A Good Ship Is Gone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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St. Joan of Arc not sailing

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

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

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

The China-built LCTs

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

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

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

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Row of LCTs in North Mactan Channel

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

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Cargo RORO LCTs in Carmen port

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

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

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

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Brizu, a container carrier LCT by Ocean Transport

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

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ASC Ashley of Asian Shipping Corporation

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

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Owned LCTs by Roble Shipping

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

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

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

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

The Misfortune of the Surigao Liner Route

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

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Surigao Port by Aris Refugio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Verano Port of Surigao City by Mike Baylon

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

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

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

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

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Port of Surigao (from a framed PPA photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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SuperFerry 19 arriving in Surigao Port by Michael Denne

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

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

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

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

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Surigao Port by Lota Hilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hotel Manager’s office

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

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

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St. Michael The Archangel by Jonathan Bordon

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

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

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SuperFerry 15 by ‘superferry crew’

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

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

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

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St. Francis Xavier by John Carlos Cabanillas

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

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

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

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Panglao Bay 1 by Mark Ocul

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

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

The Iloilo-Zamboanga Route

In the past, the Iloilo-Zamboanga route was an important route. Iloilo and Zamboanga are among the top trade and commercial centers of the country for a long time already (in the Top 5 for so long now) and it only makes sense to connect the two for after all, Iloilo is the main commercial center of Western Visayas and Zamboanga is the main commercial center of Western Mindanao (talking of geographical regions and not the political-administrative regions).

The links of the two are not just recent. In fact, the two centers have already been connected for over a century now starting even in the late Spanish rule when sea lanes were already safe and there was already steam power. And before World War II, foreign vessels (mainly British) from Singapore even came to the two cities to trade and bring passengers and mail, too.

The route of the Manila ships going to southern Mindanao in the past goes either via Cebu or Iloilo (which is the western and most direct route). From those two ports and other ports along the way the passenger-cargo ships will then dock in Zamboanga. In the first 30 years after World War II the route via Cebu was the heavily favored one by the shipping companies. After that, the favor turned to Iloilo slowly until Cebu was practically no longer a gateway to southern Mindanao (only Sulpicio Lines did that route in the later decades through the Filipina Princess and the Princess of New Unity).

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The Dona Marilyn as Dona Ana (a former image in Wikimedia)

Maybe the emergence of the fast cruiser liners dictated the shift to Iloilo. If they go via Iloilo, a complete voyage in less than a week’s time is guaranteed. If they go via Cebu, the fast cruiser liners then probably had to go via the eastern seaboard of Mindanao to catch up and complete the voyage in a week’s time (so that a regular weekly sailing can be maintained). But in the eastern seaboard they will miss the cargo and passenger load that is available in Zamboanga port. The small ports of Mati, Bislig or Surigao are a poor compensation for that but the fast cruiser liners might not even have the speed and time to spare to call in any of those ports. Moreover, if the ship intends to call in General Santos City (Dadiangas before), then a western route via Iloilo and Zamboanga is almost dictated. General Santos City’s combined cargo and passengers are simply to big to be left out by a liner going to Davao.

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Credit to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

After World War II, it was the Philippine Steam and Navigation Company (PSNC) and Carlos A. Go Thong & Company (the predecessor company of Gothong Lines, Sulpicio Lines and Lorenzo Shipping) which had passenger-cargo ships from Manila calling on Iloilo and Zamboanga on the way to southern ports. The former even used their best ships, the luxury liners Legazpi and Elcano on that route. Amazingly, the leader Compania Maritima and William Lines did not do the route passing through Iloilo as both preferred to do the route via Cebu to connect to Zamboanga (and Southern Mindanao). Then the situation was reversed in the 1970’s when Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, the successor of PSNC stopped that connection (as they were running out of good passenger ships) and Sulpicio Lines did the route in 1974 after the route became a casualty of the split of Carlos A. Go Thong & Company. Then in 1976, Compania Maritima followed suit and connected also Southern Mindanao via Iloilo and Zamboanga.

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Credit to Gorio Belen

In 1979, with the arrival of the Don Eusebio, Sulpicio Lines introduced the fast cruiser liner type between Iloilo and Zamboanga. Don Eusebio, the latter Dipolog Princess had a Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route. Later her route was shifted to Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas. However, the Dona Marilyn was used to maintain the route ending in Cotabato and when the Cotabato Princess arrived in 1988, Sulpicio substituted the new RORO liner there while the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas route was maintained by the Don Eusebio. In this period, the main rival of Sulpicio Lines which is William Lines bypassed Iloilo as did Sweet Lines, another liner company with a route to as far as Davao.

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Cotabato Princess c. 1988 by Britz Salih

In the early 1990′s, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation made a comeback in Southern Mindanao and their SuperFerry 3 which had a Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route connected Iloilo and Zamboanga. Meanwhile, Sulpicio Lines substituted their new Princess of the Pacific in the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas route while their Cotabato Princess was kept in the route ending in Cotabato (but which is now calling also in Estancia.

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SuperFerry 3 by Britz Salih

When WG&A was created they also connected Iloilo and Zamboanga mainly through their Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route and the trio of SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 5 and SuperFerry 9 (which had about the same cruising speed) mainly held that route when it was still WG&A. When the company began selling liners and it became Aboitiz Transport System other ships subsequently held the route (too many to keep track really as they are fond of juggling ship assignments and they were also disposing ships and buying new ones). At one time there was also a Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga route. It was a wonder for me why the Davao ships of WG&A and ATS don’t normally call in Zamboanga while calling in Iloilo when it is just on the way and the companies use pairing of ships so an exact weekly schedule for one ship need not be met.

