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.

6830499540_416713f673_z

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.

4219038525_d16514f539_b

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.

4279509260_19a1d2f1a3_z

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.

6976669063_7ef01e8e13_z(1)

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.

6976642071_77647620ca_z

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.

35953604830_2ec3b7244c_z

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.

37203715665_575e82f89e_z

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.

23766369805_c721407943_k

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.

Advertisements

The Jadestar Tres and the Jadestar Seis

The Jadestar Tres and Jadestar Seis were once small short-distance ferry-cruisers by Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) definition. These two are sister ships and before they plied the Cebu-Tubigon short-distance route for Jadestar Shipping Lines. This company has folded now after initial success and these sister ships are the only ones still sailing from the old Jadestar fleet although in different capacities and in different places now.

Among the two it was Jadestar Seis that was built earlier in 1982 and she was originally known as the Tsuya Maru. Jadestar Tres was built in 1984 and she was first known as the Sei Maru. Both ships were built by Nagasaki Shipyard & Machinery Works in Nagasaki, Japan. Tsuya Maru/Jadestar Seis has the ID IMO 8204377 and Sei Maru/Jadestar Tres has the ID IMO 8408117. Jadestar Tres had the local Call Sign DUH 2428 and Jadestar Seis had the local Call Sign DUH 2436. The closeness of the two call signs means they arrived in the Philippines not far apart and of course the Jadestar Tres arrived first.

Both ships arrived in 2005 and were once the workhorses of Jadestar Shipping in the Cebu-Tubigon route together with the Jadestar, the first ferry of the company as the Jadestar Nueve and Jadestar Doce did not play prominent roles for the company. Maybe that was because their different designs might not have been well too-suited even from the start (Jadestar Nueve, a former Hongkong ferry was very tall and sways in the Bohol Strait wind and Jadestar Doce was a Low Speed Craft catamaran). It was the three which then can be usually found in docked in Pier 3 or sailing in Bohol Strait with their distinctive red livery.

The two ships have steel hulls with  raked stems and  transom sterns. The sister ships have a single mast, two low funnels and two passenger decks. As cruiser ships, they did not carry vehicles and hence they did not have ramps for rolling cargo nor did they have car decks and this could have what was fatal to their careers in the Cebu-Tubigon route.

The sister ships had the same external dimensions at 36.0 meters LOA, 33.2 meter LBP, 7.2 meters breadth and 2.9 meters depth. However, Jadestar Seis‘ GT (gross tonnage) is 225 while that of Jadestar Tres is only 172. The NT (net tonnage) of Jadestar Seis is 116 and that of Jadestar Tres is 101 (these are nominal numbers and no “tons” are attached). The DWT (deadweight tonnage) of Jadestar Seis is 50 tons while the DWT of Jadestar Tres is 53 tons.

Jadestar Seis has a declared capacity of 502 persons while that of Jadestar Tres is 512 persons. These are all in sitting accommodations. The sister ships are both powered by single Daihatsu engines of 1,000 horsepower and they have a design top speed of 12 knots. However, in Bohol Strait they were usually doing 10 or 10.5 knots only.

The sister ships have an airconditioned Tourist class accommodation at the front of both the upper deck and the lower deck, the original passenger accommodations in Japan. At the rear of those are the open-air Economy accommodations. Some luggage and cargo can be stowed in the rear of the lower deck above the open engine room which is noisy (and so passengers avoid that area). However, few take the Tourist class as anyway the aircon and the smell were not first rate and nor are the seats.

At the start of their passenger operation in 2004, Jadestar Shipping found early success as people of Bohol are wont to going to Cebu for their needs. Cebu is also the transit point for many coming from other places like Mindanao if they are going to Bohol. Bohol’s tourism was also picking up and there are many Bol-anons studying or working in Cebu. Tubigon was also fast developing to be the alternate port to Tagbilaran and actually it was a cheaper alternative as it was nearer to Cebu at only half of the distance to Tagbilaran.

