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 PMS and PHIDCO Wharves

The two are actually private ports or wharves in Zamboanga City which are practically unknown to outsiders. Even in the city, few are really familiar with them or had visited them. You see these are practically Muslim wharves (although the owners might not be) and Christians in Zamboanga City normally don’t go to Muslim or Moro areas or places as the fear precede and rules the. But for me I go there regularly including the other Muslim wharves like the Tres Marias wharf which is an indigenous “fishport”. I just don’t go to the San Miguel Corporation wharf nearby because they won’t let me in (it is as if ISPS rules there). It seems the fear factor is also present there.

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PMS and PHIDCO wharves

The two wharves are just near each other as in almost adjacent. Both wharves are made of reinforced concrete and was really built for docking steel ships (PMS wharf which is well-maintained even has rubber bumpers). The two wharves lies between Baliwasan and Campo Islam. Now nobody just really visits the latter though there are jeeps going there. Inside the two wharves the lengua franca is Tausug.

PMS wharf or shall we say port is the more prominent of the two. PMS used to mean Petron Marketing Services, hence the initials. Before, it sells fuel, LPG, lubricants, etc. to the vessels going to the islands (called “pulo” there) nearer to Zamboanga. The local fuel companies are actually not competitive in the farther islands which are nearer to Sabah because the people buy their fuel there as it is much cheaper (as this article was written I read the price of gasoline in Malaysia is only P19 in our currency). In fact, Moro boats buy fuel there and bring it to Zamboanga although this is fraught with the risk of being apprehended along with explosion and fire.

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PMS wharf

In PMS wharf, the vessels that dock there also load fuel for their use. However, the bigger trade there is loading LPG in tanks. There are Moro boats there which act as “LPG carriers”. Of course, they have no official authorization to do that but hey! this area is not really known for doing things the “legal” way. In fact, most of the Moro boats in Zamboanga are not even registered. But they sail and it seems nobody really inspects them on the side of MARINA. Going back from Sabah (let me clarify that neither PMS not PHIDCO is not their origin) they can be intercepted, inspected or even apprehended. Not by MARINA or the Coast Guard but by the Navy. It seems it is only the Navy which has enough guns and guts to do that.

PHIDCO meanwhile means Philippine International Development Corporation which is identified with the famous and sometimes controversial Lepeng Wee, the true owner of the legendary but defunct Bullet Express. He has good Malaysian connections (and also to Erap) and thus he was able to establish a plant that will convert coconut oil into intermediate products like fatty alcohol, glycerin and tertiary amines. This was a good project because of its value-added nature but the plant was never able to operate because of the obstacles put by the Chavacano ruling elite of Zamboanga City. So, it was never able to get a permit. The port which was just near the plant fell into disuse until vessels started using it as a docking port. That included Moro boats displaced from Zamboanga Port when it was too congested with vessels docking three across.

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PHIDCO wharf

PMS and PHIDCO ports are home to Moro boats which is now official known as motor launch although they don’t have the hull of a launch since they are supposedly related to the Arab dhow (but in hull structure it looks more like a Chinese junk). It is also different from the Luzon and Visayas motor boats which are called batel or lancha. It is the dominant type of vessel there although there are also steel-hulled ships in PMS along with various types and sizes of fast Moro fish carriers and big passenger-cargo motor bancas some of which are double-deck. PHIDCO mainly docks Moro boats and their number is not great unlike in PMS where there is congestion most times.

The Moro boats and the steel-hulled vessels docking in the two ports are combined passenger-cargo and cargo-passenger. Cargo-passenger means it is primarily for cargo with a few passengers taken in and it might not even be paying passengers as it is customary to take in the owners of the goods and given free passage. These do not have fixed sailing schedules and they will only give an approximate date of departure which means that is the day they think they will already full of cargo and sometimes they are docked there for as long as three weeks. They have to have full cargo as their rates are really very low (I was astounded when I heard quoted rates). Most of the vessels have Bongao as a destination.

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The passenger-cargo motor bancas have a clearer schedule and these sail to the nearer and more minor islands including the Pangutaran group. These are practically the buses and trucks of these islands as the bigger vessels don’t sail to these islands. The two wharves also host Moro boats to other destinations like other towns in Jolo island and island-municipalities off the coast of Sabah like Taganak.

