Now They Are Selling The Shipping Company With The Ships They Say Are The Most Modern

What is happening?

Shipping news recently said that the Cusi family is selling Starlite Ferries to Chelsea Shipping which has recently gained control of 2GO, the only national liner shipping company left and Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI), once the biggest regional shipping company in the Visayas before the advent of Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC). When to think Alfonso Cusi is politically powerful and influential in his own right being in and out of government at usually Cabinet level.

Until just recently Starlite Ferries was very proud of their brand-new series of ships from Japan which is supposedly the best in the short-distance routes. These ships are a series of ten ships financed through a leasing window of the government-owned Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP), the DBP Leasing Corporation. This window is the arm of the government in modernizing our shipping industry and for Starlite Ferries to corner ten ships speaks of their clout.

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Starlite Archer, the latest ship of Starlite Ferries (Photo by Jon Erodias)

Just a while ago Starlite Ferries announced they are extending the run of these modern ships from ten to twenty because they said they were expanding operations to the ASEAN Region which if it materialized will be our first foray ever in international passenger shipping operations. The news was believable because in the ASEAN Free Trade Zone any company should in theory would be allowed free entry in any country within the FTZ.

Now this news of the sell-out looks like a hot potato being dropped and of course questions will be raised.

Starlite Ferries already had nine ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships) and two fastcrafts when they started to acquire a series of ten brand-new ferries from Japan which to me, with its size looks better if it had been used in overnight routes rather than the short-distance routes. I was puzzled when they first announced it because they have only four routes – Batangas-Abra de Ilog, Batangas-Puerto Galera, Batangas-Calapan and Roxas-Caticlan which are all Mindoro routes. Mindoro is the origin of Alfonso Cusi, the founder and owner of Starlite Ferries.

I thought if they will acquire ten new ships then all old ships have to be disposed unless they create new routes. But then Alfonso Cusi was jeering our old ferries and so I thought he will really dispose his old ships. That is if he is true to his word.

But then I never saw a shipping company dominate a route simply because their ferries were all-new. One simply has to look at the experience of Maharlika I and Maharlika II then in the eastern seaboard routes of Matnog-San Isidro and Liloan-Lipata. They did not dominate. Schedules, discounts and rates are decision points too for shippers and passengers and it is not only the newness of the ship that matters. If it is 12 noon and the new ship will still be available at 3 or 4pm the shippers and the passengers will not wait for that. That is particularly true in the short-distance routes which are the routes of Starlite Ferries.

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A view of the stern of one of the new ships of Starlite Ferries (Photo by Carl Jakosalem)

There was news then that Starlite Ferries will enter the overcrowded Cebu-Western Leyte routes through the Cebu-Ormoc route. But though Starlite Ferries already had its new ferries nothing came out of that rumor. They were still on their home base and they still have no new routes while their fleet expanded by about 50% already and they were already shelling out amortization and carrying costs for the new ferries. And with probably no additional income to boot. Somehow something have give as additional ferries are being built for them in Japan. Was the ASEAN routes just a trial balloon?

If Starlite Ferries was doing well as what can be concluded from their press releases and as indicated by their new ships then why the sell-out?

I do not know if theirs is a case of biting what they cannot chew. A PhP 2.4 billion loan without new successful routes and with no sign competition is backing down is not easy to digest. Their new ships have no technical edge over competition unlike the new FastCats of Archipelago Philippine Ferries. It is simply new, nothing more. Maybe that was the reason there was rumor they will be given exclusive routes. But to where? Franchises or Certificates of Public Conveyance (CPC) of the competition can’t simply be cancelled. And maybe that was the reason for the underhanded push to get rid of 35-year old ferries through a questionable administrative fiat which has actually no empirical basis.

Is Alfonso Cusi bailing out before he chokes? The shipping company that acquired Starlite Ferries which is Chelsea Shipping has owners and patrons with very deep pockets. And they have cheap fuel and lubricants to boot which could be decisive in making sense for the new ferries of Starlite.

I am just reminded of a critical juncture in our shipping history in the 1960’s when we already needed to enlarge our inter-island passenger-cargo fleet. Some national liner companies like Escano Lines, General Shipping Corporation, Compania Maritima and Southern Lines Inc. took the route of acquiring loans to order brand-new ships from the National Shipyards and Steel Corporation (NASSCO) and West Germany shipyards. They regretted their decisions eventually.

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Port view of one of the new ships. Starlite Pioneer is the lead ship of the series (Photo by Carl Jakosalem)

Meanwhile at the same time Carlos A. Gothong & Company, William Lines Inc. and Sweet Lines Inc. decided to purchase second-hand vessels from Europe to be converted into passenger-cargo liners here and they came out ahead. For the same amount as a brand-new liner they were able to acquire two to three surplus ships of the same size, reliability and speed. Guess who was able to offer more routes and frequencies and which had more passengers and cargo. That decision vaulted Carlos A. Gothong & Company , William Lines and Sweet Lines to the Top 5 when they were not in that position the decade before.

Is history repeating itself here and Alfonso Cusi has seen the handwriting in the wall and wants to bail out early?

A Good Ship Is Gone

The uncle of a PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member saw the former SuperFerry 5 (last known as St. Joan of Arc in the Philippines) in Singapore a few months ago in what can be surmised as a one-way trip to a ship-breaking yard somewhere in South Asia. That ship has long been reported for sale and its owner 2GO is just as much willing to dispose of her. The ship’s final fate must have been sealed when the former SuperFerry 16 arrived back in the Philippines in 2015 after having been sold abroad for profit in 2007 at the height of the world metal prices then that was driven by the great China demand when its industrial output and drive to sell to the world hit high gear. 2GO wants a more modern fleet and they have no patience for old and graying ships.

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The former SuperFerry 5 which was known as the St. Joan of Arc in the fleet of 2GO was actually the last of our old generation of liners that was built in the 1970’s and which arrived in the country in the 1990’s. She was the lone wolf after the Princess of the South of Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation, the former Sulpicio Lines was disposed off in 2015 and the former SuperFerry 2 which was renamed to St. Thomas Aquinas sank in a collision near Mactan island in 2013 and after the former SuperFerry 1 which was renamed to St. Rita de Cascia was sold to China in and after the St. Joseph The Worker and the St. Peter The Apostle were sold to Bangladeshi breakers.

It was not actually the St. Joan of Arc which 2GO wanted to retain longer. It was actually the refitted St. Thomas Aquinas but as fate would have it she tried to test how the hard was the ice-classed bow of the container ship Sulpicio Express Siete of Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation or PSACC, the successor company of Sulpicio Lines. The former SuperFerry 5 was not a converted ship to two cargo decks like the St. Thomas Aquinas and hence her container capacity is lower while she can no longer fill her passenger accommodations. This was because passengers have already moved to other means of transportation after the liners became a disappointment when they failed to handle the challenge of the budget airlines and the intermodal buses and trucks.

I was puzzled how 2GO handled the St. Joan of Arc. She was already long for sale but there were no takers. That was the time when she still had a route to Tagbilaran and Dumaguete from Manila. She was already smokey then but if the experience of her sister ship the St. Thomas Aquinas which has the same engines is used as a guideline then if there was a decision to refurbish her she will still be a better ship. After refitting, the St. Thomas Aquinas was capable of 18.5 knots when to think she was only running at 17.5 knots when she was newly-fielded in the 1990’s. But of course she already had less metal when two passenger deck were removed. The St. Thomas Aquinas was also less smokey than her sister ship after she was refurbished.

I have long hated that policy of 2GO which they called “finding the right size” which is just a euphemism for culling ships and routes when their bean counters find out that they do not contribute to the profitability of the company. You see they are primarily in business and not in real shipping. It is just cold-bloodied calculation and not passion for sailing and moving goods and people. But then they are oblivious to the fact that with their uncertainty in serving a route makes patrons especially shippers look for other carriers. Like when the Cebu Ferry 2 abandoned Surigao. When they came back there was no cargo anymore and they didn’t even bother to deploy the car ramps anymore when we rode her. And ships cannot maintain a route without meaningful cargo. It is different when patrons know a shipping company will maintain the route no matter what. Otherwise, they will be talking to other carriers.

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In recent history, it was the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS), its subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC) and the latter 2GO which has been the greatest “donors” of passengers and cargo to their competition that the receivers should always give them giant cakes during Christmas as thanks for business they gained without any effort or investment. Actually, the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) should have rolled out two bands when Cebu Ferry 1 and Cebu Ferry 3 left Cebu for Batangas to become the “Batangas Ferries”. Well, even Cokaliong Shipping Line iNC. (CSLI) also became a beneficiary with the withdrawal of the Cebu Ferries from Surigao, Nasipit, Ozamis and Iligan. Imagine given four major Northern Mindanao ports free.

I just wonder why 2GO can’t give the St. Joan of Arc a permanent route then before they withdraw from the Zamboanga route. When they withdrew from Zamboanga they cited the Abu Sayyaf threat. But then they still sailed their container ships and other shipping companies still continued sailing to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao. Then they came back to Zamboanga when Abu Sayyaf attacks were continuing and they did not withdraw again until now. So that means they were simply lying the first time around that they withdrew.

When they came back to Zamboanga, it was a Manila-Cebu-Dumaguete route which was later redacted into a Manila-Dumaguete-Zamboanga route, a route longer than a Manila-Iloilo-Bacolod-Zamboanga route. If a route via Dumaguete can be maintained then for sure a route via Iloilo and/or Bacolod can be maintained profitably since Iloilo and Bacolod are both bigger than Dumaguete and the route is shorter. Besides there is no ferry between Iloilo and Zamboanga and there is no bus too while Dumaguete has a bus to Zamboanga and there was also the once-a-week Zamboanga Ferry of George & Peter Lines. And it is easy to cross to Dapitan and take a bus to Zamboanga from Dipolog, the next locality.

2GO could have refurbished the St. Joan of Arc and made her a permanent Zamboanga ship. Her size and speed would have been enough for the route and maybe they can even make a twice a week voyage there. And passenger load might have been better if their arrival time was proper. A 5pm arrival is bad as the connecting trips to the minor islands like the Pangutaran group and even Basilan are already gone by the time their ship arrives in Zamboanga. Actually buses to the the “3S” (Sibuco, Sirawai, Siocon) direction and the direction of Payao (the Lizamay buses) would have also been gone by that time. I noticed ATS and 2GO are not passenger-friendly with regards to arrivals as many of their arrivals are at night. Right now, three out of their five arrivals in Manila from Cebu are at night and they will force passengers down even when it is already midnight. So they think the streets of Manila are safe at night? Ha ha! That is also the time the taxis make a killing.

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St. Joan of Arc not sailing

2GO does not have the program of the likes of Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. and Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. to give their old ships a second lease of life. Those two companies still has many ships built in the early 1970’s like the St. Joan of Arc. And those ships are still creditable and reliable. In the international cruise industry, ships can be refurbished even when they were built decades ago and niche routes and cruising can be found for them. Like if the St. Joan of Arc was refurbished and assigned to Zamboanga permanently even before 2GO withdrew from there before. Or maybe toughened it out and served Tagbilaran, Dumaguete and Dapitan continuously with a Manila-Tagbilaran-Dumaguete-Dapitan-Manila route. Well, just wishing but Tagbilaran and Bohol has no more direct connection after the Dipolog Princess of Sulpicio Lines was gone. Those three ports might have enough passengers and cargo to sustain the ship.