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Princess of the Pacific by Britz Salih

When Negros Navigation (Nenaco) started doing southern Mindanao routes in 1998 they also connected the two ports on their separate routes to General Santos City and Davao (the two routes was coalesced later). However, early in the new millennium Negros Navigation abandoned their Southern Mindanao routes but maintained their Manila-Bacolod-Iloilo-Zamboanga route until they had problems of ship availability. The early ships of Negros Navigation in the route were the St. Ezekiel Moreno and San Lorenzo Ruiz. However, it seems the Don Julio started the Iloilo-Zamboanga route for Negros Navigation earlier than the two.

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Don Julio by John Ward

Amazingly a regional shipping line, the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) of Cebu also connected Iloilo and Zamboanga in 1988. This was the Asia Korea (later the Asia Hongkong and now the Reina del Rosario of Montenegro Shipping Lines) which did a Cebu-Iloilo-Zamboanga-General Santos City route (which I say was a brave and optimistic try). They were only able to maintain the route for a few years, however.

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Asia Korea (from a TASLI framed photo)

In the second decade of the millennium, the successor to WG&A, the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) dropped the routes to Davao, General Santos City and Cotabato. Suddenly the route to Zamboanga became threatened because Zamboanga port alone cannot fill 150-meter RORO liners. Not long after this ATS stopped the route to Zamboanga citing threats from the Abu Sayyaf Group (while at the same time their container ships continued sailing to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao). It seems to me the reason they put forward was just a canard especially since 2GO still calls in Zamboanga. ATS was just losing in the Southern Mindanao route because they have the highest cargo rates in the industry and by this time the passengers were already migrating to other forms of transport like the budget airlines.

It was a debacle for the route since when Aboitiz Transport System stopped sailing it Negros Navigation and Sulpicio Lines have already stopped sailing too for entirely different reasons. Negros Navigation compacted its route system and it had the problem of ship reliability and availability during their period of company rehabilitation while Sulpicio Lines was suspended from sailing in the aftermath of the Princess of the Stars sinking (and they never went back again to full passenger sailing until they quit it entirely). Negros Navigation was still sailing off and on to Zamboanga when they took over ATS.

When the new route system was rolled out after the merger of Negros Navigation and ATS, amazingly the route to Zamboanga was scrubbed out. Later, the successor company 2GO went back to Zamboanga but the ship calls in Dumaguete already and not in Iloilo anymore.

Until now there is no passenger ship that connects Iloilo and Zamboanga. Passengers then have to take the roundabout Ceres bus passing through Dapitan, Dumaguete and it has an endpoint in Bacolod. From there the passengers have to take a separate ferry to Iloilo or via Dumangas. The length and the many transfers means this is a really uncomfortable trip and a disservice to passengers. Maybe the liners have already forgotten they are also in public service and profitability is not the only gauge in shipping.

If there is ever a connection now between the two great trading centers it is just via container ships now.

RORO Cargo Ships and Vehicle Carriers Can Be Good ROPAX Liners

In shipping, wherever that be in the world, fuel consumption is a critical factor because it takes up 40% of the operational costs of the ship. Here it might even be higher as our ships are old and our mariner rates are so low and apprentices comprise about half of the crew and they are the ones that pay and not the shipping company. So when fuel prices went really high a decade ago even the Fast ROPAXes of Europe capable of 30 knots slowed down to save on fuel. High Speed Crafts (HSCs) suffered also, had to slow down too and some stopped sailing for they were simply unprofitable even at very high load factors.

We too had been victims of that fetish with speed that in the 1990’s and so, many liners capable of 20 knots, locally, came into the country. The list of this is long and I would list it: Filipina Princess, Princess of Paradise, Princess of the Stars, Princess of the Universe, Princess of the World, Princess of the Ocean and Princess of New Unity, all of Sulpicio Lines; SuperFerry 1 of Aboitiz Shipping; Mabuhay 1 and Mabuhay 3 of William Lines; Our Lady of Lipa, SuperFerry 12, SuperFerry 14, SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 of WG&A; SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21 of Aboitiz Transport System; St. Francis of Assisi, St. Joseph The Worker, St. Peter The Apostle, Mary Queen of Peace, St. Ezekiel Moreno, St. Michael The Archangel and St. Francis Xavier of Negros Navigation. SuperFerry 16 then came back to become the St. Therese of the Child Jesus of 2GO. A total of 26 liners. Now isn’t that too many? And most are 150 meters in length or over and the average passenger capacity is over 2,000 with 3 even breaching the 3,000 mark.

I argue that most proved to be oversized.

That speed came from oversized engines, usually 20,000 horsepower and over which means more fuel consumption and I was not happy with that trend in speed and the trend of upsizing the ships because I know that in the past when liners became bigger than the ex-”FS” ship, many ports with previous connection to Manila were left out because the liners were already too big and their drafts too deep for the small and shallow ports. Then later, the fast cruisers became the new paradigm and more ports have to be left out because to shorten voyage duration the interports were reduced. Gone were the old routes which featured four, five or even six ports of call and with voyages lasting several days.

Those big, fast liners might have been okay when ship passengers were still overflowing when there were still no budget planes and intermodal buses as competition. But that was not okay for the passengers left behind in the abandoned ports. It just created a generation or two of passengers not catered to by ships and grew up not relying on them.

And in the end the liner companies paid dearly for that. Even with advertisements they can no longer be coaxed into riding ships (even if they are painted pink). And that became a disaster for liner shipping when passengers thinned. Too few port calls mean less passengers and cargo – when the ships were already big and guzzling fuel and heavily needing those. And that just helped sink the liner sector of our shipping which has not recovered until now.

I argue that for the passenger loads and cargo sizes now our liners sailing are simply too big and that is the reason why they can’t or won’t call in the smaller ports served by liners until the end of the millennium like Ormoc, Surigao, Tagbilaran, Dapitan and others. It should go down in size and maybe add ports of call and damn if transit times are longer. What is more important is that the ships become fuller so that it will be more profitable. Anyway, those who want fast travel will simply take the budget planes. But still there are still many people which prefer the ships to the planes.

