovercrafts. Just the name evokes thoughts of hokey science fiction stories from the 1960s–or maybe, if you grew up in a slightly less sci-fi mad home than I did, it just brings to mind the fast ferries that run between Dover and Calais. In any case, I’m almost certain you won’t think of a hovercraft as an everyday mode of transport. That’s why, when I found out that not one but two companies in Luleå, Sweden, offered the opportunity to ride in one of these floating vehicles, I jumped at the chance.

The Unveiling

Taking the hovercraft out of its garage at the edge of the mainland.

Unfortunately, jumping at that chance meant clinging on to the hope that either of the tour operators would reply to my email late on the evening before I was hoping to go out. Luckily, Anders from Off Coast Adventures was quick to reply and would be very happy to take me out…except for the fact that it wasn’t financially viable to take the hovercraft out for one person. Having later been told just how much fuel the craft chugs to keep itself happily hovering above the ice, I understood that; I also knew from my experience snorkeling in Lofoten that I could offer to pay for the minimum number of people and it would usually be accepted. That made this experience much more expensive than it would normally be…but hey, I got to ride in a hovercraft!

Ready to Go

All fueled up and ready to head into the archipelago.

We couldn’t exactly take the hovercraft cruising about town, since it really doesn’t have enough of a turning radius to navigate narrow streets. Plus, rather than just being a vehicle for joyriding, Anders’ hovercraft had a practical use. Since the Luleå archipelago is completely frozen in the winter, the boats that take holidaymakers out there during the summer are of no use.

Instead, the city of Luleå plows a road of ice to allow people to drive their cars out to the myriad islands. Others take their snowmobiles or even ski…but sometimes people either have too much luggage/food/etc or are simply not of an age where they feel comfortable with the more extreme transportation options. What sort of vehicle fits these travelers perfectly? The hovercraft.

Leaving the Mainland

The view out the side of the hovercraft as we headed out to “sea.”

Since he spends all of his time in the archipelago, it made sense that he’d parked his craft in a friend’s snow-covered yard not far from the beginning of the ice road. Unfortunately, that location was about 15km outside of Luleå town itself, in a direction that there didn’t seem to be a lot of LLT city buses running. Luckily, Anders was quite happy to pick me up on his way through town — it would have been an expensive cab ride otherwise!

Sparkling Snow

Snow sparkles on the ice at our first stop where we watched the icebreaker ship.

Once we’d dug the hovercraft out of the snow and filled it with petrol, I hopped in and put on headphones. It was as though I’d just boarded a helicopter. Soon I realised exactly why, as the hovercraft made almost as much noise as a helicopter and it would have been impossible to hear myself think–or to hear Anders’ commentary–without the muffling that the headphones offered.

The feeling of lifting off was almost indescribable. I knew I was in a vehicle that should be rooted to the ground, yet it wasn’t. It felt light, but not in the way it feels to be in an airplane (or even a paraglider). The best way to describe it? It felt slippery. It felt as though the hovercraft was hydroplaning and never quite getting a grip on the road, yet we still felt all the bumps, all the little imperfections in the ice, even though we weren’t touching them.

Archipelago in the Distance

Ice almost as far as we can see…and one of the islands of the archipelago in the distance.

So how exactly were we floating while still feeling the bumps in the ice? The “skirt” under the hovercraft can only hold so much air in, and that combined with the size of the engine means that the hovercraft sits on a specific thickness of air. So, when the ice below buckled and changed height, we changed height with it.

The archipelago rose in little hills all around us as we headed out onto the Gulf of Bothnia. Picturesque houses–the same houses that Anders often takes people out to–dotted the shoreline, the boats that usually bobbed on their shore in the summer nowhere to be seen. As we travelled further into the Gulf, we spotted an icebreaker ship on the horizon, slowly crushing ice as it cleared a path for ships leaving Luleå.

Blocks of ice scattered everywhere at the edge of the pack ice. The open Gulf of Bothnia can be seen in the distance.

Blocks of ice scattered everywhere at the edge of the pack ice. The open Gulf of Bothnia can be seen in the distance.

Surprisingly, it was the part of the trip that seemed like it would offer the least landscape-wise that was the most gorgeous. Anders pulled the hovercraft to a halt near the edge of the pack ice, where the sheets of ice push up underneath each other like miniature tectonic plates and eventually create massive ridges of ice. It felt like we were standing in the middle of the Arctic tundra, the golden light of the winter sun shining down on us as snow whipped across the rippled ice. It was such a stunning yet ultimately lonely sight.

Hovercraft on the Ice

The Offcoast hovercraft near the edge of the pack ice.

On the way back, we had the fun experience of having to cross the ice road to get back to our home base. Cars are able to safely travel along this road because of their special winter tyres; the hovercraft had no such luxury. Instead, Anders had to check both ways many times before inching his way away from the snow-covered ice, which had provided a bit of friction, and onto the road. The hovercraft immediately lost all semblance of stability; we were sliding left and right, with Anders trying his best to guide us to the other side before any cars appeared. It made me realise just how stable the hovercraft was when it was above more “solid” ground!

Throughout the trip, Anders was great company and I could tell he loved taking his hovercraft out…even if business is slow enough that he’s considering selling it because of the ongoing expense. I hope that doesn’t end up being the case.

Looking Out Front

Looking out the front of the hovercraft as we head back towards land.

With that said, was the 2-hour trip out on the ice worth the expense? It was for me (as a once-off trip)…but it is quite a costly activity so you may want to consider doing two other snow trips instead of this one.

That said, being out on the ice in the hovercraft was a completely different experience to cruising across it in a snowmobile or crashing through it in an icebreaker ship, both of which I’d done only days before in Kemi. It gave the feeling of being right out there on the ice while staying in a comfortably warm cabin. Plus, one of my favourite memories in Lapland was standing on a hill of ice overlooking the open Gulf of Bothnia; in a land that makes you understand what it is to be truly dwarfed by nature, this view was one of the most evocative. How could I have missed out on that?

Have you ever ridden in a hovercraft, either on water or across other terrain? What did you think of it?

Offcoast hovercraft tours operate out of Luleå in Sweden’s Norrbotten county. In March 2013, I paid 2500kr (roughly $380) to cover the cost of 2 people so the tour would run. The price has gone up to 2535kr per person as of writing. Trips last for roughly 3 ¼ hours including the minibus ride to and from the start point.

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