Some Comments on the SWM Stella del Mar on the Surigao-Lipata Route

Very recently, the Southwest Maritime Group of Companies (SWMGC), which is owned by the loud Arben Santos and previously was into crewing, technical ship management and ship husbandry created the Southwest Premiere Ferries Incorporated or SPFI. Under it was the first vessel of SWMGC, the ferry SWM Stella del Mar which was financed through a P550 million loan from the Philippine Business Bank. I salute them for the guts in launching a completely brand-new ship in a distant route route and I wish them well.

The SWM Stella del Mar is a sister ship of the brand-new series of short-distance ferry-ROROs of Starlite Ferries Incorporated which are now plying the Batangas-Calapan and Roxas (Oriental Mindoro)-Caticlan route and has announced plans to operate a ferry in Ormoc City. SWM Stella del Mar is not only a sister ship to the new Starlite; she was also built by the same company in the same shipyard in Japan.

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From fortunehils.blogspot.com

The SWM Stella del Mar was built by Kegoya Dock in Japan, just this year of 2017 with the IMO Number 9798521. The ferry measure 66 meters by 15 meters with a gross tonnage of 2,711 and a deadweight tonnage (DWT) of 907. The press release says 21 trucks can be loaded. She has the declared cruising speed of 13.5 knots although like her sister ships, she might be capable of speed up to 14.5 knots, if desired. She has an advertised draft of 2.9 meters (that is not a deep draft if true). The draft is the vertical distance between the waterline and the bottom of the hull on the outside.

The ship is claimed to have a large draft (is that true?)and that aids the stability of the ship. That is a plus factor for safety in the sometimes-turbulent seas of the country. But then that might not be tested because our weather agency PAGASA and the Philippine Coast Guard suspend voyages of local ships sometimes even before a tropical depression system manifests and called it a “gale” (Philippine “gale” which is much tamer than the English gale). When suspensions of local ships happen the foreign ships traversing our territorial waters continue to sail (well, they have the advantage of INMARSAT which is not common in Philippine ships).

However, a large or deep draft is not always a positive because it means there is a large depth, the minimum measure of water depth needed for a ship to pass a certain body of water. That means in shallower seas the ship might ground and there are many portions of our seas like that. There are also shallow ports made more difficult because we normally don’t do dredging of ports. So when the winds act and swells appear a large draft is good but if it is calm, normal seas it can be a disadvantage.

The SWM Stella del Mar is a big ship. It is not a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO. Actually she is bigger than many overnight ship and if fielded she will be the biggest vessel (but not by a large margin) in the eastern seaboard of the country. By comparison she is approximately the size of the Trans-Asia 8 and actually the two share external design similarities if one will notice.

In size, she is bigger than the former Tamataka Marus here and two Montenegro Shipping Lines and examples of those that served the eastern seaboard are the Reina Emperatriz and the Reina Genoveva. She is also bigger than the “Orange” sister series from Tokoyuni Industries that came here like the Anthon Raphael, Super Shuttle Ferry 18 (which both served the eastern seaboard) and the Maria Ursula and Reina del Cielo of Montenegro Lines. She is also bigger than the former Asia Japan which is the Nathan Matthew now and also bigger than the sister ships Maria Felisa and Maria Vanessa which serves the Benit-Surigao route for Montenegro Shipping Lines. Well, to compare, she is even than the Jack Daniel, the biggest ship of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation.

Actually, the SWM Stella del Mar is bigger than some overnight ferries like the Filipinas Dapitan and Filipinas Dinagat, the Lite Ferry 10, Lite Ferry 11 and Lite Ferry 15, the Asia Philippines and the former Calbayog (now the Staarlite Neptune). She is approximate in size with the Oroquieta Stars, Graceful Stars, Joyful Stars, Wonderful Stars, Lady of Good Voyage, Trans-Asia 2 and Lite Ferry 8 (the seven are a little longer but “thinner”). With that maybe, one familiar with those Cebu ships will have a good idea of her size. Well, her size is actually Cebu overnight ferry range and bigger than the overnight ferries of Zamboanga.

My first concern is the Surigao-Liloan route is not strong like the Batangas-Calapan, Roxas-Caticlan or Matnog-Samar routes where a lot of vehicles and passengers cross including sedans, AUVs and SUVs of local tourists or those who bring cars home on visits. That is not the nature of the passengers that cross Surigao Strait and vehicles here are already fewer than the three sea crossings mentioned earlier. If there are passengers in the Surigao Strait crossings those are most likely passengers of the buses and so in order to capture them the buses have to be captured first and that needs heavy discounting and “rebates”.

