Hydrofoil Pioneers...

ALBATROSS I and the Commercial Hydrofoil Era in America


By Paul Miller

Restoration Photos Courtesy of Bob Miller


The concept of the surface skimming hydrofoil had spent most of the 20th Century as a designer's dream or an inventor's toy. By the early 1960s, it appeared that the hydrofoil was an idea whose time had come. It was more than just the development of light-weight hull materials and power plants that made the early 60s bode so well. It was also the economic prosperity and social and technological optimism that pervaded society in those halcyon days. These trends found a single focus and outlet in a great event of the decade that, fortunately, was ideally suited for the introduction of the USA's first commercial hydrofoil: the New York World's Fair.

The market for commercial hydrofoils in the USA was seen as commuter service. It was noted at the time that 23 of the USA's 25 largest cities were on or near navigable waterways that were mostly under-utilized and could carry hydrofoil traffic with none of the huge outlay required to increase the capacity of highways and commuter railroads. All that was needed to unite the technology with this market was the construction of a fleet of hydrofoils. One firm that was ready to accept the challenge was a subsidiary of C.I.T., Wilson Shipyard Inc. of Delaware, and its entry was the hydrofoil ALBATROSS I and her sisters.

ALBATROSS I was designed by the noted hydrofoil designer Helmut Koch, who moved to the USA from his native Chile in 1955. The original construction and testing was done in 1961-62 by Hydro-Capital, Inc., of Newport Beach CA and involved 180,000 manhours of work. The California tests were very successful, and foilborne speeds up to 40 mph were achieved with a full load of 24 people. On the basis of these tests, ALBATROSS I received United States Coast Guard certification to carry passengers commercially, the first U.S. hydrofoil to do so.

ALBATROSS I was then shipped to the Wilson Yard at Wilmington DE for its introduction to the public. In late September, 1962, Wilson announced that the firm planned to build 25 of the ALBATROSS Class hydrofoils and scheduled its first demonstration for October lst on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. The ALBATROSS I was meant to attract attention and it did. A strange looking vessel, it resembled a bus on stilts racing through the water. The hull and large windowed cabin were all aluminum, with the hull seams welded. Her length has been variously reported as 34' 1", 33' 10", and 31' 9". Her beam was 11' 2" and 15' 2" across the foils. Original displacement was variously reported at 5, 12, 14, and 15 tons. Internal arrangements were bus-like, 6 rows of double seats abeam, with an aisle down the middle. Entry to the cabin was down stairs amidships aft. The pilot seat was on the portside, right above the forward foil.

The engine, a GM 6V-53 two cycle diesel, was under the deck amidships, immediately aft of the pilot's seat. This engine produced 181 hp at 2800 rpm and drove a single 20" x 24" propeller through 1.5:1 reduction gears. Because the prop had to remain in the water, the drive shaft was long, penetrating the hull right at the "step", and being supported by one "vee" strut before ending between the aft foil and the bottom of the hull. The foils were of the fixed surface-piercing type. They were fabricated from welded aluminum extrusions and attached with "break away" stainless steel bolts designed to prevent damage in case of striking a submerged object. The ALBATROSS I could become fully foilborne after a run of only 500', and on foils, her draft was only 2' 6" as opposed to 6' 6" when floating on the hull. Other features included foam in the hull cavities for flotation and strength, a second cabin hatch on the port side just aft of the pilot's seat, hydraulic steering and a cooling water intake in the rudder post. Regular passenger loads were limited to 22; one pilot operated the boat during daylight, a second crew member being added for night runs. Production cost for the ALBATROSS Class was to be US$75,000 each.

So the stage was set for the introduction of hydrofoil commuter service in the Metropolitan New York target area. The first runs were planned for Spring 1963, but there were complications. By mid-winter, the "Commuterboat Corp." of Oyster Bay, New York, had already demonstrated its imported 22' Dutch hydrofoil. Smaller, but cheaper than the ALBATROSS, the "Commuter Boats" had the advantage of already being in production in Holland, and available for US$16,000, while the ALBATROSS still consisted of only the prototype.

The economics of the plan saw a fleet of 25-30 ALBATROSS Class hydrofoils operated by the American Hydrofoil Corp. providing thrice daily service between 23rd St. on the East River in Manhattan, and various "commuter ports" on both shores of Long Island Sound. It was figured that the boat could be run profitably, even if only 1/2 full, and would be able to run 210 days a year. The run selected for the first trial was from Manorhaven, Long Island on April 9th, 1963. It was a success, but one could foresee problems as the $1.75 fare for the one way trip was already higher than the equivalent $ 1.21 train fare, and the trip was 4 minutes longer!

The first scheduled commuter run didn't happen until July l5th, 1963, and was more notorious than famous. On that run, the ALBATROSS I had to stop to rescue the elderly movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn and party from a disabled cruiser, then stop again to report to the Coast Guard, during which, her skipper fell overboard. The commuter arrived at Wall Street 40 minutes late. It got a lot of publicity, but hardly the kind that the project needed! Spirits at American Hydrofoil were undampened though, and they still predicted that by April lst, 1964, 35 hydrofoils would be in service to Long Island and Westchester.

