The Bad Maharlika and Grand Star RORO Ferries Transformed

It was more than two decades ago when I first became acquainted on a regular basis with the Maharlika ships. This fleet consisted of the Maharlika I, Maharlika II, Maharlika III, Maharlika IV, Maharlika V, Maharlika VI and Maharlika VII. I just used their names with the Roman numerals for consistency because at other times they were also known with the Spanish numerals like “Uno”, “Dos”, “Tres” and so on and so forth. The fleet was basically fielded in the Eastern seaboard routes of the country like Lipata to Liloan, San Isidro or Allen to Matnog, other pioneering Bicol routes which they failed to hold (either too early for the day plus they didn’t know the tactic of subsidizing the buses) like Tabaco to Virac and Bulan to Masbate. Later, they tried the Pilar to Aroroy route where it seems they followed the feasibility study made by three renowned international shipping experts, each of have good Ph.Ds but unfortunately does not know local shipping plus they had a blip in their brains (like if a route has only one motor boat how can it then support a ROPAX?). And so,unfortunately. their data is shot full of holes and so it became a GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out).

Maharlika I

Maharlika I by Edison Sy of PSSS.

They also tried routes outside of the Eastern seaboard like Lucena to Marinduque, Batangas to Calapan and Roxas to Caticlan in support of the buses of their sister companies, the storied Philtranco which was fast becoming a shell of its former self and JAM. The Marinduque route did not last long and fortunately for them the two other routes mentioned lasted even though their buses didn’t last long in Panay island (they recently came back after the dominant bus Dimple Star was permanently suspended because of accidents). Maharlika, for brevity, is a long story of failing ships and failing routes. On the other hand, they have a boisterous and humbug CEO who is so full of himself (well, I won’t be surprised if he is a graduate of the Trump School). Like that resident of the White House, Christopher Pastrana also scored a coup with his later FastCat ships. Who said a bad thing can’t be turned in to a good thing?

When I was sailing with the Maharlika ships, I feel a letdown but this was very well-tempered because I am a grad of the even worse ships of Viva Shipping Lines of Batangas and its two legal-fiction companies. That was more palpable in the Maharlika I and Maharlika II which were fielded brand-news just fifteen years earlier (1982 and 1984) and yet were already worn down and beginning to break down (initially, a fault by the government). I did not know it yet then that Archipelago Philippine Ferries was just chartering those two ferries which were the pride of the government in the past. There is a claim that when the ships were already turning a profit the government one-sidedly changed the terms of the agreement. Whatever, it seems Archipelago Philippine Ferries, Pastrana’s company was just milking the ships out of its last value without care for the future life of the ships and the government was letting them. And to think that in the late 1990s there are even shut-outs (vessels can no longer be accommodated aboard) especially in the Liloan-Lipata route. In the main, Maharlika II was in this route and Maharlika I was in the San Isidro or Allen to Matnog route as they have been from the start.

Maharlika II in Liloan port

Maharlika II by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

After the sister ships Maharlika I and Maharlika II, Archipelago Philippine Ferries and its legal-fiction sister companies like Oro Star and Philharbor Ferries acquired two sister ships from Aki Kisen of Japan in 2000, just after the take-over of the of the first two ships, the Maharlika III and Maharlika IV which had the look of a double-ended ferry. They acquired these to bolster their operations as two ferries is not enough for their routes. The two were built in 1987 and 1993 and so in age they were younger than the first ships but just in the same decade of acquisition they are beginning to look worn down too and beginning to be unreliable. Sometimes there are cases when a ship will not sail for months and there was story of one of these newer Maharlika ships not capable of sailing being ordered towed out by the Port Manager of Liloan by a passing tug because it is clogging up his docking space (I saw that non-running ferry). Have anyone heard of ship’s ramp falling while the ship is sailing? There is a story of that in the Lipata-Liloan route and elsewhere but not necessarily running.

So in the 2000s, the period where I was frequently traveling using the Eastern seaboard route, I was wondering where Maharlika was headed. It seemed it was all a grand name (Maharlika is supposedly a legendary name with our national highway named likewise for that and there was even a Marcos plan to rename our country to “Maharlika” until some historians pointed out that “Maharlika” is of Hindu origin) but no substance or trait to support it. This was also the time when Maharlika was trying new routes which mostly bombed out.

