In the Bicol Region, the name “Bikol Express”, not the food, has a certain aura. It came from a highly-regarded train of the past which was top-of-the-line then and was known for its speed and reliable service. This name, however, was also used for a ship, a ferry in fact.
I first met MV Bikol Express in Masbate Port sometime in 2006 when I was on my way to visit Bicol. Arriving at the said port from a van from Cataingan, Masbate, my eyes were caught by a half-decent cruiser I have not seen before. I was thinking of taking the motor banca to Pilar, Sorsogon but someone in plain T-shirt was calling out, “Pilar, Pilar, departing already!”. It feels like I was magnetized to the vessel and I took a look inside from the wharf and I noticed there were just a few passengers and a few seats. The man in plain T-shirt was encouraging me to board and so I did after some hesitation (maybe it was the normal hesitation coming from an instinct against boarding something unfamiliar and with just a few passengers).
The man in plain T-shirt gave me a ticket from a stub and after that we sailed already. I was then able to find a seat in an unfastened wooden bench. I left my things there and went to the side to see and observe Masbate Port activities while the vessel was inching away.
A short time later the man in plain T-shirt came back. He was loud and boisterous and kept pestering off-and-on a presentable lady whom I took to be a married woman. It is from her that I learned he is the Captain and she is refusing his advances because she is already attached to another married Captain. She told me she is a widower and doing trading between Pilar and Masbate and she needs the support of these ship captains. Sometimes I like transports with just a few passengers because the passengers then become familiar with each other.
Another man arrived to take a seat and I surmised he is the Chief Engineer and I was not mistaken. It is from him that I knew Denica Lines, the ship owner, purchased the vessel in a laid-up state somewhere in Samar and it took some time and many repairs before they were able to coax the engine into an acceptable running condition. Since the Captain was busy with the presentable lady, I decided to make the Chief Engineer my subject for the interview.
I learned there were few fixed seats because from Pilar the ship is mainly used for carrying rice and other goods to Masbate. I did not ask where the rice came from but it was a question in my mind because Bicol is also deficient in rice. However, I know the owners of the ship are very capable sub-regional traders. [They are even operating now beyond Bicol as they are now the primary senders of frozen crabs and crab meat from Sorsogon to Cebu City.] The ship is going back to Pilar with just a few passengers because they will be loading rice again. I just made a rhetorical question why the owners did not buy a RORO vessel. However, I gathered that the purchase price for the ship was really low.
MV Bikol Express was once owned by Western Samar Shipping Lines where she was known as MV Elizabeth Lily. This shipping company did the Catbalogan-Cebu route then. They stopped operations when traffic in their route was becoming stagnant because trucks and passengers already learned to roll to western Leyte ports where they would take a RORO for Cebu. This is much faster, costs less and has plenty of flexible schedules.
From records, it seems MV Elizabeth Lilly is the first steel ship of the company having arrived in 1980 from Japan where she was known as MV Iheiya Maru No. 3. This ship was built by Matsuura Tekko in their Higashino yard in 1970. She is a steel-hulled ship with raked stem and a cruiser stern with 2 masts and just a single passenger deck.
The specifications of the ship are as follows:
Length = 29.3 meters
Breadth = 6.0 meters
Depth = 2.7 meters
Gross Tonnage =189
Net Tonnage = 109
Deadweight Tons = 100
Engine = 1 x 550hp Yanmar
Speed = 11 knots
Such specifications show she is just a small ship.
While with Western Samar Shipping Lines (WSSL), she was heavily damaged by “Typhoon Ruping” in 1989 when she was partially wrecked and capsized in Cebu Port. She was sold to Denica Lines of Pilar, Sorsogon in 2002. This indicated a long lay-up as WSSL stopped operations in the 1990’s.
Not long after I boarded her in 2006, she was sold to Batanes Multi-Purpose Cooperative (BMPC) where she became the MV Ivatan. In about a year, however, she was wrecked and beached by a strong typhoon in Batanes. She was never repaired again and that was her end.