The Bad Maharlika and Grand Star RORO Ferries Transformed

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

Maharlika I

Maharlika I by Edison Sy of PSSS.

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

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

Maharlika II in Liloan port

Maharlika II by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

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

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

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

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

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

Maharlika Cuatro

Maharlika Cuatro by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

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

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

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

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

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Maharlika Siete by John Carlos Cabanillas of PSSS.

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

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

Grand Star RORO 3

Grand Star RORO 3 by Joe Cardenas III of PSSS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Philtranco Always Tried Horizontal Integration

Horizontal integration is the setting up or the acquisition of a company at the same level of the value chain and that is meant to help the company compete. It can be a competitive strategy where economies of scale, more efficiency and increase of market power are the objectives. Companies engage in horizontal integration to benefit from possible synergies. But sometimes the resolution of a problem or a bottleneck prods a company into horizontal integration.

Philtranco Service Enterprises, Inc. (PSEI), the leading bus company in the Philippines then tried this strategy over a generation ago. From running a big fleet of buses from Manila to the southern part of the Philippines up to Davao City, they established their own RORO companies in the San Bernardino Strait crossing that linked Sorsogon and Samar. However, the results were certainly very mixed, to say the least, and controversial.

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The Cardinal Ferry 1. Research by Gorio Belen of PSSS in the National Library.

Since 1979, Philtranco buses (they were still known as Pantranco South then) have been rolling across already to Eastern Visayas via the San Bernardino Strait using the newly-fielded RORO Cardinal Ferry 1 of Cardinal Shipping. Newport Shipping which had ferries and cargo ships from Manila to Samar then followed with their Northern Star and Laoang Bay.

This reaction of Newport Shipping was very understandable as Newport Shipping was not really doing well with their Manila to Samar route and maybe they felt they have to defend their home turf as the owner of Newport Shipping is from Laoang, Northern Samar. They might have also felt that this new intermodal route might kill them in the long term and so they have to join the fun.

"Maharllika 1" Ferry unloading Bus

MV Northern Samar. Formerly the MV Northern Star before she was refitted. Photo by Lindsay Bridge of PSSS.

Before the ROROs arrived it was the motor boats of Bicolandia Shipping Lines (this company has legal-fiction companies like E. Tabinas) which dominated the route across San Bernardino Strait. But with the buses now rolling the passengers no longer have to cut their bus trip to Matnog and they do not take a local bus to Allen, Northern Samar to take the lancha (motor boat). Convenience is what the intermodal system offered. Cargo of the passengers that was once a hassle became less with the bus for it afforded less handling and haggling.

Immediately, there was a surplus of bottoms in San Bernardino Strait as the government-owned Maharlika II (later replaced by Maharlika I whom it replaced earlier) was also plying the official Matnog to San Isidro, N. Samar route. Moreover, the passengers to Eastern Visayas did not immediately shift to the buses especially the passengers to Leyte. They were still content with the liners of Sulpicio Lines and William Lines which had calls in Calbayog, Catbalogan, Tacloban and other ports in Leyte and Southern Leyte. In terms of comfort the bus is actually inferior to the liners which has its own toilets and baths, are equipped with bunks with mattresses and even linen (called “beddings”) plus the meals are free and the rice servings are generous. However, they only call in ports unlike buses which roll through the various towns.

Maharlika I

The Maharlika I. Photo from Edison Sy of PSSS.

In the aftermath of that surplus of bottoms, Cardinal Shipping and Newport Shipping teetered especially when Eugenia Tabinas got into the RORO act starting when she was able to acquire the Northern Star in 1981 which she then renamed into the Northern Samar. Eugenia Tabinas was in a strong position as she dominated the intra-Bicol routes with her motor boats and so she can compete in one of her routes at just break-even.

However, with many buses crossing San Bernardino Strait, Philtranco thought they could save money if they operated their own ROROs where they will always have priority. And so they also got caught in the RORO act (they were still strong then and they have just re-fleeted into Hino) and they thereby acquired the Laoang Bay of Newport Shipping which was renamed into the Black Double. In 1984, this became the Philtranco Ferry 1 of Philtranco Services.

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The Philtranco Ferry I. Research of Gorio Belen of PSSS in the National Library.

It is here that things began to get interesting and lively. Eugenia Tabinas or Bicolandia Shipping smelled that Philtranco was operating without a Certificate of Public Conveyance (CPC) and complained to MARINA, the Maritime Industry Authority which is the country’s maritime regulatory agency and which has quasi-judicial powers. Philtranco countered that since they were only loading their own buses then there is no need for them to get a CPC. Now, if MARINA agrees with that then Philtranco will be the only sea carrier without a CPC and that has great implications.

