Recent Developments in Bicol Passenger Shipping

A Backgrounder

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

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San Isidro Ferry Terminal

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

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

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Dapdap port

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

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Jubasan port

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

Developments and the Current Situation

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

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Denica ferries in Masbate port

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

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Denica fastcrafts refitting in Pilar port

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

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

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FastCat in San Isidro Ferry Terminal

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

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The Poseidon 26 of Concrete Solutions and SulitFerry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The City of Angeles

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

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

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

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

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The Matnog Ferry Terminal

The government ports that were built in the 1980’s to connect Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao through the eastern seaboard of the country were not called “ports” but instead were called “ferry terminals”. And so it became Matnog Ferry Terminal, San Isidro Ferry Terminal, Liloan Ferry Terminal and Lipata Ferry Terminal. The four actually had a common design in their port terminal buildings and general lay-outs. The paint schemes are also the same.

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Matnog town had been the connection of Sorsogon and Luzon to Samar even before World War II and it might even been before the Americans came. That situation and importance was simply dictated by location and distance as in Matnog is the closest point of Luzon to Samar. In the old past, that connection to Samar crossing the San Bernardino Strait was done by wooden motor boats or what is called as lancha in the locality.

These lanchas existed until the early 1980’s. Their fate and phase-out was forced by the arrival of the pioneering Cardinal Shipping RORO in 1979, the Cardinal Ferry 1. With the arrival of other ROROs and especially the government-owned and promoted Maharlika I, the fate of the lanchas were slowly sealed until they were completely gone. By this time the new Matnog Ferry Terminal which was a replacement for the old wooden wharf was already completed.

Maharlika I

The Matnog Ferry Terminal is a RORO port with a back-up area for vehicles waiting to be loaded. At the start when there were few vehicles yet crossing and there were only a few ROROs in San Bernardino Strait that back-up area was sufficient. But over time it became insufficient and so additional back-up areas were built twice. Before that the queue of vehicles sometimes went beyond the gate and even up to the Matnog bus terminal/public market. Worst was when there were trip suspensions and vehicles especially trucks snaked through the main streets of of the small town of Matnog.

The Matnog Ferry Terminal is one of the more successful ports of the government. Actually most ports owned by the government do not have enough revenue to pay for the operational expenses like salaries, security, electricity, transportation and communication and for maintenance. The performance and success of Matnog Ferry Terminal is dictated not by the quality of port management but simply by the growth of the intermodal system. From Luzon there is no other way to Eastern Visayas except via Matnog. The intermodal system began to assert itself in the 1980’s until it became the dominant mode of connection to most of the islands in the country.

The Matnog Ferry Terminal has a total of four corresponding ports in Samar, amazingly. These are the BALWHARTECO port, the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the Dapdap port of Philharbor Ferries, all in Allen town and the San Isidro Ferry Terminal. The first three are privately-owned ports. The government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal lost out early to the privately-owned ports because it has the longest distance at 15 nautical miles while BALWHARTECO port is only 11 nautical miles from Matnog. A shipping company using San Isidro Ferry Terminal will simply consume more fuel and it cannot easily pass on the difference to the vehicles and passengers.

The existence of those many ports in Samar showed the increase over the years of the number of ROROs crossing San Bernardino Strait and also the number of vessel arrivals and departures. Currently, on the average, a dozen ferries and Cargo RORO LCTs serve the routes here with the companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation/Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated, 168 Shipping Lines, Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation, SulitFerry and NN+ATS involved. The last two mentioned are operations of the liner company 2GO.

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In Samar, all those ferries can be docked simultaneously thereby showing enough docking capacity. In Matnog Ferry Terminal only about five ferries can be docked simultaneously especially since the two new RORO ramps there seems not to be in use. When they built that it was by means of bulldozing rocks into the sea to build a back-up area and those rocks seem to be dangerous to the ferries and their propellers and rudders which means a possible wrong design or construction.

When the government built a back-up area near the Matnog terminal/market, I assumed a true expansion of Matnog Ferry Terminal there. A causeway-type wharf could have been developed there and the docking ferries could have been separated there so there would be less mix-up of the departing and arriving vehicles. Causeway-type wharves like what was successfully deployed by the BALWHARTECO and Dapdap ports. This type of wharf is very efficient in using limited wharf space and it is very good in handling ROROs and LCTs.

