When it comes to Russia’s high-tech exports, one usually thinks of either military, space-related or nuclear products. It is these technologies that the Russian Federation is primarily known for. But there are other sectors, closer to ordinary civilians around the world, in which Russia has impressive achievements, and it is willing to share these achievements at a reasonable price.
For example, in recent years Russia has restored the production of civilian hydrofoils. The wings under the hull help to overcome the water resistance much more efficiently, making the hydrofoils very fast, which is not possible for conventional vessels.
Russia was one of the pioneers and leaders in this field in Soviet times thanks to the talent of designer Rostislav Alekseyev, who took up the subject of hydrofoils in the early 1940s. Having eventually headed his own laboratory and gained experience in developing military hydrofoils, Alekseyev and his associates unveiled the first Soviet river passenger hydrofoil, the Raketa-1, in 1957. The vessel could reach speeds of up to 70km/h and could in a few hours cover a distance which traditional motor vessels could take more than a day to cover. In the late 1950s, serial production of the Raketas began and the USSR was the second country in the world, after Switzerland, to begin mass commercial exploitation of hydrofoils.
In the following decades, the USSR developed and put into production many more different types of hydrofoils, both for river and sea shipping. The Soviet Union became the world leader in the number of hydrofoils produced. The graceful, wave-stable and extremely fast “winged” vessels became an important Soviet export and were successfully sold to dozens of countries, including Great Britain and the USA.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and the resulting states, including the Russian Federation, the successor to the USSR, plunged into economic crisis. Production of hydrofoils declined many times over, and at some point the very existence of the industry was threatened. The uneconomical fuel consumption of hydrofoils played its part in the decline of their production. For many transport companies, it was unprofitable to operate, and hence to purchase, hydrofoils. And this problem affected not only the domestic Russian market of hydrofoils, but also the global market: in the 1990s, the popularity of hydrofoils went down all over the world.
Over the past decades, however, Russia has overcome the crisis and embarked on a path of sustainable economic development. The time has also come for the recovery of the speedboat industry.
In 2013, the Russian shipyard Vympel began construction of the 120-person Kometa 120M marine hydrofoil.
The following year, 2014, the Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau named after Alekseyev (the aforementioned creator of the Soviet hydrofoils) began production of the Valday 45P. The first 45-person vessel was completed in 2017.
And in the summer of 2018, having passed all the tests, the aforementioned Kometa 120M, built at the Vympel plant, departed for its maiden voyage in the coastal waters of Crimea, Russia.
At the St Petersburg International Maritime Defense Show in July 2019, the Alekseyev CHDB demonstrated the six-seater (pilot and five passengers) hydrofoil boat Sagaris. This small craft can reach speeds of up to 130 km/h and travel up to 1,000 km without refueling. Sagaris can be successfully used by the police and rescue services.
The following month, in August 2019, the Vympel shipyard launched another Kometa.
Meanwhile, the Alekseyev CHDB continued production of the Valdays, with five vessels ready in the autumn of 2019. In December 2019, the company’s management announced that a certain number of Valday 45P hydrofoils will be exported to Taiwan. In the same month, the Alekseyev CHDB began construction of a new high-speed Meteor 120P hydrofoil for 120 passengers.
Another Vympel-built Kometa “took wing” in 2020.
In the same year, the Alekseyev CHDB began building a batch of ten Valdays for export. It is known that they will be delivered to Asia.
The Alekseyev CHDB launched the first Meteor in the summer of 2021, was building three more Meteors, and by the end of 2021 the company produced its 16th Valday.
The construction of hydrofoils in Russia is now underway. Production of the Kometa 120M has been moved from the overstretched Vympel to the Morye shipyard, where two more craft are under construction. It is likely that in addition to Vympel’s congestion, Morye’s geographical location on the Crimean Peninsula has played a role: this is a region that Russia is gradually developing into a high-class seaside resort and is in particular need of fast, capacious and comfortable passenger ships.
Work is also underway at the Alekseyev CHDB to develop a new two-deck Cyclone 250M marine hydrofoil with a capacity of about 250 passengers and a top speed of 100 km/h.
And, as mentioned above, the company is building 10 Valday craft, which will be exported to Asian countries.
It can be concluded that hydrofoil production in Russia is recovering, and at a good pace. This is a young and promising sector of high-speed shipbuilding, the full potential of which humanity has not yet fully comprehended.
Russia is now primarily saturating its domestic market with hydrofoils. When a country is prepared to save less for the sake of faster transport, it indicates, first, its confidence in its prosperity and, second, its preparation for some kind of economic leap, for which higher transport speeds are needed. So the restoration of the hydrofoils sphere is a good sign for Russia.
There are also good prospects for exporting Russian hydrofoils abroad. It is difficult to consider Western countries as buyers: they are in an escalating energy crisis. For decades, the West has tried to solve this crisis through armed occupation of the oil fields of the Middle East, and, without much success there, began to furiously promote a “green” ideology, which is intended to psychologically prepare ordinary people to consume much less energy in the future (who would have thought twenty years ago that the population of Europe and the USA might face winters with no heating?) and, in the name of “protecting the environment,” to destroy small and medium-sized industries with “environmental taxes,” thus concentrating all energy and industrial capacity in the hands of a few giant monopoly corporations.
In general, Russia is unlikely to sell its hydrofoils to the West. But it does not need to: over the decades since the collapse of the USSR, very wealthy buyers in the East have “grown up.” It is there, as mentioned above, that the Valdays will be exported. India, China, Korea, Southeast Asia are all emerging economies for which growth and speed are far more important than self-restraint and saving on petty cash. It is with this young and healthy part of the world that relations should be developed.
However, for western green energy enthusiasts, the Russian high-speed shipbuilding industry also has a suitable commodity: in 2020, Russia launched the electric hydrofoil boat Molniya. As the saying goes, “any whim for your money.”
Of course, with the sanctions war against Russia, even Russian-made electric boats will not show up in the West any time soon. However, deliveries to the East and the Russian domestic market are reportedly not threatened: the Alekseyev CHDB and the Vympel and Morye plants are operating normally. Speaking to Vympel’s employees in March 2022, Alexey Rakhmanov, CEO of Russia’s state-owned United Shipbuilding Company, said that the company has been under Western sanctions for eight years (which has not prevented it from achieving all of the above) and that its dependence on foreign supplies is now close to zero. The company has orders for years to come and work will continue.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.