But this is all water under the bridge now. The St. Joan of Arc is already gone as old ships have no future in 2GO. And maybe it was just proper that the people that initiated this system are already retired now too. They deserve the same fate maybe. It was just like when in ATS the execs approved of the culling and culling of ships until there were more VPs than liners and they did not realize that they will also be culled because that situation cannot continue.

There is a new management in 2GO after new investors came in. I just hope they are forward-looking and love ships instead of being wielders of knives.

A Good Class of Ferry is Going Away Soon

I love speed in ships but maybe not that much and so maybe that is the reason I am not too attached to High Speed Crafts or HSCs. That is also the reason why I tend to look at the size and the engine capacity ratio of a ship and see which is more efficient.

A certain class of ferry which belongs to the great ferries (ferries with at least 10,000 gross tons) caught my attention and respect. While we had many ferries that are in the 150-meter class, that class basically used engines of 20,000 horsepower and more. They were capable of 20 knots locally and even more when they were still new abroad.

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Subic Bay 1

But then there was a class of ferries that arrived here that were in the 160-meter class whose engines were below 20,000 horsepower. They were a little less speedy but they proved to be capable of 18.5 knots locally and in a Manila-Cebu run that meant an additional sailing time of just one more hour. And, of course, in capacity they were a little more than the capacity of the 150-meter ferries.

There were only four examples of this class locally. The fast Princess of Paradise of Sulpicio Lines is not included there and so are the St. Pope John Paul II of 2GO which is the former SuperFerry 12 of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and its sister ship, the Princess of the Universe of Sulpicio Lines and the Mary Queen of Peace of Negros Navigation (which is a shade under 160 meters at 159.5 meters length) for they all packed engines of over 20,000 horsepower.

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Princess of the World by Britz Salih

I am referring here to Manila Bay 1 of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and its sister ship, the late SuperFerry 6 nee Our Lady of Akita and also the Subic Bay 1 and its sister ship the late Princess of the World. Manila Bay 1 had a length of 162.1 meters and 18,000 horsepower from two NKK-Pielstick engines and here she was capable of 18.5 knots early on. The SuperFerry 6/Our Lady of Akita had exactly the same length, engines and speed here.

Subic Bay 1 of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. has a length of 166.5 meters and 19,700 from two Mitsubishi-MAN engines. Her sister ship the late Princess of the World of Sulpicio Lines had the same length and engines but the rated power is only 18,800 horsepower. They are “thinner” at 24.0 meters breadth compared to the 26.4 meters of SuperFerry 6 and Manila Bay 1 and so they were capable of over 19 knots when they were first fielded here.

How insignificant was their speed disadvantage? Well, WG&A paired the SuperFerry 6 and the SuperFerry 10, the former Mabuhay 1 of William Lines in the Manila-Iloilo-General Santos-Davao, Manila-Cebu-Cagayan de Oro and Manila-Zamboanga-Davao routes. And many know that the SuperFerry 10 ran at up to 20 knots.

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SuperFerry 6 (Credits to PAF and jethro Cagasan)

The SuperFerry 6 did not last sailing as she was hit by engine fire off Batangas in 2000 while sailing from Davao and General Santos City and the Princess of the World was also hit by fire in 2005 off Zamboanga del Norte while en route to Zamboanga from Manila and Iloilo. Both did not sink, however and there were almost no casualties.

What lasted long were the two ships of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI), the Manila Bay 1 and the Subic Bay 1. Well, it seems ships not painted well last longer? However, the Manila Bay 1 was also hit by fire in the bridge but the fire was controlled early. The two ships of CAGLI did not sail as ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships) for long as they were suspended by MARINA from carrying passengers because of numerous complaints about long delays in departures and very late arrivals (I was actually a victim of that too when I arrived in Pier 6 at 8pm for a 10pm departure and the ship left at 4:30am and we arrived in Nasipit at night instead of afternoon). From that suspension, CAGLI turned the two into RORO Cargo ships just carrying cars and container vans.

Now those who know shipping knows the replacements of the two ships are already around, the RORO Cargo ships Panglao Bay 1 and Dapitan Bay 1 (which is still being refitted as of the writing of this article in June of 2017). In fact, last April, a member of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) saw the Subic Bay 1 being towed by a tug headed south and probably destined to a South Asian breaker. Manila Bay 1 might be following her soon when Dapitan Bay 1 enters service and if it does, it will be the end of an era of the 160-meter liners with just 18,000 horsepower engines and 18.5 knots of speed locally.

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Manila Bay 1 and her future replacement Dapitan Bay 1

In terms of cargo capacity they are superior to the 150-meter, 20,000 horsepower ROPAXes especially since they are “fatter” which means their breadths were greater. The four might have not looked sleek or modern as they still have the lines of the Japan big ROPAXes built in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (well, they were actually built in that period!). But their interiors, if their brochures are studied, says they were not inferior to the sleeker 150-meter ROPAXes.

It is just too bad that two of the four did not last long (but both were highly praised when they were still in service) and the other two were converted into RORO Cargo ships and that is the reason why the lingering appreciation for them is not high and they are even identified by most as a separate separate class. And I just rue they did not really stand out when to think they could have been great.

So this piece is just a paean to them, a reminder too and also a farewell.

The China-built LCTs

It seems that just like in buses, in due time China-made LCTs might rule our waves just like China-made buses are now beginning to rule the Luzon highways. The process will not be that sudden though because ships last longer than buses and it is much more costlier to acquire ships. We too have that attachment to our old ships and we don’t suddenly just let them go. But then who knows if some crazy people try to cull our old ferries? I am sure many of the replacements of them will be Cargo RORO LCTs and ROPAX LCTs from China. They are simply that cheap and the terms are good. One thing sure though is the replacements will not be local-built ships. Local-builds generally cost much more than China-builds and the price of the ship is a key decision point.

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A Meiling LCT a.k.a. deck loading ship

A decade ago, China-built LCTs were practically unknown in the country as we were building our own LCTs in many shipyards around the country. Then the first palpable show of LCTs happened early this decade was when a lot of brand-new LCTs suddenly appeared and anchored for long in North Mactan Channel waiting for business. Some of these were rumored to be destined for the mines of Surigao which was then booming. That area already had China-owned and -built LCTs to carry ores to China just like some other provinces which allowed black sand mining had China-owned LCTs docking. But then here, I am talking of China-built LCTs that are locally-operated or owned. However, the Surigao mining boom when world metal prices spiked a decade ago because of China demand was one of our key introduction to China-built LCTs.

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Row of LCTs in North Mactan Channel

Then the demand for ore of China suddenly weakened and so those brand-new China-built LCTs that showed in Mactan Channel owned by Cebu Sea Charterers (of the renowned Premship group), Broadway One Shipping and Concrete Solutions Incorporated went into regular cargo moving. Later, the two companies plus others like Primary Trident Solutions (owner of the Poseidon series of LCTs), and Adnama Mining Resources which also acquired China-made LCTs went into Cargo RORO LCT operations like the Cebu Sea Charterers which meant conveying rolling cargo or vehicles between islands. The Cebu to Leyte routes was the first staple of the Cargo RORO LCTs. Cargo RORO LCTs were also fielded in the key Matnog-Allen and Liloan-Lipata routes to ease backlogs of trucks waiting to be loaded. They became the augmentations to short-distance ferry-ROROs in heavily crowded routes during peak season or when there are disruptions after typhoons.

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Cargo RORO LCTs in Carmen port

The old overnight passenger-shipping companies of Cebu more than noticed the emergence of the Cargo RORO LCTs and felt its threat to their trade and so they also joined the bandwagon in acquiring China-built LCTs. Roble Shipping first chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation before buying their own and those were China-made LCTs. However, it was Lite Ferries that made a bet in acquiring new China LCTs to be converted into passenger-cargo LCTs after some modifications. Outside of Cebu the shipping company 2GO, under the name NN+ATS and brand “Sulit Ferries” chartered China-built LCTs from Concrete Solutions Incorporated, which are the Poseidon LCTs for use in their Matnog-Allen route.

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A ROPAX LCT operated by Sulit Ferries (LCT Poseidon 26)

Meanwhile, LCTs were also tried by Ocean Transport & Key West Shipping as container ships. When they started they also chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation like Roble Shipping. They were successful in using LCTs as container ships and they were always full (and maybe to the chagrin of the CHA-RO messiah Enrico Basilio). This mode might be a no-frills way of moving goods through container vans but it is actually the cheaper way as LCTs are cheap to operate. Later, Ocean Transport & Key West Shipping also acquired their own LCTs with the blessings of Asian Shipping Corporation. Ocean Transport & Key West Shipping might have been successful in showing a new mode of transport but the self-proclaimed “shipping experts” never took notice of them nor studied their craft and mode.

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Brizu, a container carrier LCT by Ocean Transport

Asian Shipping Corporation (ASC) which really has a lot of LCTs for charter and probably with the most number in the country started by building their own LCTs right in their yards in Navotas just like some other smaller shipping had their LCTs built in Metro Manila wharves. Asian Shipping Corporation have not completely turned their back of own-built LCTs but more and more they are acquiring China-built LCTs which come out cheaper than local-builds. Shipbuilding on the lower technology level like LCT-building is at times can also be viewed too as selling of steel and China is the cheapest seller of steel in the whole world. Their engines and marine equipment are also on cheap end.

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ASC Ashley of Asian Shipping Corporation

Another big operator of China-built LCTs that must be noted is the Royal Dragon Ocean Transport which owns the Meiling series of LCTs. Many of their LCTs can be found in Surigao serving the mines there. Right now, China-built LCTs are already mushrooming in Central and Eastern Visayas but in other parts of the country they are still practically unknown except in Manila or when passing by or calling. Ironically, it might actually be a typhoon, the super-typhoon “Yolanda” which devastated Leyte that might have given the China LCTs a big break because they were used in Leyte and in the eastern seaboard routes (in San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait) when there a big need for sea transport after the typhoon and their potential was exposed. The super-typhoon also showed the need for Cargo RORO LCTs separate from short-distance ferry-ROROs.

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Owned LCTs by Roble Shipping

Ocean Transport of Cebu, as stated earlier, now also have their own China LCTs to haul container vans from Manila after initially chartering from Asian Shipping Corporation. The same is true for Roble Shipping which initially chartered Cargo RORO LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation for Cebu-Leyte use. Now other Cebu passenger shipping companies are also beginning to acquire their China LCTs. And that even includes Medallion Transport. Actually there are so many LCTs now from China that don’t have a name but just sports a number (i.e. LCT 308, etc.). But among Cebu overnight ferry companies, it is actually Lite Ferries who is betting the biggest on China LCTs that carries passengers too after some modifications.

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PMI-3, a Cargo RORO LCT of Premium Megastructures Inc.

