Rockets of the Caribbean

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The Raketa class Soviet hydrofoil in which J. Roland Leduc and his wife went from Montréal, Québec, to Port of Spain, Trinidad. Jacques Maher, “Un Canadien français vend des bateaux russes à Trinidad”. Le Petit Journal, 8 December 1968, 14.

Zdrasvstvuyti / hello, my reading friend. May yours truly begin this peroration by apologising profusely for the quality of the illustration with which I have the pleasure of introducing this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee? The story behind it more than compensates for its fuzziness. I came across it while perusing a now defunct weekly newspaper from Montréal, Québec, Le Petit Journal. The title of the article was indeed intriguing. It’s not every day one comes across a retired Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) officer involved in the purchase of Soviet vessels, in the middle of the Cold War. Let us begin this story with an introductory expression I am quite fond of. And yes, at first glance, this story seems rather distant from our usual fare. This being said (typed?), please chill out, hombre. Variety is the spice of life.

Once upon a time, there was a world fair, the Exposition universelle et internationale de Montréal held in 1967 to be more precise. Among the many wonders presented to the 50+ million visitors of Expo 67 was a Raketa class hydrofoil. And yes, Expo 67 was mentioned in March and July 2018 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

What is a hydrofoil, you ask? A good question, I answer. Water, as you undoubtedly know, is a great deal denser than air. A wing like surface travelling through water will therefore produce a great deal more lift than a similar surface travelling through air. Now imagine a boat or ship fitted with specially designed lifting surfaces, or foils. When moving at low speed, this boat or ship would look perfectly ordinary. As it reached a critical speed, however, the lift produced by the foils of this boat or ship would raise its hull out of the water, greatly reducing water resistance and allowing it to travel at high speed.

You may be pleased to hear (read?), or not, that, during the summer of 1908, Alexander Graham Bell and a Canadian engineer, Frederick Walker “Casey” Baldwin, began to conduct research on hydrofoils, or hydrodromes, as the former, an American citizen as we both know, called such vehicles. This research was conducted as part of the work done by the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA). And yes, my reading friend, Bell, Baldwin and the AEA were mentioned in an October 2028 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Incidentally, the last hydrofoil developed by these two men, the HD-4, set a world speed record, in September 1919, that remained unbeaten until 1920. And yes, that was our aeronautical content for the day. And no, Bell and Baldwin did not invent the hydrofoil, but back to our story.

You have a question, my reading friend? Why mention a world speed record if it lasted only a year or so? Oh, my mistake. I meant to add that the 1920 record was not set by a hydrofoil. The HD-4’s speed was exceeded by another hydrofoil, an American one if you must know, only in 1962, and not by much. That second record was set aside in 1963 by another American hydrofoil, but I digress.

A Raketa class hydrofoil in Moscow, Russia, September 2007. Wikipedia.

Able to carry 62-64 passengers, the Raketa (rocket in Russian) class hydrofoil, also known as Project 340, was the first type of commercial flying ship developed by Rostislav Evgenievich Alexeyev, a gifted Soviet engineer / shipbuilder. The lead ship was launched in 1957. Up to 390 or so Raketa class hydrofoils of these ships may have been completed between 1957 and 1976, including more than 300 in service on all the major rivers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Over the years, many of these were exported, brand new or second hand, to 13 or so countries in Europe (Austria, Finland, Hungary, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, United Kingdom and Yugoslavia) and Asia (Cambodia and China (?)). Many Raketa class hydrofoils were still in service in the early 2000s.

Alexeyev was quite an interesting character. Interested in hydrofoils since the late 1930s, he prepared several designs for the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Fleet, or Raboche Krestyanskaya Krasny Flot, during the Second World War. None of these combat hydrofoils was completed before the end of the conflict. Alexeyev began to work on the Raketa project before the end of the 1940s. He also supervised the design of numerous commercial hydrofoils produced in the USSR, including the Meteor, Kometa, Sputnik and Burevestnik classes.

