I first noticed “Butuan Bay 1” in a streamer in San Francisco (Sanfranz) bus terminal early in 2002 when I still usually took the land route from Davao to Bicol through Leyte and Samar. I was puzzled since Gothong was then still part of William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) shipping company although there were rumors already then that the William and Gothong interests were disgruntled in the merged company. It turned out later than the Gothong family already bought a RORO even before divestment and pay-out from WG&A and fielded that ship in their traditional stronghold Agusan through Nasipit port. I learned later it was the old agent of Gothong in Japan who made the ship available to them. The ship was the first in the re-established Gothong fleet and she came to the Philippines late in 2001.
“Butuan Bay 1” started life in Japan as the “Koyo Maru”, a RORO Cargo ship bearing the ID IMO 8817083. She was built by Iwagi Zosen in the Iwagi shipyard for the shipping company Keiyo Kisen and she was completed in February 1989. Her Length Over-all (LOA) was 114.8 meters and her Breadth was 19.0 meters. She measured 3,864 Gross Tons (GT) and her Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) was 3,376. She was powered by a single Mitsubishi engine which developed 9,600 horsepower (7,061 kilowatts officially) which gave her a service speed of 17.5 knots.
In August 2001, she was sold to the Philippines to Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) which then proceeded to add two passenger decks to her located above her two cargo decks. The lower passenger deck was situated on her former top deck which was also a former car deck. Her two RORO ramps located at the port front quarter and at the stern (this ramp swings out when deployed and is of three-piece construction) were retained. Her mid-ship bridge was also not changed and as “Butuan Bay 1” her Gross Tonnage rose to 4,048 and her Net Tonnage to 2,070.
Her first route was Nasipit, of course. However, as more ships were added to the Gothong fleet she was assigned the Ozamis-Iligan route. She was not a very comfortable ship as her reconstruction to a passenger ship was basic. Actually, the conversion of the other ships of the Gothong fleet also followed this pattern. It seems they were like some of the ships that came in the 1960s that were mainly designed for cargo which also carried passengers too. There were a few cabins but it was mainly Economy and Tourist with not much amenities or facilities (she won’t have many Japan originals as she was formerly a RORO Cargo ship). Gothong offered low fares, however.
CAGLI was not so successful in their foray back in shipping. There were still a lot of liners and overnight ferries then and the passenger and cargo traffic was beginning to decline because of the advance of the intermodal transport system and the direct service of regional container ships in regional ports. With basic amenities and facilities and middling passenger service there was no way they can challenge the liners of WG&A and Sulpicio Lines nor the overnight ferries of Cebu Ferries, Trans Asia Shipping Lines and Cokaliong Shipping. Soon their liners were aging fast and this may have manifested in lower maintenance standards. Their ferries concentrated more in cargo and that resulted in big delays in departures (I once asked in Nasipit port about “Manila Bay 1” and the guard told to better take another ferry as he said delays of 24 hours were common).
On May 15, 2007, while transiting out of Mactan Channel in a southbound direction an explosion in the engine of “Butuan Bay 1” happened and killing three in the engine room. She was towed back to port and she was not successfully repaired. In early 2010, she was sold to Trans Asia Shipping Lines, Inc. (TASLI). Parts were ordered from Japan and her passenger accommodations and its superstructure were completely changed. Her accommodations and facilities standard was then brought to the top overnight ferry standard of TASLI and she was renamed as the “Trans-Asia 5”.
As “Trans-Asia 5” her Gross Tonnage (GT) rose to 4,790 and her Net Tonnage (NT) to 3,257, a little higher because she had additional scantling at the bridge level. Initially, she ran at her original 17.5 knots and there was great joy among ship spotters in her salvaging from a derelict ferry. Her facilities and accommodations were top class and even higher than some liners to Manila. Her front ramp was however removed because it has no role in the Mediterranean-type of docking being employed by Trans Asia Shipping Lines.
Sailing with “Trans-Asia 5”, one will notice her lounge and atrium which had a nice kiosk cum coffee shop with plenty of sofas, chairs and tables and which exhibited top class photos of the TASLI CEO, the well-known photographer Kenneth Sy. Man, it was simply cool to while away time there. The first class section and its lounge were also top-notch for a ship and more than rivals the great Philippine liners of the past. Even the Tourist from its front and linen desk was impressive including the motif and décor. Each Tourist cubicle for 8 persons had its own TV and each bunk is provided not only with each own reading lamp but also each own dual outlet with. One can charge his cellphone while using the laptop and using the Wifi. Man, what a convenience! It was the best Tourist Class I have seen and even the beddings were topnotch for Tourist.
Economy was the usual TASLI dominated by blue color – basic, spartan but clean (the ship went on to win a “Cleanest Ship of the Year Award”). Beddings can be hired and as usual for Philippine ferries the accommodations are a little bit humid and only ventilation is from the sea breeze. But many passengers like it this way and they are used to this including in their own homes. The bonus is in the low fare on selected days of the week.
There is the usual Trans Asia restaurant and its version of outdoor “ihaw-ihaw” with tables and chairs. There is also the added service spa and massage.
Trans-Asia 5’s cargo operations were mainly palletized although she carried a few XEU container vans also. However with her three-piece ramp forklifts can move in and out of the ship unlike in other Cebu overnight ferries where pallets are passed to another forklift on the outside or inside. However, her long ramp seems a little foreboding on a rainy, slippery night.
TASLI treated “Trans-Asia 5” with care and respect. However, it seems she is really a ship a little out of luck on the engine side. Soon, there were conking of her engines with two very publicized ones where she wallowed for long on the open sea and sparking outcries. MARINA then withdrew her permit to carry passengers and now she just carry cargo to Zamboanga, Masbate, Surigao and Nasipit as a plain cargo ship. Recently, some of her passenger accommodations were already pulled out.
She has been put for sale but with the dearth of passenger shipping companies in the Philippines finding takers for her will be tough unless the bidder is a breaker and TASLI is one shipping company not fond of that kind of people and always trying to fit a soft landing spot for their old ferries. However, there will always be the fear that she can go the way of the TASLI ferries “Trans Asia” and “Asia China” because of her size, i.e. too big for regional, short-distance ferry companies, hence, candidate for the breakers.
“Trans-Asia 5” is still faithfully toiling. But for how long and in what direction, no one can be sure of that.
More Trans-Asia 5 Photos by Mike Baylon: CLICK HERE