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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A Tale of a Slow Double-Ended RORO

This ferry is more appropriately named as “double-ended ferry” and not “double-headed ferry” like the preferred name in Japan as she does not have two separate bridges or pilot houses like the dead Super Shuttle Ferry 2 although technically she might have dual controls like the other double-ended ferries in the country which number over a dozen including local-builds. But like most double-ended ferries she is slow as having having screws at each end means a lot of drag and thus lower speed. The low speed might also be due to the transmission gearing. If she was designed to cross very narrow channels of water then providing acceleration off the port, the “pull”, might have been given more weight and not the cruising speed.

The ferry is the Lakbayan Uno which is infamous in its routes for its low speed. She might have had 910 horsepower from her Yanmar Marine engine originally but her design speed, her speed when she was new was just 7.5 knots! With such speed a ferry should not have been used in a route such as she had cruised most of her career here, the Bacolod-Dumangas route as such low speed would tell on her and there is no way the passengers and shippers won’t notice as she has competition that are way faster than her. If there is no meaningful discount on fares and rates then as we say it lalangawin siya (there will be few patrons).

Lakbayan Uno originally came to the country in 2000 as part of the contingent brought in by Philtranco in their attempt for horizontal integration. Pepito Alvarez, the great land transport mogul of the recent era has just taken over Philtranco and with his Nissan UD national franchise and Number 1 ranking in buses sold, he was refleeting the old moribund Philtranco South Enterprises Inc. (PSEI) which were formerly equipped with Hino buses that were already all worn down and depleted in numbers through the loss of the old units with bad maintenance and inside irregularities.

I am not really sure which company really owned Lakbayan Uno at the start. What is known through PSSS contributions and through maritime databases is she was part of the three-vessel acquisition in 2000 which all featured double-ended ROROs, the other two being the sister ships from Aki Line of Japan which became the Maharlika Tres and Maharlika Cuatro which were still relatively new when acquired. Lakbayan Uno was the oldie in the group having been built way back in 1973. But the acquiring company could have originally been Philharbor Ferry Services (and that brings us to the trouble of having many legal-fiction companies). At the start she might not have been under the Archipelago Ferries Philippines Corporation.

Lakbayan Uno did not last long under that combine and in 2001 she became part of the still-respectable fleet then of Millennium Shipping which still had LCTs (which later ended up with Maayo Shipping serving the Negros-Cebu connection). Under Millennium Shipping, Lakbayan Uno tried to shore up the Millennium Shipping connection between Ozamis City and Tubod, Lanao del Norte that was spanning the narrow Panguil Bay.

Millennium Shipping originally bridged Panguil Bay from the port of Tubod to the port of Silanga, Tangub City, a very, very short distance. That was the original RORO connection across Panguil Bay. However, when Daima Shipping built their own port and connected direct to Ozamis City, the Millennium Shipping connection was trumped (along with the across-the-Panguil connection of Tamula Shipping featuring small cruisers).

Millennium Shipping tried to counter by building their own port in Tubod and linking direct to Ozamis. To avoid congestion in Ozamis port which had limited docking space they built their own wharf adjacent to the Ozamis PPA port. However, their transit times are longer, their private port in Tubod was located further west (while most of passengers and vehicles come from the east).

Besides those, their route is longer and using LCTs exacerbated the deficiency as LCTs were slow and passengers complained of the inferior passenger accommodations aggravated by the long use already. Meanwhile, competitor Daima Shipping was using then-novel double-ended ferries which had airconditioning for such a small upping in fares.

That was the reason why Millennium Shipping brought in Lakbayan Uno to the Panguil route. However, she was not able to stem the tide of rout. She was slow, her transit times were longer and the killer was Daima Shipping has far too many ferries than them and it gets full easy and so departure times were fast as they can offer 20-minute intervals even then while Millennium Shipping offers hourly departures. If they accelerate the departures they risk sending out nearly-empty ships. But over time that what was what happened – nearly-empty ships sailing and so they quit operations in Panguil Bay and sold their LCTs.

Lakbayan Uno then found itself in the Bacolod-Dumangas route (and she has been there ever since). At the start she might have been a match for the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs of Montenegro Lines except for the speed. But in the succeeding years better competitors arrived in the route and she was being badly overwhelmed.

