The Legacy of the Surplus Ships From Europe

After World War II, the passenger shipping companies in the Philippines started almost from scratch as the ships they had before the war were almost all lost by scuttling or through war actions (mainly by aircraft bombing and through gunfire). Like before the war, not all passenger shipping companies were created equal. Some of the old shipping companies had a faster start because war surplus ships were given to them as reparations for the lost commandeered ships (pressed into service for the Allied war effort). The most prominent among those are the vessels of shipping companies Compania Maritima, De la Rama Steamship, Manila Steamship, Philippine Steam Navigation Company (a postwar merger of the Everett Steamship of the US and Aboitiz Shipping), Madrigal Shipping and Escano Lines, all established and politically well-connected shipping companies. The owner of Compania Maritima was a Senator of the Republic, the General Manager of De la Rama Steamship was a son of the former President and the founder was a former Senator, the owner of Manila Steamship was a funder of presidential campaigns, Everett Steamship was an American company which were always supported by the State Department of the USA, the owner of Madrigal Shipping was a Senator of the Republic and it was only Escano Lines which might not be on the level of the six others in terms of political connections but their history anteceded Aboitiz Shipping and was Aboitiz Shipping’s partner before the war in the shipping company La Naviera.

But some other shipping companies which were not established shipping companies before the war had enough money and political connections to be able to also get war surplus ships given to the Philippine Government by the US Government as an aid in jumpstarting the economy. Among these were General Shipping Company (which was owned by several elite families who were funders of national campaigns and were aides of the top politicians), Southern Lines Inc. (owned by the gentility of Western Visayas and the President then was from that region), William Lines Inc. (owned by a powerful and influential Congressman) and Bisaya Land Transport (owned by a Senator of the Republic). That was the secret then of establishing a shipping company fast. One must be a heavyweight in his own right and one must be full of clout to be able to get preferential treatment from the government. And since Chinoys were not in this mold then they were left out in this race except for one (that is William Chiongbian of William Lines). The ability to get US war surplus ships generally determined the pecking order of the shipping companies in the first years after the war, the so-called “Liberation Time”.

Lanao

An example of an ex-“FS” ship. Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library.

Some other companies might not have been so fortunate in acquiring surplus ships and so in order to grow, they had to be good in finding war surplus discards and buying the ships of the shipping companies that were weak and on the verge of quitting. The most prominent examples of these were the growth of Carlos A. Gothong & Company and Sweet Lines Inc. which both started with regional shipping operations and became national liner shipping companies by buying the routes and ships of national shipping companies that quit (Pan-Oriental Shipping for Gothong and half of General Shipping Company for Sweet Lines). Moreover, some shipping companies also lengthened former “F” ships so it will be on the same size as the former “FS” ships. Carlos A. Gothong & Company was good in this regard. Their first flagship when they became a national liner company, the Dona Conchita was actually a lengthened “F” ship.

Dona Conchita

An example of a lengthened “F” ship. Research by Gorio Belen in the Nationa; Library.

The war surplus ships then were preponderantly ex-“FS” ships which were formerly freight and supply ships by the US Army in the Pacific theater of war. There were also some of the bigger “C1-M-AV1” type and similar types like the Type “N” ships which were bigger cargo ships of the US Navy in World War II and used in the ship convoys transporting war material and supplies in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Along with them were the former “Y” ships which were former tankers and related to the “FS” ship in design and the small “F” type, many of which were lengthened and were almost as numerous as the ex-”FS” ships plus an assortment of former minesweepers and PT boats (but note the US also burned a lot of PT boats off Samar thinking they were useless with its gas-guzzling engines).

Mindanao

An example of a former “C1-M-AV1” ship. Research of Gorio Belen in the Nat’l Library.

Initially, aside from US surplus ships, a few big and wealthy shipping companies also sourced ships from Europe after the war (there were plenty of cheap ships then there that were released from war convoy duty). Among the local shipping companies, three stood out for having the capability to acquire ships from Europe after the war. These were the Compania Maritima, the Manila Steamship (or Elizalde y Compania) and Madrigal Shipping which were in the top tier of shipping companies before the war. All of the three were owned by top-ranking industrialists with plenty of high political connections and all the way to Malacanang. Moreover, they all already had the experience of acquiring ships from Europe even before the war. The owners of Compania Maritima, the biggest shipping company then in the country were even dual Philippine and Spanish citizens and they were able to buy a few good cargo-passenger ships from Europe which were just a few years old and almost new.

Meanwhile, the ship acquisitions from Europe of Manila Steamship and Madrigal Shipping consisted of really old ships and especially the latter. These were being disposed of because there was really an abundance of much better and newer war surplus ships then at ludicrously low prices (there was no longer a war after all). The three mentioned shipping companies used ships purchased from Europe to augment their fleet of war-surplus ships from the US.

And it then resulted in fleet augmentation alright, their aim. For Compania Maritima, it was enough to vault them to the very top which was their old position before the war. For Manila Steamship and Madrigal Shipping, that move brought them to the rank of majors, just like their position before the war, too. However, their fleet quality was not the same like before the war when they really had good ships in the main. That was the setback caused to them by the order to scuttle the ships in the war. The main replacement ships given by the US to them which were mainly ex-”FS” were nowhere as good as their prewar ships as the replacements were cargo ships in origins and not purpose-built liners (Madrigal Shipping also received ex-“Y” ships aside from ex-“FS” ships). These replacements were also smaller than the lost prewar ships and so they were simply shortchanged by the US . In the main, Manila Steamship and Madrigal Shipping were not given the big ex-“C1-M-AV1” ships which were mainly reserved for Everett Steamship, a US company operating in the country like a national and because of the so-called “Parity Rights”.

The other companies whose ships were also lost in the war like Escano Lines and Aboitiz Shipping also received just ex-“FS” ships as replacements for their good liners before the war. Meanwhile, the smaller shipping companies before the war like the regionals mainly received former “F” ships, former minesweepers and former PT boats as replacements for their lost ships in the war.

Meanwhile, the De la Rama Steamship which was also very well connected politically had a good fate, shall we say. The National Development Corporation (NDC) gave them three big brand-new ships on charter. Aside from that, two big ships of them before the war were also returned to them plus two big war-surplus “Type C1-B” ships were also given to them. Additionally, three ex-“FS” ships plus three ex-“F” ships were also handed to them. And that is aside from four ex-liners they also acquired from abroad. With this fast replacement of their lost fleet (and in size, they rivalled Compania Maritima, the old No. 1), I am wondering if this is somehow connected to former President Sergio Osmena Sr. not contesting seriously his election rivalry against the winner President Manuel Roxas.

Don Isidro

The Don Isidro of De la Rama Steamship lost in war action.

These war surplus ships plus a few surplus European ships were basically enough for our local shipping needs after the war and for the next 15 years and those were augmented by local builds which were mainly wooden-hulled motorboats (batel or lancha).

But one-and-a-half decades after the war, it was already apparent there was already a need to augment our passenger shipping fleet which then consisted almost entirely of war surplus ships from the US. There were ships lost at sea plus our economy has already grown including the population. The whole of Mindanao was finally conquered and ships were needed to connect it to the rest of the country especially southern Mindanao which needs a lot of ships to run a regular schedule. With the general growth of population and the rise of production, the passenger and cargo capacities of the small surplus ships from World War II were no longer enough even though the Philippine President Lines came in 1959 with the last war surplus ships released by the US Navy.

Galaxy

The most prominent ship released by the US to Philippine President Lines. Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library.

And so a lot of additional ships had to be acquired as lengthening of the former “FS” ships was no longer enough. And in the 1960s there were no longer war surplus ships available in the market. The last batch released by the US in 1959-61 already went to different owners including our own Philippine President Lines (PPL) which was a newly-established shipping company then.

In fleet augmentation which was already needed then, a good source has to be found. Japan was not yet a good source of surplus ships then because they still needed their ships for their postwar economic boom. If ships have to be sourced from them, it would have to be ordered brand-new. And the US was also not a good source either because their liners were simply too big. And so Europe was the only possible source (if the ships are surplus) especially Scandinavia which was shedding their older ships and France which has already lost its colonies in Africa.

There were shipping companies that tried augmenting their fleet by ordering brand-new ships locally, from Japan and West Germany using loan windows provided by the government. But from the middle 1960s to the early 1970s, the surplus ships from Europe were more numerous. And the biggest reasoning was that for a brand-new ship, two or three surplus ships can be acquired and thus the capacity and revenue are far greater. Although surplus, it was assumed they will last as long if it was still in good condition and Europe is known for quality.

Why were surplus ships favored by more shipping companies compared to the brand-new? Well, brand-new ships are more expensive to acquire and thus for one brand-new ship, two or three surplus ships can be acquired. If the ratio is one to one, the brand-new ship will take longer to amortize. Moreover, with the subsequent devaluation of the peso in 1962, more pesos were needed to pay off a loan taken to acquire a ship and that will hinder further acquisitions (and President Diosdado Macapagal made sure of that by devaluing the peso in 1962 upon the advice of the US). Surplus or brand-new, the carrying capacity and revenues of the ships are the same (that of the surplus ships from Europe might have more capacity as they were bigger than the ones ordered brand-new and with no less speed except for those ordered by Compania Maritima). Actually, those with surplus ships were the ones that are in a position to offer discounts or rebates which was decisive in cornering cargo. Supposedly, the discounting of rates was “illegal” but it was actually rampant (and were actually sidestepped by the shipping companies on the way up).

Aside from leading Compania Maritima which continuously sourced ships from Europe, five shipping companies joined the trend in purchasing second-hand ships from Europe for conversion here into passenger-cargo liners. These were  Gothong & Company (the old undivided company), Sweet Lines and William Lines, three Chinoy shipping companies working its way up the shipping totem pole plus the new and unknown Dacema Lines. Additionally, the old Madrigal Shipping Company also acquired a ship from Europe during this period. This will be the focus of this article. [However, may I note that Escano Lines did not acquire a surplus ship this period but they acquired three brand new ships, two from West Germany and one from Japan].

The surplus ships from Europe were significantly bigger and faster than the backbone then of Philippine passenger-cargo shipping, the former “FS” ships and the lengthened ex-“F” ships. These ships were generally from 80 to over 100 meters in length and they usually have speeds of 13 to 16 knots. In speed, these ships from Europe were a better fit for the Southern Mindanao routes and its bigger capacity afforded dockings in many in-ports along the way thus making the voyage more profitable.

Sweet Love

An example of a surplus European ship. Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

Other advantages of these European surplus ships compared to the US war-surplus ships were also in comfort and accommodations because as former cargo-passenger ships in Europe they already have passenger accommodations and amenities right at the start and all that was needed in the main was to add Economy passenger accommodations. Also, many of them were already purpose-built liners right from the start and that means more comfort. Additionally, with the former refrigerated cargo ships, it was sure they already had refrigeration and air-conditioning from the start, the marks of a luxury ship hereabouts then.

Sweet Faith

A purpose-built liner from Europe. Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

These ships began arriving in the Philippines from 1963 to the early 1970s when it stopped because we already had a new supplier of surplus ships which was Japan. In total, some 30 ships from Europe came to the Philippines during this period and that is about half of the total ex-“FS” ships we had then. But since these European ships are bigger in gross register tonnage (GRT) which is the measure of a ship’s size, the two types were just about even in capacity. Even if the other war surplus ship types are considered, still the local fleet capacity almost doubled since we also ordered brand-new ships from various sources during this period including from Europe. So that is how the surplus European ship expanded the capacity of our passenger-cargo fleet in the 1960s.

Visayas

An example of a brand-new passenger-cargo ship from Europe. Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

Carlos A. Gothong & Co. was the biggest buyer of surplus ships from Europe with a total of 10 ships but that does not even include some big cargo-passenger ships that they basically used on the ocean-going routes to the Far East and West Germany (but those have limited passenger accommodations). The new national liner company Sweet Lines acquired seven ships from Europe while the venerable Compania Maritima purchased six ships from Europe during this period. William Lines also purchased four ships from Europe (plus two brand-new ships from Japan) during. A new shipping company, the Dacema Lines also purchased two ships from Europe and the old Madrigal Shipping Company also purchased one.

The ex-Europe ships of Go Thong:

  • Gothong (a.k.a. Dona Pamela), built 1950 in Sweden, first known as Cap Gris Nez, acquired in 1963, 88.8m x 12.4m, 14 knots design speed. Once a flagship of Go Thong.
  • Don Arsenio (a.k.a. Tayabas Bay), built 1950 in Denmark, first known as Tekla, acquired in 1965, 110.0m x 14.0m, 14.5 knots design speed.
  • Dona Helene (a.k.a. Don Alberto), built 1950 in France, first known as Atlas, acquired in 1967, 95.4m x 14.0m, 13 knots design speed.
  • Dona Rita, built 1949 in France, first known as Tafna, acquired in 1967, 95.3m x 14.0m, 15 knots design speed. Sister ship of Dona Helene.
  • Don Lorenzo (a.k.a. Dona Julieta), built 1951 in West Germany, first known as Liebenstein, acquired in 1968, 105.1m x 14.2m, 16 knots design speed.
  • Don Camilo, built 1951 in West Germany, first known as Lichtentein, acquired in 1968, 105.1m x 14.2m, 16 knots design speed. Sister ship of Don Lorenzo.
  • Dona Gloria, built 1947 in West Germany, first known as Colombia, acquired in 1969, 85.9m x 11.6m, 13 knots design speed.

Two of the ships from Europe contracted by Go Thong from its agents were actually not built in Europe but were ex-World War II US-built cargo ships that were in Europe  with the original names Cape St. George (which became Subic Bay) and Cape Arago (which became Manila Bay). The two were acquired in 1966 and these were Type “C-1A” ships with external measurements of 125.7m x 18.3m and a design speed of 14.5 knots. The two were used in transporting the Lu Do, Lu Ym coconut products to Europe and the Far East [and the two were assisted by the Sarangani Bay, an NDC-owned repossessed ship from De la Rama Steamship].

In 1972, an additional last ship for them also arrived from Europe, the Dona Angelina which was the former Touggourt which was built in France in 1950. This ship measured 91.4m x 14.0m with a design speed of 13.5 knots.

Among the liner companies then, it was Go Thong that relied the heaviest on ex-Europe ships which they fielded in their major routes especially in their Southern Mindanao routes which they then began to dominate.

The shipping company with the second-most ships from Europe during this period was the new national liner company Sweet Lines with seven. The company needed those to beef up their fleet as they were a new national liner company. One of these was ordered brand-new.

The Sweet Lines ships from Europe:

  • Sweet Bliss, built in 1953 in Denmark, first known as Broager, acquired in 1967, 92.5m x 13.3m, 13 knots design speed.
  • Sweet Grace, built 1968, acquired brand-new, 88.8m x 12.8m, 15 knots design speed. She became the flagship of the company.
  • Sweet Life (a.k.a. Sweet Dream), built in 1950 in Denmark, first known as Birkholm, acquired in 1969, 92.4m x 13.3m, 13 knots design speed. Sister ship of Sweet Bliss.
  • Sweet Faith, built in 1950 in Denmark, first known as P. Prior, acquired in 1970, 104.0m x 14.9m, 20 knots design speed. She was the fastest liner then when she was fielded.
  • Sweet Lord (a.k.a. Sweet Land), built in 1951 in Denmark, first known as Ficaria, acquired in 1972, 101.1m x 14.0m, 14.5 knots design speed.
  • Sweet Love, built in 1952 in Denmark, first known as Primula, acquired in 1972, 101.0m x 14.0m, 14.5 knots design speed. Sister ship of Sweet Lord.
  • Sweet Home, built in 1957 in Italy, first known as Caralis, acquired in 1973, 120.4m x 16.0m, 18 knots design speed.

Compania Maritima already acquired three ferries from Europe from 1949 to 1951. Those three were the best then in the fleet of the company and helped it secure the No. 1 place in the pecking order of liner companies after the war (except for a brief period when De la Rama Steamship challenged them). But the three will not be counted in this topic as they were not reinforcements from Europe in the 1960s when there were no longer war-surplus ships available in the second-hand market (aside from those later released by the US Navy starting in the late 1950s many of whom went to the newly-established Philippine President Lines).