The fish carriers meanwhile come and go and many of these are the fast types that carry exotic and high-priced fishes destined for Hongkong and these will be loaded aboard a plane in Zamboanga for a connecting flight in NAIA. These boats have oversized engine and which are really meant for speed as freshness is a key to their trade (air compressors for the fish is one of their equipment, I have heard). They might not look grand or modern but they are one type of indigenous High Speed Crafts (HSCs). Supposedly some of these can even outrun a SuperCat.

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Since departures of the Moro boats take long, PMS wharf is on almost all days congested especially if the fish carriers are around. But then that adds to the gaiety of the place. It is easy to get inside both wharves. In PHIDCO the gate is always open and there is no guard. In PMS, sometimes they close the gate and one has to knock and be met by a blue guard. Inside, there are times that the operator of the port asks for terminal tickets.

That was when I met the lookalike of Abu Sabaya, the ASG. But he was so disarming (he always laughs) even when he asked what is the purpose of my visit. I told him, “to visit the ships, take photos”. And he had kilig to that. Imagine a Tagalog admiring the ships there that most persons won’t even throw a second look. When I was finished, he asked me if I was satisfied! And he told me to come back anytime.

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A motor launch to Tongkil and facade of PMS

From the sea when one is aboard the Zamboanga Ferry leaving Zamboanga, there is also a great view of the two wharves. From Tres Marias wharf nearby, a boat landing area (and a Muslim area), the two wharves can also be viewed. From Cawa-cawa Boulevard it’s not possible because the view is blocked by some city buildings and by the fishing boats anchored in Baliwasan.

There was a time PMS wharf was closed and was announced by government authorities that it will be shut down. But it still reopened. Knowing Zamboanga, I knew there is no other place where they can transfer the vessels docking there. If they bring it back to Zamboanga Port, it will just get congested again.

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PHIDCO wharf

PMS and PHIDCO wharves, though not favored by the government authorities is actually doing a great service to the city and to shipping and trade. They might not want to admit that but that is actually the situation and I think as long as Moro boats exists the service provided by the two ports will always be needed.

N.B.

Many days the two wharves would dock up to 20 ships. That does no include small motor or fishing bancas.

In the Philippines, No-Name, Shoddy Ferries Have a Better Safety Record Than Internationally-Certificated Ferries

A candidate for Ripley’s “Believe It or Not”? That’s true and so better read on.

Yesterday, it was in the news that Christopher Pastrana, The Boastful is hosting the 41st Interferry Conference that will be held in Manila starting today, October 15. There will be many sponsors for that and it is usually attended by shipping owners, shipbuilders, marine engine makers, various suppliers and other entities connected to shipping to exchange notes and learn about the latest trends and products. By the way, Interferry is not the sole organizer of maritime conferences.

A news item said the FastCats of Pastrana can provide safe ferries as do the ferries of Starlite and the implication is because those are new. Well, not so fast as it is not just the newness of the ship that is a factor in safety. May I remind too that Pastrana lost the Maharlika Dos to capsizing and sinking near Panaon island in 2014 after its engines failed and his Maharlika Cuatro, though just nearby, did not come to its rescue. And Starlite Voyager grounded and reached BER status when it was on the way to a shipyard in 2011. Are they blaming now the oldness of their vessels that sank?

I was angry when Maharlika Dos capsized and sank in 2014 because Pastrana broke the 35-year record of Bicol steel-hulled ferries not sinking while sailing ever since the RORO Cardinal Ferry 2 of Cardinal Shipping came in 1979. The Northern Samar sank in 2006 in a storm but she was not sailing and was just moored in Tabaco port. This perfect record extends to Surigao Strait because no steel-hulled ferries ever sank there since Cardinal Ferry 2 came in 1980, a record that Maharlika Dos broke infamously.

And to think the eastern seaboard short-distance ferry routes are home to the some of the most shoddy ROROs in Philippine waters led by the Maharlika ships of Christopher Pastrana and the Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping. Well, the ships of Bicolandia Shipping then were also not topnotch and are old. But no matter what these ferries don’t sink even though the eastern seaboard straits are among the most dangerous in the country. As I have said in an earlier article it is seamanship that carried them through. The seamen there would not let their ships sink because they know that among their passengers might be their kins, their friends, their school mates or somebody known to them. But Maharlika Cuatro‘s captain didn’t know that and so he let Maharlika Dos wallow in the ever-strengthening swells until it capsized. And now since he got new FastCats, Pastrana always boasts now about safety and misses no chance to deride the “lack of safety” of his rivals. What gall!

