Estonian firm Sea Wolf Express is planning to offer travellers the chance to cross the Gulf of Finland in about 30 minutes aboard its 12-seater Russian-built ground effect vehicle (GEV).
The company said it aims to put its GEV into service next year, but plans hinge on approval from safety regulators.
So far, the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency, Traficom, has been positive about the company's efforts. But Traficom unit chief, Max Wilhelmson, said the firm still has a considerable amount of planning to do, particularly regarding the vehicle's safety.
Sea Wolf Express has yet to apply for the permits required to operate the GEV between Finland and Estonia, but when it does Wilhelmson said the firm needs to be able to prove the vehicle is at least as safe as other means of transport on the route.
Wilhelmson noted that when risk assessments are carried out, they need to be taken into consideration, particularly because of the speeds at which GEVs travel.
The sea route between Helsinki and Tallinn is very busy. Several large passenger ferries shuttle between the cities at all hours of the day and night.
Since Linda Line's catamaran service went out of business last year, the fastest ferries still take more than two hours, but a GEV can travel the same distance in about 30 minutes.
Soars over sea at 200kph
The company's GEV can reach about 200kph, according to Sea Wolf Express CEO Ville Högman. He said the vehicle will provide a safe way to get across the Gulf for travellers who want to do it quickly.
"Unless you live in a utopia, you can't completely rule out the possibility of an accident. There aren't that many GEVs in commercial use in the world yet, but no major accidents have occurred in the ones that are in use," Högman said.
"Compared to airplane travel, [GEVs] are much safer because they can't tumble down," Högman said.
Ferries, planes and hovercraft
The technology behind GEVs is a combination of airplane, boat and hovercraft. Their wings make the vehicles look like planes, but they only reach an altitude of about two metres above the water. Combined with its high speed, the wings help to give the vehicle lift, creating a cushion of air above the surface, Högman explained.
"Hovercrafts use a motor to generate that cushion of air, but GEVs use high speed, instead," he said.
While the vehicle flies at extremely low altitude, the experience of boarding it is more like that of a traditional passenger ferry.
"Passengers will go to the terminal and board it just like they do when they travel by boat, but during the trip they'll sit in airplane seats. People will be able to move around during the voyage, except during departures and arrivals," Högman said.
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Sea Wolf Express said it had hoped to start offering rides across the Gulf this year, but those plans have been delayed by technical problems on the manufacturer's side and the company is uncertain when it will be able to open for business.
"There have been some problems with hydrodynamics. The takeoffs and landings were uncomfortable [for passengers], but those issues have been addressed," Högman said.
Now the company is carrying out test runs and plans to open its Helsinki-Tallinn route sometime next year. The company's mostly-bare website said the firm plans to offer 12 daily trips to and from the cities every day, year-round.
Not likely popular among booze cruisers
When and if the Sea Wolf Express starts welcoming passengers, Högman said it is unlikely that so-called booze cruisers will be buying tickets.
"The vehicle operates like an airplane in that passengers pay for each piece of baggage they have with them. In other words, I don't think that passengers who are bringing home large amounts of alcohol will choose it," he said.
However, Högman does think Sea Wolf will attract business customers, because ticket prices will be so much higher than those of traditional ferries.
"It's mostly about the 'time is money' factor for those who are willing to pay more to save a couple hours," Högman said.
The company has not announced exact ticket prices but Högman said rides on the GEV will cost more than they do on ferries - but less than planes. Estonian public broadcaster reported last month that one-way tickets would cost around 100 euros. ERR also reported that the GEVs cost about one million euros apiece and that Sea Wolf Express is mainly being financed by investors in Finland.
Apart from overall safety of the vehicle, Traficom is also concerned about weather conditions it will be exposed to, according to the agency's Wilhelmson.
"We're positive [about the plans] but there have been questions about how the firm's vessels will be able to operate on the route when there's ice on the sea," Wilhelmson said.
Sea swells and waves are also an issue that could cause delays or cancellations for the novel vehicle, he said.
The company CEO said he anticipates that trips would be cancelled due to high waves caused by poor weather a maximum of twice a year.
Many try to cross quickly
Several companies have made efforts - and continue to try - to offer passengers a chance to cross the Gulf of Finland as quickly as possible. While some have succeeded, few have stayed in business for very long.
More than a decade ago, Finnish helicopter firm Copterline offered deep-pocketed travellers quick jaunts across the Gulf.
Fourteen people were killed when a Copterline craft headed from Tallinn to Helsinki crashed into the sea shortly after takeoff in 2005. The route was discontinued some time later. The company continued to struggle after it declared bankruptcy in 2010.
Estonian catamaran ferry firm Linda Line also offered quick rides between Tallinn and Helsinki but also declared bankruptcy last year.
These days, there are also two sub-sea train tunnels between the two capital cities being planned.
Former gaming marketing chief Peter Vesterbacka has said his FinEst Bay Area company will offer passengers rapid train transits between the cities by the end of 2024.
Another state-planned tunnel project is also reportedly in the works, according to comments made by Finland's Minister of Transport and Communications Anne Berner towards the end of last year.
Vesterbacka, however, said in December that there are not two separate tunnel projects, but only one - his.