Some Musings on Ship Sinkings

Lately, there have been rumors that ferries of over 35 years old will be phased out and supposedly one of those pushing that is the current Secretary of Transportation which is Arthur Tugade and also supposedly involved is Alfonso Cusi, Secretary of Energy who is a shipping owner (Starlite Ferries). I do not know what Tugade knows about ships. He is a lawyer. Cusi, meanwhile has vested interest in the issue. Shipping owners got so alarmed that a meeting between them was called and attended by different shipping companies and they voiced opposition to such move which is also supported by the regional director of MARINA Central Visayas.

The proposal to phase out ferries is rooted in the belief that it is old age that sinks ships. Unfortunately, that is simply not true, that is just an assumption by those who have no true knowledge of shipping and empirical evidence do not support that. As one knowledgeable Captain said, it is human error that is the most common cause of sinking and I agree to that.

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Photo Credit: Dr. Normand Fernandez

I just wish when media and government officials discuss ship sinking that they be more specific and don’t use the term generically. Sometimes a ship is simply wrecked as in it lies on the shore incapable of sailing but it is not under water. Some of these can still be refloated and still sail later. This happened to many ships caught by the storm surges of super-typhoons like the Typhoon “Ruping” of 1990 and Typhoon “Yolanda” of 2008. Old age was not the cause of the capsizing or wrecking of those caught in those typhoons as most were actually in shelter and not navigating. In maritime databases they call these events “wrecking”. They will even indicate if it was refloated and indicate “broken up” when that was the subsequent fate of the wrecked ship.

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Photo Credit: Philippine Star and Gorio Belen

Sometimes a ship loses buoyancy and capsize but not all of them sink to the bottom of the sea. Those on their side or even upside down but located in ports or in shallow waters can still be righted and salvaged and maybe it will still be capable of sailing after repairs if it is not Beyond Economic Repair (BER). Most of these cases are results of accidents like errors in unloading cargo (like Ocean Legacy or Danica Joy 2) or even ramming like Dingalan Bay and not from the age of the ship. Some had their rolling cargo shift due to rogue waves but reach port, and subsequently capsize like what happened in Ocean King II in Benit port. Some capsize in port due to action of other ships like what happened to Ma. Angelica Grace in Cabahug wharf. In maritime databases these are simply called “capsizing”. They contrast it when ships lose buoyancy while sailing which they call “capsizing and sinking”.

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Photo Credit: James Gabriel Verallo

The most terrible and most straightforward sinking is when ships are caught in storms and sink. Maritime database call these “foundering” and that means more than enough water filled the ship making it lose buoyancy. There could be many causes of that. One is the pumps simply failed for several possible reasons and that is a possibility in smaller ships in stormy seas. The motor might have died in a storm and so the ship cannot maneuver and list. Foundering is the most terrible fate of a ship like the hull breaking in half (but this is rare and there is no local case like this here in recent memory) as casualties in a ship that failed to beat the storm is terrifying (remember Princess of the Stars). Holes in the hull might even afford a ship enough time to seek the coast and beach the ship like what happened to Wilcon IX. If the ship was beached, maritime databases call it “beached” and such an act avert loss of lives.

If it is a collision and the hull was breached, maritime databases are specific. They indicate “collision” or “collision and sinking” if that was the case. It might even be “collision and beached”. Collision and sinking was the case of St. Thomas Aquinas and that sank not because she was old (she was 39 years old when she sank). Cebu City was rammed too and sank and she was only 22 years old then. Her sister ship Don Juan was only 9 years old when she sank after a collision. Dona Paz was 24 years old when she was rammed then burned and sank. Collision and sinking are usually navigation errors which means human errors and the age of the ships is not a factor. The ramming hull of the other ship won’t ask first if the hull it is ramming is old or young or what is the age.

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Photo Credit: Philippine Air Force and Jethro Cagasan

When a ship catches fire, hull losses are sometime inevitable. It will not be certain if the cause of that is age and sometimes that does not in outright sinking because the ship can still head for the nearest land and beach itself like what Don Sulpicio did. SuperFerry 6 when it caught fire did not sink and was towed to Batangas. SuperFerry 14′s fire was not contained early too but she was towed and just keeled over when she was already in shallow waters and the fire out. Some caught fire in shipyards or in the docks and some of them were SuperFerry 3, SuperFerry 7, Philippine Princess, Iloilo Princess, St. Francis of Assisi, Manila City, Cagayan de Oro City and Asia Thailand. Again, it cannot be assumed that happened because of old age as some burned due to the sparks of welding. None of that four were over 35 years of age when they were destroyed by fire. Some others assume more morbid intentions that can’t be proved anyway.

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Photo Credit: Britz Salih

Ferry sinking is not common on short-distance ferries maybe because its routes are short and their transit times are not long. The only exception to this is Besta Shipping Lines which lost half of its fleet (four out of eight) to accidents. However, only their Baleno Nine sank outright. Baleno Six was wrecked by a typhoon (that wrecked other ships too like the Sta. Penafrancia 7), Baleno Tres grounded in rocks and was wrecked (a clear case of human error) and Baleno 168 capsized near the port because of water ingress due to a broken propeller shaft but she did not sink (and maybe this was because of old age; but then it is also possibly because of its propellers repeated hitting bottom in the shallow San Jose, Occidental Mindoro port when she was with her previous shipping).