Moreover, the remaining liners now have engines too big to be profitable on marginal routes and smaller ports. I think the engines also have to be downsized. If fuel prices go up once more the liners won’t be profitable again.

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Our Lady of Sacred Heart by Chief Ray Smith

In downsizing and saving on fuel, there is one type of ship that is actually fit for us. These are the former RORO Cargo ships and Vehicle Carriers and we have several  examples of that in the past. Actually for the same size and length, RORO Cargo ships have smaller engines than ships which were ROPAXes from the start. They were not really built for speed but for economy while having a decent speed. And moreover on RORO Cargo ships not much steel has to be added as additional decks.

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Our Lady of Medjugorje by Nat Pagayonan

In the past when liners were not that yet big and fast we had very successful liners whose origins were as former RORO Cargo Ships. I think the most famous of these were the sister ships Our Lady of Sacred Heart and the Our Lady of Medjugorje of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (CAGLI) which both came in 1990. Beautifully renovated, few suspected their true origins. Weighing the amenities of the ship, they were not inferior to liners of their size. And nor in speed although they have engine horsepowers less than the liners of their size.

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Butuan Bay 1 by Vinz Sanchez

It was the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines (when they split from WG&A) which brought in the next batch of RORO Cargo ships for conversion into liner ROPAXes when they acquired the Butuan Bay 1 and the Ozamis Bay 1 in the early 2000’s. But what puzzled me is they forgot how to convert them into beautiful ROPAXes like before and almost everybody that rode them said they were ugly. And that maybe helped doom the return of Gothong Lines into passenger shipping. When Butuan Bay 1 became the Trans-Asia 5 it became a beautiful ship with first-class interiors. Butuan Bay 1 should have been like that from the very start and if it were, the trajectory of Gothong Lines might have been different (of course they had other problems too).

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Ozamis Bay 1 by Mike Baylon

It was the Asian Marine Transport Corporation or AMTC that next brought RORO Cargo ships here for conversion into RORO liners. In their Super Shuttle RORO series, they started with the first three converted in to ROPAXes and these were the small Super Shuttle RORO 1, Super Shuttle RORO 2 and Super Shuttle RORO 3. However, the conversions were also not done well and were not worthy of the beautiful small liners of the past. Were they scrimping too like the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines? Or were they thinking more of the cargo than the passenger revenue?

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Super Shuttle RORO 1 by Fr. Bar Fabella

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Super Shuttle RORO 2 by Nowell Alcancia

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Super Shuttle RORO 3 by Mike Baylon

The next batch of Super Shuttle ROROs which were former RORO Cargo ships or variants from the Super Shuttle RORO 7 to Super Shuttle RORO 12 were all big, all former RORO Cargo ships but all were no longer converted in ROPAXes because maybe the first three of AMTC were not particularly successful. I was able to board all of them and their interiors were all good. The cabins for the vehicle drivers were still in good condition and being used along with ships’ drawing rooms and the good, functional galleys. Some even have gyms. Actually what was only needed is to maybe convert the top deck or another deck into good passenger accommodations. Our shipbuilders were good at that in the 1950’s and 1960’s when refrigerated cargo or cargo-passenger ships from Europe were converted into liners for Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines aside from Compania Maritima.

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Super Shuttle RORO 7 by James Gabriel Verallo

The Super Shuttle RORO 7 and Super Shuttle RORO 8 were the two AMTC ships that were intriguing for me. At 145 and 146 meters length the size is good especially since this is a tall ship with at least 4 RORO decks. The original top sustained speeds are 17 and 17.5 knots from only 6,900 and 7,800 horsepower which is even less than the horsepowers of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart and the Our Lady of Medjugorje which both had top sustained speeds of 17 knots when new and did 16 knots here even with additional metal and age. If 16 knots can be coaxed from the small engines of the two AMTC ships then it might have been enough especially if compared to the speeds the former Cebu Ferries series converted liners are doing now. It will have a good container load with a decent passenger size if one deck is converted into passenger accommodations and the cabins for drivers are used for passengers here. I was hoping AMTC will go in that direction but they did not. It turned out AMTC was no longer interested in liner shipping and was more interested in container shipping and especially the loading of brand-new vehicles destined for car dealers in the south.

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Super Shuttle RORO 8 by Aris Refugio

A design speed or original top sustained speed of 15 or 16 knots might not do because converted here with additional metal and with age already they will probably just run at 13 or 14 knots and that is slow for a liner. 15 knots locally is still acceptable but 16 knots is better as proven by the Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje. But then on the other hand the last time the former Cebu Ferry 2 ran as a liner to Cebu from Manila she was just being made to run at 14 to 15 knots. Does it mean that speed is already acceptable? That will mean a 28 or 29 hour run to Cebu versus the 22 hours of the big liners. But then passing through interports will mask that. Just feed the passengers well. And I always wondered why liners to Cebu don’t pass Roxas City anymore when it is just on the way. Of course the big ones can’t. At least 2GO tried Romblon port with the St. Anthony de Padua (the former Cebu Ferry 2) the last time around. But then maybe small liners shouldn’t be doing the Cebu route.

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St. Anthony of Padua by Mike Baylon

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St. Ignatius of Loyola by Mike Baylon

It was Aboitiz Transport System which next brought in RORO Cargo ships for conversion into ROPAXes with their Cebu Ferry 2 and Cebu Ferry 3. Originally these two ships were refitted to be overnight ferries but later when they were transferred out of their Cebu base they were refitted again to become liners. The two are known now as St. Anthony of Padua and St. Ignatius of Loyola under 2GO. Aside from the two, there are other RORO Cargo ships which were converted into ROPAXes but they were not liners but overnight ships. Among these are the Graceful Stars and Oroquieta Stars of Roble Shipping.

