The MS Express That Turned Into The Star Crafts 7

I first saw the MS Express live inside the Varadero de Recodo (“varadero” is Spanish for shipyard and Chavacano of Zamboanga is a Spanish creole language), a shipyard in Zamboanga City some five years ago now. The High Speed Craft (HSC) was laid up there together with the AS Express and RS Express and they were all Malaysia-built fastcrafts of the Zamboanga-based shipping company A. Sakaluran (for Hadji Ahmad Sakaluran, the founder). The said shipping company has already stopped sailing then and that included even their cruiser ferries like the Rizma. When I approached the fastcrafts, I found out that they still have a caretaker crew and they were friendly if a little bit depressed, shall I say (who won’t be in such a situation anyway and there was further reason for that, I later found out).

It was a great opportunity for me because I really wanted to shipspot the A. Sakaluran fastcrafts which was the Zamboanga pioneer in fastcrafts if the Bullet Express fastcrafts of Lepeng Wee (Speaker Ramon Mitra was not the true owner of those unlike what was said by urban legend) are excluded because those did not base in Zamboanga and plied other routes starting in Batangas. Actually, they even antedated the more-known Weesam Express (or more formally SRN Fastcrafts) which later moved to the Visayas. In real life, the two shipping companies are related by blood but A. Sakaluran was into shipping much earlier starting with with what I call the “Moro boats” which is the Mindanao equivalent of the batel in Luzon or lancha in other places and which is based on the Arab dhow.


So, actually I was very saddened by the collapse of A. Sakaluran evidenced by their stopping of sailing. I am always saddened with the departure of the old shipping companies because we again will lose a part of our shipping heritage and history. The reason is unlike abroad we are not good in collecting and preserving records and mementos. In other countries, books about old shipping companies can be written decades after they were gone because there are complete written records plus valuable photos. That is not the situation in our country which is not too keen in history (courtesy of the destruction of the Spaniards of our old history). Actually, I try to write because I want to commit on record what I know and what I remember about our shipping history.

The collapse of A. Sakaluran might follow the analysis of my friend, the Zamboanga-based Administrator of Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS), Britz Salih. He said the small Basilan Lines might have survived if they bought ROROs instead of the Australian catamaran Malamawi. That can also be true for A. Sakaluran. They might have had a longer life if instead of the three fastcrafts they acquired ROROs or maybe additional steel-hulled cruiser ferries. Fastcrafts were not cheap then but maybe the sales pitch of the Sibu fastcraft companies proved to be too tempting. It was also a success already then in Malaysia and in Singapore and so the implication is they will also be successful here.

In such a short time, Zamboanga had such a high concentration of High Speed Crafts (HSC) and mainly fastcrafts of Malaysian origin. Coupled with the sudden rise too in the number of ROROs because of the incentives of the Ramos administration there soon was overcompetition in Zamboanga (but the erroneous paper done by Myrna S. Austria didn’t see that because she believed the incomplete reports of the government agencies). Add to that the wont of passengers in Zamboanga not to pay fares if they are related to the owners or they are the followers of some VIPs, soon the High Speed Crafts of Zamboanga were threatened with bankruptcy (HSCs will go down first before the ROROs because they can’t carry a meaningful load of cargo and these have oversized engines guzzling large amounts of fuel and not the cheaper MDO by the way). In such a situation, Weesam Express brought most of their fastcrafts to the Visayas. Meanwhile, A. Sakaluran transferred two of their three fastcrafts to Batangas and one to Iloilo.


The A. Sakaluran fastcrafts anchored in Batangas Bay (Photo by Nowell Alcancia)

The diversion did not prove to be successful because when A. Sakaluran transferred to Batangas there was also overcompetition there (when clueless-about-shipping Myrna S. Austria contended in her Philippine Institute for Development Studies paper that there was lack of competition there because she did not see that the government reports she was basing on was highly incomplete). Batangas was not only the base then of ever-increasing number of ROROs but also of High Speed Crafts especially the tough-to-beat, state-of-the-art SuperCats. Losing money, in a few short years the fastcrafts of A. Sakaluran were found just anchored in Batangas Bay and not sailing. And then these were no longer seen there again. However, they were spotted anchored in Bacolod a short while later before they disappeared once more.


