Fast Maritime Transportation Along Rivers

By Harry Valentine 2014-03-24 09:58:00

Prevailing world economic conditions has required many local, regional and national governments to reduce expenditures at a time when national infrastructures such as roads and even railway lines urgently require upkeep, maintenance and even new investment. While roads and railways in several developing nations can barely carry the market demand for passengers and freight, vessels that sail along the inland waterways are often able to carry passengers and freight. Governments can spend a fraction of the amount of money per ton to maintain a waterway, than expenditures that relate to road and railway maintenance. 

In the USA, a study undertaken in 2005 by Prof. Jerry Fruin at the University of Minnesota indicated that a tug-barge could carry 72-containers between the inland ports of Baton Rouge and Pittsburgh at lower cost than either railroad or truck. While freight can move relatively slowly along inland waterways, passengers demand quicker travel times such as air transport or fast trains. While air transport is very competitive carrying large numbers of passengers aboard large planes that fly over long distances, the airline loses much of that advantage as distance become shorter and passenger volumes per departure decline.

River Passenger Fast Service:

Several years ago, an entrepreneur in Quebec, Canada examined prospects of operating a large speedboat along the St Lawrence River between Quebec City and Montreal, the most direct link between those cities compared to the railway and road network. At the time, the technology of wing-in-ground (wig) effect craft was at an earlier stage of its evolution, with no technically suitable or market competitive technology being available. A Korean builder has since constructed a few models of W.I.G. craft that may be suitable for the short-haul intercity passenger and courier market, including along suitable inland waterways.

While the Korean builder offers a few technical innovations, hobbyists who build scale model and personal-size craft have developed a few technical innovations that were absent on the gigantic Russian built W.I.G. craft that sail-flew over the Caspian Sea. The excess wingspan of the Russian craft and the concept Boeing Pelican hybrid-W.I.G. craft was deemed problematic, with wingtips making contact with water surface during turn maneuvers. W.I.G. researchers now seek to develop craft with narrow wingspan and extended length of wing, the chord. One operational craft from Germany incorporates a for-and-aft tandem wing layout.

Evolving Ideas:

Hobby W.I.G. builders have tested examples that expand on the tandem wing concept, using 3 and 4-intakes placed at successively higher elevation from front to back, with the rearmost intake being placed at the higher elevation. The outer edges of each wing merges into a vertical fin on each side that gently tapers toward the fuselage at the stern. A pair of cone intakes mounted above the outer edge of the wings is another concept being evaluated. Air enters a circular intake that covers double the cross-sectional area of a downward facing exit.

When the craft is moving, air flows into the intake and then into the cone section of decreasing cross-sectional area and into the downward facing narrow and long rectangular exit located below the cone. A fast moving downdraft flows from the rectangular exit. The dynamic forward movement of the craft produces a similar downdraft of air that occurred around the perimeter of a hovercraft, except that hovercraft used a powered fan to pump a downdraft of air. The multi-wing concept and hovercraft downdraft are among several ideas and concepts that hobby W.I.G. builders and enthusiasts are exploring.

Retractable Keel/Rudder:

It is technically possible to install a retractable lightweight keel and rudder both mounted on a spring suspension, under a W.I.G. craft to improve directional control when operating through narrow channels and between narrow bridge piers. During deployment, pilots would slow the craft and lower the keel and rudder upon approach to a narrow passage. On most occasions, the craft’s wings would carry most of its weight, except on approach to extreme narrow passages with minimal side clearance when the craft would touch down on to the water surface and sail like a boat.

Access along Rivers:

The St Lawrence River speedboat proposal led to an evaluation of a W.I.G. craft carrying passengers along that waterway that allows 42-metres (140-feet) beam and 36-metres (115-ft) vertical clearance or air draft below the bridges. Between early May to late September, a variety of personal and recreational watercraft sailed along the St Lawrence River, along with commercial shipping. While the largest Korean built W.I.G. craft could operate along the St Lawrence River, it would need to avoid other watercraft. Between Montreal and Ottawa, a ramp built near a navigation lock would allow W.I.G. craft to bypass the lock.

The 60-metre inner spacing between two railway bridge piers would allow passage to W.I.G. craft that sailed with wingspan of 23-metres, with some 4-metres vertical clearance below the bridges as the craft sailed at 1-metre elevation above water. The Canadian evaluation suggested that the width between bridge piers and vertical clearance below bridges over rivers in some other countries would allow passage to W.I.G. craft. Such craft may travel over gently sloping side ramps to bypass navigation locks and dams along rivers. Railway signals and gates could stop road traffic where W.I.G. ramps cross roadways.


