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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New Developments in Masbate Port

I had been to Masbate port twice in recent days in this month of July of 2017. The first one was when my ship Super Shuttle RORO 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) was on the way to Batangas and dropped anchor in Masbate first. The second was when I took the route via Pilar and Masbate ports on the way back to Cebu. Those two visits afforded me a chance to compare and weigh developments in Masbate port since last January of 2017 when I was also able to visit the port.

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Masbate port

The first notable thing is all works in expanding Masbate port has already been completed. The lineal distance of the port is a little longer now. On the other hand, talking of infrastructure, the Masbate port terminal building deteriorated in the same span of time as it is no longer air-conditioned and yet the dear terminal fee which is more expensive than the much better Cebu and Batangas ports remained the same when Masbate port does not even have shuttle buses and does not really have the capacity to take in all the passengers of the buses. And so it copied the Batangas port model which means bus passengers have to go down when the bus enters the port in order for them to pay the terminal fee and then board the bus again or walk to the ferry. The former is the preferred mode now.

Another new thing is Masbate port has an X-ray machine now for the baggage but it is not operational yet. Another useless piece of equipment just to justify the terminal fee and to have another reason for “cattle-herding” the passengers. It seems what is good enough for the buses is not good enough for PPA (Philippine Ports Authority), security-wise, because buses don’t bother checking the baggage of the passengers because they know the chance of them being victims of terrorist attacks is next to nil, at least in Bicol. And I think if one asks the ferries they will say they are not bothered if there is no X-ray machine. The buses and the ferries do not have the ISPS thinking that all passengers are possible terrorists. Actually that is simply ridiculous and is just the product of “praning” minds.

One more notable thing is that the passenger motor bancas are now practically gone from Masbate port and they have already transferred to the municipal port of Masbate near the public market and the bus/van terminal because of the high passenger terminal fee being charged by the port when passengers have no actual need for the terminal as they go direct to their vessels. Actually, last January I saw a terminal building (it was named as a community fish landing center) being built in Masbate municipal port and I saw that it is already finished when I went to the bus and van terminal.

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The problem now in Masbate municipal port is congestion, I was told, especially in the rush hours of the morning and the early afternoon. The boat landing areas there are actually the facility being used by the so-many small passenger motor bancas and motor launches headed to the different barrios across Masbate Bay. Add to that that that is also the docking area of the passenger motor bancas to barrios just outside Masbate Bay and up to Baleno town. Now the bigger motor bancas to Ticao island, Pilar port and Burias island are also lumped there now. That also includes a few cargo motor boats that were once passenger motor boats.

Actually, some small motor launch operators also built docking areas just beyond the northern end of Masbate port. I was told these transfers were the reaction to the terminal fee that costs P30. A terminal fee of that amount for a P10 boat fare? So right now just a very few motor bancas use Masbate port. One effect is congestion of the port was gone in one stroke. So I wonder now if there was any need to lengthen the port after all. Maybe they could have just donated the construction materials to the boat landing areas at the end of the port. The surface there is still dried muck which is obviously undulating and slippery. Well, if the funds were really meant to benefit the public.

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A makeshift boat landing area adjacent Masbate port

Regarding steel-hulled ferries, the competition in Masbate port is heating up and truck volume was obviously bigger than last January. Not in the buses though as July is already part of the lean months. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation fielded their Cargo RORO LCT there, the LCT Aldain Dowey which was identified in PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) as the former LCT Ongpin. So now they have a total of three ferries in Masbate and I was told in summer Sta. Clara Shipping even fielded a fourth ferry. Their LCT is of the same length as their Jack Daniel and Anthon Raphael, their two ROPAXes there which are the best in the fleets of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (this is before the fielding of the former Tamataka Maru ships from Japan).

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Their LCT is the first to leave at noon and in the afternoon they are the only ferry departures from Masbate at 2pm and 4pm. Their three ferries are the biggest in Masbate because what their competitors have are only basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs because they use the shallow Pilar port whose depth cannot handle bigger ferries. By the way in terms of rolling cargo traffic the Pio Duran route now of Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping is the favorite now since Pio Duran in Albay is nearer to Manila than Pilar of Sorsogon while the rolling cargo rate is just about the same.

With the exception of the ROROBus which is related to Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. practically all the other buses to Masbate are handled by Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and Penafrancia Shipping Corp. as the third operator Denica Lines, a Pilar native does not load buses. Loading buses from Luzon meant extending discounts, rebates, free tickets and free meals and Denica Lines does not play that game because they say they have their share of rolling cargo too. And I saw that when we left left Pilar port aboard their Marina Empress at 3am and the car deck was full. From Masbate port their three ROROs Odyssey, Regina Calixta-II and Marina Empress all left full. Denica Lines has already bought the Regina CalixtaII of Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) of Catanduanes and so they have three ROROs also now while Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) is down to two ROROs from three. Maybe because it is lean months now and maybe they have one undergoing refitting in a shipyard.