The ships from Europe acquired by Compania Maritima from Europe in the 1960s (two of these were ordered brand-new):

  • Visayas, built in 1963 in West Germany, acquired brand-new, 117.0m x 16.4m, 16 knots design speed. This became the flagship of the company then.
  • Guimaras, built in 1957 in France, first known as Sidi-Aich, acquired in 1964, 98.6m x 14.9m, 16.5 knots design speed.
  • Filipinas, built 1968 in West Germany, acquired brand-new, 121.0 x 18.1m, 18 knots design speed. This became a flagship of the company and was the biggest and fastest liner when she was launched.
  • Isla Verde (a.k.a. Dadiangas) built in 1957 in France, first known as Kitala, acquired in 1969, 109.5m x 15.4m, 16 knots design speed.
  • Leyte Gulf, built in 1957 in France, first known as Foulaya, acquired in 1969, 113.4m x 15.5m, 17.5 knots design speed.
  • Mindanao, built in 1959 in West Germany, first known as Hornkoog, acquired in 1970, 134.6m x 16.1m, 18 knots design speed.

Aside from the six, Compania Maritima also acquired two former ocean-going ships (which were sister ships) from De la Rama Steamship in 1965 which were charted from the National Development Corporation (NDC). These were the Lingayen Gulf (the former Dona Alicia) and Sarangani Bay (the former Dona Aurora). They measured 153.7m x 19.7m with a design speed of 17 knots and built in Japan.

The ex-Europe ships of William Lines:

  • Virginia, built in 1943 in Sweden, first known as Fylgia, acquired in 1966, 102.9m x 13.6m, 14 knots design speed. She became the flagship of the company. She was also known as Virginia IV, Dona Virginia, Dumaguete City, Dumaguete and when she was converted into a container ship she was known as Wilcon VI.
  • William, built in 1948 in Sweden, first known as Ragunda, acquired in 1966, 103.3m x 13.6m, 14 knots design speed. She is the sister ship of Virginia. She was also known as Misamis Occidental, Misamis and Zamboanga City.
  • General Santos City, built in 1956 in Denmark, first known as Blenda, acquired in 1972, 89.4m x 13.0m, 13 knots design speed.
  • Tagbilaran City, built in 1956 in Denmark, first known as Bellona, acquired in 1972, 89.4m x 13.0m, 13 knots design speed. Sister ship of General Santos City. She was known as Wilcon IX when she was converted into a container ship.

Take note that William Lines also acquired two brand-new ships from Japan during this period.

The ex-Europe ships of Dacema Lines:

  1. Demeter, built 1950 in West Germany, first known as Falke, acquired in 1966, 82.8 m x 12.0m, 12 knots design speed.
  2. Athena, built 1950 in West Germany, first known as Adler, acquired in 1967, 82.8 m x 12.0m, 12 knots design speed. Athena and Demeter are sister ships.

The ex-Europe ship of Madrigal Shipping:

  1. Viria, built 1948 in Sweden, first known as Viria too, acquired in 1965, 52.4m x 8.7m, 12 knots design speed.

There were other ships sourced not from Europe but from the British Commonwealth during this period but I just decided to exclude them because they were just about four in number. Most of these belonged to the new shipping company KL Lines which soon gave up.

If one will check the schedules of passenger-cargo ships entering the 1970s, the ex-Europe ships were very dominant in Southern Mindanao while the ex-“FS” ships were sailing up to Northern Mindanao only with just some exceptions  (meanwhile, Negros Navigation which has the most brand-new ships in number was content in just protecting their Western Visayas turf). The new growth area then of Southern Mindanao was no longer for ex-“FS” ships with its lack of speed, capacity, amenities and vulnerability to typhoons (they have to seek shelter earlier and that ruins schedules). Former Southern Mindanao runners, the bigger war-surplus ex-“C1-M-AV1” and ex-“N” ships proved to be less rugged and were not even good for 25 years and so were already out of the equation before the 1970s got going. And so the additions from Europe became the key especially in growth area battles and when liners generally speeded up (the 10 knots sailing speed of the big and small war surplus ships was no longer enough).

Actually, the lack of the bigger and faster ex-European ships precluded other shipping companies from challenging in Southern Mindanao which happened to be the biggest growth area then of the country because of the big influx of settlers and the opening up for exploitation the natural resources of the island. Such their routes ended in Northern Mindanao only, if at all they reached Mindanao because there were shipping companies that sailed up to the Visayas only especially those which continued to rely on ex-“FS” and lengthened “F” ships only.

And so after a decade of ex-European ships coming (roughly in 1972, just before the breaking up of the old Go Thong into three whipping companies), the pecking order of the national liner companies changed. Compania Maritima was still on top but barely as their ship losses from accidents hit them hard. Go Thong which was not a national liner company before the war was already crowding them at the top if they haven’t surpassed Compania Maritima already. PSNC + Aboitiz which had integrated operations was still big with many ships but their fleet consisted mainly of war-surplus ships from the US and are already old although they were still trying to fight in the Southern Mindanao routes (but not up to Davao). The three might be the first tier then although Aboitiz Shipping which will soon absorb PSNC because of the ending of the “Parity Rights” is fast falling.

The second tier might consist of William Lines and Sweet Lines in near parity and just a little below the first tier. Note that Sweet Lines was not even a national liner company some seven years before but the surplus ships from Europe buoyed them up. They have already eclipsed Escano Lines and General Shipping, Philippine Pioneer Lines (and its successors Philippine Pioneer Lines and Galaxy Shipping) and Southern Lines were already gone from the inter-island routes. At this time De la Rama Shipping was just in ocean-going shipping and they acted as local agents for the foreign shipping companies whose ships are sailing here. Madrigal Shipping was already in its sunset and Manila Steamship was gone even before the European surplus ships came in force. Of course, Everett Steamship was also gone too because the “Parity Rights” which allowed them to sail here was already abrogated. Negros Navigation while healthy might just be in third tier all alone. And the fourth tier will consist of so-many small liner companies to Bicol, the Eastern Visayas and the current MIMAROPA now plus Northern Lines, Dacema Lines and KL Lines which all have routes up to Davao.

And so at the start of the 1970s, the biggest shipping companies were those which bet big in Southern Mindanao (especially General Santos City and Davao City) with their surplus European ships (the brand-new ships ordered from abroad were actually not present in Southern Mindanao except those of Compania Maritima). Some shipping companies had new ships but only a few in number and that was not enough as a route to Southern Mindanao to be maintained needs two ships alternating because roundtrip voyages need two weeks. Two ships are needed to maintain a weekly schedule and more if there are many voyages in a week to Southern Mindanao. And that is where the wisdom of buying two or three surplus ships from Europe versus a solo brand-new ship paid off.

Among the shipping companies that were not among the Top 4 (the first tier) in the mid-1960s (and that consisted of Compania Maritima, PSNC + Aboitiz Shipping, Go Thong and William Lines), it was only Sweet Lines and the combined Gothong Lines + Lorenzo Shipping (after 1972) that challenged in Southern Mindanao (the latter used a former brand-new ship acquired from Southern Lines and the other was the Dona Rita from Go Thong, their share in the partition of the old undivided company). Add to that the small Northern Lines, Dacema Lines and KL Lines which all did not last long.

The other shipping companies never entered Southern Mindanao like Escano Lines, Negros Navigation, Southern Lines, General Shipping, Philippine Pioneer Lines (the local successor of Philippine President Lines; and that includes successors Philippine Pioneer Lines and Galaxy Lines)  and Gothong Lines (when Lorenzo Lines split from them) as maybe the route was too taxing, their fleet size was not enough and they don’t have the proper ships. Aboitiz Shipping which was the successor to the Philippine Steam Navigation (PSNC) vessels was still a Southern Mindanao player in the 1970s but gradually they withdrew as they were already losing to the competition as they didn’t actually the proper ships anymore and their fleet was already growing old (what they soon rolled out were not passenger-cargo ships but container ships to Southern Mindanao).

But playing for Southern Mindanao was a critical factor then for the survival of the shipping companies as their business was already under pressure from many quarters and reasons from the 1970s (increased fuel prices, devaluation of the peso, competition from other modes of transport, local wars and other instabilities among others). It was still the area where people are still migrating in, there is still farmland to be opened (and grabbed from the natives) and land concessions were still being awarded to powerful and influential people. There was practically no road from Northern to Southern Mindanao and so the ships were still needed in the latter.

For those that did not play in Southern Mindanao and in Mindanao as a whole, the consequence was soon apparent when they were slowly defeated in the shipping competition and left in the wake or sank in the water. Shipping companies like General Shipping, Southern Lines and Philippine Pioneer Lines disappeared in the local shipping, some were weakened like Bisaya Land Transport and the other minor Eastern Visayas companies till they eventually died too, Gothong Lines practically just became a regional and the small liner companies eventually succumbed too. Some disappeared later from passenger shipping altogether like Escano Lines and Aboitiz Shipping became a ghost of its former self.

Who were the winners in these differing approaches, i.e., brand-new versus surplus ships?  It was actually those that stressed on buying second-hand ships from Europe especially Carlos A. Gothong & Co., William Lines and Sweet Lines if growth will be the basis of the comparison. In due time the three reached the rank of majors when two decades earlier they weren’t near that rank or were just regionals (and the other majors before them all sank except for Aboitiz Shipping which struck gold in container shipping). The surplus ships they purchased from Europe generally lasted 15-20 years (and some were even converted to container ships), just a little lower than the local brand-new ships) but more than enough to recoup their initial investment. However, although Compania Maritima also acquired surplus and brand-new ships from Europe, they also lost because they were bleeding ships from accidents and when Martial Law came they altogether stopped buying ships. The only exception was Negros Navigation which became stronger with brand-new ships and surplus from Japan plus they have a stranglehold in Negros Occidental.

And that was how important were the ex-European ships in our shipping history. They determined the pecking order in local shipping as soon as they arrived in numbers and they were a big factor in determining which will thrive and which will not survive.

 

Advertisements

On The 11th Anniversary of the Capsizing of MV Princess of the Stars

Before the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) was founded, I already wrote two articles about the capsizing of the Princess of the Stars in another forum/website, that of our college student organization. I would just want to share it here, warts, errors and all so that means no revisions of any kind.

The first one:

MV Princess of the Stars: In Memoriam

November 11, 2008






The ill-fated MV Princess of the Stars, as pictured above, is no rust-bucket. In her former life in Japan, she was the revered “Ferry Lilac” of the Shin-Nihonkai Line plying the Honshu-Hokkaido route. One of four sister ships (ships based on the same design so they look identical), she was built in 1984 by Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries (IHI), a respected shipbuilder. Her dimensions were 185.72 meters length and 29.4 meters width with a depth of 14.5 meters and a volume capacity of 23,824.17 gross tons. Its 2 Pielstick diesel engines produce 26,400 horsepower.

She was the biggest passenger ship ever to ply the Philippine waters. Her sister ship “Ferry Lavender” which reached Greece a few months after she reached the Philippines in 1984 was the biggest-ever Japanese ship to be used in Greece. The four sister ships were much-awaited by international buyers when news surfaced that they would be sold by their Japanese operators.

But, whatever the origins of the ship is, she is only as good as the crew and the shipping company that operates her.

In this regard I fully agree with the Maritime Industry Authority [MARINA] edict that Sulpicio Lines should first hire an international ship management agency before it is permitted to fully sail again in Philippine waters.

(Photo credit: skyscraper)

The second article (but was written earlier right after Princess of the Stars was lost):

The Blame Game and Other Musings

July 13, 2008

It was 14 years ago when my attention was first caught by a sea tragedy.  One of the ferries that we use to ride to Mindoro, the Kimelody Cristycaught fire resulting in the loss of lives.  When the heat was intense (no pun intended), the Governor of Mindoro Occidental joined those who were condemning Moreta Shipping Lines, the owner of the vessel.  It did not matter that they were friends.  It also did not matter that Moreta is just an upstart shipping line (and probably undeserving of kicking) trying to break the stranglehold of the combined Viva Shipping Lines/Sto. Domingo Lines/D.R. Shipping who were lording it over the Mindoro routes with predatory pricing and suspected sabotage against competitors. (Well, SuperCat of Aboitiz Shipping Corp. used to keep overnight its catamarans inside a holding pen with underwater extensions and with floodlights and armed roving guards to boot in Calapan, Oriental Mindoro, away from the Batangas City base of the 3 shipping lines of “Don” Domingo Reyes, the supreme warlord of Bondoc Peninsula, Quezon; after all the competitors of the Domingo trio used to have one “accident” after the other).  It also did not matter that Kimelody Cristy was the best ship plying the Mindoro route and that the fire was an accident (LPG tanks that are part of the cargo exploded, triggered by welding activities; to the uninitiated, welding activities as part of maintenance work is normally done while a vessel is sailing).  Charges of “floating coffin” and “rust bucket” abounded as if all ships that meet accidents are not seaworthy.  Accidents are operational hazards. We do not easily call a bus that met an accident a “rolling coffin” nor a plane that crashed as a “flying coffin”.  I note that most media people and politicians that make attacks after a marine accident do not ride ships (let’s take away those photo-ops activities of politicians and bureaucrats because that is not real-world sea travel). Moreta became a punching bag maybe because it cannot afford a platoon of high-priced lawyers and PR practitioners.

A few years later the Dona Marilyn sank in a storm in almost the same circumstances as the sinking a few weeks ago of the Princess of the Stars.  The Dona Marilyn left Cebu City under a storm Signal # 2 (yes, it was allowed then, when Signal #2 typhoons were stronger than current Signal #2 typhoons) and it intended to proceed to Tacloban City towards the direction of a typhoon that was shortly expected to intensify to Signal # 3.  Against the pleadings of some of the passengers, the captain of the ship proceeded reasoning he will seek shelter somewhere if the seas become too rough (one must understand that old captains are veterans of this “seeking-shelter” strategy since they were products of the small ships of the ’60s; the remnants of these ships still ply the Cebu-Bohol routes so one can still see their size or lack thereof and its design). As fate would have it the elements literally tore into Dona Marilyn.  The tarpaulin covers of the sides of the ship was not able to contain the rain and wave surge (folks, don’t worry ’cause big ships nowadays have cabins), deluging the inside of the ship causing it to list (to tilt on its side). Even though the passengers helped in baling water, it went to no avail ’cause soon the engine of the ship conked out (one must suspect it became inundated in water).  A ship without power in a typhoon is practically a dead ship since it can no longer maneuver.  Many lives were lost in that tragedy.

The Board of Marine Inquiry ruled the sinking as “force majeure” (?!!?).  Sailing into the storm and it is declared a “force majeure”???  Maybe, as the say, “Tell it to the Marines”!  Now with a probe where some congressmen are more content in questioning PAGASA (makes on wonder where their loyalty is; anyway it won’t probably matter in the next elections because their constituents do not ride ships and maybe so because they probably come from Luzon; but I doubt the wisdom in appointing in an investigating body someone who do not ride ships just like the question put forward by the newspaper Malaya editor-in-chief against the DOTC Undersecretary who is the government pointman in the Princess of the Stars tragedy), the investigation might just turn into a blame game. Through the ticket it is still possible to see the canniness of the Sulpicio attacks against PAGASA and its labeling of the accident as an “act of God”.  Are the “motions to inhibit” against some independent-minded Board of Marine Inquiry members a prelude to another verdict of “force majeure”?

When the Dona Paz burned and sank in a collision with the tanker Vector(thus putting us on the world map of marine disasters because of the size of the casualty) and Dona Marilyn sank in a storm, the Sulpicio Lines changed the names of its ships from the Dons and Donas to Princesses (as in Princess of the Stars).   But it seemed there was no change in their “luck” as the Princess of the Orient and Princess of the Stars sank in storms and the Princess of the World and Philippine Princess both burned (the latter in anchorage).  Well, I do not think that “luck” is an essential thing in navigation.  If it is then the study of it must be mandated as part of a naval curriculum and degree but it is not.

It was 1995 when I first rode a “Sacrificio” (a.k.a. Sulpicio) ship (yes, it is the monicker of Sulpicio Lines just as “Gutom Shipping” is the monicker of Gothong Shipping Corp. [so Gothong made sure then that its passengers are well fed, but not now]).  I noticed a picket line inside the company premises in the North Harbor.  “Claimants” (daw) against Sulpicio in the Dona Paz sinking.  But porters and cigarette vendors told me they were not legitimate claimants but unscrupulous persons out to fleece Sulpicio Lines with bogus claims.  That incident made me think and research.  After a few years of riding ships of Dona Paz‘s size during the Yuletide rush, i no longer believe the claim that up to 4,000 passengers died in that accident (the company admitted 1,568).  No way that a ship intended for 1,518 passengers will be able to take in more than double its capacity.  It is not just a question of passenger space but also the capacity of the ship to take in all those people (folks, meals in local inter-island ships are, in general, free so all of them will want to be fed during meal times).  But the bad thing is we became the world record-holder in the number of casualty due to a peacetime ship sinking.

