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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Aleson Shipping Lines

I really have no command of the history of Aleson Shipping Lines and so that will not be the focus of this article and I will only delve on it on the more recent years. Since many Pinoys have not reached Zamboanga, I want to expose the biggest shipping line of Western Mindanao (and also the whole of Mindanao) and compare it. I have long ago said to ship spotters that Aleson Shipping Lines is bigger than any Cebu overnight shipping company, bar none, and I want to show that so people will know more of one of our great overnight ferry companies.

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There is a saying in Zamboanga that, no matter what, Aleson Shipping will never sell the small cruiser ferry Estrella del Mar. The reason is she is their first ferry ever and they say everything started from that ship. Meanwhile, the second ship of Aleson Shipping is now gone and that is the Aleson 3, a cruiser they bought from Carlos A. Gothong Shipping Lines, Inc. (CAGLI) in 1984 which was the second Dona Conchita.

That was the simple start of Aleson Shipping and in their first decade they did not really expand much. In the first place, they were not a shipping company at the start but a trading company, a regional distributor of goods under Aleson Trading. It seems at the start their shipping was mainly a support to, a horizontal expansion of their trading activities.

It was in the 1990’s when Aleson Shipping made their moves in shipping that featured continuous acquisition of ships that not only involved ferries but also small cargo ships. And that what made them different from some Cebu overnight majors like Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) and Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) which for a long time have no cargo ships. And they might have been not that early in ROROs like TASLI but they were not behind CSLI, Palacio Lines and George & Peter Lines. They were ahead in ROROs compared to other overnight ferry companies in Cebu that got big later like Roble Shipping, Lite Shipping, Medallion Transport, etc. Like the mentioned Cebu overnight ferry companies, they might have had ROROs but it was not for vehicles but for palletized and loose cargo that were mainly handled by forklifts. One thing though, they learned how to use container vans much earlier than all those Cebu overnight ferry companies. So who said Zamboanga shipping is behind Cebu shipping in cargo?

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In the mid-1990’s, it dawned on her Zamboanga rivals that Aleson Shipping was acquiring more ships than them and that included the old Number 1 Sampaguita Shipping Corporation. This company also had cargo ships and then Aleson Shipping matched it in number. By 1997 it looked as if there was a new throne holder in Zamboanga. And Aleson Shipping did not make the mistake of Sampaguita Shipping in buying cruisers as overnight ferries since they concentrated on ROROs except for their day ships to Basilan which featured small cruisers.

Before the end of the 1990’s, there was an emphatic display of being the new king of Zamboanga shipping when Aleson Shipping ventured into the liner business when they sailed the Zamboanga-Manila route with the Lady Mary Joy and the Cebu-Dumaguete-Zamboanga-Sandakan route with the Lady Mary Joy 2. This also expansion also featured going to Lucena to do a Marinduque route.

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Photo by Ray Smith

These expansions backfired and Aleson Shipping was not able to sustain those. However, they were able to survive it and they sold their liners and the Alex Craig that went to Lucena. There were other upheavals too in Zamboanga shipping at the start of the new millennium that were caused by over-expansion in the late 1990’s. These were so strong that two old shipping lines of Zamboanga shipping, the Sampaguita Shipping Corp. and SKT Shipping Corp., both collapsed. Among the factors too was the loss of a major overnight route, the Zamboanga-Pagadian route because of the cementing of the parallel highway. Like in Batangas, there was a surplus of bottoms in Zamboanga that resulted in heavy discounting of fares or fare wars. Maybe with other lines of business Aleson Shipping was more geared to absorb shocks in the shipping trade.

With the stoppage of two main rivals and also of some minor rivals, Aleson Shipping turned on the screw and acquired more ships. From 2002 they acquired a ferry every year except in 2005 and 2014 was tops when they acquired 3 ships. And aside from their old cargo ships that bore name of persons, they also began their Aleson Con Carrier or ACC series of cargo ships in 2001. As of this year, 2016, they now have an Aleson Con Carrier 15.

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Now the other major competitors remaining of Aleson Shipping, the Magnolia Shipping Corporation and Ever Lines are just in niche routes now. Some other competitors also collapsed like KST Shipping (the revived SKT), Basilan Lines, A. Sakaluran and Monte Alegre Shipping. As a result,they are already very dominant in Zamboanga now. They have routes to Jolo, Siasi, Bongao, Isabela City and Lamitan City. They also expanded but only in routse they can manage, the Dapitan-Dumaguete and Dumaguete-Larena routes and the Cebu-Tubigon route. Their cargo and container ships now reach Manila, Batangas and Bacolod aside from their earlier routes to Cebu, Dapitan and Southern Mindanao.

