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

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.