Fighting all the way in courts is a grim battle for the families of the victims.  Searching the Net, it seems it takes more than 20 years before a final decision is reached at the Supreme Court level (so probably the idea of the Chief Justice to set up a maritime accident court makes sense).  And I think if the reasoning of the Sulpicio Lines is it’s a force majeurethen probably it will reach the highest Court if one intends to claim to claim the full extent of damages against Sulpicio Lines.

On other hand, I also bemoan the knee-jerk reaction of government functionaries that mandated that under Signal #1 ships irregardless of size cannot sail. It will just create a lot of stranded passengers. Passengers will lose, bus companies, truck companies and shippers will lose.  The only winners will be the vendors and eateries in the port terminals.  Now I wonder what kind of economics is that.  It only betrays the ignorance of land-bound people in government who regulates ships but do not ride ships. It is not even proven at this point nor will it ever be proven that laxity in regulations led to the Princess of the Stars‘ sinking.  Maybe it was just plain recklessness combined with poor navigation and making the passengers and shippers pay for this is just a lot of hassle and pure lack of common sense (well, I forgot our government was never ever known for good common sense).

 

I do not see in these modern times why sailing restrictions for sea vessels are still governed by the typhoon signal when in my experience for sea people including fishermen the more important measurement is the wave level.  All we hear at the forecasts disseminated by the media is the wind speed measured in kilometers per hour and typhoon direction and speed when also part of the forecast is the wave height which is far more important when one is at sea especially during the night.  Also I wonder why PAGASA is now the de facto final arbiter in the sailings when everybody knows the level of forecast of PAGASA is just at the province or island/island group level.  It cannot define in real-time a local weather condition like if it is still safe to cross  San Bernardino Strait or Lagonoy Gulf or Ticao Pass/Black Rock Pass (in the Net, several weather forecasts and satellite pictures are always available and in real-time).  A re-tooled Coast Guard might be able to do a better job since its units are scattered in all the ports (after all, they are tasked with clearing the sailings of the vessels) and they can visually see the roughness of the sea and gauge the strength and direction of the wind (and I thought in earlier times there were coast watchers). Comparing it to air travel, it is still the local airport and the Air Transport Office (ATO) that declare the airport closed for landings and take-offs, not PAGASA.

In the last typhoon (“Frank”), PAGASA forecasted wave heights of 10-14 feet while other international weather agencies forecasted wave heights of up to 18 feet (in general, PAGASA’s wind speed and wave height forecasts are lower than the international weather agencies’ forecasts).  Does anybody need a translator how strong a sea is that?  And wave heights of up to 10 feet are sometimes forecast in Mindoro waters even when the storm is still in Samar, especially during the southwest moonsoon period when the seas are rougher.  With the advent of cell phones and the the general availability of phones, the government should make clear to all localities how strong the waves are when there is a typhoon so as to prevent the sinking of fishing boats which are also part of the sea casualties in a typhoon (in the last typhoon over 20 fishing boats sank resulting in over 1,100 dead and missing which is higher than the Princess of the Stars‘ casualty, aside from a few cargo ships sunk).  Preventive measures should be done because for all the hullabaloo about conversion to GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress Signal System), the simple truth is that our Coast Guard personnel will not venture out to sea under storm conditions just to save your ass.  Remember it was fishermen in small fishing boats who were first on the scene of the Princess of the Orient sinking because as one said in an interview he simply cannot bear the sight of a lady being swamped by big waves.  Does one need to be reminded who were first on the scene of the Princess of the Stars‘ sinking?

In the final analysis, to put things in the proper perspective especially for those who don’t travel by ship, the chances of getting killed in a road accident is still far higher than getting killed in a ship accident although the chances of getting killed in a plane accident is much slimmer than both.

[To be fair to Sulpicio Lines, let it be said that its main competitor WG&A (the SuperFerries) with about the same number of ships has about the same rate of mishaps in the same period. SuperFerry 6 burned off Batangas and SuperFerry 7 burned in anchorage.  SuperFerry 14 burned off Corregidor (not due to Abu Sayyaf according to Malacanang but everybody knows the truth and this is probably a true case of force majeure if acts of sabotage are such).  SuperFerry 12 was involved in a collision with San Nicholas (a wooden-hulled ship locally called a batel) in Manila Bay resulting in the sinking of the latter.  To this total, the collision and sinking of Cebu City (a William Lines ship) in Manila Bay just before the merger of 3 major shipping companies that resulted in the creation of William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) should also be include since this happened after the Dona Paz and Dona Marilyn sinkings.  WG&A and its passengers are just more fortunate that these mishaps produced far less casualties than the Sulpicio Lines mishaps.

Does anybody want a safer trip?  Then maybe sail via Negros Navigation Company.  It has no comparable mishaps during the same period and I do not know how they managed that feat though it is only a third of the size of either Sulpicio or WG&A.  Luck, perhaps?  Or is it a matter of naming the ships after the saints (as in St. Peter The Apostle and San Paolo)?]

(The writer has sailed in more than 120 long and short voyages in over 65 different vessels in the last 14 years. Ship is his favorite mode of transport in going to Luzon.  He has been a passenger aboard 7 different Sulpicio ships covering some 15 voyages.)

 

 

The Current Plight of 2GO Now, Its History and What Could Be Done

According to their released Financial Statement in its Annual Report, 2GO had a Net Loss of PhP 1.349 billion (or a Total Comprehensive Loss of PhP 1.351 billion) in 2018.  In the previous year 2017, they also had a Net Loss of PhP 311 million(or a Total Comprehensive Loss of PhP 296 million) whereas in 2016 the only liner company left in the Philippines still had a Total Comprehensive Profit of PhP 387 million.  The combined losses of 2017 and 2018  were enough for the company to lose a lot in equity and now the only remaining equity of the company is PhP 2.248 billion.

https://www.2go.com.ph/IR/financials.asp

The two years of losses were roughly the period wherein Chelsea Shipping of Dennis Uy and the SM Investment Corporation of the Henry Sy family were already in charge of 2GO after the Sulficio Tagud group of Negros Navigation sold out to them for something like in the tune of PhP 6 billion.

The most likely reason for the losses was the resurgence in the price of fuel. 2GO under former helmsman, Sulficio Tagud also suffered losses (after buying out the most of the shares of Aboitiz Transport System [ATS] and combining it with Negros Navigation) when the price of fuel was high. They only crept back into the black when the world oil price slumped a few years ago.

People and even the more knowledgeable ship spotters were a little surprised when they heard that the SuperCat fleet of 2GO seems to have reliability problems because that did not happen before. Lately, they announced that they were suspending SuperCat trips to Tagbilaran for three months from May 16 to August 16. 2019. Today which is summer is peak season of travel to Bohol and for SuperCat to do that means only one thing — they are in trouble.

60349459_986176444917446_3487696671951814656_n

News of unreliability of the SuperCats has been around already this year when apparently for no obvious reason SuperCat has been canceling voyages to Tagbilaran. For that to happen there must be maintenance and availability issues on their High Speed Crafts (fastcrafts and catamarans). It seems they are just concentrating all their available crafts in the Cebu-Ormoc route.

From what I heard, it seems St. Jhudiel and St. Braquiel are out of action because of engine and propeller problems. St. Nuriel, an older craft is also not in good shape as far as passenger accommodations are concerned. And so it seems it is only the new St. Sariel and St. Camael that are available for them and I even heard one of the two cannot reach its design speed. One engine is down?

jhudiel

St. Nuriel had its last trip yesterday as it is going into the shipyard. It is already using just evaporative coolers and fans for its Tourist Class. Now, that is horrible  for a High Speed Craft which is supposed to be comfortable. How did that happen? They are sinking to the level of the old Kinswell?

nuriel

St. Nuriel after her last trip. Photo by Mark Edelson Ocul/PSSS

I heard it had become difficult to requisition parts for the SuperCats and a lot of papers had to be signed. 2GO is now run by non-shipping people from the rank of President/CEO who is also an SM top dog and so he wears many hats. Can he really hack it? The Board of Directors is also full of non-shipping people.

The SuperCats run from just before 6 AM up to 10 PM at times, especially in the Cebu-Tagbilaran route. There are only a few hours to make checks and small repairs before the crafts head out to sea again. If the crew report a problem while sailing and asks for parts and outside service, the paperwork can wait. It is the craft that cannot wait actually. Otherwise, upon company orders, the crafts will sail out again the next day and for sure the small problem will get bigger up to the point where a major service is needed and/or the craft will already be unable to sail. It seems this is what happened to SuperCat, at least in Cebu when cancellations became a li’l bit regular and now the crafts have to head out for major servicing.

Was that rigor in paperwork an acquired culture from SM? It seems that there the level of trust is not what is healthy in the shipping world where a company must pay heed to what the engineers are saying especially in a craft that runs like a bus (maybe in a freighter the parts can wait for coz anyway they don’t sail daily and a reduction in speed or a delay in voyage is not felt by the public).

If rigor is needed I think it should be in the proper servicing of the crafts which need to run safe daily. I just hope that that rigor is not a reflection of the cash position of the company which is losing equity and also cash flow. 2GO is in trouble. It either needs capital infusion or new money in terms of loans. I do not know if their plan to sell the container ships from Negros Navigation is an indication of this problem.

I have also heard that 2GO liners run slower compared to before. Was there an order to reduce the MCR to save fuel and parts and to lengthen the life of the engines and avoid breakdowns? What was that incident I heard about St. Pope John Paul II?

2GO is a little pompous in its Annual Report. Of course, they can boast how much they of the passengers from Manila as they are the only liner left in the country. Or boast too of their share of the container market. They are No. 1 after all in capacity. But almost everybody who knows shipping says their market share is falling for the have the highest cargo rates in the country.

These high container rates are not entirely of their own making but unfortunately for them, the public does not know the reasons or the history. Actually, sometime in the 1980’s MARINA, our maritime regulatory agency decided that passenger-cargo liners can charge more for cargo. After all, it is express cargo because liners are faster than the container ships which can even have more ports of call and higher in-port hours. But the bigger rationale was that in truth container/cargo shipping was actually subsidizing the passenger rates. In the 1990s, I think this policy was reaffirmed during the Ramos regime when rates were adjusted.

That policy was okay when the liner companies were also the main operators of the container ships. Sulpicio Lines, William Lines, Aboitiz Shipping, Negros Navigation, Gothong Lines and Sweet Lines dominated not only liner shipping then but also container shipping. There were very few shipping companies before which were into pure container shipping and they were all weak then. Those were basically the original Lorenzo Shipping of Jose Go (before it was sold to the Magsaysay Group), Escano Lines (which still had passenger ships in the 1980s), Sea Transport Company (which then folded up) and Solid Lines which was just small then.

But the “Great Merger” of 1996 came but then it ultimately failed. Along with its carcass, only Aboitiz Transport System remained. The great and fabled William Lines disappeared and for Gothong Lines, only Gothong  Southern Shipping and Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. remained although the latter is much smaller than the first and in the recent decade, they were no longer in passenger shipping. The family of Jose Go reincarnated as Oceanic Container Lines and Lorenzo Shipping is still around plus the Magsaysay Group re-established the National Maritime Corporation which they acquired from the Government and it became NMC Container Lines. All the named three are not into passenger shipping. And, of course, MARINA drove out Sulpicio Lines (now Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation) from liner shipping after the sinking of the Princess of the Stars.

A host of new container lines also emerged. One was formerly in passenger shipping but when this business of theirs was already losing they reinvented themselves in container shipping and this is the Moreta Shipping. Ocean Transport, a new shipping company also became a player and they are notable for using LCTs in carrying container vans. Among other new players in container shipping are Meridian Shipping, Seaborne Shipping and Seaview Cargo Shipping Corporation (the shipping company that uses the name “Fiesta” in their container vans). Asian Shipping Corporation is also chartering their LCTs to others to carry container vans.

General Romulo

Where before we have about 60 liners, now that is the number of our container ships almost a decade ago. And 2GO is the only liner company left. They might have good offices and service but they will always lose to these container shipping companies which can always offer lower cargo rates for they do not carry passengers. In passenger shipping, a motley of personnel is needed to service the passengers especially in hotel services (mainly feeding and cleaning services).

2GO simply cannot compete in this uneven field. But I don’t think MARINA realizes the field is uneven. The current people there might not even realize the wherefores and if they have old decisions and policies. They might not even realize that their decision to chop Sulpicio Lines in passenger shipping was a mistake. The medicine was simply too strong that the horse died, so goes the American saying.

If we have to have more liners it is not enough to encourage new players in the liner field as MARINA and the Department of Transportation tried to do in recent years. These container shipping companies existing now knows they are better off just moving cargo (not much people to hire, not that high cleanliness required, not much insurance to buy, limited food to stock too and they can be un-prompt in departures and arrivals). But of course, they won’t admit to that.

Maybe what is needed is to require these companies to operate liners too if they want to continue container operations. A certain ratio to container ships could be found and the size of the liner could be defined too. That is the only way to level the playing field for 2GO and for the country to have liners again. If not, I wonder how 2GO can exist in the long run with the high price of fuel of which nobody has control of. I will not be surprised if the day without liners will come.

A comprehensive study of our shipping must be done (but do we have true experts on shipping?) and this is a piece in that direction.

 

 

When Eastern Visayas Ports And Shipping Were Still Great

Growing up I heard tales from my late father how great Tacloban port was. He told me about its importance, its physical dimensions, the location, the size of the bodegas outside it and even its relation to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I had the idea that Tacloban was the greatest port east of Cebu and my father told me that no port in the Bicol Region compares to Tacloban port and not even his beloved Legaspi port (that was the spelling of it then before it became “Legazpi”). He told me Tacloban port will not fade because the Romualdezes were in power in Leyte and everybody knows the relation of that clan to Ferdinand Marcos then (still a President, not yet a dictator). Ironically, my father was later proven wrong not because of politics but because of a paradigm shift in shipping that he was not able to anticipate (when the intermodal trucks and buses sank Eastern Visayas shipping).

So I always wondered what made Tacloban port click then. From my father, when I was still young, I got to learn what is a regional trade center, a regional capital, the importance of the two and it so happened that Tacloban happened to be both. The city by Cancabato Bay was really the dominant market east of Cebu City, bar none. My father always drilled me about cash crops and commodities and how it impacted or shall we say how it shaped shipping. He told me the government can always build ports and send ships to a port by inducement but he said if there is no cargo it won’t last as he stressed cargo makes shipping and not the other way around. Now, how many in government knows that maxim? Definitely not Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who loves “ports to nowhere” a lot!

taclooban

Tacloban port. Photo by Gerry Ruiz.

My father was very aware of the shift of the primary cash crop from abaca to copra in the 1950’s and its impact on shipping. In high school, I saw that with my own eyes. Proud, wealthy families in our province which grew rich on abaca handicrafts and trading suddenly became more modest in living. I saw how their bodegas became empty and how the abaca workers suffered. At the same time, I also saw how busy the private port of Legaspi Oil became. Legaspi Oil, an American firm, was then the biggest copra exporter of the country.

Our old man also told me about San Pablo City and how desiccated coconut and coconut oil milling made it one of our earliest cities. He also related me when I was in high school that Laguna was no longer the king of coconut. Leyte was the new lord and I understood by inference how that will boost Tacloban port, its shipping and the city itself.

With PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) co-founder Gorio Belen’s research in the National Library I had more flesh of what my father was telling me when I was young. Tacloban was a great port of call in the 1960’s and 1970’s and that was visible with the frequency of ships there and the quality of its ships. Definitely it cannot match Cebu or even Iloilo but it was not far behind the latter. And to think the latter had ships calling that were still going to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao (Cotabato, Dadiangas and Davao). Tacloban also had ships still going south to Surigao, Butuan or even Davao but it was not that many. What Tacloban had were ships calling in Catbalogan or Masbate before steaming further. There were also ships calling in Tacloban first before heading for Cebu.

Entering the ’60’s, Iloilo had 10 ship calls weekly while Tacloban had 7. That was when Cagayan de Oro only had 4 ship calls per week from Manila but Butuan and Surigao both had 6 each. Won’t you wonder with those figures? Well, Cagayan de Oro only became great when it became a gateway to Southern and Central Mindanao with the improvement of the highways. That will also tell one how Tacloban, the gateway to Eastern Samar then, stacked up to other ports. Catbalogan is also not far behind because in the main the ships that called on Tacloban also called on Catbalogan first to maximize passenger and cargo volume.

