« Mesdames et messieurs, nous venons FOILBORNE »
This was the triumphant announcement heard on 29 April 1979 in Brighton Marina. The English translation which followed might not have been much more enlightening:
“Ladies and gentlemen we are FOILBORNE”
The announcement was made on the first voyage of the Seajet hydrofoil service between Brighton and Dieppe. This was an exciting new adventure setting out from an exciting new marina. The high-speed vessel, the Normandy Princess, was underway.
For Continental travellers, as promised in the advert above, a Jetlink bus would be waiting for passengers to whisk them to Brighton Station from where they could wander around the town or take a train to London. At a set time in the late afternoon, the bus would collect passengers at the station to take them back to the ferry.
Andy Gibbs makes the wry comment on his website: “The service became a bit of a pain at Brighton station as passengers waiting for the coach to the Marina crowded into the Travel Centre and used all the seating intended for rail passengers.”
The summer tourist season of 1979 proved successful for the company. An attractive price, plenty of time to spend in the foreign port and no passport needed “but please try to bring a suitably sized photograph as it saves time for us all.” So successful was the season that at one point, the company, Jet Link Ferries Ltd., even had to lease a second vessel, the Flying Princess to provide three ‘flights” per day.
As today, most of the passenger traffic was from England to France. The very fact that the hydroptère did not carry cars delighted the Dieppe Chamber of Commerce. At the time, the view of the Chamber was one of:
une réelle satisfaction. Le commerce local et l’hôtellerie ont vu arriver une clientèle qui vient de l’autre côté du Channel pour faire ici ses menus achats au lieu, auparavant, de transiter par Dieppe avant de continuer le voyage vers une autre ville du continent. » Le Monde (1979) quoted in La Normandie 20 February 2021
[a very real feeling of satisfaction. Local shops and hotels are getting customers from over the Channel and who are coming to do some light shopping here instead of, as they used to, driving straight through Dieppe to get to other parts of the Continent.]
One year on, in April 1980, Le Monde was very optimistic for the future of the ferry route. The newspaper noted the 134,602 passengers carried between April and December 1979 (higher than the predicted number); it praised the modern technology – something very new un ordinateur qui apprécie la force des vagues [a computer which could calculate the strength of the waves]; it was impressed by the speed of the crossing – well under two hours.
Image: Permission sought
For its part, Brighton was enthusiastic as the town had just opened, in 1977, a grand new conference centre, imaginatively known as The Brighton Centre. What easier way to get from the Continent to a conference than by travelling straight into Brighton Marina.
Advertising by the company was widespread. Newspapers ran competitions which Seajet tickets as prizes. There were local radio adverts in both languages.
Above all, the speed of the jetfoil was emphasised. The publicity promised that the crossing would “give you a smooth and comfortable journey where you can relax and enjoy a snack or a duty-free drink.” The perfect ferry.
The first on-board, free magazine, in French and English, was called The Channel Flyer. For some arcane reason, by the late summer of 1979, this had been renamed The Seajetter (of which there appears to have been only one issue) whereas by Spring 1980 the name had changed again to Seajet Magazine which consisted mainly of adverts. Was this a bad sign?
Yes, it probably was. The company failed and the service came to an abrupt halt at the end of August 1980.
There were so many problems:
At speed, the body of a hydrofoil rises out of the water… nine feet out of the water. It is kept stable by two fins (foils) which remain submerged. Absolutely fine in calm waters. The English Channel is not noted for being calm.
It all started to go wrong by 21 May, one month after inauguration. There was a fault in one of the foils. Mechanical failure then dogged the vessel throughout its service. Its delicate foils were no match for the debris cluttering up the English Channel, so frequent repairs were needed.
Perhaps most serious of all, the “smooth journey” was not always achieved. The rough February seas of 1980 resulted in the Evening Argus headline: Two in hospital after stormy Seajet trip”. It appears that there was one broken ankle and one person [reportedly] needing oxygen. The vessel had to be rescued near Beachy Head and escorted back to Newhaven rather than the Marina. Although this was the most extreme case, crossings were not always as serene as they purported to be.
Politics played a part in the demise of the company. The European Economic Community (later the EU) had finally admitted Britain and Ireland in 1973. By 1980, French fishermen had become discontented with the general EEC Fisheries Policy. They planned to make demands on their own government by blockading ports – thus preventing thousands of tourists entering or leaving France. The Normandy Princess could not enter Dieppe harbour. This must have been the last straw for the company.
On the evening of 29 August 1980, about 100 employees in Brighton and 48 employees in Dieppe were “given their cards”. They no longer had jobs. Since that day, there has been no commercial ferry route from Brighton to France. A sad loss.
And what of the Normandy Princess? She became the Terceira and for many years plied calmer waters between Hong Kong and the island of Macau.
For those who would like more technical information, the OurNewhaven website is invaluable.
A short video glimpse of the Seajet is available on the AP Archive here.