The Unsinkable Ferry

Me and Angelo Blasutta, owner of Grosstonnage.com, a very good maritime database but now defunct collaborated in finding the IMO Numbers of Philippine ships so their origins can be traced. This difficulty of tracing our ships is brought about by the continued refusal of MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the local maritime regulatory agency, to use IMO Numbers which are unique, lifetime identification numbers of the ships (to be fair, the MARINA of Marcos’ time used IMO Numbers). Me and Angelo were able to trace a few dozen ships but most simply eluded our tracing. Many are impossible to trace because they were local-built and did not possess IMO Numbers from the very start. The sad thing is that consisted the majority of our fleet.

One of the ships that eluded me is about an “unsinkable ship” which has Japan origins. Her specifications is near that of ferry Sanyo Maru but international maritime databases say she was broken up (well, that is not an ironclad guarantee because some “broken” ships ended up in other shores). I asked Rey Bobiles, then the nautical engineer of Sta. Clara Shipping Corp., sister company of the owner Penafrancia Shipping Corp. and he laughed and said they also can’t trace the IMO Number of the ship.

In late 2006, the ferry I am talking about can’t sail. She was then known as the Princess of Bicolandia. The ship was hit by a minor engine room fire and her engine control panel was burned and so she was laid up in Mayon Docks in Tabaco, Albay awaiting parts for repairs in the engine room. While in this condition, the strongest typhoon to ever visit Bicol region in recorded history, the Typhoon “Durian” which was better known locally as Typhoon “Reming” came in November of 2006. This super-typhoon had 10-minute sustained center winds of 195kph and gusts of 250kph.

For comparison, Typhoon “Yolanda” which wrecked Eastern Visayas in November 2013 had 10-minute sustained center winds of 200kph and Typhoon “Ruping”, the strongest typhoon to ever hit Cebu City in November 1990 has 10-minute sustained center winds of 190kph. All three generated powerful storm surges and all were deadly to shipping (Typhoon “Reming” was least deadly for shipping because Bicol has good ship shelters including the legendary and historical Sula Channel). Incidentally, all came in the month of November. We in Bicol know the amihan typhoons are the strongest ones.

But the Princess of Bicolandia can’t run and can’t hide. Mayon Docks secured the ships in their shipyard but with the strength and height of the storm surge the Princess of Bicolandia was pulled from her docking place by the storm surge. The people in Mayon Docks never thought they would see her again. After all, so, so many ships with crews and running engines got sunk in lesser typhoons and here is a super-typhoon for the ages and the ship was crewless and powerless (literally). And this is a RORO with no scantling at the bow area and at the stern and so water will easily slosh through her semi-open vehicle deck.

But lo and behold! The next morning, some rescue personnel braving the highway of the next town of Malilipot, Albay saw an unusual scene. There was a RORO ship sitting on a sandbar just off the shore. Not wrecked, not listing, not capsized. And so the news reached the shipyard and they can’t believe it. She was left there for a time and so the Princess of Bicolandia became an unusual “tourist spot”. Most thought the ship was gone, dead and will just be a “sitting monument” that will be chopped later on. That time was a period of indetermination because it happened during the sale and turn-over of Bicolandia Shipping Lines, the previous owner of the Princess of Bicolandia to Sta. Clara Shipping Company and Bicolandia Shipping Lines became the Penafrancia Shipping Company. The sale was lock, stock and barrel.

In May 2010, while in the company of fellow ship spotters of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) I was jolted while in Villono Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu. I saw a gray ship and I was electrified (really! I had goose bumps) because I immediately recognized she was the former Princess of Bicolandia which was then known in Bicol as a lost ship. I drew closer, to ask the skeleton crew. No, they said they do not know the name. I told them the name and the origins and the accident. It drew a blank stare. I did not know if they were playing poker with me.

The repairs in Villono Shipyard took over one-and-a-half years. On December 19, 2011 Vincent Paul Sanchez of PSSS espied her pulling out of the shipyard and heading north to Bicol. When he posted the photo I felt proud and ecstatic. Imagine a ship surviving such ordeal and sailing again! The great ships Princess of the Orient and Princess of the Stars did not even manage to survive typhoons of lesser magnitude than Princess of Bicolandia. Maybe the Bicol sili and Bicol Express were her charms. I knew when she reaches Bicol that jaws will drop (later Matnog porters confirmed to me that when they saw the ship they cannot believe their eyes too). Many really thought she was gone already, chopped up and dead. Her new name under Penafrancia Shipping was Don Herculano.

Don Herculano was a ship built in 1970 according to MARINA records. She is supposedly built by Shin Nihon, a shipyard I have difficulty in tracing. I am not sure if that is the same as Nihon Zosen Tekko KK which has records. This ship is a short-distance ferry-RORO with steel hull and ramps in the bow and at the stern (now closed). She has two masts, two funnels (only one before), two passenger decks, a forecastle and a single vehicle deck. Don Herculano has a raked stem and a transom stern.

The ship’s measurements are 46.4 meters length by 12.0 meters beam with a depth of 3.2 meters. Her original gross tonnage was 490 which was probably correct but this was re-declared to 1,029 so she can sail at typhoon signal number 1 (1,000gt ships can sail then at that storm signal but that is useless now since the rule changed; the rule for motor bancas are now the one used for steel-hulled ferries of whatever gross tonnage).

Don Herculano‘s net tonnage is 454 now and up from just 98 (which is probably underdeclared) as Princess of Bicolandia. She packs in 855 passengers all in seating accommodations and she has about 130 lane-meters in RORO capacity. She is powered by twin 1,000hp Daihatsu engines which propelled her to 13.5 knots in her better days.

I was able to interview her Captain when I sailed with her in the Allen-Matnog route. He confirmed to me that when found in the sandbar her engine room was half-flooded. I asked if they were able to order a new engine control panel. “No” was the answer because none was available in the surplus market, there are no more manufacturers and so they simply rigged switches and controls. There was even no oil separator available and so they just do things manually.

In the shipyard, they made repairs to the engines, the hull, the rudder and the propellers which were damaged by the typhoon. That was why she stayed a long time in Villono Shipyard. I moved around the ship. All traces of storm damage were no longer visible and not even in the engine room which I also visited. The Yanmar auxiliary engine was new, they said. The bridge was clean, spic and span.

Today, she mainly sails the Matnog-Allen route. She holds a powerful reputation there as people know the trials she went through and which she survived. “Hindi lulubog” (She will not sink.), that is what some whisper. I do agree.

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