Before Pastrana or even Cusi of Starlite Ferries, another boastful owner, gets carried away let me state that going by the records and empirically there are a lot of ferry companies which are their rivals which have a perfect safety record, i.e. they did not lose ships to sinking. In Bicol, Sta. Clara Shipping, Penafrancia Shipping, Regina Shipping Lines and 168 Shipping Lines have never lost a ferry of theirs. That goes true to the defunct ferry companies that served Bicol like Cardinal Shipping, Newport Shipping, Badjao Navigation and the short-serving Luzvimin Ferry Services. Well, even Denica Lines have not lost a steel-hulled ferry so far.

Going to Quezon, the safety record of the decrepit-looking ships of Kalayaan Shipping have a perfect safety record as do the defunct Sta. Cruz Shipping. Alabat Shipping also has a perfect safety record as do Phil-Nippon Kyoei when they were still existing. Noting these ferry companies, I purposely omitted those that have short service records like Starhorse Shipping.

In Western Visayas, Milagrosa-J Shipping and Tri-Star Megalink both have perfect safety records even though Milagrosa-J Shipping regularly crosses the Sulu Sea which has rough seas and strong winds many months of the year. And to think their sea crafts are small and are already old. It is really in the seamanship.

Batangas shipping companies have no great safety record especially Besta Shipping. But I would like to point out that for a ferry company which has a fleet of over 30, Montenegro Shipping Lines lost only one ferry in 20 years even though they can be found almost anywhere in the Philippines including those that have rough seas. They only lost the Maria Carmela when somebody threw a cigarette butt into a copra truck and thereby igniting a conflagration which was rather unfortunate. And Montenegro Lines have some of the oldest ships hereabouts.

Zamboanga is home to some of ferries that will not look so clean internally and many are also old. But two sailing companies there, Ever Lines and Magnolia Shipping, probably the Number 2 and Number 3 there have perfect safety records as they have not lost a ship even in their freighters. And Sulu, Tawi-tawi and Celebes Sea have strong seas when there is a storm somewhere in eastern Philippines or when the monsoons are blowing hard. Minor shipping companies of Zamboanga like Sing Shipping and Ibnerizam Shipping also have perfect records. The defunct Basilan Lines/Basilan Shipping of the Alanos also did not lose a ship although their Dona Ramona was bombed in Lamitan City.

Mae Wess of Davao has not also lost a ship as do the KSJ Shipping of Surigao. And as far as I know, the currently operating ferry companies of Camiguin – Philstone Shipping, Davemyr Shipping, and Hijos de Juan Corrales have not lost a ship too and it seems that also goes true for the defunct P.N. Roa and and Jade Sea Express. In Panguil Bay, Daima Shipping has not also lost a ship even though their Our Lady of Mediatrix was burned because of the firebombing of two Super 5 buses aboard her in 2000.

In Cebu, for all the size of their fleet Lite Ferries may not lost a vessel (was the Sta. Lucia de Bohol lost at sea?). FJP Lines/Palacio Shipping, defunct now, also has a perfect safety record. There are other defunct shipping companies of Cebu which has not lost a ship through accident and that includes VG Shipping, Roly Shipping/Godspeed, Kinswell Shipping, Jadestar Shipping, Goldenbridge Shipping, Maayo Shipping, Cuadro Alas Navigation, PAR Transport plus many smaller ferry companies. In the recent era, Gabisan Shipping are known for safety and the ability to “read” the waves and have not yet lost one.

If I go by routes, there was not a ferry lost in Roxas-Caticlan and Dapitan-Dumaguete even though their seas can sometimes be rough. No steel-hulled ferry was ever lost in any route in Bicol too except for the Blue Water Princess 2 which is a Quezon ferry going to Masbate and the Rosalia 2, a Cebu craft going to Cataingan, Masbate. There are many, many other routes in the country which has not seen a ship sink even though they are not using a new ship. It is all in the seamanship really. To say a new ships is “safer” is just like claiming a new car will not be involved in a collision.

Some of our HSC companies too are very safe. Oceanjet, the Number 1 now in HSCs, has not lost a ship ever and they did not always use new crafts. Weesam Express also has a perfect record. Even the defunct Bullet Express, the fastcrafts of the Viva Shipping Lines combine and the fastcrafts of A. Sakaluran have perfect safety records. The are a lot of other HSC companies which had perfect records but their service record was short like Star Crafts. Not included here is SuperCat which has lost one.