Until now the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) insists on using pile-type wharves which is more costly but less efficient. A pile-type wharf is good if freighters and container ships are using the port but freighters do not dock in Matnog but in nearby Bulan port and there are no container ships hereabouts. If there are container vans passing here it is those that are aboard truck-trailers. But many know that if there are “percentages”, the less efficient pile-type wharves will guarantee more pie than can be “shared” by many. And I am not talking of the pie that comes from bakeshops.

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In a causeway-type of wharf the ferries can dock adjacent each other

Matnog Ferry Terminal by its evolution is actually a little bit different now from its sister ports because its wharf has an extention through a short “bridge” like what was done in Cataingan port although this is less obvious in the case of Matnog. The three other Ferry Terminals have no such extensions which is done if the water is shallow and there is enough money like in Ubay port which has an extension that is long and wide enough to land a private plane already (and yet it handles far less traffic than the Ferry Terminals). Almost always the priorities of government in disbursing funds is questionable at best. The budget used in Ubay port would have been more worthwhile if it was used in the shallow Pilar port which has far more traffic and is of much greater importance.

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With lack of RORO ramps it is normal that ferries in Matnog will dock offshore. It is also usual that a ferry will wait a little for a ferry loading to depart before they can dock especially at peak hours. Again, the docking of ferries askew to the port in high tide where there is no RORO ramp still goes on. Matnog Ferry Terminal and the Philippine Ports Authority is really very poor in planning that one will question what kind of data do they input in planning. I even doubt if the idea of a breakwater ever crossed their minds. Matnog is one place where swells are strong especially both in habagat and amihan (it has that rare distinction) or if there are storm signals (and Bicol is so famous for that) or when there is what is called as “gale” warning by the anachronistic weather agency PAGASA (they issue a “gale warning” even if there is no gale; they could have just issued a “strong swell “ warning because it is actually what they are warning about).

In Bicol, Matnog Ferry Terminal has the most number of vessel departures per day if motor bancas are excluded. Matnog’s vessel departures can reach up to 20 daily in peak season with a corresponding equal number in arrivals. In this regard, Matnog Ferry Terminal is even ahead of the likes of Legazpi, Tabaco and Masbate ports and such it is Number 1 in the whole of Bicol. That will just show how dominant is the intermodal system now. And how strategic is the location of Matnog.

A few years ago there was a change in Matnog Ferry Terminal that I was bothered about. Matnog is one port that has a very strong traffic and traffic is what drives income up. But before her term was up Gloria gave the operation of Matnog Ferry Terminal passenger building to Philharbor Ferries. This was also about the same time she wanted to privatize the regional ports of the country with strong traffics like Davao, Gensan and Zamboanga.

Now what is the point of giving the control of a passenger terminal building of a very strong port to a private entity? That port terminal building is actually a cash machine. Imagine about 2,000-3,000 passengers passing there daily in just one direction. Of course Gloria has some debt to the true owner of Philharbor in terms of executive jet services during her term and for providing escape to Garci. Was the deal a payback?

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No covered passenger walkway in Matnog

After years of private operation I have seen no improvement in Matnog Ferry Terminal. From what I know the construction of the two new back-up areas were funded by government. So what was the transfer of control of the passenger terminal building all about? They cannot even build a covered walkway from the passenger terminal to the ferries when BALWHARTECO port was able to do that (and both have long walks to the ferry). Does it mean that BALWHARTECO port cares more about its passengers?

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BALWHARTECO covered walk for passengers

Matnog Ferry Terminal could have been a greater port if properly managed and it should have been properly managed and programmed because it is one of the critical ports of the country. It is actually the strongest of the four Ferry Terminals and by a wide margin at that. Now, if only they will plow some of the profits of the port back into improvements of the port. Or shell out money like what they did to Ubay and Pulupandan ports which severely lacks traffic until now even after spending three-quarters of a billion pesos each. Again one will wonder what kind of data PPA used. Did the “figures” come from whispers of powerful politicians? And did they twist the moustache of NEDA Director-General Neri?

Quo vadis, Matnog Ferry Terminal? You should have been greater than your current state.

In the Philippines, No-Name, Shoddy Ferries Have a Better Safety Record Than Internationally-Certificated Ferries

A candidate for Ripley’s “Believe It or Not”? That’s true and so better read on.

Yesterday, it was in the news that Christopher Pastrana, The Boastful is hosting the 41st Interferry Conference that will be held in Manila starting today, October 15. There will be many sponsors for that and it is usually attended by shipping owners, shipbuilders, marine engine makers, various suppliers and other entities connected to shipping to exchange notes and learn about the latest trends and products. By the way, Interferry is not the sole organizer of maritime conferences.

