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English adventurer Robert Hodson, 39, sold his home in Godalming, Surrey, to buy a hovercraft that he's now piloting across the United States from coast to coast. His journey, skimming along 20,000 miles of river systems, is likely to be the longest hovercraft trek in history.

His craft is nothing like those puny, mostly backyard-built machines that competed in the World's First Hovercraft Race on the partly-filled Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra, Australia, 40 years ago. Hodson's hovercraft, named Wings of the Dawn, is a custom Griffon 450 TD Mk II that weighs two tons and measures 11.5 by 25 feet. It uses a gallon of fuel every six miles and can travel 150 miles without refuelling.

Hodson began his epic journey on April 7, when he travelled up the Savannah River, which forms the border between South Carolina and Georgia, on the US East Coast. He hopes to reach the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River, west of Astoria, Oregon, by the end of next year.

According to a feature story in the World Hovercraft Organization's newsletter, HoverWorld Insider, "Most everyone he meets asks, 'Do you need any food or supplies?' and brings him everything from food, whiskey, and iced coolers of soft drinks to travel toiletries and books."

When Harold Carter, Cruise Director for the Hoverclub of America, read about Hodson's Trans-American Hovercraft Adventure, he thought at first, "This guy is absolutely nuts! This will never happen. He needs to get out a geography book."

But after discovering that Hodson was already halfway up the Savannah River, Carter travelled from Atlanta with his own hovercraft to meet Hodson on Lake Hartwell. Carter now says, "Robert is on my mind all the time. What he's doing is something we'd all like to do, and it's absolutely awesome."

Anyone following Hodson's adventure through local newspaper reports on the Internet could have discovered that by July 14 he had reached Delta, Mississippi. The Delta Democrat Times reported, "From far-away Godalming, England, new world explorer Robert Hodson docked his 2-ton Griffon 450 TD Mk11 hovercraft on the boat ramp between the Jubilee Casino ..."

On to Tennessee. Writing in the University of Memphis's aptly-named Daily Helmsman on August 5, Ryan Sisung reported that Hodson had stopped over in Memphis to repair his hovercraft. Jim Hardin, adjunct professor of history and political science, had offered him a place to stay and invited him to speak to a group of his students.

"I was on the Savannah River asleep in my craft and awoke to the sounds of what I believe are called rednecks," Hodson told the students. "They were out hunting gators and hogs and such."

Sisung wrote that Hodson said he had held many interesting positions, including estate management for the Saudi royal family.

Explaining why he had undertaken his present journey, Hodson said "I figured I should go out and do what I desire to instead of waiting until I'm 60. I'm not trying to break any records. I may do some filming and writing by the end of it. The bottom line is I'm just enjoying myself."

Mark Grizzard, junior mechanical engineering major, said "I am thinking of building a hovercraft in my spare time. It's great he is using this mode of transportation to get across the US."

By August 16, Hodson had journeyed north to Indiana, where the Terre Haute Tribune-Star published a story by John Chambers, "Nation-crossing hovercrafter stops in Terre Haute."

"Hodson has weathered southern heat, storms, almost fell 90 feet off the edge of a dam and was even searched by the FBI," Chambers wrote. "Federal officials search Hodson's British boat, telling him they were looking for nitrate he could use to blow up a dam.

"Hodson said he only wanted to see the country the way early explorers saw it. Part of his trip will lead him through the route taken by Lewis and Clark. One difference is Hodson navigates with a cell phone and electronic computer charts."

When Thomas Jefferson dispatched Lewis and Clark to find a water route across North America and explore the uncharted West, he expected they'd encounter woolly mammoths, erupting volcanoes, and a mountain of pure salt. What they found was no less surprising. See it all: our journey: journal entries, historical photos, drawings and more.
National Geographic

Terre Haute is the hometown of Neoteric Hovercraft, Inc., whose President, Chris Fitzgerald, a former Australian, took part in the world's first hovercraft race in 1964 He is chairman of the World Hovercraft Organization and founder of its free international school hovercraft program, DiscoverHover.

Hodson decided to spend two weeks in Terre Haute while his craft receives a little tender loving care from Neoteric. The Wings of the Dawn has travelled more than 4,000 miles of rivers without breaking down. "Duct tape and cable ties get you out of a number of problems," said Hodson. "Neoteric generously offered a great servicing facility at their factory, a very pleasant change from the normal muddy banks along the river."

He plans to head south to Tennessee before travelling westward. Along the way he'll introduce the DiscoverHover program, which gives students worldwide the chance to build a hovercraft and compete in national and international races. Free hovercraft plans, instructions and curriculum guides are available at no charge to students and educators at DiscoverHover

Asked for a map of his journey, Hodson said he had not yet completed one. He supplied these details:

I started by heading up the Savanah River system in Georgia. A portage around the bottom of the Appalachians took me to the Tennessee River which I proceeded along before heading down the Tombigbee and into the Gulf.

I then back tracked up the Alabama river, and back down to the Gulf on the Alabama/Florida border. Next I headed towards New Orleans to enter the Mississippi and proceeded to St. Louis. I then returned down the Mississippi to the Ohio which I proceeded along until branching off into the Wabash and on up to Terre Haute, Indiana from where I'm writing this. So far I have covered around 4000 miles.

I'm not sure where I'll go next this year. It could be south, it could be north, or it could be east. I'm saving west for next year. The main rivers that will take me west are the Missouri, Yellowstone, Snake and Columbia. I wish to explore many others along the way.

This is Hodson's second big adventure. Twenty years ago he hitchhiked from Key West, Florida, across the US and Canada to Alaska.




Story first posted September 2004

Copyright 2004

Eric Shackle

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