However, things always change and sometimes paradigm changes happen that upsets the old order of things. Lite Shipping, buoyed by many and fast ship acquisitions fielded the double-ended RORO ferries Lite Ferry 9 and Lite Ferry 10 in the Cebu-Tubigon route in 2009. Their challenge to the route was also tightened by the fielding of the Lite Ferry 22, a ROPAX LCT and the Lite Ferry 23, a low-speed catamaran RORO in the Mandaue-Tubigon route. These two were concentrating on the rolling cargo (i.e. vehicles) to Bohol.

Since rolling cargo revenue far outweighs passenger revenues (while rolling cargoes also bring passenger revenues from the vehicles’ passengers) these ROROs can run with less than half full of passenger load as long as they have a good load of vehicles. And Jadestar Shipping do not have that advantage since their ships are cruisers. Cruisers, by its very nature cannot carry a significant amount of cargo, even loose cargo.

In 2010, the Star Crafts fastcrats of Malaysian origin began appearing in the route. At double the speed of the Jadestars they can do the Cebu-Tubigon route in just an hour versus the two hours of the Jadestar while the fare is not double. This proved to be a big come-on especially since the Star Crafts were airconditioned. The aircon vs. aircon fare difference of the competitors was actually not big but the speed difference and transit times were great.

Come the second decade of the new millennium Jadestar Shipping was obviously being squeezed by Lite Shipping and by Sea Highway Carrier (including its legal-fiction companies), the company of the Star Crafts fastcrafts. One disadvantage of a shipping company with only one route like Jadestar Shipping is there is no other route that can buoy up the company if squeezed in one route. The Island Shipping Corp. cruisers were also being squeezed in the route but that company has a strong presence in the Cebu-Bantayan island route.

By 2012, Jadestar Shipping was already kaput, a victim of declining patronage and of revenues not enough to sustain operations. They stopped sailing and brought their ships to the shipyards. The useless Jadestar Nueve and Jadestar Doce were also sold for scrap. Once in a while, some PSSS ship spotters would view them in Tayud using ultrazoom or superzoom cameras. The distance was far.

In 2013, a Jadestar was first espied in the PPA vessel arrival/departure site. It carried the name Jadestar Legacy. A check by a PSSS Admin proved she was Jadestar Seis (the name is etched in the hull) in practically the same livery. Only the name “Legacy” was added but she was now registered in Zamboanga. Further check showed the seats in the rear of the lower deck were removed so more cargo can be stowed. There is more amount of cargo in Zamboanga than in Bohol.

The ship is now owned by Ibnerizam Shipping and she is doing the Zamboanga-Isabela City, Basilan route, an even shorter route than the 22 nautical miles of Cebu-Tubigon at only 14 nautical miles. Her passenger load in the new route is stronger. She has a very old, salty captain who was too fearful of the owner who is always aboard. This is the only captain I met who is not appreciative of a ship spotter admiring his old smoky bathtub. The old cruiser is now down to 8 to 8.5 knots although at times she would take two hours on the route if the sea is rough or the sea is against her.

Meanwhile, while visiting Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu my fellow ship spotter from PSSS suddenly recognized a ship now in green livery being refitted and converted. I was not sure of the identification but he was certain. Then the engraved name came. Sure she was the Jadestar Tres and she was being converted into a Gemini ship, the Gemini 10 specifically. This company is known for having cargo ships that look like passenger-cargo cruisers. It is owned by Wellington Chan Lim of Isla de Bantayan Shipping.

In a few months, ship spotters began seeing her between Pier 2 and Pier 3 in Cebu near the Lapu-lapu Shipping ferries in the cruiser ship row of Cebu Port. There is wide vacant spaces in the upper and lower decks. She loads cargo in boxes and also day-old chicks, among other goods. She supposedly does a route to Masbate. Her schedule to Cebu is irregular and it cannot be predicted when she will appear there. Maybe she is also sails to the other islands and ports.

These sisters are now just the survivors of the Jadestar Shipping fleet which even had a cargo ship before, the Jadestar Dos. Somehow, it is heartwarming that they are still sailing and did not end up as plain scrap metal.

gemini-10-ex-jadestar-tres