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And that brings me having a cocked eye on Millennium Shipping which was reduced to two-ship fleet, the other the very old and antiquated Millennium Uno which is also heavily outmatched in her route and also very slow. The company bears the name Floirendo which is respected and is a heavyweight in the Banana Country of Davao. Everybody knows they are loaded but why such an underwhelming shipping company and ships derided by many? Why, his PhP 75 million donation to the campaign of then-Mayor Duterte would have been enough to buy a good short-distance ferry-RORO or two.

Lakbayan Uno might not have been that bad but the problem is she is assigned a route where her weakness in speed is too exposed. But then I don’t know of many routes now that are very short where that won’t be exposed. Maybe Davao-Samal but they never seriously threw a look in that route. If they put Lakbayan Uno in that route it would have been superior to the Mae Wess LCTs then.

Lakbayan Uno was built in the Japan as the Shigei Maru No. 11. She has two sister ships in the Philippines, the Shigei Maru No.7 and the Shigei Maru No. 12 which are known locally as the Swallow-I and Swallow-II of Daima Shipping. The latter is the former Our Lady of Mediatrix which was heavily damaged when two of it loaded Super 5 buses were car bombed and she caught fire (she was rebuilt by Daima Shipping over several years). So when she was in Panguil Bay then, Lakbayan Uno used to see her sister ships.

All the three sister ships were built by Kanbara Shipbuilding in Onomichi, Japan. Their dimensions are also about the same. More exactly, Lakbayan Uno‘s external dimensions are 33.8 meters in length over-all, 29.9 meters length between perpendiculars, a breadth of 10.0 meters and a depth of 2.9 meters, very common measurements of a short-distance ferry-RORO but they happened to be double-ended ROROs. With such external measurements, a rolling capacity of 6 trucks or buses maximum is expected. If sedans it will be a little more.

Lakbayan Uno‘s dimensional weights are 221 in gross tonnage and 92 in net tonnage with a load capacity of 170 deadweight tons. She has a passenger capacity of about 200 all in sitting accommodations. She has two ramps, bow and stern, a single car deck, a single passenger deck, a bridge amidship and only one mast. Amazingly, her sisters ships here has even less power than her but their design speeds are higher! The ID of Lakbayan Uno is IMO 7370399.

In this decade, Lakbayan Uno is not only infamous in lack of speed in Bacolod-Dumangas but also in showing unreliability and at times she is not even sailing that some ship spotters in seeing a photo of her in that pose inevitably ask. Recently, however, Lakbayan Uno was re-engined, a declaration of intent by Millennium Shipping that they are not ready to let her go. Well, if they will let go of one it would have been Millennium Uno, probably the oldest RORO around that is not an LCT and barring Star Ferry II which was a cobbled ship from Ace-I.

The new engine of Lakbayan Uno is a Weichai WP-12C-450 from China and it is rated at 450 horsepower. Her new speed is 9.1 knots, an improvement over her design speed. There is a claimed reduction of fuel consumption from 117 liters/hour to 35 liters/hours. Now that is outstanding! That will probably be the life saver of Lakbayan Uno. With a fuel cost of probably only P2,000 per voyage (P70 liters x P27.50/liter of diesel), well, that could be one truck charge only. Who was it who told me RORO rates in Samal are just OK (and I told him it was sky high)? Baka pa nga tubong-lugaw ang operasyon ng ROROs as long as walang nakawan. And of course beyond the speed and lower fuel consumption, a new engine’s contribution is reliability.

Lakbayan Uno is still in the Bacolod-Dumangas route. She has been there since she left Panguil Bay. I hope that somehow she survives the fierce and better competition there (she will with that low fuel consumption!) Well, with a Floirendo as owner they might not really be expecting profits from the ship anymore. If the goal is only to keep the ship alive and to be able to pay the crew then maybe there will be no temptation to sell especially to the breakers.

As a last resort they can bring that home to Davao. Samal still lacks ferries, always been. With tourism and being a get-away place of Dabawenyos, an upward demand has always been the pattern. She will be welcome, I guess.

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Photo Credits: Carl Jakosalem, Britz Salih, John Carlos Cabanillas