The MS Express spotted anchored in Bacolod (Photo by “boybacolod2”)

And so in one of my visits to Varadero de Recodo, I was really thrilled to see the three A. Sakaluran fastcrafts after they disappeared from view in Batangas. That was the confirmation that they were still alive and not sold anywhere else like in Indonesia which uses a lot of Malaysian-built fastcrafts. That was really a thrilling find since those fastcrafts were still in good condition and not just some kind of old and balky ferries.


Just what is their origins? The MS Express is a fastcraft built in 1999 by Yong Choo Kui (YCK) in Sibu on the western shore of Sabah, Malaysia, the birthplace of the Malaysian type of fastcrafts. She was like almost all the other Malaysian fastcrafts which were developed by the Malaysian government from a riverboat design. That means a long sleek hull with a narrow beam and sitting low on the water but with oversized engines. The hull is made of strong steel unlike many High Speed Crafts with aluminum alloy hulls. I was told the hull was designed even for beaching if needed.

Now, I do not know if the tale that they can survive a 360-degree cartwheel but of course any passenger or crew not in harness will suffer injury from that. They are known for good seakeeping and stability but many fear wave splashes on the windows thinking it is already a sign of danger when definitely it is not. Well, I guarantee the waves of Celebes Sea can be higher than that and I have personally experienced it there in a fastcraft when we took the direct route from Baganian Peninsula to Zamboanga City and it was habagat (southwest monsoon) time. But the passengers there are used to rougher seas and bigger waves and we all agreed it was simply time to sleep already when it was actually daytime. Well, rather than worry we were not seeing any land anymore.

The MS Express has a registered length (LR) of 40.7 meters, a beam of 4.7 meters and a depth of 2.3 meters and so her height to depth ratio is actually very low which is a big factor in stability. Her gross tonnage is 143 and her net tonnage is only 25 (which I have doubt if that is correct). Like the RS Express and the Sea Jet of Aleson Shipping Lines she was powered by twin Mitsubishi high-speed engines with a total of 3,100 horsepower. Her design speed was 30 knots which is high-speed craft range even in the high European standard. The only problem with big engines in a small craft like a fastcraft is they generate a lot of heat and at full trot dissipating them becomes a problem. However, with no cabin above the engine this is less of a problem in MS Express unlike in Weesam Express fastcrafts.


The stem of MS Express is raked as can be expected of fastcrafts and the stern is transom. There is a main passenger cabin which is airconditioned and on a stair leading to the upper deck is the bridge and behind that was still a half-deck of passenger accommodation. There is the usual-for-HSCs single mast with flashing light which distinguishes High Speed Crafts from other vessels especially in the night. A distinguishing mark for MS Express is the presence of two tall, slanted funnels with the air intakes for the engines just ahead of the funnels.

The pilot houses of the Malaysian fastcrafts are not as great as the High Speed Crafts from Japan and might even look primitive to some. There is that big stainless steel steering wheel (why is it not powered?) and the throttles are just at the right of the helmsman who sits on the port side of the pilot house. At the middle of the dashboard are the gauges and monitors of the ship. The side windows of the pilot houses can swing out.

In Varadero de Recodo, me and Britz heard the three A. Sakaluran fastcrafts have a buyer already and the amount we heard seems to be ridiculously low for us knowing what their original prices were (well, laid-up vessels usually don’t command good prices unless it is in Korea). But on my visit back to Varadero de Recodo, I heard Ernesto Ouano of Mandaue offered a much higher price for the three. Me and my companion Britz looked at each other. We know there are implications for that but we cannot be sure if that was related to an unfortunate incident that occurred in Mandaue later (as we say your guess is as good as mine).

And so one by one the three A. Sakaluran fastcrafts disappeared from Varadero de Recodo starting in late 2012 with the AS Express going first and the RS Express the last remaining. They were to be brought back under their own power to Sibu for refurbishing and that was a puzzle for us. They don’t look in need of massive refitting and so what was the need then to bring them back to Sibu? Why not Cebu directly? That great shipping place has a lot of shipyards and Varadero de Recodo is also a shipyard. Later it turned out that they will be re-engined also and there will be some other modifications. And so maybe re-engining was the major reason for bringing them back to Sibu. We knew they will already be Star Crafts upon their return.