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If we assume that Montenegro Lines has a third RORO in Masbate then a total of 8 ROROs make a daily crossing now to Luzon plus there is a Cargo RORO LCT for a total capacity of about 100 truck/bus units (of course, since there are smaller vehicles mixed in, the actual total is higher). Many of these come from as far as Cebu island. Buses will be at least a fourth of that total. One will wonder why there is such a large number of people on the move when within Masbate island there are not that many number of buses although there is a significant number of commuter vans.

Montenegro Lines have three fastcrafts and a catamaran in Masbate including their newest and fastest, the City of Angeles which is a catamaran. They also have there one of their biggest fastcrafts, the City of Masbate. Their future rival, the two fastcrafts of Denica Lines are still not ready and are still being refitted in Pilar port. Meanwhile, I wonder if the Masbate-Pilar motor bancas are already in terminal decline. There are just so many ROROs and High Speed Crafts. Although the motor bancas are faster than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs, they are noisier. They might be noisy, however, but still they are better than the “Stairs Class” of Montenegro Lines.

But in trucks and buses Sta. Clara and Penafrancia are already beating Montenegro Lines by about 3:1. Denica Lines could also be level now with Montenegro Lines in trucks and buses. By the way, sedans, SUVs, AUVs are not that many in the Masbate crossing to Pilar and Pio Duran and jeeps are practically unknown.

However, there is a rumor in Masbate port that a new player will come and serve the Masbate-Pio Duran route and it seems it is not Medallion Transport which was gone from the route after their Lady of Carmel sank in 2013 off Burias island. It remains to be seen if this rumor will come true.

The Super Shuttle RORO 3 of AMTC is also back in Masbate port and it connects to Batangas and Cebu plus Cagayan de Oro but their schedule is irregular as in there are no definite day for arrivals and departures as it is more of a container carrier now. There are also still a few motor bancas to Bulan when where before that was the dominant route to Bicol from Masbate.

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There are also off-hours docking now in Masbate port as Denica Lines has an early evening departure from Pilar. To the credit of Masbate port they let the passengers stay in the port terminal as the arrival of that is midnight and there is still no transportation to the towns outside Masbate City (and that gave me an idea). And Sta. Clara Shipping sends back its ship from Pio Duran if there are a lot of shut-outs (vehicles left unloaded in port) and that becomes another off-hours docking. That was the reason why they fielded their LCT because shut-out were already happening frequently (I saw that last January when one Mega Bus cannot be accommodated and they asked passengers of that to get down the ship and it was an event not good to look at — I pitied the passengers).

Masbate port is changing. Traffic is obviously up and I think the port will only get more important in the future when more traffic will shift to it from San Bernardino Strait if the rates become lower. Maybe then competition will further heat up and we will see the full blooming of Masbate port.

But they have to get that passenger terminal fee down. It is much higher than Zamboanga port when that port is better than Masbate port and the passenger terminal is not really needed by most of the ship passengers. A sore point really and that must change.

The Blue Magic Ferries and Starhorse Shipping Lines

These two shipping companies are actually successors of the once-dominant Viva Shipping Lines and its legal-fiction companies Sto. Domingo Shipping Lines and DR Shipping Lines which once dominated the seas of the old Southern Tagalog region before four provinces of it were spun out as the MIMAROPA region. These two companies were founded by the sons of the founder of Viva Shipping Lines, the widely-known Don Domingo Reyes or “DDR” to many. This founder was a powerful man during his time as he was the landsman in the Bondoc Peninsula in Quezon of the martial law dictator then. Don Domingo Reyes’ main base was Bondoc Peninsula although most people thought it was Batangas City and Lucena as he has his bases of his shipping there and people did not know of Villa Reyes in San Narciso, Quezon where he built his first wooden motor boats that were called batel in the region.

A laid-up Viva Shipping Line RORO by Edison Sy

The Blue Magic Ferries was first to be established among the two. This came into existence when the operations of Viva Shipping Lines, etc. were already winded down and its ships being disposed already. Almost all of the older ships of the Viva Shipping combine were sold and most to the ship breakers. Maybe that will be the logical fate since the Southern Tagalog region has a surplus of ferries then when two Zamboanga shipping companies (the Aleson Shipping Lines and A.S. Sakaluran) and a Cebu shipping company (ACG Joy Express Liner) even tried their fates there (none was successful, however).