And which brings me to our liners which in the recent years are internationally-certificated, have P&I insurance and are mostly spic-and-span but unfortunately have a bad safety record. In the last 20 years, WG&A/CFC lost SuperFerry 3, SuperFerry 6 and SuperFerry 7, all to fire and Dona Virginia and Our Lady of Banneux due to grounding. Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) also lost the SuperFerry 14 to a terrorist act and the St. Gregory The Great to grounding. Sulpicio Lines lost the Princess of the Stars and Princess of the Orient to capsizing and lost the Princess of the World, Philippine Princess and the Iloilo Princess to fire and the Princess of the Pacific to grounding. Negros Navigation also lost the St. Francis of Assisi to fire.

Between the end of the World War II and 1995 I know of 75 (that is seventy-five) liners which were lost and mainly at sea. That is 75 in only 30 years! Can anybody believe that? So how can I be impressed by liners and international certificates in safety? Or in their being spic and span? The records say otherwise. And believe me I can easily name the 75 as I have my own database about maritime hull losses. This 75 does not even include regional ships like the Boholana Princess which was an overnight ship when she was lost.

The Don Juan and Cebu City were brand-new ships when they were fielded in the Philippines. But they sank in collisions at night. So Pastrana and Cusi be better warned by their boastfulness of their new ships. They better be more humble before shipping companies which have not ever lost a ship.

Newness of a ship is not a guarantee of anything except in shininess.

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Photo credit: Masahiro Homma

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]

The Short-Lived Return of Madrigal Shipping Company to Passenger Shipping

The Madrigal Shipping Company is a shipping company with a long history although few are still familiar with the name. They started before World War II with the name Madrigal & Company and was probably the Philippines biggest shipping company at that time if listing is limited to Filipinos. However, they were mostly in cargo shipping unlike the rival Compania Maritima of the Fernandezes which concentrated on passenger shipping. The founder of the company, Vicente Madrigal was considered the top Filipino industrialist-businessman then by the reckoning of many and probably is the richest Filipino then. He was also politically very well connected to Malacanang and is a political heavyweight himself being a Senator of the Commonwealth of the Philippines. The Madrigal Shipping Company was connected to the many businesses of Vicente Madrigal and it moved their goods like abaca (Manila hemp), coal, ore, copra and also sugar. However, when World War II happened Madrigal Shipping Company lost their entire fleet save for one. Most were captured by the Japanese which were then subsequently lost to American attacks.

After World War II, the company was renamed to Madrigal Shipping Company and started shipping again in 1946. The company has a mixed passenger-cargo and cargo fleet and the latter has the bigger ships. The passenger-cargo ships of the company was smaller and it might have something to do with the routes it was sailing. Madrigal Shipping Company concentrated its branch of passenger shipping on routes to Bicol and Northern Luzon. The route to Bicol would extend to as far as Larap port in Jose Panganiban town in Camarines Norte and the Northern Luzon route would call on Salomague (in Ilocos Sur), Batanes and Aparri. They also had a passenger-cargo ship that would go round the entire Luzon starting from Manila to Northern Luzon before proceeding to Bicol ports and round the Sorsogon tip of Luzon on the way back to Manila.

The passenger-cargo fleet of Madrigal Shipping Company cannot be called luxury liners by any means as they were simply basic passenger-cargo ships. They can even be described as primarily cargo ships with passenger accommodations and the accommodations are generally of one class only, the Economy class. Half of their passenger fleet consisted of former “Y” ships, the smaller cousin of the ex-”FS” ships which were former tankers. In the postwar shipping fleet of the Philippines only they and Luzon Stevedoring Company (LUSTEVECO) operated ex-”Y” ships but the latter operated them as they were originally were – as tankers. In Madrigal Shipping Company, their ex-”Y” ships were converted in passenger-cargo ships with cargo holds. These ex-”Y” ships seemed to be the replacement ships for the Madrigal ships commandeered by the US for the war effort. The other half of the postwar passenger-cargo fleet of Madrigal Shipping Company consisted of old ships from Europe. The company has a penchant for buying old ships from Europe just like another major shipping company, the Manila Steamship Company.