It will be 2014 already when MS Express returned to the country and she turned out to be the Star Crafts 7 of the shipping company known as either SITI Interisland or Sea Highway Carrier. There is really no difference between the two but everybody knows them as Star Crafts. The mutual legal-fiction companies have two routes from Cebu to Bohol which are to Tubigon and Jetafe (or Getafe) which are just a distance of about 20 nautical miles or so each. And maybe this is why the reason they derated the engine to a YC Diesel (or Yuchai) of China of just a total of 1,850 horsepower with a cruising speed of about 20 knots or a little bit above, just good enough for her to quality as a fastcraft by PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) definition as MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency has no definition for that.

The upper deck of the fastcraft was lengthened a little by three windows. It has two direct stairs to the upper deck of the ship and it seems primary loading now is through the upper deck as the fastcraft sits low now compared to the docks. The high funnels are no longer around and those were transferred to the stern (that is good because including the derated engines means less noise for the passenger cabins). There is also now a built-up structure in the stern for the crew (they look more like cadets to me, however, as the real crew seems to be just in T-shirts). Between that and the upper passenger deck is space for some light cargo.


The big negative thing that happened to the fastcraft as Star Crafts 7 is in the seating arrangement that is now 4+4 with a small seat pitch which is the distance between the seats and so seating is very tight and there is obvious lack of space. Star Crafts 7 is the tightest-sitting High Speed Craft I ever saw and I wonder if Boholanos are not complaining . She is now a slower fastcraft with tight spaces and almost no legroom. And of course the seats are not reclining.

Now I wonder what kind of refurbishing or improvement is that? It looks more like downgrading to me. For the ownership and the revenues that is good and a plus. But for the passengers, what is the benefit of that? The ship has no canteen and so a crewman not in uniform hawks food when the ship is already sailing (that is also what I observed in Starcrafts 1). Well, even if there is a canteen someone not in the aisle will have difficulty in getting out. The tight spaces forbid movement for the entire ride as the passengers in the cheapest class (which is also airconditioned) are packed like sardines. This cheapest class occupies majority of the passenger accommodation in the fastcraft.

There are also higher class passenger accommodations in the upper deck that seats 3+3 and 3+4 which have a different seat motif and these sell higher. I wonder if they call that the Business Class. Those were farther from the engines but of course the upper deck will sway more in rough seas. Maybe with less water splash the view of the outside is better there.

Her route is Cebu-Tubigon when I rode with her and from Tubigon it took us a few minutes over one hour and part of the reason is the slowing down approaching Shell island because of the speed limit imposed in Mactan Channel now. By whatever measure, I cannot say my ride with her was comfortable and actually I was disappointed.


Star Crafts is dominating the Tubigon and Jetafe routes at the High Speed Crafts  segment (that route has many ROROs) especially since Lite Jet is already gone and it seems the Star Crafts 7 is also successful too. But it is my wish that she would be more comfortable. What is the cost anyway of removing a few seats? A High Speed Craft should offer more room, better leg space and better seats than a tourist bus, I should say, if they will use “Tourist” as designation of the passenger class. Am I wrong? After all, a High Speed Craft is the bigger craft, it costs more and so why not make it more comfortable all the way? That way, they will be deserving of the higher class or segment they are thought of to be occupying.


The “Seven Sisters”

In the world, there was once what was called as the “Seven Sisters”. These were the biggest oil companies in the world for more than half a century from the 1930’s to the 1980’s when further consolidation happened within their ranks. Five of the “Seven Sisters” were offspring of the forcibly broken-up Standard Oil Company of John D. Rockefeller, the most famous monopolist of the modern era which was hit by anti-trust legislation in the US as it was engaged in practices that restrict free trade. These were Exxon (Standard Oil of New Jersey), Mobil (Standard Oil of New York), Texaco, Socal (Standard Oil of California) and Gulf Oil. The two others were the biggest oil companies of Europe which were Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum (BP). Together, the “Seven Sisters” were suspected of collusion in fixing the prices of crude oil and the refined oil products and also in “transfer pricing”. The biggest of the “Seven Sisters” were among the biggest companies in the world in their heydays in the company of General Motors, First National City Bank and General Electric which were held in very high regard for the bigness and in market and financial clout.

