The “Seven Sisters”

In the world, there was once what was called as the “Seven Sisters”. These were the biggest oil companies in the world for more than half a century from the 1930’s to the 1980’s when further consolidation happened within their ranks. Five of the “Seven Sisters” were offspring of the forcibly broken-up Standard Oil Company of John D. Rockefeller, the most famous monopolist of the modern era which was hit by anti-trust legislation in the US as it was engaged in practices that restrict free trade. These were Exxon (Standard Oil of New Jersey), Mobil (Standard Oil of New York), Texaco, Socal (Standard Oil of California) and Gulf Oil. The two others were the biggest oil companies of Europe which were Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum (BP). Together, the “Seven Sisters” were suspected of collusion in fixing the prices of crude oil and the refined oil products and also in “transfer pricing”. The biggest of the “Seven Sisters” were among the biggest companies in the world in their heydays in the company of General Motors, First National City Bank and General Electric which were held in very high regard for the bigness and in market and financial clout.

In the Philippines, there is also what could be considered a version of the “Seven Sisters” if only for pun. These were the catamaran High Speed Crafts (HSCs) which all came from Macau as the share of Universal of Macau in Universal Aboitiz Inc. The seven catamarans are all sister ships built in Singapore by FBM Marinteknik which arrived in 1995 to 1996 which all but sank the hopes of competition (yes, they were as dominant as the “Seven Sisters” of the oil world). They were not brand-new but they were as good as that. Their names were SuperCat-I (the former Oregrund), SuperCat 2 (former Camoes), SuperCat 3 (former Estrela do Mar), SuperCat 5 (former Lusitano), SuperCat 7 (former Universal Mk. 1), SuperCat 8 (former Magellan) and SuperCat 9 (former Santa Cruz). Formerly, they were used in routes from Macau including Hongkong.

These “Seven Sisters” were the fastest ever to sail Philippine waters in the recent era. Powered by twin waterjets which prevent early cavitation, the seven were all capable of 38 knots sustained. That was almost double of the SuperFerries of the period and more than triple the 11 knots average of the common short-distance ferries then. Early in their careers the passengers marvelled at their very short route transit times like in Batangas-Calapan which just takes them 45 minutes versus the two-and-a-half hours of the regular ferries.

The lengths of the “Seven Sisters” were almost the same and averages 41.5 meters which was more than the average basic, short-distance ferry-RORO (that means they are not really small). Their breadths were all 11.0 meters and their depths between 3.6 to 3.8 meters. The gross tonnages ranged from 449 to 458 while the net tonnages ranged from 151 to 155, all small differences. The passenger capacities, meanwhile, ranged from 306 to 322. But all of them were powered by twin MTU engines with a total of 5,200 horsepower. They were the most powerful High Speed Craft engines ever seen in Philippine waters.supercat-7-marlon-griego

These “Seven Sisters” featured aluminum hulls for lighter weight. All had single masts, raked stems and transom sterns. The sisters had single passenger decks which means they all had low centers of gravity with the pilot house high above that. Aside from the common navigational devices, all had night vision devices, autopilots, joysticks and motion dampening systems. The engine room can also be monitored from the bridge.

Aboard, the passenger compartment featured airline-type seats with seatbelts. There were well-trained stewards and stewardesses to assist the passengers and make them comfortable. There was a perception of space and the passenger compartment floor is carpeted. However, at full speed the hum of the engines were audible (but it was a pleasant hum as they were MTUs) and in exchange of that there is really a perception of speed and great capability in acceleration.

These catamaran High Speed Crafts were fielded in the Batangas-Calapan, Bacolod-Iloilo, Cebu-Ormoc, Cebu-Tagbilaran-Dumaguete-Dapitan (with a Siquijor extension at one time) and Cebu-Maasin-Surigao routes. It was the time when High Speed Crafts were being used from short to long routes that were once done by overnight ferries. The first three routes were successes, the last one was a failure while the fourth was marginal. It was in the shorter routes where the “Seven Sisters” found success.

Along with the SuperCat 6 and SuperCat 10 which were of different designs, these SuperCats were so successful in a very crowded High Speed Craft field that included competitors like the fastcrafts of the Viva Shipping Lines combine, the fastcrafts of Bullet Express, the two High Speed Crafts of Oceanjet, the SeaCats of ACG Express Liner, etc. that their very direct competitors, the Sea Angels of Negros Navigation Company and the catamarans of Water Jet Shipping Company folded and merged with them to form the Philippine Fast Ferry Corporation (PFFC).

