The Ocean Fast Ferries or Oceanjet

Many except for those from the Central Visayas do not know that Ocean Fast Ferries, more commonly known as Oceanjet is already the Philippines’ largest operator of High Speed Crafts or HSCs. This is especially true in Luzon which has only been recently exposed to the Oceanjets when they invaded Batangas. Therefore, many think that the old king SuperCat is still reigning because the ads and glitz are still around and they still have the best booking service and so foreigners and tourists easily find them online. Being connected to 2GO doesn’t hurt them either.

Oceanjet actually did not start very late as some might surmise. They only came a little later than Bullet Express and SuperCat and almost about the same time as Waterjet and the Sea Angels of Negros Navigation. They were even a little ahead of SRN Fastcrafts (which is more popularly known as Weesam Express) which started in Zamboanga and the SeaCats of ACG Express Liner. All of those mentioned actually came only in the mid-1990’s. The Montenegro Shipping Lines fastcrafts came significantly later than them and still much later did Star Crafts and Lite Ferries started operating High Speed Crafts.

Ocean Fast Ferries did not start with a bang. Neither did they expand very fast and they were actually on the conservative side. The other HSC operators were overly ambitious and they paid for that mistake. Some coalesced, some were driven out of business. Because of the fast expansion of the High Speed Craft sector, there came an instant overcapacity in the late 1990’s. Filipinos are still poor and so the fare is a big decision point for them. Most are not willing to pay fares of the HSCs which in general were double the fare of the ordinary ferry. The reason for this is HSCs gobble a lot of fuel because they have oversized engines plus they don’t carry a significant amount of cargo.

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Since Oceanjet did not expand fast in the early days of the High Speed Crafts, they were able to avoid the mistakes of their competitors. They only started expanding in 2001 when the dust of competition in the HSC sector already started to settle. The Ocean Fast Ferries expansion seem to come in batches. In 2001 to 2003, their brand-new Oceanjet 3, Oceanjet 5 and Oceanjet 6 which were all sister ships started arriving from their builder Cheoy Lee of Hongkong. These were the first brand-new HSCs for Ocean Fast Ferries as the Oceanjet 1 and Oceanjet 2 which they acquired in 1996 were just bought second-hand from Japan.

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These trio of sister ships brought success and recognition for Ocean Fast Ferries. They were not that fast (as in sub-30 knots while the SuperCats and Weesam Express fastcrafts were capable of speeds over 30 knots) but they were big and high. It seems these trio started a design template for Ocean Fast Ferries. Moreover, the trio also started the engine combination favored by Oceanjet which is a pair of Cummins engines with each developing 1,800 horsepower for a total of 3,600 horsepower and a speed of less than 30 knots. While not that that fast the engine combination saved fuel, the parts are easy to source (Cummins has a depot in Cebu), engineers are familiar with it and Cummins is a good engine make.

Oceanjet was also not fond of waterjets for propulsion and instead relied on the trusty propeller unlike some of their competitors. Waterjets are also more maintenance-intensive and it can foul in the dirty waters of our ports especially in Cebu and that can send schedules awry when an engine can’t propel because its waterjet sucked in garbage. They tend to consume more fuel too. Of course in speed they are matchless. The speed where waterjets become inefficient (that is when it can’t push anymore even if more fuel is added) comes much later than that of a propeller.

It took seven years before Ocean Fast Ferries acquired another High Speed Craft after that trio of sister ships. In 2010, they purchased the Oceanjet 7, an old but gold Westermoen catamaran. This was the first cat of the company and it was an antithetical acquisition. Maybe they were attracted by the solid and high reputation of a Westermoen. Maybe it was the price that attracted them. Or a combination of that and the reputation. I really don’t know. Suffice to say this old cat proved its value to them and is still reliable.

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One big supplier of High Speed Crafts in the world especially aluminum-hulled ones is Australia. It came naturally for them as they are a boating country and they were once the king of aluminum. However, in this decade Australia stopped production of High Speed Crafts because with their high labor cost and the strengthening of their currency they were no longer competitive in the world market. So what they did is they were just selling HSCs in kits to be assembled by the buyer.

One of those that took advantage of this was Ocean Fast Ferries. In Mandaue, Cebu, in their own reclaimed land they put up a related company to assemble HSC kits. This was the Golden Dragon Shipyard. In finishing they just drag the near-completed ships using rubber bellows to their shipyard in Labogon where repair works and drydocking is done to the vessels of their other shipping companies. The launching and completion of the new Oceanjets are just done in Labogon shipyard.

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Out of this process came the sister ships Oceanjet 8, Oceanjet 88, Oceanjet 888, Oceanjet 168 and Oceanjet 188 from 2011 to 2016. Australian engineers came to assist in the assembly of the first kit-built Oceanjet 8 but this took the longest to be built because of the locals’ unfamiliarity (well, the first is always the hardest). These were also high fastcrafts and maybe that helped Oceanjet because there are many passengers who are not comfortable with low-lying crafts like the Malaysian-built fastcrafts. That seems to be one disadvantage of the fleet of Weesam Express. Many passengers get the chills when they see water spray in their craft’s windows.

