Since the historical days of yore, Samar has always been connected to Bicol. And that can be proven true from prehistory. How? Ethnologue, which is used by the United Nations for language analysis has reclassified the supposed “Bicol” dialect of southeastern Sorsogon as a dialect of Waray (and I asked a Sorsoganon friend and she declared to me they can talk to Samarenos without translation). This connection was also true in the days of the pre-Spanish Waray sea warriors (which were later called the “Pintados” by the Spaniards because of their body tattooing) who roamed the seas of our eastern seaboard up to the present-day Taiwan. In the glory period of our shipbuilding and seafaring traditions, Bicol and Samar were among the premier shipbuilding sites in our archipelago before we fell to the Spanish colonizers who then denied we had such traditions.
Converted to Christianity and ravaged by the hardships of forced labor of galleon-building for the Spaniards, Samar and Bicol did not lose its links. In Spanish times Samar boats called in Bicol places to trade and to pay homage to the premier religious image and pilgrimage site in the old Ibalon province (which now encompasses Albay, Sorsogon, Catanduanes, Masbate and the Partido district of Camarines Sur after it lost its province status) which is located in Joroan of Tiwi town. Sail-powered <i>paraus</> from Samar and Samar Sea islands continued to travel and trade to Legazpi and Tabaco until the early ’60s during the <i>habagat</i> and they roamed as far as Catanduanes. Samar to Legazpi <i>barotos</i> that dropped by some Sorsogon towns also sailed in this period. Even in recent times there were still boats from Samar that plied a route to Catanduanes from Biri islands which used Rapu-rapu island in Albay as the intermediate stop-over. Legazpi-based cargo-passenger motor boats also sailed to Rapu-rapu and Samar destinations. Ironically, although a historical maritime link, the sea between Samar and Bicol northeast of San Bernardino Strait has no name.
Islands are usually connected at their nearest crossing. So in the case of Bicol and Samar the logical connection will be really between Matnog in Sorsogon and Allen in Samar. Before the advent of ROROs the most established line here was the Trans Bicol Lines which has connections then to all the major islands surrounding the Bicol peninsula which are the Catanduanes, Samar and Masbate islands. Later this historical shipping company passed on to Eugenia Tabinas who used the shipping companies E. Tabinas Enterprises and Bicolandia Shipping. Included in the sell-out were the motor boats of Trans Bicol Lines.
The latter-day Northern Samar also had its own connection to Manila separate from the connection of the provincial capital then of Catbalogan. The main port of entry of the northern part of Samar island cannot be Catbalogan as there were no good roads then connecting it to the provincial capital (in fact Motor Boats then circumnavigated the island connecting Samar towns). These passenger-cargo ships from Manila to the northern part of Samar also called on Masbate and Sorsogon ports before docking in Allen and Carangian. Many of those ships then still proceed to Legazpi, Virac and Tabaco. Some even sail as far as Nato and Tandoc ports in Camarines Sur and a few sail up to Mercedes and Larap ports in Camarines Norte.
The ships mentioned above that called on Samar ports also served as Samar connection to Bicol including the freighters that also take in some passengers aside from cargo. Some of the shipping lines which had routes then in this part of the country were Madrigal Shipping, NORCAMCO and NCL (the earlier North Camarines Lumber), N&S Line, Rodrigueza Shipping and Newport Shipping. The passenger-cargo ships they operated were generally small.
With the strengthening of the South Line of the Manila Railroad and Railways (MRR, which was the latter PNR) that offered rail service up to Legazpi and bus connections to Larap, Daet, Tabaco and Sorsogon the shipping lines mentioned slowly lost market and patronage. Additionally, the legendary ALATCO bus company also offered Pasay-Larap-Daet-Legazpi-Naga-Tabaco buses with connections to Siruma and Nato, too). The first can bring passengers and cargo to its destination in less than 24 hours and the latter in just over a day or even less if it was up to the Camarines provinces only while the ship takes four days up to Legazpi and a week up to Camarines Norte. With better competition around first to go were the routes to the Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay and Catanduanes ports while the Sorsogon and Samar route held on for a while.