Along the way, Black Double got unreliable as she was built in 1962 and diesel engines were not yet as reliable (with changes in design and technology that changed in the mid-1960s especially when Daihatsu marine engines became dominant). She was sold to Badjao Navigation and she became the Badjao and she plied a route from Cebu island to Leyte.

While the case was pending (as it reached the higher courts as MARINA quasi-judicial decisions can be appealed in the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court), Philtranco acquired the salvaged Mindoro Express from Prince Valiant Navigation which then became the Christ The Saviour and Christ The King. The RORO became the Luzvimin Primo because she was now under the Luzvimin Ferry Services, the new ferry company of Philtranco.

Mindoro Express ( now Maharlika Cinco )

The Mindoro Express just before she became the Christ The King and Luzvimin Primo . Photo by Edison Sy of PSSS.

In due time (which means a long time), the Supreme Court sustained the ruling of MARINA that a shipping company cannot carry passengers without a CPC and the ferry service of Philtranco stopped. By that time Philtranco was already toppling and it was fast losing its Hino buses.

Philtranco then fell into the hands of transportation mogul Pepito Alvarez who then equipped Philtranco with his new MAN and Nissan buses. Soon, he was able to reach a deal with the administration of President Fidel V. Ramos to operate the already-weak Maharlika ferries which in that time consisted only of Maharlika I and Maharlika II (this one was not in San Bernardino Strait but in Surigao Strait).

After settling in, Pepito Alvarez added the Maharlika Tres, Maharlika Cuatro and Lakbayan Uno (this was later sold to Millennium Shipping). And then the Luzvimin Primo became the Maharlika Cinco. Later, the Maharlika Seiz and Maharlika Siete were also also added to be followed by the Grand Star RORO 1 and Grand Star RORO 3 which came from Phil-Nippon Kyoei. This time Philtranco was already careful about the CPC. In these moves, Pepito Alvarez worked through his protégé Cristopher Pastrana.

Liloan ships

Maharlika Cinco and Maharlika Seiz. Photo from the PPA.

The horizontal integration of Philtranco was not necessarily beneficial for the passengers unless maybe in its early years when the dominant Bicolandia Shipping Lines engaged in what is locally-known as “alas-puno” system of departures when a ferry will only leave if it was already full of rolling cargo (and that was the cause of their downfall later). With that system, the buses and its passengers lose time and it could be in the hours.

But when ROROs bloomed in San Bernardino Strait, horizontal integration became a negative because Philtranco buses have to wait for the ferries (Maharlika ferries were not so reliable and it tried many routes in the country including in Catanduanes, Masbate, Marinduque, Batangas and Panay and so its presence in San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait was actually diluted and trips were few) as Philtranco buses have no freedom to sail in competing ferries.

I was once a passenger aboard a Philtranco bus from Davao. Our driver was driving fast so we can board the morning RORO of Maharlika in their Dapdap port (owned by sister company Philharbor). We arrived at 8:30am only to see the ferry has just left. There was only one Maharlika RORO then there and we waited for its return. Finally, we left Dapdap port at 1:30pm and everybody was so pissed up including the drivers as we saw several ferries leaving the competing BALWHARTECO port ahead of us. If our Philtranco bus had freedom, we would have been aboard the first of those that left BALWHARTECO port and saved several hours of waiting time.

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Grand Star RORO I and Maharlika Tres in Dapdap port. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

The Philtranco driver/conductors also didn’t like that they have no freedom to load the buses in competing ROROs. The reason is they can’t avail of the “rebates” offered by the competing shipping companies. This comes in the form of free ferry tickets that can be sold by the driver/conductors to their passengers. Even if only half the tickets are free that can come up to an average of P1,500 for the driver/conductors in additional income.

When Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the name of the shipping company established by Pepito Alvarez) weakened and they just had a limited number of ROROs running, Philtranco finally allowed its buses to ride the competing ferries as passengers began to shun them. However, when the FastCat ROROs came for Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the Philtranco buses were no longer allowed that again. There was also the experiment where the Philtranco buses were no longer boarded aboard the FastCat ROROs and only the passengers and their cargo were loaded. In that system, a Philtranco bus will be waiting at the opposite port.

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Philtranco buses that disembarked from a FastCat. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

Now, Philtranco’s fleet is whittled and it is already far from its number in the 1980s after they re-fleeted from Leyland to Hino. And the tables turned already. It is so-many FastCats that needs them now and not the other way around.