Some fastcrafts of Viva Shipping Lines somehow survived and these combined with the remains of ACG Joy Express Line. This company started in shipping with the Sea Cat vessels that first operated out of Cebu and had routes to Bohol and whose founder is a well-known scion of Cebu who is Alvin C. Garcia (hence the initials). From what I can gather, Blue Magic Ferries is a sort of partnership between two sons of Don Domingo Reyes and Alvin C. Garcia.

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Blue Water Princess 2 by JM Litada

Blue Magic Ferries was able to accumulate at least five ferries with two ROROs and two fastcrafts and a catamaran High Speed Craft (HSC). The ROROs were the Blue Water Princess 1 which was known as ACG Joy 8 in ACG Joy Express Liner before. The other RORO was the Blue Water Princess 2 which was the former Asia Brunei of the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. The High Speed Crafts of Blue Magic Ferries that I was able to verify were the Blue Water Queen, the Blue Water Lady and the Blue Water Lady II. The first was the former Our Lady of Mt. Carmel of DR Shipping Lines which was purchased from Sun Cruises of Manila. The second was the former Sea Cat 25, a catamaran of ACG Express Liner and the last was the former Our Lady of Fatima of Sto. Domingo Shipping Lines.

Blue Magic Ferries based itself in Lucena, an old base of Viva Shipping Lines, their predecessor company (later Starhorse Shipping Lines based itself too in Lucena). From there they operated routes to Marinduque and Masbate which are also old routes of Viva Shipping Lines. Lucena then was not virgin territory and in fact there were many shipping companies operating routes from there including Montenegro Shipping Lines, Phil-Nippon Kyoei and Sta. Cruz Shipping. Meanwhile, Kalayaan Shipping Lines had a route to Romblon. [Note: Phil-Nippon Kyoei and Sta. Cruz Shipping are both defunct now.]

Blue Water Queen

Blue Water Queen by Edison Sy

Trouble first struck Blue Magic Ferries when the Blue Water Princess 1 was hit by storm waves while on a voyage from Lucena to Masbate which was an old route of Viva Shipping Lines. It seems the ship’s rolling cargo slid unbalancing the ship which then tried to seek refuge in western Bondoc Peninsula but capsized when the ship struck the shallows. This unfortunate incident happened in 2007 and it resulted in some casualties. To a beginning struggling company this type of incident can be hard to surmount especially if the company has other problems.

From a TV grab of Sydney Morning Herald

Starhorse Shipping Lines came later than Blue Magic Ferries around 2008 and started by leasing ships from DBP Leasing Corporation, the government’s ship leasing company. They named these into a series called “Virgen de Penafrancia”. That name is not surprising since Viva Shipping Lines originally started with the “Penafrancia” series of batels and then into a series of ROROs called the “Viva Penafrancia”. It was able to secure a route by accepting the promoted but harebrained route of MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority, the Philippines maritime regulatory agency). That route is from Laiya, San Juan, Batangas to Marinduque which does not make sense on two counts. One, the distance is double than that of from Lucena and those who know the sea knows it will not be able to compete in rates and fares with the ferries from Lucena. Second, the direction of the route means the ferry will be broadsided by the habagat (southwest monsoon) waves, the same problem usually encountered by the Lucena-Masbate ships which once nearly capsized a ferry in the Pasacao-Masbate route. Starhorse Shipping Lines was founded by Victor Reyes, the eldest son of Don Domingo Reyes. [Victor Reyes was recently deceased.]

Soon, as expected, Starhorse Shipping Lines was able to secure a transfer to the Lucena-Marinduque route and they chartered more ferries from DBP Leasing Corporation until their series reached the numeral “VIII” (however there was no “III” and “IV” but reports then said they purchased the Don Martin Sr. 6 of the defunct Palacio Lines of Cebu and Samar but this is missing now). So for a time, Starhorse Shipping Lines was able to accumulate more ferries from DBP Leasing Corporation, most of which were LCTs. This time around Starhorse, the successor, emphasized cleanliness and passenger service, two terms that were unknown in the predecessor company. However, they were in the route where the new dominant shipping company of Southern Tagalog and MIMAROPA, the Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. was operating. In the early days of Montenegro Lines, their predecessor company Viva Shipping Line applied the pressure on them, shall we say. This time around, it was already the pleasure of Montenegro Lines to return the favor.