Like in other shipping companies, after 20 years or so there is a generational change at the helm. But instead of weakening like in most family-held shipping companies, I heard and there is outward evidence that the second generation of Aleson Shipping is even fiercer than the founder. And they were decisive in Aleson Shipping not losing the old ships due to weak engines. They opened their wallets and so now those limping ferries are back in fighting form.

The ferry fleet of Aleson Shipping:

Estrella del Mar (short-distance ferry) IMO 8945220, original name. Cruiser built in 1975 by Varadero de Recodo in Zamboanga, Philippines. 38.1m x 6.7m x 3.0m, 230gt, 143nt, 494 pax, 1 x 850hp Yanmar, 10.5kts.

Stephanie Marie (short-distance ferry) IMO 8427278. ROPAX built in 1979 by Kanda Shipbuilding in Kawajiri, Japan as Marima III. 63.2m x 12.0m x 4.1m, 910+gt, 316+nt, 945 pax, 2 x 1,600hp Daihatsu, 15kts.

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Neveen (short-distance ferry) IMO 7509976. Cruiser built in 1975 by Maebata in Sasebo, Japan as Mishima Maru No. 3. 35.0m x 6.4m x 2.8m, 223gt, 61+nt, 332 pax, 1 x 1,000hp Daihatsu, 13kts. [This is laid up.]

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Danica Joy (built as overnight ferry) IMO 7852414. ROPAX built in 1972 by Nakamura in Yanai, Japan as Nakajima. 48.0m x 11.3m x 3.7m, 483+gt, 245nt, 448pax, 2 x 1,000hp Daihatsu, 13kts.

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Danica Joy 2 (overnight ferry) IMO 8135253. ROPAX built in 1982 by Nakamura in Yanai, Japan as Orange Hope. 62.7m x 12.0m x 4.5m, 998+gt, 491nt, 636pax, 2 x 2,000hp Daihatsu, 16kts. [She capsized in Zamboanga port Sept. 2016; salvageable.]

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Sea Jet (High Speed Craft) No IMO Number. Fastcraft built in 2003 by Far East in Sibu, Malaysia as Sea Jet. 38.7m x 4.2m x 1.6m, 97gt, 26nt, 2 x 1,600 Mitsubishi, 30kts.

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Kristel Jane 3 (overnight ferry) IMO 8313489. ROPAX built in 1983 by Usuki in Usuki, Japan as Ferry Izena. 57.3m x 11.2m x 3.2, 494+gt, 270 nt, 512pax, 2 x 1,620hp Niigata, 16kts.

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Trisha Kerstin 1 (short-distance ferry) IMO 8608509. ROPAX built in 1986 by Fujiwara in Omishima, Japan as Wakashio. 43.8m x 11.6m x 3.3m, 384+gt, 72+nt, 695pax, 1 x 1,300hp Yanmar, 12.5kts.

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Ciara Joie (basic, short-distance ferry) IMO 7824778. ROPAX built in 1979 by Imamura in Kure, Japan as Kamagiri No. 3. 38.2m x 8.6m x 3.0m, 235gt, 139nt, 203pax, 1 x 900hp Daihatsu, 10.5kts.

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Trisha Kerstin 2 (overnight ferry) IMO 8824373. ROPAX built in 1989 by Fujiwara in Omishima, Japan as Geiyo. 59.5m x 12.3m x 3.0m, 699gt+, 241nt, 2 x 1,500hp Daihatsu, 14.5kts.

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Anika Gayle (Low Speed Craft) No IMO Number. Ferry built in 1992 in Japan as Victoria. 86gt, 332pax, single engine, 11kts.

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Trisha Kerstin 3 (overnight ferry) IMO 9125516. ROPAX built in 1995 by Wakamatsu in Kitakyushu, Japan as Camellia 2. 47.9m x 12.0m x 3.6m, 639+gt, 412nt, 1 x 1,300hp Daihatsu, 14kts.

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Lady Mary Joy 3 (overnight ferry) IMO 9006760. Cruiser built in 1990 by Yamanaka in Namikata, Japan as Daito. 73.0m x 11.0m x 5.3m, 835gt, 568nt, 500pax. 2 x 2,000hp Niigata, 17kts.

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Ciara Joie 2 (basic, short-distance ferry) IMO 8216966. ROPAX built in 1982 by Imamura in Kure, Japan as Kamagiri No. 7. 36.1m x 8.7m x 2.9m, 198gt, 100nt, x 386pax, 1 x 750hp Niigata, 10kts.