15848852084_2b3ff9a5de_o

Catbalogan port. Photo by Joe Cardenas of PSSS.

In the 1960’s, it was air-conditioning that already defined what is a luxury ship and Tacloban was among the first that had a ship with air-conditioning beginning with the MV Sweet Rose in 1967 (and she served Tacloban for long) and the MV Sweet Grace in 1970. Both were liners of Sweet Lines and they were good ships with good service (I first heard that phrase from my late father, funny). And that was when other great shipping companies still did not have that kind of ship (and that will also tell how great Sweet Lines then). Even the great port of Cebu still had plenty of ex-”FS” ships then which was the basic kind of liner then. And that will give one a view of how important Tacloban port was in those days.

3225739108_779494bf0d_b

The MV Gen. Roxas which became the MV Sweet Rose. Philippine Herald photo. Reseach by Gorio Belen in the National Library.

A little of history. Right after the war, two shipping companies fought it out in the main Eastern Visayas ports of Tacloban and Catbalogan. These two were the old shipping company Compania Maritima which was of Spanish origin and the General Shipping Company (GSC) which were formed by former World War II military aides coming from distinguished Filipino families that were part of the comprador bourgeoisie. At one time, GSC had more ships to the two ports with three while Compania Maritima only had two. Another old shipping company, the Escano Lines also fought in the Tacloban route. Unlike the two, the ships of Escano Lines still went on to Surigao and Butuan which were their stronghold.

leyte

MV Leyte. Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

There were some smaller shipping companies too in the route like the Philippine Sea Transport, Veloso Lines, Corominas Richards Navigation and the Royal Lines. Among the single ships that also called in the two ports were the M/S Leyte Lady and M/S Lady of Lourdes. In the mentioned shipping lines, converted “FS” and extended “F” ships were the types calling in the two ports. Among that type that served long in the route (but not continuously) was the MV Leyte of Compania Maritima and I mentioned that because that was notable.

In 1955, Everett Steamship through the Philippine Steamship and Navigation Company (PSNC), a joint venture of Everett and Aboitiz entered Catbalogan and Tacloban with the quixotic route Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban-Bislig-Davao-Dadiangas-Cebu-Manila. They used two brand-new liners alternatingly, the MV Legazpi and the MV Elcano. Those two were the first brand-new liners used solely in the local routes (to distinguish them from the big De la Rama Steamship liners that soon ended up in ocean-going routes).

5502291901_6ee3f1c865_b

Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

The MV Legazpi and MV Elcano were sister ships and fitted what was soon emerging as the new luxury liner class in the country (but the two were not at par with some of the luxury ships before especially the De la Rama Steamship liners which were lost in the war). If one has the money the route was a good way to tour the country and is a direct way to Southern Mindanao without going first to Cebu (because normally a passenger need to go there first from Eastern Visayas to take a connecting voyage). It was a nice route but sadly it did not last long because from the eastern seaboard route its route was shifted to the route rounding Zamboanga (I guess the reason was there was more business there and the seas were not so rough).

In the early ’60s, the Philippine Pioneer Lines, a subsidiary of the Philippine President Lines (PPL) also tried the Catbalogan plus Tacloban route. When they stopped sailing, their successor shipping company Galaxy Lines continued sailing that route but they did not last long when they folded operations as a company. The two companies used ex-“FS” and ex-“AKL” ships from the US Navy.

When General Shipping Company stopped local operations to go ocean-going in the mid-60s (and that provoked a break within the company), one of the companies which acquired half of their fleet and routes was the upstart Sweet Lines which was trying to follow the path of Go Thong & Company in trying be a national liner operation from a regional operations by acquiring an existing national liner shipping company which is quitting business. The other half of General Shipping fleet went to Aboitiz Shipping Company which then was revived as a shipping company separate from PSNC (and maybe the reason was the coming termination of the so-called “Parity Rights” in 1974). However, it was the PSNC that was used as the entity to re-enter the Tacloban but just using an ex-”FS” ship, the MV Carmen which came from the General Shipping Company and renamed.

At this time, however, the dominant shipping company in the Tacloban and Catbalogan route/s was already Compania Maritima (it was also the biggest shipping company then in the Philippines) after their main rival General Shipping exited the local shipping scene. The company had three ships assigned there, two of which were ex-”FS” ships including the aforementioned MV Leyte.

The year 1967 marked a change in the Tacloban and Catbalogan route. For the second time after the short-lived fielding of the luxury liners of PSNC the route had luxury liners again and two were competing against each other. The notable thing was they both came from General Shipping and both were local-builds by NASSCO (National Shipyards and Steel Corp., the current Herma Shipyard) in Mariveles, Bataan. These were the former second MV General Roxas which became the MV Sweet Rose and the former second General Del Pilar which became the third MV Mactan of Compania Maritima.

However, the two were not fast cruiser liners. This category was already multiplying in the country with the fielding of the 17.5-knot brand-new cruisers of Negros Navigation Company, the MV Dona Florentina in 1965 and the MV Don Julio in 1967. This was preceded by the MV President Quezon of the Philippine President Lines which later became the MV Galaxy of Galaxy Lines which was first fielded in 1962. A note, however, the earlier MV Don Julio of Ledesma Lines which was an overpowered (by putting a submarine engine) ex-”FS” ship can also be classified as a fast cruiser liner and it also served the Leyte route shortly as the MV Pioneer Leyte of Philippine Pioneer Lines.

16423228366_a1b2e838b6_k

The earlier MV Don Julio which became the MV Pioneer Leyte. Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

In this tight market, a small shipping company serving Bicol and Northern Samar also tried a Catbalogan and Tacloban route. This was the Rodrigueza Shipping Corporation which was already feeling the effects of the Philippine National Railways in Bicol regarding the movement of cargo. However, two Chinoy shipping companies that will dominate Philippine shipping in a decade-and-a-half’s time were still not represented in the route. The two were William Lines and Sulpicio Lines (which was not yet existent then). The mother company of Sulpicio Lines which was Carlos A. Gothong & Co. was also not in this route at this time. They will come in two years time, however, with the fielding of the first MV Don Enrique which was a lengthened former “FS” ship. You know they tended to start quietly.

Many ex-”FS” ships or even smaller ships were battling in the Catbalogan and Tacloban routes after 1967. Many will battle for there is cargo and copra was so strong then (exports to the US, Japan and Germany when we had 44% share of the world’s exports) not only in Tacloban but also in a way in Catbalogan which was synonymous with fishing before overfishing caught up with them. In this era, imported rice does not yet go direct to the provincial ports and Eastern Visayas is a rice-deficit region and Cotabato and other parts of the country sends rice to it through trans-shipment. Many other grocery and hardware items also come from Manila to the region as Eastern Visayas was not an industrial region.

In the luxury liner category, however, the MV Sweet Rose of Sweet Lines and the  MV Mactan of Compania Maritima started their battle. This was actually a very even battle because the two were sister ships but the third MV Mactan was faster at 16 knots to the 13.5 knots of the MV Sweet Rose because she was fitted with a bigger engine. Compania Maritima fielded the MV Mactan here because the MV Sweet Rose was overpowering their MV Leyte which was just a lengthened ex-”FS” ship. In a few years, however, the MV Mactan will sink in a storm and MV Leyte will come back in the Eastern Visayas routes.

Leading into the next decade, the 1970’s produced significant changes. Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, the successor to PSNC abandoned their Catbalogan and Tacloban routes and just concentrated in Western and Southern Leyte which was their origin (it had lots of copra too). Morever, the rising William Lines was already present and two successor companies of Go Thong & Company, the Sulpicio Lines and Carlos A. Gothong Lines+Lozenzo Shipping Corporation (two shipping companies with combined operations before their split in 1979) were also plying the Catbalogan and Tacloban routes but they were just using ex-”FS” ships. The old partner of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation before the war, the Escano Lines also left Tacloban but maintained Catbalogan as a port of call as long as their MV Rajah Suliman was still capable of sailing.

In the stead of the lost minor shipping lines of the region like Veloso Lines, some minor shipping companies were also doing the route. Among them were N&S Lines and NORCAMCO Lines which were actually Bicol and Northern Samar shipping companies. The two were looking for routes near their turf because of lost passengers and cargo from the opening up of the Maharlika Highway. Well, although Maharlika Highway was not yet fully paved, the trucks were beginning to roll to Bicol and maybe somehow they have already seen the handwriting on the wall. Rodrigueza Shipping, also a Bicol shipping company stopped sailing the route.

Soon, however, Sulpicio Lines upped the ante and fielded a liner with size, air-conditioning and service that will challenge the MV Sweet Rose and MV Mactan. This was the MV Dona Angelina which was a former refrigerated cargo ship in Europe. That type of ship, when converted here as a passenger-cargo ship will automatically have the availability of refrigeration and air-conditioning. At 13.5 knots design speed, she can match the pace of the MV Sweet Rose but not of the MV Mactan. The MV Dona Angelina was the second ship of Sulpicio Lines in the route.

11082552303_86dbfe7baf_h

Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

In response, Sweet Lines brought in their former flagship into the route, the MV Sweet Grace which was acquired brand-new from West Germany in 1968. She has the speed of 15.5 knots but she was not bigger than MV Dona Angelina or even the MV Dona Vicente (that later became the MV Palawan Princess) which was assigned also to the route. Competition was really heating up in 1974 and I remember this year was the peaking of copra prices just before its great fall.

Things were really heated up because next year Sulpicio Lines brought in their new flagship MV Don Sulpicio on its way to Cebu which means a Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban-Cebu route. Can you imagine that? If former flagship and current flagship will battle in this route then that means Tacloban and Catbalogan were very important ports then. And to think the later well-regarded MV Dona Vicenta also practically debuted on that route. Well, copra was still then a very important crop. In fact it was our primary cash crop then. By the way, the flagship MV Don Sulpicio was the later infamous MV Dona Paz and she came from Tacloban and Catbalogan on her last voyage.

5587904376_9122e05965_b

Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

In the heat of this competition, it was actually the old dominant Compania Maritima that was wilting. Their MV Mactan foundered in 1973 and there was no good replacement available and so the old ship MV Leyte was left shouldering alone and she was already badly outgunned by the ships of Sulpicio Lines and Sweet Lines. In the 1970’s there was no way a former “FS” ships can match the new liners that came from Europe. They simply were bigger, faster and had more amenities.

When the MV Don Sulpicio was assigned the exclusive Manila-Cebu route to join the two-way battle there of MV Cebu City and MV Sweet Faith, the good MV Dona Vicenta replaced her in the route and teamed up with the MV Dona Angelina. In 1976, however, William Lines fielded a very worthy challenger, the namesake of Tacloban which was the MV Tacloban City and she held the Catbalogan and Tacloban route for a long, long time. At 17.5 knots design speed she can match the best of Sulpicio Lines and Sweet Lines. Aside from speed she can also match in size, accommodation and service.

6792040358_c66f0c3602_b

Gorio Belen research in the National Library

And so in this year several ships that can be classified as luxury lines were battling in the route. That was an indication how important was that route. As a note, however, the MV Sweet Grace was reassigned by Sweet Lines to other routes especially since their luxury liner MV Sweet Home was no longer reliable. Meanwhile, the shrinking former nationally dominant Compania Maritima no longer fielded a second ship since they were already lacking ships because they no longer acquired a ship since 1970 despite a rash of hull losses.

In 1979, the death knell of Catbalogan and Tacloban ports was sounded clear although few realized it at that time for there was no concept of intermodal shipping before. This was the fielding of MV Cardinal Ferry I of Cardinal Shipping to span the San Juanico Strait and buses and trucks to and from Manila immediately rolled the new highways of Samar and Leyte. By this time copra as the primary cash and export crop of the country was already receding fast in importance because the export market was already shrinking due to the rise of what is called as substitute oils like corn oil, canola oil and sunflower oil.

6611458869_a1c9d7887d_b

Gorio Belen research in the National Library

It was not Catbalogan and Tacloban which were first swamped by paradigm changes but the other ports of Samar like Laoang, Victoria and Calbayog (which I will discuss in another as these ports are more connected to Bicol and Masbate). The fall of Catbalogan and Tacloban ports will happen much later when copra has almost lost its importance. This was also the time that Manila oil mills has already been sidelined too by the rise of new oil mills in the provinces (and the government actually promoted that).

Although sliding now, for a time it looked like Tacloban and Catbalogan ports will hold on to the onslaught of the intermodal. One reason for that was in the crisis decade of the 1980’s it was the Top 2 Sulpicio Lines and William Lines that were still battling there and for sure none of the two will budge an inch. That was the decade when so many shipping companies quit business altogether (and that was most of our liner companies) and actually no shipping company was left unscathed.

In the late 1980’s, Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) made a comeback in national liner shipping but it did not enter Tacloban or Catbalogan. Instead, they called on the Western Leyte ports of Palompon, Isabel and Ormoc before proceeding to Cebu and it was actually a very successful route for them. Also, the Madrigal Steamship came back to passenger shipping with good luxury liner cruisers (which were already obsolescent as it was already the  time of ROROs or Roll-on, Roll-off ships) and it had a Manila-Romblon-Catbalogan-Tacloban route.

Madrigal

Gorio Belen research in the National Library

However, this was not a long plus to Eastern Visayas liner shipping because in the early ’90s the venerable Sweet Lines and Escano Lines quit passenger shipping and although the latter still had cargo ships their presence were already receding in the region. And then the Madrigal Steamship did just last a few years and quit their passenger shipping also. There were no other entrants in this period to the region except just before the end of the millennium when the MBRS Lines of Romblon, seeking new routes entered the San Isidro port in Northern Samar. However, they also did not last long.

olosh

MV Our Lady of Sacred Heart in Ozamis port. Jorg Behman photo. Credits: John Luzares

When the “Great Merger”which produced the shipping company WG&A happened in 1996, they did not add a new ship and just altered two routes a little. Actually, what happened is they even pulled out a ferry from Carlos A. Gothong Lines and just left one which was mainly the MV Our Lady of Sacred Heart (WG&A is a shipping company which changed route assignment every now and then). However, one of their ships which was passed on to their regional subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC) tried a Manila-Ormoc-Nasipit route using the MV Our Lady of Akita 2 which was the former MV Maynilad. Although successful, she did not last long because she grounded in Canigao Channel and was never repaired.

4264808547_20992b0921_o

Credits to Toshihiko Mikami and funikichemurase

The last two liners to serve Catbalogan and Tacloban were the MV Masbate Uno of William Lines and WG&A and the MV Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines which had identical routes. The MV Cebu Princess also spelled the latter ship when she was down for repairs. When the MV Masbate Uno left as the the MV Our Lady of Manaoag of Cebu Ferries Corporation she was briefly replaced by the MV Our Lady of Naju in the Tacloban route.

Catbalogan and Tacloban finally had no liners left when Sulpicio Lines was suspended from passenger operations in 2008 when their MV Princess of the Stars sank in a typhoon and the MV Tacloban Princess was sold to a local breaker. That suspension also meant the end of the old MV Palawan Princess of Sulpicio Lines serving the ports of Calubian, Maasin and Baybay in the island of Leyte. That also meant the end of the Manila-Masbate-Ormoc-Cebu route of the MV Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines. The WG&A also abandoned Tacloban and just tried to hold on to their Palompon/Ormoc route

3599061655_8f1086bfbf_b

Photo by John Cabanillas of PSSS.

In a short time, however, the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) which was the successor to WG&A also abandoned their Western Leyte routes too. However, for a time ATS came back and served Ormoc with the Manila-Romblon-Ormoc-Cebu route using the MV St. Anthony of Padua but that did not last long.

Now there are no more liners to Eastern Visayas and only oldtimers remember when its ports and shipping were still great. What the millennials know now are the intermodal buses and the so-many trucks in the many ports of Allen, Northern Samar.

Times have changed. The paradigm changed, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On The Safety of Our Ships and Other Related Matters

index

Photo from MARINA

Another MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority, the Philippines regulatory body on shipping) administration has passed, that of Marcial Quirico Amaro III which to think was a rarity because he was a true mariner (can we call his predecessor Maximo A. Mejia a mariner too because he was a graduate of Annapolis and he taught at the World Maritime University in Sweden?). When a mariner is appointed Administrator of MARINA the hopes of the mariners goes high because for a long time they have seen their sector ruled by lawyers (well, if they look at the regional heads of MARINA they will find out there are more lawyers there). The maritime field is actually a rarity since the professionals of the trade don’t rule their roost. In the field of Medicine the head of the field are not lawyers but are doctors, of course. That is also true for other fields where professionals of their trade are the heads like in Engineering, Pharmacy, Nursing, Education, Accountancy, etc. But not in the maritime field. It seems there is an assumption that the development and regulation of the field are best left to lawyers who probably don’t know anything about running a ship? Of course, they will promote our mariners as “heroes” after conquering the maritime sector. But I know enough of the field to know that mariners, in the main, seethe against MARINA, for various reasons, and that is not a bull.