M/V Pinoy Roro-1 Folio

From a folio by Irvine Danielles

Greater trouble erupted for Blue Magic Ferries at the same time Starhorse Shipping Lines started operations. It seems they found out then that they have no Certificates of Public Convenience (CPC or franchise) which supposedly should still be in the possession of the Reyes family. Actually, things are really puzzling for me. From records I can gather, some 24 ships of the Viva Shipping Lines combine were confirmed sold (I can name the 24 individually) and some was as late as 2006. However, the family can show nothing for it in terms of ability to purchase new ships (especially by Starhorse Shipping Lines). And what happened to the franchises? These thing do not disappeared in an instant as it is the residual of any defunct transportation company and can even be sold for cash or hoarded. Were the proceeds returned to a “patron saint”?

Blue Magic Ferries stopped operations in 2008. The Blue Water Princess 2 was sold to Navios Shipping Lines where she became their first vessel, the Grand Unity. Blue Water Lady II was sold to DIMC Shipping of Dumaguete where she became the Delta III. The fates of the other ships are unknown to me. Some might still be laid up and one was reported to be in a Navotas yard.

Starhorse Lines M/V Peñafrancia II

Virgen de Penafrancia II by Arnel Hutalla

Starhorse Shipping Lines isn’t doing too well lately. They have returned to DBP some ships (ironically some is already with their competitor Montenegro Shipping Lines) and now they are down to two, the Virgen de Penafrancia I and Virgen de Penafrancia II which are both LCTs. Heads-on, LCTs are usually at a disadvantage against short-distance ferry-ROROs although their Korean-made LCTs seem to be better than the ordinary LCT.

One of the two, Blue Magic Ferries is now out. I wonder if Starhorse Shipping Lines can hold on and i hope they can. They are trying but sometimes the death of the founder proves insurmountable.

Blue Magic Ferries and Starhorse Shipping Companies are two successor companies I have a hard time figuring out. I wonder if there are smokes and mirrors even in the predecessor company.

LG Flatscreen TV for Entertainment

Starhorse Shipping goodluck charms by Irvine Kinea

As a last note, I have learned that Viva Shipping Lines still have some ships in storage in Lucena and San Narciso, Quezon. Will there be a rebirth? Or is it already too late and the family is too fractured now?

I am still interested in the further developments of these successor companies of Viva Shipping Lines.

The “Seven Sisters”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pioneering But Hard-Luck Cardinal Shipping

This article could be considered a tribute to Cardinal Shipping Corporation because among all shipping companies I consider them the true pioneers of island connections using short-distance ferry-ROROs (to distinguish it to the earlier LCTs). This is also an attempt to set the record straight because some government functionaries who have no knowledge in shipping repeat and repeat that the government-owned Maharlika ships first connected Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao through short-distance ferry-ROROs when that is simply not true and factually incorrect. Personally, I hate historical revisionism in any form and that is actually what these dumb government functionaries are actually doing and then some clueless young members of media take after what they say. If this is not checked, we will see a kind of Goebbels syndrome in shipping.

As they say, research and documentation are the most important things in making claims or in debunking claims and the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) was fortunate a co-founder, Gorio Belen, took time to research in the National Library and found the proofs needed to back up what we oldtimers knew that there were ferries that antedated the government-owned Maharlika ships and sometimes one good proof are newspaper advertisements and photos of their ship docked in Allen port. Well, maybe another good proof would come from some retired bus drivers that loaded their ships aboard Cardinal Ferry 1 and those were mainly Pantranco South bus drivers. I myself is a secondhand source because some of these drivers bought merchandise from us to be sold in Calbayog and Catarman. Of course, another good source will be the Allen and Matnog LGUs (local government units). They will know, definitely, especially some of their retired local politicians and local government employees. Add to that also some retired or still active porters.

Cardinal Shipping Corporation actually started in cargo shipping with the Cardinal V. This is a small cargo ship built in 1968 that was formerly the Ryusho Maru in Japan and that ship engaged in tramper shipping. In 1979, Cardinal Shipping branched out into RORO shipping when they brought out the Cardinal Ferry 1 to do a Matnog-Allen RORO route to the consternation of the wooden motor boats doing the route like the MB Samar and MB Sorsogon of Eugenia Tabinas (later of Bicolandia Shipping Lines). The ports they were using were not yet the modern Matnog Ferry Terminal but the old municipal port of Matnog and in Allen, they used the old BALWHARTECO wharf. Both are no longer existing. The two ports were just near the Matnog Ferry Terminal and the present port of BALWHARTECO.

