Our Visits to the Other Ports of Samar on December of 2016

The Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) tour group, after assembling in Tacloban first stopped in San Juanico bridge to take photos and enjoy the views and the experience especially of walking part of the bridge. Well, just being there is experience for most of those in the tour group. If it could be considered shipspotting it is maybe because of the seascapes and Tacloban port is also visible but at a great distance. I was wishing a ship will navigate the narrow strait separating Leyte and Samar but I know that is almost impossible with the new uncharted depths of the strait, a result that historical storm surge that came with Typhoon “Yolanda”. Actually, deeper container ships coming to Leyte now take the southern approach round Southern Leyte.

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The group then took a long road ride because the next port Catbalogan was some 100 kilometers away from Tacloban and we did not try to visit the many municipal ports along the way which were not along the main road. These old municipal ports were once the lifelines of the coastal towns of Samar to Tacloban when the road was not yet developed some fifty or so years ago. It would have been nice to visit them but it would take time and we were tight on time as our leg to Allen is some 250 kilometers and we have more important ports to visit along the way. And we were not even able to start early and that was the reason why I didn’t mention to the group the former important port of Basey.

We arrived in Catbalogan past lunchtime and we headed straight to the Catbalogan bus terminal which is located astride the port (in fact it was sitting on borrowed port grounds). From there we walked towards the port and it was a lucky day for us. I have not seen such number of vessels in Catbalogan since I first visited the port many, many years ago. We were doubly lucky that the motor bancas to the island-towns off Catbalogan in Samar Sea have still not left. Plus there were the usual cargo ships and an aggregates carrier LCT, the LCT Poseidon 10. I wondered if that number of ships meant progress for Catbalogan. I would really like to know. The only dampener in our visit was the knowledge that recently Roble Shipping has dropped their Cebu-Catbalogan route and it has already sold to Jolo their ship serving that route.

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Catbalogan Port

Since our lunch took time I knew we can’t spend much time on the next ports or even visit some that are near the road like Victoria port. In Calbayog, our next port, we obviated all walking shipspotting and instead opted for shippotting by car the length of the quay road parallel the Calbayog River wharf and fish landing area. There were still many fishing bancas the time we arrived but most of the passenger-cargo motor bancas to the island-towns towns in Samar were already gone as the last of those leave just after lunchtime. We also did not enter Calbayog port and instead just viewed it from afar as we were already pressured for time since we did not want nightfall to come while we were still on the road.

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Calbayog Port

From Calbayog we made a short detour to Manguino-o port just a few kilometers north of Calbayog port. This is now the only port with ferry connection to Cebu and we were unlucky that day because the Cokaliong ship was not there when we dropped by. Basically, aside from that ship only fishing vessels use Manguino-o port. However, from Manguino-o the private port of Samar Coco Products just a few miles south was also visible. Funny, but instead of ships our talk leaving the port was about the Samar bulalo because of my good experience with it in Manguino-o (one should try it on a Samar visit).

It was a long run again in the sun threatening to set over roads that I knew once did not exist. Once upon a time, there was no road directly connecting Allen and Calbayog save for a logging road which was not always passable and only passable to the sturdiest of jeeps (or was it a weapon carrier?). But soon the San Isidro Ferry Terminal came into view and I knew Allen is just a short distance away now and so there is still time to shipspot this government port that is the official connection to Matnog. We did but as the sun sets earlier in December and there was precipitation I knew it will be a photofinish to BALWHARTECO as I expected. This part I have already told in another article:

https://psssonline.wordpress.com/2017/01/29/the-developments-in-the-san-bernardino-strait-routes-when-the-psss-visited-in-december-of-2016/

From a sleep-over in Catarman, on the way back, we made a short visit to the Caraingan port which is located in the town now renamed as San Jose. I told the group this town is more known for the claim of Asi Taulava, the basketball player. Though the main inter-island port of Northern Samar and improved by the government, this port never really took off. It was never able to shake off its reputation for thievery and the new enterprises like coco processing now have their own ports. The damage of the 175kph typhoon that visited Northern Samar just a few years ago was still visible in the port. We did not walk the port to save on time, we just let the car do the walking for us.

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Caraingan Port

We next visited Lavezares port which had a long history. It’s significant lies in that it is the connection to the Biri islands offshore which is now being promoted as a tourist place if one wants to escape civilization. Biri and Lavezares have a reputation in history. For the former, it is the rocks and waves that can threaten ships. For the latter it was a launching port of long-range motor bancas that went beyond Biri in the past like Catanduanes and the Bicol eastern and northern shores. To me Lavezares, like Allen, its mother town is a remnant of the old seafaring tradition of the Pintados which can reach Formosa in the past before the Spaniards forbid local boatbuilding so they can press (as in force) our boatbuiders in building their exploitative galleons. Again, we just made a tour by car of Lavezares port.

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Lavezares Port

[The portion where we made an Allen to Matnog crossing and back is already in the article I attached earlier.]

On our way back to Tacloban there was no more chance of shipspotting as night had already set in contrary to my hope that we can cross early to Matnog and then be back in Allen just past lunch (that would then have afforded us another chance at the ports we just made a cursory visit of). But no regrets. It just meant a realignment of targets (for me).

Reaching Tacloban at midnight, I made Joe Cardenas (the car owner and our driver) sleep while looking for our companion Mark Ocul’s ride back to Cebu (James Verallo eventually convinced him to take a Bohol detour to max his shipspotting experience). Meanwhile at the back of my mind I had a 3:30am cut-off from Tacloban for I will then convince Joe to make a dash to be able to board the 8am ferry in Benit which will afford us enough time to look for and visit the many unexplored ports of Surigao on the way to his friend in Claver, Surigao del Sur without hitting dusk. When we parted, little did our two companions suspect me and Joe were still embarking on a long trip. With 850 kilometers now under his belt who would then suspect Joe is still up for another thousand kilometers of continuous driving?

[However, that portion will be the subject of another article and I will henceforth jump to when we were able to get back to Tacloban to make another run back to Allen.]

From a Tacloban sleep-over after Surigao, me and Joe crossed again the San Juanico bridge but there was no more walking of the bridge this time for we were dead serious in finding the unexplored ports of Samar (or at least those where our daytime will be able to cover). We were elated by our success in Surigao in using maps based on GPS in finding the obscure ports without much turning around (why, it was even more accurate than the locals). Instead of turning left to Sta. Rita, Samar we turned right after the bridge on the way to Basey, the old connection of Samar to Leyte when San Juanico bridge was not yet existing. I was excited what it will show us.

The drive to Basey took longer that I expected. I had a premonition of things we will see because we passed by the cemetery of Basey and it was big and it had Chinese names on it. I have an inkling it was not a small town in the past and there was probably a Chinese quarters which equates to trade.

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Basey Port

We found Basey town alright and it was not the normal small town that I see in Samar. It was obvious it had a great past and the main street was densely packed, proof it had trade before. We found the port road and near it was the remnants of a Chinese quarters. There were concrete structures in the pier but obviously it was already a long-forgotten pier. Only passenger-cargo motor bancas were just using it. These were still active as it affords a shortcut and cheaper ride compared to the jeep (which seemed not to be thriving). I saw students going to Tacloban. It was a proof of links.

From Basey port, the port of Tacloban can be made out along with the San Juanico bridge. I mused – the bridge killed Basey and its progress. Like what I see when new roads bypassed towns. The sea was shallow. I was thinking what if the bridge had been built via Basey? What would have been the result?

We did not stay long in Basey. On the way back, me and Joe kept peering in our GPS map about that abutment which indicates another port which we disregarded on the way to Basey because the road signs contraindicated it. We then came to the junction leading to it and Joe decided we should check even though the road was not so inviting (well, that is one advantage of an SUV over a sedan). Not long after we saw a parish church. It was just before the port. A parish church in a barrio always indicated something more than an ordinary barrio. We learned that we are in San, Antonio, a barrio of Basey. So Basey has two ports not one!

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San Antonio Port

San Antonio port is much closer to Tacloban than Basey port. It seems they are just separated by a wide river and I can almost make out some of the buildings in Tacloban. San Antonio port, though smaller, is busier with more passenger-cargo motor bancas going to Tacloban. It was there that I learned the many motor bancas docked near the market of Tacloban were actually going to San Antonio. The ones docked there were the same motor bancas I saw in Tacloban two hours earlier when me and Joe made short tours of the Tacloban ports. It seems San Antonio is more connected to Tacloban than to its own town of Basey. Again I wondered what if San Juanico bridge was built not on its present site but on a site in San Antonio?

Me and Joe bypassed the Sta. Rita port which was still near Tacloban so as to save time. As always the 250-kilometers stretch of Tacloban to Allen is a challenge to shipspotters to cover before nightfall sets in. I thought maybe one has really to start early like in first daylight if one wants to visit more ports. In the same regard we also bypassed the port of Pinabacdao although there is a clear road sign indicating it. Anyway we wondered if that port and similar ports are already ‘ports to nowhere’ since vans and buses are already their connection to Tacloban.

Joe and me also bypassed the ports of Catbalogan and Calbayog. We reasoned we had been there before and we were more interested in the old port of Victoria and others near there. We just contented our eyes watching the seascape, the occasional ship offshore and with the passenger-cargo motor bancas in the navigable rivers of Samar that connects to the inland municipalities. We also had a dash of adrenaline against a Toyota Grandia (but it was not ship spotting).

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Manguino-0 Port

However, me and Joe made a short detour to Manguino-o port because our first one there was “empty”. The Filipinas Dapitan of Cokaliong Shipping Lines was there. We were able to enter briefly but the guards this time were not accommodating. Maybe the field of Psychology should do a research of how the completion of gates and fences affect the mentality of the guards. It seems with those completed it is now their duty to “protect their fortress”. Manguino-o was hospitable before.

We also bypassed another port with a link to an island-municipality although it is not far from the highway. Alas, me and Joe’s tour was full of ‘bypasses’ that I thought maybe Tacloban, Basey and nearby ports can be covered by tour in one day and maybe one just have to stop for the day in Catbalogan or Calbayog and the next day cover the ports of Northern Samar. There is really no way to cover all the ports in the Tacloban-Allen axis in one day. One will “waste” 100 kilometers from Tacloban to Catbalogan in land travel and next “waste” some 65 kilometers from Manguino-o to San Isidro. And to think the distance of Catbalogan to Calbayog is another 60 “empty” kilometers (as in there are no ports along the way).