Dapdap port

Grand Star RORO 1 and Maharlika Tres in their Dapdap port by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

Next came to them in 2002 the Maharlika V and almost all failed to after having parts of her former substructure cropped out. She first came to a related company in the Allen-Matnog route as the Christ The King when that route had a surplus of bottoms with many shipping companies competing. Her next reincarnation was as the Mindoro Express but she also did not last long in her namesake island and so she plied a route to Puerto Princesa, Palawan. It was there where she took an excursion in a shallow portion of the sea when it seems she had a fire and possibly she capsized in the fire-fighting effort. A ship owner who is a PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member shot a photo of her in Keppel shipyard in Batangas. When posted to PSSS, an eagle-eyed member thought that if the superstructure of Mindoro Express is cropped then she will look like the Maharlika V. In her permanent route of Liloan-Lipata, nobody knew what happened to her in Puerto Princesa. But even with this background, Maharlika V proved to be reliable for almost a decade. Until she became sickly too and spent two years in a shipyard in General Santos City not being repaired.

In 2003 and 2004, two old ferries from Norway built in the early 1970s came for Archipelago Philippine Ferries which became the Maharlika Seiz and Maharlika Siete. The two have very robust Wichman and Normo engines which are easy to maintain as told to me by a Norwegian ship spotter which happened to inquire to me where and in what condition they are now. Moreover, Scandinavian ships should have very strong hulls, their pride. These ex-Norwegian ships ran well for some time although the first to come, Maharlika Seiz proved to be very slow because of its small engine. They did not last that long, however, not because of the engines but because of the variable-pitch propellers, a common feature in European ships. This kind of propeller makes the engine last longer because of less stress but when that kind of propeller becomes defective it is supposedly a nightmare to repair.

Maharlika Cuatro

Maharlika Cuatro by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

When Phil-Nippon Kyoei, a new shipping company, gave up operations early this decade, Philippine Archipelago Ferries snapped up two of three ships for sale, the Grand Star RORO 1 and the Grand Star RORO 3 which also resembled double-ended ferries. The two were basically fielded in the Allen-Matnog route but the two were never renamed. In a short time though, like the Maharlika ferries the Grand Star RORO ferries looked worn out too. I can’t fathom why for a company having a sister company that deals in paints (CAPP) can’t have enough paint to have the ferries looking good. Well, maybe, that was the Pastrana standard then, the Pastrana way of doing things. And when Pastrana got his first FastCat, he told the spiel that he dreamed of good ferries serving Philippine waters after seeing bad ferries all around. But, the storyteller that he was, Pastrana does not have the gumption to say he was looking at his own ferries.

Liloan ships

Maharlika Cinco and Maharlika Seiz in Liloan Ferry Terminal. From ppavis.com.

When the first FastCat came, some of his ferries are no longer running especially Maharlika I which was just sidelined. They tried to sell that but of course, the government being the owner calls the shots. The sale of this ship to the breakers made the sister ship Maharlika II a better ship and it was in a long time that I saw her in good paint, and faster. It is possible after all some parts were first transferred to the sister. However, as her wont, Maharlika II stalled off Panaon island and the crew failed to start even one engine (well, Maharlika is also used to running on one engine). It is a big question why Maharlika IV which was just nearby did not come to her rescue for several hours until the seas turned rough with the coming of the night (as if they didn’t know this will happen). A story from a former employee says that if Maharlika IV sails and rescues her more questions will be unearthed. It is just so bad for the passengers of Maharlika II, some of who died in Surigao Strait, a busy shipping lane but there is no Coast Guard rescue ship (it has to borrow ferries on the route to effect a rescue) because most of their better ships as just used as port guards and serve as offices and suites of their commanders in the big cities and ports.

The sinking paved way for the fast disposal of the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ships. Selling them fast will lessen the questions on their shipworthiness and the stoppage of their use will make people forget easy a tragedy happened and anyway they got suspended too. What remained running before the FastCats came in big numbers are the Grand Star RORO ships and so they only got sold later. That was important for them in the Matnog-Allen route when they were not immediately able to secure a berth where their peculiar docking ramp will be placed. Actually for a time they had no running ships in many routes as the early phase-out of their ships were forced unto them. But maybe that played into their hands as people who don’t normally sail fail to get the connection of Maharlika and FastCat.

Uknown

Maharlika Siete by John Carlos Cabanillas of PSSS.

