White dolphin of Russian rivers

White dolphin of Russian rivers

2021 is the year of birth of one of the most interesting projects under development at USC. Work on it was not easy and took quite a long time, but this autumn the first Sotalia should slide down the slipway


The idea of developing the Sotalia originated in USC’s Technical Development Department and was originally conceived by its director Sergey Lyashenko. The developers faced a big challenge of building a line of vessels capable of carrying out transportation on shallow rivers and disembarking and boarding passengers on an unequipped shore, with a modern design, Russian propulsion and at a fixed cost. There is a need to renew the shallow-draft passenger fleet in many regions of Russia, but they could not cope with this problem on their own.

NIPTB Onega became the developer of the engineering and detailed design. At the outset, it was agreed that the maximum number of professionals should be involved in the new project: designers, industrial designers, production men. A unique design of the exterior and interior of the vessel was developed by a group of domestic industrial designers led by Vladimir Pirozhkov at the Kinetika High-complexity Prototyping Center (Moscow). The synergy of efforts and knowledge has made it possible to develop an affordable domestic river vessel with a modern appearance, ready to operate in different regions of Russia, including on socially significant routes.

The USC-Interior, USC-Propulsion and USC-Electrics product specialization centers established at the USC Group were also involved in the construction of the Sotalia. Using this project as an example, they practiced new organizational approaches to the implementation of work and technology solutions.


The novelty of the Sotalia is that it’s not the project of a separate vessel, but a universal platform on which USC intends to build vessels of various purposes and displacement. Project documentation on one passenger vessel is ready and has the potential for other modifications. The project is not tied to a specific shipyard or a specific customer and has been developed with a view to maximum scalability. Another new facet of the Sotalia was the transfer of technologies: solutions used in the construction of railway wagons, buses and airliners were borrowed for the passenger cabin.

An important feature of the project is its business concept assuming specified production cost, production time and proper product quality. The cost of the vessel should not exceed the cost of its closest counterparts. This is a prerequisite for getting orders to build various vessel versions and steady demand, given a competitive assessment of the price/quality ratio – construction time.

In addition, the Sotalia was devised as a vessel that has no restrictions on assembly in remote areas. Its dimensions were chosen so that large assembly units could be delivered anywhere by road, water and rail. It can be launched and lifted to the shore using both slips and lifting equipment (port or mobile cranes).


The Project 946 (later R83) motor ship Zarya might be called the predecessor of the Sotalia. The vessels of this project carried passengers on shallow rivers in almost all shipping companies of the Soviet Union. For its time (the project was developed and modified in the 1970s), the Zarya was, as we would say now, an innovative vessel. Its design incorporated features that provided river «all-terrain capacity»: the wide use of fiberglass in the superstructure made the vessel light, and the combined hull lines and the bottom air lubrication system made it easier to pass shallow, rocky sections of rivers. In addition, due to a shallow draft and a raised bottom in the bow, the vessel could go to a sloping shore with its bow end for boarding and disembarking passengers. The appearance of the Zarya on the rivers of the country produced a transport revolution – regular communication was established between regional centers and hard-to-reach settlements. However, the Zarya’s engine caused a lot of criticism: it was not very reliable, uneconomical, and polluted the environment.

The Sotalia will be just as light and «all-terrain», but more comfortable for passengers and more environmentally friendly. It will replace passenger, cargo/passenger, cargo and, possibly, medical river vessels with a displacement of up to 20 tons.


There are three stages in the work on the project: front end engineering design (FEED), the actual development of engineering and detailed design, and the approval of this project. But this division is very conditional – at any time the developer can return to the previous stage to adjust the decisions made. For example, you can change the make of equipment after evaluating the technological compatibility of equipment from different suppliers, or redesign some part of the project to meet the requirements of the classification society.

The FEED stage involves a large volume of procurement documentation. The amount of work related to forming a pool of suppliers for the Sotalia project can be fully appreciated only by someone who tried, in the current economic situation, to ensure the interaction of several dozen production facilities with a guaranteed outcome with regard to price and timing.

In order to preserve the vessel exterior and interior specified by industrial designers, solutions were implemented, which had not been used in shipbuilding before: retractable railway seats, railing made of polycarbonate, special configuration of structural elements inside the hull, etc. Of course, promoting these solutions required time, but the result – project development at a state-of-the-art industrial design level – was worth it.

Models of the passenger and cargo/passenger Sotalia made debut at INNOPROM-2019. USC CEO Alexey Rakhmanov told Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov and Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov about the vessel’s competitive advantages and wide opportunities for its use.


At present, the regional authorities of the Pskov Region, Perm Territory and other regions are interested in its acquisition. In general, demand is widespread geographically. USC specialists studied a mechanism for selling the vessels throughout the Russian Federation to overcome the lack of modern vessels for carrying passengers on local lines. In addition, there is hope for interest from regional private manufacturers ready to build the vessel under a franchise. This option is already being considered in Samara. And the pilot vessel is already under construction in the Kaliningrad region at a shipyard, which won a tender.


The key elements of the project are domestically-made: an engine manufactured by the Yaroslavl Machine-Building Plant and a water-jet propulsor made by the Zvezdochka Shipbuilding Center’s head branch NPO Vint. The engine has been modified to meet the Russian River Register requirements and certified as part of a propulsion system.

Interaction with manufacturers of products for railway transport made it possible to use seats with an ergonomic backrest offering comfortable seating for passengers with a small seat pitch.

Several solutions for the hull and superstructure were considered. An aluminum alloy was selected as the basic material due to the optimal ratio of the ship’s manufacturability, weight characteristics and the scope of introduction of aluminum alloy technologies at small shipyards.


In the future, the Sotalia may be fitted with an electric propulsion system, which will make it more environmentally friendly and expand its application. The option of using liquefied natural gas as a fuel is also possible.

Initially, the project included models for 30, 42 and 54 passengers (designated as P-30, P-42 and P-54). It would be appropriate to use the P-30 model on low passenger-flow routes and the P-54s where the required passenger traffic is greater.

All the conceptual proposals were carefully analyzed and studied, and as a result the project now has a fairly balanced model lineup. Nine passenger and cargo models, as well as a version for medical needs were developed on the basis of one modular platform. In the future, the lineup will undoubtedly expand.

The image of a dolphin silhouette has become an element of the project’s trademark

The motor ships Zarya of Project 946 (from 1965 to 1981) and R-83 (from 1971 to 1985) were built at the Moscow Shipyard. In total, more than 400 vessels had been manufactured. Currently, no more than 20 vessels of these projects are in running condition.

The white dolphin (Sotalia fluviatilis) is found throughout the Amazon River, as well as in many of its tributaries in Brazil, Peru, Southeastern Colombia and in Eastern Ecuador. His image is placed on the coat of arms of the city of Rio de Janeiro.

White dolphin of Russian rivers
White dolphin of Russian rivers