Cardinal Ferry 1 was one of the many Tamataka Marus that came to the Philippines and one of the earliest. She was Tamataka Maru No. 21 and she was acquired from Shikoku Ferry of Japan. The other Tamataka Marus in the Philippines are the Reina Emperatriz (Tamataka Maru No. 71), Reina Genoveva (Tamataka Maru No. 75), Reina Hosanna (Tamataka Maru No.78), all of Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. and Marina Ferries, Queen Helen of Arrel Traders (Tamataka Maru No. 31), Golden Arrow of Arrow Shipping (Tamataka Maru No. 51), Viva Penafrancia of Viva Shipping Lines (Tamataka Maru No. 52) and the Dona Isabel of SKT Shipping (Tamataka Maru No. 32).

Cardinal Ferry 1 was a RORO ship built by Sanuki Shipbuilding & Iron Works in Sanuki yard, Japan in 1964. She was just a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO at 39.2 meters by 9.1 meters with a gross register tonnage (GRT) of 355 tons. Cardinal Ferry 1 had a passenger capacity of 400 persons in sitting accommodations and she was powered by a single Niigata diesel engine that gave her a top speed of 10 knots when new. She possessed the ID IMO 7743118.

In 1980, Cardinal Shipping fielded the Cardinal Ferry 2 to sail the Surigao-Liloan-Maasin route. There was no Lipata Ferry Terminal then yet and they used what is known now as the Verano port now in Surigao City. In Liloan, they used the Liloan municipal port as there was no Liloan Ferry Terminal yet. Liloan, Surigao and Maasin were better ports than Allen and Matnog infra-wise as both hosted overnight ships to Cebu. With the fielding of Cardinal Ferry 2, for the first time ever Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao were connected and a vehicle can roll from any part of Luzon to Mindanao and vice-versa. This was the fulfillment of the dreams of many including the late President Diosdado Macapagal in whose administration the JICA-backed Pan-Philippine Highway project (later renamed as Philippine-Japan Friendship Highway because Japan will partly fund the mega-project and war reparations to be paid by Japan will be used in it) first took shape. During Martial Law, this morphed into the Maharlika Highway. However, the government’s version of connection happened only in 1984 with the coming of Maharlika II and that was 4 years after Cardinal Shipping did it.

Cardinal Ferry 2 was the former Shikishima Maru No. 1 in Japan and she was built by Imabari Shipbuilding Company Ltd. in Imabari shipyard, Japan in 1960 (therefore she was older than Cardinal Ferry I) and she possessed the ID IMO 5322867. She was bigger than Cardinal Ferry 1 at 50.1 meters length by 7.8 meters breadth by 3.9 meters depth. The ship has 491 tons in Gross Register Tonnage (GRT), 302 tons in Net Register Tonnage (NRT) and 800 tons in Deadweight Tonnage (DWT). This ferry was powered by a single Makita engine of 640 horsepower and the top speed was 9.5 knots.

The next year, in 1981, Cardinal Shipping laid out the Cardinal Ferry III which was the former Sanyomarugame Maru No.1 of Sanyo Kisen in Japan. She was fielded in the pioneering RORO route of San Jose de Buenavista, Antique to Puerto Princesa, Palawan! [I really wonder until now what sense this made. Maybe a Cebu-Bohol or a Cebu-Leyte connection would have more sense.] This ferry was built by Kanda Shipbuilding Company in Kure yard, Japan in 1965. Her dimensions are 44.5 meters length by 10.0 meters breadth by 2.9 meters depth. Her original Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) was 495 tons with a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 190 tons. The passenger capacity was 350 and she had twin Niigata engines of a total 1,700 horsepower. The ship’s top speed was 13.5 knots which is fast for a small RORO then. The ship’s ID is IMO 6607848.

In the same year of 1981, Cardinal Shipping acquired the former Taysan of Seaways Shipping Corporation which was an old cargo ship built way back in 1956 by Sanoyas Shipbuilding Corporation in Osaka yard, Japan. This became the Cardinal VI in the Cardinal Shipping fleet and like the Cardinal V she engaged in tramper shipping.

The last ferry and ship acquisition of Cardinal Shipping was the Cardinal Ferry Seven in 1982. She was the former Azuki Maru in Japan of Kansai Kyuko. This RORO ship was built in 1964 by Hashihama Zosen in Hashihama yard, Japan. She measured 41.7 meters length by 12.6 meters breadth by 3.6 meters depth. The original Gross Register Tonnage was 473 tons with a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 165 tons . Her passenger capacity was 650 persons (that is a little big!). The ship was powered by two Daihatsu engines of 1,100 horsepower and the top speed was 12.5 knots. The ship’s ID was IMO 6502191.