Me, however, shudder when a new administration is about to take place in MARINA because I have noticed all these years that when a new Administrator takes seat the first word that will come out of his mouth is “Safety”, as if that is what the field needs most, as if that is the key word that will develop the sector (no, that is not). And with that will come the threat to the lives of our old ships especially the old ferries. Threats of phase-out will soon then follow, as usual. And again the owners will resist, for reason. That is the usual rigmarole for every MARINA administration that will come in. And I would heave a sigh of relief when our old ferries continue sailing despite the threat to sink them. A new administration will again come this April (2008) and I wonder if the script will be the same again or if it will different this time. And for the first time, the new head of MARINA will be a retired general, and a 4-star one at that, someone used to barking orders and be followed (what are generals for anyway?).

I wonder if any MARINA administration ever did a serious, scholarly study by those who really know the field on what the sector needs. It seems to me that all these years a new Administrator will simply stamp his own agenda and understanding no matter how faulty that is (anybody remember Maria Elena Bautista, another lawyer who was threatened with a shipping boycott by all the shipping organizations, the reason she was booted out?). Actually, I know of no serious study about our maritime sector and a blueprint coming out of that especially one that has the universal support of all the players in the industry from the owners to the shipyards down to the mariners. And even with that MARINA thinks they know best what is good for the industry. Scientific, eh?

As I understand it, the function of MARINA is not only regulation of the maritime sector but also the development of it and the latter might even be the more important. Can regulation be defined by just one word which is “Safety” as Administrators are wont to do? Definitely not. Can the word “Safety” be the key word in the development of the industry? Well, development is a multi-faceted thing. I know MARINA has consultations with the likes of the shipping owners and organizations and also the shipyard owners but I also know that consistent or meaningful government support is seldom discussed in those consultations. Hanjin, the foreign shipbuilder in Subic will have all the support including cheap electricity subsidized by the government. But that is one that will never be offered to local shipbuilders. There is now, however, a loan window for acquiring new ships. But a lot of shipping owners are hesitant in acquiring new ships because of the high acquisition cost. It might be a loan but it must still be fully paid for with interest to boot. They will always think that three or four surplus ships are better than a brand-new one no matter what the promoters of new ships will say about the savings in fuel, the supposed better safety, the issue of less pollution, etc.

What muddles the discussion is the presumption that old ships are not safe. The ship owners countered in one consultation when they had their lawyers, “Is there a study that proves that age is the factor for the sinking of the ships?” MARINA was not able to answer that. I know they have no such study. I also know they have no database on ship losses so how can they honestly answer it? A presumption is not always the truth. It needs to be proven.

But the public in our country has long been cooked in the wrong belief that old ships are not safe. They compare it to an old truck or bus that can lose its brakes and crash or collide. But that is not the mechanism in the sea. There are no brakes and even if a ship loses propulsion it is still the equivalent of a barge and barges can sail even for long distances as it still has flotation (which determines it will still float) and stability (which determines it will not capsize).

There will a threat to a ship that loses propulsion (or steering) if the sea is rough like if there is a storm. But now with all the changes in the rules for sailing when there is a storm all our ships are treated like a motor banca and so the old prohibition for their sailing in winds over 45 kilometers per hour is now applied on all our ships including our big liners like the SuperFerry vessels. Well, the Coast Guard even has the right to cancel trips in a particular area if they think the sea is rough which means the swell is already a half-a-foot high. And for good measure to further frighten everybody if there is a storm the weather agency PAGASA which is better called Walang Pagasa will forecast waves of one to four meters when they actually mean waves of only one to four feet max. Ask fishermen and coastal people if there are really waves as high as four meters and they will say they have not seen one in their lives. Now just compare it to the storm surge of six meters in Typhoon “Yolanda” and one can see that forecast of four meters is foolishness. If true, four meters can still completely inundate a small city or a town and we don’t hear such things.

So, if at the slightest rising of the swells and the winds our ships are already forbidden from sailing (when foreign ships in our waters still continue to sail) then how can the our old ships be unsafe when they are not sailing anyway? Of course they can still sink if the typhoon passes over them like what happened in Typhoon “Nina” last December 2016. Worst case of that probably is when Typhoon “Ruping” passed over Cebu in 1990 and a lot of ships went belly up. In non-sailing ships the typhoon won’t ask about the age of the ship. It can capsize, new or not.

When the country became alarmist and began suspending trips because of PAGASA forecasts that cannot be parsed for a specific area (and that means suspension even when the sun is shining) our ship safety record actually improved and I can prove that with my own database of ship hull losses. There will no more be Princess of the Stars, Princess of the Orient, Dona Marilyn incidents, etc. Actually, the new generation of ship passengers will no longer have the experience of sailing with a ship in a storm. That experience will just be the domain of the middle-aged and the oldies.

The country is too skittish now about ship accidents when in other countries that is considered part and parcel of sailing. If one reads maritime news abroad one can easily glean that there are ship accidents daily around the world and many of those are even relatively new ships of less than fifteen years of age. One reason probably is they sail in almost any kind of weather unlike here. There are collisions too (that does not happen here at least in the recent decades). Fire, too (but again that did not happen here in the recent decades). Yes, our ships though old are the safe, empirically. That is why abroad they stress SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea). Here, many ships do not care so much about that but it does not matter much anyway. If there is a collision or fire the crew will probably just dive into the sea and swim for after all there will be near islands or fishermen (which is always first in the scene of an accident). It could be possibly bad news, however, if it is a ferry as their crew is now dominated by apprentices who paid to get aboard rather than the other way around. And so I would not be surprised if they save their hide first. Ditto for the true ship crew which are poorly paid. But for sure there will be heroes and the conscientious too. There will always be such kind of people and they will always have my respect and admiration.

Actually, many of our ships will not pass a serious ship inspection like what is done abroad. It is not only the factor of age. We are simply that lax and ship owners don’t budget well in many cases. The letterings might say “Safety First” but it is actually “Safety Second” or “Sadety Also”. We have that “Bahala Na” attitude which is the equivalent in Spanish of “Que Sera, Sera” (Whatever will be, will be) which is a certain kind of fatalism. But whatever, if we pro rata it our safety is not worse compared to other countries especially when the 45kph suspension rule was already in effect (it was even effective when it was still 60kph). We only got a bad repute because of “Dona Paz” which was affirmed by the capsizing of the “Princess of the Stars”. But that won’t be repeated anymore as we don’t have Sulpicio Lines any longer.

Now, back to the more serious thing, I wonder what a 4-star general will hold for our maritime sector. Will he plug the board “leakages” which has been there for eons already? Will he listen to the mariners (or will he even recruit mariners in MARINA or will he be just another Faeldon who will pack in the bureau with his own people?). Can he get the respect of the ship and shipyard owners and will he have answers to their questions and concerns? Or will he be just another overlord of the sector and worse another one spouting the mantra, “Safety…safety…safety…safety….” like a Tibetan monk.

Newest Developments in the MARINA Line of Thinking About Ferries

There were two notable developments in the MARINA line of thinking about ferries recently although it is still in draft form and probably it might still have to go through hearings and the opposition of shipping companies. One, it will insist that henceforth new-build local ferries and surplus imported ones will have to be stern-docking. It seems the ones currently sailing in the country will not really be banned after all or be forced to convert.

MARINA says that this is for safety in sailing. But I really cannot comprehend what ghosts or ghouls are they fearing. We never had a ferry that is bow-loading that was lost at sea through a ramp or bow failure nor have a ferry sink through a collision and the failure of the bow. For sure, the MARINA Administrator is thinking of the Estonia and Herald of Free Enterprise sinking in Europe when the two ferries sank because of some dumb failure to close the bow and the other the failure of the bow door of the ship itself.

Our ferries that are bow-loading are all small and their bow ramps are line of sight with the bridge and usually there are crews of the ships and of the trucks that are in the car deck. It is impossible to be missed that a ramp is not closed with all the possible people that can see it even in the night. It won’t just easily fall off while sailing because if there is a crack or worse the ramp would have already fallen in the loading process or else give a signal that it is giving way soon.

10638495985_9e8b9611b5_z

A small, bow-loading ferry which shows that the ramp is very visible from the bridge

Up until today there are so many bow-loading ferries in Japan, China, Korea, Europe that are still sailing. Those countries are more advanced that ours shipping-wise and in the design. Now, I don’t know why we should be more popish than the Pope. That is why I called the fears of Amaro as simply ghosts. Does he want to claim in the world that we were the first to ban bow-loading ferries? That is simply laughable and other countries will just snicker at us.

One effect though if this MARINA rule pushes through is we can’t import basic, short-distance ferries anymore as all of these are bow-loading. This type has been questioned for its safety before as these were classed in Japan for just inland sea and bay operations only. Now, I don’t know if the real motive of Amaro is to do away with this type.

Anent this, existing bow-loading ferries henceforth are banned from using their bow ramps to stop the ship. This is what is done by the small ferries and the LCTs which are loath in using bollards and their anchors and its resultant longer docking maneuver time. Aside from the possible wharf damage, MARINA is fearful of the damage it can cause the ramps of the ships.

16232543278_1a05f7ca0c_z

Mae Wess ferries just use the ramp to hold the ship in place

But I wonder if MARINA ever did any serious study on this. The best example they can study are the ferries of Mae Wess of Davao which is also known as CW Cole which are Davao-Samal short-distance ferries of LCT and double-ended ferry designs. These don’t use their bollards and anchors and instead use reversing of screws and the lowering of the ramps in the causeway-type wharf to stop the ship. If there is no swell that ramp laid atop the wharf keeps the ferry in its place even though the ropes of the ship are not deployed. If there is a swell then the helmsman uses the screws to push the ferry to the causeway-type wharf thereby keeping it immobile.

The Mae Wess/CW Cole ferries depart twice in an hour for up to 16 hours in a day and so they normally would have 25 or so dockings in a day. I have yet to hear a ramp of theirs fall off because of using the ramp to stop the ship. As for the wharves they own it so MARINA and the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) cannot really complain. PPA is really the entity in charge of government-owned ports and I am just wondering how come MARINA is the one complaining first about wharf damage when that thing is withing the purview of the PPA.

38197233804_1be13b4ff8_z

Scouring of the wharf of the private BALWHARTECO Port is visible but a scoured wharf is very good in stopping the ship. The damage can easily be repaired and BALWHARTECO takes that as normal wear and tear in the course of business.

In the Bicol ferries I have heard of ramp damage in their bow-loading ferries but that was not because of using the ramp to stop the ship but because of the overweight loads that bends the ramps and there are cases of ramp fracture because of this. That is why sometimes very heavy loads like carriers of really heavy equipment have a hard time securing a ride because the ferries avoid them due to possible ramp damage. I know of a case once in Matnog that the deal was a Grand Star RORO ferry would take in just that single load solo and the vehicle would have to pay for nearly the full load of the ship (now this kind of load is not taken by the newly-fielded Cargo RORO LCTs).

I don’t know. It has long been my observation that our government simply issues orders without concrete studies. And I have also observed that true experts does not matter in our government. That is because government functionaries think that they are the “experts” when at times they know next to nothing especially if they are just political appointees or entered government service by having an MBA (“Me Backer Ako”). Worse, armchair scholars who do not really ride ships also pretend that they are “shipping experts” when in actuality they are not.

Another development which is a welcome one because of opposition is there would no longer be retirement of ships arbitrarily based on age and instead it will be based on inspections which should be the case anyway. In other countries where shipping is more advanced than ours there is no such thing as forced retirement because of age. There, Port State Control (PSC) inspections are the means. If a ship cannot pass the surprise PSC inspections it gets detained and won’t be able to sail until the serious deficiencies are corrected. Sometimes it gets to a point that remedying the deficiencies will already cost a lot of money and so the ships are simply sold to the breakers. Or sent to some Third World country like the Philippines where there are no strict standards and inspections.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_State_Control

Port State Control is not being used in the Philippines because ship owners oppose it. It has been said that if PSC is implemented here then only a few of our ships will pass that and the moving of goods will then be hampered.

What we do instead is we let a slew of local inspection and certification societies qualify our ships. That became the system because our maritime regulatory agency MARINA does not have enough skills and people to inspect our ships since the agency is not composed of maritime professionals. For ship inspections before departure that function has been devolved by MARINA to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) since the agency don’t have offices in all our ports. But then the PCG is also not composed of maritime professionals too and so most times their primary role just sinks to the level of counting the passengers to check if the ship is not overloaded.

6987731223_f0449ffcec_z

Coast Guard people doing pre-departure inspection work

Linearly, older ships might really be less safe as aging might mean more things can go wrong at the level of the equipment of the ship. But I am not implying here that they are not safe as safety is a very relative term. In the recent years, actually our ship losses went down and I think the most proximate reason for this is when the wind blows a little or if the swell reaches a foot high then voyages of our ships even the big ones are then suspended. In a clear sea the chance of a ship sinking even if it loses propulsion is very low.

The government too does not want to take chances when the weather becomes a little inclement. The main reason is there are not enough search and rescue assets around and if there are those are not found in the busy sea lanes but in the big cities where there is more “civilization”. Like PCG ships would rather be in Cebu port rather in the Camotes islands. In Surigao Strait when a ship is in distress sometimes the Coast Guard have to borrow some ferry or tug. Or not send out a ship at all like in the Maharlika Dos incident.

14894544166_ab78fce089_k

The Philippine Coast Guard in Cebu

What remains to be seen now is what standard will MARINA use in the inspections to certify our ships. That could be the bloody part in the push and pull of MARINA and the ship owners. But at least that might be better than what happened in our bus industry. JICA, the Japan International Cooperation Agency recommended the technical inspection of our buses but the bus owners balked at the Japan standard. Next, JICA suggested using the Singapore technical standard and the bus owners balked again. And so the LTFRB, the regulatory agency that has buses within its power then set an arbitrary 15 year-old automatic retirement scheme for buses. The engine running hours or wear and the kind of maintenance no longer mattered. I don’t know if I will cry when I heard buses still capable of 120kph being retired forcibly. At least it will be good if that thing will not happen to our ships especially the ones being maintained well.

I will be attuned for what will be the final version that will come out of MARINA. I just hope the final result will be fair to all concerned including the riding public.

Recent Developments in Bicol Passenger Shipping

A Backgrounder

A few years ago, Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) of Batangas entered the Matnog-San Isidro route using the government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal in San Isidro, Samar. Before that the company already plied before the Masbate City-Lucena route but got suspended when their MV Maria Carmela burned just before reaching Lucena and there were protests in Masbate backed up by their politicians. But aside from that route, Montenegro Shipping Lines had a route from Masbate City to Pilar using basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and hybrid LCTs (Pilar port can’t accommodate anything bigger because of its shallowness) and fastcrafts. In that route they were able to outlast the fastcrafts of Lobrigo Lines and the route became their staple and stronghold after they were driven out of the Batangas-Calapan route because the SuperCats there were simply superior than them.

14640067004_258bd3f774_b

San Isidro Ferry Terminal

They then entered the Matnog-San Isidro route across San Bernardino Strait using the government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal. I knew it was a creeping move on their part and entry to the San Isidro route is easy since no ferry is using that route ever since Archipelago Philippine Ferries and Philharbor Ferries and Port Services left that port when they built their own port in Dapdap which is much nearer to Matnog than San Isidro. I knew MARINA, the maritime authority will easily grant a franchise since there is no ferry using that terminal and the 50-kilometer restriction has already been lifted by MARINA per Pres. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s instruction. Before, on parallel routes no franchise will be issued if the competing port is less than 50 kilometers away (but it seems that did not apply to the likes of western Leyte ports and the ports of near Dumaguete).

I was not worried for Bicol ferry companies as long as Montenegro Lines is in San Isidro because that route carries a significant penalty in distance as BALWHARTECO port which is being used by the Bicol ferry companies is just 11 nautical miles in distance while the San Isidro port is 15 nautical miles in distance from Matnog Ferry Terminal. I knew Montenegro Lines had to give near parity in rates if they want patronage. And they will have to field a faster ferry which they did and they suffered the fuel penalty. It was obvious that in using San Isidro Ferry Terminal that they are handicapped in competing with the Bicol ferry companies (Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, 168 Shipping Lines and Regina Shipping Lines).