A news item said the FastCats of Pastrana can provide safe ferries as do the ferries of Starlite and the implication is because those are new. Well, not so fast as it is not just the newness of the ship that is a factor in safety. May I remind too that Pastrana lost the Maharlika Dos to capsizing and sinking near Panaon island in 2014 after its engines failed and his Maharlika Cuatro, though just nearby, did not come to its rescue. And Starlite Voyager grounded and reached BER status when it was on the way to a shipyard in 2011. Are they blaming now the oldness of their vessels that sank?

I was angry when Maharlika Dos capsized and sank in 2014 because Pastrana broke the 35-year record of Bicol steel-hulled ferries not sinking while sailing ever since the RORO Cardinal Ferry 2 of Cardinal Shipping came in 1979. The Northern Samar sank in 2006 in a storm but she was not sailing and was just moored in Tabaco port. This perfect record extends to Surigao Strait because no steel-hulled ferries ever sank there since Cardinal Ferry 2 came in 1980, a record that Maharlika Dos broke infamously.

And to think the eastern seaboard short-distance ferry routes are home to the some of the most shoddy ROROs in Philippine waters led by the Maharlika ships of Christopher Pastrana and the Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping. Well, the ships of Bicolandia Shipping then were also not topnotch and are old. But no matter what these ferries don’t sink even though the eastern seaboard straits are among the most dangerous in the country. As I have said in an earlier article it is seamanship that carried them through. The seamen there would not let their ships sink because they know that among their passengers might be their kins, their friends, their school mates or somebody known to them. But Maharlika Cuatro‘s captain didn’t know that and so he let Maharlika Dos wallow in the ever-strengthening swells until it capsized. And now since he got new FastCats, Pastrana always boasts now about safety and misses no chance to deride the “lack of safety” of his rivals. What gall!

Before Pastrana or even Cusi of Starlite Ferries, another boastful owner, gets carried away let me state that going by the records and empirically there are a lot of ferry companies which are their rivals which have a perfect safety record, i.e. they did not lose ships to sinking. In Bicol, Sta. Clara Shipping, Penafrancia Shipping, Regina Shipping Lines and 168 Shipping Lines have never lost a ferry of theirs. That goes true to the defunct ferry companies that served Bicol like Cardinal Shipping, Newport Shipping, Badjao Navigation and the short-serving Luzvimin Ferry Services. Well, even Denica Lines have not lost a steel-hulled ferry so far.

Going to Quezon, the safety record of the decrepit-looking ships of Kalayaan Shipping have a perfect safety record as do the defunct Sta. Cruz Shipping. Alabat Shipping also has a perfect safety record as do Phil-Nippon Kyoei when they were still existing. Noting these ferry companies, I purposely omitted those that have short service records like Starhorse Shipping.

In Western Visayas, Milagrosa-J Shipping and Tri-Star Megalink both have perfect safety records even though Milagrosa-J Shipping regularly crosses the Sulu Sea which has rough seas and strong winds many months of the year. And to think their sea crafts are small and are already old. It is really in the seamanship.

Batangas shipping companies have no great safety record especially Besta Shipping. But I would like to point out that for a ferry company which has a fleet of over 30, Montenegro Shipping Lines lost only one ferry in 20 years even though they can be found almost anywhere in the Philippines including those that have rough seas. They only lost the Maria Carmela when somebody threw a cigarette butt into a copra truck and thereby igniting a conflagration which was rather unfortunate. And Montenegro Lines have some of the oldest ships hereabouts.

Zamboanga is home to some of ferries that will not look so clean internally and many are also old. But two sailing companies there, Ever Lines and Magnolia Shipping, probably the Number 2 and Number 3 there have perfect safety records as they have not lost a ship even in their freighters. And Sulu, Tawi-tawi and Celebes Sea have strong seas when there is a storm somewhere in eastern Philippines or when the monsoons are blowing hard. Minor shipping companies of Zamboanga like Sing Shipping and Ibnerizam Shipping also have perfect records. The defunct Basilan Lines/Basilan Shipping of the Alanos also did not lose a ship although their Dona Ramona was bombed in Lamitan City.

Mae Wess of Davao has not also lost a ship as do the KSJ Shipping of Surigao. And as far as I know, the currently operating ferry companies of Camiguin – Philstone Shipping, Davemyr Shipping, and Hijos de Juan Corrales have not lost a ship too and it seems that also goes true for the defunct P.N. Roa and and Jade Sea Express. In Panguil Bay, Daima Shipping has not also lost a ship even though their Our Lady of Mediatrix was burned because of the firebombing of two Super 5 buses aboard her in 2000.