In the following years I still see a lot of China-built LCTs coming and that will include LCTs that have provisions for passenger accommodations. If the government cull the old (but still good) ferries, I bet that type will suddenly mushroom especially in the short-distance routes. But of course it will not have the speed nor the comfort of the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROS. But who knows if that is actually the wish of some decision-making foggy old bureaucrats who don’t ride ships anyway? They will just be giving China yards and engine makers a big break. And a final note – LCTs from China are also called as “deck loading ships”. So don’t get confused.

Now let us just see how these China imports grow in size and importance.

The Misfortune of the Surigao Liner Route

Of all the many ports of Northern Mindanao, the geographical area and not the political-administrative region, it is Surigao that I did not see losing its liner connection to Manila given its history and not its demographic and economic profile. In the old days, Surigao had six passenger-cargo ships from Manila calling and dropping anchor every week whereas the likes of more known and bigger Iligan and Zamboanga did not have that frequency. So for me the loss of Manila connection by Surigao is almost unbelievable when the likes of Nasipit, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan and Ozamis still have their liner connection to Manila.

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Surigao Port by Aris Refugio

After the war, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the likes of Escano Lines, Philippine Steam Navigation Company (PSNC), General Shipping Company (GSC), the great Compania Maritima (CM) provided Surigao with connection to Manila. Before the war, Surigao had ferry connection even in early American times and so the loss of connection was as shocking to me as the loss of Davao of its liner connection to Manila. I mean, the connections are historical and it was an epoch in local shipping.

In 1954, when the country has basically recovered from the war and there were enough ships already, the Romblon and Basilan of Compania Maritima and the Davao and Vizcaya of Philippine Steam Navigation Company (PSNC) sailed to Surigao. These were augmented by the Fernando Escano of Escano Lines and the General Mojica of General Shipping Company. All of these passenger-cargo ships were former war-surplus “FS” ships used by the US Army in their Pacific campaign during the war. Ex-“FS” ships were the backbone of our passenger shipping fleet in the early Republic years.

In 1955 the Occidental of Carlos A. Go Thong & Company and the Don Manuel of Royal Lines appeared in Surigao. Surigao then was usually paired with Butuan port (the true Butuan and not Nasipit) in voyages to increase the passenger and cargo volume. Combining the two ports was not difficult since the distance of the two is not far and just in the same direction and the additional passengers and cargo is much more than the additional fuel that is consumed.

The routes combined with Surigao got more complex over the years. In some routes Surigao is combined with Masbate, the Samar ports and Tacloban. There was even a ship, the Vizcaya of PSNC that had the route Manila-Romblon-Cebu-Maasin-Cabalian-Surigao-Bislig-Mati-Davao (now how’s that for complexity?). If ever there is again a liner with such route again it will be offer good, free tourism. Never mind if the voyage takes one week as long as the accommodations, passenger service and food are good. By the way that was the time when a dozen passenger ships depart North Harbor every day on the way south. Who said smaller ships of the past were not good? With smaller ships comes more voyages and more voyages means more choices. Smaller ships also mean shorter legs and so it has to call on more ports. More ports means more free tourism. Never mind if the voyage takes long. If one wants shorter travel time there is always the airline.

Some other routes to Surigao pass thru Cebu and/or ports on the western and southern side of Leyte island like Ormoc and Maasin. When I see the Palawan Princess or the Surigao Princess of Sulpicio Lines in the 1990’s and 2000’s, I tend to think they were the remnants of this route when they call in Masbate, Calubian, Baybay, Maasin and Surigao from Manila (and it even extended to Butuan earlier). It was just too bad that the suspension of Sulpicio Lines in 2008 put an end to that long route.

Until 1959 there were six ships from Manila sailing to Surigao and these were the FS-167, Fernando Escano, General Segundo, General Roxas, Rizal and Romblon. All were ex-FS ships except for the Rizal which might have been a lengthened “F” ship. In 1964, Escano Lines increased its ship call to Surigao with the Tacloban and Kolambugan. Later when Sweet Lines became a national liner company they also called in Surigao with their Sweet Peace. Then in 1970 when Aboitiz Shipping Corporation fielded a dedicated ship to their origin, the West Leyte, this ship held a Manila-Romblon-Palompon-Ormoc-Baybay-Cabalian-Surigao-Sogod route. What a way to blanket western Leyte and Surigao! Later this route was taken over by their more modern ship Cagayan de Oro.

In the same year, Go Thong had their Dona Gloria and Gothong  (their flagship) do a Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Mati-Davao-Iloilo-Manila route which goes round Mindanao island. The two alternating ships of Go Thong were no longer ex-“FS” ships but were refitted former cargo-passenger ships with refrigeration from Europe which had air-conditioning already. When I think of the ship routes of the past, I see they were much more exciting that the dry, short routes of today where free tourism (touring the city while the ship is docked) is almost minimal.

When Sweet Lines instituted their eastern Mindanao shortcutter route to Davao via Surigao their ships like the alternating Sweet Bliss and Sweet Dream were also former refrigerated cargo ships from Europe. Later, it was the Sweet Love and Sweet Lord which were alternating in this route. These ships were almost like in size as the Type “C1-M-AV1” war-surplus big ships used right after World War II but the difference is they were faster and had refrigeration which afforded air-conditioned first class accommodations and lounges to be built and hence were more comfortable than the big war-surplus ships that were converted to passenger-cargo use.

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Verano Port of Surigao City by Mike Baylon

With ships getting bigger, it is not surprising that routes and frequencies went down. If some thought that getting bigger is all a plus (like maybe in safety) then there is also a downside to that (and there might be a lesson there too). The ships getting bigger were probably the first that affected the frequency to Surigao. The factor came next maybe after that was the appearance of the fast cruiser liners in the second half of the 1970’s. Fast cruiser liners usually have just one intermediate call so that it can maintain a weekly voyage to a route as far as Southern Mindanao like Davao. With their appearance, other companies tried to speed up their voyages by also cutting down on intermediate calls and I think Surigao got affected by that like when Sweet Lines dropped Surigao on their eastern Mindanao seaboard shortcutter route.

In 1979, when container services was just starting, the frequency to Surigao was down to 3 ships a week with two of that provided by Escano Lines with their Kolambugan and Surigao. The Don Manuel of Sulpicio Lines was the other ship to Surigao. The three were old ships, as in ex-”FS” type and the other probably a lengthened ex-“F” ship. I am not that sure of the reason for the drop except that I know ships on the way to Davao by the eastern seaboard no longer calls in Surigao port. I was thinking of the cargo. Were there a lot of logs, lumber and plywood loaded before? During that time the logging and timber industry was already on the way down. And the Catbalogan and Tacloban ships no longer go to Surigao. Not enough load maybe to extend the route there. Anyway, this time even the Catbalogan and Tacloban routes are already being threatened by the emerging intermodal system when the buses and trucks started rolling up to Leyte from Luzon.

The end due to old age of the ex-”FS “ships definitely affected Surigao. Those type served the smaller ports and weaker routes in the 1970s. With just 1,000-horsepower engines they were certainly thrifty to run and their size fits the weaker and smaller ports especially with their shallow drafts. However, they can’t last forever and entering the 1980’s it was obvious they were already in their last legs as they were already in their fourth decade. By the middle of that decade only a few of those type were still running reliably and they were kept running by just cannibalizing parts from other similar ships, one of the reasons why their number kept steadily falling.

Sulpicio Lines fielded the small but comfortable liner Surigao Princess in the route in 1983 which I said seemed to be a relic of earlier days. The Surigao Princess had air-conditioning and First Class accommodations including Suite. Aboitiz Shipping also resuscitated their complex route with their cruiser liner Legaspi which also had air-conditioning. This ship was acquired from Escano Lines, as the former Katipunan and different from their old Legazpi and sometimes she sports the name Legaspi 1 to differentiate it as the old Legazpi was still sailing. Maybe the ex-”FS” ships were now too old and slow to maintain such route. I am talking here of the late 1980’s. Escano Lines, the old faithful in the route and a “home team” of the area was already fading and what they had left were cargo ships and the Virgen de la Paz maintained their Surigao route for them. However, before Escano Lines was completely gone, Madrigal Shipping entered the Surigao route with their Madrigal Surigao, a comfortable and modern cruiser liner in an era when RORO liners were already beginning to dominate but then Madrigal Shipping lasted only a few years before quitting and selling their ships.

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Port of Surigao (from a framed PPA photo)

I do not know if the regional ships also contributed to the decline of the Surigao liner route. They got better so much so that connecting to Cebu where great RORO liners were beginning to mushroom is already easy. One only has to check their schedules in Cebu and it is really nice to ride them and with their size they won’t be coming to Surigao and so connecting to Cebu might have become attractive so one can ride those great RORO liners. I am talking from experience but from a different city which is Iligan when it became an option to me to connect to Cebu to be able to ride a great liner. I also did that on the way home because I know that if I arrive before dark in Cebu there will be seamless connecting rides to Iligan and/or Cagayan de Oro.

There was a big change in 1993 when the great Filipina Princess of Sulpicio Lines upon being shunted to Davao called in Surigao. Aboitiz Shipping also for a time tried the Surigao route with their SuperFerry 2. In 1994, William Lines entered Surigao for the very first time with their luxury liner Mabuhay 2. So for the first time the competitors in Surigao were all new and good liners, a development I have not ever seen before. Maybe the deregulation and support extended by the Ramos government was the reason when there was optimism and dynamism in shipping again. But let it be noted that the Surigao Princess which is beginning to be unreliable and the Palawan Princess were still alternating in their complex route to Surigao and so there were 4 voyages a week to Surigao then from Manila.

In 1996, the SuperFerry 6 of WG&A, the former Our Lady of Akita tried to challenge the Filipina Princess in the Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Davao route. SuperFerry 2 also did a Manila-Surigao-Nasipit-Tagbilaran route after the merger. When WG&A started pairing ships in a route one pair that did the Manila-Surigao-Nasipit-Surigao-Manila route was the SuperFerry 3 and Our Lady of Medjugorje pair. When SuperFerry 6 was withdrawn from the eastern seaboard route and WG&A stopped that route and SF6 was paired with SuperFerry 10, the SuperFerry 1 and SuperFerry 8 was paired to do a Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Nasipit route and that was really a fast combination as both ships can do 20 knots. Later, when three-ship pairing was used by WG&A, the SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 5 and SuperFerry 9 sailed the Manila-Surigao-Nasipit, v.v. route.

I always thought WG&A will maintain a twice a week schedule to Surigao and pair it with Nasipit and Sulpicio Lines will always have two schedules a week with its unchanging routes and schedules. But of course with the sales of ships that transformed WG&A into Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) there will be uncertainties and the greatest change was when ats sold four of their newest liners to take advantage of good prices and earn a handsome profit. Coming at the heels of sales of older liners and container ships to pay off their former partners which withdrew from the merger, ATS suddenly lacked ships and the Surigao schedules became infirm.