The Surigao Strait crossing is experiencing a tight market in the recent months (of course, in peak season it might always be full or near-full) as FastCat entered the route with two or three round trips a day (three when there were still 2 FastCats there) and that took market away even from the rock-solid Montenegro ship in the Benit-Surigao route that offered many schedules and which offered the lowest rates because of its short distance (but in per nautical mile, they are much more expensive). The other ferries in Lipata suffered as well especially since there is a Cargo RORO LCT, the GT Express 1 (which has also difficulty on lean days and might not survive except in peak months). Gone from this route was the kilometer-long queue experienced during the peak seasons.

Now the SWM Stella del Mar will come into that market. In that market it is not the question which is the newest as the passengers and the vehicles not contracted will usually take the earliest ferry unless there is the chance that the faster next ferry will overtake the earlier ferry. But in this route the two-hour gap between departures is usually observed and so overtakes are not frequent. I myself might take the earlier ferry if the next one is still two or three hours away. The SWM Stella del Mar might have some advantage in speed but it seems her transit time will just be 30 minutes faster.

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From fortunehills.blogspot.com

But not against FastCat which is much faster than her at 17 knots. She will have no competitive advantage against the FastCat because this is also a new ferry with good SOPs and good passenger service. Well, their guy assisted us all the way in Liloan last December and all we had to do was wait and we didn’t need to queue up.

Anyway many trucks and even the buses here are already “locked” which means they are tied to a particular shipping company. And for being a regular or suki they enjoy discounts on the rates and even “rebates” in form of tickets and even cash. This is the system or the game that is rampant in the eastern seaboard (except for the treatment of FastCat to Philtranco and its drivers who have no option but to load with FastCat because the two companies have the same ownership) and I don’t know if Southwest Premiere Ferries is willing and ready to play this game to the hilt. They announce that with their speed they can ply the route several times a day. Well, if they don’t know it yet, their competitors speeds can also do that but they don’t because there is not enough load Well, even on the much shorter Matnog-Allen route which has less than a third of the Liloan-Surigao route, the short-distance ferry-ROROs there only do two complete voyages in a day, normally. In this Surigao Strait crossings, it is the buses that can fill in the seats if they are many but they are not (in San Bernardino Strait some 75 or so buses will cross in a day in just one direction but in Surigao Strait the figure is only about 15). The Surigao Strait crossing is nowhere near the San Bernardino Strait crossing in traffic even in trucks. And in Mindanao the passenger and cargo liners are not yet defeated unlike in Eastern Visayas and Bohol. Now can SWM Stella del Mar fill her vehicle deck? The passenger capacity of the ferry is also much higher than the competition’s at nearly 1,000 persons. I wonder where will they get the passengers for that. Well, it is a 3-hour crossing and usually passengers in that crossing have already hours of sitting inside a vehicle. I just hope the seats of the SWM Stella del Mar are also good for lying or sleeping in.

Aside from the boast of greater stability due to the deep draft, the owner of SWM Stella del Mar has other claims and I would like to clarify those for the benefit of the people not very familiar with the sea:

a. 2.75 meter easement–the space between the accommodations and the outer rails. It can accommodate all passengers on one side during emergency situatons.

b. 1.2 meter wide stairs–to prevent crowding if there is ever a need for evacuation.

  1. Water tight cargo hold–to prevent the ingress of harmful salt water that may damage onboard cargo. This also prevents water from building up.

  1. Bow thrusters–thrusters on the side of the vessel allow it to maneuver better despite strong currents. This also makes the vessel effective during search and rescue operations.

e. Advanced safety systems-NAVTEX receiver, AIS transponder, GPS navigation, and BNWAS.”

An easement between the passenger compartment and the outer rails is common among ships. It is not an advanced feature and that side is not the muster station where passengers should congregate before evacuation or abandoning ship. Actually that area is the section where it is difficult to launch automatic life boats. The safest area for abandonment of ROROs is actually the ramps of the ship since being near the water already there will be less injuries compared jumping from the side of the ship.

1.2-meter wide stairs. Well, I have seen many stairs that are much wider than that. Actually that is a narrow stair.