Alexeyev also played an important role in the development of a revolutionary means of transportation known as ground effect vehicles / wing in ground effect vehicles, or ekranoplans in Russian. To make a long story short, Alexeyev and his team drew plans for a series of aircraft designed to operate no more than several metres (many feet) over the a flat surface, primarily water. Although much slower than an aircraft, a ground effect vehicle is far more fuel efficient. A prototype, the largest and heaviest flying machine in the world at the time, was tested in October 1966. Although not put in production, this design, later known in Western circles as the Caspian Sea Monster, was promising enough to justify the design of 2 other ground effect vehicles for use by the Soviet armed forces. While 5 of the first actually left the shipyard, the imperilled economy of the USSR meant that 1 prototype of the latter was produced before the country’s collapse, in 1991. Sadly, Alexeyev died in February 1980, from injuries suffered in the crash of a prototype. He was only 63 years old.

Do you remember reading above that a Raketa class hydrofoil could be seen on waters of the Saint Lawrence River during Expo 67, my reading friend? No? Sigh. Never mind. One of the individuals who saw this ship was an RCN officer. Captain J. Roland Leduc joined this service during the Second World War, in 1940 to be more precise. He served on a few of the corvettes and frigates used throughout the conflict to protect convoys of merchant ships crossing the Atlantic against attacks from German submarines. Indeed, Leduc went on to serve on anti submarine frigates after the end of the Second World War. Had the Cold War turned hot and deadly, these ships would have faced Soviet submarines.

A quick question if I may. True or false, did 5 second hand Raketa class hydrofoils ply the waters of the Saint Lawrence River during the early 2000s? The answer to that question is False, of course. The hydrofoils in question were Voskhod class hydrofoils. They were the property of Saint Lawrence Dolphins Limited of Montréal. Officially founded in May 2000, this company carried passengers between Montréal and Québec, Québec, with a stop in Trois-Rivières, Québec, for 5 seasons, seemingly from spring to fall. A one way trip lasted about 4 hours 30 minutes. Saint Lawrence Dolphins closed up shop in November 2004 but officially vanished only in December 2005. The company’s founder was an engineer and entrepreneur born in the USSR. As of 2018, this gentleman was a general contractor in British Columbia.

Another quick question. May I pontificate for a moment? No? Well, that’s too bad. The Voskhod class hydrofoil carried about 70 passengers. If one is to believe data found online, a risky proposition at times, 150 or so of these ships were built until the early 1990s. They could be found in lakes and rivers of 19 or so countries, including the USSR / Russia.

Would you believe that Voskhod was the name given to a Soviet spacecraft? Better yet, Voskhod was the first spacecraft designed to carry more than 1 human being. Voskhod 1 was launched in October 1964. To say that this mission was a risky one would be one heck of an understatement: the 3 cosmonauts crammed on board did not have spacesuits. Voskhod 2 was launched in March 1965. The 2 cosmonauts on board had spacesuits. One of them, Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov, carried out the very first spacewalk in history, but I digress. And yes, my reading friend, that was our space content for the day.

Leduc gradually rose through the ranks of the RCN. By 1967, he was at a training centre in Saint-Jean-sur-le-Richelieu, Québec – presumably at the Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean. Lieutenant Commander Leduc retired the following year. He may, I repeat may, have been one of the many naval officers who could not stomach the unification of the Canadian armed forces, in February 1968. This controversial move, which led to the creation of the Canadian Armed Forces, caused the disappearance of the RCN, Royal Canadian Air Force and Canadian Army as independent services.

Incidentally, the individual who oversaw the unification process was the minister of National Defence, Paul Theodore Hellyer. Did you know that this gentleman graduated from an aviation-related technical school during the Second World War? Well, he did. The Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute was a subsidiary of Curtiss-Wright Corporation. And yes my faithful reading friend, this well known American aircraft maker has been mentioned a few times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since November 2017.