The only worthwhile port Joe and me was able to visit after leaving Western Samar was the old port of Victoria which once upon a time had a connection to Manila. We did not use the GPS this time as Joe knows the junction. Like what I expected its poblacion was more packed than a town of its size and the remnants of an old trading quarter was still visible. We reached the port and it is located inside a river mouth where the waters are clear and beautiful spans of Victoria bridge was visible (actually the river might be named Bangon River). There were just a few bancas using the disused concrete port now and most were fishing bancas. There was a wharf for passenger-cargo motor bancas a hundred meters downstream and it was more busy.

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The ports of Victoria

The road to Victoria town and port is just by the bridge of Victoria. It seems Victoria was born around the river that traverses its entire narrow territory and with a wide navigable river it seems that river also serves as an artery. With such a lay-out, Victoria is also a ship shelter during storms. With the sun preparing to set, the slight rains and the silhouttes it produces we left Victoria with me feeling sad. There was no way to be upbeat about what we just saw which was a faded town left by its ship.

I wanted to find the other ship shelter in Victoria town which was Buenos Aires. Joe vetoed it and so we continued north. With the rains sometimes pelting us, explorations become limited. We did not go inside San Isidro Ferry Terminal any more and i just took some shots from the outside. We also bypassed Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping and and just took shots from outside of Dapdap port. Time just flew and when me and Joe entered BALWHARTECO port the light remaining or the lack of it was just about the same when the big group of PSSS first reached it. Me and Joe tarried a little more making a long goodbye with some small talk. I will be staying in BALWHARTECO lodge while he will still be proceeding to Catarman.

I had a pleasant stay in the lodge and it was a great platform for viewing the activities in the port. I spent the next two day exploring BALWHARTECO and the ships there and making interviews. I also looked for my old opponents there, the collectors of the illegal exactions but they were gone. I thought it was not me they feared but the American in our big group who was Tim Alentiev. Well, with his demeanor, attire and shades he might have looked like a CIA operative. Seriously!

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Star Ferry II

In BALWHARTECO I was able to visit the Star Ferry II twice. I was not that much interested in the other ships because I have already boarded them. I became more interested in Star Ferry II when PSSS was able to establish it was now the oldest passenger RORO sailing that is not an LCT (built in 1961!) and there were rumors she might be headed for scrapping (once when she was not running I saw her precisely moored in Victoria port). I wanted simply to know more about her and her current condition.

My second visit came because I was looking for Roger Chape, one of the oldest mariners in Bicol waters who started his career in motor boats (lancha). He happened to be the Chief Engineer of Star Ferry II but I did not know him the first time I boarded the ferry. We had a good talk although the ship was bucking heavily in the night swells and wind (it that was Cebu the praning Coast Guard there would have suspended voyages already). From him I got a better understanding of the state of the ship, a little of its history and how it is managed.

It was really so hard shipspotting in my two days in Allen. The rains were heavy and it simply would not relent. If not for an old umbrella given to me I would have scarcely been able to get around. And there was not even an LPA (Low Pressure Area) but just the usual heavy amihan weather of the area (amihan winds there could even be stronger than LPA winds).

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A ship in San Bernardino Strait amihan

My last chance of shipspotting in Allen was when I left for Matnog. It was long before they sold tickets because dockings can’t be done because of the strong swells and high tide (have one heard of that in Cebu?) I mean it was hours of wait. Then we were able to board but the Coast Guard won’t give clearance to sail because of the weather. It was just a temporary halt and not full suspension. We passengers were worried of a full suspension of voyages and we will become statistics for the evening news on TV (i.e. stranded in the port). While waiting I turned it into an opportunity for shipspotting. But then again the rain messes up the visibility and quality of shots.

I immensely enjoyed my Samar shipspotting despite of the rains which made it difficult to move around. It was a continuation of my summer of 2014 shipspotting with Jun Marquez (summer shipspotting that had plenty of rain too). It was nice and good by any means. I actually love Samar.

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Denica Lines

This small shipping company probably won’t be much heard outside Bicol and they might be small but they also carry some weight and they won’t topple easily. Alternately, the vessels of Denica Lines are also listed under the owner Carolyn Cua Sy-Reyes. The home port of Denica Lines is Pilar, Sorsogon and they are among the shipping companies connecting that town to Masbate island.

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The Lady Regina

Denica Lines started as a shipping company by operating big motor bancas. When I say “big” it is because its passenger capacity will run upward to 100 persons. Alternately, if loaded with just cargo it can take in the load of a mini-truck or cargo jeep (well, it cannot be all cement or rice because the weight of that might exceed the DWT of the banca thus sinking it).

The owners of Denica Lines actually started as sub-regional distributors and traders and like in many places elsewhere the possession of own motor bancas is a needed horizontal expansion as it gives flexibility to trading and also generate savings. Usually a shipping operator with its own trading business is much more stable than its competitors. One part might not earn much but then the other part will carry it through. And there will also be no problem with what is called in shipping as “shut-outs” which is the failure to have a cargo loaded. For perishables that could be disaster.

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Denica Lines has many big motor bancas. These are fast because those are powered by surplus truck engines and usually it is twin-engined. The total of the horsepower will be over 400 and that will guarantee the motor banca will travel at at least 13 knots which are even faster than the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO which usually travels at only 10 knots. I have seen in Ticao Pass and Masbate Pass that they are really faster. [Well, if used for heavy cargo then all that horsepower will be needed.] Of course, their weakness is the choppy waters and cross-swells. The motor bancas have to time the crests and throughs of the waves and look out for the cross-swells which can damage the outriggers which is called katig locally.

As of now the motor banca fleet of Denica Lines consist of the Lady Regina, Gloria Express, Gloria 7, Gloria 8, Gloria 9, Gloria 10, Phoenix Express I, Phoenix Express II, Hammity and Hammity 2 plus the motor boat Golden Blossom. I would assume that the missing in the series Gloria 1 to Gloria 6 were their earlier motor bancas that are no longer around. The first two, the Gloria Express and Lady Regina are supposedly the fastest in the fleet of Denica Lines including their steel-hulled ships. The two can do at least 14 knots in calm waters.

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In motor bancas, the biggest competitor of Denica Lines is the Lobrigo Lines which have a fleet as big as theirs and which operated buses before (which lost when the intermodal buses came as they didn’t have ROROs). Aside from Lobrigo Lines there are many other operators of motor bancas as Pilar is a motor banca haven after all. Aside from motor bancas there are also motor boats going to Aroroy, Masbate. This town also have many motor bancas from Pilar.

In 2002, Denica Lines ventured into steel-hulled ferries when the purchased the laid-up cruiser Elizabeth Lilly of the defunct Western Samar Shipping Lines. They refurbished the engines of the ship and it was again reliable. They renamed the ship as the Bikol Express but she was not really fast as she had only a single 550-hp Yanmar Marine engine and her design speed was only 11 knots. The size of the ship was just the equivalent of a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO at 29.3 meters by 6.0 meters and 189 in gross tons.

As a ferry, Bikol Express was not much. She didn’t even have bolted seats, just plastic benches that can be moved. The reason is like some of the motor bancas of Denica Lines is she doubles as a cargo ship with passengers. What cannot be carried by the motor bancas like a truckload or two of rice or cement, she will carry. Her DWT of 100 tons comes in handy for such loads.

M/V Marina Empress

Marina Empress by Irvine Kinea

But then ROROs of Montenegro Shipping Lines came and so Denica Lines has to adjust as the trucks instead of unloading their cargo in Pilar just board the RORO now and goes direct to Masbate. They sold the Bikol Express to Batanes Multi-purpose Cooperative (BMPC) and went hunting for a RORO. Again, true to form they settled on a RORO that was not sailing, the Torrijos or Vanessa P2 of the Sta. Cruz Shipping of Marinduque which was already then in the process of winding up their shipping operations having been on the receiving end of the pressure from stronger shipping companies like Montenegro Lines.

The ship was taken from a Navotas yard and she was renamed as the Marina Empress. The Marina Empress is a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO of just 700 horsepower from her single Daihatsu marine engine and with the external measurement of 32.3 meters by 7.8 meters and a gross tonnage of 195. However, like the earlier rumor, her engine was no longer strong.

With Alabat Shipping Corporation of Alabat island going out of operations too, Denica Lines purchased its only ferry, the Odyssey which was the former Starlite Odyssey of Starlite Ferries. This is another basic, short-distance ferry-RORO with a not-so-strong engine anymore. She is powered by a 550-hp Kubota marine engine and her external measurements are 30.5 meters by 7.0 meters with a gross tonnage of 176 which means she is slightly smaller than the Marina Empress. Denica Lines did not bother to rename the Odyssey.

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Denica Lines rarely sails the two ferries simultaneously as both are not really that reliable. Their ferries are in direct competition with the basic, short-distance ferries of Montenegro Lines which also do the Pilar-Masbate route. Their ferries might not be spic-and-span (it will remind one of the E.B. Aznar Shipping basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs) but most times their competition from Montenegro Lines are also basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs of the same age (which means old). Unless Montenegro Lines bring in the Reina Banderada which is a bit better.

If one considers that Denica Lines has a lot of motor bancas that carry not only people but also cargo it will not look that Montenegro Lines dominates them in the Pilar-Masbate route. The two might have some rough equality since Montenegro Lines has fastcrafts in the route. In glitz and glamour, of course, Montenegro Lines exceeds them.

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Pilar port and market

The owners of Denica Lines are also “well-positioned”, as they say. The husband was the Mayor of Pilar until 2016. In the May elections of this year Carolyn Cua-Sy Reyes was elected the Mayor and whitewashing her five opponents with 84% of the votes going to her. Well, it seems they are really respected in Pilar (in 2013 the husband also whitewashed his opponents). I do not know Pilar that much but from what I know it does not have the bokong of Leyte nor the use of muscles and influence in gaining an advantage for ship operations or in locking out the opponent.

Such is Denica Lines.