In the Philippines, there is also what could be considered a version of the “Seven Sisters” if only for pun. These were the catamaran High Speed Crafts (HSCs) which all came from Macau as the share of Universal of Macau in Universal Aboitiz Inc. The seven catamarans are all sister ships built in Singapore by FBM Marinteknik which arrived in 1995 to 1996 which all but sank the hopes of competition (yes, they were as dominant as the “Seven Sisters” of the oil world). They were not brand-new but they were as good as that. Their names were SuperCat-I (the former Oregrund), SuperCat 2 (former Camoes), SuperCat 3 (former Estrela do Mar), SuperCat 5 (former Lusitano), SuperCat 7 (former Universal Mk. 1), SuperCat 8 (former Magellan) and SuperCat 9 (former Santa Cruz). Formerly, they were used in routes from Macau including Hongkong.

These “Seven Sisters” were the fastest ever to sail Philippine waters in the recent era. Powered by twin waterjets which prevent early cavitation, the seven were all capable of 38 knots sustained. That was almost double of the SuperFerries of the period and more than triple the 11 knots average of the common short-distance ferries then. Early in their careers the passengers marvelled at their very short route transit times like in Batangas-Calapan which just takes them 45 minutes versus the two-and-a-half hours of the regular ferries.

The lengths of the “Seven Sisters” were almost the same and averages 41.5 meters which was more than the average basic, short-distance ferry-RORO (that means they are not really small). Their breadths were all 11.0 meters and their depths between 3.6 to 3.8 meters. The gross tonnages ranged from 449 to 458 while the net tonnages ranged from 151 to 155, all small differences. The passenger capacities, meanwhile, ranged from 306 to 322. But all of them were powered by twin MTU engines with a total of 5,200 horsepower. They were the most powerful High Speed Craft engines ever seen in Philippine waters.supercat-7-marlon-griego

These “Seven Sisters” featured aluminum hulls for lighter weight. All had single masts, raked stems and transom sterns. The sisters had single passenger decks which means they all had low centers of gravity with the pilot house high above that. Aside from the common navigational devices, all had night vision devices, autopilots, joysticks and motion dampening systems. The engine room can also be monitored from the bridge.

Aboard, the passenger compartment featured airline-type seats with seatbelts. There were well-trained stewards and stewardesses to assist the passengers and make them comfortable. There was a perception of space and the passenger compartment floor is carpeted. However, at full speed the hum of the engines were audible (but it was a pleasant hum as they were MTUs) and in exchange of that there is really a perception of speed and great capability in acceleration.

These catamaran High Speed Crafts were fielded in the Batangas-Calapan, Bacolod-Iloilo, Cebu-Ormoc, Cebu-Tagbilaran-Dumaguete-Dapitan (with a Siquijor extension at one time) and Cebu-Maasin-Surigao routes. It was the time when High Speed Crafts were being used from short to long routes that were once done by overnight ferries. The first three routes were successes, the last one was a failure while the fourth was marginal. It was in the shorter routes where the “Seven Sisters” found success.

Along with the SuperCat 6 and SuperCat 10 which were of different designs, these SuperCats were so successful in a very crowded High Speed Craft field that included competitors like the fastcrafts of the Viva Shipping Lines combine, the fastcrafts of Bullet Express, the two High Speed Crafts of Oceanjet, the SeaCats of ACG Express Liner, etc. that their very direct competitors, the Sea Angels of Negros Navigation Company and the catamarans of Water Jet Shipping Company folded and merged with them to form the Philippine Fast Ferry Corporation (PFFC).

Their fielding, however, nearly coincided with the 9/11 attack in the New York City towers and the subsequent launching of the US with retaliatory wars and interventions in the Middle East which slowly but consistently rose the price of oil. With nearly 17 horsepower per person, the highest ratio in local waters, the local “Seven Sisters” soon found their fuel consumption was simply too high. Incidentally, all merged Sea Angels and Waterjets also had the same powerplants as the “Seven Sisters”, the 5,200-horsepower MTUs. Moreover, the waterjets proved a little troublesome for the unclean waters of our ports when trash sometimes get sucked by the waterjets which threw schedules awry (they can’t run well with the waterjets clogged thus voyages were cancelled because maintenance has to be made first).