Their fielding, however, nearly coincided with the 9/11 attack in the New York City towers and the subsequent launching of the US with retaliatory wars and interventions in the Middle East which slowly but consistently rose the price of oil. With nearly 17 horsepower per person, the highest ratio in local waters, the local “Seven Sisters” soon found their fuel consumption was simply too high. Incidentally, all merged Sea Angels and Waterjets also had the same powerplants as the “Seven Sisters”, the 5,200-horsepower MTUs. Moreover, the waterjets proved a little troublesome for the unclean waters of our ports when trash sometimes get sucked by the waterjets which threw schedules awry (they can’t run well with the waterjets clogged thus voyages were cancelled because maintenance has to be made first).

The Philippine Fast Ferry Corporation then had a policy decision to shift away from waterjets and the thirsty MTU engines. One by one, the merged Sea Angels, Waterjets and the Seven Sisters were sold and all to foreign buyers. By the mid-2000s none of them were left. SuperCat 3, 5, 7, 8 and 9 were sold to Jadrolinija of Croatia while SuperCat-I was sold to Tahiti and SuperCat 2 was sold to South Korea. SuperCat 3 became the Karolina, SuperCat 5 became the Judita, SuperCat 7 became the Novalja, SuperCat 8 became the Dubravka and SuperCat 9 became the Bisovo. Meanwhile, SuperCat-I became the Normandie Express (later as Moorea Express) and SuperCat 2 became the Korea Express. What replaced them in the SuperCat fleet were smaller High Speed Crafts of less power and speed, none were waterjets and some were fastcrafts. Except to that were the trimarans Tricat 50 and Tricat 2.

Later on, there were still some changes of ownership among the “Seven Sisters”. But rest assured all seven are still alive although they are elderly now (they are nearing 30 years of age) and might be nearing their end.

Still, they were fun when they were here. Even to just watch them make their run.

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Photo Credits: Masahiro Homma, Marlon Griego, Vinz Sanchez, Nowell Alcancia, PSSS

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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 SuperCat 1

The SuperCat 1 is the progenitor of the great SuperCat series which is still well-remembered today. However, unlike what most people think, this is not the same vessel as the latter SuperCat-I which people knew better because she lived longer.

SuperCat 1 didn’t live a long and charmed life. She is also not traceable from databases as her IMO Number is not known and Universal Aboitiz seemed to prefer that her past was simply buried. She came one time in April of 1994, gleaming, impressive and launched with much fanfare, as should be, being a technical advancement and being fastest in the route. However, she was not the first High Speed Craft (HSC) in the Batangas-Mindoro route as the Bullet Express 1 beat her by days (however she was not successful in the route and was largely forgotten in the area).

SuperCat 1 seems to be a Damen catamaran built in Singapore, probably of a fiberglass hull. She was a two-deck passenger HSC equipped with propellers having a speed of over 32 knots. She was capable of 45-minute transit time in the 24-nautical mile Batangas-Calapan route on a clear sea. However, I doubt if she has a motion dampening system as I noticed her tendency to ride like a horse on a rough sea.

SuperCat 1 ©Edison Sy

She was a snazzy ship when she came and with snappy service to boot which one might mistake for airline service then as this kind of service afloat a vessel was not common then. Everything was clean and orderly and the passengers were pampered. Compared to the slow, annoying and humid ROPAXes in the route, her comfort and service were miles and miles ahead. One does not arrive at the end of the route feeling tired and hassled.

With her appearance in the route, the dominant Viva Shipping Lines was forced to respond. Sometime in July of 1994, two fastcrafts appeared to compete with SuperCat 1. However, there was really no match as the Viva fastcrafts were slower and the service was notches below. Soon, an odor was also noticeable as the crew slept overnight on her humid cabin. The only thing going for the Viva fastcrafts was that her fares were significantly lower.

SuperCat 1 stern ©Edison Sy

A canard of “excessive” speed was thrown against SuperCat 1 by the humbled opposition and with that came the whispers of “dangerous”. Many thought this was part of the campaign for her route to be changed to the west of Isla Verde instead of the route between the Mag-asawang Pulo. It was already habagat and that route was known for rougher seas. Soon she was assigned this route and riding her, I had one of three most violent sea rides in my life where majority of the crew threw up and passengers have to be bodily lifted or assisted out of the vessel at the end of the voyage.

One day in September of 1994, SuperCat 1 stuck an underwater object while speeding near Isla Verde on the way to Calapan. She was wrecked and upon salvage the severity of the impact can be seen in the misalignment of the two hulls. Charges of “sabotage” were hurled against the main competition but none were proved. She was never repaired and soon she receded from memory.

Soon after, a new SuperCat-I came to replace her. She was the former Oregrund, a second-hand catamaran built in Sweden by Marinteknik Verkstads. In appearance she was much different from SuperCat 1. Most people thought she was the progenitor of the SuperCat series but they were wrong.

Oreground(future SuperCat-I) ©Penhahk

SuperCat 1 is forgotten now and this is just an article to set the record straight and so that she will also be remembered.