In Cebu, for all the size of their fleet Lite Ferries may not lost a vessel (was the Sta. Lucia de Bohol lost at sea?). FJP Lines/Palacio Shipping, defunct now, also has a perfect safety record. There are other defunct shipping companies of Cebu which has not lost a ship through accident and that includes VG Shipping, Roly Shipping/Godspeed, Kinswell Shipping, Jadestar Shipping, Goldenbridge Shipping, Maayo Shipping, Cuadro Alas Navigation, PAR Transport plus many smaller ferry companies. In the recent era, Gabisan Shipping are known for safety and the ability to “read” the waves and have not yet lost one.

If I go by routes, there was not a ferry lost in Roxas-Caticlan and Dapitan-Dumaguete even though their seas can sometimes be rough. No steel-hulled ferry was ever lost in any route in Bicol too except for the Blue Water Princess 2 which is a Quezon ferry going to Masbate and the Rosalia 2, a Cebu craft going to Cataingan, Masbate. There are many, many other routes in the country which has not seen a ship sink even though they are not using a new ship. It is all in the seamanship really. To say a new ships is “safer” is just like claiming a new car will not be involved in a collision.

Some of our HSC companies too are very safe. Oceanjet, the Number 1 now in HSCs, has not lost a ship ever and they did not always use new crafts. Weesam Express also has a perfect record. Even the defunct Bullet Express, the fastcrafts of the Viva Shipping Lines combine and the fastcrafts of A. Sakaluran have perfect safety records. The are a lot of other HSC companies which had perfect records but their service record was short like Star Crafts. Not included here is SuperCat which has lost one.

And which brings me to our liners which in the recent years are internationally-certificated, have P&I insurance and are mostly spic-and-span but unfortunately have a bad safety record. In the last 20 years, WG&A/CFC lost SuperFerry 3, SuperFerry 6 and SuperFerry 7, all to fire and Dona Virginia and Our Lady of Banneux due to grounding. Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) also lost the SuperFerry 14 to a terrorist act and the St. Gregory The Great to grounding. Sulpicio Lines lost the Princess of the Stars and Princess of the Orient to capsizing and lost the Princess of the World, Philippine Princess and the Iloilo Princess to fire and the Princess of the Pacific to grounding. Negros Navigation also lost the St. Francis of Assisi to fire.

Between the end of the World War II and 1995 I know of 75 (that is seventy-five) liners which were lost and mainly at sea. That is 75 in only 30 years! Can anybody believe that? So how can I be impressed by liners and international certificates in safety? Or in their being spic and span? The records say otherwise. And believe me I can easily name the 75 as I have my own database about maritime hull losses. This 75 does not even include regional ships like the Boholana Princess which was an overnight ship when she was lost.

The Don Juan and Cebu City were brand-new ships when they were fielded in the Philippines. But they sank in collisions at night. So Pastrana and Cusi be better warned by their boastfulness of their new ships. They better be more humble before shipping companies which have not ever lost a ship.

Newness of a ship is not a guarantee of anything except in shininess.

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Photo credit: Masahiro Homma

The Biggest Shipping Combine in Bicolandia

The Bicol Region has a handful of shipping companies of significant size and that includes the Candano Shipping Lines that is probably the most well-known before and it has clout because they also own the only significant shipyard in the Bicol region, the Mayon Docks in Tabaco, Albay. But among this handful, the biggest is the shipping combine of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which have practically the same group of partner-owners. This handful does not include the Archipelago Ferries Philippines Corp. which no longer acts as a Bicol shipping company and is in fact willing to forget and shut the doors on their Bicol roots because they know it is not something they cannot be proud of.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, like Penafrancia Shipping Corporation is into RORO ferries and not cargo ships. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation antedates Penafrancia Shipping Corporation because of the peculiar circumstances wherein they were born. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation was formed in 1999 in order to challenge the then-dominant (dominant as in a near-monopoly) Bicol ferry company, the Bicolandia Shipping Lines which was known by other names like Eugenia Tabinas, E. Tabinas or Eugenia Tabinas-San Pablo (well, using legal-fiction companies is not uncommon in inter-island shipping). When Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation came into the Bicol shipping picture with its superior ships, Bicolandia Shipping Lines argued they are entitled to “protection” using what was known as the “prior operator rule”. That was interpreted by shipping companies being challenged as an equal to a near- and legalized monopoly — they argued that nobody else can enter their routes (ahem! ahem! and wow!). If there is a need to increase ships, they argued that they should be the ones that should add ships (hey, aren’t the saying they “bought” the route already?).nm-dominic-san-juan