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Photo Credit: Mike Anthony Arceno

In the past, I remembered two shipping companies notorious for being dirty and rusty. The Viva Shipping Lines combine had some 36 ships two decades ago and some of those were wooden-hulled. Only two of those sank, the Viva Penafrancia 2 which hit the wharf or a fish corral and was holed (which is navigation error and not old age) and the San Miguel Ilijan which was hulked by fire but did not sink. The feared owner of the shipping company had supposedly told his ship captains he will bury them if their ship sink and his reputation is good enough it will be believed. Well, those two ships did not sink outright and maybe the captains’ lives were spared.

In more recent years it was the Maharlika ships which was notorious for being dirty and rusty (but not as rusty as Viva). Yet for many years their ships do not sink even though it can’t sail because both engines failed or the ramp fell off. Maharlika Dos only sank because after four hours of wallowing dead in the water and with Maharlika Cuatro failing to come to the rescue she finally capsized and sank. It was a disservice to the original Maharlika ships which were fielded brand-new. However, the government is notorious for not taking care well of things and that continued under Christopher Pastrana who is infamous for making still relatively new ships look old and worn like the Maharlika Uno, Maharlika Dos, Maharlika Tres and Maharlika Cuatro. He also made the Grandstar ROROs look aged fast. And he will wail against the old ships (with crossed fingers) to promote his FastCats. What gall!

However the ship loss percentage of the two companies is low. As I have said before, the looks and lack of maintenance of the ships is not an automatic ticket to the bottom of the sea and Maharlika is the clear proof of that. And to think their ships are in the more notorious waters of the Philippines. Seamanship is actually probably more important. In Lucio Lim’s version (he of Lite Ferries Ferries), it is manning that is most important.

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Photo Credit: Mike Baylon

Overnight ships are also not wont to sink if one looks at their record. Uh, maybe not Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. which has lost 4 ferries, the first Asia Singapore (capsized and sank), the Asia Thailand (hulked by fire while not sailing), the Asia South Korea (grounded, capsized and sank but they claimed terrorist action) and the Asia Malaysia (holed and sank). But over-all, not many overnight ferries were lost in the previous decades. It is actually liners which are more prone to sink and it is funny because these are our biggest ferries and many of them carry international certifications. Many will bet that Sulpicio Lines leads in this infamous category. Well, not too fast because their rate of sinking is just about the same as William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) and Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). In a comparative period from 1996 to 2007 before the incident that forced out Sulpicio Lines from passenger shipping, WG&A lost SuperFerry 3 (fire in shipyard), SuperFerry 6 (fire while sailing) and SuperFerry 7 (fire while docked in North Harbor). And they had serious grounding incidents. Dona Virginia quit sailing after a grounding incident off Siquijor and Our Lady of Banneux also quit sailing after a grounding in Canigao Channel.

In the same period Sulpicio Lines lost the Philippine Princess (fire while refitting), Princess of the Orient (foundered in a storm), Princess of the Pacific (grounding leading to wrecking) and Princess of the World (fire while sailing, did not sink). Pro rata, the two biggest shipping companies were even in hull loss (my preferred term) rate until 2007. But with the so-infamous wrecking of Princess of the Stars in a storm, pro rata Sulpicio Lines exceeded WG&A/ATS in maritime hull losses. Then later for a much-reduced liner fleet losing St. Thomas Aquinas (collision and sinking) and St. Gregory The Great (grounding leading to BER) is also a high percentage for 2GO. Few in these cases of liners lost can be attributed to the age of the ships.one-way-bike-club

Photo Credit: ONE WAY BIKE CLUB

It is actually our wooden-hulled motor boats or batel which might have the second highest rate of sinking. And maybe that is the reason why MARINA is pressuring San Nicholas Shipping Lines to retire their batel fleet and convert to steel-hulled ships. But the Moro boats are not well-known for that. Bar none, it is actually the passenger motor bancas which have the highest loss rate. Every year a passenger motor banca will be lost to storms especially in the Surigao area. But this is due to rough waters and not to old age.

So, why cull ships after 35 years of age when it is still seaworthy? The examples of maritime hull losses I mentioned shows it was not old age which made them sink. I have a database of over 300 Philippine maritime hull losses dating back to the end of World War II (while the government authorities can barely list 50). The list of mine does not include motor bancas and fishing vessels. It will be more if that is included. I can show it is not old age which was the primary factor in the sinking of the 300+.

All sinking are investigated by the Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI). But after some time maybe they donate the investigation papers to the termites or throw them away to Pasig River. That is why they can’t complete the list and argue against abogados like Maria Elena Bautista or Arthur Tugade when they are the true mariners. Talo talaga ng abogado ang marino kahit pa commodore o admiral at kahit maritime issues pa ang pinag-uusapan.

If the Supreme Court will be asked, their definition of seaworthiness is simply the ships having relevant certificates. To them it does not matter if the ship gets holed in deep seas while sailing. This is the gist of their most recent decision on a cargo ship of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation that sank in the late 1970’s. See how idiotic? The dumbies want to rewrite maritime concepts, that’s why.

If I will be asked maybe the culling of Tugade which should be raised first. The reason is old age.

It is in the Philippines where I noticed that the decision-makers are often those who don’t know a thing about the issues they are deciding on.

Experts do not matter in this land.

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Photo Credit: Lindsay Bridge

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