By Ricardo Maldonado Rozo
Cartagena, Colombia, Oct 31 (EFE).- The 42 crewmembers of the Colombian navy’s submarine ARC Pijao are in standing in formation and ready to set sail but are praying together before submerging that their current mission will go without a hitch and they will return to port safe and sound.
This is one of the few times that the crew will be informed about the purpose of the mission because normally orders are limited to telling them that they must make themselves ready for a certain number of days at sea. This time, however, the task is different: it will be the celebration of 50 years of Colombia’s submarine fleet operations, and an EFE team was invited to participate.
“On a submarine, there is room for everything except for a mistake because the mistake can cost you your life,” the deputy commander of the vessel. Freddy Peralta, who has spent the past 19 years of his 21-year navy career on board the ARC Pijao.
A sub is a completely different world. Space is very restricted, there are only two cramped but fully equipped bathrooms and there are not enough beds for the entire crew, and so they have to rotate the bunks and once one crewmember gets up another changes the sheets and turns in for the “night.”
When you board the ARC Pijao you lose all connection with the outside world. There is communication only with the top navy command via sophisticated systems, the air you breathe and the air pressure are both strictly regulated.
The vessel is piloted by three sailors, with one operating the “wheel,” so to speak, which turns only to the left or right, another managing the ability to submerge and the third handling the surfacing operations.
The sub fleet consists of two type U209-1200 vessels – the ARC Pijao and ARC Tayrona – and two more SX-506 vessels, the ARC Intrepido and the ARC Indomable, of German manufacture and which are due to be at the Cartagena de Indias Naval Base on Nov. 4 for the 50th anniversary celebration.
During a short trip on which the Pijao submerged to 150 meters (492 feet), the boat’s commander, Harvey Murcia, told EFE that the sub fleet’s 50-year anniversary is a “source of pride, of encouragement to keep moving forward” on a task that represents part of Colombia’s “strategic power.”
“The importance of our submarine force is to be able to provide the country with that maritime security; for the maritime communications lines to have that strategic, credible support; for the countries of the region to know that Colombia has this naval power,” the officer said.
Murcia said that the sub force guarantees that international trade can continue unimpeded in Colombia’s portion of the Caribbean Sea, given that the vessels represent the strength that “at this time is needed to continue guaranteeing the coming and going of those ships.”
“The future of the submarine force in Colombia is promising, positive because all Colombians are confident that in the near future we will have new submarines,” he added.
The ARC Pijao recently participated in naval exercises with the USS Minnesota, a nuclear-powered US vessel, which for the Colombian navy is a sign of Washington’s confidence given that this is the first time that a sub with those characteristics has sailed in Colombian waters.
Murcia said that the naval exercises included detecting the US “intruder,” a task “which is very difficult.”
“In that exercise things went very well for us. We made several detections of the (US vessel),” he noted.
Meanwhile, Peralta, who is probably the officer who knows the ARC Pijao best, said nostalgically that he thinks that “not more than one or two years of sailing” remain for the boat because it must be retired.
He noted that during periods of tension with Venezuela he had to face the reality of a potential confrontation, adding that “the first time I was in that situation, I was a torpedoman.”
Despite these situations and sailing, which in and of itself is a highly risky endeavor, Peralta said that what he likes most “is the camaraderie there is among all the junior officers and (senior) officers, the commitment that exists among the entire crew because basically we’re depending on ourselves and on the comrades I have by my side.”