Although pioneering, Cardinal Shipping was not successful for long. Even before the  Maharlika I arrived in Matnog-San Isidro route in 1982 and the Maharlika II in Lipata-Liloan route in 1984, she was already under pressure. There were already other competitors that came in the two routes especially in Matnog-Allen route like the Northern Star and Laoang Bay of Newport Shipping (before this Newport Shipping has already been sailing a route from Manila to Samar). Eugenia Tabinas also got into ROROs when she was able to acquire the Eugenia from Esteban Lul of the Visayas. Later, she was able to acquire the Northern Star from Newport Shipping which became the Northern Samar after conversion in Cebu.

It was really hard to compete against the new Maharlika ships which did not need to show a profit as it was government-owned (that is how government always worked and the usual hackneyed reasoning is it is “public service”. However, there was no denying that the Maharlika ships were better as it was much newer. Cardinal Shipping also had ships that were not only old but built in the 1960’s when engines were still not that long-lasting as microfinishing was not yet in great use and metallurgical research was not yet that advanced. Their route to Palawan also did not make sense in that period. In San Bernardino Strait, they soon had a dogfight in their hands with many entrants. Not long after, the ships of Cardinal Shipping began losing to competition.

Cardinal Shipping did not completely go away however and it had a rebirth in the form of Cardinal Philippine Carrier which was based in Iloilo City. They were able to retain the former Cardinal Ferry 3 which was now known as Palawan Traders. Before this she was known as the Kanlaon Ferry, a name maybe given so she will stick in her revised route. They then added a pioneering ferry, a catamaran High Speed Craft, the Bacolod Express in 1989 to do the Bacolod-Iloilo route. This was very notable because before her only Manila had High Speed Crafts in the early 1970s. Some of those were even hydrofoils and they were used in a route to Corregidor which was being heavily promoted then as a tourist destination. 

The Bacolod Express was the former Quicksilver I and she was built by NQEA Australia in Cairns, Australia in 1986. She arrived in the country in 1989 and she was formerly known as the Princess of Boracay and in 1990, she became the Bacolod Express. This aluminum-hulled catamaran measured 29.0 meters length by 11.0 meters breadth by 3.2 meters depth and with a gross tonnage of 318 and a net tonnage of 105. She had a passenger capacity of 356 and she was powered by two MWM engines of 2,700 horsepower which gave the High Speed Craft a top speed of 27 knots. This ferry was one beautiful catamaran.

Bacolod Express was successful in her route for a few years. The first sign of trouble came when BREDCO, the incomplete reclamation area then but her port in Bacolod suddenly began refusing her docking. She cannot dock in Banago port because that was controlled then by Negros Navigation Company, a competitor of theirs which operated conventional ferries between Iloilo and Bacolod, the Don Vicente and the Princess of Panay. Definitely, Bacolod Express was taking traffic away from NENACO which had no equivalent at the start to Bacolod Express (they later fielded the St. Michael). Everybody knows NENACO’s board were powers magnificent then in Western Visayas and could make things happen (or not happen).

Not long after, Bacolod Express also began experiencing engine troubles (in less than 10 years of operational life?) thus unreliability plagued her. That was deadly when new competitors came into her route. With Bacolod Express no longer able to carry the flag, Cardinal Philippine Carrier soon quit the business. They sold the Palawan Traders to E.B. Aznar Shipping where she became the Melrivic Seven. Today this ship still sails the Tanon Strait crossing between Escalante and Tabuelan where she once sailed before. She is the only remnant left and living reminder that once there was Cardinal Shipping but many people do not know that. Maybe not even her crew.

That was the sad tale of Cardinal Shipping which was pioneering in very many ways but which lost in the end. I doubt if many still remember them.

cardinal-shipping

Photo Credits: Gorio Belen, Times Journal and Philippine Daily Express

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 Starlite Ferry

The “Starlite Ferry” of Batangas-based Starlite Ferries Inc. is notable because probably she is the first catamaran RORO ferry in the Philippines (contrary to the claim of Archipelago Philippine Ferries, operator of the new “FastCats” that they were the first). She arrived in the country in 1999 and she sails the Batangas-Calapan route.

Starlite Ferry ©Raymond Lapus

Catamaran ROROs, as catamarans, are twin-hulled but unlike the “SuperCats” they were designed to carry rolling cargo aside from passengers. As such, they are also ROPAXes but with twin hulls.

