The Science and Technology Corporation for Development of the Naval, Maritime and Riverine Industry of Colombia (COTECMAR) is using its wide-ranging experience in the Defense sector to build a River Pusher Craft to aid in the development of the Magdalena River, the country’s primary waterway.

The watercraft aims to help authorities jump-start the economy in the country’s riverside areas and promote development in the regions the Magdalena crosses, turning this river into an 886-kilometer water highway from Puerto Salgar to Barranquilla. The ship, which is able to push cargo carrying vessels through the water, will help authorities provide social support to at-risk communities, according to Captain Andrés Alejandro Osorio Carrillo, COTECMAR vice president of technology operations.

“Apart from having a few repair and maintenance lines in the private and Defense sectors, we have been committed to aligning our efforts with the new national strategy to recover our principal waterways, especially the Magdalena River, which in the very near future will be the most important means of transportation in Colombia,” he explained.

The River Pusher Craft has a unique design with characteristics specifically intended for Colombia’s hydrography. Authorities expect the craft to be operational in the second half of 2016. [Photo: COTECMAR]
The River Pusher Craft has a unique design with characteristics specifically intended for Colombia’s hydrography. Authorities expect the craft to be operational in the second half of 2016. [Photo: COTECMAR]
Recovering the Magdalena River

COTECMAR authorities expect the first River Pusher Craft to be finished by May. Its functionality will depend on the navigability of the Magdalena River, which links the country’s capital, Bogotá, with the coast – a journey that typically takes vessels about five days.

“After [the river’s] nearly 1,000-kilometer length from Puerto Salgar to Barranquilla has been dredged, [ships] will surely need, at least, innumerable pusher craft and barges,” Capt. Osorio said. “The government wants to recover the necessary depth in the river and obtain a positive flow so ships can navigate without problems getting stuck, crashing, or sinking.”

The mission will require about 70 River Pusher Craft and 600 barges over the next 10 years, COTECMAR officials estimate. Each pusher craft is equipped with eight barges. These vessels, which are constructed to conform to international standards, provide safety, transport bulk cargo and fuel, and have been designed with the country’s hydrographic conditions in mind.

“We are dedicated to the task of designing our own pusher craft adapted to the conditions on the river with a 5-foot draft, 3,000 horsepower, and flanking rudders that give the pilots a high degree of maneuverability. This is well adapted to the necessities of Colombian ship owners […],” Capt. Osorio stated. “Before designing it, we held conversations with the country’s main shipping companies and we made our design based on that. Construction began this past November 5th.”

A point of reference for the continent

During his speech in Cartagena on November 5th, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas highlighted the influence this vessel and similar projects would have on the country, especially in a post-conflict environment.

“Developments from the defense industry in Colombia are a point of reference for the entire continent,” he added. “Thanks to the vision of our National Navy, through its shipbuilding industry represented by COTECMAR, we have successfully designed and built vessels that will help us reach the most at-risk populations and provide an immediate solution to their needs, with a view to the new horizons that await our country.”

Supporting the country’s development is part of COTECMAR’s mission. It is a non-profit corporation, though 98% of it is owned by the Ministry of Defense and the National Navy. It invests any profits from its industrial and commercial activities in technology, research, and innovation. Since its inception in 2000, COTECMAR has created more than 2,000 jobs in Colombia and has adapted to the country’s needs by working in conjunction with other partners, such as the Universidad Nacional, Universidad Tecnológica de Bolívar, and Universidad del Norte de Barranquilla.

“In 15 years in operation, we have successfully launched 104 hulled ships into the water, which is significant at the global level,” Capt. Osorio said. “Beyond that, we have a few, solid products we do for the National Navy, which has been our primary support and our main client.”

COTEMAR has manufactured a wide range of defense products, such as the ARC “20 de julio,” the largest and most complex ocean-going vessel ever built in Colombia. Naval authorities used it in 2015 in the Colombian Antarctic Program that carried the country’s first expedition to the frozen continent. The ocean vessel was also assigned to the Drug Enforcement Task Force in the Colombian Pacific area, where it conducted maritime interdiction operations to neutralize terrorist support networks involved in drug trafficking in that area.

Dual-use vessels

COTECMAR has also manufactured Coastal Patrol Boats, which are smaller, and the amphibious landing ship (BDA for its Spanish acronym), which can be converted to a logistical support ship. COTECMAR also developed light and heavy river support patrol boats, such as the river patrol boat (LPR, for its Spanish acronym), which can be converted into an ambulance and rapidly transport someone from a very remote site to an emergency medical center. An LPR includes all the services necessary to keep a person stable until they arrive at the medical center.

“We did all of this to provide protection for the Colombian crew in defense situations, and later we turned them into dual-use products, meaning products that have a social and humanitarian impact and help the community,” Capt. Osorio explained.

“Inside, the ship has the ability to turn salt water into fresh water and fresh river water into potable water,” Capt. Osorio explained, adding the ship was used in September in humanitarian aid operations to the Wayuu people in Castilletes, north of La Guajira. During the operation, they supplied donated items to those affected by the drought and lacking food and potable water.