But the greatest blow was when Sulpicio Lines was suspended after the capsizing of their Princess of the Stars in 2008. Suddenly, their two schedules to Surigao were cut and those never came back. I thought ATS would be reliable but actually except for the return of SuperFerry 19 from Papua New Guinea, ATS found themselves lacking ships especially since their SuperFerry 14 was lost to firebombing off Bataan in 2004. When they acquired their SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21, I thought that somehow their routes might stabilize. But like their withdrawal from Davao and General Santos City, I did not see that they will be doing just a Manila-Tagbilaran-Nasipit route and leave Surigao. This was the period when they had the system to use the buses i.e. give the passengers bus tickets to connect to their ships like what they did in southern Mindanao (so passengers can ride their liners in Cagayan de Oro). For Surigao, howeverm it seems they were offering their other makeshift system, the use of connecting ships to Cebu by using their Cebu Ferries. Neat but for whom?

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SuperFerry 19 arriving in Surigao Port by Michael Denne

But then their subsidiary Cebu Ferries suddenly left to become the “Batangas Ferries”. What I saw was the ATS world collapsing and not out of financial trouble. They were just no longer that interested in shipping and they admitted as much. The passion was gone and they were already more interested in power generation. Well, their bet and support of Gloria Arroyo paid off handsomely and they were able to earn in Tiwi Geothermal and Mak-Ban in Laguna what they cannot possibly ever earn in shipping.

They sold their shipping to an entity that was less capable than them and which had to get a big loan for the acquisition and was a big burden, so heavy that initially the new company was on the red for the next three years until fuel prices eased and they were back in the black. But that was not any benefit to Surigao as they never came back there for long except for a short period like when St. Joseph The Worker was refurbished and was assigned there and which I was lucky to ride. But after her sale and her sister it was downhill all the way for Surigao. With bean counters ruling, smaller ports had no chance in 2GO, the entity after ATS. And to think there were no longer any other liner company competing. 2GO was just content on routes that will easily make them money. Did they call that “serving the public”? I am not sure.

Now Surigao no longer has a liner, not even one that is paired with Nasipit. But 2GO still call in Nasipit from Cebu and so the extra distance pays. But maybe not when paired with Surigao? Maybe if the hours and the fuel of the ship are measured the metric of Surigao is too low and the 2GO ship is better used elsewhere. That is the quintessential bean counter method. They are not into traditional shipping. They are into business.

I was also wondering about the off and on service of the company to Dapitan until its total withdrawal. Dapitan and nearby Dipolog a combined population of over 200,000. But its commercial level is low and so maybe a population of 200,000 is not enough to sustain a liner per 2GO standard. And so maybe Surigao City with just 150,000 people has no chance even if some incrementals from Siargao tourism is added. In Ormoc with over a population over 150,000, 2GO was not able to maintain a route. Somehow these metrics points to the standards and parameters of 2GO.

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Surigao Port by Lota Hilton

If that is correct then maybe Surigao has no chance really unless a new liner company with true shipping emerges. But then with the situation of the liner industry that is like asking for the moon. I don’t know if the change at the helm of 2GO with the entry of Chelsea Shipping and the SM Group if the metrics and priorities will change. If ATS and 2GO said they were “passionate” in shipping (of course their dictionary is not Webster), I don’t know what will be the adjective of the 2GO/NN-Chelsea-SM combine that will make it better.

I don’t want to be too hopeful and so I will just await developments.

Note: Thanks a lot to the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library.

Will The New Starlite Ferry And Oroquieta Stars Battle In The Future?

It has been announced in the news a few months ago that Starlite Ferries of Batangas send a ship of their to Ormoc, the premier gateway to Leyte from Cebu. Many know that the Cebu-Ormoc is a high-density route. However, at the time this article was written (May 2017) no new Starlite ferry has arrived in Ormoc. I do not know but maybe they are serious but they could still be awaiting a ferry from Japan that has overnight accommodations, i.e. equipped with bunks and maybe cabins too. Starlite Ferries must have realized by now that the stronger schedule to Ormoc is the night sailing and not the day voyage.

Meanwhile, Ormoc is a very important route for Roble Shipping and for sure they will not take a challenge there lying down. Currently they are using their bigger but older ferries in the Ormoc route and primarily this is the Joyful Stars, the former Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines. This ship might have been a former liner and hence has better accommodations than the usual overnight ferry but she is already old although not yet obsolete or unreliable. But people and passengers have a bent for taking the newer and more modern ferry and so if the new Starlite ferry arrives the Joyful Stars might have a hard time coping.

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An example of the new Starlite ferry (Photo by Irvine Kinea)

I and many other members of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) have been wondering why the new ship of Roble Shipping, the Oroquieta Stars which is the former Taelim Iris has been staying long already in the Hilongos route when according to press releases of Roble Shipping before she is destined for the Oroquieta, Misamis Occidental route and hence the name of the ship. We thought at first she was in Hilongos to “acclimatize”. But over half a year has already passed and she is still there. Now I am thinking, is she actually waiting for a future competitor that got Roble Shipping’s attention?

I am guessing that if finally Starlite Ferries serves the Cebu-Ormoc route then Roble Shipping will transfer the Oroquieta Stars to this route to do battle. And if this happens, I expect a good battle between them. This will be a good fight between a surplus ship that is not yet old with new interiors versus a ferry that is completely brand-new. That will be a good test if a brand-new ferry really has an edge in a head-on fight. After all, the owners of the brand-new ships tout that they have the edge. An actual fight will prove if that is really true and I and PSSS will be glad to see if they can prove it.

In size the two ferries will be a near-match. The new Starlite ferries are nearly 67 meters in LOA (Length Over-all) on the average. Meanwhile, the Oroquieta Stars has an LOA of 77.4 meters but in LPP (Length Between Perpendiculars) she is only 68.0 meters versus the 63.3 meters of the new Starlite ferries. The reason for the big difference in the LOA and LPP of Oroquieta Stars is she has a long bow. In estimating capacity, the LPP is more important than the LOA and so in LPP their gap is just 4.7 meters which is just the length of a sedan or an SUV.

In Breadth, however, the new Starlite ferries has a big edge at 15.3 meters versus the 12.0 meters of the Oroquieta Stars. This difference is actually one lane of vehicles and so the new Starlite ferries will probably carry more vehicles and ROROs earn more from vehicles compared to passengers. But then I would add early that Oroquieta Stars has a “homecourt advantage”. There are vehicles practically locked to them, they have been long in the business connecting of Cebu and Leyte and hence they know more people and customers and they are also good in offering low rates which is actually the primary decision point of those who decide loading of vehicles.

In passenger decks, both ships have two decks and so in passenger capacity they will not be far from each other, theoretically. But Roble Shipping is known for offering hard fiberglass seats on their routes and these maximizes passenger capacity and so probably in this category the Oroquieta Stars will have a dubious edge. These seats is what I call the “cruel seats”. Imagine sitting on them for 5 hours on the average for a just few pesos less than the fare charged for a bunk.

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Ormoc Port (Photo by James Gabriel Verallo)

In terms of comparison of cubic capacities of the ship in Gross Tonnage and Net Tonnage, I do not want to use them because such comparisons are usually meaningless in the Philippines because if there is “gross” it is because the declarations of them are grossly inaccurate in many cases. And besides the ship with a deeper keel will have a higher Gross Tonnage. By the way the new Starlite ferries are touted to be more stable because of its large Depth which is 9.4 meters. However, the Oroquieta Star’s Depth is nearly like that at 8.1 meters.

Regarding engine horsepower, the Oroquieta Stars have a significant edge at 4,900 horsepower versus the 3,650 horsepower of the new Starlite ferries. This is the reason why the former has a higher design speed, the speed that can be sustained when new at 16 knots versus the 14.5 knots of the latter. In an evening voyage this metric will not matter much since Ormoc is just some 60 nautical miles from Cebu and so it will just be a matter who arrives earlier in an unholy hour. In Ormoc at this hour there are no good connecting trips yet by land. In Cebu it might matter a little because buses leave at all hours of the night. But in daytime this will be an edge for Oroquieta Stars.

Plus of course bragging rights are always associated in being the faster one. And maybe the prestige of the new Starlite ferries will suffer a little because newer ships are supposed to be faster. But then those who know better knows speed is simply a function of the engine power. Even though Oroquieta Stars is already 23 years old, I think she will still have a slight edge in speed although forcing older engines always carries a risk. In mechanical reliability though, the ROROs built in the 1980s and later have proven they are still very reliable at 30 years of age or even greater.

In interiors a newly-refurbished ship is almost as good as a brand-new ship especially in the particular case of Oroquieta Stars which was converted from being a vehicle carrier. That means a lot of the accommodations are actually new. And if there is enough power from auxiliary engines then there is no reason why the air-conditioning of a ship would be weak.

In passenger service, well, it is proven that graduates of hotel and restaurant courses are better than nautical course graduates as the former have a lot of edge in training with regards to that. Whoever invests more in this will be the winner. If one is as good as the passenger service of 2GO or FastCat then they will probably have an edge. But if one just relies on cadets or apprentices, they will be a sure losers. They might be too cheap (as in they work for free) but I find them rough in the main and at times uneducated.

In the food service, whoever invests more will also be the winner too. The parameters here are the taste and variety. Actually what I found tasty were those who offered microwaved freeze-dried food because those are food that were actually standardized and tested. That is unlike the carinderia food which are always highly variable in quality and taste. Of course none will probably be able to offer the extras of the true liners of 2GO (I mean not counting the former Cebu Ferries). But knowing Pinoys, if one will offer unlimited rice that will be a certain edge.

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I imagine if the two will face off it will be a tight fight. Can the new Starlite ferry prove they really have an edge? Actually I doubt it. They might be more thrifty on fuel and needing less parts and service but they have a higher amortization because brand-new ships are not cheap and all were acquired through loans. In a straight fight with discounting the brand-new ships will have a hard time. Actually to say the new Starlite ferries are better against the likes of Oroquieta Stars is just like saying it is better and hence by implication will best or defeat the former Cebu Ferries of 2GO and that is actually hard to prove as everybody knows. That is what I mean that good second-hand ferries that were refitted well and has good maintenance and has very well-trained service personnel can easily match a brand-new ship.

And this will probably point to the weakness of the new Starlite ferries. They are new but they have no technical or technological edge versus the ferries built in the 1990’s like those used by 2GO. This is not like in buses and planes where a 20-year bus or plane can’t compete with a new one. If new ferries will have an edge it will be against ships that are already over 35 years old. And so this might not be yet the time the new Starlite ferries will have an edge over the Oroquieta Stars.

Whatever, these are mainly theoretical yet. What I want is a true test so conjectures and analyses can be proven or disproved.

Bring it on!

 

The Bill Rider To Kill 35-Year Old Ships

Maybe they are golfing buddies but one thing sure is both of them are in the Cabinet of President Rodrigo Duterte. And maybe Secretary Arthur Tugade offered to carry the cudgels (or golf bags) for Secretary Alfonso Cusi for the latter’s new ships cannot win over the competition in a level playing field because it has no definite technical advantage unlike the FastCats which definitely have low fuel consumption relative to their rolling cargo capacity. The new Starlite ferries might be new and are thrifty compared to the old ferries but they still have to amortize their ships whereas their competitors’ ships are already basically paid for already and that really matters a lot.

