Twenty years ago, the port of Masbate was mainly known for the so-many motor bancas (and a few motor boats) that ply routes to Pilar, Sorsogon, to Ticao Island and to the western portion of Masbate Bay up to the town of Baleno, Masbate. The only liners from Manila that call then in the port were the MV Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines and a liner of WG&A Philippines. Surprisingly, they were not the RORO connection of Masbate Island and neither is the overnight ferry from Cebu of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. Actually, the RORO connection of the Masbate then was the unlikely ferry of Viva Shipping Lines that originates from Batangas Port.
Pilar then was the main connecting port to Masbate. Buses from the semi-regional trade center of Daraga, Albay roll to Pilar. Then, there are many buses from Manila whose end point is Pilar. The motor bancas that ply the Pilar-Masbate route usually have already an arrangement with the buses. Motor banca tickets can even be issued aboard the buses in many cases. In the reverse route from Masbate, aboard the motor bancas, bus tickets can also be issued. But for those who are experienced enough, they won’t buy those tickets and instead look for discounts in the buses to Manila waiting in Pilar. They know that the buses with only a few passengers are vulnerable to these discounting tactics.
Pilar-Masbate motor bancas also take in a lot of cargo either way when there were no ROROs yet (actually, they still do today but on a comparatively smaller scale). One advantage offered by these motor bancas is there is no porterage. The crew takes care of the cargo and one just goes direct aboard and the purser will take care of charging the fare so there is no need to queue for tickets. Two motor boat companies dominated this trade here, the Denica Lines and the Lobrigo Lines. Though not comfortable, their motor bancas are fast.
There were also a few cargo ships that called on Masbate Port aside from a few cargo motor boats. One regular incoming bulk cargo is cement and one regular outgoing bulk cargo is copra.
Archipelago Ferries (actually it could be another of their legal fiction companies) attempted the first short-distance ferry connection to Masbate through the MV Maharlika Tres. They used the Bulan Port since at the time the Pilar Port was not RORO-capable. With it also came the Philtranco buses rolling to Masbate. However these ferry and bus services did not last long. One problem is without RORO company support, the buses won’t last long because it was upheld by the maritime regulators that they cannot charge the RORO rate to the passengers (although some try to charge that on the passengers part of that, slyly). And without a good number of vehicles regularly boarding, the ferry companies would be hard put to give discounts.
Viva Shipping Lines and then its new competitor Montenegro Shipping Lines also tried a RORO connection from Lucena to Masbate. Parallel with this, the twin company of Viva, the DR Shipping Lines tried a fast ferry service from Lucena to Masbate using their own-designed and built ships, the MV Penafrancia 10 and MV Penafrancia 11. These services stopped after a few short years for different reasons. For Montenegro Lines, their RORO MV Maria Carmela burned in 2002 just before reaching Lucena, with casualties. Its local government authorization was canceled and they were embroiled in lawsuits. For Viva Shipping and DR Shipping, it was already the beginning of the tailspin of the Don Domingo Reyes shipping companies which ended with them defunct and their ferries sold or broken up.
Montenegro Lines then built their own ramp in Pilar and they were able to operate a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO from it. They have to do it themselves because the administration then of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo wouldn’t provide funds for the construction of a RORO port because the Representative then of the congressional district encompassing Pilar was a bitter political opponent (he is now a vice-presidential candidate).
Lobrigo Lines tried to operate two fastcrafts between Pilar and Masbate. Montenegro Lines also did so. Lobrigo Lines later quit and their fastcrafts ended up with Montenegro Lines. Later, this route became the niche of Montenegro fastcrafts driven out by superior competition in the Batangas-Calapan route (until now they are the only operator of High Speed Crafts in the route).
Sta. Clara Shipping with twin company Penafrancia Shipping tried to enter Masbate through different routes. They tried a Bulan-Masbate route (their ships are not fit for the shallow Pilar Port which is located in a river estuary) but the bus passengers from Manila were not willing to pay extra for the longer Manila-Bulan land route. They also tried a Pasacao-Masbate route but they found out early that the strong habagat swells were dangerous for their ship. Finally, they found the Pio Duran, Albay Port with its new RORO ramp as the Masbate connection and they stuck here along with newcomer Medallion Transport.
From Cebu, another player also entered the Masbate route, the MV Super Shuttle Ferry 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation and this ship continues its voyage to Batangas. Trans-Asia Shipping Lines continued plying its route until recently. However, a shortage of ferries forced them to stop but they replaced the service with a former ferry that was converted into a cargo ship, the MV Trans-Asia 5. The cargo was simply too big and too important for them to lose to competition. Cokaliong Shipping Lines is the new entrant from Cebu lately using a ferry. The Sulpicio and WG&A liners are gone now for different reasons but they have been more than replaced. Actually, they might not even be missed in Masbate.
Nowadays, Masbate is already a busy port and growing in importance because it is already the fulcrum of a growing intermodal route between Cebu and Luzon (that includes the National Capital Region, Bicol and CALABARZON). Many of the trucks loaded in Polambato Port in Bogo, Cebu that are unloaded in Cataingan and Cawayan ports still connect to Luzon (and they have to use Masbate Port on the way to that). Meanwhile, distribution trucks from Manila and CALABARZON now roll direct to Masbate along with the trucks of the Bicol traders (incidentally, some of them used motor boats and motor bancas in the past).
Today, fewer and fewer Masbate passengers still take the motor bancas. They now prefer the intermodal buses that come from Manila that roll to the various destinations in Masbate Island like Masbate City, Aroroy, Milagros, Esperanza, Cataingan and Placer. Because of the needs of the buses and trucks, Montenegro Lines now operates several ROROs and so do the twin company Sta. Clara/Penafrancia Shipping (and with even bigger ships) and Medallion Transport. Another new operator from Pilar is Denica Lines which bought their own small ROROs.
The fastcrafts are still operating between Pilar and Masbate and the motor bancas did not seem to lessen in number. More cargo ships are also now calling in Masbate Port. The port was expanded a decade ago and now a second phase of expansion is near completion. In Region 5, the Bicol Region, it is clear that Masbate Port is now the busiest port. Good thing it is not yet an ISPS (International System of Port Security) port and so it also functions as a people’s park (and a jogging area in the morning) and anyone can go in and go out.
As said by old timers, shipping activity is a accident of geography that cannot be dictated by the maritime authorities nor by legislation. In this sense, Masbate is fortunate because she lies between Luzon and Cebu, the commercial center of Central Visayas, part of Eastern Visayas and of northern Mindanao. As such, her growth as a port will surely continue in the coming years and probably she will be more well-known by then.