In this fight, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation had the backing of the Eastern Visayas mayors especially those from Leyte because their populace had already enough of the lousy service of Bicolandia Shipping Lines which practiced the “alas-puno” system wherein ships depart when it is already full or near-full, in contravention of the published times of departures. However, the Bicolandia Shipping Lines lost in the sala of the maritime regulatory agency, the Maritime Regulatory Agency or MARINA which actually has quasi-judicial powers and can become the court of first instance in maritime cases. That was the turn of the decision because that time the liberalization policy of Fidel V. Ramos on shipping was already the new norm.

Bicolandia Shipping Lines then appealed to the higher court, the Court of Appeals and upon losing again there they brought the case to the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court which also ruled against them. The Supreme Court held any incentive given by government does not mean a company gaining monopoly rights (obviously, I say). Having lost in the courts and being also losing in the seas of Bicol not only to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation but also to other newcomers like Regina Shipping Lines (which also has deep pockets, heavy political clout and a bus company) and 168 Shipping Lines, Bicolandia Shipping Lines offered to sell themselves lock, stock and barrel. Maybe it was a good move instead of finding themselves depreciated or worse bankrupt in the long run. Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. was losing because its ships were already older than competitions’ and besides having tried the patience of the customers with their always-delayed departures they had already lost the goodwill of the public.

It was Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation that had the pockets deep enough to buy Bicolandia Shipping Lines lock, stock and barrel. They might be new but their stockholders were already established in other businesses and that even included shipping. But instead of buying Bicolandia Shipping Lines and integrating its fleet with theirs, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation decided to form the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation for said acquisition. Penafrancia Shipping Corporation has almost the same ownership group as Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. When the acquisition was complete Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation acted just like one company much like one or the other is a legal-fiction company. Their scheduling are united and their ticketing, berthing, crewing and supplies are unified too. That also goes through for their customer relations, the corralling of vehicles to contracts, negotiations and arrangements with the different ports and LGUs (local government units) and the maintenance of friendly relations with MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency. Drydocking and repairs are also unified.dh

Sta. Clara Shipping Corpo and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation operates four routes which are all short-distance ferry routes using ROROs. Their primary one is the Matnog-Allen route and the other routes are the Tabaco-Virac route, the Masbate-Pio Duran route and the Liloan-Lipata route, their recent expansion. In serving these routes, Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. has six ROROs and Penafrancia Shipping Corp. has four ROROs. The two companies do not operate cruisers and practically all their load are rolling cargoes which means trucks, buses, panel trucks, jeeps, cars and SUVs and even long vehicles and heavy equipment (though they don’t prefer the last two).

The six ROROs of the Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. are the following:

King Frederick: IMO 8704315. Built in 1987 by Kanda Shipbuilding Co. in Kawajiri yard, Japan. 58.6m x 14.0m x 3.8m. 694gt, 357nt, 304dwt, 750 pax. 2 x 1,200hp Daihatsu, 13.5kts when new.

Nelvin Jules: IMO 8504404. Built in 1985 by Kanda Shipbuilding Co. in Kawajiri yard, Japan. 58.6m x 14.0m x 3.8m. 694gt, 357nt, 304dwt, 750 pax. 2 x 1,000hp Daihatsu, 13.5kts when new.

Hansel Jobett: IMO 7927075. Built in 1979 by Kanda Shipbuilding Co. in Kawajiri yard, Japan. 51.1m x 14.0m x 3.4m. 610gt, 288nt, 208dwt, 580 pax. 2 x 1,000hp Daihatsu, 13.5kts when new.

Mac Bryan (ex-Ever Queen of Pacific): IMO 7034452. Built in 1970 by Shimoda Dockyard Co. in Shimoda yard, Japan. 54.0m x 12.0m x 3.8m. 499gt, 239nt, 2 x 900hp Niigata, 14kts when new.

Nathan Matthew (ex-Asia Japan): IMO 7326582. Built in 1973 by Naikai Zosen Corp. in Taguma yard, Japan. 64.0m x 13.1m x 3.3m. 1,030gt, 359nt, 443dwt. 2 x 2,000hp Daihatsu, 16kts when new.