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A very good ferry that is 35 years old

There was a bill to give President Rodrigo Duterte new Starlite ferries to solve our traffic problems. And it seems a rider was inserted that will cull ferries that are already 35 years old which meant ferries built in 1982 or earlier. There was even a rumor that new ferries will be given exclusive routes. This is what I was saying in another article of mine that there seems to be moves to target and retire old ship via legislative or administrative fiat. It seems that without that kind of assistance the new Starlite ferries or the new SWM ferry would have a hard time competing. Knowing short-distance ferries have fixed schedules and two-hour gaps are in the rules then that just simply negates the advantage of new ferries as passengers, drivers and car owners normally take the next available RORO. And besides they don’t perceive the old ferries have a definitely disadvantage in safety.

The fact is in many routes no steel-hulled ferry has ever sunk and that includes many heavily-traveled routes like the Matnog-Allen/San Isidro route, the routes from Tabaco to Catanduanes, the Pilar-Masbate route, the routes from Bogo to Cawayan, Cataingan and Palompon, the routes connecting Leyte and Bohol, the Roxas-Caticlan route, the routes from Lucena to Marinduque, the Bacolod-Dumangas route, the Iloilo-Bacolod route, the routes from southwest Cebu to southeastern Negros Oriental, the Dumaguete-Siquijor routes, the Dumaguete-Dapitan route, the Ozamis-Mukas route, the routes from Balingoan to Camiguin, the Zamboanga-Basilan routes and many, many other routes too numerous to list. And old ferries basically plied these routes.

In a conference called by MARINA earlier this year (2017), they admitted that they have no study that says old age is the cause of the loss of ships (well, they can’t even if they make a study because actually one big cause of the mishaps is navigational errors and some ships were lost while not sailing like a force majeure caused by a typhoon and accidents in shipyards or while doing afloat ship repair or ASR). Now after a stalemate where MARINA can’t force its way it seems they simply passed the (golf )ball to Secretary Tugade’s club who I suspect can be influenced but does not know shipping. I don’t think he is even aware that culling 35-year old ship will mean cutting up approximately half of our short-distance and overnight ferry-RORO fleets which are very essential in bridging our islands by moving cargo, people and vehicles. These sectors are actually more important than the liners and the container ships as they connect ports that are beyond the reach of their Manila-based counterparts.

If half of our RORO fleet outside the liners and container ship is suddenly discarded there would definitely be a shipping crisis of major proportion. Some shipping firms like George & Peter Lines, VG Shipping, J&N Shipping, Southern Pacific Transport, Denica Lines, JVS Shipping, Aurelio Shipping, CSGA Ferry, Millennium Shipping, Milagrosa J Shipping and the Camiguin ferry companies will suddenly end up defunct for they will lose all their ferries. And some shipping companies will only retain one ferry out of a former fleet. Actually ferry companies in Cebu province will lose more than half of their ferries and there is no need to emphasize the importance and weight of Cebu shipping to the country. The would be like that of 1986 (or even worse) when we severely lacked ferries because so many shipping companies collapsed in the crisis spawned by the Aquino assassination and the former “FS” ships also gave out because of old age (but unlike now the old ships are not expiring yet because of advances in metallurgy and technology and the availability of replacement engines). I thought the current administration is seeking growth. Is killing ships the way to do that? Replacing nearly 200 ferries is never easy. Can anybody guess how much will that cost?

I have always wondered why in our government the decision-makers in transport are the ones who do not ride them. Like in shipping I wonder if Secretary Tugade ever rode a scheduled ferry for I know he is a certified landlubber from Cagayan province. That is also true in buses and jeeps; the decision-makers also don’t ride those. These decision-makers do not really know their fields inside-out and yet they decide its fates and maybe it is only the whispers to their ears that count. I thought when I was still studying that it should be the experts that should decide and not the political hacks. It has been a long time already when our Cabinet was dominated by technocrats or those who really studied their fields. In the US most of the men in Cabinet are there because of political connections. But at least they know when to bring in and to consult the experts. Not here because for a long time already those who feel and act like they are the “experts” are the politicians, the media people and the bishops when actually they practically know nothing and true experts are just used as decoration.

We only have just over 300 ferry-ROROs (there are also a few cruisers and true motor launches but our liners is just over a dozen). So that means we are practically just talking about overnight ferries and short-distance ferries in this issue. Add to that a little over 40 HSCs (High Speed Crafts) too. The others are Moro boats, motor boats and motor bancas which are too numerous to count (they are much more than in numbers than our steel-hulled crafts) and should not be included here (anyway practically none of them are over 35 years old, amazingly). In the ROROs, the LCTs are included.

If 35-year old ferries are to lose licenses the following will have to be sent to the breakers (or be converted into cargo ships if cargo ships over 35 years old will not be culled but the freighter Fortuner breaking into two recently after loading with steel bars will not help their case):

Montenegro Lines/Marina Ferries: Maria Angela, Maria Beatriz, Maria Diana, Maria Erlinda, Maria Gloria, Maria Helena, Maria Isabel, Maria Josefa, Marie Kristina, Maria Matilde, Maria Rebecca, Maria Sofia, Marie Teresa, Maria Xenia, Maria Yasmina, Maria Zenaida, City of Sorsogon, City of Masbate, City of Tabaco, City of Calapan, Maria Timotea, Reina del Rosario, Reina Genoveva, Reina Hosanna, Reina Neptuna and Reina Quelita. A total of 26 ferries and fastcrafts. The four whose names start with “City” are fastcrafts. Hernan Montenegro will cry a bucket of tears and expect Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to fight like hell against the bill in Congress.

Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC): Super Shuttle Ferry 1, Super Shuttle Ferry 2, Super Shuttle Ferry 3, Super Shuttle Ferry 5, Super Shuttle Ferry 6, Super Shuttle Ferry 9, Super Shuttle Ferry 15 and Super Shuttle Ferry 23. A total of 8 ferries.

Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI): The new Trans-Asia that is not yet finished, Trans-Asia 2, Trans-Asia 9, Trans-Asia 10 and Asia Philippines. A total of 5 ferries.

Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI): Filipinas Iligan, Filipinas Butuan, Filipinas Iloilo, Filipinas Maasin, Filipinas Dapitan, Filipinas Dinagat and Filipinas Dumaguete. A total of 7 ferries.

Roble Shipping: Wonderful Stars, Joyful Stars, Theresian Stars, Beautiful Stars and Ormoc Star. A total of 5 ferries. Add to this the Asian Star and Asian Star II which were the former Blessed Star and Sacred Stars sent to Theresian Stars shipping company.

Lite Ferries: Lite Ferry 1, Lite Ferry 2, Lite Ferry 3, Lite Ferry 6, Lite Ferry 7, Lite Ferry 8, Lite Ferry 15, Lite Ferry 20 and Lite Ferry 21. A total of 9 ferries.

Island Shipping: Island RORO I, Super Island Express I, Super Island Express II, Super Island Express III, Island Express II, Island Express III and Island Express V. A total of 7 ferries although I doubt the existence of some now.

Medallion Transport: Lady of Love, Lady of All Nations, Lady of Miraculous Medal, Lady of Sacred Heart, Lady of Charity, Lady of Guadalupe-Cebu and Lady of Angels. A total of 7 ferries and I am not even sure the Lady of Good Voyage will survive.

Aznar Shipping: Melrivic 1, Melrivic Two, Melrivic Three, Melrivic Seven, Melrivic Nine and their fastcrafts.

George & Peter Lines: GP Ferry-2, Zamboanga Ferry and Georich

Gabisan Shipping: Gloria Two, Gloria Three, Gloria V

Jomalia Shipping: Mika Mari, Mika Mari III, Mika Mari V, Mika Mari VI

Maayo Shipping: LCT Giok Chong, LCT Martin, LCT Wilcox

Cuadro Alas Navigation: Santander Express, Santander Express II, Santander Express IV

GL Shipping: GL Express and probably GL Express 2

J&N Shipping: J&N Carrier and J&N Ferry. Ubay will suddenly lose its connection to Cebu.

Southern Pacific Transport: South Pacific and Fiji-II

VG Shipping: VG RORO II and VG 1.

Rose Shipping: Yellow Rose

Maypalad Shipping: Samar Star

Lapu-lapu Shipping: Lapu-lapu Ferry 1

Golden Star: Anluis

Metro Ferry: Princesa (but not Carmen Uno)

PAR Transport: Leonor 3 and probably Leonor 5

R&D: Lady Star (this is laid up)

Orlines Sea-Land Transport: Siquijor Island 1

Sta. Clara Shipping/Penafrancia Shipping: Hansel Jobett, Mac Bryan, Nathan Matthew, Don Benito Ambrosio II, Don Herculano and Eugene Elson. A total of 6 ferries.

Regina Shipping Lines: Regina Calixta IV

168 Shipping: Star Ferry-II

Denica Lines: Marina Express and Odyssey

Province of Camarines Sur: Princess Elaine (a fastcraft)

Kalayaan Shipping: Kalayaan VII

Rolly Fruelda: Elreen 2

Tour-cruise ships of Manila: Pacific Explorer, Eco Explorer, Discovery Palawan, 7017 Islands, Oceana Maria Scuba

Atienza Shipping Lines: April Rose

JVS Shipping: D’ASEAN Journey, D’Sea Journey

Aurelio Shipping: San Carlo Uno

Quincela Shipping: Q-Carrelyn VII

Starlite Shipping: Starlite Annapolis, Starlite Ferry, Starlite Navigator and Starlite Polaris. A total of 5 ferries.

Besta Shipping Lines: Baleno VII

Navios Shipping Lines: Grand Unity and Grand Venture 1

CSGA Ferry: Princess Annavell

Tri-Star Megalink: LCT Tabuelan Navistar

Millennium Shipping: Lakbayan Uno and Millennium Uno

Milagrosa J Shipping: Milagrosa J-3 and Milagrosa J-5

Aleson Shipping: Estrella del Mar, Stephanie Marie, Neveen, Danica Joy, Ciara Joie, Ciara Joie 2. A total of 6 ships.

Ever Lines: Ever Queen of Asia, Ever Queen Emilia, Ever Transport, Ever Sweet, Ever Queen of Pacific. A total of 5 ships.

Magnolia Shipping: Magnolia, Magnolia Grandiflora, Magnolia Fragrance

Evenesser Shipping/Ibnerizam Shipping/Sing Shipping: Bounty Cruiser, Jadestar Legacy, KC Beatrice

Province of Tawi-tawi: Tawi-tawi Pearl 1, LCT Tanah Tawi-tawi

ZDS-ATOM FSA: LCT Mabuhay

Sarangani Transport: Song of Dolly-3

Mae Wess/CW Cole: The Venue, LCT Nicole II Starferry

KSJ Shipping: Fortune Angels

Philstone Shipping: Yuhum, Kalinaw, Royal Princess

Davemyr Shipping: Dona Pepita

Hijos de Juan Corrales: Hijos-1

Daima Shipping: Swallow I and Swallow II

Ocean Fast Ferries: Oceanjet 7

A total of about 187 steel-hulled ferries to be culled including a few fastcrafts. Again, Moro boats (whose number is about 130 plus), motor boats, motor launches (like most of the crafts of Metro Ferry) and passenger-cargo motor bancas, big and small are not included. Anyway almost all of them will survive as the local-built, wooden-hulled crafts are generally below 35 years old in age (few wooden-hulled crafts reach 35 years of age).