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The future Trans-Asia (1) by Mike Baylon

I think there are many RORO Cargo ships around that are about 120-130 meters in length that have a design speed of 18 or 19 knots which can still run here at 16.5 to 17.5 knots and they might just be perfect. I don’t know if that is the case of the Warrior Spirit which recently arrived to become the third Trans-Asia (1) of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. This might be good as a test case. The length of 126.2 meters is perfect and the design speed is 19 knots from twin engines is also perfect. Trans-Asia Shipping Lines has a good record in conversion. But then she will just be an overnight ship but a big one at that. But the coming Panglao Bay 1 of Carlos A. Gothong Lines might not prove to be a test case as she will not be converted to ROPAX, per report.

Panglao Bay 1

Panglao Bay 1 by Mark Ocul

Trying these former RORO Cargo ships for conversion into ROPAXes might be a safe bet. These RORO Cargo ships might be low-risk in acquisition as their purchases might just be above breaker prices. So if it does not make money the worth of metal as scrap might still pay for the acquisition price. In the future Trans-Asia (1) they are even cutting off metal so windows can be made. That is different from the experience of the Cebu Ferries ships were a lot of metal has to be added because decks have to built.

I think it is good time to try acquiring RORO Cargo ships as our future liners. They might turn out to be good bets and worthwhile liners a la Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje.

Why Not Iloilo Ferries?

Many decades ago, I was wondering when I first heard the “Queen City of the South” monicker of Iloilo City because I thought it belonged to Cebu City. It was only later when I learned from reading that there was a time when Iloilo City can stand toe-to-toe with Cebu City and that it had a great past entering the 20th century. And that standing was propped up when sugar cane was still gold.

One of the requisites for a city to be great is not only manufacturing. It must also have great transportation links and this is one ace of Cebu City. Cebu has so many shipping companies with many routes and ports of call and so the goods of Cebu reach many islands and places. Conversely, goods needed by Cebu including food to feed its big populace are always available with reasonable prices. Like when I see packed vegetables from Bukidnon, I know many of it are headed to Cebu. I will also then see ads for Fighter Wine which is needed to fuel the muscles of the farmers and cargadores handling those vegetables.

There are probably many reasons why over the decades Cebu City outstripped Iloilo City. And one of those reasons is probably the difference in their shipping where Cebu City far outstrips Iloilo City. While Cebu has a dozen or so homegrown passenger shipping companies some of which are of national stature, Iloilo can barely list a few and most are small. Add to this the fact that Cebu City has perhaps two dozen or more cargo shipping companies and LCT operators while Iloilo City has only a few. These differences alone are more than reason for the disparity of the two cities now. An industry like shipping has a multiplier effect. And that is the reason why Cebu has Tayud, the Navotas counterpart of the shipyard row in the south. And Cebu has many mariners each of whom if deployed abroad contribute to the the economy of their hometowns.

There was a proposal for a petition to be sent to 2GO for the revival of Cebu Ferries. I respectfully disagree. There are so many Visayas and Visayas-Mindanao shipping companies already and some had shown great growth and aggressiveness in the past and among them are Cokaliong Shipping Lines, Lite Ferries, Roble Shipping and Medallion Transport. It will be hard to beat them now when they were not beaten when they were still not that strong. And factor in that the last three are also strong in cargo shipping and in transporting vehicles.

Maybe if 2GO and Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) want to expand to regional operations and maybe to bolster their bases Iloilo City and Bacolod City then they better just establish “Iloilo Ferries” rather than resurrecting Cebu Ferries. It will not be anthema to the company as they already have the equivalent of “Batangas Ferries”. This is what actually became of their Cebu Ferries when it left Visayan waters.

I think Iloilo Ferries can have five routes, to wit (this is a circular listing):

Iloilo-Romblon-Batangas route

Iloilo-Puerto Princesa route

Iloilo-Bacolod-Zamboanga route with a possible extension to General Santos City

Iloilo-Bacolod-Dipolog-Cagayan de Oro route

Iloilo-Cebu route

An Iloilo hub should be able to handle transshipment to other routes like goods from Zamboanga should be transferred to a Batangas or Cebu ship if the cargo is intended for that.

Anent the third route, an Iloilo-Zamboanga ship is needed because that connection has been lost when for a century it has been existing. When that was lost the passengers have to take the uncomfortable bus which has double the transit time.

Regarding the last, why should Trans-Asia Shipping Lines and Cokaliong Shipping Lines have all the fun? That is also the reason for the second route. Why default it to Montenegro Shipping Lines and Milagrosa Shipping?

The fourth route should be able to load vehicles at reasonable rates to better fill up the ship and compete with the Dapitan-Dumaguete ferry.

Regarding the choice of ships, I suggest to just invest in 80 to 100 meter ferries just like what Trans-Asia Shipping Lines and Cokaliong Shipping Lines use. If the route is potentially weak there is no dishonor in settling for 60 to 70 meter ferries like what Aleson Shipping uses for Jolo, Bongao and Sandakan. And that is what might be needed for the Iloilo-Puerto Princesa route.

If there is a shipping line with an Iloilo hub and also serving Bacolod then products of Western Visayas (I am using the old regional grouping) will be pushed and promoted and at the same time products from other regions needed by Western Visayas will also be made available and probably at cheaper prices. Like I know how cheap some products are in Zamboanga and these are not only barter goods. George & Peter Lines is not bashful taking in canned sardines, dried fish and even ginamos for this help fill up their ship and those are really cheap and Zamboanga and the city hosts some 7 canneries.