5400438414_6f40cc8d0b_z

Dapdap port

But then it happened that the Archipelago/Philharbor operation which operated the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries was tottering they opened up Dapdap port for Montenegro Lines. And that is where I began to worry for the Bicol ferry companies as Montenegro Lines is a big shipping company (they even tout they have the most number of ferries which is actually true) and if transfer pricing was used by the big oil companies and by the bus group Vallacar Transportation Inc. locally then they can engage in price wars and the smaller Bicol ferry companies will suffer. With the move to Dapdap port and with the lessening of Archipelago and Philharbor ferries it is as if those twin companies are giving Montenegro Lines free business. Dapdap port is a little farther than BALWHARTECO port which the Bicol ferry companies are using but the difference in distance is minimal at about 11 nautical miles to 11.5 to 12 nautical miles. Of course, the shipping companies have their regular and locked patrons but there are a lot of non-committed vehicles especially the private vehicles (as differentiated from company vehicles) which pay the full, published rates unlike the regular and locked patrons.

32697120411_83e06a9c23_z

Jubasan port

A little later when the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) built its own port in Jubasan, also in Allen, for their and their sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation’s use, BALWHARTECO then opened its gates to Montenegro Lines and so the company finally had access to the most advantageous port in Samar (this port is in direct line to the vehicles from Catarman and Rawis). It seems the creeping strategy of Montenegro was finally working. In shipping it is not necessary that a company will get the most advantageous port or route at the start. With patience and resources, better arrangements and opportunities soon open.

Developments and the Current Situation

I was watching what will be the fate of the Bicol ferry companies especially since the long bond and partnership between BALWHARTECO and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the biggest Bicol ferry company was broken with the building of the Jubasan port against the wishes and objection of the owners of BALWHARTECO (this episode almost reached the courts since the owner tried to stop the construction as he was the Mayor of Allen where the ports are located and bitterness was really high). Well, none sank, most even grew and that was a surprise for me.

34113452955_246b3d8555_z

Denica ferries in Masbate port

In Masbate, Denica Lines, which was basically only in motor bancas and cargo motor boats before fought back magnificently with the acquisition of the MV Odyssey to be followed by the MV Marina Empress which were just poor discards of other shipping companies. Both suffered engine troubles at the start and Denica Lines had to spend money for the two. Then this year Denica Lines was able to purchase a third basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the MV Regina Calixta II of Regina Shipping Lines of Catanduanes which was already buying bigger ferries. The MV Regina Calixta II is unrenamed as of this moment as changing names is actually not peanuts with regards to MARINA.

24071828998_7cd5cd8426_z

Denica fastcrafts refitting in Pilar port

And last year Denica Lines got two rundown fastcrafts which they are slowly refitting right in Pilar port. So right now or soon, it seems Denica Lines is already ready to slug it out with Montenegro Lines toe-to-toe in the Masbate City-Pilar route. Meanwhile, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and twin company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation is doing roaring business in the parallel Masbate City-Pio Duran route especially since Medallion Transport was driven away from that route after their MV Lady of Carmel sank. The truck loading in that route is so good that Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation bought the LCT Ongpin, lengthened it and fielded it in the route as the LCT Aldain Dowey. And that is aside from two 60-meter ROPAXes they maintain in the route. So if the ferries of Denica Lines and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation in the route from Masbate City to the Bicol mainland is totaled then Montenegro Lines is outmatched already except in the High Speed Crafts segment which competes with the big motor bancas of different companies.

In the Matnog-Samar routes, the Bicol ferry companies are more than holding its own although both has not grown except in frequency. If there was growth it was taken by Archipelago Ferries Corporation which fielded a brand-new FastCat in the Matnog-San Isidro route which is also doing good business. But in terms of net, Archipelago Ferries is not ahead as the business they gained with the fielding of FastCat might not be greater than the business they lost with the disposal of the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries (and they are paying docking fees in San Isidro Ferry Terminal while their own Dapdap port is unused). In my comparisons, I still consider Archipelago and Philharbor as Bicol ferries since they started as such although with the good FastCats now they are trying to erase their connection to the lousy Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries because obviously they are ashamed of their record there.

33763098613_dbc2fe5c1c_z

FastCat in San Isidro Ferry Terminal

And Montenegro Lines did not gain either in the Matnog-Allen route as the Bicol ferry companies was able to hold their own relative to them. If there was growth it was taken by the subsidiary of 2GO, the SulitFerry which operates a brand-new ROPAX LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26 and another one or two Cargo RORO LCTs depending on the season. Finally, 2GO discovered what was eating up their container shipping and passenger liner business and decided to compete (“if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”). Lacking enough resources, they started conservatively by just chartering new LCTs from Concrete Solutions Incorporated (CSI), owner of the Poseidon LCTs, whose fleet seems to be ever growing.

36636260331_f4c80c8a6c_z

The Poseidon 26 of Concrete Solutions and SulitFerry

In the routes to Catanduanes, there was obvious growth and changes. Initially, the most striking perhaps is the appearance of the two High Speed Crafts (although technically one is already a Medium Speed Craft) of the Cardinal Shipping Lines Incorporated, the MV Silangan Express 1 and the MV Silangan Express 3. I had my doubts early on about the viability of the two but it turned out they were doing okay. One reason maybe is their reasonable fares which is just about one will expect from a Tourist accommodation in a regular ferry and not double the Economy fare like what is charged in other parts of the country. The two HSCs of Cardinal Shipping also run in the hours not served by the regular ROPAX whose schedules are dictated by the arrivals of the buses (which means a morning departure from Tabaco and a noon departure from Catanduanes).

23643927218_5e72c032b2_z

The Regina Calixta VII (ex-Maharlika Cuatro). Photo by Dominic San Juan

One Catanduanes ferry company and a native of Catanduanes which made a great stride recently was Regina Shipping Lines or RSL. This company has already disposed their basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and instead bought bigger ferries. Part of their new acquisitions were the former MV Maharlika Tres, acquired from Atienza Shipping Lines and the former MV Maharlika Cuatro from Gabisan Shipping Lines. The two double-ended ferries became the MV Regina Calixta VI and and MV Regina Calixta VII in their fleet. The company was also able to acquire the former MV Grand Star RORO 3 which became the MV Regina Calixta VIII in their fleet. Rounding off the fleet is the MV Regina Calixta V which they acquired from China.

34003858141_d425abde12_z

The Regina Calixta VIII (ex-Grand Star RORO III)

The former ferries from Archipelago Ferries and Philharbor Ferries are no longer the sad ferries of Christopher Pastrana, the boastful. All feature Tourist accommodations now (there was none before) with a disco motif and sounds where good videos are played during the trip and all feature good, brand-new seats in Tourist (Regina Shipping Lines was in buses before and they know these things). Even the engines were refitted that the former MV Maharlika Tres is already running faster than her design speed (the maximum speed when new). The owner of Regina Shipping Lines simply opened his checkbook unlike Christopher Pastrana (who opened the checkbook of DBP instead) and the Mayon Docks of Tabaco City forthwith did the make-overs of the former lousy Archipelago and Philharbor ferries derided in the eastern seaboard. Now those ferries are already the favorites by the passengers.

There was also another change in the Masbate ferries. This was when Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) sold their MV Super Shuttle Ferry 19, a double-ended ferry that was off-and-on doing the Bogo-Cawayan route. She was bought by the D. Olmilla Shipping Corporation, refitted also in Mayon Docks and she became the MV Cawayan Ferry 1. She still plies the same route and schedule.

Meanwhile, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation was able to acquire last summer two former Tamataka Maru ships from Japan, the MV Tamataka Maru No. 85 and the MV Tamataka Maru No. 87 in a buy one, take one deal and the two ferries were refitted in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu (Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is a stockholder in the said yard). The MV Tamataka Maru No.85 is now running the new route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the Liloan-Lipata route across Surigao Strait, an expansion route outside Bicol acquired by the company some two or three years ago. The ship is now renamed as the MV Adrian Jude and she is meant to compete with the MV SWM Stella del Mar of the Southwest Premier Ferries, a new operator in that route using a brand-new ferry similar to and the sister ship of the new vessels of Starlite Ferries of Batangas.

36783499863_79842bd913_z

The Adrian Jude. Photo by Capt. John Andrew R. Lape

The former MV Tamataka Maru No.87 is also ready now, she is already in Bicol and waiting but unrenamed yet according to the last information I received a day ago. She is meant to ply the new route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation from Masbate to Cebu, another new expansion route of the company but the exact route is still being applied for. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is one Bicol company aside from Denica Lines which has shown aggressive growth in the past years.

Meanwhile, it seems Montenegro Lines has lost its aggressiveness. Their fleet size in Bicol is practically the same although they rotate ships especially in the Matnog-Samar route (except for the MV Reina Emperatriz there and the MV Maria Angela in Masbate). Their only addition in Bicol is their new catamaran MV City of Angeles, a High Speed Craft in the Masbate-Pilar route.

37293288352_e5643fb6c8_z

The City of Angeles

I was trying to analyze the lack of zest and the lack of pep of Montenegro Lines in the recent years especially in the context of Bicol shipping. It seems that when their “patron saint” went out of power and was made an enforced guest, Montenegro Lines’ drive faltered. It also seems that the blessings usually going to Montenegro Lines already went to another shipping company and so Montenegro Lines had to scrounge for additional ferries whereas before, they were buying ferries as if the supply of it won’t last (now it is the new favorite which is precisely doing that). Now, i don’t really know how come their blessings went away.

I do not know. Things can always change and it seems Montenegro Lines is no longer that great a threat to the Bicol ferry companies which showed spunk in the recent years except for 168 Shipping Lines, the owner of the local Star Ferry ships which seems to be languishing with no ship additions.

One loss, however, is something that cannot be averted and has long been expected. This is the discontinuance of the LCT to Cagraray island from the Albay mainland across the very narrow Sula Channel which has been a ship shelter for centuries now. A new bridge has been built connecting the fabled island which hosts the well-promoted Misibis Resort, the best resort in Albay province.

But as a whole Bicol ferry shipping was on the rise in the recent years and that is surely a good thing for the region.

The Disproportionality of the Ferry Losses in the Philippines

Many times the question of if our ferries are safe is asked. This is especially true when a ferry has an accident or is lost especially when the casualty count is high. Rather than answering the question straight, if I am asked, I might answer it “it depends” because that is probably the most exact answer to the question anyway but then many will be puzzled by that answer (pilosopo ba?). Read on and you will be enlightened further and maybe your views about the safety our ferries might change.

23032624_10212883313670742_3140044798308994657_n

Even if a car is new it doesn’t mean it won’t take a dip into the water. Same principle applies with ships. Photo by Zed Garett (happened just today — what a timely photo for my article). Thanks a lot to the photo owner.

But first a clarification. I am purposely limiting this topic to ferries because tackling all the ship types at once will be very heavy and tedious as we have more freighters than ferries and add to that the other types like the tugs, tankers, etc. The ferry losses is the segment that actually raises the hackles of the people of the country who are mainly uneducated on the topic of maritime losses. This relative ignorance is further fanned by our also-uneducated media whose writers and editors cannot even seem to get the ferries’ names right (it seems they are too lazy to verify with MARINA, the maritime authority). Of course, it is well-known that our media is on the sensationalistic side and so oftentimes accuracy, objectivity and balance are lost with that (do these sell anyway?).

Another limitation I also pose here is I won’t include our wooden-hulled passenger crafts in the discussion. Those crafts are really flimsy especially those equipped with outriggers, the motor bancas. This ship type (those are ships because any sea craft having a passenger capacity of 12 is not a boat) lacks the basic safety equipment that even without a storm they can sink like when an outrigger breaks or when the hull develops a leak big enough that water can’t be bailed fast enough. But I would rather not comment on their seamanship or lack of formal maritime education because in my decades of traveling at sea I found that many of them are actually very good in reading the wind and the waves, a nautical skill that is not taught in maritime schools anymore. Also excluded in the discussion are the wooden-hulled lanchas and batels which were formerly called as motor boats which are not called as motor launches.

My topic here is about the disproportionality (or lack of proportionality) of our maritime losses to clarify that our ferry losses are not proportional with regards to the area and to the ship type (the implication is not all sink). Like what I just mentioned earlier, our wooden-hulled crafts especially the motor bancas are prone to losses especially in areas notorious for its dangerous waves like in Surigao. But these sea crafts continue to exist because in many cases these are the most practical crafts for certain routes like the routes to our small islands and islets or the coastal barrios that have no roads (or if taking the roundabout road will take too long). Motor bancas can land even on bare shores which the other crafts can’t do and moreover these can operate profitably on the barest minimum of passengers and cargo something which is impossible in steel-hulled vessels which have engines that are much, much bigger and are heavier.

The liners, our multi-day ships, among our class of ferries are also very vulnerable to losses (a surprise?) and much more than others classes pro rata to their small number. Relative to their small number, we have lost a lot of liners in the past for a variety of reasons – capsizing, foundering, beaching, wrecking, collision, fire, bombing and explosion. And this might come as a surprise to many because in the main it is our liners that are the biggest, these hold the highest of the certificates (and in insurance many have the comprehensive P & I or “Protection and Indemnity”), these have our most experienced and best crewmen supposedly (unlike in smaller ferries where a Second Mate can serve as Captain of the ship) and much pride of its shipping company is riding on them (well, not all, as we had liners that were no more than the average overnight ferry).

But this vulnerability is actually completely true. We lost the SuperFerry 3 (fire in a shipyard in 2000), SuperFerry 6 (fire while sailing in 2000 too), the SuperFerry 7 (fire in port in 1997), SuperFerry 9 (capsizing in 2009), the SuperFerry 14 (firebombing in 2000 but the official report says otherwise). A total of five SuperFerries when only a total of 20 ships ever carried the name “SuperFerry” (it seems it is not a good name?). The St. Thomas Aquinas, the former SuperFerry 2 was lost in a collision in 2013 and the St. Gregory The Great, the former SuperFerry 20 was also lost (taking a shortcut and hitting the reefs and she was no longer repaired and just sold after equipment was taken out). These two ferries were already under 2GO when they were lost. Not included here were the groundings of the Dona Virginia and the Our Lady of Banneux (technically under Cebu Ferries Corporation then but an actual liner) from which they were never repaired and ending their sailing careers).

Sulpicio Lines is much-lambasted and derided by most of our people but actually they have less losses from their “Princess” and “Don/Dona” series of ships in the comparative period as the existence of the “SuperFerries” of WG&A (William, Gothong & Aboitiz and its successor company Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). However, it is true that in passenger casualties the total of Sulpicio Lines is much, much higher because they have the tendency to sail straight into storms like the revered Compania Maritima before them (in terms of ship losses and not in casualties) and that historical company took a lot of losses from those risk-takings too (and more than even Sulpicio Lines).

From 1996 when the WG&A was formed, Sulpicio Lines only lost the Philippine Princess (fire while under refitting in 1997), the Princess of the Orient (capsizing in a storm in 1998), the Iloilo Princess (fire and capsizing while under refitting in 2003), the Princess of the World (fire while sailing in 2005) and the Princess of the Stars (capsizing in a storm in 2008) and the Princess of the Pacific (serious grounding incident resulting in complete total loss in 2004). That is until they were suspended in 2008 when only one liner was left sailing for them, the Princess of the South which did not sink.

In the comparative period, WG&A and ATS employed a total of 24 liners (the overnight ferries of Cebu Ferries Corporation was obviously not included here are they are not multiday liners). Sulpicio Lines had a total of 22 liners in the parallel period so their numbers are about even. But the ship loss total of WG&A, ATS and 2GO is clearly higher and the public was never made aware of this. Maybe some good PR works while it seems Sulpicio Lines never took care of that and all they knew was feeding their passengers well (unli rice or smorgasbord, anyone?). But then however those liner losses are scandalous in number, by whatever measure. Imagine losing more than one liner per year on the average.

Some of the liners of WG&A and ATS were not SuperFerries in name but but the Our Ladies, the two Cities and a Dona from William Lines had perfect safety records as none of them was ever lost. Now, does the choice of name matter in safety? Or the “lesser” ferries do try harder and are more careful? That discrepancy certainly made me think and it might be worth a study.