The Sunset of Tacloban Port

Tacloban City is the regional commercial center of Eastern Visayas and this has been so for about a century now. It has the advantage of a central location and a sheltered port and bay. Its reach weakens, however, in the western coast of Leyte which has its own sea connections to a greater trade and commercial center, the great city of Cebu which has been ascendant in the south of the Philippines since half a millennium ago. 

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http://image.slidesharecdn.com/easternvisayasfinal-150407210918-conversion-gate01/95/eastern-visayas-biliran-2-638.jpg?cb=1428459126

As a regional commercial center, it is but natural for Tacloban to have a great port with trade routes to many places. That has been the situation of Tacloban since before World War II and even before World War I. It also does not hurt that Tacloban is the capital of the province of Leyte. In fact, because of her superior strategic location, Tacloban even exceeded her mother town which is Palo which is still the seat of the church hierarchy.

Before World War II and after that, passenger-cargo ships from Manila will drop by first in Masbate, Catbalogan and Calbayog before hooking route and proceeding to Tacloban. Some of these ships will then still proceed to Surigao and Butuan or even Cagayan de Oro using the eastern seaboard of Leyte. Tacloban then was the fulcrum of these liner routes going to Eastern Visayas. That route was much stronger than the routes that drop by Ormoc and Maasin and perhaps Sogod and Cabalian before going to Surigao. The two routes were actually competing (like Ormoc and Tacloban are competing). If the route via Tacloban was stronger it is because Tacloban was the trade and commercial center of the region.

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At its peak, Tacloban port hosted some seven passenger-cargo ships from Manila per week from different liner companies. She also had daily regular calls from passenger-cargo ships emanating from Cebu. There were also some ships that originate from as far as Davao which dropped by Surigao first. Such was the importance of Tacloban port then which can still be seen in the size of Tacloban port and the bodegas surrounding it.

There were many liner companies that called over the years in Tacloban from Manila. Among them were Sulpicio Lines (and the earlier Carlos A. Gothong & Co.), Compania Maritima, General Shipping Company, Philippine Steam and Navigation Company, Philippine Pioneer Lines (and later the successor Galaxy Lines), Escano Lines, Sweet Lines, even the combined Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and Lorenzo Shipping Corporation. When it was still sailing local routes, even De la Rama Steamship served Tacloban. Among the minor liner companies, Royal Lines Inc., Veloso Brothers Ltd., N&S Lines, Philippine Sea Transport and Oriental Shipping Agency also served Tacloban. Not all of those served at the same time but that line-up of shipping companies will show how great was Tacloban port then.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

For many years there was even a luxury liner rivalry in Tacloban port. This was the battle which featured the Dona Angelina of Sulpicio Lines and the Sweet Rose of Sweet Lines which mainly happened in the 1970s. Sweet Rose was sailing to Tacloban from the late 1960s and was in fact the first luxury liner to that port. The two liners were the best ships then sailing to Tacloban port. The rest, of course, were mainly ex-”FS” ships which was the backbone of the national liner fleet then and there was no shame in that.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

Tacloban port was doing well until the late 1970’s when a paradigm change pulled the rug from under their feet. This development was the fielding of a RORO by Cardinal Shipping, the Cardinal Ferry I that connected Sorsogon and Samar. With San Juanico bridge already connecting Samar and Leyte and the Maharlika Highway already completed, intermodal trucks and buses started rolling into Tacloban and Leyte. In fact, in just one year of operation the intermodal link was already a roaring success with many trucks and buses already running to Manila. Soon other ferries were connecting Sorsogon and Samar including the Maharlika I of the government.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

With this development the irreversible decline of Tacloban port began. It was a slide that never ever saw a reversal because what happened over the years was the buses and trucks rolling to Tacloban and Leyte just continued to multiply without abatement (and the ROROs in San Bernardino Strait also increased in number). Soon the passengers were already filling the intermodal buses and freight except the heaviest and the bulkiest was also slowly shifted to the trucks. Over the years the number of passenger ships to Tacloban slowly declined as a consequence.

In the late 1980’s, when the pressure of the intermodal was great there were still three national shipping lines with routes to Tacloban – Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines. In the early 1990’s. when Sweet Lines quit shipping only the top two shipping lines then where still sailing to Tacloban with the Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines and the Masbate Uno of William Lines. Incidentally, the infamous Dona Paz which burned and sank after a collision with a tanker in December 1987 originated from Tacloban.

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Tacloban Princess by John Carlos Cabanillas

When the WG&A merger came in 1996 the company pulled out the Masbate I from the Tacloban route. The last liners ever to sail the Tacloban route were the Tacloban Princess and the Cebu Princess which alternated in the route. Both belonged to Sulpicio Lines. The liner route from Manila to Tacloban was finally severed when Sulpicio Lines got suspended from passenger service as a consequence of the sinking of the Princess of the Stars when both the Tacloban Princess and the Cebu Princess were sold.

The overnight ferry service from Cebu almost followed the same path and died at almost the same time. The last three shipping companies which had a route there were Roly Shipping, Maypalad Shipping and Cebu Ferries Corporation (which was the successor of CAGLI). But passengers slowly learned that the routes via Ormoc and Baybay were faster and cheaper and the connection was oh-so-easy as the bus terminals of the two cities were just outside the port gates of Ormoc and Baybay. The High Speed Crafts (HSCs) to Ormoc, mainly SuperCat and Oceanjet also made great strides and captured a large portion of the passenger market and it further denied passengers for Tacloban. With the HSCs and overnight ships from Cebu that leave Ormoc in the morning there was no longer any need for Tacloban passengers to wait until night.

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http://www.maritime-executive.com/article/Paralyzed-Philippine-Port-Resumes-Operations-2013-11-21

The last rope for Tacloban port passenger-cargo ships was cut when the new coastal highway from Basey, Samar to Guiuan, Eastern Samar was completed. With that the passenger ships connecting Tacloban and Guiuan had to go as the fast and ubiquitous commuter vans (called “V-hire” in the province) suddenly supplanted them. Trucks also began rolling and some of these were even coming from Cebu via the intermodal.

Now only a few cargo ships dock in Tacloban port. There is still one cargo shipping company based in Tacloban, the Lilygene Sea Shipping Transport Corp. Gothong Southern Shipping Lines meanwhile still has a regular container ship to Tacloban but there are complaints that the rates are high (the consequence of no competition). Whatever, there are still cargoes better carried by ships than by trucks. However, some of the container vans for Leyte are just offloaded now in Cebu and transferred through Cargo RORO LCTs going to several western Leyte ports.

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What might remain for a long time maybe in Tacloban port are the big motor bancas for Buad island in Western Samar which hosts the town of Daram and Bagatao island which hosts the town of Zumarraga. I am not sure of the long-term existence of the other motor bancas for the other Samar towns except for maybe Talalora as more and more they have buses that go to Tacloban and maybe soon the commuter vans will follow. Or maybe even the jeep. The lesson is with roads established the sea connection always have to go in the long term.

Tacloban port is improved now. Improving the port eases port operations but it will not make the ships come back contrary to what the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) and the government say. It is cargo and passengers that make the ships come to a port but if there are other and better transportation modes that are already available then cargo and passenger volumes drop and sometimes it becomes uneconomical for the ship to continue operating.

So I really wonder what is the point in developing a port in the nearby town of Babatngon as an alternative to Tacloban port. Have the Philippine Ports Authority ever asked who wants to use it? It is not surprising however as the PPA is the master of creating “ports to nowhere” (ports with practically no traffic) especially in the time of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who was so fond of those (for many “reasons”, of course).

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Ormoc Port by John Luzares

In the past two decades the PPA always touted Tacloban port. For maybe they are based there. There was a denial that actually Ormoc port was already the main gateway to Leyte and it is no longer Tacloban port. Recently however, there seems to be an acknowledgment of the real score — that Ormoc port has actually been the de facto gateway already. The government is now developing Ormoc port and it is good that the PPA vessel arrival and departure site already covers it.

Whatever and however they try, it cannot be denied that the sun is already setting in Tacloban port. It is no longer the same port it used to be in the past because of the intermodal assault changed things.

Like they say, things always change.

Ports Served By Liners That Lost To The Intermodal Buses

Once, there were ports that were served by the liners of the national shipping companies in the postwar years. Liners from Manila sailed to these ports and the length of their calls or service already exceeded a century. Now, there are no more liners to these ports and instead intermodal buses are the ones now moving their passengers.

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Among the ports I am referring to are San Jose in Occidental Mindoro (called Mangarin in the past), Culasi port in Roxas City (called Capiz in the past); Dumaguit (or New Washington), Batan, Malay (more popularly known as Caticlan now), all in Aklan; Lipata port in Culasi, Antique, San Jose de Buenavista in Antique. The list also includes Masbate; Laoang, Carangian (or San Jose) and Allen in Northern Samar; Calbayog and Catbalogan in Western Samar; Tacloban, Calubian, Palompon, Isabel, Ormoc and Baybay in Leyte; Maasin, Sogod and Cabalian in Southern Leyte. The list would also Tagbilaran in Bohol and Surigao City. Yes, the list is really long. And that is not even 100% complete.

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Tacloban port

How come our good liners with true passenger service and free food lost to the simple bus where there is no service and food is not free? When many of our liners were hotel-like. The simple reason is simply frequency and ubiquity. Buses leave daily while liners don’t. Buses have several trips in a day, both at night and day and in a wide span of schedules and so people have a choice. They also have a choice from several bus lines.

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I first had a glimpse of their magic of the nearly 15 years ago. I was aboard a bus from Maasin to Manila. The first trip then of the bus was 2am. I noticed that whenever and wherever the bus will see bags in the road without people around, our bus will stop, blow its horn and the passenger/s will appear from the house. Yes, there was no need to wait in the dark suffering from the cold and mosquito bites. The bus will simply stop for you. In Eastern Samar 18 years ago, a relative of the passenger rode the bus in Borongan and stopped the bus in a house in a barrio. Turned out the lady passenger has not yet finished her bath. Well, our bus driver simply turned off the engine to the laughter of all and we all waited and when the lady boarded there were cheers and more laughter. Are those ease and leaning backward possible in a ship? Simply no.