A momentous change then happened in early 1979 when Cardinal Shipping decided to field a short-distance ferry-RORO, the “Cardinal Ferry 1” between Matnog and Allen. With no port improvements yet it just used the wooden wharves of old that were meant for motor boats. Pantranco buses (now Philtranco) then rolled to the new province of Northern Samar up to Rawis, the port of Laoang which is also the base of motor bancas that connect to towns of Northern and northern Eastern Samar that have no roads. Slowly, the Matnog-Allen motor boats lost business and they retreated one by one to other Bicol routes that have no ROROs yet. With that the Samar-Bicol route served by steel-hulled ships from Manila also slowly withered but the service went on until about 1981 or 1982 and maybe it’s just because the shipping companies plying the route have nowhere else to go.
Shortly after Cardinal Ferry opened the Matnog-Allen route, Newport Shipping also plied the route using the “Northern Star” (later known as the “Northern Samar”) and “Laoang Bay” (later known “Badjao”, “Philtranco Ferry 1” and “Black Double”). But government official accounts usually say that this route started with the fielding of the government-owned Maharlika I in 1982. That is, of course, historically and factually wrong. Maharlika I came when Matnog Ferry Terminal was already built and it connected to San Isidro Ferry Terminal, which is in another town south and not in Allen. (The two were called “Ferry Terminals” when they were actually modern RORO ports.) For government officials to say the government was the first to connect Matnog and Allen is then doubly incorrect.
On another footnote, Carlos A. Gothong Lines, Inc. (CAGLI) also claims that they pioneered ROROs in the Philippines with their fielding of “Don Calvino” and “Dona Lili” in 1980 from Cebu. But evidence shows ROROs first came to Matnog-Allen among all places in the country and that is one significance of this route aside from it connecting Luzon to the Visayas and heralding the first intermodal buses and trucks in the country. (This is of course excepting the LCTs and barges pulled by tugs that connected some very near islands like Mactan and Cebu and Samar and Leyte though San Juanico Strait as those are technically ROROs too since vehicles roll on and roll off, too, to and from their car decks.)
After a few Newport Shipping quit (as their intermediate routes to Romblon was also drying) and “Northern Star” as “Northern Samar” was sold to Bicolandia Shipping in 1981. “Laoang Bay” meanwhile passed to different owners over the years. In due time Bicolandia Shipping dominated the route especially with the addition of “Princess of Bicolandia”, “Princess of Mayon” and “Eugenia”. Philtranco tried to challenge the monopoly of Eugenia Tabinas-San Pablo (who also used the company E. Tabinas Enterprises) and they rolled out the “Philtranco Ferry 1” which was the former “Laoang Bay”. They did not get a franchise and they argued instead that since they are just transporting their buses then they need not get a CPC (Certificate of Public Convenience). Unfortunately, the court did not agree with them and they were knocked out from the route. In the future though they will be able to come back.
The 1980s was also the heyday of “Maharlika I”. She was fielded brand-new and as such was a great ship at the start. But being a government-owned company, mismanagement soon brewed and internal rot set in. She also had the disadvantage of serving a longer route (14 nautical miles vs. 11 nautical miles). Meanwhile, a new private port in Allen rose and BALWHARTECO soon showed the country how to develop properly a RORO port.
Before the old millennium was over a new challenger to Bicolandia Shipping appeared on the horizon, the Sta. Clara Shipping Company with its more modern “Nelvin Jules” and it was very prepared for the challenge as it had a petition signed by all the Leyte mayors asking that the route be opened to other shipping companies. Bicolandia Shipping tried to TKO it like what they were able to do with Philtranco Ferries by claiming it had “missionary status” but the courts ruled that said status does not grant it a monopoly. Bicolandia Shipping by this time had a bad reputation where its ships only leave when it is already full or near-full without the observance of the proper ETD (Estimated Time of Departure which is part of the CPC along with the route).