The Philippine Fast Ferry Corporation then had a policy decision to shift away from waterjets and the thirsty MTU engines. One by one, the merged Sea Angels, Waterjets and the Seven Sisters were sold and all to foreign buyers. By the mid-2000s none of them were left. SuperCat 3, 5, 7, 8 and 9 were sold to Jadrolinija of Croatia while SuperCat-I was sold to Tahiti and SuperCat 2 was sold to South Korea. SuperCat 3 became the Karolina, SuperCat 5 became the Judita, SuperCat 7 became the Novalja, SuperCat 8 became the Dubravka and SuperCat 9 became the Bisovo. Meanwhile, SuperCat-I became the Normandie Express (later as Moorea Express) and SuperCat 2 became the Korea Express. What replaced them in the SuperCat fleet were smaller High Speed Crafts of less power and speed, none were waterjets and some were fastcrafts. Except to that were the trimarans Tricat 50 and Tricat 2.

Later on, there were still some changes of ownership among the “Seven Sisters”. But rest assured all seven are still alive although they are elderly now (they are nearing 30 years of age) and might be nearing their end.

Still, they were fun when they were here. Even to just watch them make their run.


Photo Credits: Masahiro Homma, Marlon Griego, Vinz Sanchez, Nowell Alcancia, PSSS

The Long-Careered Delta III

The people of Central Visayas know this fastcraft because for a number of years she was sailing from Dumaguete to Siquijor which was probably her most successful route locally. She would leave at early morning and people at the port and at the Dumaguete Boulevard would watch her powerful wakes and wash that only a High Speed Craft can make. She also have that striking livery which was unlike other fastcrafts.

When I first saw her in Dumaguete, I was deceived. It did not enter my mind that Delta III was a fastcraft I once probably knew and might have even ridden. But thanks to the PSSS collaboration with of Angelo Blasutta which was a very good database when it was still functional, I was able to trace who she was. I must admit though that there are still a few uncertainties in her career especially since one company that owned her in the past, the Viva Shipping group had name and ownership changes in the fastcrafts they owned.

Another faction in my deception is the livery made her seem bigger, I think, and the truth is I did not think she would have survived the downs of the shipping companies which once owned her. Add to add her age. Fastcrafts are not known to live very long unlike the conventional ferries. In most cases, when the engines go that is also the end of this kind of craft. High speed engines also do not last as long as low speed engines (in metallurgical engineering they it is the total number of revolutions made that determines when the engine will give way). Another angle is the engines might still be alive but the revenues might no longer be enough for the fuel consumption That is quite true in High Speed Crafts whose engines are no longer efficient. And that is the reason why so many High Speed Crafts built in the 1980’s and 1990’s are on the market today because they are no longer profitable to operate.

Delta III is one of the oldest fastcrafts still running locally. She was built by Sumidagawa Shipyard Company of Tokyo, Japan in 1979 and she was first known as Shiokaze and her ID was IMO 7913945. says she was once known too as Marine Star and that was probably when she was still in Japan.

This fastcraft is not big although she is bigger than the smallest fastcrafts around like the Santander Expresses or the FastCraft Aznars which sail near the seas where Delta III sail. She is 26.7 meters in length over-all and she measures 25.9 meters in length between perpendiculars. Her breadth is 5.8 meters and she has a depth of 2.6 meters. Her dimensional weights are 152 gross tons and 43 net tons and her deadweight tonnage is 14 tons. Two of her sister ships were the Sachikaze and Oikaze which both went to Sun Cruises of Manila as the Island Cruisers and which then went to Viva Shipping Lines in 1994 to battle the newly-arrived SuperCats then in the Batangas-Calapan route. She is also sister ship to the Sazanami which went to Viva Shipping Lines also.

The Delta III has an aluminum alloy hull and she has a raked stem and transom stern. She has a single mast and and one passenger deck in serrated arrangement. Her original powerplant were most likely Detroit Diesels of over 2,000 horsepower and the original speed will be about 25 or 26 knots.

