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 Weesam Express

The Weesam Express I am detailing here is not the shipping company but the fastcraft which was the progenitor of the fleet of SRN Fastcrafts which is the official name of the company. In the past, this fastcraft was known as Weesam Express 1 and the name change caused some confusion as people have the tendency to ask what is the number and are always assuming the first one always has the number “1” or “I”.

Weesam Express is a High Speed Craft (HSC) and she belongs to the HSC type known as “fastcraft” which are single-hulled, overpowered small passenger ships which were designed for high speed. Specifically, Weesam Express is one of the so-called Malaysian-type of fastcraft which was derived from a riverboat design that was researched and developed by the Malaysian government. It differs from the Japanese design which was derived from motor launches. Malaysian-type fastcrafts are steel-hulled, long and narrow and sits low on the water giving less roll and better stability. High-degree rolls or banking and tight turns are possible with this design due to the low center of gravity. One thrill in riding them especially in high seas is the splashes that are higher than the low-set windows. This type of fastcraft design dominates Southeast Asia and they are mainly made in Malaysian Borneo and sold with attractive sweeteners.

Weesam Express ©Mike Baylon

Weesam Express was built by Yong Choo Kui Shipyard (YCK) in Sibu, Sarawak, Malaysia in 1996. YCK is one of the four prominent Malaysian fastcraft builders and they built the most number of the Malaysian-type fastcrafts that sailed in the Philippine waters. Initially, she sailed the Zamboanga City-Jolo, Sulu route and when she came she was the first HSC that operated from Zamboanga City (she was not the first that came there because that honor belongs to Bullet Express 1). Later her route extended to Bongao. In the rotation of the SRN Fastcraft HSCs, she also sailed to Subanipa, Pagadian and Cotabato City tackling the sometimes high waves of Celebes Sea with aplomb especially when there is a weather disturbance in the Visayas area.

Weesam Express has a Registered Length (LR) of 41.0 meters and a Moulded Breadth of 5.5 meters with a Depth of 2.75 meters. She has a Gross Tonnage (GT) of 226 nominal tons and a Net Tonnage of 50 nominal tons. Originally, she had a passenger capacity of 278 which went down to 252 when refitted and more space was given to passengers in a less-dense configuration. As built she is one of the biggest Malaysian-type fastcrafts in the country. Equipped with two Mitsubishi high-speed marine diesel engines that originally developed a total of 4,400 horsepower she was the second-most powerful Malaysian fastcraft in the Philippines and one of the fastest at over 35 knots service speed.

Weesam Express Safety Evacuation Guide ©Mike Baylon

Over time, most of the SRN Fastcrafts left western and southern Mindanao because of a high percentage of non-revenue passengers and they went to the Visayas. With the Certificate of Public Convenience (CPC) issued by the Zamboanga MRO this caused a furor and protests but it eventually held and became a precedent in the issuance of route permits. For the most time she became based in Iloilo and was doing the Iloilo-Bacolod route although like most shipping companies here with several ships in the fleet rotation happens over time.

High-speed marine diesel engines are not known for long life because of very high operating temperatures and vibration that produce stress. Even before the the 20-year threshold for HSC engines the Weesam Express powerplants began showing unreliability and other problems (one of the old bugaboos suffered by its engines is when an engineer fell asleep on the job and the oil level went low). The low-cost solution chosen by the company was to change one of the engines with a surplus high-speed Caterpillar engine and to pool the good parts in the remaining Mitsubishi engine. This conversion was done in Varadero de Recodo shipyard in Zamboanga City in 1992. The nominal total power of the engines rose to 4,650 horsepower but she runs much lower than the theoretical maximum in order to conserve the engines (like lest another crankshaft breaks again). Doing sea trial in Basilan Strait the crew was able to determine the proper throttle settings so the two screws provide the same thrust. The change in engine is reflected in the decal at the stern of the ship. As of now she can only do 28 knots in spurts but in the high price of fuel regime she does no more than 24 knots. She is one of the very rare ships here that has two different brands of engines.

Weesam Express Mitsubishi Engine ©Mike Baylon

Weesam Express is an all-airconditioned fastcraft and it has three classes in two decks. It has the premium First Class with better seats on the upper deck, the ordinary Tourist class in the lower deck and an airconditioned Economy class. The Economy class is that portion that is located above the engine room where it is noisy and hot and vibration is high. Even with foam and carpeting the heat is simply convected upwards. This is the portion of the fastcraft which has only one passenger deck which is located behind the entrance to the ship.