Jack Daniel: IMO 8848604. Built in 1990 by Fujiwara Zosensho Co. in Omishima yard, Japan. 65.0m x 14.0m. 965Gt, 252dwt. 2 x 2,150 Niigata, 17kts when new.

The four ROROs of Penafrancia Shipping Corp. are the following:

Don Benito Ambrosio II (ex-Princess of Mayon): IMO 7629520. Built in 1967 by Hashihama Zosen in Imabari yard, Japan. 64.0m x 11.3m x 3.6m. 1,010gt, 686nt, 175dwt, 494 pax. 2,000hp Daihatsu + a Yanmar replacement engine, 13kts when new.

Don Herculano (ex-Princess of Bicolandia): unknown IMO Number. Built in 1970 by Shin Nihon(?) in Japan. 46.4m x 12.0m x 2.8m. 1,029gt, 454nt, 855pax. 2 x 1,000hp Daihatsu, 13.5kts when new.

Eugene Elson (ex-Eugenia): IMO 6601517. Built in 1965 by ImabariShipbuilding Co. in Imabari yard, Japan. 41.7m x 14.6m x 3.0m. 488gt, 118nt, 138dwt, 484 pax. 2 x 550hp Daihatsu, 11.5kts when new.

Anthon Raphael: IMO 8921781. Built by Naikai Zosen Corp. in Setoda yard, Japan. 61.4m x 14.0m x 3.2m. 1,093gt, 688nt, 270dwt, 400pax. 2 x 1,700hp Daihatsu, 15.5kts when new.

Note: Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and Penafrancia Shipping Corp. do not use single-engined, single-screw ships because of its weakness in handling the strong swells of Bicol especially during the habagat (southwest monsoon) season.

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Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation are very good in locking in the buses. That means the buses are contracted to be loaded in them in contracts. That also means these buses are paying what is called in the trade as “special rates” or even “super special rates” or even better. In this trade, the charge on buses are way lower than the published rates because the fares of the passengers makes additional revenue. With these contracts, the buses have guaranteed loading even in peak season and the ships will even wait for them if they are a little late. The driver/conductors need not even go to the windows to transact. The “Super Angels” of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation will then just go to them inside the car deck of the ship and if it is a company account then all they have to do is just sign and it will be settled company-to-company.

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Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation also gives the driver/conductors what is called in the trade as “rebates”. That consists of complimentary tickets that can then be sold to the passengers and the equivalent money will go to the driver/conductors as extra income for their kabuhayan (meals and many other things for their upkeep and pleasure). This practice is recognized and tolerated by the bus companies as incentives to their their driver/conductors but the general riding public does not know that (that, however, is open knowledge in the ports). So even without a contract the driver/conductors themselves will herd their buses to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation except for Philtranco driver/conductors who are locked in to Maharlika ships without the discount their counterparts in other companies enjoy. In this world, the greatest advertisement is actually cold cash.

And I give respect to Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. for developing this practice of rebates to the bus companies and drivers/conductors. With it, development of routes is easier because the bus company need not shoulder all the expenses of bringing the bus across the strait since by rules and previous decisions they cannot charge that to the passengers. Oh, well, only slyly in case, in such a way that passengers won’t notice. But how can the passengers there in Bicol notice when fares are discounted almost whole year round? Well, with this practice the ships of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation are almost always full of vehicles. This duo really knows their business.

The duo are also very good in locking in the trucks. The system works the same as in buses but the discounts are not that steep because there are no passengers as additional revenue. And in terms of priority in loading they come second to the buses because unlike the buses they don’t have that tight schedule to meet and there are no passengers that will complain when a ferry is missed. There are also company accounts where only the signature of the driver is needed (no payments are made) and it is settled company-to-company. There are discounts for the suki (regular customers) which can be enjoyed by the truck crew especially by the driver. As suki these trucks get priority boarding over other trucks and private vehicles.hj

This then brings us to the complaints of the driver-owners of private vehicles which only cross during vacations. When they arrive in the port they think the system is on a first-come, first-served basis and they grit their teeth and vent their frustration even over the media when they see buses and trucks that came later than them board first. Their charge is “favoritism” but they do not understand that like in many other things reservations trump their case and these suki or company accounts are just like reservations. Actually, dozens of kilometers away these priority boardings already confirm their coming arrival and in case of buses or panel trucks the reservations can be year-round and if it will not be availed they cancel the reservations over the cellphone so their space can be given to others. Reservations works in the airlines, the shipping industry, in theaters or concerts, in restaurants and in many other industries. It is otherwise called as “bookings”.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation are very good in cultivating the drivers. Aside from rebates, they can arrange a lot of personal services aboard the ships be it massage, manicure, services that are more personal, a good sleeping place and that also include free meals that are good. When I had access to their hospitality area inside Hansel Jobett I saw three viands for lunch including sugpo (tiger prawns) and those were free and the mess was airconditioned. That area was beneath the car deck on the engine level and I was surprised it existed. If Hansel Jobett has that then King Frederick and Nelvin Jules also have that since the three ships are related in design. It is not accessible to ordinary passengers but I was a VIP then (ehem! ehem!) and they gave me use of one the cabins. It was the equivalent of a first-class cabin of a liner although smaller.