In 1995, she came to the Philippines to Viva Shipping Lines as the Our Lady of Fatima II. She was one of the six fastcrafts that came into the fleet of Viva Shipping Lines combine. There are confusions though in the maritime databases because of the renamings and the situation that not all fastcrafts and even those from Japan have IMO Numbers.

When Viva Shipping Lines began spiralling down in 2002 because of overcompetition, internal troubles and loss of patronage, she went to the fleet of the Blue Magic Ferries which was a successor company to Viva Shipping Lines and owned by the scions of that company. This company is headquartered in Lucena City, Quezon and is using the old base there of Viva Shipping Lines. Blue Magic Ferries tried to continue sailing from Lucena in alliance with the rump of ACG Express Liner, a Cebu shipping company which tried its fate in Batangas but which also lost. In Blue Magic Ferries Shiokaze was known as the Blue Water Lady II. Along this way, the fastcraft was re-engined to twin Caterpillar engines of 2,200 horsepower which lengthened her life and she was again capable of 25 knots.

In 2007, the struggles of Blue Magic Ferries intensified when their RORO ferry Blue Water Princess which came from ACG Express Liner capsized off Bondoc Peninsula of the province of Quezon in foul weather while doing a Lucena-Masbate route. In 2008, Blue Magic Ferries stopped sailing because of a franchise problem supposedly emanating from a dispute between the scions of the founder of Viva Shipping Lines.

After a lay-up in Lucena, the Blue Water Lady II was sold to DIMC Shipping of Dumaguete where she became the Delta III. She plied a regular route between Dumaguete and Siquijor even though at times DIMC Shipping had problems with competition. This was exacerbated when the invading ROROs of Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. came which was later followed by the ROROs of Aleson Shipping Lines. DIMC Shipping then earned bad repute by outright cancelling of trips when there are only a few tickets purchased for a trip and citing some weak reasons.

In 2014, DIMC Shipping quit and sold their last vessel, the Delta III to a Siquijor-based competitor, the GL Shipping Lines which was successful despite of “foreign” vessel entries to the island. She was renamed then as the GL Express 2. In a sense too, she is a replacement to the sunk GL Express of the company, the former Canoan Jet which in actuality was just a Medium Speed Craft already then. 

Where is this long-careered fastcraft headed? Honestly, I don’t know. All I know is I want her to continue to survive and continue sailing. As things stands now, she might already be in better hands as GL Shipping, to which Siquijodnons seem to have parochial loyalty. This company is thriving especially since she has the shorter route to Siquijor, Siquijor compared to competition.

GL Express 2 is now one of the oldest fastcrafts still existing in the country, a longevity earned despite going through many ownership changes. May she sail more in the future.


When SuperCat Ruled The Waves

SuperCat as a brand of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation started in the summer of 1994 in the Batangas-Calapan route with the fielding of the SuperCat 1. She was not the very first High Speed Craft in the route as Bullet Express 1 beat her by a day. However, SuperCat immediately made a very big splash and impact. It was super-fast compared to the local ferries and would only take 45 minutes for the 24-nautical mile route when other ferries in the route normally took 2.5 hours. And being a catamaran it made a lot of visual impression. She was also very comfortable considering there no airconditioning in any of the ferries in the route. There was also a smooth and true passenger service. I myself was there in Batangas port when the SuperCat 1 was formally launched and it was impressive.

Bullet Express 1 was also outclassed, overwhelmed and very soon it quit the route because they can’t match SuperCat and they went to the Visayas. Meanwhile, the old kingpin of the area, the Viva Shipping Lines immediately purchased two second-hand fastcrafts of Japan origins from the Sun Cruises of Manila to say they also have a fast one. It charged cheaper but they were not as fast as they took one hour for the route.

However, in about 4 months time, SuperCat 1 met a mishap and was wrecked on the western side of Verde Island soon after MARINA ruled she should take that route (before she took the route east of Verde Island and between the “Mag-asawang Pulo”). She hit an underwater obstacle and the superstructure completely deformed. There were suspicions of sabotage but the investigation ruled it was an accident. Whatever, Aboitiz had already sensed High Speed Crafts (HSCs) will be successful in the Philippines since SuperCat 1 had good patronage and many were impressed. Well, it was peak season when she came (a summer when many are going home) and the Batangas-Calapan route really lacked bottoms then and no ferry there had airconditioned accommodations and good service.