So whenever and wherever a bus begin crossing the straits I noticed they will simply kick out the liners from Manila. This first happened in Samar in the 1980’s. This was followed by Mindoro and Panay in the 2000’s. Masbate, Leyte, Bohol and Surigao soon followed suit. Practically it is only Negros and Cebu islands and northern  and western Mindanao that are immune from the buses from Manila.

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Intermodal buses in Masbate port

In the examples I gave I made sure it was the buses that torpedoed the liners and not the budget airlines. In those examples I am pretty sure most of the passengers transferred to the intermodal buses because if one checks the frequency of the airlines when there were still liners and today one will notice that the frequency increases of the airlines were modest while the intermodal buses grew by leaps and bounds. That is very clear in Panay. That is very clear in Eastern Visayas and Masbate. That is also true in Surigao, Bohol and Mindoro (maybe in Bohol many make a transfer to a Cebu plane).

I think the liners never knew what hit them. Probably they can not believe that they passengers will move from bunks to seats that taxes the butt and hurts the back. Their liners have toilets and baths and buses don’t have that. They have free food, good service (they have stewards and attendants), functioning restaurants, lounges and areas where passengers can mill around. There are even spas, discos and chapels. Yet the passengers exchanged them for seats where once can barely move. Sounds improbable, isn’t it? But that happened and not only in one place.

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And to think the bus fares are not even significantly cheaper, if it is. And there are ancillary costs like food, terminal fees, payment for using the comfort rooms of the terminals and eating places. And the perilous and embarrassing case of a sometime traveler’s diarrhea.

I once asked a lady seatmate in a bus (they are more inconvenienced as unlike males they need a true CR) from Surigao why. She said she likes the views when the bus runs, that she likes reaching places she had never been to before. Yes, on a liner you only see the sea, the seascape and some ports.

The bus passengers don’t even need to go to the ports and there be charged unfairly by the porters. And on the return trip they can stop the bus right by their gate (is there a convenience greater than that?). No need for porters again and relatives will be waiting by the gate since there is SMS now. And also in many cases the trip of the bus is shorter than the voyage of the ship. Many also think there is more risk in traveling in a ship. Courtesy of the highly-publicized sinkings like the Dona Paz and the Princess of the Stars.

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Even in places like Davao the intermodal bus was also a factor. That was also true in Iloilo and maybe Gensan also.

Those are the things that torpedoed the liners. Maybe the shipping companies never knew what hit them. Their belief is the budget airlines tripped them. That cannot be proven empirically in a lot of places. Maybe their pride is simply too high they cannot admit a lowly bus beat them.

If liners want to make a comeback they should do a real study why the passengers walked away. But I still doubt if they can really beat the intermodal bus. They are simply too ubiquitous.

The Bogo Connection to Masbate

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Photo credits: Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

In the old days, the Cebu connection to Masbate went from Cebu port. And among those that provided that connection were liner companies whose ships pass by Masbate first before heading to Cebu and northern Mindanao and from there their liners will retrace back the route. That is gone now and the last Manila liner that provided such connection was the Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines which stopped sailing in the aftermath of the Princess of the Stars‘ sinking in a typhoon in 2008. However, until a few months ago there were a ROPAX Cargo ship, the Super Shuttle RORO 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation that was running a route from Batangas to Cebu (Mandaue actually) and Cagayan de Oro via Masbate.

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Photo Credit: Wakanatsu

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Trans-Asia Shipping Lines also had an overnight ferry route from Cebu to Masbate since almost 40 years ago. That is gone now too, a victim of the decline of their fleet and now it is only Cokaliong Shipping Lines that has a Cebu-Masbate passenger service but it only runs once a week. Also long gone was the Palacio Lines’ route from Cebu to Placer, Masbate. But still around is the Lapu-lapu Shipping Lines’ route from Cebu to Cataingan, Masbate which is usually run by their Lapu-lapu Ferry 1, a cruiser ship.

In the past, wooden motor boats also did routes from various ports in Masbate to northern Cebu using the ports of Hagnaya, Maya and Polambato. The three are in San Remigio, Daanbantayan and Bogo towns, respectively. However, from the 1980’s, MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency, consistently pressured the wooden motor boats (the lancha) to retire citing them as “obsolete” and “unsafe”. Some had their franchises revoked and that practically ended the lives of the shipping companies owning them (many operate wooden motor boats because they can’t afford to buy steel-hulled ferries).

MARINA was so successful in that campaign that no motor boats still do a Cebu-Masbate route. What remained were the big passenger-cargo motor bancas which run until now (maybe these are “modern” and “safer” than the phased-out motor boats?). These motor bancas originate from Cawayan, Placer, Esperanza and Pio V. Corpus towns in Masbate. The eastern portion of Masbate island, by the way, is actually Cebuano-speaking and their economic tether is to Cebu. Their motor boats connect their people and their goods to Cebu. Some of their scions actually study in Cebu, too, and work there later on.

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Polambato port (Photo credit: James Gabriel Verallo)

This was the state of things when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pushed her Central Nautical Highway which pushed for ROROs. Since the nearest Maya port was in disrepair and there are issues of depth, the port of Polambato was designated as the connecting RORO port to Masbate. That was a two-birds-in-one-stone move as Polambato was already the connecting port to nothern Leyte via the Palompon port (it still is until now). So only one RORO port had two be developed for two routes. Neat but a route from Polambato is longer than a route from Maya port.

On the side of Masbate, two ports were offered as connection, the port of Cawayan on the southern side of Masbate island and the port of Cataingan on the southeastern end on the island in the protected Cataingan Bay. Cataingan port is the logical choice since it is actually the best port in eastern Masbate as it is considered the district port and it lies in a protected bay. In the past, it was a home of motor boats going to Cebu. It also has a shorter road distance to Masbate City, the main economic center of Masbate province and the take-off port of Masbate to the Bicol mainland. There was also an attempt for a two-birds-in-one-stone move there as Cataingan was also declared to be the Masbate port that will connect to Naval, Biliran and Leyte island.

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Cawayan port (Photo credit: Noel de Mesa)

Cawayan port, meanwhile, is a bit more distant from Masbate City and when the RORO route was opened its roads were in a worse state compared to the Cataingan-Masbate road which was at least asphalted though beginning to crack (now, however the roads of the two towns to Masbate are already improved). And in the Cataingan-Masbate road there are more towns and hence more commerce, more sources of produce and of course, passengers. But how come they still built the Cawayan RORO port? Well, maybe there was politics (I don’t know just where) and Gloria was actually too fond then of duplicate ports. It brings more income to you-know-where. So it was actually a one-bird-with-two-stones maneuver.

I also just wonder about the fate of Placer port on the southern side of Masbate island. In the past, Placer was the connecting port of the southern side of Masbate island to Cebu City. It is even closer to Bogo than Cawayan (or even Cataingan) and the RORO will be less broadsided by the habagat and amihan waves in that route. They said there is an issue with the port with regards to depth but it was never clear to me (again was there politics?). Whatever, Cawayan won out over Placer and that was that. One’s fate and progress can really just be decided in an instant in Manila and NEDA, the validator of projects is actually just a stamp pad.

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Cataingan port

Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) pioneered the Polambato (Bogo) to Cataingan route. Among its early clients were its own ROROBus intermodal buses doing a Manila-Cebu route via Masbate. Meanwhile, it was the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) that pioneered the Polambato (Bogo) to Cawayan route with their Super Shuttle Ferry 19, a double-ended ferry. Montenegro Lines used a rotation of ferries in the Bogo-Cataingan route while Super Shuttle Ferry 19 is sometimes not in the route and none is running at times as AMTC lacked ships as the years went by because they lose ships (as in hull losses) and also because of ship unreliability.

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The ferry next bigger to the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO in Polambato (Photo credit: John Carlos Cabanillas)

Both routes are still running now and Montenegro Lines even tried a twice a day sailing but settled with a once a day sailing with a ship next bigger in size to the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the starting ship of both routes (or a modernized LCT at times). Lately, however, Asian Marine Transport Corporation sold out both its ships and its route to Cawayan and Super Shuttle Ferry 19 became the Cawayan Ferry 1 of the new company D. Olmilla Shipping Corporation. The Bogo-Cawayan route, as a note, still has no intermodal bus and it is the weaker of the two. I heavily doubt if it can overtake Cataingan.

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Cawayan Ferry 1 (Photo credit: James Gabriel Verallo)

Even with these two routes running, the motor bancas of Masbate still sail regularly to Bogo and Maya. These motor bancas sometimes carry hogs (in a deck below the passenger deck) and that is a commodity not acceptable to MSLI or AMTC unless it is loaded in trucks and even then it will only be loaded with reluctance (as their passengers might complain of the smell in the 6-hour voyage). And besides, the passengers and the cargo of the motor bancas enjoy a point-to-point direct sailing with no land transfer (the ROROs doesn’t go to Placer or Esperanza). It might even stop offshore near a remote barrio and the passenger and cargo will be transferred to his own motor banca. Bookings can also be done informally (and even by cellphone). A passenger from Placer can be picked up by the Cawayan boat at sea if they receive a validated text message and if there is no motor banca from Placer.

Though affected by the development of the Bogo-Cataingan route, the Cataingan-Cebu ship of Lapu-lapu Shipping is still running. Its service of loading frozen fish in styrofoam boxes without using trucks can’t still be equaled by the Cataingan-Bogo RORO as a truck would be needed from Bogo. They send it out by Lapu-lapu Ferry 1 and it will just be picked up by the customer in Cebu Pier 3 and the empty boxes will be loaded by the customer in the return trip. Sometimes, the advantage of a RORO is overstated by the government which is always pushing it. How can shipping 2 or 3 styrofoam boxes be sulit using a truck or a Multicab?

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Lapu-lapu Ferry 1 in Cataingan port

The route from Cebu via Masbate to Manila is not cheaper compared to the Cebu to Manila route via Leyte and Samar although looks shorter on the map. That was found out by a Swiss member of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member who did both routes in the same month. The RORO rates via Masbate is high because there is lack of competition and maybe the sea crossing is longer if the Bogo-Palompon route is taken as the comparison. Meanwhile the rates via Leyte and Samar are cheaper and sometimes there are discounting plus there is the cheap Cargo RORO LCTs. However, the land route through it is some 225 kilometers longer compared to a Pilar, Sorsogon route and 265 kilometers via a Pio Duran, Masbate that both uses Masbate.