Now, did you know that founder A.L. Ammen tried horizontal integration too?

2GO Travel Has Stopped Its Manila-Davao Route

A few weeks ago, the liner St. Leo the Great of 2GO Travel plied its last voyage to Davao amid some send-off ceremony. That liner started again the Manila-Zamboanga-General Santos City-Davao route after a request from the Philippine President who changed his mind after saying right after he was elected that Davao does not need a liner. Now, Davao City is his own city and it recently produced a shipping great in Dennis Uy who was one of President Duterte’s supporters in his presidential campaign and they are close.

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St. Leo The Great by Mike Baylon and PSSS

A liner to Davao has been a debated thing in the last few years and the quirk is after our liner companies were decimated through various reasons, only one was left to serve the route if they wish and that is the company 2GO which changed ownership from Negros Navigation to the Chelsea Logistics of Dennis Uy. When the Aboitizes were still the owners of the predecessor company of 2GO, the Aboitiz Transport System, it seems they were discouraged by the Davao route. It was true that there were only a few passengers left and they are being beaten in cargo, they being who charge the highest and there was a secret reason for that.

I have long argued that liners should be downsized now because passenger loads of 2,000 people were already a thing of the past when the budget airlines came and it made the plane fare low as in to the level of liner fares. A voyage of over two days suddenly became passe and undesirable even though the meals are free. The availability of intermodal buses added to the pressure against the liners. That mode is not comfortable but they depart daily whereas the liner became a weekly thing when at its peak the liners have six sailing to Davao in a week.

The over-all situation is actually not favorable now to the liners even in other parts of Mindanao and even in the Visayas as there are alternatives already. So that impacts the capacity of the liner companies to invest in new liners. As of now, it is already obvious that liners are oversized even in the cargo capacity. I think it should go back to 110- or 120-meter length of the 1980s. The 155-meter liners of today are just relics of the 1990s when passenger shipping was still good. Engine capacity should also be downsized from the 25,000 horsepower currently to half of that like that of some 25 or 30 years ago. Speeds might go down from 19 knots currently to the 16-17 knots of before but that might not be a very big thing. What is important to consider is fuel is no longer as cheap compared to a generation ago because of US wars.

And this actually where 2GO might be headed. I heard a ferry in the 110-meter range is coming but it seems it is headed to a sister company, the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI). I will not be surprised if Trans-Asia Shipping goes into liners like they are already in cargo liners with their container ship fleet still growing. TASLI also might turn out to be cheaper to operate than 2GO. I heard the new ferry is destined for Davao so Dennis Uy can still fulfill his promise to President Duterte.

A 115-meter ferry with a passenger capacity of 1,000 to 1,200 passengers and a container capacity of about 60 to 70 TEUs is what might be needed by liner shipping today. The 2,000-passenger capacity is already archaic and so do the 100-TEU container capacity as liners can no longer fill that up now. Why field a full-size bus or truck when a midibus or a minitruck will do? However, I wish that that ship will have a mezzanine so cars can also be loaded without taking much space. The space or deck below that will still be usable.

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Princess of Negros by Chief Ray Smith of PSSS.  A 110-meter ROPAX of the past.

But if we really want to revive our liner industry then MARINA should change its rules. Exhortations from MARINA or the Department of Transportation will not do the trick and they should realize that.

In the 1980s, when the ROROs came (or ROPAXes to be more exact) the liners were allowed to charge more for the same cargo so that the passenger fares can be subsidized. It was simpler then because the liner companies were also the dominant players in the containerized cargo business and so the playing field was more or less equal. There were just a few container shipping companies which were not in the passenger liner business.

The liners can charge extra because it was treated as express cargo. They actually arrive in the destinations earlier than the container ships which just sail at half their speed and are not constrained to wait for cargo so that the ship will have more load.

But the problem is things changed as time went by. Lorenzo Shipping, Escano Lines, William Lines, Gothong Lines and finally Sulpicio Lines got out of the passenger liner business for one reason or another and a slew of new container lines emerged (it was no longer Solid Shipping Lines alone although there were other small container lines before them). The container ships can already undercut the express rates very significantly. Now most cargoes can actually wait and if one needed it really fast then one goes to the forwarding companies using airlines and their own panel trucks. This segment of the cargo business actually boomed in the last three decades. Aren’t they present in all malls now?