Starlite Ferry and SuperCat 25 ©Raymond Lapus

“Starlite Ferry” was built in Japan and she was first known as the “Asagumo” of Nippon Car Ferry K.K. She was built by Nippon Kokan Kabushiki Kaisha (NKK) in the Asano shipyard in 1971 with the IMO Number 7235422. “Asagumo” had a Length Over-all (LOA) of 41.4 meters, a Length Between Perpendiculars (LBP) of 39.8 meters and Breadth of 15.9 meters with a Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) of 605 tons. Her Deadweight Tons (DWT) was 178 with a rolling cargo capacity of about 610 lane-meters. In Japan, she was rated at 50 cars capacity. She was powered by two Daihatsu marine diesel engines with a total of 1,300 horseower giving her a service speed of 12.5 knots.

Starlite Ferry ©Raymond Lapus
Starlite Ferry Drydock ©Irvine Kinea

In 1990, she passed on to Sea-Com Corporation with the same name “Asagumo” and in 1992 her new owner was Marine Express Company but the name remained unchanged. In 1999, she came to the Philippines to become a ship of the new shipping company, Starlite Ferries, where she plied the Batangas-Calapan route. In the Philippines, her new Gross Tonnage became 574 tons with a Net Tonnage of 390 tons. Her rated passenger capacity is 572 persons divided into two classes, the non-airconditioned Economy and an airconditioned Tourist equipped with good reclining seats commonly called here as jet seater.

Starlite Ferry Jet Seater ©Raymond Lapus

“Starlite Ferry” has a narrow bridge on a deck above the passenger deck which looks more like a pilot house. She only has one passenger deck with the Tourist up front and below that is the car deck with space for 4 rows of trucks and buses. The ship is equipped with ramps at the bow and at the stern and both are still being used. One thing notable about her ramps is they are narrower than a conventional ROPAX of her size.

“Starlite Ferry” is still a reliable ship and it seems she still has many years of sailing ahead.

Starlite Ferry at Batangas Bay ©Nowell Alcancia

More Starlite Ferry photos:
Starlite Ferry Album by Raymond Lapus
Starlite Ferry Accommodation and Facilities

HIGH SPEED CRAFTS IN THE PHILIPPINES

In the recent era, the High Speed Crafts (HSCs) industry in the Philippines has been consisted only of Fastcrafts and Catamarans (which are colloquially called “FCs” and “cats”). In the earlier years though we had Hydrofoils like the “Flying Fish” which sailed in Manila Bay. One extant but non-running example of a hydrofoil here is in Ouano in Cebu but it cannot yet be identified at the moment.

Flying Fish hydrofoil ©Gorio Belen

Fastcrafts are monohulled vessels with overpowered engines to give them high speeds. On the other hand, catamarans are twin-hulled and some are even triple-hulled and these are sometimes called as trimarans. We also had such examples here of that in the Jumbo Cats of Universal Aboitiz.

Supercat TriCat ©Gorio Belen

Many High Speed Crafts have aluminum alloy hulls to lessen weight and thus increase the ‘power to weight ratio’ to give them better speed. Our HSCs are not big and they are among the smallest in the world. We do not have a High Speed Craft that can carry vehicles.

Fastcrafts usually have propellers (screws) as means of propulsion. Catamarans, however, can have propellers or water jets. The latter type is no longer preferred here since water jets has a higher fuel consumption rate compared to propellers. Additionally, water jets are prone to fouling due to the rubbish and flotsam found in the waters of or near our ports.

Oceanjet 8, a fastcraft and St. Jhudiel, a catamaran. ©Mike Baylon

In general, catamarans are faster than fastcrafts since one advantage of twin hulls is the lower water resistance. The speed advantage is more pronounced with the use of water jets. However, there are some fastcrafts that can give ‘cats’ a good run for their money and sometimes speed races between the two happen especially when the cost of fuel was not yet high.

The catamarans, being wider, can carry more passengers than fastcrafts. However, their center of gravity is higher and if there is no motion dampening system the ‘cats’ roll (‘sway’ in layman’s term) more. It does not mean, however, that they are less safe but some passengers are more prone to motion sickness.

Fastcrafts in the country are mainly of two different designs. The more numerous are the fastcrafts made in Malaysia which were derived from a riverboat design. They were mainly built by several yards in Borneo with fastcraft-building centering in Sibu. The Malaysian FCs are long and sit low and have steel hulls. If crippled, a Malaysian FC can be tied to another and not towed. On a rough sea, waves will pass over its roof and splash on its windows and the craft will rock a little but sitting low nausea does not easily set in. it is actually a formula for a good sleep. Many doubted the Malaysian FCs at the start but when tried on a choppy sea it is then people realize they are more stable.