If I may be permitted to digress for a moment, the RCN had a hydrofoil project of its own in 1967. Goaded by the Department of Defence Production and the Defence Research Board, it had somewhat reluctantly approved, in April 1963, an anti-submarine hydrofoil project proposed by de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Limited of Downsview, near Toronto, Ontario. This well known aircraft manufacturer worked with Marine Industries Limited of Sorel, Québec, an equally well known shipyard, at least within Canada, to build a prototype. The sea trials of this ship, HMCS Bras d’Or, began in September 1968. Even though it performed well, even in bad weather, at sea, the engineers and crew had to deal with a number of problems, including cracks in the foils. In July 1971, various issues (high cost of acquisition, uncertainty about fighting performance and extreme budget limitations) led the military to put hydrofoils last on the priority list for surface ships.

Put in reserve in November 1971, HMCS Bras d’Or was sold, at scrap value, in 1983, to the Musée maritime Bernier, today’s Musée maritime du Québec, at L’Islet, a town formerly known as L’Islet-sur-Mer. The National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa, Ontario, today’s Canada Science and Technology Museum, played a significant role in insuring the preservation of HMCS Bras d’Or, one of the most advanced hydrofoils of its day. And yes, the Canada Science and Technology Museum is a sister / brother institution of the Ottawa-based Canada Aviation and Space Museum – a world class museum yours truly has the honour and privilege of working for.

Now, where were we? Oh yes. By the end of 1968, Leduc was vice-president in charge of operations at International Hydrolines Incorporated, a new American company formed to operate hydrofoils, air cushion vehicles / hovercraft and surface effect ships which succeeded International Hydrofoils and Air Cushion Vehicles (Incorporated? Corporation? Company?) – a firm that remains an unknown quantity to yours truly. And yes, my reading friend, air cushion vehicles were mentioned in March and May 2018 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Now, would I be correct in assuming that you do not quite know what a surface effect ship is? There is no shame in saying so. A surface effect ship is a watercraft whose twin hulls contain an air cushion, usually enclosed by skits fore and aft. As such, it is a non amphibious cousin of the hovercraft.

Another vice president of International Hydrolines, the company’s chairman if truth be told, was none other than Ira E. Dowd and… Hummm, you’ve never heard that name, now have you? That’s a bit sad given the importance of this gentleman. I will have you know that Dowd’s company, American Hydrofoils Incorporated, inaugurated the first commercial hydrofoil service in the United States and the Americas, in July 1963, to and from New York City. The ship used for this service was the first hydrofoil to be certificated in that country for passenger service. This ship, say I, a 22 / 24 or so passenger Albatross class hydrofoil, was designed by a Chilean American engineer by the name of Helmut Kock.

Would you believe that, on the day of the maiden trip, the owner of a luxurious yacht attempted to race with the Albatross? The stress imposed on its engine(s) soon proved too much, however, and the yacht found itself dead in the water, which proved somewhat embarrassing to the owner, investment banker Robert Owen “Bobbie” Lehman, Senior, founder of Lehman Brothers Holdings Incorporated, an investment bank / financial services firm whose September 2008 failure played a crucial role in the global financial crisis that shook the world at that time. Also on board of the yacht in July 1963 was a famous if elderly Polish American movie producer, Samuel Goldwyn, born Samuel Geldfisz. The Albatross had to stop to provide assistance. Later, Dowd became so excited as he talked to representatives of the United States Coast Guard that he slipped off the deck of the hydrofoil and fell in the water. He was quickly rescued. The Albatross reached its destination 40 minutes later than expected.