Whatever, the Bogo routes will definitely stick. That is what was shown by the last decade. Well, unless it is supersed by the Maya port which is under construction now. It might not necessarily be cheap but there are people and goods that has Masbate as a destination (and newbies who will think it is cheaper through there since it looks nearer on the map). And there are those who will still prefer the shorter route and just save on time. And also save on wear on the vehicles and the driver. And arrive earlier and for truck owners save on wages and have their trucks be available for an extra day.

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Maya port (Photo credit: bUs sPoTTeRs

If only their rates are more competitive then maybe the Bogo connection will be flying now.

The PMS and PHIDCO Wharves

The two are actually private ports or wharves in Zamboanga City which are practically unknown to outsiders. Even in the city, few are really familiar with them or had visited them. You see these are practically Muslim wharves (although the owners might not be) and Christians in Zamboanga City normally don’t go to Muslim or Moro areas or places as the fear precede and rules the. But for me I go there regularly including the other Muslim wharves like the Tres Marias wharf which is an indigenous “fishport”. I just don’t go to the San Miguel Corporation wharf nearby because they won’t let me in (it is as if ISPS rules there). It seems the fear factor is also present there.

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PMS and PHIDCO wharves

The two wharves are just near each other as in almost adjacent. Both wharves are made of reinforced concrete and was really built for docking steel ships (PMS wharf which is well-maintained even has rubber bumpers). The two wharves lies between Baliwasan and Campo Islam. Now nobody just really visits the latter though there are jeeps going there. Inside the two wharves the lengua franca is Tausug.

PMS wharf or shall we say port is the more prominent of the two. PMS used to mean Petron Marketing Services, hence the initials. Before, it sells fuel, LPG, lubricants, etc. to the vessels going to the islands (called “pulo” there) nearer to Zamboanga. The local fuel companies are actually not competitive in the farther islands which are nearer to Sabah because the people buy their fuel there as it is much cheaper (as this article was written I read the price of gasoline in Malaysia is only P19 in our currency). In fact, Moro boats buy fuel there and bring it to Zamboanga although this is fraught with the risk of being apprehended along with explosion and fire.

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PMS wharf

In PMS wharf, the vessels that dock there also load fuel for their use. However, the bigger trade there is loading LPG in tanks. There are Moro boats there which act as “LPG carriers”. Of course, they have no official authorization to do that but hey! this area is not really known for doing things the “legal” way. In fact, most of the Moro boats in Zamboanga are not even registered. But they sail and it seems nobody really inspects them on the side of MARINA. Going back from Sabah (let me clarify that neither PMS not PHIDCO is not their origin) they can be intercepted, inspected or even apprehended. Not by MARINA or the Coast Guard but by the Navy. It seems it is only the Navy which has enough guns and guts to do that.

PHIDCO meanwhile means Philippine International Development Corporation which is identified with the famous and sometimes controversial Lepeng Wee, the true owner of the legendary but defunct Bullet Express. He has good Malaysian connections (and also to Erap) and thus he was able to establish a plant that will convert coconut oil into intermediate products like fatty alcohol, glycerin and tertiary amines. This was a good project because of its value-added nature but the plant was never able to operate because of the obstacles put by the Chavacano ruling elite of Zamboanga City. So, it was never able to get a permit. The port which was just near the plant fell into disuse until vessels started using it as a docking port. That included Moro boats displaced from Zamboanga Port when it was too congested with vessels docking three across.

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PHIDCO wharf

PMS and PHIDCO ports are home to Moro boats which is now official known as motor launch although they don’t have the hull of a launch since they are supposedly related to the Arab dhow (but in hull structure it looks more like a Chinese junk). It is also different from the Luzon and Visayas motor boats which are called batel or lancha. It is the dominant type of vessel there although there are also steel-hulled ships in PMS along with various types and sizes of fast Moro fish carriers and big passenger-cargo motor bancas some of which are double-deck. PHIDCO mainly docks Moro boats and their number is not great unlike in PMS where there is congestion most times.

The Moro boats and the steel-hulled vessels docking in the two ports are combined passenger-cargo and cargo-passenger. Cargo-passenger means it is primarily for cargo with a few passengers taken in and it might not even be paying passengers as it is customary to take in the owners of the goods and given free passage. These do not have fixed sailing schedules and they will only give an approximate date of departure which means that is the day they think they will already full of cargo and sometimes they are docked there for as long as three weeks. They have to have full cargo as their rates are really very low (I was astounded when I heard quoted rates). Most of the vessels have Bongao as a destination.

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The passenger-cargo motor bancas have a clearer schedule and these sail to the nearer and more minor islands including the Pangutaran group. These are practically the buses and trucks of these islands as the bigger vessels don’t sail to these islands. The two wharves also host Moro boats to other destinations like other towns in Jolo island and island-municipalities off the coast of Sabah like Taganak.

The fish carriers meanwhile come and go and many of these are the fast types that carry exotic and high-priced fishes destined for Hongkong and these will be loaded aboard a plane in Zamboanga for a connecting flight in NAIA. These boats have oversized engine and which are really meant for speed as freshness is a key to their trade (air compressors for the fish is one of their equipment, I have heard). They might not look grand or modern but they are one type of indigenous High Speed Crafts (HSCs). Supposedly some of these can even outrun a SuperCat.

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Since departures of the Moro boats take long, PMS wharf is on almost all days congested especially if the fish carriers are around. But then that adds to the gaiety of the place. It is easy to get inside both wharves. In PHIDCO the gate is always open and there is no guard. In PMS, sometimes they close the gate and one has to knock and be met by a blue guard. Inside, there are times that the operator of the port asks for terminal tickets.

That was when I met the lookalike of Abu Sabaya, the ASG. But he was so disarming (he always laughs) even when he asked what is the purpose of my visit. I told him, “to visit the ships, take photos”. And he had kilig to that. Imagine a Tagalog admiring the ships there that most persons won’t even throw a second look. When I was finished, he asked me if I was satisfied! And he told me to come back anytime.

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A motor launch to Tongkil and facade of PMS

From the sea when one is aboard the Zamboanga Ferry leaving Zamboanga, there is also a great view of the two wharves. From Tres Marias wharf nearby, a boat landing area (and a Muslim area), the two wharves can also be viewed. From Cawa-cawa Boulevard it’s not possible because the view is blocked by some city buildings and by the fishing boats anchored in Baliwasan.

There was a time PMS wharf was closed and was announced by government authorities that it will be shut down. But it still reopened. Knowing Zamboanga, I knew there is no other place where they can transfer the vessels docking there. If they bring it back to Zamboanga Port, it will just get congested again.

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PHIDCO wharf

PMS and PHIDCO wharves, though not favored by the government authorities is actually doing a great service to the city and to shipping and trade. They might not want to admit that but that is actually the situation and I think as long as Moro boats exists the service provided by the two ports will always be needed.

N.B.

Many days the two wharves would dock up to 20 ships. That does no include small motor or fishing bancas.

Cagayan de Oro Port And Trans-Asia Shipping Lines

Cagayan de Oro port is the main connection of Mindanao to Cebu through the sea and in the south it is Cebu that is the primary trade and commercial center. Cebu supplies so many goods to Mindanao and it also attracts a lot of students and professionals from northern Mindanao. Besides a lot of people in Mindanao have Cebu origins. Cebu’s pre-eminence goes back a long, long time ago and that was even before the Spaniards came. When Magellan reached Cebu they noticed that there were many ships from Siam! Sugbu was already a great trading center even before Fernando Magallanes and Lapu-lapu were born.

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Cagayan de Oro port

Cagayan de Oro was not always the main port of entry from Cebu to Mindanao. Misamis town (Ozamis City now) reached prominence earlier than it and that was why it was the capital of the unified Misamis province then. And in the boom of copra before the 1929 Wall Street Crash in the US, Medina town and Gingoog were even more prosperous than Cagayan de Misamis, the old name of Cagayan de Oro (by the way there is no gold in that city; it was just a name creation to make it more attractive-sounding). Camiguin was also more prosperous then than Cagayan de Misamis (because of copra and not because of lanzones). All these are validated by the biography of former Vice-President Emmanuel Pelaez who hails from the area and whose father was the former Governor of the unified Misamis province.

But things always change and when the interior of Mindanao was opened for exploitation and the Sayre Highway that extended up to Cotabato province was built, slowly the central position of Cagayan de Misamis buoyed it up until it exceeded Misamis, Medina, Gingoog and Camiguin. The Americans’ interest in Bukidnon agribusiness (think pineapple and Del Monte) also helped a great deal and with that even Bugo port in Cagayan de Misamis became a port of importance.

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Part of Sayre Highway leading to Bukidnon

Many shipping companies served the growing commerce between Cebu and Cagayan de Oro. Some of earlier ones were national liner companies (almost all liners then going to Cagayan de Oro call in Cebu first) and some were regionals like Central Shipping (but this graduated to the national liner company Sweet Lines). The situation then was national liner companies dominated the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro corridor (in fact the entire Cebu-northern Mindanao corridor). On the side of the regionals, they were then dependent on wooden motor boats and at best they would have ex-”F” ships or ships converted from minesweepers or PT boats.

In 1974, a new shipping company was born in Cebu which was first known as Solar Shipping Lines but they immediately changed their company name to Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. or TASLI for short. This company had an entirely new tack which made them surpass their regional rivals immediately. Their strategy was to buy good surplus cruisers from Japan whose size even exceeded the former “FS” ships which in those days still dominated the fleet of the national liner companies (but which actually are already reaching the end of their reliable service and were already prone to accidents). The age of those surplus ships of TASLI was about the same of the small liners being purchased then from Japan by the national liner companies. So imagine TASLI’s edge in the regional and specifically the Cebu-northern Mindanao shipping wars especially the premier route to Cagayan de Oro.