Dipolog (not Dapitan port) doesn’t have a regular ship link to Manila. With the fourth route ship passengers can be transferred in Iloilo if they are not clients of the budget plane. That is also true for Zamboanga ship passengers to Manila which has only one liner per week.

Since Negros Navigation is Western Visayan then it is their duty to develop Western Visayan shipping. There is probably no need to take cudgels anymore for Cebu Ferries as 2GO is no longer a Central Visayan shipping company. It is Iloilo City, Bacolod City and Western Visayas that need more support now.

Now, isn’t “Iloilo Ferries” a great name? If there was a Cebu Ferries and a “Batangas Ferries”, how can that name not be possible? And shouldn’t Negros Navigation honor Iloilo too?

Some People With Vested Interest Always Raise the Issue of the Age of Our Ferries

For the past five years or so, I often notice that some people with vested interest in shipping always raise the issue of the age of our ferries imputing that our old ferries are not safe. That include their friends who parrot their line but actually have no knowledge whatsoever of local shipping. One thing they have in common is their lack of objectivity and empirical knowledge of our shipping. They are the type of bashers of our shipping who will pass on lies to “justify” their position. The bad thing is they have access to media which will simply broadcast what they say or worse simply reprints “praise releases”. And the baddest is millions of people who have no knowledge of shipping are fooled by them.

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The Maharlika II which capsized and sank after losing engine power and no help came

MARINA (the regulatory agency Maritime Industry Authority) itself in a very recent consultation with shipping company and shipyard owners admitted they have no study linking maritime accidents to the age of ships. I am not surprised here because I know MARINA has no database of our shipping losses and accidents. I guess even if they study the findings of Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI) proceedings on maritime accidents, they will be hard put to correlate the accidents to the age of ships because the BMI generally proceeds with facts on records and most conclusions point to human or navigation error.

Major accidents that resulted in hull losses, the type that generally provoke ignorant public outcry, generally can be classified into three:

Capsizing/foundering/sinking

Fire and explosion

Beaching/grounding that resulted in complete total loss or CTL

For the last 30 years from 1986 when radar was already generally available and weather forecasting was already better, capsizing/foundering/sinking composed about 45% of the cases of ship losses while fire and explosion composed 40% of the cases and the remaining 15% were due to beaching/grounding that resulted in CTL. In the sample, the motor bancas and small motor boats were excluded but batels and Moro boats are included. But if they are included it can be easily seen that most of them were lost in bad weather and few of them are over 20 years old (wooden-hulled crafts don’t last long anyway) and so it is hard to connect their loss to age.

In capsizing/foundering/sinking, most of them can be connected to the prevalent bad weather or storm. Such cases of losses are also hard to connect to the age of the ship especially since with hull scanners replacing the hammer in testing the hull integrity of the ships few sink now because the ship developed a hole while sailing. Well, capsizing/foundering/sinking is even easier to connect to the hardheadedness of their captains and owners. Their only connection to age is captains and shipping owners are generally old, pun intended.

In fire and explosion, the age of the ships can be suspected to be a factor. But so do simple lack of maintenance and lack of firefighting capabilities. A relatively new ship with poor maintenance will be mechanically old especially if parts are not replaced. An old ship with replacement engines and bridge equipment is mechanically newer like Mabuhay 3 that although built in 1977 was modernized in Singapore when she was lengthened. Understand too that some of the fires happened in the shipyard or while undergoing afloat ship repair (ASR). Fire is a risk while doing hot works like welding in a shipyard and many times this was what caused the fire and not the age of the ship.

In beaching and grounding, this is almost the province of bad weather and bad seamanship and navigation. The only connection to age here is when the navigator used old and obsolete nautical charts, pun intended again. The age of the ship practically has no connection to this unless some machinery broke like in Baleno 168 when the shaft broke free. By the way, the total number of ship losses here I consider as ship losses is over 75 ferries. Not included are other types of ships like freighters, tankers, container ships, barges and tugs.

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The Starlite Atlantic floundered while maneuvering in a strong typhoon

But these people with vested interests and that even includes MARINA would not dwell on the actual causes of ship losses. What they just is just an administrative fiat where ships will be phased out after a certain age (30 or 35 years) irregardless of the actual condition of the ship. They cite “safety”. But what they actually want is to have the whole field for themselves because they are the ones which have new ships. They do not want fair competition. What they want is to simply banish the competition.

For me, because I believe in laissez-faire competition, it should be “Let the market decide”. If they think their ferries are better then let them charge higher or with a premium (as anyway they need to amortize their ships). And see how the market reacts. That is how it is in the deregulated areas for buses. The better buses charge higher, of course, and why not? The market then decides which they want or which they can afford. Like my friend in Naga. When business is good he might take a premium Lazy Boy bus. But when business is slow, he will settle for the very common aircon bus. It should be that way in shipping too. Please no administrative fiats. It is simply not fair. If you want to argue about the age of the ships then put forward a worthy scholarly study that have gone through a panel of knowledgeable shipping persons (and please no landlubber Ph.D’s).

In Youtube, there is a Captain who said most of the accidents are caused by human error. I agree fully (and please invite him to the panel which will check the scholarly study). It is just like in a car, a truck or a bus. It is not the age of the vehicle which will be cause of the collision or it falling in a ditch or running over a pedestrian. It will most likely be human error on the part of the driver (unless there was a mechanical failure which can also be attributed to poor maintenance).