The Maharlika Cuatro and Maharlika Cinco (their naming then) was sold a “neighbor” in Leyte, the Gabisan Shipping Lines. The Maharlika Cinco was retained by the company and this became the Gloria V and the Maharlika Cuatro was sold to Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) of Catanduanes. Meanwhile, the Maharlika Tres was sold to Atienza Inter-island Ferries of Manila but later they also sold this to Regina Shipping Lines. Maharlika Seiz and Maharlika Siete were sold to breakers in Navotas but the custom there is to “display” the ships first in the hope that someone will buy it whole. And it did not help them that world metal prices were low in the past half-decade. Later, the Grand Star RORO 1 and Grand Star RORO 3 were also sold to Regina Shipping Lines. So, in total of the ships not lost or sold to the breakers only one, the Maharlika V is not in the possession of Regina Shipping Lines which then thereby sold their basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. Traffic in Catanduanes is on the big upsurge after all.

Maharlika Tres became the Regina Calixta VIII, Maharlika IV became the Regina Calixta VII, the Grand Star RORO 1 became the Regina Calixta VI, the Regina Calixta III became the Regina Calixta IX and later as the second Regina Calixta IV after the former holder of that name, which was the former Grand Star RORO 2 was sold to Dinagat to become the Cab-ilan of Waters-up MPC. Six of the ships of Regina Shipping Lines were former ferries of Christopher Pastrana who treated them badly and just covered it up in media by being noisy and boastful.

Grand Star RORO 3

Grand Star RORO 3 by Joe Cardenas III of PSSS.

And how are these ferries faring under the care of Gov. Joseph Cua of Catanduanes, the owner of Regina Shipping Lines? Very, very well as Albayanos and Catanduganons know. The superstructures changed now (no, they are not taller) and the paint is good. The interiors changed a lot too. Central to the changed motif is to make the journey as experience although it will only last four hours or less, the usual transit time between Tabaco, Albay and San Andres (the former Calolbon), Catanduanes, a route where Regina Shipping Lines (RSL)has no direct competitor (their competitor holds another competing route, that to Virac, the capital of Catanduanes). Regina Shipping Lines is a pioneer on the route. The ships have an airconditioned sections now that is modeled after a KTV lounge where before these ships under Pastrana have no airconditioned sections. And of course everything is spic and span after a long remodeling in Mayon Docks in Tabaco under the supervision of an SNAME naval architect who happens to be a PSSS member.

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Regina Calixta VIII, the former Maharlika Tres by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

The engines were refurbished too and all are very reliable now aside from running even better than their design speed. And to think these are ferries built in the 1980s (five) and 1990s (one). Maybe the top guns of MARINA, the maritime regulatory body should first do an educational tour of the RSL ferries before they deliberate on the proposal to cull the 35-year old ferries. Maybe they can learn a thing or two there. They should also take note too that no steel-hulled ferry ever sank in the route to Catanduanes.

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Aircon accommodation of Regina Calixta VI, the former Gtand Star RORO 1. Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

I was not really surprised by all these happenings to the former bad ferries of Pastrana. Gov. Cua operated very good RSL buses from Catanduanes and Tabaco to Manila. Like the premium bus companies of Bicol they invested in good seats and refurbished their buses before it becomes worn out and are no longer looking good. And that has paid off in passenger loyalty and good words and respect to them. RSL (this is how they are called in Bicol) did these refurbishing even though they have no direct competitor and they are always full that at times their ship has to sail back again as there are a good number of shut-outs. That just shows how they care and greed is not their paramount norm in running their shipping business.

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Regina Calixta VII, the former Maharlika Cuatro. Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

Meanwhile, the only old bad Pastrana ferry not in RSL hands had also be refurbished and re-engined by Gabisan Shipping and is also reliable now except for some hiccups at the start. It looks like the hull might still be okay after re-plating given her stint beneath the waves and the long lay-over in Gensan (well, weakened hull plates can be replaced). The story said from the shipyard there she had difficulty reaching Liloan municipal port where first works was done on her. Now, the ship has a Tourist Class too with decent accommodations. She had had more visits to the shipyards maybe because further repairs might have been needed given the sorry state when Gabisan Shipping first acquired her. Anyway, I give enough credit to Gabisan Shipping for saving her. I thought before she no longer had a chance given her history and condition. Now I wish MARINA can give her more life.

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Regina Calixta VIII (ex-Maharlika Tres) Tourist. Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

Meanwhile, for the veterans of the Eastern seaboard, they all know Christopher Pastrana has long been in the Hall of Shame but maybe he is now trying to change that with his FastCats. Well, it is easy when one is given new ships and one looks always good at the start when handed new ships. It is credit to him for his innovate catamaran-RORO design whoever is his benefactor may be but the banks deserve the credit too for opening its purses. His challenge now is how to pay for all of those ships. If he fails it will be the banks which will be holding the empty bag.

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