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Asia Philippines by TASLI

The cruisers of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines were of course faster, more reliable and more comfortable as comfort was not the strength of the former “FS” ships then which has cargo origins. And, of course, the ex-”F” ships, etc. were even more inferior along with the wooden motor boats. Even in the 1970’s when our population was much smaller and the trade of goods then smaller too, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was able to form a fleet of seven of these modern (by Philippine standards) cruisers which were all built in Japan in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

These TASLI ships bore the names which later became familiar even to the current generation: Asia Philippines, Asia Japan, Asia Indonesia, Asia China and Trans-Asia (two were sold and replaced by ships that bore the same name). To complete the modernist approach, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines built a modern main office and an airconditioned ticketing office just across Plaza Independencia which stands until now and the company was justifiably proud of those. And I say I have to congratulate its architect and the owners because the building still looks beautiful four decades later. Their buildings were just near where their ships docked then. Actually, I sometimes go there just to feel the ambiance and the history of the place.

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TASLI ticketing office

When the new shipping paradigm came which we know today as the RORO ships, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines immediately went aboard and sold their old cruisers. In this field, among the Visayas-Mindanao regional shipping companies, only Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) was ahead of them. In the 1980′,s after the break-up with Lorenzo Shipping Corporation, CAGLI stressed regional operations and they were first to realize the superiority of the ROROs even in the overnight ferry field. Roble Shipping Inc. and Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) were among the recipients of the cast-off cruisers of TASLI.

In succession from 1987, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines acquired Asia Hongkong, a new Asia Japan, Asia Thailand, Asia Taiwan, Asia Brunei and a new Asia Indonesia, a new Asia Singapore, a new Trans-Asia, a new Asia Philippines and a new Asia China with the last one added in 1995. Trans-Asia Shipping Lines were adding more than a new ship a year in this stretch and this brought them easily to the top of the Visayas-Mindanao regional shipping companies. From Cebu as a hub, their routes spread like the spokes of the wheel with routes to Mindanao, the all the major Visayas islands and even Masbate in the Bicol Region. And they dominated the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route. They even exceeded there Carlos A. Gothong Lines and Sulpicio Lines.

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The jewels of their fleet were the sister ships Trans-Asia and Asia China. The two were nearly liner in size and speed and they had the appointments and comforts of a liner. In those days, the two were probably the best overnight ships in the whole country and Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was justifiably proud of the two. It was more than a statement that “they have arrived”. They were the best among the regionals, the top in the totem pole of this category.

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But storms at sea can suddenly appear out of nowhere and their fury could be fiercer than one might expect. The “typhoon” that battered Trans-Asia Shipping Lines appeared on January 1, 1996 when the “Great Merger” between Williams Lines Inc., Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and Aboitiz Shipping Company happened which produced the giant shipping company WG&A. With the creation of WG&A, a new, more powerful regional shipping company suddenly appeared, the Cebu Ferries Corporation or CFC. It also had another subsidiary, the High Speed Craft (HSC) company SuperCat.

In Cebu Ferries Corporation, WG&A passed on their old liners and the former regional ships of William Lines and CAGLI. To top it and to challenge the jewels of TASLI which were ruling the prime Visayas-Mindanao route, the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route, CFC fielded the Our Lady of Lipa and later the Our Lady of Good Voyage, a small William Lines liner which was the former Mabuhay 6. So as not to lose in the one-upmanship, Sulpicio Lines then fielded the even bigger Princess of the Ocean which was really a liner in appointments, speed and size.

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Photo credit: Ray Smith

The Our Lady of Lipa and Princess of the Ocean were both capable of 20 knots and so the races between Cebu and Cagayan de Oro began. The bragging rights comes from which ship will arrive Cagayan de Oro port first. In Cagayan de Oro that matters because maybe half of the passengers will still be travelling long distances to Bukidnon, Davao, Cotabato, Gensan and Lanao (the farthest I heard was still bound for Sarangani islands). If one is able to hitch to a connecting ride before dawn then he will have lunch at home even it is as far as Davao. In won’t be dark already when the passenger reaches Sarangani province unlike before (if one is late and there are no more trips then one sleeps in Gensan).

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And reports of 2:00 or 2:30 am arrivals (or even earlier) began filtering back. From an 8pm departure in Cebu! There was no way the sister ships of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines can match that. In comfort and accommodations they probably can match ships fitted as liners (except in speed and maybe in the restaurant). But Cebu Ferries Corporation also has a more extensive route system and in conjunction with WG&A liners passing through Cebu their frequencies can’t be matched. WG&A liners acting also as Visayas-Mindanao liners were simply untouchable like the SuperFerries emanating from Cebu. Or when they use the likes of Our Lady of Sacred Heart in a Vis-Min route. Maybe TASLI then were asking what sea god they have crossed to deserve such a fate and tribulation!

Trans-Asia Shipping Lines tried to fight back (and show they are not cowered). They acquired three more ships in a short stretch between 1997 and 1998, the Trans-Asia 2, the Asia Malaysia and the Asia South Korea. However, they lost two ships to accidents in 1999 and they sold three more ships early this millennium. There was simply a surplus of bottoms in the Visayas-Mindanao routes so there was overcompetition (contrary to what Myrna S. Austria claims but those knowledgeable of Visayas-Mindanao shipping will easily contradict her). A lot of regional shipping companies failed in this period. The growth of others were stunted and that included Trans-Asia Shipping Lines.

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Soon, even Cebu Ferries Corporation stepped back, gave up routes and sold ships. It was not simply the effects of overcompetition on them. The “Great Merger” unraveled and the Chiongbian and Gothong families pulled out and they had to be paid for their shares and so still-good ships were thrown to the torches of the breakers. Later, reeling from the resurgence of competitors, Cebu Ferries Corporation gave up completely and its remaining ships were brought to Batangas (and becoming “Batangas Ferries”, jokingly).

But Trans-Asia Shipping Lines suffered a lot. For ten years from 1998 they didn’t acquire any ships until when the purchased the Trans-Asia 3 in 2008. From 2010, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines acquired four more ships. But the difference this time were they were purchasing ships discarded by others (that was the pattern of their clients Cokaliong Shipping Lines and Roble Shipping Lines before). It seems they have forgotten the formula which brought them to the top. As I observed, they were not the same company after that bruising battle with Cebu Ferries Corporation. The “Great Merger” was actually a curse to our shipping as it turned out. Not only to TASLI but to the whole shipping industry. Shipping companies that were growing were blighted by them, some were even snuffed out completely.

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While Trans-Asia Shipping Lines still added four more ferries from 2010, they also lost about the same number through disposals and an accident, the sinking of the Asia Malaysia. And then they sold to the breakers their former jewels which might have weak engines already but the interiors were still superb.

Now one of the cast-offs they bought, the Trans-Asia 5 now just sails as a Cargo RORO ship and another has fast-weakening engine, the Trans-Asia 9 (the Captain of her as Our Lady of Good Voyage admitted to PSSS that its engines were weak already). Trans-Asia Shipping Lines severely lacks ships now and their fleet is beginning to get gray. They still try to hold to the premier Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route but challengers are now baying at their door.

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I hope they have a renaissance. And like in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s that they sail boldly on to a new dawn.

The Pio Duran Port

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The smallness of Pio Duran town

Pio Duran is a small town and a port in the southern coast of Albay. However, some people spell this as “Pioduran” which is incorrect since the town was named after the Congressman who sponsored the bill creating the town. The town was eventually created after Congressman Pio Duran died.

In the past this place was called “Malacbalac” and it was known for mainly one thing, its abundant fish which was supplied to the rest of Albay towns and even as far as Iriga in Camarines Sur. Before that the place was generally referred to as “Panganiran” and thus the bay where Malacbalac is situated is called Panganiran Bay. There is still a barrio named Panganiran in Pio Duran town.

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Pio Duran port

For decades after the creation of the town, Pio Duran was not an enchanting place to visit because of the really bad state of the road then (it was unpaved and muddy) which was sometimes cut at the peak of the rainy season or when there is a typhoon. In 1984 a new port was built in the town supplanting the old wooden municipal port. This was one of the 12 Bicol ports wangled by then Minister Luis Villafuerte from President Ferdinand Marcos when there was already an arrangement that Villafuerte’s ministry will be absorbed by Roberto Ongpin’s ministry.

The funds for the ports were sourced from JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) and these were called “fishports”. But except for Camaligan port, it cannot be compared to the known fishports today like Navotas, Daliao and Sangali because it is just a port and there are no blast-freezing facilities, cold storage and fish processing.

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Pio Duran town and port

After more than 20 years, the old municipal port and “fishport” of Pio Duran were practically gone, weathered by the elements and assaulted by the storm waves generated by the typhoons that pass Bicol and the sometime fierce habagat waves. That is why when President Gloria Arroyo thought of Pio Duran as a RORO port a new, very simple finger port with no back-up area has to be built.

Pio Duran “fishport” is one damning evidence against politicians and bureaucrats who say that when a port is built the ships will come. Usually when the ships try to come many years later the old port is no more. Ports are unlike highways or roads than when built then people and vehicles come. I really don’t know why we have to listen to politicians and bureaucrats who have no knowledge of maritime matters like the former Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr.

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The old “fishport” of Pio Duran

Even when the new port was built it did not have ships coming immediately. What turned the table in favor of Pio Duran was the bad situation in the nearby port of Pilar in Sorsogon which connects Masbate to the Luzon mainland through ROROs and other kinds of crafts. New players wanted to come in but there were two obstacles. One, the old port of Pilar was only serviceable because the pioneer RORO operator Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. made improvements.

There were no improvements before because President Arroyo hated the guts of the Congressman then of the place which was Francis Escudero who among other congressmen tried to file an impeachment complaint against her. Now, one can’t do that to a Capampangan without reaping the whirlwind. Pilar port at the start did not even have a RORO ramp and besides the docking area is crowded because it is actually small and there are a lot of passenger-cargo motor bancas and some motor boats.

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Pilar port

The second obstacle was being in a river estuary Pilar port is very shallow and only basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and LCTs can dock there. In an oncoming low tide, the RORO has to leave early otherwise it might not be able to get out. One competitor of the Montenegro Lines does not even have basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs so Pilar port was automatically out for them.

It was the expanding Medallion Transport which first applied for a Pio Duran-Masbate route. Next followed the dominant shipping line of Bicol, the Sta. Clara Shipping Corp./Penafrancia Shipping Corp. combine which then ditched their unprofitable Bulan-Masbate route (before that they even tried a Pasacao-Masbate route which they abandoned very fast).