In my database about 250 steel-hulled ferries will survive including over a dozen liners and more than 3 dozen HSC plus a sprinkling of Medium Speed Crafts (MSCs) like the two Anika Gayle ships (this count does not include the FastCats). If liners, HSCs and MSCs are not included (but the FastCats are included) so the comparison will be basically ferry-ROROs (that are not liners) then about 180 will be culled and about a little less 200 will survive (very few of the 180 and 200 are cruisers like the Georich and Yellow Rose). So that means killing nearly half of our ROPAXes.

If the plan to cull 35-year old ships is immediately implemented one sure response will the be multiplying of LCTs from China (not the local LCTs as basically those are not people carriers although some can and will be converted and the bulk of them are less than 35 years old). Will they call the transition from ferry-ROROs to passenger-cargo LCTs as “progress”?

If ships that are not ferries will not be culled then many of the ferries that will be culled might be converted into Cargo RORO ships that will not carry passengers like what happened to Trans-Asia 5 (but she is too beautiful as a comparison). People then will have to find alternate means of transport. Maybe the intermodal buses will mushroom. Or probably the Camotes motor boats like the Junmar ships will multiply. Otherwise there is our trusty motor banca to take. But I thought they want to phase that out too including the motor boats? Again, will they call that as “progress”?

I imagine for the remaining ferries, passenger loads of 100% will be a daily common occurrence, peak season or not. Maybe the ticket scalpers will return too to make a living. And it will matter a lot if one knows a crewman of a ship. Or better yet one of the owners. But if I talk of shipping of the 1980’s, will Secretary Tugade understand? I am sure he has no understanding of the shipping difficulties of that period.

Do MARINA and Secretary Tugade think that passengers are that important to the shipping companies? Those in the know knows that is not so and shipping companies can live by cargo and rolling cargo alone and that is the reason why the Cargo RORO LCTs are thriving. If the bill is passed I imagine the likes of Roble Shipping will just be doing cargo and rolling cargo basically plus maybe two ROPAXes to Ormoc and Hilongos, their prized ports and that will also include their freighters and Cargo RORO LCTs. I don’t think Secretary Tugade knows that the bulk of the sailing ships of Roble Shipping is not into passengers (and that includes their freighters). So in the end it will be the passengers that will really suffer. 

I wonder if Secretary Tugade knows some of the ships he wants to cull are actually re-engined now and some do not have any history of trouble and are still very good condition like the sister ships Filipinas Iligan and Filipinas Butuan. In other countries they base renewal of ship papers on technical inspection and not in some kind of arbitrary cut-off in age. As pointed out by the ship owners and PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society), there is no mandatory retirement of ships in other countries and the IMO (International Maritime Organization) has no protocol on that (gusto yata mas magaling pa tayo sa kanila; mahilig din naman ang Philippine bureaucrats sa hambog). For the haters of old ships to say there is such a thing is just a bald lie and they resort to that because they have their own vested interest. Now what they want is a legislative fiat which is clearly anti-competition.

Give exclusive routes to the new ships? To where? To Sabah and Indonesia? Does Secretary Tugade think he can simply dissolve the franchises held by the shipping companies? It seems that Secretary Tugade is also applying into the Impunity Club a.k.a “What Are We In Power For” Club. It can smash a ship owner’s head like a golf ball.

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A very good ship that is over 35 years old (Photo by Jonathan Bordon)

The current dispensation is saying that former Secretaries Roxas and Abaya left a lot of mess in transport. Do they want their own mess too?

Time Will Come The LCTs Will Take Away The Business Of The Container Ships

It was a friend of mine who worked as trusted man of someone high up in shipping who told me that MARINA has set it just to 30 or 35% load for a container ship to be profitable. I was aghast by that because that will mean terrible inefficiency and high rates for the shippers. That was twenty years ago and in that same time span our local shipping industry has been under attack for very high rates and it has been pointed out that from Davao it is much cheaper to send a container van to Hongkong or Singapore which are much farther than Manila. But even after two decades there has been no change in the situation of the industry. If there was, it is the rates went up geometrically higher. And of course that was unacceptable but our bureaucrazy only acts to change things if there is already an imminent revolt.

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Intermodal trucks for loading in BALWHARTECO Port in Allen, Samar

As they say water seeks its own path and one cannot hold or bottle it forever. One big response by shippers that I saw was in the widespread deployment of intermodal trucks that use our highways and then boards short-distance ROROs at the end of the road and then continue on to the next island. The intermodal truck might then still board another short-distance RORO to another island. I found out there are even trucks whose origin is Mactan island which are bound to Manila and will traverse Cebu island, Negros island, Panay island and Mindoro island before landing in Batangas port. And of course intermodal trucks from Manila or CALABARZON find its way to Davao regularly and there are some that reach as far as Zamboanga.

Consolidation” of the local cargo shipping industry especially the container sector has long been proposed by experts both local and foreign. But it has fallen into deaf ears and the national government will not wield the proverbial stick to make this come true and so it lays until now where it started, that is as proposals. “Consolidation” would have led to greater efficiency and thus lower rates. But locally, businesses and not only shipping wants to see efficiency not to lower rates (of course, they will pay lip service to that) but to higher profits. And so greed rules and trumps everything and the higher national interest and greater good do not matter in the end.

Our different shipping companies are republics of their own and historically they have never been into cooperation, consolidation or merger (except the “Great Merger” which produced WG&A and which had been a disaster to local shipping) even though some are related by blood. If there has been a CISO (Conference of Inter-island Ship Owners) in the past, it is only because they want to present a common front vis-a-vis the government and also to make sure that the agreed rates are being observed by all (however, in other countries that will ruled as “cartelization” and subject to penalties or even jail terms; but not here as that term is practically unknown and even Economics teachers here do not know that). Oh, well, actually the cartel master locally is MARINA which sets the rates. Historically, they set the maximum rates but like what happened to LTFRB they treat the maximum rate as also the minimum and MARINA in the end serves just the needs of the shipping companies and not the general public. But before it be misconstrued that they are servile to shipping companies, the truth is shipping companies fear MARINA as their livelihood and fortune is dependent on the decisions of MARINA. If the rates are drastically brought down then they might all go down.

That is the reason why the shipping companies will fight toe and nail for the retention of the Anti-Cabotage Law which bars foreign shipping companies from sailing local or inter-island routes. If the Congress (which has the power to repeal the Anti-Cabotage Law) allows the entry of the much more efficient and capable foreign ships then local cargo rates will drastically go down but our local shipping companies will drown. Regarding the Philippine Competition Commission (PCC), that entity will not amount to anything in shipping because that only checks mergers and mergers are a near-impossibility in shipping.

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LCT Raenell of Asian Shipping Corporation in Mandaue

And so shippers and other related interests will find new ways to bring down rates some other way. One of these is the employment of the cheap and cheap-to-operate LCTs which has only 1,000 horsepower on the average which is just about a third of the power of the container ships. True, they will probably only run at about 7 to 8 knots compared to the 11 to 12 knots of the container ships. So they will take three days to Cebu where a container van will only take two days. But, hey, the bulk of cargo is not express anyway and a difference of one day will not really matter, in the main. Nowadays if one really wants it fast one takes to the plane and use air cargo which is P20/kilo at the lowest now.

It is through the use of chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation that Ocean Transport had their start. Using big LCTs (by local standards), 94 TEUs can be fitted with the container vans stacked like Lego and handled by big forklifts. The LCTs cost P70,000 a day, fuel and crew included and so the transport cost one way is just over P200,000 not including cargo handling in Manila and possible cargo handling in Cebu. Plus of course other labor, office, yard and anciliary costs and maybe insurance. Under the table money, I have only the vaguest of ideas. But in this calculation one can see the movement of a TEU to Cebu via chartered LCTs is just P4,000, starting. That will not be the actual rate but one can see how low it is via LCT when the normal commercial rate for a TEU to Cebu is probably 5 times of that. The LCT might have just a capacity of 94 TEUs and the container van has 300 TEU but if they are only a third full on the average then the actual load of the two is just about equal and the LCT has probably only has a third of the horsepower of the container ship. The LCT usually has about 100% load. So it is very easy to see which is more efficient and why an LCT can give much, much cheaper rates.

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Roble Shipping was the next to follow the shipping model of Ocean Transport and like the first they were also very quiet about it. Maybe the two fear that if it becomes known widespread that the LCT mode is successful some shipping companies will lobby MARINA and MARINA will institute a crackdown and maybe cite “safety” again which is the usual bogey of MARINA. It has been a long time that the LCTs, being flat-bottomed and not that resilient against capsizing has been tagged with safety issues. It does not help either that being open-decked and having a low freeboard some issues were also attached by some to those. [Note: Ocean Transport and Roble Shipping now operates their own LCTs regularly carrying container vans from Manila to Cebu.]

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LCT Akira of Ocean Transport by John Carlos Cabanillas

The longest route I have seen LCTs bring container vans regularly is from Manila to Cagayan de Oro. And so locally it is proven now that LCTs can be container carriers for 500 nautical miles. I do not know if they are capable of Southern Mindanao routes which is up to 800 nautical miles but I think they can do it if needed. Of course, LCTs are normally earlier to seek shelter than container ships when there are storms. But if MARINA and the Coast Guard suspends voyages at 45kph wind speed then the container ships might not have an advantage anymore.

The LCTs are looked down upon by many but they should know that China which is already the biggest shipbuilding country in the world and is already a shipping power widely uses LCTs to move their cargo internally and on shorter distances. Actually most of our new LCTs now are from China and many came here brand-new. In terms of age, our LCTs might be younger than our container ships now. And LCTs are the backbone of our Cargo RORO LCT fleet which not only move trucks but also trucks and trailers bearing container vans especially to islands that are not served well by container ships like Bohol, Leyte and Samar.

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LCT PMI-3 from Leyte

If MARINA won’t crack down, I see intermodal trucks and LCTs further taking away the business of the container ships which is still growing in number but I know their cargo volume is not increasing. Consolidation would have been easy for them if they will just open their eyes and be open-minded and it does not mean that they would have to merge, an anathema to many executives as that might mean losing their positions and careers that they have built over the years. Actually the simplest consolidation is the swapping of container vans. There is no container company that has daily departures even from Manila and the simplest is they should load their containers to their partner shipping companies which has the nearest departure. That will mean ships being fuller and at the end of the month they can reconcile their figures and charges would have to be paid for the difference but of course it should be on friendship or partner rates.