In 1955, in the aftermath of the capsizing and sinking in Babuyan Channel of their ex-”Y” ship Cetus which was trying to beat a typhoon, Madrigal Shipping Corporation sold all their ex-”Y” ships to North Camarines Lumber Company (no typographic error; this is also a shipping company). I wonder if this has a connection to their reputed superstitiousness. However, it was a favorable sale from the Bicol point of view since North Camarines Lumber Company also has the same passenger routes to Bicol and so no ship was lost on that region. Maybe Madrigal Shipping Company made sure of that as the patriarch Vicente Madrigal was actually born in Bicol and had many businesses there.

However, they held on to their other passenger-cargo ships but of course their routes and frequencies were affected by the sale since they did not purchase replacement passenger-cargo ships. In cargo shipping they were still strong and still buying cargo ships but in passenger-cargo shipping this sale of ex-”Y” heralded their slow retreat. This retreat might also be in anticipation of paradigm changes. Even in those days it is easy to foresee that the rail and the trucks will challenge the ship in Luzon in due time. Being in politics (the daughter Pacita of Vicente Madrigal succeeded him in the Senate) and conversant with government plans they might even have the inside track in foreseeing the future. By the 1970’s only one passenger-cargo ship was still sailing for Madrigal Shipping Company, the Viria and before the end of that decade they were already out of passenger shipping. However, the cargo shipping of the company remained but it also declined in due time. It however sprang a surprise later when together with a Taiwan shipping company it bid for the state-owned National Shipping Company of the Philippines which was then being privatized.

In 1988, to the welcome surprise of many Madrigal Shipping Company came back to passenger shipping as the A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. This time it was truly liner shipping and not just like the basic passenger-cargo shipping of before. They did that when they fielded the Madrigal Tacloban in 1988 (this was later known as the Madrigal Romblon), the Madrigal Surigao in 1989 and the Madrigal Masbate in 1990. The notable thing about the three is they were all cruiser ferries and the negative thing is by that time nobody is buying or fielding cruiser ferries anymore because it was already obsolescent and the RORO (Roll On, Roll Off) ships have already proven their superiority over the cruisers (well, maybe not in safety or stability).

The first two ships were actually sister ships named the Tai Shan and the Nam Shan and they were originally Hongkong ferries. They were acquired by A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. as bareboat charter with option to purchase from Cortes Shipping of Zamboanga. Tai Shan became the Madrigal Tacloban here while Nam Shan became the Madrigal Surigao. Madrigal Tacloban‘s applied route was Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban while Madrigal Surigao‘s applied route was Manila-Maasin-Surigao. It was also a welcome move by many since these routes are exactly the same routes just recently vacated by Escano Lines which went out of passenger shipping (they however stuck to cargo-container shipping).

However, some shipping lines including Sulpicio Lines Incorporated and Aboitiz Shipping Company opposed their applications because of the so-called “prior operator” rule which was the usual “basis” for opposing a new entrant to a route. Actually, the two mentioned shipping companies were fearful because A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc.’s ships were better than their ships in those routes (however, Aboitiz Shipping Company had long ago abandoned their Catbalogan and Tacloban route). And besides Sulpicio Lines Inc. had no Catbalogan/Tacloban ship at that moment because of the sinking of Dona Paz. But however the opposition at the start, A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. was eventually allowed by MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency to sail the applied routes.

Even then, there was actually already a problem in these routes as these are also the same routes slowly being threatened already by the intermodal trucks and buses borne by the short-distance ferry-ROROs that were already serving as the “bridges of the sea”. Maybe this was the reason behind what was cited by Aboitiz Shipping Company that they experienced a 60% drop in passenger volume. However, as cruisers that can’t carry much cargo (they were even described as “pure cargo”) maybe Madrigal Shipping Company thought that won’t be much of a problem for them. Maybe they were just intent on beating the competition with superior ships, in their view. Their ships have more beautiful lines anyway. And as bare-boat charters their risk is not high as they can just return the ships if they did not turn in a profit.