The commuter service was expanded through the summer of 1963. A glowing magazine article in August accentuated the thrill of the ride (and the wave-induced oscillations!). The company couldn't help but prosper. More than half the crew on that run were volunteer members of the "Albatross Club" that paid $100 per month for the privilege of being "hydrofoil pioneers"! Five new boats were scheduled for delivery in September, and the firm had "more offers in routes than we know what to do with," and expected to see 65' length, 100-passenger boats in the not too distant future.

It would be instructive to leave the commuter hydrofoils at this halcyon point of their careers, and look at what was happening in the fleet's construction. Despite all the initial publicity, Wilson Shipyard dis-involved itself after the ALBATROSS I, and all subsequent ships in the class were built by Ludwig Honold Manufacturing, Inc. at Eddystone PA. Therefore, in actuality, Wilson never physically built any of them!

Construction ended by 1964, and despite all the glowing promises, only 17 hydrofoils of the ALBATROSS class were built. They were ALBATROSS I through VI, AQUAFOIL VII through XII, HIGHTIME, ROYAL FLYER, AQUAFLITE I, GATEWAY FLYER, and HONOFOIL. Only the first 13 (through HIGHTME) saw service in New York Harbor. HONOFOIL was a one of a kind sportfisherman built on an ALBATROSS class hull. [Helmut Kock has said that there were twenty vessels produced; 14 went to New York, 3 operated on the Potomac River, one went to the Virgin Islands, one to Lebanon, and one... unaccounted for? Some clarification is needed here! - Editor]

As the opening of the New York World's Fair approached in the Spring of 1964, one can see that American Hydrofoils' announced hope to eventually have "more than a score of hydrofoils on the World's Fair run alone" was pure hype. The commuter runs were little mentioned anymore.

Service to the World's Fair at Flushing was started April 22nd. The American Hydrofoil fleet left docks on the East River at Wall Street and 25th Street at 5 to 10 minute intervals. The fare was $3.50 one way, $6.00 round trip. More than 100,000 passengers were carried to the Fair by hydrofoils without injury during that peak summer of 1964.

When the World's Fair finally closed in the Fall of 1965, the sole surviving reason for the hydrofoils' presence in New York Harbor had ended. The American Hydrofoils fleet was disposed of largely to U.S. Hydrofoils of New York, Florida Hydrofoils, and even a tour company in Bolivia. In the succeeding years, the fleet became more and more dispersed through resales. Their names were changed, the aluminum foils were removed and junked, and at present, none of the survivors is known to be operating as a hydrofoil. Honold Manufacturing Co. held on to several of them, but by 1974, even its last, the HONOFOIL was no longer registered to them. Four survivors are known to still be in the New York area, more than twenty years after their glory days. One, renamed the CEE BEE, operated as a floating bank in Fire Island waters during the summer.

In 1984, the ALBATROSS I and another sister were in a coal yard in East Northport, N.Y., stripped and vandalized. The ALBATROSS I was purchased and is now stored in Centereach, Long Island. Despite its historic value, no interest in her has been shown by any maritime museum; but her hull is sound, and shell be around for a long time to come, perhaps long enough to be famous again. The story of the "Albatrosses" can't end without asking the inevitable question: "Were they a success or a failure?" Technically, they were a success -- they were fast, safe, and efficient, even if the surface-piercing, fixed hydrofoil is obsolete. Economically, through their trial in New York, they can only be judged a failure, for reasons of both geography and timing.

Geographically, New York was a poor location because conditions in the harbor during winter made any kind of marine operation difficult, and hydrofoil operation impossible when ice formed in the river, or ice spray built up on the hull or foils. Further, the vast majority of New York commuters lived inland with no easy access to the harbors where the foils operated from.

Even when competing against mass transit and highway systems of the early 1960s, the hydrofoils couldn't beat them by either cost or time and had no hope of moving their volume (i.e. one rail car could carry as many passengers as 4 Albatrosses!). In light of this, their introduction right at the time when the Interstate Highway System in the metropolitan area was being pushed to completion, and the State government took over and rebuilt the major commuter rail lines, was particularly poor.

There is a niche for the hydrofoils though, where waters are calm, speed important, and mass transit impractical, they will prosper, and the technical and historical contributions of the "Albatrosses" to development of the commercial hydrofoil in America will be remembered.

************

ALBATROSS I Conversion From Hydrofoil Ferry to Houseboat...

(Above) ...As found by the author in a coal yard in Northport, Long Island. Note the still-visible eye and smile on the bow.

(Right) ...Sandblasted and coated with yellow primer...

(Right) ...As she looks presently with her black and white paint scheme which caused some of the author's friends to nickname her "SHAMU."