The Biggest Shipping Modernization By Far

When the early 2010s entered, it was depressing for both the ship spotters and liner passengers. The Sulpicio Lines fleet was basically grounded by MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), a consequence of the capsizing of the Princess of the Stars in a strong typhoon and the company had begun disposing liners. The Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) including the SuperCat had already stopped from buying ferries and was more intent on a sell-out in order for them to concentrate on the more lucrative power generation field.

If there was growth, it was in the sector of short-distance ROROs (but only slightly) plus in the Cargo RORO sector (those ROROs that just load container vans and vehicles). Overnight ferries also increased but oh-so-slowly. There was not much to be excited then and in the main the observers are not excited by the LCTs of some shipping companies concentrating here like those of Broadway One Shipping, Seen Sam Shipping/Cebu Sea Charterers, Concrete Solutions/Primary Trident Marine Solutions, Asian Shipping Corporation, etc. Nor would they be impressed by a few brand-new tankers by Chelsea Logistics and a few container ships of Solid Shipping Lines. Very few noticed the new local-builds of Tri-Star Megalink, the unrecognized shipping company of Negros.

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The latest brand-new ship of Tri-Star Megalink in her maiden voyage. Photo by ‘wandaole’ of PSSS.

I myself did not expect much in the last half of the 2010s (I even thought the liners will be singing their swan song). The decade was dominated by a landlubber President and we had lackluster MARINA Administrators who seem to be short on vision and also in budget. We did not seem to have a direction in maritime development early in this decade. If there was any bright light in that darkness is there was a new type of ship starting to come, the catamaran-ROROs of Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the FastCats.

But miracles do happen at times. The country unexpectedly had a President whose mantra is “Build, Build, Build” and soon that also spilled over to the transportation sector and not only in infrastructure. And that included the maritime sector. Soon I saw a procession of new-build ROROs, High-Speed Crafts (HSCs) along with the usual LCTs which is now filling a new sector, the Cargo RORO LCT sector.

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The latest in the FastCat series. Photo by GoukaMaekkyaku of PSSS.

The FastCat series continued and is now of its 13th ship as of this writing (July 2019) and news said the series will comprise of 20 ships. And there is even a rumor that it will be 30 ships in total with some plying foreign routes (there is really an effect when the banks open their lending to shipbuilding). As such this catamaran-RORO will be the most successful design in the country although its plans came from Australia and the ships were built in China. What a comeback for a shipping company that used to operate ferries that were derided by the public and observers. The FastCat series started in 2013 and on the average two ships per year come.

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The newest ROPAX of Starlite Ferries. Photo by Mark Anthony Arceno of PSSS.

The Starlite series of new ferries which started in 2015 with the Starlite Pioneer also continued and this should be 10 in number and is now on its 5th ship. But that does not include 2 Southwest Maritime (SWM) ferries that are also now also in the fleet of Starlite Ferries. These ferries were designed and built in Japan. Now, just the FastCat and Starlite fleets already comprise of 20 brand-new ships as of today and more are coming.

Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) also has a new-build in an overnight route and a second brand-new ship for them has just been very recently launched in Japan and one more of this type will be built for them.

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The brand-new ferry of TASLI. Photo by Jose Zeus Bade of PSSS.

The Ocean Fast Ferries which is more popularly known as Oceanjet continues to locally assemble fastcraft kits from Australia in Mandaue that started with the Oceanjet 8 in 2011. As of the moment they already have 10 own-build fastcrafts. Actually once they launch a new fastcraft, they already have another one being built. As of today they are already the biggest HSC (High Speed Craft) company in the country with more than half of its fleet acquired brand-new.

The Aboitiz shipyard in Balamban, Cebu which was taken over by Austal of Australia re-started making HSCs for local use and so far they have delivered two as part of the SuperCat fleet and one to Grand Ferries of Calbayog, the Seacat One. It seems there are still about 3 or 4 of this kind of ship that that is being built by Austal Philippines in Balamban.

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Seacat One by Mark Edelson Ocul of PSSS.

Lite Ferries also took the brand-new route when the built 4 passenger-cargo LCTs from 2012 to 2016. These were built in China and finished in Mandaue. Island Shipping also bet on passenger-cargo LCTs but all were just locally-built in Hagnaya, Cebu. They had some 5 LCTs built in this decade and 4 of these were in the last 5 years when they began dumping their old cruiser ferries. Orange Navigation which is related to Besta Shipping Lines also had three passenger-cargo LCTs built locally starting in 2014 maybe to replace the losses of the mother company.

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A new-build from China of Lite Ferries. Photo by Russell Sanchez of PSSS.

Tri-Star Megalink of Negros had 7 ferries built this decade in a shipyard in Sagay City. Their design started with passenger-cargo LCTs albeit with extended passenger accommodations. Their design evolved until the later ones looked like conventional ferries already with bridges on the bow and no longer at the stern like those in LCTs. This meant a bigger and more comfortable passenger accommodation with the vehicle deck less hot or less wet depending on the season.

In Davao, Mae Wess/CW Cole also built two LCTs to connect Davao and Samal in their own shipyard in Samal. In Albay, the RLMC Ferry also came with two new ferries to serve Rapu-rapu and Batan islands.

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A new-build ferry of Mae Wess. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

And, in the past two years two new HSC companies came into being. Lucio Tan established a HSC company, the Mabuhay Maritime Express to ferry Philippine Airline (PAL) passengers from Kalibo to Boracay utilizing two beautiful catamarans. The other one was Island Water, a subsidiary of Shogun Shipping, a tanker company. This new company acquired 7 HSCs from Jianlong Shipbuilding of China. With such fast expansion their problem now is lack of viable routes. Shogun Shipping also contracted for 4 new ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships)and the first was already completed while three are still being built.

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A brand-new cat of Island Water from Jianlong Shipbuilding. Photo by Mark Ocul of PSSS.

Last but not least, Jomalia Shipping also ordered a brand-new HSC from Jianlong Shipbuilding, the Maica 5.

As of my count, there are now over 40 ferries of various types that have arrived in the last half of this decade and more are definitely coming. I have not seen or have known a rate of new-builds arriving in the country at this rate. And this does not even include more than two dozen brand-new LCTs for Cargo RORO LCT use. Those will ferry vehicles across short sea distances or container vans from Manila to the Visayas and Mindanao like what Ocean Transport does.

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A Cargo RORO LCT of Ocean Transport. Photo by John Carlos Cabanillas.

Liners, when they come have more impact in the imagination of the people. But their time has come and gone and we should acknowledge that the intermodal is already catching up with the container ships and the express container service of the liners. That is why these new-builds are mainly serving short-distance routes. The growth is already there.

I am glad that I was wrong when I thought our shipping doldrums will continue for a long time. I now look forward to more new ships coming into our seas.

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 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.