The Steel-Hulled Short-distance Ferries of the Philippines and Its Safety

I had an earlier article before wherein I described the different types of ferries sailing the Philippine waters and one of that is the short-distance ferry which connect our near islands through our straits and channels and sometimes through our small inland seas like the Camotes Sea. In this article I would like to expand the discussion on them especially on their safety and their other qualities and characteristics. And to clarify what is a short-distance ferry and to distinguish them from overnight ferries I will make the presence or absence of bunks as the distinguishing characteristic.

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Maria Angela, an example of a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO that is still sailing

I have always used the term “basic, short-distance ferry-RORO” and I would like to connect it here since many of our short-distance ferry actually belongs to that type. Basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs are the ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships) that have just one car deck and one passenger deck above it and access to the car deck is almost always through a ramp located at the bow of the ship. Usually their lengths ranges from a little under 30 meters to a slightly over 40 meters and they are just powered by a single engine and the usual speed is between 9 to 11 knots. Some of these are in the classification of “double-ended ferries” which are bows on both ends and has two propellers both aft and abeam.

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Swallow 2, a double-ended ferry that survived a firebombing

But not all short-distance ferries are basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. Among our short-distance ferries are the ROPAX LCTs which are cruder, less comfortable and slower than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. If the latter are mainly built in Japan, the former are mainly built in the Philippines although in the recent years more and more are coming from China. In this article the Cargo RORO LCTs are not included because technically those are just vehicle carriers and not allowed to carry passengers (and hence are not ferries) although the crews of the trucks and the driver of the sometime small vehicle like cars are also carried aboard them.

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Poseidon 26, a ROPAX LCT

We also have a few remaining short-distance ferries that are not ROROs (Roll-on, Roll-off ships) but are instead cruiser ships. This type carries passengers and some cargo but not rolling cargo or vehicles as this type do not have ramps nor car decks. While these were more in number a few decades back, these are now on the way out being obsolete already. The rolling cargo is now the primary source of revenue in the short-distance routes and is more important revenue-wise compared to passengers (an exception maybe in many cases are the bus passengers because they are many but in many routes also they are subsidized by the shipping company). Cruisers cannot compete head-on now against the ROROs and the few operators remaining are just using the last few years of the serviceable life of the cruisers (rather than chopping or breaking them up Immediately). It is actually just in Zamboanga where cruisers still has significant presence and there are still some cruisers in Cebu but they are mainly overnight ferries.

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Hijos-1, a short-distance ferry-cruiser (by jap bombai)

However, we also have short-distance ferries that are fast and these are the High Speed Crafts (HSCs) consisting of the fastcrafts and the catamarans. These types do not carry vehicles, only passengers but since they charge double on the average that keeps them viable although since these have overpowered engines the margin for profitability is thin. That is the reason why some are not sailing anymore and some just sail on peak months. These types do not sail on every short-distance route but only on high-density routes where the passengers are willing to pay higher for the faster and more comfortable ride. Among the major operators of this types are Ocean Fast Ferries (or Oceanjet), 2GO (the SuperCats but now renamed after archangels), SRN Fastcraft (or Weesam Express), the Star Crafts (which are under two companies) and Montenegro Shipping Lines. There is also one operator of this type in Manila for Corregidor tourists, the Sun Cruises/Prestige Cruises.

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Oceanjet 3, a fastcraft

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St. Sariel, a catamaran

We also have crafts that are similar to High Speed Crafts but are not that fast and these are the Medium Speed Crafts (MSCs). These are also found in the short-distance routes but like the HSCs these are not found in every short-distance route because these also charge higher (and as high as HSCs). One characteristic of the HSCs and MSCs is their passenger accommodations are generally air-conditioned although most have open-air accommodations too for passengers on short budget. The most significant MSCs of the recent years are the FastCats of Archipelago Philippine Ferries which are actually catamaran-ROROs and hence can carry vehicles.

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Anika Gayle 2, an MSC

In the past, it was motor boats (called motor launches now) and motor bancas which were our short-distance ferries. Now the motor boats are already gone by and large because of administrative fiat but a few relics remain. There are much more passenger-cargo motor bancas remaining especially those connecting the small islands and islets where the use of a steel-hulled ferry is not yet viable. Motor bancas with their smaller engines, lightweight hulls and the small capital needed can’t just be driven away because they can sail profitably on light routes. An administrative fiat is actually dangling over their heads (or is it hulls?) but for sure they will always stay as connection to our so-many islets where a steel-hulled ferry is uneconomical to operate. Motor bancas can land on bare shores, an almost impossible task for a steel-hulled ferry. However, the loss rate of these wooden-hulled ferries are much more than the steel-hulled ferries and that is the reason for the administrative fiat.

The safety of these short-distance ferries has always been called into question including very recently. There has always been the presumption or conjecture that since these are small and older (not the HSCs and MSCs, of course)) then they must be more vulnerable which is a queer linear thinking not supported by facts and history. I have in another article already conceded that wooden-hulled ferries that even lack the basic safety equipment are really more vulnerable and will even sink without a storm especially the motor bancas. Lack of safety is not attached to the HSCs and MSCs because they are more modern and they might correct in that but my data can throw some doubt in that.