The RORO business between the Bicol mainland and Masbate bloomed and many buses and intermodal trucks now cross daily and some are even destined for Cebu through Bogo port. Cebu trader trucks now also cross to the Bicol mainland through Masbate. There are also vehicles destined for CALABARZON and Metro Manila.

There is now an even split between Pio Duran and Pilar in terms of RORO traffic. The Sta. Clara Shipping Corp./Penafrancia Shipping Corp. combine and Medallion Transport operate ferries to Pio Duran while Montenegro Lines operates ROROs and fastcrafts to Pilar and Denica Lines also operates ROROs and motor bancas to Pilar.

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Denica Lines RORO

Recently, I noticed Montenegro Lines got a franchise to Pio Duran. Well, with the construction of a back-up area and a new RORO ramp more vessels can now be accommodated in Pio Duran. Pilar is also improved now and I wonder if the Sta. Clara Shipping Corp./Penafrancia Shipping Corp. combine will “invade” that. Maybe not if the port is not dredged (there had been long calls for this but the government practically have no more dredgers running).

For intermodal buses and trucks coming from Manila and CALABARZON and even Naga, Pio Duran has an advantage in that about 40 kilometers and more than an hour of travel time is shaved. Besides, Pio Duran has no depth problems and so docking and undocking can be done at any time unlike in Pilar.

Pilar meanwhile will always host the motor bancas and the motor boats because those connect local passengers and cargo to Masbate. A passenger or a shipment from Daraga, Legazpi or Tabaco will not use Pio Duran because it will then be a longer route and besides there are no motor bancas or motor boats running from Pio Duran to Masbate. This situation is also true for the fastcrafts where the passengers are mainly local. Meanwhile, Pio Duran will continue to host the few motor boats going to the Claveria town in the eastern half of Burias island.

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Pio Duran main road

Whatever, it can be said that Pio Duran town and port has already triumphed. From a sleepy, remote town with no ROROs and not many buses and trucks, it is now beginning to bustle with activity because it became a connecting port to Masbate and part of the intermodal system of transport and an alternative to Pilar.

Pio Duran port is no longer a port to nowhere. Unlike one near port to the west of them, the Pantao port which is the white elephant of Governor/Congressman Joey Salceda and it is still a port to nowhere until now. If only the funds spent for Pantao port to be a “regional port” were given to Pio Duran and Pilar ports.

Well, that is how politics and development intertwine in the Philippines.

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A Sta. Clara Shipping RORO in Pio Duran port

The Davao Ports That Handle Foreign Ships

I would have liked to expound on the ports under the Davao PMO. But that would mean tackling all the ports in Davao Region and that is just too many. I also wanted to tackle the ports and wharves of Davao City but I will still be burgeoned with many ports and wharves that basically handle traffic only to Samal island. I thought the best was to focus on one distinguishing mark of the Davao ports and that characteristic is many of its ports handle foreign vessels. Among the combined ports in the country it is Davao which has the most since about 20 ports here handle foreign ships, some regularly and some occasionally. But this will not be limited to Davao City only but will include ports in Panabo, Tagum, Maco, all in Davao del Norte and Sta. Cruz in Davao del Sur. This is a stretch of ports of about 25-30 miles of almost straight linear distance. Another trait of Davao ports is a significant number of foreign ships that call in Davao dock in two or three different ports trying to fill up more cargo. Senator Bam Aquino filed a bill that became a law allowing that but he was two decades too late and his bill just showed his ignorance of maritime matters.

Handling foreign ships is one thing that became more important in the last several years in Davao. This became more pronounced especially when passenger liners from Manila stopped calling in Davao. To Sulpicio Lines that was force majeure since they were suspended by MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) from sailing in the aftermath of the capsizing of the MV Princess of the Stars in 2008. For Aboitiz Transport System (ATS), they said “there was not enough cargo” (and after that their competitors were simply too glad to fill up the void created).

The main type of foreign ship that calls on Davao are the regional container ships, otherwise called “feeder ships” abroad. I named it as such since they basically do regional routes especially in Southeast Asia and East Asia. Types like “Panamax”, “Handymax” or “Aframax”, etc. have no meaning in the Philippine context since only the smallest of international container ships call locally, in the main. Not that we are in an out-of-the way route but because that size is just what the size of our economy can muster (yes, we are mainly good only in producing people (and billiards players) and in fact, that is one of our main exports but they don’t ride container ships). Some of the ships that call in Davao goes all the way to Europe so not only regional container ships call in Davao.

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Regional container ships in Sasa Port by Mike Baylon

The second main type of foreign ships that call in Davao are the reefers or refrigerated container ships. These reefers and the regional container ships basically carry the export fruits (Cavendish bananas, broad-shouldered pineapples, solo papayas mainly but that can also include avocado, giant guavas and buko and many others) and export fresh produce (like lettuce, cauliflower and many other high-priced vegetables) grown in Southern Mindanao. Some of the refrigerated container vans loaded here come from as far as Agusan del Norte, Misamis Oriental, Bukidnon, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur. Actually, almost all kinds of fruits and produce grown in farms and orchards are already exported now like camote, cassava, saging na saba (cardava in Bisaya), other varieties of bananas, mature coconuts, langka and gabi that we sometimes joke here that it seems they also cook ginataan (benignit in Bisaya) abroad now. Or make camote cue, banana cue, turon and ginanggang (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginanggang) abroad.

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Reefer by Aris Refugio

The third main type of ship that calls on Davao ports are the tankers (included here are the like-type LPG carriers). Some of these are chemical tankers and they load coconut oil in the many oil mills of Davao. Many of these are oil tankers that bring in fuel to the tanker jetties in Davao (and that is why fuel is cheaper here since many of our fuel is from Singapore). The fourth main type of foreign ships that call in the Davao are the general cargo ships or simply freighters. Some of these bring rice, some are Vietnam ships that load copra meal, some load desiccated coconut. The fifth main type are the bulkers or bulk carriers. However, this type is not that frequent in Davao.

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Bulk Carrier by Aris Refugio

On the average, a total of more than 25 foreign ships call on Davao ports every week for an average of three four ships a day. In container volume, it is actually Davao which is number two in container ship calls ahead of Cebu and Batangas ports but behind Manila port, the national port. What happened is that after our first two main export commodity crops abaca and copra/coconut oil lost in the world markets because of economic shifts (abaca was displaced by nylon and copra/coconut oil lost to other edible oils) it is now fresh fruits and fresh produce (and also canned pineapple) which have taken their place. These are basically loaded in Davao as Southern Mindanao and Bukidnon practically lords it over the other Philippine regions in the production of those export goods as the other regions are still stuck to their traditional crops which are mainly not for export in significant quantity except maybe for the sugar of Negros.

Sasa Port is the main port of Davao. It is a government-owned port and it is the biggest in Davao. It is also the base port of Davao PMO (Port Management Office which is equivalent to a regional division). Sasa Port has a total wharf length of about a kilometer and six or more ships of 80 to 180 meters size range can dock simultaneously and more if the ships are smaller and/or local. Foreign ships, which are conscious of demurrhage are the priority here and there are inducements like crisp foreign bills so they will be given priority in docking. Since Sasa Port has the tendency to exceed its capacity then ships that cannot be accommodated or are displaced are made to anchor off Sta. Ana Port so as not to congest the narrow Pakiputan Strait separating Samal island from Davao.

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Sasa Port by Mike Baylon

One weakness of Sasa Port is the lack of gantry cranes. With that she cannot handle the gearless container ships that are now beginning to appear in Panabo Port. However, Sasa Port has the usual needs of foreign ships: reefer facilities, container yard, marshalling area aside from the usual open storage area. There are also transit sheds and a passenger terminal that is no longer being used. When regional container ships arrive speed is the essence in unloading so aside from their booms the reach stackers are widely used. There are two arrastre firms operating in the port. Sasa Port is due for expansion and renovation but its cost is shrouded in controversy and many local stakeholders and the local government unit of Davao City have formally objected. The administration of President Aquino then seems to be intent in ramming it through but now that plan is dead duck under the current Duterte administration. For sure, the plans will be modified as it was really overpriced.

The two Panabo ports are next in importance to Sasa Port. To an outsider Panabo Port might look to be a single port but they are actually two, the TADECO (Tagum Agricultural Development Company) wharf of the Floirendos and the PACINTER (Pacific International Terminal Services) wharf of Dole-STANFILCO. Together, the two along with minority interests reclaimed part of the sea and built an extension port and yard. This is equipped with gantry cranes and it is called the Davao International Container Terminal (DICT). It is the only port in Southern Mindanao that can handle gearless container ships at the moment and this port is the main handler of the produce of “Banana Country”, the wide flat swath of land in the localities of Panabo, Carmen, Braulio Dujali and Sto. Tomas plus parts of other towns that is dedicated to the propagation of Cavendish bananas. In “Banana Country” there is nothing else to see for kilometers on end but Cavendish bananas.

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Panabo ports (TADECO and Dole-STANFILCO) by Mike Baylon

These ports of Panabo are private ports. The DICT expansion cost only P2.7 billion (and was financed by private banks) and that was the comparison used why the local stakeholders blanch at the quoted price of the proposed expansion and modernization of Sasa Port (well, just adding gantry cranes, cold storage facilities and a little extension will already make it modern). [Of course, there are other and sometimes unspoken issues and projects that are related to this but that should be in another article.] Besides, the Panabo ports are also “Exhibit A” against those who badger the government to build ports for them for free or to pandering politicians who promise to build international ports and terminals just to get votes. If there is really traffic then the private sector will build its own ports rather than wait for government to build the ports for them (after all they will earn, won’t they?). And if the private sector builds the ports it always comes out cheaper than if government had it built (it is a question of corruption, inefficiency and waste). However, though expanded, DICT still lacks docking space many times and so container ships and reefers have to wait.

There is a modern, purpose-built port in Davao that was purposely-built for handling fresh fruits and fresh produce for export. This is the AJMR Port in the northern part of Davao City on the road to Panabo and this port is synonymous with Sumifru or Sumitomo Fruits, the biggest fruit distributor in Japan. Japan is known for having the highest quality requirement in fruits and they pay adequately for that. To meet that requirement, AJMR Port has its own vapor heat treatment (VHT) facility right inside the port, a plastic plant too and a factory for its carton boxes. However, the docking facilities of AJMR Port is rather limited and only two container ships or reefers can dock at the same time in its jetty-like wharf. By the way, AJMR is also classified as an “agro-industrial economic zone” which is similar to a “special economic zone”. That means it is enjoying a lot of perks from the government.

