Hovercraft 'flying' travelers across Long Island and Fishers Island sounds

Tom Murray maneuvers his Vector 25 hovercraft 'Blackbird VII' to City Pier in New London Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016. Murray has been operating the Canadian-built craft in the area. He is home-ported in Glen Cove, N.Y., and since last summer has been running private charters as far as Block Island. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Tom Murray maneuvers his Vector 25 hovercraft "Blackbird VII" to City Pier in New London Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016. Murray has been operating the Canadian-built craft in the area. He is home-ported in Glen Cove, N.Y., and since last summer has been running private charters as far as Block Island. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Catch a lift with Tom Murray and it's a whole new experience.

The former Wall Street finance guy launched Blackbird Hovercraft Charters earlier this summer, and ever since he's been shuttling people between the Hamptons, Fishers Island, Block Island, New London, and anywhere else they want to go, including the Marina at American Wharf in Norwich.

"Really, what you're doing is flying," said Murray, as he explained the mechanics of a hovercraft from the cockpit of his Vanair Vanguard 18 as it moved up the Thames River one day last week. 

"The hovercraft dynamics is very similar to a helicopter," said the pilot. "You have lift fans on either side that fill a rubber skirt that creates a seal and lifts the bulk of the craft 18 inches off the water."

"You're riding on a cushion of air," he continued. "The sponsons, which are on the port and starboard of the vessel, are shallow underneath — they are actually the wings of the hovercraft — and it creates a broader breadth of sealed air, a cushion ..."

Once the 11,000-pound, 42-foot-long hovercraft reaches a speed of about 8 mph, Murray said "you get over the hump" and are airborne.

Murray and partners invested in two hovercrafts last year and started their business in late spring. So far, just the Vanguard 18 is shuttling paying passengers, but the other, a Vector 25, will be ready in 2017 after it clears provisions of the federal Jones Act, which requires that vessels built outside the U.S. not be used for commercial purposes for at least three years after their completion.

The vessels were built by Vanair Hovercraft of Kenora, Ontario, which shipped them to their new homeport in Glen Cove, Long Island, on flatbeds. The Vanguard 18 was built in 2012, so it complies with the federal law.

The bright yellow hybrid vessel, which can travel over water or on land, has been turning the heads of beach-goers and boaters along the shoreline. Murray said other watercraft have come close to get a better look at his air-cushion vehicle.

"People are interested," he said, adding the hovercraft, with a beam of 14 feet, is powered by a Cummins 350-horsepower diesel engine and averages 35 knots when underway.

Murray has been trained by Vanair as a pilot and received his master inland license from the U.S. Coast Guard. He's busy with customers who arrive at New London's Union Station from Boston and want to travel on to the Hamptons or Montauk in Long Island. 

"I can save them three to five hours, depending on where they want to go," he said, adding that even if they take the ferry to Orient Point, there is additional vehicle and ferry travel to get to the South Fork.

Golfers are also traveling by hovercraft, to and from the exclusive National Golf Links in Southhampton and the renowned Fishers Island Club, or to courses in Connecticut. The six-seat hovercraft, which will eventually accommodate 12 after final Coast Guard inspection, has plenty of interior room to store golf bags and luggage. The original bench seats have been replaced with adjustable, shockwave, forward-facing seats, and the interior cabin is air-conditioned, and offers Bose headsets. Access to the cabin is through two "gull-wing" doors that can be opened during travel to let a breeze blow through.

Some people have charted the hovercraft for a full or half day, visiting Block Island, beaches or other destinations. Recently, a family chartered the vessel from the Hamptons and went to both Block Island and the Norwich marina in the same day.

"It's a beautiful ride up the Thames, and I can fly with the doors open, and people love the air," said Murray. 

The hovercraft can also land on a beach, and its imprint is less harmful than a human footprint, said Murray. It's eco-sensitive on the water, too, traveling over the surface with its propeller churning in the air, not the sea.

Travel is not inexpensive, but for those who value time and convenience, it is worth the investment, said Murray. The hourly rate for the hovercraft is $375, with charter prices set depending on the particulars. Round-trip from New London to Fishers Island is $400 for a party of six. To go from New London's Union Station to Long Island's Hamptons, the one-way trip is $200 each for the first three travelers, and after that, the hovercraft is exclusively theirs for the crossing. Interested travelers should contact Blackbird Hovercrafts for pricing, as the hovercraft's position, requested travel plan, and number of passengers factor into the cost.

It was back in the late 1990s when Murray, now 57, first considered buying a hovercraft to speed his daily commute to Wall Street from his home in Glen Cove.

"I loathed that commute, I hated it," he said, and added that he had always been fascinated by hovercrafts.

"I'd been thinking about hovercrafts for years; I'd always been infatuated," he said.

So he put together a small group of investors, and they were ready to buy when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred. After the tragedy, the plan evaporated, until years later, when Murray's employer, Lehman Brothers, collapsed in 2008.

That's when Murray started seriously thinking about hovercrafts again. He found Vanair in Canada, and then a partner, Brewster Jennings, to buy the first one. Later, he assembled a separate group of investors to buy the second.

He said he paid $640,000 each for the hovercrafts, a discounted price because of the exchange rate between the U.S. and Canadian currencies at the time. He's been adjusting his trip and charter rates since, as the business grows, mostly by word of mouth.

"I think I've found my price point, but it takes a while," he said. "A hovercraft is different. You're actually renting a plane."

He and Jennings have become certified hovercraft instructors. And on his recent visit to New London, co-pilot Patrick Hilbert was riding in the cockpit with Murray. Underway, Hilbert used binoculars to look ahead, and to point out other vessels or possible obstructions.

"I have 500 hours in this seat," said Murray. "I love flying. I gravitate towards it. I think about it. This is a thinking man's craft. It is not a lazy man's craft. You have to be in front of it. You have to know what is going on. You have to plot your course. You have to know how much weight you're going to have in and set your trim and your ballast and you understand the dynamics that you're going to deal with that day ... constantly looking at the wind and where the current is."

He named the business Blackbird — in homage to Lockheed Martin's Blackbird, the fastest plane that has ever flown — and as a spoof on his vessel's bright canary yellow color, which is standard from the manufacturer.

Murray is enjoying his new adventure, and he said his customers are, too.

"Sometimes they don't realize it's a hovercraft until I show up, but no one is ever disappointed," he said.

Neither is he.

"I always had this infatuation with hovercrafts, so I bought one to validate it," he said, adding it's all he imagined and more.

a.baldelli@theday.com

Editor's Note: This article has been edited to correct the spelling of Cummins engines.

Deckhand Patrick Hilbert steps ashore to handle the dock lines as Tom Murray maneuvers his Vector 25 hovercraft 'Blackbird VII' to City Pier in New London Wednesday, August 24, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Deckhand Patrick Hilbert steps ashore to handle the dock lines as Tom Murray maneuvers his Vector 25 hovercraft "Blackbird VII" to City Pier in New London Wednesday, August 24, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
The Cross Sound Ferry M/V Cape Henlopen passes Tom Murray's Vector 25 hovercraft 'Blackbird VII' docked at City Pier in New London Wednesday, August 24, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
The Cross Sound Ferry M/V Cape Henlopen passes Tom Murray's Vector 25 hovercraft "Blackbird VII" docked at City Pier in New London Wednesday, August 24, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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