But to attach lack of safety in the short-distance ferries, which are actually many in number and sail seas that are even more turbulent than what liners and overnight ferries sail in is actually highly incorrect, if only people including those in government will study the records. Pro rata, the liners and the overnight ferries sink at a faster rate than them. Our short-distance ferries are actually safe, relatively speaking. Conjectures and failure to study records (or even collect records) cannot substitute for concrete analysis. Now if I will make an exception to this defense it will be about Besta Shipping Lines of Batangas which is engaged in short-distance ferry operations but which has already lost half of their fleet. In short-distance ferry operation, this company has clearly the worst record.

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The destruction by Typhoon “Ruping” on Cebu ships (Credits to Philippine Star and Gorio Belen)

Our steel-hulled short-distance ferries have been here already for nearly four decades, a long time to establish if they are safe or not. They are not small in number, they clearly outnumber the liners and overnight ferries but only a few of them has actually sank or was lost while sailing. I will separate the ferries that sank in storms while not sailing as that can be considered force majeure or as they say in insurance, an “act of God” and does not speak of safety as any ship can get caught in storms through no fault of theirs that passed through their area. I think what happened to the ships beached, wrecked or capsized by the super-typhoon “Yolanda” is a good recent example of what I am saying. When the storm surge comes along with the winds, the ships can get beached, wrecked or capsized. That is also what happened to Cebu ships in Typhoon “Ruping” in 1990.

Among the ferries caught by storms not sailing that are not wooden-hulled are the Baleno Six of Besta Shipping Lines (beached and wrecked in 2006), Ivatan of BMPC (wrecked in the 2000s), Northern Samar of Bicolandia Shipping Lines (sank in port in 2006), Sta. Penafrancia 7 of Sto. Domingo Shipping Lines (beached and wrecked in 2006) and the Super Shuttle Ferry 17 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (capsized in port in 2013). None of those were salvaged anymore unlike the Shuttle Fast Ferry of Asian Marine Transport Corporation which was also caught in a storm. Again not much safety questions can be attached to their losses and can just attributed maybe to bad luck. In all the mentioned incidents there were no passenger casualties.

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Sta. Penafrancia 7 wrecked by Typhoon “Caloy” (Photo by Edison Sy)

There are also steel-hulled short-distance ferries that were lost while maneuvering in a storm but not carrying passengers. Among these are fastcraft Delta I of DIMC Shipping and the Starlite Atlantic of Starlite Ferries. The first was forced by MARINA to move and she grounded while seeking shelter in Bohol in 2012 while the latter maneuvered out of her own volition at the peak of a strong typhoon and capsized in 2016. I do not really know how to classify the two except that I know it is highly dangerous to maneuver in a storm, with passengers or none. Whatever, in the second, the captain bears a lot of the blame while in the first it is highly disputable where the blame really lies. In the latter there were casualties.

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The Dona Ramona from Getty Images

Then there is also the case of two short-distance ferries which were struck by tragedy while in port but were no longer repaired (but they were still repairable) because their companies were already losing then. These are the Ruperto Jr. of Tamula Shipping which caught fire in the 1990’s and the Dona Ramona of Basilan Lines which was bombed with casualties in a terrorist act in 2005. The two did not sink but they never sailed again. Fires and bombings happen but the two were lost through conscious decisions on the part of the owners and would not have been totally lost in a normal situation. This is just like the loss of ferries like those of Tamula Shipping which just rotted and sank in port after the owner declared bankruptcy and ceased operation. In contrast with this was the firebombing that happened aboard the Our Lady of Mediatrix of Daima Shipping. The ship was repaired and she is still sailing as of now. And another case of a slight mishap that was not repaired again was the Starlite Voyager of Starlite Ferries that was broken up after a grounding incident. In this last case, a navigation error happened.

There are also short-distance ferries which capsized in port while doing cargo handling and which were no longer salvaged and repaired. These are the LCT Davao del Norte of the Province of Davao del Norte and the first Ciara Joie of Aleson Shipping Lines. The first happened in the 1990’s while the second happened in 2003 and it is a mystery to me why they were no longer salvaged when they were in shallow waters and just near land. There were no passenger casualties from both incidents. And maybe we can add to this another one lost in port because of neglect and and the hull was holed and the ferry sank in shallow waters. This is the Super Shuttle Ferry 2 of the Asian Marine Transport Corporation which was languishing in port for several years before the holing incident. And there was another ferry wrecked just off port when it grounded as was just neglected. This was the Baleno Tres of Besta Shipping Lines. In the two neglect cases there were no casualties either.

