In the old days, it was the wooden motor boats that connected Sorsogon and Samar through the San Bernardino Strait. Among the players then was Eugenia Tabinas of Tabaco, Albay, an operator of motor boats in the various sea connections of Bicol. Among her vessels were MB Virac, MB Mayon, MB Sorsogon, MB Samar, MB Masbate SP-1, MB Matea and MB Kulafu 5. The name of her motor boats will already give an indication of the routes of the vessels of Eugenia Tabinas. She herself was actually from Cavite and her vessels were variously listed under her name or under Bicolandia Shipping Company.
In 1979, a momentous change happened in San Bernardino Strait when MV Cardinal I, a RORO of Cardinal Shipping arrived. With bigger passenger capacity and the ability to carry vehicles along with less bobbing and heeling in the strong swells of the strait, she heralded the future demise of the wooden motor boats. Passengers, too, have the impression that the steel RORO is more safe than the wooden motor boats.
Newport Shipping, an old shipping operator between Manila and Samar issued the first challenge to Cardinal Shipping. They fielded the MV Laoang Bay which was soon followed by the MV Northern Star. However, in 1981, they sold the MV Northern Star to Bicolandia Shipping and so Eugenia Tabinas had her first RORO and she was subsequently named MV Northern Samar after a conversion.
All these early fights happened before the first RORO of the government arrived in the strait in 1982. Maybe a Goebbels type of propaganda happened and therefore many modern writers and speakers especially in the government credit the MV Maharlika I as the first RORO connecting Sorsogon and Samar. This is definitely untrue and a distortion of history.
In a few years, during the post-Aquino assassination financial turmoil, Cardinal Shipping and Newport Shipping ceased operations and their ships were sold to other companies. MV Laoang Bay remained in the Sorsogon-Samar route and she came under various operators and had numerous name changes. She was variously named as Badjao, Philtranco Ferry 1 and Black Double.
While the other operators had travails, Bicolandia Shipping Company slowly added ships to their fleet. The MV Princess of Bicolandia was acquired and after a few years the MV Princess of Mayon came. Their final ship was the namesake of the owner MV Eugenia which was acquired in 1995. At this time Bicolandia Shipping Company was already dominating the San Bernardino Strait route especially since the government-owned Maharlika I was stuck in the longer Matnog-San Isidro route. Soon the Maharlika ships were controlled by Archipelago Ferries and with that their situation got worse.
Even though Bicolandia Shipping was already dominating, it cannot be denied that their ROROs are already old. Being a near-monopoly, undesirable practices arose and among them is the non-observance of scheduled departure times. The ferries will only leave when it is already full and this produced a lot of complaints. It was a situation ripe for a challenger.
As expected, a new kid on the block arrived in the form of Sta. Clara Shipping, a company of deeper resources which is a partnership of several successful businessmen, some of which has background in shipping. The sister ships MV King Frederick and MV Nelvin Jules arrived in 1999 and began sailing. The two ships were newer, bigger and faster than the ships of Bicolandia Shipping which soon felt the pressure.
When Sta. Clara Shipping applied for a franchise they had with them a petition of all the Leyte mayors asking for a new player in the San Bernardino Strait route. That was because there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the state of things in the route (and the Archipelago Ferries service was not any better too). I had the unfortunate experience with them when the Philtranco bus I was riding was left behind by minutes in their 8:30am schedule and it was already 12:30pm when the ship came back and we were able to leave at about 1:30pm. So many of the bus passengers were pissed off.
Bicolandia Shipping challenged Sta. Clara Shipping by arguing with MARINA, the regulatory body, and later in the courts that as a “missionary operator” they were entitled to no new competition. I always wondered how they can claim such thing when Cardinal Shipping and Newport Shipping antedated their RORO operations and there were other players in the past in the route without even mentioning the Maharlika ship.
Bicolandia Shipping lost their suit all the way to the Supreme Court which held that even with “missionary privileges”, no shipping operator is entitled to a monopoly. With this loss and with intensifying competition (Sta. Clara Shipping added the MV Nelvin Jules and Philharbor/Archipelago the MV Maharlika Tres), Eugenia Tabinas unfurled the white flag of surrender and offered to sell her company, lock, stock and barrel to Sta. Clara Shipping.
The offer was accepted and the partners in Sta. Clara shipping formed a new partnership to take over Bicolandia Shipping. This new company became Penafrancia Shipping. The Bicolandia Shipping vessels were renamed: Princess of Bicolandia became Don Herculano, Princess of Mayon became Don Benito Ambrosio II and Eugenia became Eugene Elson. The MV Northern Samar was not part of the transaction because she sank in a typhoon just before the sale of the company.
Now, Eugenia Tabinas and Bicolandia Shipping are just names associated with shipping of the past. Of course, many can still recognize her former ships even though the names have already changed. Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping proceeded to add more ships and they now dominate the San Bernardino Strait crossing.
Of course, as almost like natural law, they have new challengers in the route especially in light of the Supreme Court decision. That includes Regina Shipping Lines (RSL), 168 Shipping and now the FastCat of Archipelago Ferries and the RORO Cargo LCT of NN-ATS. But, over-all, they are still in good shape and has almost mastered the art of how to make their patrons stick to them like glue. They also now have their own port in Allen, Northern Samar.
Even with many competitors, it seems the future is still looking bright for them.