American Hydrofoils went on to operate a regular commuter service to and from the site of the 1964-65 New York’s World Fair. The 14 or so Albatross class hydrofoils in the company’s fleet carried more than 100 000 passengers without a single injury to a passenger or crew. The (temporary?) seizure of many of these ships to repay a debt, in October 1964, presumably messed up the schedule. The 30 or so Albatross class hydrofoils completed carried passengers in American states as far apart as Florida and Alaska, as well as in places like the Virgin Islands, Lebanon and Bolivia. The 2 hydrofoils operated in that country plied the waters of Lake Titicaca / Titiqaqa – the highest navigable lake in the world. And yes, you are quite right, my cinephile reading friend, the spaceship destroyed by the main characters at the end of the 1997 movie Men in Black was in fact the upper part of a tower that dominated the site of the 1964-65 New York’s World Fair.

International Hydrolines’ short to medium term plans were nothing if not ambitious. Satra Corporation chose it in 1968-69 to be the representative for Sudimport hydrofoils in the Americas. The word Satra, if you must know, stood for Soviet American Trade Association. This corporation imported and distributed Soviet products in the United States. Sudimport, on the other hand, was a Soviet shipping import company. In other words, International Hydrolines was to be the representative for Soviet hydrofoils in the Americas.

The company’s first passenger carrying service, a commuter run in its backyard, the New York City area, took place in early August 1968. Leduc was the captain of the Raketa class hydrofoil used on the trip. Indeed, he was at the helm when the ship left Montréal, soon after it had been bought by International Hydrolines. At the risk of sounding like the narrator in the all too numerous Earth mystery / ancient alien television series you and I are bombarded with on a daily basis, might the hydrofoil captained by Leduc be the one that could be seen in Montréal during Expo 67?

In any event, Leduc was also at the helm when the Raketa class hydrofoil travelled from New York City to the island of Trinidad, in the Caribbean. His wife was with him. The hydrofoil ran into several storms along the way. Several / many cabin windows were shattered.

At some point during its journey to the Caribbean, the Raketa class hydrofoil may, I repeat may, have also have run into a rather embarrassing problem. To make a long story short, it could not reach the critical speed needed to rise out of the water. The aforementioned Chilean-American engineer actually joined the staff of International Hydrolines to solve that very problem. Kock soon realised that the air and water found in the waters that led to the Caribbean were warmer than those usually encountered by Soviet hydrofoils. As a result, the ship’s engines could not produce the power needed for liftoff. Kock modified the ship and solved the problem.

By the end of 1969, an International Hydrolines subsidiary, Trinidad and Tobago Hydrolines Limited, was operating 2 Soviet hydrofoils, a Raketa class and a Kometa class, in the Caribbean. The Kometa class hydrofoil was significantly larger than the Raketa class. It was, to a point, a seaworthy version of the Meteor class hydrofoil. Able to carry 118-120 passengers, it was the first seagoing hydrofoil produced in the USSR. The prototype was tested in 1961. How many Kometa class hydrofoils were built, between 1961 and 1992 or so, is unclear but it looks as if ships of this type were exported to at least 8 countries in Asia and Europe.

International Hydrolines’ Manufacturing Division hoped to supervise the fabrication of an Americanised version of the Kometa class hydrofoil. The Soviet-made prototype of this Comet class hydrofoil was the ship used in the Caribbean by the company from 1969 onward. The modifications to the original design included an air conditioning system. As far as yours truly can figure out, no Kometa / Comet class hydrofoil was made in the United States.

International Hydrolines’ Manufacturing Division may, I repeat may, have assembled some examples of a 6-seat hydrofoil runabout, also designed by the aforementioned Alexeyev, for use on American lakes and rivers. The Molnia was a very successful and popular design, used by water taxi and joyride operators. Some examples of a refined export version known as the Volga were shipped to the United Kingdom and the United States, where it was seemingly called the Forte. All in all, up to 6 800 Molnias and Volgas may have been produced – and apologies for all the “mays.” Information on International Hydrolines and its Soviet hydrofoils proved difficult to find.