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The wrecked Baleno Tres by Bundokerz

Then there are the case of two short-distance ferries (or at least used as such since one has bunks) that were both in distress and threatened with sinking but both reached port and capsized in shallow waters. These are the Ocean King II of Seamarine Transport which was hit by a rogue wave and the rolling cargo shifted but managed to reached port and the Baleno 168 of Besta Shipping Lines in which the propeller broke away and water entered the hull but which reached port too. The first happened in 2009 and the second happened in 2013. The first was no longer salvaged and repaired while the second was salvaged and repaired and when she came out of the shipyard she was already a RORO cargo ship. There were no casualties from both incidents although in the first the Coast Guard made a big show on how to conduct rescue wrongly.

Passenger ship sinks off Calapan City

The capsized Baleno 168 by Edison Sy

There were two other short-distance ferries that were lost but did not really slid beneath the waves in the truest sense of the phrase. One is in shallow waters, the LCT Gwen Vida of Jomalia Shipping, a possible victim of another cargo handling mishap. Another was the burned San Miguel de Ilijan of Viva Shipping Lines which was supposedly towed to port.

Up until this point there was no case of a short-distance ferry that actually sank beneath the waves except for the Starlite Atlantic and the LCT Gwen Vida. In the Starlite Atlantic she was the only one with casualties aside from the Dona Ramona that was bombed. And that leaves us with 8 short-distance ferries that actually sank plus the wrecked SuperCat 1 which hit an underwater object while running at full speed in 1994 (the vessel was retrieved but it was too damaged for repair). There was no dead from that incident.

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The ill-fated Island Fastcraft I

Two of the nine are High Speed Crafts, the Delta Cat II of DIMC Shipping and the Island Fastcraft I of Island Shipping which bring to 3 the number of lost High Speed Crafts including the Delta I (it seems for their small number the total of 3 is no longer small). The Delta Cat II sank while on trials and Island Fastcraft I caught fire, the only second short-distance ferry that sank due to fire. So it seems fire is not that major risk among short-distance ferries and Island Fastcraft I was a casualty owing to the nature of its aluminum hull which burns fast and gives off toxic fumes. The Delta Cat II sank in the late 1990’s without casualty while Island Fastcraft I which sank in 2011 had some casualties even though rescue was only nearby.

Among the rest, one capsized and sank in worsening seas because of stalled engines and rescue did not come even though it was just nearby, a clear case of irresponsibility. This is the Maharlika II of Archipelago Philippine Ferries which was lost in 2014. So stalled engines seems not to be a major cause of losses among short-distance ferries.

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New coat of paint was able to hide weak engines (Maharlika II)

Baleno Nine of Besta Shipping Lines which was lost in 2009 and the Lady of Carmel of Medallion Transport which was lost in 2013 are both basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs which sank quickly in the night, both with heavy casualties relative to their number of passengers. Night is additional danger to passengers in sinking especially if the ship is gone fast. Uneven loading is one of the factor being eyed in the loss of the two ferries.

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The Lady of Carmel

Ivatan Princess, a small, short-distance ferry was also another ferry lost at sea, she sank but apparently like the Delta Cat II she was not carrying passengers at the time of the sinking. Technically, they were sailing because they were not in port.

Which now leaves three more ferries that are all Batangas-based. Batangas has lost many of the short-distance ferries and just the repetitive report of the Baleno ferries of Besta Shipping Lines emphasizes that. One of that was the Emerald I lost in 1991 when heavy seas overwhelmed her when water swamped into her low sides and stern and actually that might have been the only loss of a short-distance ferry in foundering. That has similarity to what happened to Ocean King II later which somehow survived. Low sides is a danger to ferries especially in ROROs and that is why more recent ship design feature high sides.

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Ocean King II by ONE WAY BIKE CLUB

Another Batangas ferry lost was the Viva Penafrancia II of Viva Shipping Lines which hit a fish corral in 2000 which meant a navigation error. And the last is Ruby I of Alexis Shipping which sank fast in mysterious circumstances in 1993 and there were charges of sabotage like in SuperCat 1.

The total of short-distance ferries that actually sank is actually smaller than that of the liners and the overnight ferries when in number they are far greater. And so that means they are relatively safe. Or restated, the bigger liners and overnight ferries are actually more unsafe, take your pick of the formulation. They are not as vulnerable to fire like the liners, the don’t get caught by storms as much as the liners too. In resisting storms while not sailing they seem to be more vulnerable, however, and ditto for strong seas which are not mysteries.

If one will notice none of the short-distance ferries was lost due to a collision so saying their bow-mounted ramps is a liability does not have foundation anyway. Actually collision on Philippine seas are rare. It is just disproportionate in the minds of the people because of the ghastly casualties in the loss of the Don Juan and the Dona Paz. They are also not that weak against foundering which is a disease of our liners.

So are our short-distance ferries safe? Yes, they are even though they might look small and vulnerable. If one calls them unsafe then he or she should be prepared to calls our liners and overnight ferries as more unsafe, if he or she knows any logic. So don’t pick on the short-distance ferries, please.

As the great Deng Xiaoping said, “Seek truth from facts.”

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