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Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation are also very good in cultivating relationships with owners. Aside from hefty discounts and priority boardings with their trucks (and no hours lost waiting in ports means extra available trucks, satisfied customers and less labor cost) there are other benefits too like company-to-company singilan (reconciliation of accounts) which in effect means a loan. I heard settling takes months and that is extra working capital for forwardersand truckers while that might just be empty space for the ship otherwise. Even if the truck crew has no more money to board the ship they will not be denied boarding. Now that is one big utang na loob.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. had a long, beneficial and mutually supportive relationship with BALWHARTECO, the operator of the premier port in Allen, Northern Samar which is a private port. They grew together and had a relation like brothers. Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation brought in traffic to BALWHARTECO not only because they had the most number of ships but with the support of the duo to buses and trucks the traffic volume increased and BALWHARTECO earns with wharfage and other port fees.

With their cooperation together, the duo and BALWHARTECO were able to trump the other ports in Northern Samar that link to Matnog. First to be defeated was the official government port, the San Isidro Ferry Terminal. Though vehicles see San Isidro first it had an Achilles heel — it was by far the most distant port from Matnog at 15 nautical miles compared to the 11 nautical miles of BALWHARTECO and the 12 nautical miles of the Dapdap port of Philharbor which was the second to be defeated and not by distance alone since the distance difference is not significant.dba-nj-edsel

In port and ferry patronage, one that wins is the one with the most number of ships because that means there will be no long waits before departures. And it is reassuring to drivers if there are always ships in port and with multiple ones (which means a choice). That became the weakness of San Isidro port and Dapdap port even though they come into view earlier as the vehicles won’t come to them if it sees that there are no ships in port. The driver soon had the mentality to go straight to BALWHARTECO since there are always ships there.

With the acquisition of Bicolandia Shipping Lines plus other ship acquisitions, Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. became the dominant shipping company in Bicol engaged in RORO operations. They defeated the Archipelago Ferries+Philharbor Ferry combine which were more known as the Maharlika ships. That duo had no focus, were lousy in maintaining ships and were also lousy in competing, all the diseases prevalent in former crony companies. That combine supported another lousy sister company, the Philtranco Service Enterprises Inc. but their pairing actually doomed them both. Philtranco buses would wait in the port even though there are no Maharlika ships in port thus losing hours, And with a captive bus company, Archipelago Ferries+Philharbor Ferry did not learn how to play well the rebate-vehicle locking game (in fact they never seemed to learn it).

The stockholders of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation+Penafrancia Shipping Corporation might not really need to take profit, so to speak. They are very good in their other businesses and their owners are established businessmen with some dominant in their regional sphere. Some are even engaged in shipping too. In shipping, I glimpse the method they use in their other businesses especially the locking game.

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Soon, the duo’s owners engaged in horizontal expansion. They were able to establish a partnership with the Villono Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu. With the creation of that partnership, they withdrew patronage of the Mayon Docks in Tabaco City, Albay and brought their ships for drydocking and maintenance in the far-off Tayud. Maybe one of the benefits of this partnership is they then had a reputation of taking care well of of their old ships. Well, with a profitable operation and well-heeled owners that might not be a surprising thing.

The duo has also shown they can defend and hold turf and can also expand. The stronger Montenegro Lines (Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. of Batangas) came but they did not buckle. At the same time they were also able to expand like when they tried the Pasacao-Masbate route being promoted by MARINA (they soon withdraw from this route). The also tried the Bulan-Masbate route which made no sense for bus passengers and for the trucks as it is farther from Manila (they can’t operate in the Pilar-Masbate route because they have no basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and the Pilar port is shallow). However, they struck gold in the Masbate-Pio Duran, Albay route. With rebate support the buses were able to roll into Masbate even though the land kilometerage within Masbate island is short to be able to recoup the rolling cargo rate (this was the failure of the Maharlika ferries + PSEI attempt a decade before them). Recently they also went to Liloan-Lipata route.