A case in point involved the largest commercial hydrofoil in the world at the time, the first of 3 Supramar PT.150 ships constructed in Norway between 1968 and 1971. Owned by Scanstar Hydrolines & Company Aksjeselskap, the Hydroliner / Scanrider was towed all the way to Puerto Rico in August 1969, which must have been a fun experience. This Norwegian operator used its ship in the Caribbean in collaboration with International Hydrolines. Designed to operate in the cooler waters of the North Atlantic, the Hydroliner / Scanrider made only a few trips in its new environment. Able to carry 150 passengers and a few automobiles, or 250 passengers, it may also have been a tad big for the Caribbean market. In any event, the ship was back in Norway no later than May 1970.

Supramar Aktiengesellschaft was co-founded in 1952 in Switzerland by one of the great hydrofoil designers of the 20th century. Involved in the design of flying ships since the 1920s, in his native land, Germany, baron Hanns von Schertel supervised the construction of several prototypes before and during the Second World War. Unable to work in West Germany because of the restrictions imposed as a result of Germany’s defeat during the Second World War, he crossed into Switzerland and got to work.

If truth be told, the ship used for the world’s first passenger service offered by a hydrofoil, in 1952, on Lake Maggiore, between Italy and Switzerland, was a Supramar design made in that country. Most of the Supramar hydrofoils used operationally were constructed in Italy, but back to our story.

Actually, let’s not go back there yet. Would you believe, my reading friend, that Bell and Baldwin spent some time at Lake Maggiore, in 1911? They were there to talk shop with an engineer and inventor who had completed and tested a hydrofoil in 1906. Better yet, Bell and Baldwin rode with Enrico Forlanini aboard this boat. They were most impressed. Small world, isn’t it? Incidentally, Forlanini also worked on helicopters, airplanes and airships, but back to our story. Really.

By 1970, International Hydrolines had 2 operating divisions, Virgin Islands Hydrolines Incorporated and British Virgin Islands Hydrolines Limited, which ran its Kometa and Raketa. The company also had 4 franchisees. One of these, Baja California Hydrolines Incorporated, seemingly operated a Kometa class hydrofoil between California and Mexico. Yours truly could find no information on the others (Tri-State Hydrolines Incorporated, Southern California Hydrolines Incorporated and New Jersey Hydrolines Incorporated) proving that they carried a single passenger.

As the weeks turned into months, International Hydrolines looked into the possibility of developing a passenger carrying hydrofoil for use in bays, lakes, rivers and sounds. Designed by Kock and originally known as the California Flyer, this hydrofoil was to carry up to 72 passengers. As of late 1972, International Hydrolines planned to use several of these ships in the New York City area. This fast and cheap commuter service was to be launched in late 1973. The company wanted to use this service to promote the development of similar services in 9 or so cities on the East and West coasts of the United States. International Hydrolines lobbied intensely to obtain permits to launch its New York City service. It failed to do so. Bureaucrats were to blame, claimed the company.

Even though much of its seed money had dried up, International Hydrolines ordered 10 of the passenger carrying hydrofoils designed by Kock in January 1973. Oddly enough, the ships were to be built by a shipyard in California. International Hydrolines also bought a couple of second hand hydrofoils, for use in Florida. Faced with more of the same bureaucratic difficulties, not to mention the 1973 oil crisis, International Hydrolines’ parent company, an investment firm by the name of Brucker International Incorporated, eventually decided to pull the plug on the New York City project. None of the passenger carrying hydrofoils designed by Kock was produced. International Hydrolines and its subsidiaries / franchisees seemingly went under around 1974.

Yours truly wish I could say that Leduc played a crucial role in all of these developments. Sadly enough, it looks as if he left International Hydrolines around 1969. At some latter point, Leduc joined the United States Auxiliary Air Force. He went on to command a search and rescue squadron for 8 years. Given this, one can surmise that Leduc became a naturalized American citizen in the early 1970s. Once retired, he moved to Florida and worked on a few / several housing development projects in the Caribbean.

On this note, I bid you farewell, my reading friend. See you next week.

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Rénald Fortier