With that, less ships might have to be employed, there would be less sailings and that would have to mean savings that should be passed on to consumers if they have any integrity. With consolidation too there might be enough containers vans to ports and islands that they have already abandoned or bypassed and so the container ships can come back there and sailing level might be maintained (now isn’t that neat?). Internationally, this system I mentioned is already being used and not only in shipping. I don’t see any valid reason why the local shipping companies can’t do it. It will only be impossible if their distrust of each other is too much and their owners and executives are too obtuse. The national government should also wield the stick after incentives are laid out. They can even set the rules and the system. It is high time already as for the past two decades after constant criticisms I have not seen our local container companies try to bring down container rates to acceptable world standards. They are just being kept afloat by the blood of the shippers. And that is why forwarder companies are making great strides and container shipping is just where they were two decades before. That is also the true reason they won’t venture out to foreign waters because they simply cannot compete. Regarding their charge that our ports are too shallow that is baloney because much bigger foreign ships use the same major ports that they do.

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LCT Poseidon 15 in Verde Island Passage

I wish the LCTs well for maybe it is them that will be able to bring down container rates even though they might not look modern or beautiful. If they drown the container ships then it is the fault of the container shipping companies themselves.

The 150-meter RORO Liner Class Might Not Really Have Been Fit For Philippine Waters

When the Filipina Princess of Sulpicio Lines, all of 180 meters length arrived in our shores in 1988 it was really a wow! moment. There has never been a liner really like her before and she beat the 4,000 plus gross tons ships, the biggest liners then by a wide mile by her 13,500 gross tonnage. In length she was about 50 meters longer than the previous record holder, the Dona Virginia of William Lines. And she was no slouch, not the slightest bit as she can sail at 26 knots full trot and thereby smashing to smithereens the old record of 20 knots variously run by Sweet Faith, Cebu City and Dona Virginia.

I mentioned Filipina Princess not because she was a 150-meter RORO liner but because I think she was one seminal reason why the greatest liner class appeared in Philippine waters and these were the 160-meter and over liners. To a sense the lesser class of 150-meter liners was a consolation class since 160-meter liners are rare and easier to procure were the 150-meter liners. The Filipina Princess “pushed the boundary” and combined with the reasons of pride, one-upmanship and bragging rights, the other shipping companies felt the pressure to match her. And soon shipping companies serving the Manila-Cebu route had the greatest of our liners in the 160-meter class and over.

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One effect of that is the thought that 150-meter RORO liners are “fit” to serve the main secondary routes and ports like Iloilo, Cagayan de Oro, Zamboanga, General Santos City and Davao. And therein lies my question. This might have been true when we lacked liners in the second half of the 1980’s and first half of 1990’s. This was the time when demand and travel was going up since our economy was recovering from the greatest economic crisis since World War II. And this came from the deadly-for-shipping decade of the 1980’s (specifically its first half) when a lot of liner companies went under and we consequently lost a lot of liners. Add to that that the former backbone of our liner fleet, the ex-”FS” ships were going one by one to the breakers as they have already hit 40 years of service and were already clearly obsolete and having reliability problems already.

Our first response then was to acquire liners in the 100-meter and 110-meter class. Many of the latter actually were maxed in passenger capacity up to 2,000 persons and over and it can fill it then for simply there was really a lot of passengers as our liner companies and liners were practically halved if compared to the baseline year of 1980. So then getting 120-meter, 130-meter and 140-meter liners in the early 1990’s was understandable. The passenger capacity did not really increase by much in these liners but the available passenger areas definitely increased along with the amenities that soon they were marketing these as “floating hotels” and Aboitiz Shipping Corporation even have the position “Hotel Manager” aboard the ship, a professional one and not really a mariner. The “Hotel Manager” was in charge of all things related to serving passengers from the cabins to the bunks and “beddings” down to F&B (food and beverage) and the general cleanliness of the ship including the T&B (toilet and bath). Once upon a time that job when it was still simple was just handled by the ship Purser who also purchase the goods needed by the ship but when the “floating hotels” came that was centrally purchased already and needs of the ship was just replenished in port and decided by a shore-based shipping department which were not mariners in general. This time graduates of hotel and restaurant management were beginning to penetrate the liner industry and more and more passenger service were no longer the responsibility of what was derisively called as “mga tagamasahe ng bakal” (literally, “masseurs of steel”).

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Hotel Manager’s office

A 135-meter or 140-meter ship was already capable of accommodating over 2,000 passengers plus about 100 TEUs of container vans. Wasn’t that enough as capacity for the secondary liner ports? Well, apparently the shipping companies did not think so. Not maybe out of capacity but out of speed. You see, in the main, the 130-meter and 140-meter liners were only capable of sustained cruising speeds here of 17.5 to 18 knots. In the main too, it was only the 150-meter, 20,000-horsepower liners which were capable of 20 knots sustained. That time with the fetish on speed when the fuel was not still that expensive (there was no 9-11 World Trade Tower attack yet which provoked the unending wars of the USA in the Middle East and Afghanistan which raised fuel prices), it is as if 20 knots is already de regueur on the primary and secondary routes. 130-meter and 140-meter liners (and some 120-meter liners too) generally has only 13,500 to 16,800 horsepower so they can’t really run at 20 knots. If there were 120-meter, 130-meter and 140-meter RORO liners also capable of 20 knots the reason is because they have engines of 20,000 horsepower too. Examples of these were the SuperFerry 1, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ezekiel Moreno, Princess of the Ocean and the Our Lady of Lipa. It is really the total horsepower that produces the speed.

Then from 1995, when the liberalization and ship importation program of President Fidel V. Ramos was already in full swing, a lot of 150-meter, 20,000-horsepower RORO liners and over came and it went on up to the next decade. And the tail end of this binge was the arrival of the four sister ships which became locally known as SuperFerry 20, SuperFerry 21, St. Michael The Archangel and St. Francis Xavier which were 150.9 meters in length and equipped with 25,200-horsepower engines and capable of cruising speeds of 20 knots here except for the St. Michael The Archangel. But were they really necessary?

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St. Michael The Archangel by Jonathan Bordon

The answer might not lie in Sulpicio Lines. They acquired their last liner in 2004, the Princess of the Stars, the biggest-ever ferry to sail here but she was just a statement of the company that they want the biggest and the best liner for maybe the replacement Princess of the Universe to the lost Princess of the Orient was not good enough to be the absolute best, a distinction Sulpicio Lines really wants for themselves alone. Previous to this their last purchase was the Princess of New Unity in 1999. In this ship and the Princess of the Stars, Sulpicio Lines did not try to max the passenger capacity any longer and both were sub-2,000 passengers in capacity. It seems Sulpicio Lines read earlier than the other shipping companies the weakening of passenger demand with the coming of the budget airlines and intermodal buses. But they were strong in cargo which was really where the bulk of the income of the liner companies come from. Imagine a revenue of P17,000 from a 20-footer to Davao in 1995 when an Economy accommodation only gives them about P850 and they still have to provide three square meals a day for at least two-and-a-half days, bunks, hotel services and security to the passengers while they only have to lift and roll the container vans.

Negros Navigation’s purchase of 150-meter RORO liners also did not last long because they soon found themselves with more ships than routes and passengers. It was actually WG&A and later Aboitiz Transport System which purchased many 150-meter (and over) RORO liners. It is from them that one will think that liners below 150 meters are already passe but it seemed they never knew that.

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SuperFerry 15 by ‘superferry crew’

In the early 2000’s Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) also felt passenger demand on liners were already weakening. That is why with the acquisition of the SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 they did not try anymore to max the passenger capacity and instead they let it that TEU capacity is high with the creation of two-level wagon decks as they called them. Aboitiz Transport System was then stressing express cargo and it was the SuperFerry liners that can fill that role and not their container ships which can sail at barely over half the speed of the SuperFerries. Their system was so good that forwarder companies like LBC was using their container vans to move parcels and cargo that were declared as “air cargo” and charged as such (well, they also roll express vans – trucks that roll in the road, that is). With their reliance on SuperFerries, WG&A, the predecessor company of ATS did not invest anymore in newer container ships. What it did was actually to sell their better container ships and so the SuperRORO series of container ships became history.

So WG&A and Aboitiz Transport System (successor company to WG&A) continued to acquire 150-meter RORO liners when ship passenger ridership was already weakening. They might have reason — the express container van trade. But mind you, the freight rates of WG&A and Aboitiz Transport System was actually higher than competition for they can promise shorter delivery time and short enough for forwarder companies with express parcel services to use and deceive customers. It were no longer the passengers the reason for this but the cargo.

When Aboitiz Transport System opportunistically sold SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 when ship prices were high suddenly, Aboitiz Transport System then had to charter container ships (which can’t run 20 knots) and converted three of their other liners to have two wagon decks, the SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 9 and SuperFerry 12 and so their passenger capacities were also halved (actually more than halved) along with the passenger amenities and space. By this time Negros Navigation was into a court-administered recovery program and just running a few liners after their bout of illiquidity and soon Sulpicio Lines was practically out of passenger shipping along with the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI), MBRS Lines and Moreta Shipping. Aboitiz Transport System had the narrowing (not wide) liner shipping industry practically for themselves except for some resistance from Negros Navigation.

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St. Francis Xavier by John Carlos Cabanillas

Now 2GO, the merger of ATS and Negros Navigation which happened when the latter bought out the former, operates an all-150 meter and 160-meter liner fleet after they sold their older liners (and there is no other liner company left). All can sail at 20 knots or close to 20 knots if needed except one plus the former Cebu Ferries overnight ships which are just used on short routes. Even with passenger capacity of just over 1,000 on the average most of the time they can’t fully fill up these 150-meter liners and nor in cargo as their second wagon decks are practically empty most times except for a few sedans.

If they operate these 150-meter liners on smaller cities and ports it will result in operational losses and that is the reason why they pulled out of lesser ports like Surigao, Tagbilaran, Dapitan, etc. The 150-meter liners were too big for them and they can’t assign the former Cebu Ferries vessels there because they are too small, the distances are too great and they lack the speed of liners and are better suited to the routes they are currently assigned to. That is the disadvantage of 2GO not having liners in intermediate range like the 120- or 130-meter liners before. And that is the misfortune of passengers and shippers in the lesser cities and ports. They now have to have alternate ways to travel or ship and they were given free by ATS and 2GO to the budget airlines and intermodal buses and trucks. Otherwise, some became passengers of the overnight ships and the short-distance ROROs for a connecting voyage to Cebu.

I wonder why 2GO kept on insisting on 150-meter liners with two cargo decks which they can’t fill. They are basically paying the penalty of the 25,000 horsepower of these ships when they can’t also fill the passenger bunks. 2GO can’t even cite the speed of these ships now because their voyages are almost always late in departures as they give priority to cargo and their cargo handling in port is no longer as fast as before and they are a little fond of midnight cargo handling where operations are more dangerous and slower.

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Panglao Bay 1 by Mark Ocul

Can’t they see that their 150-meter liners with such gross horsepowers are passe already? Those are no longer fit for the times, in my eyes. Moving 1,000 plus passengers can be done by lesser liners as shown before with maybe just half of the 25,000 horsepowers of the 150-meter liners. With more modern transmission, 10,000 horsepower engines will already do now and its speeds will just equal the 18 knots these 150-meter liners are doing now. In my mind, the Panglao Bay 1 and Dapitan Bay 1, new Cargo RORO ships of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. would have been fit if employed by 2GO and modified like the coming third Trans-Asia (1) of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, Inc.