Aboitiz immediately sought a replacement to the wrecked SuperCat 1 and within months a new one arrived in the route and this was named the SuperCat I. Many thought this was a repaired version of SuperCat 1 but actually this was a different ship. Since Aboitiz thought High Speed Crafts will be successful in the Philippines and wants to jump the gun on the others, so to say, it partnered with a Macau operator of High Speed Crafts and the company Universal Aboitiz Inc. was born. In a short time, catamarans started arriving for SuperCat and Aboitiz fielded them to different routes. Aside from the Iloilo-Bacolod route, it based catamarans in Cebu for different routes to the near islands like Leyte (Ormoc), Bohol (Tagbilaran), Negros (Dumaguete) and it even had far routes like Surigao (via Maasin) and it has an extension to Dapitan in Zamboanga del Norte.

With this move for partnership with the Macau concern, Aboitiz was the first in the Philippines to have many High Speed Crafts and in the process they overtook Bullet Express which was backed by combined Zamboanga-Malaysia concerns. In just the years 1995 and 1996, eight catamarans arrived for Universal Aboitiz and they practically swamped their competitors which were also new to High Speed Crafts. These were the Sea Angels of Negros Navigation Company and Waterjet Shipping Company. With Bullet Express, Viva Shipping Lines (and its legal fiction companies Sto. Domingo Shipping and DR Shipping), Royal Ferry, Florinda (RN High-Speed Ferries), Oceanjet (Ocean Fast Ferries), Sea Cat (ACG Express Liner) and a half-dozen other minor operators in the mix, very soon it became a veritable dogfight in the High Speed Craft world here as in matira ang matibay (only the strong will survive).

Not long after, the Sea Angels and Waterjet both gave up and merged with SuperCat. That will happen as there were just too many High Speed Crafts for the passengers willing to pay their higher fares which were double or so the regular ferries. With that suddenly SuperCat had 13 high-speed cats, the SuperCat I, SuperCat 2, SuperCat 3, SuperCat 5, Supercat 6, Supercat 7, SuperCat 8, SuperCat 9, SuperCat 10. The St. Raphael and St. Gabriel of the Sea Angels became the SuperCat 11 and SuperCat 12, respectively and the Waterjet 1 and Waterjet 2 became the SuperCat 17 and SuperCat 18, respectively. These were just too many for some 5 profitable routes (Batangas-Calapan, Cebu-Ormoc, Cebu-Tagbilaran, Cebu-Dumaguete and Iloilo-Bacolod (I am not sure if Cebu-Dapitan is really profitable) and to think the competition has even more High Speed Crafts than SuperCat (though admittedly not as good).

Except for SuperCat 6 and SuperCat 10 which were smaller and not that fast, all the other SuperCats had 2 x 2,600hp MTU engines with two waterjets as propulsion and all were capable of 38 knots, a speed not reachable by propeller-driven High Speed Crafts because of the phenomenon called “cavitation”. All of them were true sister ships and all were built in Singapore but by different manufacturers. All had aluminum alloy hulls for light weight. While the catamarans from Macau were not brand-new (but still very good), the former Sea Angels and Waterjets arrived here brand-new. All were built by Kvaerner Fjellstrand and were all true sister ships (together with the Stella Maris of Grand Seaways that also came here too). The rest that came from Macau were built by FBM Marineteknik.

In 1999 and 2002, the trimarans TriCat 50 and TriCat 2 also joined the SuperCat fleet. Later the tricats were renamed the SuperCat 2001 and SuperCat 2002. Both also had 2 x 2,600hp MTU engines with twin waterjets but being bigger their speed were a little lower at 36 knots. The two were true sister ships and they were the biggest ever High Speed Crafts that plied Philippine waters. Aboitiz, being a partner in FBM-Aboitiz (FBMA) which built them in Balamban, Cebu surely would have had to purchase one of their products even just for showcase purposes.