In 2011, I had a friendly discussion with a Japanese ship spotter who is very knowledgeable about Philippine shipping. I was dismissive of these ships having these expensive P&I (Protection and Indemnity) insurance and being classed by classification societies affiliated with IACS (International Association of Classification Societies). I asked him a conondrum to please explain to me why ferries in the eastern seaboard of the country never sank while sailing (that was true before the Maharlika Dos sank in 2014). The ferries there are old, some even have problems with their painting, none have MMSI or INMARSAT, nobody has heard of P&I and IACS and yet they do not sink since steel ferries arrived there in 1979 (a total of 22 years) while the proud SuperFerry lost the SuperFerry 3, SuperFerry 6, SuperFerry 7 and SuperFerry 14 in just a span of a few years. I was needling the guy a little since he was a big SuperFerry fan. He was speechless and can’t provide an answer. So I told him P&I and IACS might look good in Japan but here evidently it does not translate to greater safety, empirically and arguably. So then why are these people with vested insterests pushing for IACS classification when it actually means nothing here? Hell, no ship sank in the Dumaguete-Dapitan route, the Bacolod-Dumangas route, the San Bernardino routes, the routes to Catanduanes, etc. There is no IACS-classificated ships there except for the recently arrived FastCat. There is also no lost ship in Roxas-Caticlan and probably the only IACS-classed ships there are the new Starlite Ferries and FastCat. So that means an IACS classification is not really necessary. If we proceed empirically then higher classification should only be required by route and by shipping company. If a route or a shipping company has no major accident then just require them the usual local classification because it proved it was enough, isn’t it? Then require IACS or even higher classification for the likes of 2GO, Archipelago Philippine Ferries and Starlite Ferries because it had major accidents already in the past. Now isn’t that simple? Why should the curse be suffered by shipping companies which had no major accidents? Is that fair? And the irony is that those who prate safety and which called for the throw-out of old ships are those which had history of sunk ships already.

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Report says she grounded, was declared CTL and broken up (Pic by M. Homma)

The eastern seaboard with more ships than the fleet of Starlite Ferries or Archipelago Ferries only lost two ships until today and one of that was when a ferry was moored during a typhoon and therefore not sailing (the Northern Samar) and the other one was the Maharlika Dos of Archipelago Philippine Ferries. Now the fleet of one of these guys has already lost two, the Starlite Voyager and the Starlite Atlantic when his company started operations just in 1996 as they claimed. Eastern seaboard ferries have been in operation since 1979, much earlier than his. The only eastern shipboard ferry lost while sailing belongs to another loud guy with vested interest and his ship was the Maharlika Dos which sank because it wallowed for many hours without power when his Maharlika Cuatro was just nearby and failed to help until Maharlika Dos sank with loss of lives.

Actually safety and seamanship are not the result of paid certificates. Just like there is no presumption one is a capable and safe driver after getting a driver’s license or a car is safe because it was registered in the Land Transportation Office or a bus is safe because it was registered in the LTFRB. Just like the Supreme Court said in a recent decision a ship is “seaworthy” (because it has seaworthiness certificates) until the moment the hull the develops a hole and sinks. Certificates actually confer nothing in the true world of Philippine shipping.

In Typhoon “Ruping”, the strongest typhoon to visit Cebu in history in 1990 a lot of ships sank, capsized or were beached. The typhoon did not ask the ships their age. Ditto when Typhoon “Yolanda” struck in 2014 with the loss of many ships too all over the country. Typhoons are not selective with regards to age. Unless one will argue the anchor broke because of age.

But these people with vested interest peddle lies that in Japan ships after reaching twenty years of age are retired. That is simply not true. Even the Japanese ship spotter said that. I once thought the 35-year limit proposal was a European Union standard. Not true also. They do it by actual inspection or classification of ships. If the ship has too many violations it is detained until corrections are made. It stops sailing when corrections can no longer be made or it is already too expensive to be economical and when that happens the ship is sold to the breakers or a Third World country. The process there is objective unlike the proposed arbitrary rule here to base it on age.

Passenger ship sinks off Calapan City

The Baleno 168’s propeller shaft broke loose and water rushed inside making her capsize (Photo by Edison Sy)

I just cannot understand these people resorting to lies just to promote their product. I thought in the past these were subject to boycott. The problem with the Philippines is there is no Fact Check like in the USA. Here things are reduced to “batuhan ng lies”. I am just glad in our society, the PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) that has never been the rule or custom because we always stick to the facts and TO the truth.

And that is the raison d’etre for this article. I do not like liars nor do I like people who wants to pull a fast one or those who try fool people or hood their eyes.

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.

A Report on the Recent Situation of Bicol Passenger Shipping

When I talk of Bicol passenger shipping that includes those that have routes to Samar for in the main Bicol ships do those route with the notable exception of Montenegro Shipping Lines which are dayo (foreigner) to Bicol but have a base in Masbate port. In the main, I don’t refer to the Cebu-Masbate steel-hulled ferries because those routes are just one of the operations of Cebu shipping companies with the notable exception too of Montenegro Lines which has a national operation of short-distance ferry-ROROs.

The biggest shipping companies in Bicol are the sister companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which are legal-fiction companies of each other. They have combined operations, single crewing and maintenance and their ships rotate within their common routes. The only difference is the ships bought out from the defunct Bicolandia Shipping are all in Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (PSC) and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) is what made Bicolandia Shipping cry, “Uncle!” (which means give up na).

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The twin shipping companies have a total of 10 ROPAX ships plus a Cargo RORO LCT which is a recent acquisition to match that of NN+ATS (more on this later). Their best ship, the beautiful Jack Daniel (no, there isn’t free tasting of the famous drink) was acquired not so long ago and it is almost a fixture in the Masbate-Pio Duran route where her beautiful and luxurious lounge can be fully used and appreciated by the passengers since it is a three-and-a-half-hour route.