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AJMR Port by Mike Baylon

In importance, the adjacent Craft Haven International Wharf and TEFASCO Port might be next in importance. Craft Haven is also a purpose-built port to handle fresh fruits for export. Formerly, the place was once a shuttered plywood factory. Many of its exports goes west to the Middle East and India which are new markets for Cavendish banana (introduced by “Operation Desert Storm”). Many of its cartons bear the trademarks of Arab brands as well as the famous Unifrutti brands (i.e. “Chiquita”). The operator and agent of Craft Haven have good connections with Muslim planters of Cavendish banana of SOCCSKSARGEN region. The port has cold rooms but compared to AJMR it does not have its own carton box or plastic factories. But wood for making boxes is delivered in the port. The Craft Haven International Wharf can handle up to three ships simultaneouslyvand the “Cala” ships are regulars there. These are ships that trade to Japan and Korea.

I will go next to TEFASCO Port as it is just adjacent. TEFASCO means Terminal Facilities and Services Corporation. They so-famously won a landmark case then against PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) which set the principle that PPA can’t collect fees on ships docking in private ports. TEFASCO mainly docks local ships especially the container ships of Solid Shipping Lines but a few years ago they were able to lure Pacific International Lines (PIL) of Singapore which uses their wharf now to load container vans (these are the container ships with the name “Kota”). They only dock and does not engage in any processing of the fresh fruits and produce as they are not a “clean” port (a no-no in fresh fruits and fresh produce as it leads to contamination). Fertilizers and other contaminants are present in their port but refrigerated vans are practically hermetically-sealed unless Customs comes knocking.

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TEFASCO, Craft Haven and Holcim ports by Aris Refugio

Holcim Port is just adjacent TEFASCO Port and it also handled foreign ships in the last few years when Sasa Port and Panabo Port were experiencing congestion. However, the primary ships that Holcom Port handles are ships that carry cement (naturally!) and these are mainly local ships. Holcim is actually a cement plant (actually the biggest in the Philippines) as many knows. With cement dust (and also coal)  it is not also a “clean” port and so there are no processing facilities there for fresh fruits and fresh produce. It is simply a come and go operation there.

In terms of future growth the Hijo Port in Madaum, Tagum City, capital of Davao del Norte might be next in weight. This port is now a joint venture between ICTSI (International Container Terminals Services Inc.) which is not just an arrastre service anymore but operator of ports in other countries and the Manila International Container Terminal (MICT) and Hijo Plantation with the former in the saddle. ICTSI is developing this port to rival Davao International Container Terminal although in volume they are not yet there. Hijo Plantation is the main user of the port although it is intended to intercept the container vans coming from the north and east of Tagum but the intent has not materialized yet.

I will no longer go one by one with the other ports handling foreign ships as they are relatively minor or can just be bunched together. Universal Robina Corporation (URC) wharf sometimes handle bulk carriers which bring in imported wheat for URC’s need. The frequency of this in every few months or so. Down south in Astorga, Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur, foreign ships load the products of Franklin Baker Company which is best known for its desiccated coconut which are mainly for export.

 

Meanwhile, Davao City is host to several coconut oil mills like Legaspi Oil, INTERCO, DBCOM and the New Davao Oil Mill. Foreign chemical tankers come to load their products and combined the arrivals are at least a week in frequency or even more frequent, on the average. Additionally, Vietnam freighters come to load their by-product copra meal (an ingredient and protein source for animal feed).

Davao is also home to several petroleum products depots like Chevron, Petron, Phoenix Petroleum and Shell. Aside from local tankers, foreign tankers also come especially those that come from Singapore. In addition, there are also LPG carriers that also come to the Price Gases jetty in Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur, the Isla LPG Corporation wharf in Davao City aside from the tanker jetties of the petroleum majors and many of these are foreign vessels. The frequency of these foreign tankers and LPG carriers combined might be every week also.

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Tanker jetties, oil depot, Legaspi Oil, URC by Mike Baylon

Once in a while, a foreign ship will also come to Maco Port in Davao del Norte. This port is just near the Hijo Port in Tagum and both are located in the innermost portion of Davao Gulf (which is actually a bay).

And that sums up all the ports of Davao PMO handling foreign vessels. Sasa Port and DICT dominates the handling of the foreign ships. DICT don’t even handle local ships, in fact. The other ports, except the tanker jetties, started handling foreign ships because of the congestion of Sasa Port and the Panabo ports (except Hijo Port which handled their own shipments from the start).

With many ports handling ships, both foreign and local, one unintended benefit was road traffic did not build up so fast in the port areas of Davao unlike in Manila which is dependent on so few ports. Maybe a lesson can be learned here.

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Sasa Port by Mike Baylon

The Original RORO Ferry Terminals

It has long been the dream of our country, the Philippines, to connect the main islands of Luzon, the Visayas group and Mindanao to unite the country physically. The only way to do this is through an intermodal system that will use both land and sea transport. This is because the sea crossings are simply too long for the bridges based on the technology of decades before. And, even if the technology is already available, the needed budget for such bridges might simply be too great for a poor country like the Philippines (only fools believe we are the “13th-largest” economy in the world).

The foundation for such Luzon-Visayas-Mindanao connection was actually the study and plan made in the early 1960’s during the administration of President Diosdado Macapagal for a “Philippine-Japan Friendship Highway”. Such grand project will depend on Japan reparations money, soft loans and technical assistance and that was why that project was retitled to such from “Pan-Philippine Highway”.

Aside from a concrete highway stretching from Aparri, Cagayan to Zamboanga City, it also had provisions for a Sorsogon-Samar connection through a ferry, a Samar-Leyte connection through a bridge (which later became the San Juanico bridge), a Leyte-Panaon island connection by a short bridge and a Panaon-Surigao connection through a ferry. That route was the one chosen because it will involve the least number and shortest ferry crossings plus it will mean the most regions that will benefit from a concrete highway. Included in the project was the purchase of two RORO ships for the sea connections and four RORO ferry terminals.

This project was actually not finished during the term of President Diosdado Macapagal. It was actually not even started during his term. The project was really grand, the highways to be paved were really long and a very large number of bridges have to be built. The project was started in 1967 and it was finished about 18 years later. Along the way, the new administration of President Ferdinand Marcos renamed the project into the “Maharlika Highway”. The ROROs in the two sea crossings were also named as Maharlika I and Maharlika II.

The four so-called RORO ferry terminals (they were not called as ports even though they really are) were located in Matnog (Sorsogon), San Isidro (Northern Samar), Liloan (Southern Leyte) and Lipata (Surigao City). For Luzon, the logical choice is really Matnog as it is the closest to the island of Samar. In Samar, it should have been logically located in Allen, Northern Samar. However, it was located instead in San Isidro of the same province because at that time the Calbayog-Allen road was not yet finished. The vehicles then still pass through the mountain town of Lope de Vega to Catarman.

In Panaon island, the logical location of the ferry terminal should have been in the southernmost town of San Ricardo. The problem again was the uncompleted road. The first plan was to put it in San Francisco town. However, the final decision was to locate it in Liloan. One reason forwarded was it was more sheltered which is true. That reason also factored in the choice of San Isidro as it has an islet off it. In Surigao, the ferry terminal was located in the barrio of Lipata. It is nearer to Panaon island than Surigao City poblacion.

Looking at the lines of the ferry terminals it is obvious that all were constructed from just one architectural plan. The only one that is a little different is the Liloan Ferry Terminal. All are modern-looking and even now, more than thirty year after they were constructed, they still do not look dated. It is obvious from the design that effort was made to control the heat from the sun. They were also all well-built and all sat low and maybe that was done to minimize damage from strong winds. Typhoons and earthquakes have come over the decades but all are still spic and span. They all seem to blend with the terrain, too.

The ferry terminals themselves are surrounded by access roads. The design was that the vehicles to be loaded have a separate access from the vehicles being unloaded. There is also back-up area for the vehicles to be loaded. Inside the terminals aside from the usual waiting areas, there are shops and a restaurant. That is aside from the office of the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) and booths for the shipping companies and the useless arrastre firm.

One difference of the ferry terminals from the ports of the past is the presence from the start of RORO ramps in the wharf. It signified that the ferry terminals were really meant for RORO operations right from the very start. Originally, there were only two RORO ramps per ferry terminal. This provision grew short when the number of RORO ships using the ferry terminal multiplied. So, alterations and expansions were done along the way in the quays of the ferry terminals.

When the sea ferry terminals were opened in 1982 in Matnog and in San Isidro with the arrival of the RORO Maharlika I, San Bernardino Strait, the sea separating the two was already connected by privately-owned ROROs for three years. However, they were using the shorter Matnog to Allen connection. Allen, in Northern Samar, had a port even in the past but a private operator developed their own port. Actually, San Isidro port is not well-placed for the vehicles headed just for Northern Samar as they need to backtrack.

Also, when the ferry terminals were opened in 1984 in Liloan and Lipata, Surigao Strait, the sea separating the two was already connected by privately-owned ROROs for five years already. The original connection here was between Surigao port and Liloan municipal port (plus Maasin port). Incidentally, in both connections it was Cardinal Shipping which was the pioneer using the ROROs Cardinal I and Cardinal II. This is to correct the wrong impression by many who thinks it was the government and the Maharlika ships which were the pioneers in this routes. This erroneous impression is the product of government propaganda. May I add also that even before the ROROs came these two straits were already connected by wooden motor boats (called the lancha locally) and big motor bancas.

Trucks, private cars and government vehicles made the first Luzon-Visayas-Mindanao connection and it was not many at the start. The signal connection that everybody was waiting for was the bus connection since that will mean that all and everybody can make the LuzViMinda run. It finally came in 1986 when the Philtranco bus made its first Mindanao run. The run took longer than expected because of mechanical problems but finally it came about. Now, private vehicles and trucks and everybody is taking it now through many buses and even by commuter van at times.

And the Philippines is physically connected now.