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Anika Gayle 2 (Medium Speed Craft) No IMO Number. Ferry built in 1990 in Japan as Yamabiko. 27.1m x 6.0m x 2.2m, 116gt, 79nt, 235pax, twin engines, 17kts.

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Lady Mary Joy 1 (overnight ferry) IMO 9088081. Cruiser built in 1994 by Niigata in Niigata, Japan as Funakawa Maru. 57m x 9.0m x 3.9m, 488gt, 1 x 1,800hp Niigata, 13.5kts.

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Ciara Joie 3 (basic, short-distance ferry) IMO 9118862. ROPAX built in 1995 by Izutsu in Japan as Ferry Yumutsu. 10.0m breadth, 191gt, single engine.

Ciara Joie 5 (basic, short-distance ferry) IMO 8615734. ROPAX built in 1987 by Imamura in Kure, Japan as Kofuji No. 8. 36.3m x 10.5m x 3.0m, 264gt, 131nt, 1 x 1,000hp Niigata, 10kts.

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Stephanie Marie 2 (short-distance ferry) IMO 8602062. ROPAX built in 1986 by Kanda in Kawajiri, Japan as Otagawa. 55.9m x 14.0m x 3.8m, 983gt, 1,073pax, 1,300hp Daihatsu, 14kts.

The cargo fleet of Aleson Shipping:

Nico Bryan (used as container ship) IMO 8951956. Small GP ship built in 1976 by Yoshida in Arida, Japan as Meiji Maru No. 11. 53.6m x 9.3m x 3.5m, 244gt, 132nt, 667dwt, 10kts

Aleson Con Carrier 1 (used as container ship) IMO 8720565. Small GP ship built in 1988 by Masui in Nandan, Japan as Kazuhisa Maru. 51.5m x 10.5m x 5.4m, 248gt, 167nt, 601dwt, 10kts.

Aleson Con Carrier 2 (used as general cargo ship) IMO 8718665. Small GP ship built in 1988 by Onoda in Taiyo, Japan as Hamako Maru. 53.1m x 9.5m x 5.1m, 247gt, 167nt, 662dwt, 10kts.

Aleson Con Carrier 3 IMO 8822193. Small GP ship built in 1989 by Miura in Saiki, Japan as Hakko Maru No. 31. 58.7m x 9.6m x 5.0m, 247gt, 170nt, 650dwt, 10kts.

Aleson Con Carrier 5 (used as container ship) IMO 8905505. Small GP ship built in 1989 by Taiyo in Onoda, Japan as Shin Chitose. 53.3 x 9.5m x 5.1m, 246gt, 166nt, 668dwt, 10kts.

Aleson Con Carrier 6 (used as general cargo ship) IMO 8708921. Small GP ship built in 1987 by Miura in Saiki as Sanko Maru. 58.0m x 9.5m x 5.2m, 246gt, 159nt, 680dwt, 10kts.

Aleson Con Carrier 8 (used as container ship) IMO 8708921. Small GP ship built in 1989 by Yamanaka in Namitaka, Japan as Kiku Maru No. 8. 55.8m x 9.3m x 5.5m, 246gt, 168nt, 661dwt, 10kts.

Aleson Con Carrier 9 (used as container ship) IMO 7903146. Small GP ship built in 1979 by Kanda in Kure, Japan as Ashidagawa. 63.3m x 14.2m, 942gt, 324nt, 349dwt, 15kts.

Aleson Con Carrier 10 (used as container ship) IMO 8630796. Small GP ship built in 1987 in Japan. 50.1m x 10.5m, 287gt, 195nt, 674dwt.

Aleson Con Carrier 11 (used as container ship) IMO 8840030. Small GP ship built in 1989 in Japan. 53.3m, 611gt, 348nt, 619dwt.

Aleson Con Carrier 12 IMO 9001370. GP ship built in 1991 by Banguhjin in S. Korea as Dongjin Yokohama. 94.0m x 3.8m x 6.7m, 2448gt, 1349nt, 3386dwt.

Aleson Con Carrier 14

Aleson Con Carrier 15 (used as general cargo ship) IMO 9153848. GP ship built in 1996 by Imamura in Kure, Japan as Mercury Seven. 83.8m x 14.5m, 2921gt, 3773dwt, 12kts.

A total of 19 ferries and 13 cargo/container ships. They are now one of the biggest regional shipping companies in the Philippines. And yet even among ship spotters she is barely known because so few have ever been in Zamboanga.

Maybe in due time the company will earn her merited recognition.