In truth, the container shipping companies do not want to do any passenger business anymore and the reasons are various. One, without passengers they can delay the departures of their ships and there are no passengers which will complain. Second, container vans do not need accommodations, nor food and nor passenger service. The crewing needs for passengers is actually great and restaurants and pantries will be needed plus a food supply system. A container van can be handled roughly and nobody will complain. The carrying of passengers actually has potential problems public relations especially in this time of social media. If the Princess of the Stars was a simple container ship then the furor and backlash would not have been that great. Life is much simpler for container lines and even their office staff is leaner.

How do we revive liner shipping? It’s simple. Oblige the container lines to operate liners. The size and number should be proportional to their container ship fleet. That will level the playing field and 2GO, our sole and remaining liner company will breathe easier. At the rate it is going, getting cargo was already difficult for 2GO. Even here in Davao, there are a lot of new container lines and some are even using LCTs and deck loading ships which are even less expensive to operate thus they are capable of charging less.

Now, I wonder if the current crop of MARINA officers knows the history of the rates they approved or its rationale. I am not even sure if they really care for liner shipping because after all they do not ride ships (they take the plane, of course). Maybe they do not even realize that the more container ships they approve the more liner shipping goes down. Cargo is the lifeblood of shipping and the passenger liners are no longer competitive in that.

I hope the liners rise again. And I wish they will come back to Davao and be profitable at the same time.

The Biggest Shipping Modernization By Far

When the early 2010s entered, it was depressing for both the ship spotters and liner passengers. The Sulpicio Lines fleet was basically grounded by MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), a consequence of the capsizing of the Princess of the Stars in a strong typhoon and the company had begun disposing liners. The Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) including the SuperCat had already stopped from buying ferries and was more intent on a sell-out in order for them to concentrate on the more lucrative power generation field.

If there was growth, it was in the sector of short-distance ROROs (but only slightly) plus in the Cargo RORO sector (those ROROs that just load container vans and vehicles). Overnight ferries also increased but oh-so-slowly. There was not much to be excited then and in the main the observers are not excited by the LCTs of some shipping companies concentrating here like those of Broadway One Shipping, Seen Sam Shipping/Cebu Sea Charterers, Concrete Solutions/Primary Trident Marine Solutions, Asian Shipping Corporation, etc. Nor would they be impressed by a few brand-new tankers by Chelsea Logistics and a few container ships of Solid Shipping Lines. Very few noticed the new local-builds of Tri-Star Megalink, the unrecognized shipping company of Negros.

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The latest brand-new ship of Tri-Star Megalink in her maiden voyage. Photo by ‘wandaole’ of PSSS.

I myself did not expect much in the last half of the 2010s (I even thought the liners will be singing their swan song). The decade was dominated by a landlubber President and we had lackluster MARINA Administrators who seem to be short on vision and also in budget. We did not seem to have a direction in maritime development early in this decade. If there was any bright light in that darkness is there was a new type of ship starting to come, the catamaran-ROROs of Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the FastCats.

But miracles do happen at times. The country unexpectedly had a President whose mantra is “Build, Build, Build” and soon that also spilled over to the transportation sector and not only in infrastructure. And that included the maritime sector. Soon I saw a procession of new-build ROROs, High-Speed Crafts (HSCs) along with the usual LCTs which is now filling a new sector, the Cargo RORO LCT sector.

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The latest in the FastCat series. Photo by GoukaMaekkyaku of PSSS.

The FastCat series continued and is now of its 13th ship as of this writing (July 2019) and news said the series will comprise of 20 ships. And there is even a rumor that it will be 30 ships in total with some plying foreign routes (there is really an effect when the banks open their lending to shipbuilding). As such this catamaran-RORO will be the most successful design in the country although its plans came from Australia and the ships were built in China. What a comeback for a shipping company that used to operate ferries that were derided by the public and observers. The FastCat series started in 2013 and on the average two ships per year come.

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The newest ROPAX of Starlite Ferries. Photo by Mark Anthony Arceno of PSSS.

The Starlite series of new ferries which started in 2015 with the Starlite Pioneer also continued and this should be 10 in number and is now on its 5th ship. But that does not include 2 Southwest Maritime (SWM) ferries that are also now also in the fleet of Starlite Ferries. These ferries were designed and built in Japan. Now, just the FastCat and Starlite fleets already comprise of 20 brand-new ships as of today and more are coming.

Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) also has a new-build in an overnight route and a second brand-new ship for them has just been very recently launched in Japan and one more of this type will be built for them.

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The brand-new ferry of TASLI. Photo by Jose Zeus Bade of PSSS.