I just hope the coming new management of 2GO (I can’t discuss any other liner company as they are the only surviving now) will focus well on their liner need and come up with better-fitting liners and with a mix that will make them cover more ports and routes and in a more efficient manner.

The Super Shuttle RORO 12 and Its New Route

Last April 30, the RORO Cargo ship Super Shuttle RORO12 of the Asian Marine Transport Corporation or AMTC participated in a very notable ceremony, the inauguration of the new Davao-General Santos City-Bitung route. I do not know when was the last time two Heads of State were present in the Philippines for a shipping inauguration. If there was one, it was eons ago. But right after the ASEAN Summit, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia came to Davao City for the inauguration. President Jokowi of Indonesia was even accompanied by her wife, the First Lady of Indonesia Iriana Widodo. I thought wow! that was the importance given on the opening of the route connecting the southern Philippines with eastern Indonesia. And the host of AMTC in Davao City, the Kudos Port was that lucky to have the presence of two Presidents. Wow, how lucky was Mr. Johnny Ng, the owner of the port. The inauguration might be “The Event” of his successful business career.

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And the ship Super Shuttle RORO 12 was also very lucky. Imagine all the photos and videos of her not only in media but also the social media. That goes true too to Kudos Port and its owner. Both the ship, the port are now famous and not only in Davao City. And then just past the narrows of Pakiputan Strait, the Super Shuttle RORO 12 met the China PLAN flotilla which is in a world tour and which picked Davao City as the first port of call. I do not know if that is auspicious but what a timing! It seemed a lot of attention was on Davao City that day and Super Shuttle RORO 12 was part of all that.

Viewing, talking of Super Shuttle RORO 12, I always have charged emotions. Many do not know but she is not a new ship in our waters for in 1994 she came to William Lines as the ROCON I. When she came she became the biggest cargo ship in the whole country, bar none. She was then the pride of William Lines and justifiably so. During the time she came, William Lines was in a battle to keep pace with Aboitiz Shipping and Sulpicio Lines which were both ahead of her in container ships before ROCON I arrived.

But when she arrived I had the thought, “Can ROCON I be fit for local routes or is she meant to do Far Eastern routes?” The reason behind that thought is ROCON I was much larger than the container ships in the country which is just about 90 meters or 100 meters in length and ROCON I was 160 meters in length. Even compared to the Ramon Aboitiz and Vidal Aboitiz of Aboitiz Shipping which were built in Ukraine, she was significantly bigger. And I thought “Is ROCON I the William Lines slam dunk a la Filipina Princess and Princess of the Orient of Sulpicio Lines?” When those two grand liners of Sulpicio Lines came in 1988 and 1993m they were much larger than the liners of the competition. And now ROCON I was just like those two.

I noticed the name “ROCON” was a play on the characteristics of the ship which is “RORO” and loads container vans. Before she came most the container ships in the country load and unload “LOLO”, an acronym for “Lift On, Lift Off”. That means in loading and unloading booms are used to lift the container vans. Meanwhile, ROCON I is a true RORO Cargo ship true. There are no cargo booms and container vans are hauled into or hauled off the ship. This means the container vans are aboard trailers that are pulled by prime movers. This system is actually faster in loading and unloading but trailers are an additional capital expense and there can’t be maximization like in LOLO ships where container vans are stacked with practically no wasted space.

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In Europe, the origin of ROCON I, RORO Cargo ships carry all types of vehicles crossing the seas from sedans to trucks to trailers. Since the load are vehicles then ramps are needed as access to the different car levels. Aside from ramps as access to the port, the RORO Cargo ships have car ramps connecting the various level and up to the sun deck. Sometimes lifts or elevators are also used. So even though ROCON I is a big ships in TEU her capacity is only 500. She was certainly not the first container ship with ramps here as the very first container ship of William Lines, the Wilcon 1 has a ramp and operates ROLO which means she has cargo booms at the front and a car ramp at the stern for combined RORO and LOLO loading and unloading. The Wilcon 4 of William Lines also has a RORO ramp and so do the Sinulog of Escano Lines but what really sets apart ROCON 1 is she has no booms and that is actually a leap of faith for William Lines as not much cars and trucks are loaded locally and for a ship to just carry 500 TEUs on 6,500 horsepower, the ratio does not seem to be too good.

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The ROCON I was built as the Mercandian Gigant for Nolis in 1984 by Frederikshavn Vft in Fredirikshavn, Denmark. Her name was already a giveaway to her size and she measured 160.5 meters by 22.3 meters with a gross register tonnage (GRT) of 15,375 tons. In those days those measurent were already very big (nowadays, container ships of over 200 meters are already common). Mercandian Gigant has a design speed of 16 knots from 6,500 horsepower from a single MaK engine. The ship was already equipped with the modern bulbous bow. Of course, she has only a single funnel.

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The lift. The mezzanine is at the background.

Inside the ship has three RORO decks for vehicles plus a mezzanine for cars aside from the top or sun deck which is also used for loading vehicles. Ramps connect the different levels and lifts are also employed. Like most RORO Cargo ships there is a tower at the front which accommodates the crew and the drivers of the vehicles and the bridge at the top. There are cabins for the drivers with its own toilet and bath and there are drawing rooms and a common galley which in layman’s word is the kitchen and restaurant of the ship (the term “galley” comes from the earlier centuries). Drawing rooms are the lounges of the ship and the officers have a separate drawing room. 

In 1995, ROCON I came to the Philippines and William Lines as mentioned before. She really seemed too big then for the route to Cebu. The ship did not sail long for William Lines because the “Great Merger” that produced the William, Gothong & Aboitiz or WG&A shipping company came on January 1, 1996 and she became the SuperRORO 200 in the new company. The next year the ship was sold abroad. And that was one thing I cannot understand about WG&A. They were able to accumulate a few good container ships that do not look like general-purpose cargo ships like the bulk of the Wilcons, Sulcons, Lorcons and Aboitiz Concarriers but instead of maintaining the routes to Hongkong and other ports in the Far East what WG&A did instead was to withdraw from foreign routes and surrender to the foreigners. What happened next was only foreign ships were carrying our container vans with the probable exception of Eastern Shipping Lines. While withdrawing from foreign routes what WG&A did was also to bully the smaller shipping companies in the country and in some cases that resulted in the collapse of the weaker shipping companies.

Of the ships we sold aboard it was ROCON I which first came back and that was completely unexpected as ships sold abroad never come back. The only other ship to come back here was the former SuperFerry 16 which became the St. Therese of Child Jesus of 2GO. So when the former Amirouche came here in 2015 to become the Super Shuttle RORO 12 I was shocked when the IMO Number (which is IMO 8222733) told me she was the former ROCON I. I was able to visit her in AMTC Pier 8 days after she arrived. I asked Yangyang Rodriguez, a high officer of AMTC if she was a former ship here and it seems he played coy with me. But of course IMO Numbers don’t lie and that is the beauty of it. Very easy in tracing a ship but MARINA, the local maritime administrator doesn’t use that because they insist on their own ship identification number which is useless in tracing ships.

Amirouche, the last name of the ship was refitted and she became the Super Shuttle RORO 12, the last big RORO Cargo ship so far of AMTC. She did not have a permanent route like the other RORO Cargo ships of the company. Sometimes she would come to Davao.

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Docked off Davao before inauguration

The news came of the planned inauguration of the Davao-General Santos City-Bitung (Indonesia) route. Two weeks before the planned inauguration Super Shuttle RORO 12 was already waiting in the southern Davao anchorage in Pakiputan Strait. She was obviously newly painted. I imagine her interiors were spruced up too. Who can tell if the two Presidents will board the ship together with their First Ladies and other dignitaries? And two days before the inauguration she was already docked in Kudos Port. Maybe top officers of AMTC was already around to make sure all goes well. I am also sure the Presidential Security Group (PSG) checked every nook and cranny of the ship and practically sealed it.

I was surprised by the choice of the Super Shuttle Ferry 12 for the route as she is a big RORO Cargo ship and the route to Bitung is just starting. This route was already in the news for the last four years or so and nothing came out of it. Once I was told the route is already off because, “Bawal ang bigas, bawal ang asukal, bawal ang (cooking oil). E, ano na lang ang ikakarga namin?” There is really a very strong protectionist lobby because if we will follow the zero tariff ASEAN scheme we will be flooded by goods from our neighbors because they are more efficient, their labor and fuel costs are less and so their consumer goods are cheaper. Many Filipinos and even the educated ones don’t know that the prices of our basic goods is well over the world market price. That is why so many Filipinos are poor and they can’t even buy the basic necessities.

Now I wonder what changed that the route is on again. As usual the media is next to clueless. All they can say is the route is a boon to something (basta me maisulat lang). We have talked before to the Purser of Pelita Harapan, a big wooden motor boat that once had a Manado-Davao route. He said we have salable goods to Indonesia and that is what they carry like plywood, construction supplies, flour and Coca-Cola which are all produced in Davao. He said the equivalent goods that come from the industrial area near Jakarta is more expensive because of the distance. There are many Indonesia products that can be traded in Davao but because of quantitative restrictions (QRs) and denial of permits it will treated as “smuggling” here. That is the sad system and wrong understanding of “free trade” here. What they say as “free trade” is actually restricted trade.

The media and bureaucrats say that instead of container vans from Davao going the roundabout way to Indonesia via Manila and Jakarta (Tanjung Priok), the direct route will be cheaper. I don’t know who is fooling whom with that. There is practically no trade between southern Philippines and eastern Indonesia because “free trade” is regarded as “smuggling” and that was the previous viewpoint of Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. He didn’t want cheap rice, oil and sugar from Indonesia (that is why I am asking now what changed). If there was really significant trade that would have been visible in general-purpose ships. But actually it is hard to track them because MARINA cannot implement also the IMO requirement for AIS (Automatic Identification System) which is used track ships.

Actually what might happen is goods meant for eastern Indonesia will use General Santos City and Davao as intermediate ports (both these ports host foreign container ships regularly). So instead of the container vans offloaded in Tanjung Priok which is farther it will be offloaded in the two Philippine ports and supposedly there should be savings in cargo rates (but that is assuming there is enough volume).

I guess AMTC fielded only a big and good ship for the inauguration for pomp and effect. I do not think there is enough volume to sustain the Super Shuttle RORO 12. If needed be, AMTC has the smaller Super Shuttle RORO 14 and Super Shuttle RORO 6 (if it is running) for that.

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Super Shuttle RORO 12 on the way to Bitung

It is funny some are fooled by media that Super Shuttle Ferry 12 will accommodate passengers and some government officials echo that and even cited tourism. But the RORO Cargo ships of AMTC are not allowed to carry passengers. Did something change too in this regard? Bitung is the bigger port in that part of Sulawesi and the bigger city is Manado but its port is small. There was once a Davao-Manado plane but it was discontinued for lack of passengers. Even the Pelita Harapan is gone now and it was a Davao-Manado ship mainly used for cargo (and to repatriate Filipino prisoners in Indonesia). Pelita Harapan can carry cargo but not fuel for sale. Madidiskubre kasi na mura ang fuel sa Indonesia.

I wish Super Shuttle RORO 12 well. But let us just see what will happen to this new trade route.