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These five fastcrafts followed the same engine template favored by Ocean Fast Ferries which is the 2 x 1,800 horsepower Cummins engines. Again, the speed is not that much at sub-30 knots. But Ocean Fast Ferries guessed well. Nobody was still running at over 30 knots when fuel prices really got high. While fuel is already lower right now still nobody runs at over 30 knots because their engines are already old. They either can’t do it anymore or they are already preserving the engines.

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And that comes round to one of the strengths of Ocean Fast Ferries – they really have the financial muscle to buy new engines and they can afford to re-engine their old High Speed Crafts, an endeavor that their main competitors SuperCat and Weesam Express can no longer do because of weaker financials. Another show of their financial muscle and the effort to stay ahead of the curb is they are currently retrofitting their fastcrafts to the axe bow which gives more speed with lower fuel consumption.

So Ocean Fast Ferries started being the laggard but now their High Speed Crafts are already faster than their competition with its old engines. What a reversal! It is only Weesam Express which try to give them a fight in the speed department and this might be more out of pride and not of technicals.

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Photo by Nowell Alcancia

While acquiring these five HSCs built-from-kits, Ocean Fast Ferries also acquired High Speed Crafts offered to them by competition which quit the HSC field. In 2013, they acquired the Paras Sea Cat which already stopped operations. This was originally a Misamis Oriental-built Medium Speed Craft (MSC) capable only of 17 knots with its hand-me-down Caterpillar engines from SuperCat and a heavier hull that was not aluminum. As Oceanjet 9, she was recently re-engined and she is now capable of 26 knots and so qualifying her as a true High Speed Craft. Incidentally, her hull design was copied from SuperCat 26 (later the St. Emmanuel) making them sister ships but Oceanjet will outrun her sister anytime.

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Photo by Raymond Lapus

In 2015, Lite Shipping decided High Speed Crafts is not their cup of tea. So they sold their High Speed Crafts – the Lite Jet 1, Lite Jet 8 and Lite Jet 9 to Ocean Fast Ferries. These became the Oceanjet 11, Oceanjet 10 and Oceanjet 12, respectively. They were re-engined one by one especially the latter whose engines were not that strong after stints in Hongkong and Vietnam. They all can do 25 knots now or better. Golden Dragon Shipyard made alterations to their superstructure including on Oceanjet 9. I do not know but maybe they want a better feng shui or maybe better looks more suited to their taste.

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Photo by Raymond Lapus

Very recently, in 2016, the Lite Jet 15 arrived for them from Japan. This is to be used on their new Tuburan-Estancia route. With a growing fleet, the route system of Ocean Fast Ferries is expanding along with the frequencies. They are doing well and giving all that SuperCat can handle in the premier-for-HSCs Batangas-Calapan route along with the Bacolod-Iloilo, Cebu-Tagbilaran and Cebu-Ormoc routes. Their route system also includes Tagbilaran-Dumaguete and Dumaguete-Siquijor plus a Cebu-Tubigon route that they inherited from Lite Ferries. Recently they also opened a Cebu-Camotes route, a successor of their Goldenbridge Shipping route where once the Golden Express MSCs were sailing. So as of today Ocean Fast Ferries has the widest route network in the HSC field in the Philippines.

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Lite Ferry 15 by Jan Dumapias

Right now, July of 2017, Ocean Fast Ferries has a total of 16 High Speed Crafts and all of those have good engines (one will almost never hear of an Oceanjet HSC having trouble while at sea). That is more double the eight HSCs still sailing for SuperCat and even if the third-ranked Weesam Express fleet of seven is added to that, the Oceanjet fleet will still be bigger. Yes, Ocean Fast Ferries or Oceanjet is already dominant in the HSC sector of the Philippines. They did that by continuously adding HSCs over the years and equipping them with good engines always and so their fleet never seems to get old.

What is their secret? Many cannot connect that the owning Lua family of Ocean Fast Ferries is simply loaded that they need not take any profits from the operation of Oceanjet and they can simply reinvest all profits. They also don’t have any stockholders to please and so they can take the long-term view. Their main moneymaker is actually the Nature Spring mineral water, the #1 brand in the Philippines. They have a big reclaimed land in Labogon in the Cansaga Bay of Cebu where the Golden Dragon Shipyard is located. This also hosts there Goldenbridge Shipping, one of the pioneers in the fast-gaining RORO Cargo LCT sector. That company also carries their bottled water. Part of Goldenbridge was the old Golden Express MSCs that were once Bullet Express HSCs (they were able to purchase the remains of that company).

They are also not new in shipping. Before Oceanjet and Goldenbridge they were already in cargo shipping using trampers. The Lua family owns Unilink Shipping Corporation and Unified Global Shipping Corporation aside from the earlier Socor Shipping Corporation, the forerunner of Goldenbridge Shipping Corporation. In these shipping corporations the Lua family has an additional 15 ships, more or less and that includes some true cement carriers. The Lua family is big in the construction and hardware industry of Cebu and it seems they are also in trading including cement trading. That is the financial muscle of this group most people don’t see.

SuperCat is trying to close the gap with two new High Speed Crafts from Austal Philippines in Balamban, Cebu. But I wonder if that will be enough. For some time to come I see Oceanjet reigning in the HSC field in the Philippines.

Maybe it’s time for them to make some noise?

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