The Ocean Fast Ferries which is more popularly known as Oceanjet continues to locally assemble fastcraft kits from Australia in Mandaue that started with the Oceanjet 8 in 2011. As of the moment they already have 10 own-build fastcrafts. Actually once they launch a new fastcraft, they already have another one being built. As of today they are already the biggest HSC (High Speed Craft) company in the country with more than half of its fleet acquired brand-new.

The Aboitiz shipyard in Balamban, Cebu which was taken over by Austal of Australia re-started making HSCs for local use and so far they have delivered two as part of the SuperCat fleet and one to Grand Ferries of Calbayog, the Seacat One. It seems there are still about 3 or 4 of this kind of ship that that is being built by Austal Philippines in Balamban.

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Seacat One by Mark Edelson Ocul of PSSS.

Lite Ferries also took the brand-new route when the built 4 passenger-cargo LCTs from 2012 to 2016. These were built in China and finished in Mandaue. Island Shipping also bet on passenger-cargo LCTs but all were just locally-built in Hagnaya, Cebu. They had some 5 LCTs built in this decade and 4 of these were in the last 5 years when they began dumping their old cruiser ferries. Orange Navigation which is related to Besta Shipping Lines also had three passenger-cargo LCTs built locally starting in 2014 maybe to replace the losses of the mother company.

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A new-build from China of Lite Ferries. Photo by Russell Sanchez of PSSS.

Tri-Star Megalink of Negros had 7 ferries built this decade in a shipyard in Sagay City. Their design started with passenger-cargo LCTs albeit with extended passenger accommodations. Their design evolved until the later ones looked like conventional ferries already with bridges on the bow and no longer at the stern like those in LCTs. This meant a bigger and more comfortable passenger accommodation with the vehicle deck less hot or less wet depending on the season.

In Davao, Mae Wess/CW Cole also built two LCTs to connect Davao and Samal in their own shipyard in Samal. In Albay, the RLMC Ferry also came with two new ferries to serve Rapu-rapu and Batan islands.

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A new-build ferry of Mae Wess. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

And, in the past two years two new HSC companies came into being. Lucio Tan established a HSC company, the Mabuhay Maritime Express to ferry Philippine Airline (PAL) passengers from Kalibo to Boracay utilizing two beautiful catamarans. The other one was Island Water, a subsidiary of Shogun Shipping, a tanker company. This new company acquired 7 HSCs from Jianlong Shipbuilding of China. With such fast expansion their problem now is lack of viable routes. Shogun Shipping also contracted for 4 new ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships)and the first was already completed while three are still being built.

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A brand-new cat of Island Water from Jianlong Shipbuilding. Photo by Mark Ocul of PSSS.

Last but not least, Jomalia Shipping also ordered a brand-new HSC from Jianlong Shipbuilding, the Maica 5.

As of my count, there are now over 40 ferries of various types that have arrived in the last half of this decade and more are definitely coming. I have not seen or have known a rate of new-builds arriving in the country at this rate. And this does not even include more than two dozen brand-new LCTs for Cargo RORO LCT use. Those will ferry vehicles across short sea distances or container vans from Manila to the Visayas and Mindanao like what Ocean Transport does.

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A Cargo RORO LCT of Ocean Transport. Photo by John Carlos Cabanillas.

Liners, when they come have more impact in the imagination of the people. But their time has come and gone and we should acknowledge that the intermodal is already catching up with the container ships and the express container service of the liners. That is why these new-builds are mainly serving short-distance routes. The growth is already there.

I am glad that I was wrong when I thought our shipping doldrums will continue for a long time. I now look forward to more new ships coming into our seas.

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

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

The first one:

MV Princess of the Stars: In Memoriam

November 11, 2008






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

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

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

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

(Photo credit: skyscraper)

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

The Blame Game and Other Musings

July 13, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Romulo

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

On The Safety of Our Ships and Other Related Matters

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Photo from MARINA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newest Developments in the MARINA Line of Thinking About Ferries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coast Guard people doing pre-departure inspection work

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

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

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The Philippine Coast Guard in Cebu

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

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

The Disproportionality of the Ferry Losses in the Philippines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was It Choking Or Indigestion For Starlite Ferries?

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

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Starlite Pioneer by Raymond A. Lapus

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

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

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Starlite Reliance by Carl Jakosalem

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

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

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Starlite Eagle by Carl Jakosalem

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

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

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

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Starlite Saturn by Raymond A. Lapus

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

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

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

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Starlite Archer by John Edmund

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

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

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

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The most senior now in the fleet of Starlite Ferries

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

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

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

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

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