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 Sinulog Fluvial Procession, the Ouano House, Piers 8 and 7

One morning I went to the foot of the SRP Road in Cebu to cover the remnant of the Sinulog fluvial procession. I just make do in that area because I will still see most of the participants and besides it is great effort to fight for a good view in the earlier parts of the fluvial procession. Anyway, it is in the vessels that I am more interested in.

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I was just in time. It was still early morning and there was a constant drizzle. But the position of the sun, the early morning and the drizzle made visibility and shots terrible. I have to make do with what is presented by nature. It seems more small crafts participated compared to the last time I covered the fluvial procession but less ferries going to Cebu port were forced to wait near the SRP. The Filipinas Iligan and the Oceanjet 6 were the only prominent ships waiting.

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There were motor bancas which stopped and disgorged the participants in the rocks by the SRP approach and I also covered those. The viewers did not stay long as the drizzle was continuous and there was no sight anymore in that areaexcept for the Coast Guard patrol ships, the Filipinas Butuan plus participant boats which were just idling.

I then decided to make my way to Ouano-House. I called it such because it is there that the E. Ouano house is located. Actually it is more like an office (I have already entered it). And I doubt if it is the ancestral house of the Ouanos because from what I can gather it is also located on reclaimed land like the other facilities in the area.

The jeep driver I rode was kind as he insisted on driving me to the wharf area. I appreciated it since there was a slight precipitation and I did not have to pay for a pedicab. The entry is easy as the guards didn’t mind. I thought it would be like that if the Lite Ferry LCTs to Tubigon have already transferred there. I might look like just one of its passengers.

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After the gate, however, it was a different matter. With the never-ending rains and the constant movement of trucks, the surface of the wharf area was already muddy though firm that one’s shoe will not get stuck. I was not surprised. If Ouano can’t maintain the road in the Ouano near the Mercado then they won’t maintain this one either. I thought FastCat would not have to worry for passenger competition to Tubigon. The muck here is already an advertiser for them. Ditto for the rolling cargo or vehicle loading trade.

It was a maze to get inside because the only firm ground with no mud was occupied by the new Litexpress CHA-ROs parked and blocking the pathways. I would go in one direction and pull back because I can’t go on. Finally I had to cross the muddy road where the trucks roll. I ended up in the Star Crafts area but this time it was already too crowded because the future Lite Ferry 17 and Lite Ferry 18 were being refitted there and steel sheets, acetylene tanks, generators and other equipment were occupying the spaces. The only open area is the road going to Star Crafts and it is also muddy.

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The Lite Ferry 17 and Lite Ferry 18 are ROPAX LCTs that came from China. Those were former HNSS vessels already phased out. HNSS means Hainan Strait Shipping and that tells where it formerly plied routes. One of them arrived earlier and is already sailing here, the Lite Ferry 16 which looked like a sister ship of them. It looked derelict then like the two now docked in Ouano-House but as always Filipino ship repairers will make them look good again.

Besides them was the new Lite Tug 1. It seems tugs are the vogue now of these competing overnight ferry companies. Roble have theirs already, Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) also got one, Cokaliong Shipping Lines followed suit and now Lite Shipping also have one too.

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Also there were Lite Ferry 26 and Lite Ferry 23. It seems those two were the ones doing the Mandaue-Tubigon route last December altho the latter is not the normal LCT but a catamaran-RORO (a slow one tho). Also there near the SMC Shipping and Lighterage facility was the brand-new Lite Ferry 30. It seems like what they did in the earlier Lite Ferry 27 they were building additional passenger accommodations. It looks like they are sister ships together with the Lite Ferry 29.

I did not stay that long in that wharf. Sometimes it is the rain that makes you decide that. I left after my functional shipspotting and I have to go through the maze again but that was easier than navigating the mud in various parts of that wharf. I really wonder how the passengers make do with such situation. Is the cheapness enough to make them stick? I was able to see the tail end of their way out when one LCT just arrived. I saw no shuttle and here the walk to the jeepney terminus is even longer with less shade.