Malaysian fastcraft bridges are relatively simple and it does not have the sophistication of the catamarans built in Australia and Europe. It does not feature a joystick and instead still relies on steering wheels and simple throttles. Sometimes it is even hot and so the bridge crew opens the windows. In fact, even in the engine room the roar of the engines can be heard because that is one of the disadvantages of the decks being too close to the engine level and with a steel hull. However in terms of speeds they do not give up much to the catamarans but with a heavier hull with two screws close to each other the speed generated compared to the horsepower is not that good. On the other hand being not so high-tech this kind of HSC is easier to acquire and I heard the original acquisition price of this ship was P80 million but I was not able to verify this officially.

Weesam Express Mitsubishi Engine ©Mike Baylon

Weesam Express has been sailing for almost twenty years now, a relatively elderly age for a fastcraft but the hull seems to be still good. It is only the engines that look to be the weakness of this passenger ferry. Maybe with better fortunes I hope SRN is able to purchase a good stock of engines so their fastcrafts live longer. I just also hope that passengers realize this craft having a lower center of gravity is more stable and I heard even capable of a barrel roll (well, its early iteration has seat belts). As of now passengers fear her lying low in the water. Maybe they think of a ‘banca’ but she is not one. She even has better seats and SRN is known for cold aircons. She even has an airconditioned Economy.

I just hope she will have better patronage in the future.

More Weesam Express photos, CLICK HERE

The OceanJet 3, 5 and 6

The Oceanjet 3, 5 and 6, three identical fastcrafts of Cebu-based Ocean Fast Ferries are the representative examples in the Philippines of a Hongkong fast ferry design. With a bulbous look, they are not as sleek-looking as the Japanese fastcrafts but what they offer is plenty of passenger space that rivals the wide catamarans.

OceanJet 3 ©Mike Baylon

The three fastcrafts were built by Cheoy Lee Shipyard in Kowloon, Hong Kong. First to be completed was Oceanjet 3 (IMO 8979398) in 2001 and followed by Oceanjet 5 (IMO 8979403) and Oceanjet 6 (IMO 8979415), both in 2003. The three, which are also all sister ships have identical dimensions of 32.2 meters LOA (Length Over-all), and LBP (Length Between Perpendiculars) of 30.4 meters with a Breadth of 7.1 meters and a Depth of 2.6 meters. They also have identical Gross Tonnages (GT) of 200 nominal tons and Net Tonnages (NT) of 83 nominal tons and a passenger capacity of 287 persons. All are equipped with twin Cummins high-speed marine engines totaling 3,600 horsepower channeled to two fixed pitch propellers that gave each a service speed of 28 knots.

OceanJet 5 ©Mike Baylon

The single hulls of the three fastcrafts are made of aluminum alloy with a raked stem and a transom stern with a single mast. This mast holds a light that throbs when running at night. When fuel prices rose and the fares correspondingly went up they were fitted with additional non-airconditioned deck at the bridge level which raised their GT to 223 and the NT to 92, both in nominal tons. Using economical speed the trio seldom travels more than 24 knots now. Basically, the three are based in Cebu City and doing an eastern route to Ormoc and a southern route to Tagbilaran with one further extension to Dumaguete and Siquijor. In the early part of Ocean Fast Ferries life, the trio was the backbone of the fleet and even now as they are still very reliable with a good service record.

OceanJet 6 ©Mike Baylon

Accommodations in the trio are divided in just to classes, the open-air and the airconditioned Business Class. Passenger accommodations are spread in two passenger decks with the lowermost deck and the engine deck. NVH (Noise, Vibration and Harshness) is not too pronounced in the trio and even at the back it is still comfortable and quiet enough. The floor is carpeted and the airconditioning is good. During trips, the service crew brings out a roller tray and offers snacks and drinks to the passengers and there is also movie entertainment on board. Except in open-air there is not much to view outside because the windows are always coated with salt spray.

OceanJet 5 at cruising at Mactan Channel ©Jonathan Bordon

Just being a decade old, the trio still has a long way to go in service especially since Ocean Fast Ferries has shown they are good in maintaining even their older ferries. I see the trio will still be a fixture in the seas of Cebu in the foreseeable future. Evidently, this Hong Kong-type of fast ferry design is sound and good.