When Philtranco fell into the lap of Pepito Alvarez it also made a comeback. Under his landsman, it used the companies Archipelago Shipping, Philharbor Ferries and Oro Star. It leased the “Maharlika I” and “Maharlika II” from government and then added a few more ships including three double-ended ROROs, the “Maharlika Tres”, “Maharlika Cuatro” and the “Lakbayan I”. aside from other ferries (they were also serving many other routes aside from this route). They also built a new port in Dapdap, also in Allen and two kilometers south of Balicuatro (where BALWHARTECO is located) which had a route distance of 12 nautical miles to Matnog, a neglible increase over the 11 nautical miles of Balicuatro.
Bicolandia Shipping vessels cannot compete with the Sta. Clara and the Alvarez ships which were newer and better. Exercising pragmatism Bicolandia Shipping proposed to fold operations and sell the ships and franchises to the Sta. Clara group. The deal was done and Penafrancia Shipping was born.
Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping had the backing then of the Balicuatro Wharfage and Terminal Corp. (BALWHARTECO) which which was developing its new port slowly but consistently and which served as a model for RORO port development and operations with its shops, offices, lodging house, disco, flea market, eateries and gas station where regulars can load vehicles and even gas up on credit. BALWHARTECO also supported the intermodal buses and trucks with generous discounts and rebates so much so that the development of this shipping sector now poses a threat to container shipping.
Later, BALWHARTECO also hosted and supported 168 Shipping (the Star Ferries). With so many ships in the Matnog-Balicuatro route using advanced marketing techniques and cultivated tie-ups with bus and trucking companies and supported by BALWHARTECO, the Dapdap port wilted especially when Philtranco drivers were freed and given a choice and where to load their buses. Meanwhile with the opening of Dapdap and withdrawal of Maharlika the San Isidro Ferry Terminal became practically a “port to nowhere” (a port hosting no ships). This was reversed when it was leased to Montenegro Shipping Lines but after their lease expired they also left for Dapdap and Balicuatro after finding the distance uncompetitive and San Isidro Ferry Terminal had no more ferries again.
Recently, because of some reasons and misunderstandings, the Sta. Clara group tried to build its own port in another barrio in Allen and located further south of Dapdap (which means buses and trucks see it first except when these came from Catarman and beyond). The Allen LGU had it closed and no wonder because the Mayor is the owner of BALWHARTECO (now how legal is that is another matter). Construction continued as the heavy equipment were actually inside the port. Now the Hizzoner and the Sta. Clara group are fighting it out in the court and this battle royale will probably define the shape of the Matnog-Allen route in the future.
With two ports in Allen and possibly three soon and with ROROs mushrooming in the route the problem now is in Matnog port which is presently congested and overcrowded as its expansion followed a snail’s pace and because the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) does not know efficient RORO port design. While the limited wharf length of Balicuatro can accommodate six ROROs all at the same time, the Matnog port can only dock four ROROs simultaneously (although it is trying to add two more). And to think there are other ferries coming from Dapdap. So at peak hours the ROROs have to wait offshore in Matnog and pull out or undock to give way to priority ferries that will load or unload. This contributes to delays, added fuel consumption, more work for the crews and unnecessary risks for the ships. And that is not to mention frayed nerves at times and hot tempers especially when there are mishaps, near-mishaps and strong winds and currents. Matnog is not a protected port and as a southern-facing port is affected by the habagat and surges especially when there are weather disturbances in our eastern seaboard.
Whatever the twist and turn in its varied history ,the Matnog-Allen route will probably last nearly forever as the need for bridging of islands and the imperative for moving of cargo and people will probably never vanish there as it is the shortest connection between Luzon and Eastern Visayas. As they say, it is always, “Location, location and location…”.