Sometimes I cannot imagine in this era that such hardship can still be thrown to the passengers. Those LCTs, the wharf and the road were just really designed for trucks. Not passenger-friendly in any way. Maybe the FastCat and Star Crafts are a little more expensive but there is still the Lite Ferry 1 which also does a route to Tubigon. I also wonder. Why don’t the Super Island Express II just come back and maybe hold some off-hour schedule versus the Lite Ferry 1. Pier 1 might even have less expensive connections to the buses and jeeps of Cebu. Sorry not jeeps because that type is so few in Cebu. What I mean are the AUVs, Multicabs and converted Elfs and Canters of Cebu.

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From the wharf I made my way to the old Villa Shipping wharf which was just rented from Ouano. I was glad the K-9 guard of Ouano was not there. Their compound was closed and it seems no one is around. Good. I can approach their Elvira-1 and take shots. I wonder why they were too jealous of this old, derelict and bad-looking now former hydrofoil converted into a fastcraft which did not last in service. They should even be glad someone is taking interest. It seems they have a different psychology from us.

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There were no more Villa ships there and it seems they have already left as I can see no more ships and facility of them there. What was docked there was the West Ocean 1 of Ocean Transport. I can’t make of the the jumble there. It seems different entities are using that area and not all are connected to shipping.

It was at the far end where I was interested because I want to go near the Lady of Love of Medallion Transport which has not been sailing for some time already. Got some shots but it was not easy as the rain got heavier. Beyond Lady of Love the LCT Poseidon 19 was also docked. Last December this ship was still running the Matnog-Allen route for NN+ATS as a Cargo RORO LCT. Primary Transport Solutions owns this vessel and NN+ATS only charters it.

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Again I did not stay long. On the way out I took shots of the old derelict F/C Magallanes, a fastcraft for private use. I was told before it was a Durano gift to Ouano. I did not know enough of Cebu politics and shipping of before to work out how that happened. All I heard was before Durano has shipbuilding and was a Cebu shipping player. In fact one of their derelicts is there in Labogon by the Goldenbridge wharf.

I thought Ernesto Ouano was lucky (except he died prematurely). Well, just to have a big reclaimed area near Cebu, how much is that in legacy worth? Plus their wharves. It is practically a Lite Ferries wharf now but Lite pays them. They are rich just because of the payments for the use of the wharves. But later it seems F.F. Cruz and Lua stole their thunder in Cebu reclamation. And I don’t think they are players in the future Cordova reclamation. But still they are very lucky.

I no longer pushed my ship spotting that day. Too much rain and I am not a farmer. Rain would have been nice in April but the programmer is a little awry. But the next day I came back to the same area but this time my targets were Pier 8 and Pier 7. It was a Sunday and there was no activity there past CDU. I first asked the guard of Ravago/Asian Shipping Corporation. A little canine too but I didn’t mind, didn’t press. Can’t call their GM as all mobile lines of Metro Cebu were down to prevent bombing. I was really more interested to see what was the denouement in the AMTC (Asian Marine Transport Corporation) eviction case nearby.

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The AMTC yard was deserted now along with the Dakay Construction yard which was also part of the AMTC lot that was in dispute with F.F. Cruz through the MARRECO entity. MARRECO sought the eviction of AMTC for non-payment and they won in the court. MARRECO then blockaded the facility to prevent AMTC from using it. And AMTC left and transferred to Ouano after a failed bid for the Talisay fishport.

The guards by MARRECO there were suspicious but they told the reason why the Super Shuttle RORO 8 was docked there last December was to take in all AMTC materials left that can still be loaded. But I don’t really know why Super Shuttle RORO 3 and Super Shuttle RORO 2 were also there last December. The two had long been just anchored and not sailing for the best part of 2016.

From there I made my way to the Roble wharf. The left side of that if facing to the sea actually belongs to F.F. Cruz and it is where aggregates carrier LCTs and barges dock. The right side belongs to Roble Shipping. There were three newly-arrived freighters there and I was told two belongs to the scions already. There was also the many docked ships of Roble including the non-running ones. The Ormoc Star was there. She is really ready now for the breakers. On the far end was the fire-hit Wonderful Stars where no work is going on.

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It was lonely in that area on a Sunday Sinulog. Almost no people and movement. I caught a jeep going to Mactan and then I walked again the old Mactan bridge. From there I took a Multicab to Muelle Osmena and took the Metro Ferry. The light was dying when I reached Pier 3 and that ended my ship spotting for that day.