SCSC and PSC ply all the Bicol routes except for some parallel routes like the Tabaco-San Andres and Masbate-Pilar routes (more on this later). Which means they ply the Tabaco-Virac, Matnog-Allen (now through their own Jubasan port) and Masbate-Pio Duran routes. They don’t ply the Masbate-Pilar route as their ships are too big for the shallow Pilar port which lies in an estuary. In Catanduanes, it seems they now have a modus vivendi with Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) which now is doing the Tabaco-San Andres route exclusively through Codon port (but that route is not necessarily weaker than the Tabaco-Virac route as buses and trucks going to northern Catanduanes prefer that route because the remaining distance is shorter). Additionally, SCSC and PSC also operate the Liloan-Lipata route (however, after the Surigao quake RORO operations were transferred from Lipata Ferry Terminal to the Verano port of Surigao).

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The new development in Catanduanes shipping is the arrival of a new player, Cardinal Shipping which fielded the High Speed Craft (HSC) Silangan Express 1 which has good schedules and a very interesting fare which is even less than one might expect for a Tourist accommodation in a ROPAX (P320 fare in airconditioned accommodation versus the P230 Economy fare of a ROPAX ship). That is very cheap compared to the fastcrafts of Montenegro Lines in Masbate that charges double of the Economy fare of the ROPAX. The route of Cardinal Shipping is also Tabaco-Codon like that of Regina Shipping Lines or RSL.

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Another ferry was also added to the fleet of Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) when they acquired the former Maharlika Cuatro from Gabisan Shipping which purchased it from Archipelago Ferries. It was in Mayon Docks of Tabaco City last January but as of this writing she is already running as the Regina Calixta VI. RSL now also has an operation in the Batangas-Abra de Ilog route through Aqua Real Shipping and Calixta-III.

Tabaco port is also building an extension again and this is probably the third already. I am thinking, what for? In all my visits there I never saw Tabaco port full and I don’t think port visit is increasing there. There is also not that need for a big back-up area. There are no container vans unloaded there and ships that visit are generally small. To compare now, Masbate port is even busier than Tabaco port and Legazpi port is even their rival in port calls (as they both serve the province of Albay).

I thought before that the refurbishment of Legazpi port was not needed but it seems I was mistaken. There are more ships docking there now and those are bigger than the ones which dock in Tabaco port. For one, when Cebu freighters visit Albay, they use Legazpi port and not Tabaco port because it is nearer from Cebu. And most freighters that use Tabaco are just Bicol ships which are smaller than Cebu ships. I was even surprised by the big, Malaysian coal barge I saw in Legazpi port.

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Like before there are no ROPAXes in Legazpi (as I argued before a population of 100,000 in an island is needed to keep a RORO afloat if there is no strong tourism and Rapu-rapu island does not meet that criteria). Instead it has lots of big passenger motor bancas to Rapu-rapu and Batan islands plus Cagraray island too. The new passenger terminal building of Legazpi looks beautiful and modern. Like in Tabaco, the port and port terminal building (PTB) is open to the public and there is no cloud of suspicion that hovers unlike in ISPS ports. It was just like in the past when ports are just like part of public domain. That openness was the thing changed by this damned ISPS.

With the completion of the bridge from Albay mainland to Cagraray island through the Sula Channel, the old small Michael Ellis LCT to Misibis is now gone. A connecting bridge to an island is always better than a connection by an LCT. Maybe with that Cagraray island will develop faster.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation now have their new Jubasan port completed in Allen, Samar and so they already withdrew from using the BALWHARTECO port, their old port of entry to Samar, to the great disappointment and anger of the owner which nearly resulted into a court battle. I wonder if the judge-son-in-law of the owner was able to make clear to the patriarch that if it is all straight law then they would lose eventually and they might even be vulnerable to counter-suits they being the LGU holders (like a graft counter-charge).

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With the withdrawal of SCSC and PSC from their port, BALWHARTECO invited Montenegro Lines to just use their port exclusively. Before, Montenegro Lines used both BALWHARTECO and the Dapdap port of Philharbor, the sister company of Archipelago Ferries which once operated the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries. With the withdrawal of Montenegro Lines from Dapdap port now that port no longer has ferry operations. What is left there are the passenger motor bancas to the island off it which is Dalupiri island.

Before this, Philharbor invited Montenegro Lines to use Dapdap port since Archipelago have sold already their Maharlika ships and was already in the process of disposing their Grand Star RORO ships. If there is no other ferry company that will use the port it will fall vacant since the route allowed by MARINA to the new FastCats of Archipelago Ferries was the Matnog-San Isidro route. Before their withdrawal only Montenegro ferries were still using Dapdap port.

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It seems BALWHARTECO made a good offer to Montenegro Lines. They are known to be flexible and accommodating as their record of the past decades will show. Meanwhile, the Alvarez group which controls Archipelago Ferries, Philharbor and Philtranco is not known for that. They are instead known for quick retreats when subjected to the pressure of competition.

So I was not surprised by the result. Here is the queer situation of a port owner and operator with no ships of their sister companies docking because it is using a different port and a route that is significantly longer (which is the Matnog-San Isidro route). As a change, instead of being a ‘port to nowhere’ the San Isidro Ferry Terminal is now active again (she was active before Montenegro Lines left her for Dapdap and BALWHARTECO ports).

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It seems Montenegro Lines was the winner of the BALWHARTECO-Sta. Clara turmoil. Previously they were using four ferries in the Matnog-Allen route, two in Dapdap and two in BALWHARTECO. Recently they are now just using three ferries. It seems that was enough to have a ferry always on standby in the port which has more traffic (in the day that will be Allen and in the night that will be Matnog).

Another winner in the route is the NN+ATS outfit which is now openly admitted as an operation of 2GO. They are using chartered Cargo RORO LCTs from Primary Trident Solutions, owner of the Poseidon LCTs and now they even fielded a ROPAX LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26. They are operating that LCT under the banner of SulitFerry and the acronym is also “SF”, a reminder of their SuperFerry past before those liners were promoted into saints.