Watertight cargo holds are a common feature of ships. There is nothing modern there. That has been a fixture of ships for so long now and even in antiquity (if the holds are not watertight then the ship will simply sink). If water builds up in the bilge of the ships which is below the holds, there are pumps to draw out the sea water.

There are many ferries now that have bow thrusters and that was already common decades ago. Usually it is only the smaller ferries including the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs that do not have that. What is even more interesting to me is a hydraulic, three-piece ramp which is a big aid in the ingress and egress of vehicles in high or low tide situations. Inspecting the photo of the stern of SWM Stella del Mar it seems she is not equipped with that. The smaller and older Lite Ferry 10 has that feature.

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Photo Credits: Emmanuel Teodoro and Gorio Belen

NAVTEX receiver, AIS transponder, GPS navigation and BNWAS. NAVTEX is not advanced and it just relies on the forecast of the host country which in this case will be the notorious PAGASA. If they mentioned INMARSAT, I might have been impressed. AIS transponders are so common now. All MMSI ships have that and there are ships built in the 1970’s that have been retrofitted with AIS transponders like Warrior Spirit, the incoming third Trans-Asia of Trans-Asia Asia Shipping Lines, Incorporated (keel laid down and launched in 1979, completed in 1980).

GPS navigation is also the standard now (no more compass and even the smartphone can give the one the coordinates and speed). But did they mention autopilot, automatic docking system and joystick instead of wheels? Nope. Those equipment are more advanced that the simple GPS. China-built regional container ships that dock in Davao have such equipment. BNWAS which is Bridge Navigational Watch Alarm System is good which sounds an alarm if the deck watch officer falls asleep but it might not really be necessary here. Ships here have too many cadets on board that I have never ever seen a bridge that has just one crewmen at any moment, the ship running. They can sell the BNWAS and it will not make a difference. Too easy to assign so many cadets that the deck officer does not even man the wheel. Oh, by the way, the FastCat is equipped with joysticks and I think it has ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display and Information System) which was never mentioned in the SWM Stella del Mar press release. Well, even the old, gone SuperFerry 19 which was built in 1977 was retrofitted with that equipment.

I find their press release in bad taste. It is just to fool people and make them good in the eyes of the unknowing public (but not the ship spotters and mariners). That should not be the case.

Of course the ship is IACS (International Association of Classification Societies). Well any national classification society which is a member of that becomes IACS-certificated but not the Philippines because MARINA is too low in quality to qualify for that and it can’t even inspect ships well. China is even a member of IACS.

SPFI is hoping MARINA will phase out 35 year old ferries. Yes, MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority, the local maritime administrators) has such a plan and it called for a meeting with shipping companies and shipyard owners. I have an update on what transpired there. The Cebu shipping companies came with their lawyers. When MARINA said they plan to phase out 35 year old ferries, the lawyers asked if MARINA has any study that shows age is a factor in accidents. MARINA admitted that it has none and it ended with a “Noted” (which means they have no answer) from MARINA.

MARINA also want ships classified with IACS (International Association of Classification Societies). My informant says MARINA seems to be washing its hands because they themselves cannot do it and so they want our ships and shipyards accredited by a foreign body. Again, there was an objection and it also ended up in “Noted”. Aside from that they want the shipyards to be ISO-certified. Well, shouldn’t be MARINA the first one to be ISO-certified? Nothing came out of that too, said my informant. So don’t believe just yet some of these things that are published in our papers. Arben Santos and Alfonso Cusi of Starlite Ferries really want to phase out old ships coz they wanna clear out the competition and have the field for themselves. Oh, by the way the vessels of Star Ferry of Hongkong are already 55 years old on the average and those are still sailing well.

Arben Santos says their ferry will be cheaper by 30% to operate. Well, if he gives 30% discount on rates he might be able to clean up the the competition without resorting to administrative fiat. But what if the competition responds? He still has to pay for his ships while his competition already have their ships paid for except for FastCat. Now that bird even has lower fuel consumption than his ships while being faster because it has a light hull and is a catamaran. He can’t beat that. It simply can sail even without being too full and the Philtranco passenger buses and cargo buses are within its fold.

If I am observing FastCat I am also doing the same for the SWM Stella del Mar. I wanna see if they have the right ship, the right route and the right strategy. I also wanna see if Arben Santos can back up his expansive words. Actually, I don’t like people stepping on the toes of their competition just to promote their product. That is not fair.

They say them competition only runs at 8 knots. That’s a very funny and a ridiculous lie. Can’t they think of a better promotion spiel?

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