In recent years, the duo tried another horizontal expansion, the building and operating of a port in Allen, Samar too where BALWHARTECO is also located.

This led to the split of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation+Penafrancia Shipping Corporation and BALWHARTECO. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation said they resented the coming of 168 Shipping in BALWHARTECO (or was it the entry of Montenegro Lines that broke the camel’s back actually?) which supposedly was against an agreement (sorry, I cannot verify this). Or maybe they also saw how profitable is a port operation and the formula they already saw in the operation of BALWHARTECO. And so they built their own port in Jubasanbut this was stopped by the Mayor of Allen who happened to be the owner of BALWHARTECO. Construction continued even though the gates were shuttered and the knowledgeable knew the Mayor will lose since a Mayor’s permit can be demanded thru a court mandamus (or even ask the Department of Interior and Local Government for his suspension). The Mayor actually has no legal leg to stand on and jurisprudence said they always lost. And so Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation was able to finish the port and it is now operating.

However, I have doubts if that is a good move in the long term. They no longer have the backing of BALWHARTECO and the Mayor of Allen town and it might just lead to a war between them. After all they both know the formula and bad blood exists now. Admittedly, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation might have the edge as they have the ships and can do transfer pricing, that is, charge low in the rolling cargo to attract the vehicles and they can “correct” in port charges. Both of them know how to make a port attractive – loading even if the truck has no budget (but here Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation can do it both ways not only in port charges but also in shipping charges), diesel fuel loan, other rebates, the presence of shops along with eateries, lodging and a blaring disco along with many personal services to the drivers.

The problem of the two is they are not competing in a vacuum. They actually have a threat in the Fastcats, the big Montenegro Lines and the new Cargo RORO LCTs. Montenegro Lines will always be around as it has a big fleet and a deep bucket and probably supported by a heavyweight (literally and figuratively) former powerful figure, a “patron saint”. Recently, it was able to get a franchise for the Masbate-Pio Duran route and that can cut into the income of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation. Montenegro Lines can also apply for the Tabaco-Virac route especially since Regina Shipping Lines abandoned this in favor of the Tabaco-San Andres route (hence, there is an apperance of a “monopoly”). After all this is the era of liberalization. And Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation can find itself in the shoes of Bicolandia Shipping Lines before, that is defending turf via the “legal” way. Actually they are already doing the denial game with their blocking of the entry of FastCats in Allen.

The FastCats could be the more serious threat in the long run as it has new ships, a new paradigm that could be dangerous if it is able to run many trips a day which they will certainly do. What they are showing is they will not play the old game of running just a few trips a day. It seems they will try to run to the ground the opposition because that is the only way they can win because they are carrying a lot of amortization weight.

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Actually it seems duo lacks the ships now especially since they have to respond to the moves of Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation with its FastCats which is a different animal than they competed with in the past. Montenegro Shipping Lines presence in Bicol is also increasing as Archipelago Ferries collaborated with them and recently they even were able to get a franchise in the Masbate-Pio Duran route. In Liloan-Lipata route they had to bring a better RORO to be able to compete with the speed and newness of FastCats. The will have to respond in Masbate-Pio Duran by maybe with also plying a route to Pilar port which is improved now. They will need three ships in Masbate, one in Liloan, two in Tabaco and that will leave them with just four ships in Samar and not all might be running because of drydock requirements and the sometimes trouble like what happened to the Nathan Matthew recently which is docked in San Isidro port for repairs. Remember one of the most important factor to attract drivers is the always-presence of ships waiting in the port. They might be stretched too thin now unless they acquire new ships (they have the financial capability for that).

Another new threat also and a possible paradigm change is the new Cargo RORO LCTs that are plying routes in Matnog-Allen and in Liloan-Lipata. NN+ATS (euphemistically called “2GO” but that is near the truth) operates them by chartering big China-made LCTs. Cargo RORO LCTs is the recent bane of short-distance ferry-ROROs and overnight ferry-ROROs because these can offer rates as much as half off the current rates because they have no investment in passenger comfort and service, they are fuel misers albeit slow and they have to discount to gain rolling cargo.

What I see is a lot of labu-labo (free-for-all) in Bicol in the coming years. Many will be bruised and I don’t know which will fall to the ground. Well, I just wish it will not turn out that Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation bit more than what it can chew.

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Photo Credits: Dominic San Juan, Edsel Benavides, Aris Refugio, Mike Baylon, PSSS