Original image © Babydbalin/Photobucket via Edsel Benavides
The Bicol ROROs are generally small and slow. That is so because they sail short-distance ferry routes only from the Bicol peninsula to the islands of Catanduanes, Samar and Masbate which are just one to three hours distance of sailing. They are also not new as most were built three or four decades ago. Many are also hand-me-downs). The oldest now is actually over 50 years old already, the MV Eugene Elson (but she is still sailling reliably). They are also not that spic and span. But to say they are dirty is also not correct.
There are only a few RORO routes in Bicol. Most of these run the San Bernardino Strait routes (three Matnog-Allen routes and one Matnog-San Isidro route). The second with the most number of ships are the routes from Masbate City. The ROROs here go to Pilar, Sorsogon and Pio Duran, Albay. The third with the most number of ships are the Tabaco-Catanduanes routes (to the capital of Virac and San Andres). There are also off-and-on ROROs in the San Andres-Nato (of Sagnay, Camarines Sur) route and in the San Andres-Guijalo (of Caramoan, Camarines Sur) route.
There are ROROs that come to Masbate City and Cataingan, Masbate and Cawayan, Masbate from Cebu province and from Batangas port. But the operators of these are Cebu and Batangas shipping companies and not Bicol shipping companies. There are actually many ROROs serving Bicol ports that are not indigenous. Among them are ROROs from Montenegro Shipping Lines (MSLI), Medallion Transport, Cokaliong Shipping Lines (CSLI), Trans-Asia Shipping Lines (TASLI) and Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC). Also, there is an NN-ATS operation in Matnog-Allen using one or sometimes two chartered Cargo RORO LCTs. But these are not the subject of this article.
The local RORO companies of Bicol are the Sta. Clara Shipping Company, its sister company Penafrancia Shipping Company (the successor to the former Bicolandia Shipping Company), the Regina Shipping Lines (RSL), the 168 Shipping Lines and the Denica Lines. Also included in this is Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation, operator of the catamaran-RORO FastCats which has clear Bicol origins but is now headquartered elsewhere.
Sta. Clara’s fleet consists of the following ships: MV Jack Daniel, MV King Frederick, MV Nelvin Jules, MV Nathan Matthew (the former MV Asia Japan of TASLI), MV Hansel Jobett and MV Mac Bryan (the former MV Ever Queen of the Pacific of Ever Lines). Penafrancia’s fleet meanwhile consists of the following: MV Anthon Raphael, MV Don Benito Ambrosio II (the former MV Princess of Mayon of Bicolandia Shipping), MV Don Herculano (the former Princess of Bicolandia of Bicolandia Shipping Lines) and MV Eugene Elson (the former MV Eugenia of Bicolandia Shipping Lines). RSL’s fleet have the following ships: MV Regina Calixta II, MV Regina Calixta IV (the former MV Grand Star RORO 2), MV Regina Calixta V and MV Regina Calixta VI (the former MV Grand Star RORO 1). Their MV Calixta III was leased to sister company Aqua Real Shipping Lines which plies a Puerto Galera route. 168’s fleet consists of MV Star Ferry (7), MV Star Ferry II and MV Star Ferry III. Denica Lines meanwhile has the MV Marina Empress (the former MV Vanessa P2 and MV Torrijos of Sta Cruz Shipping) and MV Odyssey (from Alabat Shipping and the former MV Starlite Odyssey of Starlite Ferries).
Meanwhile, the old Bicol operator Archipelago Philippine Ferries and sister company Philharbor Ferries have already sold their old ROROs which are the Maharlika ships and the Grand Star ROROs. They now operate the FastCats on a rotational basis using one or two of those in just one route remaining (which might change over time since they are not using their own port nearby. Currently, there are two FastCats in the Matnog-San Isidro route. This company has already abandoned all their other previous routes in the Bicol region.
Now, what is the Bicol RORO’s magic? Simply, they do not sink while sailing. That record started when the first RORO of Cardinal Shipping, the MV Cardinal I which arrived in 1979. The record was first broken in 2006 when MV Northern Samar sank while moored in Tabaco Port during a typhoon. The usual practice of sheltering ships in Sula Channel was not followed and she was battered by a storm while moored in Tabaco port where she sank. But that hull loss did not happen while she was sailing.
The MV Maharlika II sank in Surigao Strait in 2014 when its engines died and no rescue came for hours (even from a ship of the same company nearby) until the seas got rough and she capsized. It can be excluded also since the area is not part of Bicol and she was not sailing a Bicol route. Also, the MV Lady of Carmel of Medallion Transport sank off Burias Island in 2013 while sailing to Masbate City. But as locals say, that was not a Bicol ship.
Bicol is one area where the swells are strong in the peak of the “habagat” (southwest monsoon) and “amihan” (northeast monsoon). It is even stronger when there is a storm. Typhoons are frequent in the region (that is why they have ship shelters).
I asked a captain many years ago why Bicol ships do not sink. He gave a long thought. And he answered me, “You know, when your passenger is maybe your mother, a cousin, a neighbor or a friend, you will do all you can so the ship will not sink.” It provoked me to a pause and a long thought, too. If is as if I heard deep words of wisdom just spoken. I know he was perfectly right. I mused. I guess that is one thing maybe not taught in nautical schools. And I have heard of ship-saving techniques I only heard in Bicol. Like when the MV Anthon Raphael sailed backwards to Masbate City from Pasacao port because the ship was listing to one side. It was due to the rolling cargoes sliding to one side as an effect of the strong “habagat” swells which were hitting them broadside. They know continuing the same way means capsizing of the ship. And it happened in the same sea where the MV Lady of Carmel was doomed.
And I think that is the magic of the Bicol ROROs. They have never ever sank in Bicol seas while sailing, a record perfectly kept for 27 years ever since the arrival of the first RORO in the region. After that, though the swells are strong and we bob and heel in San Bernardino Strait, I don’t worry a bit and if I am aboard my bus I just sleep soundly. I know our crew will be on their toes and doing their best and we will arrive safe and sound though a little dizzy.
[In a future article, I will tell the story of MV Star Ferry (7) when she sailed the rough San Bernardino Strait when the other ROROs chickened out and how they impressed me with their all-alerts sailing.]