This was the time that SuperCat completely ruled the waves. They were the fastest, they were the most comfortable, they had the best passenger service and they have the best booking system. They even had the best, owned passenger terminal in Cebu port (which was shared with WG&A and Cebu Ferries Corporation ferries). In speed it was only the Weesam Express (1) and Weesam Express 5 of SRN Fastcrafts which can give any semblance of challenge but still the MTU-powered SuperCats were slightly faster. They dominated the High Speed Crafts routes and even bullied the opposition a bit (well, isn’t that what alpha dogs are supposed to do?).

But speed has its cost which is higher fuel consumption. And waterjets might give better speed especially at ranges where propellers begin to lose efficiently because of “cavitation” but waterjets also needs more maintenance. The dirty waters of our ports can easily clog them especially since many people just throw their trash in the water and the rivers that empty into the sea also contains garbage and these can be sucked by the waterjets. And one fouling costs money and moreover it throws a monkey wrench on the schedules, trips are lost and tempers and the patience of passengers are tested.

With the merger with Sea Angels and Water Jet, SuperCat actually found themselves with many excess catamarans especially since it was already found out then that the routes where one can field High Speed Crafts are limited since many others do not have enough patronage. The successor company to Universal Aboitiz, the Philippine Fast Ferry Corp. soon realized that. There was also the late realization that their catamarans were overpowered and that waterjets are actually not too well suited for local waters. Soon SuperCat began selling their MTU and waterjet-powered catamarans. And slowly they began buying High Speed Crafts that were not that powerful, not propelled by waterjets and some were actually not catamarans but fastcrafts which are monohulled vessels. Their first non-MTU, non-waterjet HSC, the Supercat 20 was actually a fastcraft.

Soon all their MTU and waterjet-powered catamarans and trimarans (which are triple-hulled vessels) were gone and sold abroad. One of the factors that forced them was the steady rise of the world oil prices starting in 2001. They then had a mix of catamarans and fastcrafts which were equipped with propellers. Their next favorite powerplant after MTU was the Caterpillar brand. With those changes, the SuperCats became just a fast as the competition and there were Weesam Express fastcrafts which invaded the Visayas that can already beat them in raw speed.

They were also not so as numerous as before as SuperCat slowly pruned down the number of units because of over-competition. Moreover, their parent company WG&A was split asunder and had to sell ferries to pay for the shares of the partners that were divesting. And the paring down of vessels included that of SuperCat too. With that situation the number of SuperCat HSCs shrank by a half and they no longer had showcase units which will show they have the best High Speed Crafts. Along this way the company’s name was changed to SuperCat Fast Ferry Corporation.

So, once at the apex of the High Speed Craft field, their rule of the waves slowly vanished in the new millennium. They then just became one of the few survivors of the High Speed Crafts wars here where most HSC companies sank. They initially still had a slight lead though but then their controlling stockholders, the Aboitiz family got more interested in the power generation industry and tried to sell the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS), the successor of WG&A. This was consummated later and SuperCat became a brand of 2GO under Negros Navigation Company.

With the number of units not growing and getting older, SuperCat slid further and the mistake of acquiring SuperCat 36 and SuperCat 38 did not help. Currently their best units are just the sister ships St. Jhudiel and St. Braquiel, the former SuperCat 30 and SuperCat 32, respectively. Though still using SuperCat as a brand since that is already an established brand, their High Speed Crafts have already been renamed to saints in the tradition of Negros Navigation Company. And yet this did not arrest the slide of SuperCat and they have HSCs whose engines that are already getting tired.

In this situation, Oceanjet began their challenge for the top of the High Speed Craft field. The company embarked on continuous addition of vessels to their fleet with their own-assembled fastcrafts and by acquisitions of the High Speed Crafts by the competition that quit the HSC field. And before the middle of this decade, Oceanjet or Ocean Fast Ferries already overtook SuperCat in sheer number. And then they were also overtaken in speed and newness by Oceanjet which aside from assembling their own fastcrafts also continuously changes the tired engines of HSCs in their fleet.

Most people including the tourists have no idea of these developments. Many think, wrongly, that SuperCat is still on top. They do not know that SuperCat is now just a shadow of its former self that once ruled the waves. However, Super has ordered two new HSCs in Austal Balamban recently but I doubt if it can overtake Oceanjet and rule the waves again.

[Photo Owner: Masahiro Homma]