Negros Navigation was far safer than the WG&A and Sulpicio Lines losing only the St. Francis Xavier in 1999. Do naming of liners after saints enhance their safety? Conversely, do naming of liners with the qualifier “Super” means the ship will sink faster? Questions, questions. But the lightly-regarded and revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (CAGLI) tops them all with absolutely no losses. Now for a company that sometimes have difficulty painting their ships that is something (while the spic-and-span WG&A and ATS which repaints their liners while sailing tops the losses department). Does it mean it is better not to repaint liners well? I observed in the eastern seaboard that the ships that are not painted well have no losses (until the dumb Archipelago Ferries let its stalled Maharlika II sank into the waves in 2014 without rescuing it and thereby breaking the record – that ship was newly painted when it went under so the repainting might have doomed her?). Well, in my earlier thesis and later in this article I find it funny that the ships which are more rusty does not sink as long as it is not a Batangas ship (ah, the disproportionality again). While those that can always afford new paint like WG&A and successor ATS sink. Is a new coat of paint a sign of danger for the ship? Or is it the P & I insurance that did them in? Funny, funny. Negros Navigation when it was already in trouble and lacks the money already did not have one ship sinking. So the illiquidity which Negros Navigation suffered means more safety? Har, har! Whatever, I want to commend them and top honcho Sulficio Tagud for taking the high road and not just let the ships sink just to collect insurance. And last note, in multi-day liner operations before, Aleson Shipping Lines never lost a ship.

Liners sink at a faster rate pro rata compared to overnight ferries (if the wooden-hulled ferries of the past are not counted) and that is a big puzzle to me. And of course nobody will know for sure because nobody studied that as we don’t have the equivalent of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) of the USA which call in true experts and go in depth why the transportation accidents happened. Is it because while on a voyage the liners are practically running 24 hours a days and systems, equipment and personnel are stressed more? Is it because the ships reach their reliability/cycles earlier in terms of hours of usage like the electrical lines which is a cause of fire? Or are their crew simply more tired and believes that their ships with high certifications are less vulnerable to sinking (as if those certificates will keep the ship afloat)?

In the earlier decades and even recently it is known that liners take more chances with storms and maybe because they think they can battle the waves better because they are bigger. There are shipping companies who were known to be more brave (or foolhardy?) in sailing ships when there are storms about and among them the old Compania Maritima and Sulpicio Lines almost surely top the list. Now, however, the field is more level as all Philippine ships are barred from sailing when the center wind of the storm reaches 60kph. And for the smaller ships less than 250gt they are not permitted to sail when the center wind is already 45kph or when the local weather agency PAGASA declares a “gale warning” even though there is no a gale. When the suspensions are in effect better just watch the foreign ships still continue sailing for they are not covered by the suspension and most actually use INMARSAT or equivalent which is just a curiosity in the local maritime world until now when that is already well-established outside of the Philippines (the lousy PAGASA which can’t do localized forecasts seems to be already good for them since it is free while they have to pay for INMARSAT).

Liners also sink faster than short-distance ferries whose sailing durations are all short and whose crews probably know their particular seas and routes more. When to think most short-distance ferries which are always small are captained in the main by Second or Third Mates and whose engine department are headed by Second or sometimes by just Marine Diesel Mechanics who have not even finished college but passed an exam just the same (well, competence in running and maintaining a machine well is not necessarily dictated by diplomas, trust me). Even though liners might be using ECDIS don’t be too sure they will reach their destination better than the lowly short-distance ferry using just what is called as dead reckoning. In truth, ECDIS or whatever better bridge equipment does not guarantee better seamanship or navigation. After all it will not show the wind and wave which only something like INMARSAT can.

So in liners disproportionality already exist. And their international certifications don’t even save them from disasters. So, I advise those who take liners, don’t be very sure and make the necessary precautions like memorizing the different alarms and making sure where your life vests are. And don’t jump to the water too early. Liners are tall and that plunge could hurt you. And when in the water at night tie yourselves together so as not to drift (a whistle is a big help in calling attention if you are drifting). Note the water can be cold at night and hypothermia can set in. Take a selfie too before jumping and upload it. Who knows if it will be your last photo. Your loved ones will sure prize it. Ah, don’t take all I said in this paragraph too seriously.

In overnight ferries there seems to be disproportionality with regards to companies and not to home port (if analyzed pro rata to the size of the fleet which means the size of the fleets are taken into consideration) and to the routes. Well, for practical purposes there are only a few home ports for overnight ferries – Cebu, Zamboanga, Batangas, Manila, Lucena and Iloilo, in that order maybe in terms of sailings (a clarification, there are overnight ships originating from say northern Mindanao but all of those ferries are actually based in Cebu). Analyzing, some overnight ferry companies deserve the Gold Award while some should be suspended from service, maybe.

It must be noted that one of the biggest overnight ferries two decades ago and which dominated the Visayas-Mindanao waters for nearly a decade, the Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC), a subsidiary of WG&A and successor Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) did not lose a single ship ever until it they left Cebu for Batangas and became the “Batangas Ferries” and even there their perfect streak continued. Maybe some of their people need to be recruited by other companies or sent there by MARINA to share the experience. They can lecture on the topic, “On How Not To Sink”. Maybe it is not just with the choice of name that they were safe? Or was it in the livery? The only problem it seems is they did not send their Captains to their liners like the St. Thomas Aquinas who made a dumb mistake trying to test the hardness of the ice-classed bow of the Sulpicio Express Siete.

In the Cebu-based regional shipping companies which are operators of overnight ferries it is probably Lite Ferries who is the Valedictorian having lost no ships even though their fleet is already big. Maybe that will come as a surprise to many but whatever they deserve a big round of applause. Another company whose Captains might need to be recruited by other shipping companies or pry open their secret if there is any. Are they better readers of SOLAS? One thing I am sure though is its owner does not belong to the same fraternity as one former Batangas shipping company owner who threatens mayhem if his ship sinks.

There are other overnight ferry companies in Cebu that could have shared First Honors with Lite Ferries but in a tie-breaker Lite Ferries wins because they have the most ships and not by a small margin at that. Others with perfect records are the defunct Palacio Lines (well, some might argue that that is a Samar shipping company but I digress). Now I can’t understand why an overnight ferry company with a perfect safety record will go under as a company. Seems something is not right. Aside from Palacio Lines there are a lot of there Cebu-based overnight ferry companies that have perfect safety records in terms of having no ship losses. Some of these are still extant and sailing and some have already quit the business (it’s a waste, isn’t it, for them to just go away like that).

Among these is the legendary Gabisan Shipping Lines, VG Shipping, Kinswell Shipping, Roly Shipping, Jadestar Shipping, South Pacific Transport and many other smaller shipping lines with just one or two ships (most of these are already gone now but still their perfect records remain). I just don’t know why they can’t catch a break from MARINA as in they are not given special citations and handed more privileges in sailing because after all they have proven they know their stuff in shipping. But no, when MARINA goes headhunting in safety they are lambasted in the same vein as those which had sunk ships as if they are just as guilty. Actually, to set the record straight about half of the overnight ferry companies in the whole Philippines never had any ship losses. This is true even in Zamboanga where Magnolia Shipping Lines, Ever Lines and a lot of other operators with just one or two steel-hulled ferries have perfect safety records. Now, can’t MARINA even for once credit them properly and publish their names because the way I feel at times with media reports and with MARINA statements it is as if all our shipping companies already had sunk ships which is simply not the case. In the liner sector that is true but in the overnight ferry and short-distance sector, combined, most shipping companies never had any ship losses. Don’t they deserve credit and more respect and recognition? But no, they are sunk not beneath the waves but in obscurity and that is one of the purpose of this article, to set the record straight.

In Manila, the old MBRS Lines and its successor Romblon Shipping Line never lost a ship (but the company is dead now anyway, sunk by the intermodal). In Lucena, Kalayaan Shipping Lines might have a perfect safety record too at least in steel-hulled ferries. In Batangas, there are operators of just one or two ferries which have not lost a ship (do they take care not to lose one because that will mean the shutdown of operations?). In Iloilo, did Milagrosa Shipping Lines already lost a ship? In number half of the overnight ferry operators never lost a ship although in the number of ships owned theirs comprise just the minority, to clarify.

It is in short-distance ferries that I noticed a lot more of disproportionalities especially in the recent decades when maritime databases were able to keep track with them (the wooden-hulled short-distance ferries generally doesn’t have IMO Numbers so keeping track of them is difficult but these lanchas or batels were our early short-distance ferries aside from the motor bancas). For this sector or segment I would rather stick to steel-hulled ferries like what I mentioned early on especially since there is no way to track the hundreds and hundreds of motor bancas and their losses which are not even properly reported at times.

There are areas, routes and short-distance companies that have perfect safety records (again, wooden hulled ferries are not included here and that also mean the earlier years). In the eastern seaboard where the typhoons first strike and where it is fiercest the routes and shipping companies there have a perfect safety record ever since the steel-hulled ships first appeared in 1979. This was only broken in 2013 due to the dumbness of a stranger which invaded the Masbate waters (is that part of the eastern seaboard anyway? but Masbate is in Bicol). They withdrew from Bicol after that incident to just sail the more benign Camotes Sea waters. And that is one of the reasons why I was furious at Archipelago Ferries for not coming to the aid of their stalled ship for 6 hours when their good ship was just just two hours sailing away and so the stricken ship slid off the waves (shouldn’t someone be hanged for that?). Because of that the perfect record of the local shipping companies based in the eastern seaboard was broken. I just hope the crewmen of Maharlika Cuatro which failed to respond to an SOS then are not employed in the FastCats now.

Short-distance ferries also does not sink in the Tablas Sea crossings or in the routes to Marinduque from Lucena. However, I do not know what is the curse of the Verde Island Passage that many ships have been already lost there when to think practically the same shipping companies ply the three routes mentioned. To think the Tablas Sea wind and waves could be rougher than that in Verde Island Passage. Did they assign their lousier crews there? Just asking. As they say the proof is in the pudding (and the pudding tastes bad).

I just wonder too about the luck of the Mindanao Sea crossings. The waves there could also be rough and the crossing is longer but none was ever lost among the short-distance ferries running the Dumaguete-Dapitan, Samboan-Dapitan and Jagna-Balingoan routes. Like in Tablas Strait, do the longer route makes the crews more careful? Are the crews there better trained and has better seamanship?

The many routes connecting Cebu island and Negros island and Negros island and Panay island are also safe. Hard to find there a short-distance steel-hulled ferry that sank. That is also true for the steel-hulled ferries connecting Masbate island to Cebu island when the distance there is also long for a short-distance ferry and the wind and waves are no less dangerous. What is their secret there? Is it just that Camotes Sea navigators are lousier? With exceptions, of course because Gabisan Shipping surely will not agree.

I could go to the less obscure, short-distance routes. Just the same I will tell you these are also safe. Never heard of a steel ferry going to Alabat that sank. Or to Dinagat and Siargao islands (sure their motor bancas sink). Or the routes to Basilan from Zamboanga. Not even a RORO to Guimaras have sunk or a RORO to Bantayan island. That is also true for the short-distance connections within Romblon island served by steel-hulled ships (the Princess Camille that capsized in Romblon port in 2003 was an overnight ferry from Batangas). No steel-hulled ferry connecting Leyte and Bohol was ever lost too. And that is also true for the route connecting Siquijor to Dumaguete.

So a lot of our short-distance routes and the ferries plying them are actually safe. Who can argue against a perfect safety record? A little rust will not sink ships nor would a non-functioning firefighting pump (and the ship is not in the middle of an ocean anyway). Those are just a little margins that are not that critical. Does not look good to the eye but to a passenger like me it is more important if MARINA enforces their Memorandum Circular that ferries should feed its passengers if the arrival of the ship exceeds 7am. And I am more concerned if the ship is clean especially the rest rooms and if there is clean drinking water. Besides, trust me, our mariners are not that negligent or dumb that they will leave the ramps unclosed and then sail like what some Europeans did.

So are our ferries safe? Yes, it is except for the liners, some shipping companies and some routes and areas. Never mind if they are old. It is not necessarily the factor that will sink ships (a ship if it loses motive power still has the flotation of a barge). It is actually the lack of seamanship that sinks ships (old ship, new ship can both collide or fail to heed the weather). And trust the short-distance ferries on the fringes and don’t underestimate them. The crew won’t let their ships sink if their families, relatives, friends, schoolmates, etc. are aboard. Well, not all. Be a little wary in Verde Island Passage and in Camotes Sea.

Let us be more objective. Our ferries and mariners are not really that bad, contrary to what hecklers say.

Do the Sinkings of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and MS Estonia Have Any Bearing On Us?

The two named incidents are among the most famous in the maritime world when RORO or ROPAX accidents are mentioned and discussed. The two cases have been used in many times to highlight the weakness of ROROs compared to conventional freighters which feature watertight compartments which the ROROs are sorely lacking (watertight compartments prevent ingress of water in case of a hull breach). Moreover, the two incidents have been used as rationales for RORO design changes and reforms in safety policies.

From “The Express” of UK

The MS Herald of Free Enterprise was a 131.9-meter ferry built in 1980 then sailing from Belgium to England. She sailed on a night of March 6, 1987 but the deck crew forgot to close the bow door and this door was not visible from the bridge and there was no CCTV to check that. When the ship reached cruising speed the sea entered the deck in great quantity which produced what is called the “free surface effect” which in this particular case was sea water sloshing within the hull that destroyed her stability causing her to capsize. That happened just minutes after leaving the port of Zeebrugge.

The MS Estonia was a 157.0-meter ferry built in 1979 then sailing from Estonia to Sweden. She sailed one night on September 28, 1994 on stormy seas of winds of 55 to 75 kilometers per hour which was considered normal in the part of the Baltic Sea in that part of the year. The significant wave height of the sea was estimated to be from 13 to 20 feet. On that particular night the visor bow door of the failed and it dragged the bow ramp of the ship. The visor door was not visible from the bridge. Water then entered the ship in great quantity and flooded the vehicle deck of the RORO and the free surface effect caused her to capsize much like what happened to the MS Herald of Free Enterprise.

From “The Local” of Sweden

These two grievious sinkings upset the ROPAX world causing changes in RORO designs like the recommendation that instead of having a bow ramp it is better for the ROROs to just have front quarter ramps where the blow from the waves will not be in great force. There was also the suggestion that front ramp mechanisms be done away completely and it seems this might already been adopted at least in principle. One effect is the sealing of bow ramps on some ships that have this feature. And the visor bow door was almost completely gone in RORO designs because of the MS Estonia incident as the thinking that it was an unsafe design (the hinges bear the whole weight of the visor door which are heavy).

But do these twin sinkings have any bearing on us, the Philippines, where a lot of ROROs especially the small ones have active bow ramps? All our basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs just have one ramp and this is located at the bow of the ship. Even the next size of ferries to the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs, those that are over 40 meters in length and have a passenger deck of more than one also commonly feature an active bow ramp (I am comparing this to ROROs that have bow and stern ramps but the bow ramp is not actively used or is permanently closed). And then all our LCTs and many of these are in passenger-cargo application also have just one ramp and the specific feature of LCTs is all of those just have one ramp and it is at the bow.

Superferry 18

The quarter-front ramp of the SuperFerry 18 (Photo by Jonathan Boonzaier)

But did any of our ferries with just one active ramp and at the bow at that ever sink like the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia? The answer is a big NO. We had sinkings of our ROROs with active bow ramps but not in the same circumstances as the sinking of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia. 

The MS Herald of Free Enterprise sank because of crew negligence and/or mistake. How would you call a ship sailing with its bow ramp and door open? Anywhere else that is plain idiocy. But here it happens commonly (LOL!). A lot of our small ROROs do not really close their ramps fully when sailing when the weather is good so that the hot car deck will have more ventilation (o ha!). That is against MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) rules of course but there are no MARINA people roaming the ports anyway. And if the bow ramps need to be completely closed that is easily checked and it is also very visible from the bridge as small RORO just have one car deck and so the bow ramp is almost line of sight with the bridge (actually if there is a problem it is that the bow ramp hampers the view of the navigation crew). Our ROROs also have a lot of crewmen and apprentices that failing to check the bow ramp is almost an impossibility and besides the Chief Mate will always be there (that high a position ha!) because he is in charge of the loading and unloading. So I say the MS Herald of Free Enterprise incident has no bearing here.