The research from the St Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers may serve as a basis by which to evaluate access for W.I.G. craft on other rivers internationally, where they may carry passengers and/or freight between main cities. The list would include:

Parana River: Buenos Aires – Rosario/Santa Fe – Corrientes with extension into southeastern Paraguay and southwestern Brazil

Paraguay River: Corrientes – Asuncion

Orinoco River: Ciudad Bolivar – San Fernando 

Ganges River: Allahabad – Fatehgarh – Bijnor

Nile River: Cairo – Luxor (ramps needed to bypass cataracts/dams), Khartoum – Malakal

Niger and Benue Rivers: Regional transportation within Nigeria

Congo/Kasai/Lukuga Rivers: Regional transportation within Congo, including access to/from Lake Tanzania

Euphrates River: Baghdad – Basra – Abadan – Kuwait

Indus River: Karachi – Sukkur – Jinnah Bridge, Chenab River to Gujrat

Amazon River: Belem – Obidos – Manaus (access to many communities)

Sao Francisco (Brazil): Propria – Petrolina – Carinhanha

Lagoa dos Patos (Brazil): Porto Alegre – Rio Grande

Volga River: Kuybyshev – Volgograd – Astrakhan, Kuybyshev – Kazan

Dniepr River: Kiev – Dnepropetrovsk

Yangtze River: Wuhan – Nanking  

United States:

Lake Erie (Winter): Detroit/Toledo – Buffalo

Long Island Sound: Manhattan – New London – Providence R.I.

Yukon River: Fairbanks – communities along river

Colorado River: Yuma – Las Vegas/Hoover Dam (ramp at Davis Dam)

Rio Grande: El Paso – Albuquerque (ramps at dams)

Platte River: Omaha – Scottsbluff, Omaha – Sterling/Greeley 

Missouri River: Jefferson City – St Louis

Hudson River: Albany – New York City

Chesapeake Bay/Susquehanna River: Norfolk – Baltimore – Harrisburg

Chesapeake Bay/Potomac River: Norfolk – Washington

St John’s River (Florida): Orlando – Jacksonville

Illinois River: St Louis – Peoria (ramps needed to bypass locks)

Laguna Madre: Brownsville – Corpus Christi

Strait of Georgia/Puget Sound: Seattle/Tacoma – Vancouver, Canada

Columbia River: Portland – Richland

Des Moines River: Des Moines – Ottumwa

Missouri River: Bismarck - Pierre (ramps need by bypass dams to allow extended access between Williston and Sioux City, possible access to Great Falls), Sioux City – Council Bluffs/Omaha 


Peace/Slave/Mackenzie Rivers: Fast Access to Remote Communities between Fort McMurray and Beaufort Sea, Great Bear Lake, Great Slave Lake and Lake Athabasca

St Lawrence River: Montreal – Quebec City and Riviere-du-Loup

Ottawa River: Montreal Ottawa (ramp needed at navigation lock)

Lake Ontario (Winter): Toronto – Kingston and Port of Prescott

Rainy/Winnipeg Rivers: Lake Superior – Lake Winnipeg (waterways need to be interconnected by ramps)

Lake Winnipeg: Winnipeg to remote communities and into eastern section of Saskatchewan River

Development Costs:

There are many wide rivers that are too shallow to allow for navigation, or where navigation is not allowed. W.I.G. craft may sail above the water surface along sections of such rivers that include India’s Ganges River. The cost of developing a right-of-way for W.I.G craft is less costly than the cost of building a canal. A wide and graded slope will provide the craft with access between waterways located at different elevations. In developing nations, W.I.G. craft that can sail above the water and short distances over suitable land may offer feasible intercity transportation.


Ongoing research and development of scale model W.I.G. craft involves new and modified ideas that may form the basis of future vehicles. Many of these ideas seem to be “open source”.

The concept of a narrower wingspan, multiple successive wings and extended chord length is proven and compatible with the horizontal air intakes to high-mounted cones at the wingtips that each produces a narrow and long vertical downdraft of air.

That downdraft helps produce a cyclone between each wing and the water surface and carries the craft as it skims above water

The narrower wingspan and extended chord reduces the chance of the wingtips striking the water surface during turn maneuvers

Wing-in-ground effect craft may be able to sail along many inland waterways internationally, including developed nations with poor roads and barely functional railways. In such nations, W.I.G. craft may incur lower operating costs that road or railway vehicles, while offering faster travel speeds.


Harry Valentine has a degree in mechanical engineering from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada specializing in thermodynamics (energy conversion) and transportation technology. He has worked as a technical journalist for the past 10-years and has more than 2 decades of research in the transportation industry. He can be reached at harrycv@hotmail.com.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.