Madrigal Tacloban (Madrigal Romblon) and Madrigal Surigao were sister ships and both were built by Niigata Shipbuilding & Repair Incorporated in Niigata, Japan in 1972. The two both measured 78.6 meters by 12.1 meters by 5.6 meters in L x B x D. The LPP was 70.0 meters but Madrigal Surigao had a higher GT at 2,147 while Madrigal Tacloban had 2,136. The NT was 1,035 and the DWT was 312 tons. Both had two masts and two passenger decks on a steel hull with semi-bulbous stem and a retrouvaille stern. They were not equipped with cargo booms. The sister ships were both equipped with twin Niigata diesel engines with a combined 5,100 horsepower that propelled them to a top speed of 17.5 knots. The two ships looked identical.

Another ferry, the Madrigal Masbate came to A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. from Taiwan Navigation Company Ltd. of Taipei but this ship was actually homeported in Kaohsiung. This was a beautiful ship with magnificent and modern lines that was built as the Tai Peng by Hayashikane Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Limited in their Nagasaki shipyard in Japan in 1971. The ship measured 77.5 meters by 12.6 meters by 5.5. meters with an LPP of 70.0 meters. She had a GT of 1,992, an NT of 743 and a DWT of 474 tons. The ship had two masts, two passenger decks with a steel hull with a raked stem and a cruiser stern. She was powered by a single Kobe Hatsudoki marine engine of 4,900 horsepower which gave her a top speed of 17 knots.

When all three were already sailing, the renamed Madrigal Tacloban which was now Madrigal Romblon was doing the Manila-Odiongan-Malay (this is better known as Caticlan now) route. Meanwhile, Madrigal Surigao was running the Manila-Odiongan-Maasin-Surigao route. And it was Madrigal Masbate which was sailing the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route. Although they were already set by 1990, the Madrigal ferries, however, did not sail long. This was already the era when more liners were coming fast including great liners with four passenger decks, a passenger capacity of well over 2,000 with a true gross tonnage of 10,000 and over and of speeds nearing 20 knots and with hotel-like accommodations, amenities and service.

And A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. was unlucky to bet in routes that were already being eaten up by the intermodal form of transport where trucks, buses and private vehicles are transported between island by the short-distance ferry-ROROs and whose travel times are shorter with flexibility of routes and ubiquity of departures. Moreover to some former ship passengers travelling by intermodal bus it is a new adventure and tourism too to places they have never seen before. To the traders and shippers, the intermodal option meant no more hassles with North Harbor port and the crooked Manila policemen. That also meant no more pilferage and delays and they are no longer at the mercy of the arrastre.

After just a few years, A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. quit passenger shipping (however, they were still in cargo shipping). The sister ships Madrigal Romblon and Madrigal Surigao were sold to the breakers and they were broken up in 1994. It was an early death as the ships were only 22 years old. It was also a premature death because if they waited a little longer they might have gone to Sampaguita Shipping Lines which soon geared up to buy former liners to be used in the then-developing Zamboanga-Pagadian route and the Zamboanga-Jolo or Bongao route. They would have better choices than the ships they acquired from WG&A, the former Tacloban City and the former Iligan City as they were newer and have sailed far less nautical miles.

Madrigal Masbate was far luckier than the sisters. In 1994, another Zamboanga shipping company that was buying better overnight ferries (and the shortcut to that is to buy hand-me-down liners), the SKT Shipping Line (later the Kong San Teo shipping company or KST Shipping Line) purchased the laid-up Masbate Madrigal. She was fielded in the premier route to the east Zamboanga then, the Zamboanga-Pagadian route. Appropriately, she was named the Pagadian City. She was by far the best ship in the route, the most beautiful and the most gorgeous ever to call on Pagadian port, as the locals would concede and included in the comparison were the Manila liners which called on Pagadian port in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Zamboanga City was actually a beehive of acquiring new ferries in the mid-1990’s including new-build fastcrafts. They actually had the most acquisitions of Malaysian fastcrafts then which was equal in number to the Cebu HSCs. Bullet Express and Weesam Express plus the fastcraft Sea Jet actually all originated in Zamboanga and just migrated to the Visayas. In 1996, the latter great Aleson Shipping Lines of Zamboanga was also gearing up. It was actually a dogfight then in Zamboanga between Sampaguita Shipping Lines, SKT Shipping Lines and Aleson Shipping which was latter won by the latest-named. Too unfortunate Madrigal Romblon and Madrigal Surigao were not snagged up in Zamboanga then.

After this episode, Madrigal never went back to liner shipping again. Well, I hope they will try again. After all we have almost no liners left now. They will be applauded this time if they do.

[Photo Credit: Manila Bulletin through Gorio Belen]