From the 1950s onwards, Lake Lucerne served as the testing ground for a new type of technology. Over a period of more than 20 years, hydrofoils glided over the surface of the water. From Lake Lucerne, the futuristic-looking craft went on to make their mark on the world.
Jean-Luc Rickenbacher is a historian and curator at the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne.
As long ago as the early 1900s, numerous inventors and amateur designers were trying to raise boats out of the water using hydrofoils. The principle works as follows: as with aircraft, wings create dynamic lift in water as well. Mounted below the hull, the hydrofoil elements cause the entire structure to rise out of the water as the vessel’s speed increases. Because only a small part of the craft (the airfoils, or ‘wings’) is now creating drag, the boats can reach higher speeds at the same engine output. In 1906, Italian airship pioneer Enrico Forlanini (1848-1930) made the first journey with a fully functional hydrofoil on Lake Maggiore. His propeller-driven hydrofoil reached around 70 km/h, double the previous top speed on water. From 1919 onwards, German engineer Hanns von Schertel (1902-1985) refined the principle even further. Together with his chief designer, Karl J. Büller, he founded Supramar AG in Lucerne after World War II. The company was the world’s first commercial supplier of high-performance hydrofoil boats.
From Lake Lucerne to the oceans of the world
Supramar AG was not a shipyard. The company had its test boats built by the Waser shipyard in Stansstad (Canton of Nidwalden), and issued licences. The pioneering craft PT 10, constructed at Waser and tested on Lake Lucerne in 1952, attracted a great deal of attention. From May 1953, under the name Freccia d’Oro (Golden Arrow), the craft operated a scheduled service on Lake Maggiore as the world’s first passenger hydrofoil. Supramar AG’s PT 20 was another quantum leap. With a capacity of 70 people, the hydrofoil was approved for high-speed passenger transit in coastal waters. Agreements were entered into with Carlo Rodriquez’s shipyard in Messina, Italy, and other licensees. Soon Supramar boats were operating on the English Channel, as well as in Sicily, the Netherlands, Norway, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong. With the ST 1, built in 1955, Hanns von Schertel achieved his dream of a classic powerboat with hydrofoils. Although the craft never went into series production, the hydrofoil principle quickly took root in the minds of that progressive, modernist age. Other countries were quick to jump on the hydrofoil bandwagon. The Swiss boats drew competition from the Soviet Union in particular. But even the total destruction of the Waser shipyard in a 1958 fire couldn’t stop the Supramar success story. Once the shipyard was rebuilt, it remained the base for trial runs on Lake Lucerne.
At Expo 64 in Lausanne, the hydrofoil Albatros was a huge visitor drawcard, alongside Jacques Piccard’s submarine Mésoscaphe. Hydrofoil boats also came to the attention of the public at large in 1965 through the film Thunderball, which featured an appearance by the Disco Volante, a yacht owned by James Bond adversary Emilio Largo that was based on the Supramar PT 20. In Asia the technology met with keen interest in Japan in particular, from the Hitachi Zosen shipyard, which produced Supramar hydrofoils until well into the 1980s. In 1961 a meeting was held between Supramar and Hitachi Zosen’s Japanese delegation at the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne. Since its establishment in 1959, the Museum has developed into a key platform for all kinds of subjects relating to mobility. While more than 100 hydrofoil boats were already in scheduled service, on 20 November 1967 a world first on Lake Lucerne attracted huge media interest. With the ST 3A, Supramar had developed a small high-speed craft that, for the first time, had fully submerged hydrofoils with ‘air control’. During the trial runs, which were intended to demonstrate enhanced equilibrium and improved stability, as an experiment the boat was powered by a 1,000 hp aircraft engine.
Miracle of lightweight design
In hydrofoils, as in aircraft design, lightweight construction was the overriding principle. The PT 150 dating from 1969 was the largest vessel in the world constructed entirely from aluminium. This Supramar, the largest, with a load capacity of 250 people, was originally intended to be used as a car ferry. The ‘miracle of lightweight design’ was widely used in coastal waters. In practice, ultimately the hydrofoils couldn’t compete with the catamaran ferries, which consist of two connected hulls.
While passenger hydrofoils are a rare site in Western Europe today, they can still often be seen in Eastern Europe. On the other hand, hydrofoils have become an essential part of yachting. If you’re keen to experience a ride on a hydrofoil close to Switzerland, you can do so on Lake Maggiore and Lake Como.
It seems the left and right shores of Lake Zurich are separated by more than just a lake: they’re known in the local vernacular as the ‘Pfnüselküste’ and the ‘Goldküste’. But no matter how dissimilar the lakeshores may be, there is agreement on one point: the unifying element is the Lake Zurich ferries.
In an age when bridges were still a rare sight in Switzerland, ferries carried not only goods, animals and people to the opposite shore, but even entire railway carriages. A glimpse into a little-known chapter of transport history.