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]

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HIGH SPEED CRAFTS IN THE PHILIPPINES

In the recent era, the High Speed Crafts (HSCs) industry in the Philippines has been consisted only of Fastcrafts and Catamarans (which are colloquially called “FCs” and “cats”). In the earlier years though we had Hydrofoils like the “Flying Fish” which sailed in Manila Bay. One extant but non-running example of a hydrofoil here is in Ouano in Cebu but it cannot yet be identified at the moment.

Flying Fish hydrofoil ©Gorio Belen

Fastcrafts are monohulled vessels with overpowered engines to give them high speeds. On the other hand, catamarans are twin-hulled and some are even triple-hulled and these are sometimes called as trimarans. We also had such examples here of that in the Jumbo Cats of Universal Aboitiz.

Supercat TriCat ©Gorio Belen

Many High Speed Crafts have aluminum alloy hulls to lessen weight and thus increase the ‘power to weight ratio’ to give them better speed. Our HSCs are not big and they are among the smallest in the world. We do not have a High Speed Craft that can carry vehicles.

Fastcrafts usually have propellers (screws) as means of propulsion. Catamarans, however, can have propellers or water jets. The latter type is no longer preferred here since water jets has a higher fuel consumption rate compared to propellers. Additionally, water jets are prone to fouling due to the rubbish and flotsam found in the waters of or near our ports.

Oceanjet 8, a fastcraft and St. Jhudiel, a catamaran. ©Mike Baylon

In general, catamarans are faster than fastcrafts since one advantage of twin hulls is the lower water resistance. The speed advantage is more pronounced with the use of water jets. However, there are some fastcrafts that can give ‘cats’ a good run for their money and sometimes speed races between the two happen especially when the cost of fuel was not yet high.

The catamarans, being wider, can carry more passengers than fastcrafts. However, their center of gravity is higher and if there is no motion dampening system the ‘cats’ roll (‘sway’ in layman’s term) more. It does not mean, however, that they are less safe but some passengers are more prone to motion sickness.

Fastcrafts in the country are mainly of two different designs. The more numerous are the fastcrafts made in Malaysia which were derived from a riverboat design. They were mainly built by several yards in Borneo with fastcraft-building centering in Sibu. The Malaysian FCs are long and sit low and have steel hulls. If crippled, a Malaysian FC can be tied to another and not towed. On a rough sea, waves will pass over its roof and splash on its windows and the craft will rock a little but sitting low nausea does not easily set in. it is actually a formula for a good sleep. Many doubted the Malaysian FCs at the start but when tried on a choppy sea it is then people realize they are more stable.

Weesam Express-I, a Malaysian FC design. ©Mike Baylon

The other design of our fastcrafts come from Japan and they are based on the motor launch. Many are aluminum alloy or FRP-hulled  (FRP is Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic) and both are light compared to steel. One disadvantage though of an FRP hull is in the event of an engine fire, the hull simply melts and none are almost saved from sinking. Like aluminum alloy hulls, when burning, FRP hulls produce noxious fumes. Montenegro Lines operates the most number of ex-Japan fastcrafts in the Philippines. Many of the Japanese fastcrafts here are actually sister ships having come from one basic design.

City of Masbate and City of Dapitan, two different Japanese design fastcrafts operated by Montenegro Lines ©Mike Baylon

There is also a third fastcraft design used in the country, the ones that came from Hongkong which looks like an oversized boat. It has good passenger capacity but with a wide hull it cannot match the Malaysian fastcrafts in speed. Only Oceanjet uses this type of fastcraft in the Philippines, the Oceanjet 3, 5 and 6.

Oceanjet 6, a Hong Kong-style fastcraft. ©Jonathan Bordon

Recently a new type of Fastcraft showed in the country, the Australian type which was built from kits sent here and assembled by Golden Dragon Fastcraft Builder in Labogon, Mandaue, Cebu. The examples are Oceanjet 8, 88 and 888 with another still being assembled and expected to be completed in the year 2015.

OceanJet 88 ©Mike Baylon

The primary exponent of catamarans in the country was the old Universal Aboitiz as represented by the SuperCat series. Aboitiz even established FBM Aboitiz Marine to build catamarans of Australian design in Balamban, Cebu. They sold this shipyard now to Austal but the facility still build ships including catamarans of Australian design which are meant for the international market (the local market can no longer afford such brand-new catamarans).

Most of the Aboitiz SuperCats are gone now along with its former competitors — the Sea Angels of Negros Navigation and the Waterjets together with many competitors that tried the Batangas-Mindoro and Iloilo-Bacolod routes. The SuperCats  recently passed on to 2GO in the merger of Negros Navigation and Aboitiz Transport System and they have since been renamed into saints.

St. Jhudiel, a catamaran operated by SuperCat/2GO Travel ©Mike Baylon

Gone too were most of the other shipping companies that tried catamarans in the ‘90s along with their crafts and routes. Among them are Prestige Cruises (operator of the Mt. Samat catamarans), El Greco Jet Ferries, ACG Express Liner (operator of the SeaCats), Royal Ferry, etc. The short-lived HSC boom happened when the price of fuel was still low. It seems the companies simply overestimated the market and maybe forgot most of the riding public are poor and will not readily pay double the fares of the ROPAXes. Even the boom of tourism in the recent years was not enough to lift our HSC sector. It was still the short-distance ferry-ROROs that thrived.

Mt. Samat Ferry ©rrd5580, flickr

Magsaysay Lines through Sun Cruises also operate cruise tours using High Speed Crafts from Manila to Corregidor.

Sun Cruiser II and Sole Cruiser of Sun Cruises ©Ken Ledesma

The biggest remaining operators of High Speed Crafts nowadays are Oceanjet Fast Ferries, 2GO, Weesam Express (SRN Fastcrafts), Starcrafts and Montenegro Lines. Lite Ferries recently entered this field and they now have three HSCs with two of them Hongkong examples but different from that used by Oceanjet.

Lite Jet 1 of Lite Ferries ©Jonathan Bordon

These are also several High Speed Crafts laid up in Manila, Lucena and Cebu and most of them are no longer in sailing condition. Most were victims of the HSC wars in the Batangas-Mindoro routes.

The Philippines has no formal definition of what is a High Speed Craft but in other countries HSCs are vessels that run faster than the ROPAXes. Our fastest ROPAXes sail at 20 knots and so the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) has adopted 20 knots as the minimum speed to be considered a High Speed Craft. Older HSCs no longer capable of this speed are then downgraded into Medium Speed Crafts (MSCs). There are also vessels that came into the Philippines as original MSCs not capable of 20 knots and the prime examples of these are the sister ships Anika Gayle, Anika Gayle 2 and Anstephen. The Kinswell crafts were MSCs too.

Anika Gayle ©Mike Baylon

Though this sector is not growing it won’t go away, however. Maybe the recent collapse of the oil prices might see a renaissance if the price holds steady at the low level. Otherwise, the only hope is if the shipping companies can import fuel from Singapore tax-free but that is just like shooting for the moon or the stars. If this is not possible then the only hope will be is when the real income of the Filipinos go high enough so they will look for and be able to afford better sea crafts than they are used to. But then that will still be at least one generation away or even two given the glacial pace of change in this country.

For more photos of High Speed Crafts, please click here.