The FastCats

Starting in 2013, the brand-new FastCats of Archipelago Philippine Ferries started arriving in Batangas one after another. As of last count at the end of 2014 five are already in the Philippines with five more set to arrive in 2015. The arrival of these vessels was well-noted and it created a stir as brand-new ships don’t come into the country (the last wave were the High Speed Crafts that came 20 years ago).

The FastCats are ROPAX (RORO-Passenger) catamarans by classification. They were designed in Australia and built in China in several yards. The capital was loaned from DBP Leasing Corporation, a government-owned and controlled corporation (GOCC). Published reports say one FastCat costs PhP 240 million.

FastCat M2 ©Mike Baylon

The FastCats are supposed to be fielded in the routes of Archipelago Ferries and PhilHarbor Ferries which are two separate companies legally but operating as one. These two companies operate the poorly-maintained “Maharlika” ship series. The routes where the FastCats are supposed to be fielded are:

Batangas-Calapan with 2 FastCats

Bulalacao-Caticlan (in place of Roxas-Caticlan) with 2 FastCats

Matnog-Allen with 2 FastCats

Liloan-Lipata with 1 FastCat

Dumaguete-Dapitan with 1 FastCat

Bacolod-Iloilo with 2 FastCats

The first route served was Batangas-Calapan starting in 2013. As of the end of 2014 it is still this route that Archipelago Ferries is serving. One problem is FastCats cannot use a port directly because a specific pneumatic docking mechanism has to be attached to the vessel before it can handle rolling cargo (i.e. vehicles). This was the reason why for several months they can only handle passengers in the Batangas-Calapan route when the docking mechanism was damaged by a typhoon. When the docking mechanism is already attached in the wharf other ships can no longer use the same docking space as it becomes an obstruction to them. FastCats are not equipped with RORO ramps for vehicles.

FastCat pneumatic ramp ©Raymond Lapus

The FastCats are identical and all are sister ships. They measure 50.6 meters by 17.5 or 18 meters and a GT of 683 for the slimmer ones and a GT of 704 for the wider ones. Net Tonnage is 207 with a DWT of 300 tons and a passenger capacity of 275. Each is powered by four Yanmar Marine or its clone Newage diesels which develop a total of 2,600 horsepower. The FastCats have steel hulls and aluminum alloy superstructure. Cruising speed is 17 knots and thus are classified as Medium Speed Crafts (MSCs).

Fastcat M2 Bridge ©Raymond Lapus

The passenger accommodations of the FastCats are only on one side of the vessel in two decks. The lower deck is the airconditioned Tourist section together with the canteen. The non-airconditioned Economy section is above that on the bridge level. The bridge occupies the center position in the ship with 360-degree visibility and its consoles are modern-looking.

FastCat airconditioned accomodations ©Raymond Lapus
FastCat open-air accomodations ©Raymond Lapus

The car deck has a declared capacity of 8 regular trucks or buses and 20 cars. Converted that should be at least 18 trucks minimum if there are no long trucks or trailers. However, what will be the limiting factor is the deadweight tons of 300. Truck-trailers with container vans can weigh up to over 30 tons here and wing van trucks can also exceed 20 tons gross. Deadweight tons is actually the sum of the weights of the cargo, fuel, water, ballast, supplies and stores and passengers and crew carried by the ship so the net carrying capacity in weight of a FastCat will not reach 200 tons as the FastCats are designed to carry 79.0 tons of fuel, 6.7 tons of fresh water and 2.9 tons of lubricating oil.

FastCat M2 Car Deck ©Mike Baylon

Can the FastCat pay for itself? I think that is the big question (although I will grant the FastCats are a good addition to the local fleet being new and a good technical development). I am concerned with this not only as a citizen but also it reminds me of the brand-new ship purchases of the government-owned National Development Company in the 1960s which were leased to local companies. The government lost money in that and we only squandered the war-reparations money that came from Japan. If this FastCat project fails then in the end we will be the ones paying for the mistake.

For high-density routes like Batangas-Calapan where FastCats sail night and day there is no problem in viability. This is akin to budget air carriers which can afford brand-new planes because the planes fly from dawn to night and people are willing to pay high for air cargo and parcels which are the bread and butter of planes. But in less dense route I wonder if the viability is not iffy. At PhP 240 million each and assuming 6% interest and 15-year repayment term the interest and principal payment will come out to about PhP 2 million a month. And for that money out it does not yet include fuel (which is the primary operational cost), crewing, docking charges, insurance, maintenance and drydocking costs and depreciation.

FastCat M1 docking at Batangas ©Mike Baylon

There will be routes where two roundtrips a day might not be feasible for the FastCats at the current traffic especially if they use two vessels in the route. That is why I am a little puzzled why Archipelago went for 10 FastCats immediately. Unless they are thinking of penetrating other high-density routes like Cebu-Bohol, Cebu-Leyte or Cebu-Negros but they might run against the blocking tactics of the current operators as they are not former operators there.

What is notable, however, is that the FastCat is a good technical development, although not as a catamaran RORO because there have been such ships before her contrary to the claim of Archipelago Ferries. What I mean is at 2,600hp which is average for an HSC (High Speed Craft) here they can carry a lot of vehicles while an HSC can’t. And the passenger capacity at 275 is also just about average for an HSC here. So that bonus of being able to carry 8 trucks and 20 cars is a very big plus compared to an HSC which cannot carry any significant amount of cargo and thus has to charge the passengers high. With a high cargo load the FastCats can charge just a little bit higher than ROPAXes (of course being new carries a little premium). While being at least 1.5 times faster than them and not conceding that much in speed compared to HSCs which use semi-economical speeds now.

FastCat M2 cruising between Batangas and Calapan ©Raymond Lapus

Many owners or crew of the rolling cargo will prefer the FastCats if the rates are comparable to the old and sometimes half-decrepit ROPAXes. And FastCats have the bonus of speed and a snappier crew ,which is a far cry from the old Archipelago and PhilHarbor ways. And maybe they are safer too not just because of the design but because they are simply much newer which means less things can go wrong like engines conking out in a near-gale which is what happened to “Maharlika Dos”.

Maybe the survival and viability of the FastCat will need taking traffic and patronage away from ROPAX competitors (and even the HSCs). I do not know if this was their calculation and intention right at the very start. I have no qualms with that as free competition is really like that. As long as cartels or monopolies do not happen then supposedly the passengers and shippers should stand to benefit from competition in the market.

It is only time and practice that will really tell if at that price tag the FastCats are really viable. Much will also depend on the quality of management, the maintenance and the use of astute business policies. Of course, the price of fuel will also be a factor along with our exchange rates (the price of parts depends on this). The current downward spiral of the world market price of oil is a boon to shipping as fuel cost is the highest operation cost in shipping.

FastCat M2 ©Raymond Lapus

Maybe having the FastCats built in China (but with the assurance of an Australian design as Australia is a world leader in catamaran design) was a wise business decision as China is now the world’s leader in shipbuilding cost (as in the lowest cost builder). Having China equipment might also be a good decision as it brings down the cost and replacement parts are cheaper there. Possession of an ABS (American Bureau of Standards) certification is also reassuring.

FastCats have a handful of business and competition pluses. Now, if only Archipelago Ferries reinvents itself completely and be able to maintain its new standards so it can surmount the biggest hurdle of the FastCats which is its high acquisition price.