35023213483_c61b439cf0_z

The basic, short-distance ferry-RORO that only has a bow ramp

Our small ROROs also don’t have bow visor door like the MS Estonia. How can it be when their mechanisms are very simple? They don’t even have hydraulic three-piece ramps and winches are all that are needed to raise the ramps to close or lower it to open the ramps. So how can one thing fail when it isn’t there? Now, if there are cracks or rust-throughs in the ramp mechanism that will be visible to all including the passengers, the drivers of the cars, the truck crews, the arrastre people and the hangers-on in the port. And Coast Guard people check on the safety of the ship before departures and supposedly they are very good on that and so what is then the problem? If there is already weakening of the ramp mechanism that will easily show when a heavy truck is loaded or unloaded and all would notice that. After all we are very good in noticing things unlike the Europeans (we notice what one wears and what are the latest rumors in town).

And besides all our ships here don’t sail in gale-force seas like the MS Estonia. Here when there is what is called a tropical depression (which means winds of 45 kilometers per hour), trips are already suspended. Even if there is no storm but the wind is high and the seas are choppy the local weather agency PAGASA that does not follow international conventions will already issue a “gale warning” even if there is no gale. So how can an MS Estonia incident happen here? That is impossible already when Malacanang and MARINA got too strict in sailings in bad weather.

Morever, our small ROROs were mainly built by the Japanese and Japan-built ships were never involved in failures and sinkings like what happened to the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia. We might have salty seas that produce rust but not the frigid waters and weather that accelerate the cracks in the metal like what befell the MS Estonia. Besides if there are ramp weakenings that is repaired early (who wants to earn the ire of vehicle owners when their rig can’t get out of the RORO and the RORO can’t sail and not earn revenues?). Our shipyards are experts in that type of repair/replacement (due to the high weights of some trucks and trailers the ramps normally buckle in loading and if it is already bent enough it is sent to the shipyard for ramp replacement).

Additionally, our local crew are really good and we are even known internationally for supplying hundreds of thousands of crew in international ships. There are small ROROs whose ramps fell our while in use but no sinkings ever happened because of that. But of course nobody would report such incidents to MARINA but I vow such things actually happened. Doesn’t that speak of the quality of our crews unlike the European crews (har har!). And our code of omerta?

11789058185_f64724dc08_z

An LCT (Photo by Aris Refugio)

If we had capsizings of our small ROROs with bow ramps it was not because of “free surface effect” but of unbalanced loading maybe like what happened to Baleno Nine in Verde Island Passage and the Lady of Mt. Carmel in the Burias Gap. But I thought the Philippine Ports Author (PPA) had already installed weighing stations at the entrance of the important ports and so what is the problem? Our cargo masters are also very good in estimating the weight of a truck by just looking at its wheels, if there is no weighbridge available.

If sea water entered the car deck of our small ROROs it seemed the point of entry was at the stern like what happened to the Emerald 1 which seemed to fail in a sea surge off Matuco Pt. in Batangas and the Ocean King II which seemed to be a victim of a rogue wave in Surigao Strait (both of these ships also sank in the dark like the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and MS Estonia; it seems the dark is additional danger as checking of things are more difficult). This is also what happened to British RORO Princess Victoria in 1953 when her crew can’t handle water from storm surge in the English Channel entering the car deck through the stern door and ramp. So, empirically, shouldn’t we be closing stern ramps and not the bow ramp? I mean let us be consistent and logical? We should not just copying some rules because some dumb European ships experienced failures. Let us proceed from evidence.

We also have a RORO, a half-RORO at that because she looks like a conventional cargo ship but she has a stern ramp and she had a passenger deck built atop what should be cargo deck. This was the Kalibo Star which sank in daytime on a rainy day with choppy seas in 1997. Water seeped into a hatch that the crew failed to close and “free surface effect” capsized the ship. So from evidence it seems what we really should we be closing are the stern ramps and not ROROs (well, even the capsized Princess of the Orient and Princess of the Stars were stern loading ROROs). I mean shouldn’t we proceeding from empirical evidence instead of being copycats? (Disclosure: I have a private database of over 300 Philippine ships that was lost since the end of the war which I have consulted.)

4562561467_9133caa6e0_z

The Samar Star, a ship similar to the lost Kalibo Star (Photo by JC Cabanillas)

Hindi tayo dapat uto-uto (we should not be like marionettes). If there is a marionette in our maritime world it might our MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency who is wont to sign all the protocols handed down by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) so as the claim “we” are “IMO-compliant” and brag as if that is an achievement. Why, we don’t even use IMO Numbers as MARINA insists on its own numbers that are not searchable anywhere else. And when former Senator Miriam asked that those protocols be submitted to the Senate for ratification the government of Noynoy flatly refused. Now it seems these signed protocols are being bandied about as if they are official, as if those have the force of law like what they do with the ISPS protocol. From what I know only our Congress can pass national laws and that was why the late Miriam was pointedly challenging MARINA then. These protocols we signed are not part of our laws, they do not have the effect of a law and if one searches there are no penal provisions attached unlike in a law.

Besides we should not be bandying some rare failures in a different land (or sea) as if they general application. In engineering, the lessons derived from a cause of failure is specific in use and is not generalized. If a bridge or a building collapsed it does not mean that all the bridges and buildings with similar designs have to be torn down or closed. If a plane of sweptback wing design crashes not all sweptback planes are banned. Is the maritime world not an engineering world too (it was not when hulls were still wooden and we have not graduated from that?). So the maritime world is not an empirical world but a world of knee jerk artists?

Rather than blindly following IMO protocols we should have our own empirical study of our ship losses so more concrete lessons can be gained.

But then I doubt if MARINA and the Philippine Coast Guard even have a complete database of our ship losses (it seems they can’t provide a list of more than 50 sinkings).

As they say, let us proceed from evidence. Let us not assume we are as dumb like some Europeans.

Was It Choking Or Indigestion For Starlite Ferries?

Almost since its establishment I tried to monitor the Starlite Ferries which was founded by Alfonso Cusi who has Mindoro origins. Starlite Ferries was easier to track since unlike her pair Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. which is related in a way to them in patronship, Starlite Ferries did not expand beyond Mindoro unlike the other one which can be found practically all over the Philippines (and so it has the distinction of being a national shipping line without being a liner company). Starlite Ferries, meanwhile, remained a short-distance ferry company and in this segment they basically carry rolling cargo or in layman’s term we call that as vehicles and passengers, of course.

37502538022_bc1dafb3c3_h

Starlite Pioneer by Raymond A. Lapus

Over the years of its existence, Starlite consistently added ferries to its fleet (although they had sales and disposals too) until they reached some 11 passenger ships in 2013, to wit, the Starlite Jupiter, Starlite Phoenix (a fastcraft), Starlite Juno (a fastcraft), Starlite Neptune, Starlite Polaris, Starlite Annapolis, Starlite Atlantic, Starlite Navigator, Starlite Ferry, Starlite Pacific and the Starlite Nautica. In their track record, aside from surplus ships acquired from Japan they were not anathema to buying the discards of other local shipping company like when the Shipshape/Safeship ferry dual ferry companies quit operations and they took over its fleet (but not the routes to Romblon). And from Cebu they got a ferry from the defunct FJP Lines which is better known as Palacio Lines. Actually, the first three ships of Starlite Ferries which are no longer existing now were from other local shipping companies.

However, over the years, what I noticed with Starlite Ferries is although their fleet is already relatively big by local standards they did not get out of the confines of Mindoro where they were just serving four routes. These are the Batangas-Calapan, Batangas-Puerto Galera, Batangas-Abra de Ilog and Roxas-Caticlan routes. The longest of this route is the last named that takes four hours of sailing time while the other routes take two to two-and-a-half hours depending on the ship. With such length of sailing time it can be gleaned that actually their 11 ferries is  a little bit over already than their need for the four routes.

33337108313_b5a84116fc_k

Starlite Reliance by Carl Jakosalem

So it came as a bombshell for me and many others that they will be getting 10 new ferries from Japan through a loan with a government loan window (and the first one, the Starlite Pioneer arrived in 2015). They were too proud of the coup and acquisition, of course, and they crowed about it in the media with all the jeers about the old ferries but I was skeptical. My first question is where will they put it. It is easy to apply for new routes but the approval is another matter. They do not own MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the maritime regulatory agency, it is no longer the reign of the nina bonita Maria Elena Bautista who did a lot for her patron and its pet Montenegro Lines. And I was sure the players that will be affected by their planned entry will fight tooth and nail (who wouldn’t?) and the approval process for franchises goes through public hearings anyway and if there is real opposition then it will be difficult to rig it (what are lawyers for anyway?). Getting route franchises is not as easy as getting it from a grocery shelf unless it is a missionary route which no shipping company has plied before except for motor bancas. And there is no more possibility now that a program like the “Strong Republic Nautical Highway” of Gloria which created new routes (and made it appear that old routes are “new routes”). It was the time of Noynoy when their new ferries came and Al Cusi who is identified with Gloria was out of power.

It is obvious that they can only absorb the new ferries well if they can dispose all their old ferries. But regarding the price it will be, “Are they buying or are they selling?”. That means forced selling will not gain them a good price and with the ferry structure in the country and their fleet size I am not even sure if there will be enough buyers especially when banks are averse to extending loans to shipping companies. Pinoys are averse to the breaking of still-good ships unless one’s name is starts with “A” and ends with “z” or maybe connected to 2GO (well, Negros Navigation’s case then was different as there was force majeure in it).

37670389081_67d9e71de0_k

Starlite Eagle by Carl Jakosalem

And they might be forced to sell their old ships if they have honor because after all the owner Al Cusi is one of the hecklers of our old ferries and pushing for their forced retirement (and the sauce for the goose should also be the sauce for the gander but then Al Cusi was not selling old ferries until his end in shipping). I thought those in government should lead by example? By 2016, with the ascension of Digong, Al Cusi was back in power and my fears of an administrative fiat to phase out old ships intensified.

Then a news item came out that they will enter the prime Ormoc route. My immediate thought was of a dogfight not only in sailing but also in the approval process of a franchise. The Ormoc route from Cebu has a lot of parallel routes competing with it (like Palompon, Baybay, Hilongos, Bato and Albuera routes) and all of them will raise a howl against the entry of an outsider especially one with good ships, naturally. I was even titillated how that will play out (it could have been a good boxing match or worse an MMA fight). But then nothing came out of that news. Well, certainly Al Cusi knows how to pick a good route, I thought, but he might have underestimated the opposition (of course, the better the route, the fiercer will be the opposition).

And then another news item was published that Starlite Ferries will go into Southeast Asia routes. Well, really? That was my thought as I had doubts again. It is Indonesia that is the most archipelagic in our region but I knew the rates there are too cheap and sometimes as ROROs there is practically no fare charged in the old ships if patrons don’t want to pay (and so I remember the problem of some of our operators in our ARMM Region where collection of fares can be a problem and rates are really so low). They wanna go there with brand-new ships, I thought? Won’t there be demand for reciprocity? Oh, well, I would welcome Indonesian ferries in our waters especially if they are liners, why not? Now, what a way of upsetting the cart, I mused. But then nothing came out of that too.

37454566420_4f27dcd032_k

Starlite Saturn by Raymond A. Lapus

The logical is actually to phase out his old ferries immediately as there is no way to create a bonanza of new routes given how difficult it is to secure new routes in the country and actually the situation is the feasibility of routes are limited as it is dictated by people and goods movements and not by wish, simple geography as in nearness or MARINA inducement. They can try the Pilar-Aroroy route that was validated by three titled international experts on shipping with all the feasibility study calculations but then as known by the locals it wouldn’t last and they were proven right as the route lasted only a few months (Archipelago Philippine Ferries tried it). Plus they might have to dredge Pilar port as that is shallow for their ships (the government will pass on to them their dredging responsibilities and they will be lucky to earn a thank you). MARINA has actually a lot of routes that they were promoting like the Pasacao to Burias route, the Cataingan to Maripipi route, et cetera but shipping operators not biting as they are not fools unlike some sitting in some MARINA chairs. With Starlite Ferries obliged to pay the bank amortization they cannot simply let their ships gather barnacles in Batangas Bay.

But where will he sell his old ferries? Many of the ships of Starlite Ferries are not fit to be small short-distance ferry-ROROs, the type most needed and most flexible to field (that will survive better in low-density routes) and now the problem is that is being supplanted now in many cases by the passenger-cargo LCTs and RORO Cargo LCTs which may be slow but are cheap to operate (and so many of these are arriving from China brand-new and not surplus with good terms). The reinforcements that entered San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait were actually LCTs (the former are operated by SulitFerry, a 2GO enterprise) and there are LCTs that are new arrivals in Tablas Strait that belong to Orange Navigation, a sister company of Besta Shipping.

Cebu won’t buy it as what is mainly needed there are overnight ships and generally bigger than what Starlite Ferries have. The actual direction of ferry sales is from Cebu to Batangas and not the other way around. It is also hard to sell the Starlite ferries to Zamboanga as only one shipping line has the capability there to buy (Aleson Shipping Line) and they have enough ships already and they can afford to buy direct from Japan. It won’t be Manila as there are no more overnight ships there remaining to Mindoro and Romblon (Starlite Ferries helped sank Moreta Shipping Lines, MBRS Lines and its successor Romblon Shipping Lines). The operators to Coron and Cuyo are not that big and the Starlite ships are too big for those routes. It is really hard to dispose of 11 ferries unless Starlite gives it on a lay-away plan but then they have to pay the bank for their new acquisitions.

37388111702_16a90d55ce_z

Starlite Archer by John Edmund

I feared Al Cusi with his Malacanang clout and political clout (he is vice-president of the ruling party now) will resort to administrative fiat through the Department of Transportation. But that will be bloody and when the old operators feared something was afoot with the Tugade trial balloons they were ready with deep questions like if there is a study that shows old ferries are unsafe (good question) and MARINA was put on the defensive. These old operators are not patsies, they can hire good lawyers and they have congressmen as padrinos that Tugade and Cusi cannot just push around.

And so came the announcement that there will be no phase-out of old ferries (which is nonsense anyway as phase-out should be based on technical evaluations and not on age). It seems that was a big blow to Starlite Ferries which by that time was already shouldering the burden and amortizing five new ferries with five more on the pipeline and their old ferries still around and unsold (their other new ferries are Starlite Reliance, Starlite Eagle, Starlite Saturn and Starlite Archer). Trying to force their old ferries in some near routes might just mean competing with their sister Montenegro Lines and their shared patron saint will look askance to that.

I guess the financial burden of the new ships were getting heavier by the day for Starlite Ferries. With a surplus of ferries they were even able to send Starlite Annapolis to Mandaue just to get some new engines if what I heard was true. There is really no way to cram 15 ferries (as Starlite Atlantic was lost maneuvering in a typhoon) in just four short-distance routes. I just don’t know, should have they converted some of their new ships into overnight ferries and competed in the longer Batangas to Caticlan route? But the accommodations of the former Cebu Ferries ship of 2GO are superior to them. How about the Batangas to Roxas City route that is irregularly served by Asian Marine Transport Corporation?

37482308691_24e0eb57c2_k

The most senior now in the fleet of Starlite Ferries

But instead of fighting to resolve their problem, Al Cusi took the easy way and sold out. Well, it is never easy to finance five new ferries with five more still on the way with no new routes coming. They might drown in debt and default. Or end up just helping the bank make their living (in Tagalog, “ipinaghahanapbuhay na lang ang bangko”).

I wonder why Al Cusi did not just get two or three units for testing and evaluation and proceed slowly. With that they might have known with less pain and pressure that although their ferries are new it does not have a technological edge nor an advance over the old ferries unlike the new FastCats. They knew already that intermodal vehicles are mainly locked like the Dimple Star buses are locked to them and so newness of the ship will not easily sell and not even to private car owners whose main concern is what RORO is leaving first (and that is also the main concern of the passengers who do not even have a free choice if they are bus passengers).

It looks to me the 10 new ROROS ordered by Starlite Ferries was a simple case of indigestion or worse a choking. It looks like more of the latter and so Al Cusi spit it out and settled for a half billion pesos as consolation for the sale of Starlite Ferries to the Udenna group, the new hotshot in shipping which also owns Trans-Asia Shipping Lines of Cebu now. That might be a good decision for Udenna as their Trans-Asia Shipping Lines lacks ferries now whereas Starlite Ferries has a surplus and so it might be a good match. Converting the ships into overnight ferries is not difficult nor would it cost much although the ships of Starlite Ferries is a little small than what Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was accustomed to (but then it is also possible to lengthen the upcoming ferries).

Now I don’t really know exactly where Starlite Ferries is headed and it will not be as easy to guess that but in all likelihood a Starlite and Trans-Asia marriage might work out especially since the Udenna group has the money to smoothen out the kinks.

Nice experiment but it seems the 10 new ships was too much for Starlite Ferries to chew.