Weesam Express-I, a Malaysian FC design. ©Mike Baylon

The other design of our fastcrafts come from Japan and they are based on the motor launch. Many are aluminum alloy or FRP-hulled  (FRP is Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic) and both are light compared to steel. One disadvantage though of an FRP hull is in the event of an engine fire, the hull simply melts and none are almost saved from sinking. Like aluminum alloy hulls, when burning, FRP hulls produce noxious fumes. Montenegro Lines operates the most number of ex-Japan fastcrafts in the Philippines. Many of the Japanese fastcrafts here are actually sister ships having come from one basic design.

City of Masbate and City of Dapitan, two different Japanese design fastcrafts operated by Montenegro Lines ©Mike Baylon

There is also a third fastcraft design used in the country, the ones that came from Hongkong which looks like an oversized boat. It has good passenger capacity but with a wide hull it cannot match the Malaysian fastcrafts in speed. Only Oceanjet uses this type of fastcraft in the Philippines, the Oceanjet 3, 5 and 6.

Oceanjet 6, a Hong Kong-style fastcraft. ©Jonathan Bordon

Recently a new type of Fastcraft showed in the country, the Australian type which was built from kits sent here and assembled by Golden Dragon Fastcraft Builder in Labogon, Mandaue, Cebu. The examples are Oceanjet 8, 88 and 888 with another still being assembled and expected to be completed in the year 2015.

OceanJet 88 ©Mike Baylon

The primary exponent of catamarans in the country was the old Universal Aboitiz as represented by the SuperCat series. Aboitiz even established FBM Aboitiz Marine to build catamarans of Australian design in Balamban, Cebu. They sold this shipyard now to Austal but the facility still build ships including catamarans of Australian design which are meant for the international market (the local market can no longer afford such brand-new catamarans).

Most of the Aboitiz SuperCats are gone now along with its former competitors — the Sea Angels of Negros Navigation and the Waterjets together with many competitors that tried the Batangas-Mindoro and Iloilo-Bacolod routes. The SuperCats  recently passed on to 2GO in the merger of Negros Navigation and Aboitiz Transport System and they have since been renamed into saints.

St. Jhudiel, a catamaran operated by SuperCat/2GO Travel ©Mike Baylon

Gone too were most of the other shipping companies that tried catamarans in the ‘90s along with their crafts and routes. Among them are Prestige Cruises (operator of the Mt. Samat catamarans), El Greco Jet Ferries, ACG Express Liner (operator of the SeaCats), Royal Ferry, etc. The short-lived HSC boom happened when the price of fuel was still low. It seems the companies simply overestimated the market and maybe forgot most of the riding public are poor and will not readily pay double the fares of the ROPAXes. Even the boom of tourism in the recent years was not enough to lift our HSC sector. It was still the short-distance ferry-ROROs that thrived.

Mt. Samat Ferry ©rrd5580, flickr

Magsaysay Lines through Sun Cruises also operate cruise tours using High Speed Crafts from Manila to Corregidor.

Sun Cruiser II and Sole Cruiser of Sun Cruises ©Ken Ledesma

The biggest remaining operators of High Speed Crafts nowadays are Oceanjet Fast Ferries, 2GO, Weesam Express (SRN Fastcrafts), Starcrafts and Montenegro Lines. Lite Ferries recently entered this field and they now have three HSCs with two of them Hongkong examples but different from that used by Oceanjet.

Lite Jet 1 of Lite Ferries ©Jonathan Bordon

These are also several High Speed Crafts laid up in Manila, Lucena and Cebu and most of them are no longer in sailing condition. Most were victims of the HSC wars in the Batangas-Mindoro routes.

The Philippines has no formal definition of what is a High Speed Craft but in other countries HSCs are vessels that run faster than the ROPAXes. Our fastest ROPAXes sail at 20 knots and so the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) has adopted 20 knots as the minimum speed to be considered a High Speed Craft. Older HSCs no longer capable of this speed are then downgraded into Medium Speed Crafts (MSCs). There are also vessels that came into the Philippines as original MSCs not capable of 20 knots and the prime examples of these are the sister ships Anika Gayle, Anika Gayle 2 and Anstephen. The Kinswell crafts were MSCs too.

Anika Gayle ©Mike Baylon

Though this sector is not growing it won’t go away, however. Maybe the recent collapse of the oil prices might see a renaissance if the price holds steady at the low level. Otherwise, the only hope is if the shipping companies can import fuel from Singapore tax-free but that is just like shooting for the moon or the stars. If this is not possible then the only hope will be is when the real income of the Filipinos go high enough so they will look for and be able to afford better sea crafts than they are used to. But then that will still be at least one generation away or even two given the glacial pace of change in this country.

For more photos of High Speed Crafts, please click here.