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.

The PMS and PHIDCO Wharves

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

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PMS and PHIDCO wharves

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

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

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PMS wharf

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

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

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PHIDCO wharf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A motor launch to Tongkil and facade of PMS

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

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

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PHIDCO wharf

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

N.B.

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