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With the Cargo RORO LCTs, the queue endured by the non-regular trucks in the Matnog-Allen route has come to an end as they are the priority of the Cargo RORO LCTs. These ships does not take in buses with its passengers and so no passenger accommodations are needed. The truck crews are just expected to stay with their vehicles for the duration of the voyage. MARINA is actually too suspicious of Cargo RORO LCTs having areas that can take in passengers on the sly.

The arrival of the Cargo RORO LCTs has affected the dynamics in the Matnog-Allen route. It has definitely taken traffic from the ROPAXes and the weight is significant because the non-regular trucks pay the highest rates. Actually, the rates paid by the regular trucks is heavily discounted and it is not always paid in cash (which means credit).

Another thing, from being second-class citizens the non-regular truck is now king but their loyalty now is on NN+ATS. What a turn-around too. From being largely ignorant of Matnog-Allen route because they were too confident of their CHA-ROs (Chassis-RORO) aboard their container ships and liners, now 2GO is already a player in intermodal route which helped kill their liners.

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It is also good that they use chartered LCTs whose crew is from Primary Trident Solutions. These crews are not graduates of the ‘shooing away’ seminars of 2GO, they have no knowledge of ISPS (and probably they don’t care too) and so like in the past they are very friendly to the passengers which they do not think or treat like potential “terrorists” like what is taught in 2GO seminars.

But even with NN+ATS and SulitFerry around and the concentration of Montenegro operations there, BALWHARTECO port is not too busy like in the past when to think 168 Shipping is still there with its three Star Ferry ships. Really, the weight SCSC and PSC is great especially since they have a lot of trucks and buses under contract.

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The PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) was impressed by the new Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. It was not small and unlike most private ports that will start with portions being unpaved in Jubasan it is a completely paved port. As such it is cleaner having no mud and people and patrons would not find it hard moving around (now one would wonder why after all these decades BALWHARTECO port is still mainly unpaved). They also maintained the slope of the land and so rain water immediately drains into the sea instead of forming puddles. There are a lot of eateries inside and it is a step up compared to what can be found in BALWHARTECO port including the presence of chairs and tables outside the eateries which are good for lounging around and sundowning.

Jubasan port is more orderly and it looks more modern. Maybe with the shipping company being the operator it should end up that way as they have full control. By the way, Jubasan port will also have a lodge like in BALWHARTECO port. The structure is already there, that is the area above the eateries but it is not yet operating when PSSS visited the place. Now I don’t know if they will also have a disco like in BALWHARTECO port. Jubasan port also does not have the so-many hawkers of BALWHARTECO port.

Matnog meanwhile has minimal changes. I thought when they twice reclaimed new land the docking space will improve. It did not. There are two new RORO ramps on the left of the finger port (as viewed from the sea) but when I passed through it twice no ship was using it. Actually the docking space of Matnog port did not increase and on high tide a ship will still try to dock askew in the wharf for lack of docking space. During the late afternoon and evening peak hours not all the ships can dock and it has to undock after disgorging their rolling cargo and anchor offshore.

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I still cannot fathom how the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) inputs ship calls in their planning that they cannot see their docking area is not enough for the number of ships calling. They have two new RORO ramps but they bulldozed rocks beneath it. And so maybe the ships fear damage if they use those. Why can’t they just use the causeway-type of wharf like what is used in BALWHARTECO and Dapdap ports which can dock more ships for their given length of wharf space? The only reason I can see why PPA is too inept in port design is because they really can’t attract qualified people. And to compensate for this lack, their annual reports will be full of praises for themselves and their “achievements”. And now their top honcho says the Makati Car Club will test the RORO system. Now what does Porsche and Ferrari owners know about port design and the RORO system if one is not Enrique Razon? It was not designed for their kind of cars and heels.

Masbate port is actually more impressive than Legazpi or Tabaco in terms of activity. Unlike the two ports which looks semi-fringe in location (as in facing the ocean already), Masbate port is in the center of a nexus and connecting many islands. There are simply more ships there and more types from overnight ferries to short-distance ferry-roros to fastcrafts to motor bancas plus the usual freighters. The new port terminal building is now operating and so there is more try of control now to ensure everybody uses it (this is what I call as “cattle herding”). And I don’t like that system treating passengers not like people but like commodities.

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Actually, they can simply sell a ticket to anyone who wants to buy, passenger or not, like in Zamboanga port. With so many buses boarding their port terminal building is not sufficient (now tell me when did PPA learned how to input numbers). If the old system where buses simply park somewhere in the port and soon board afterwards was enough why try to force down the passengers down the bus so they will pass through the passenger terminal building when it does not have enough capacity anyway even in airconditioning? If terminal fee is all they want then they can just put in a table by the ship ramp. An explanation: bus passengers here already have their ferry tickets issued by the bus conductor so actually they do not need to queue as the buses offer free ferry tickets to their passengers. If the buses can be efficient why can’t the PPA? The reason is simple – they are a government entity.

What I noticed is it seems more passenger motor bancas are now using the Masbate municipal port cum fish landing area. Actually it has the advantage that it is just near the integrated bus, jeep and van terminal of Masbate City. The passenger motor bancas for Burias can also be found here. If I may have a suggestion, it is better if the passenger motor bancas just dock by the integrated terminal. Nothing beats that. If only they will see what is logical (but they might lose the votes of the cargadores and the tricycle drivers).

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The Masbate-Pio Duran route is now stronger compared to the Masbate-Pilar route in terms of RORO operation. It is actually the shorter route to Manila and it can accommodate bigger ships whereas Pilar can only accommodate basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. Medallion Transport has withdrawn from this route as a fall-out of the sinking of their Lady of Carmel. SCSC and PSC was the big winner in this and they now have made permanent two of their biggest ships in this route which have length of over 60 meters versus the 30 meters plus of the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs of Pilar.

In the Masbate-Pilar route, Denica Lines now has two ROROs that are running simultaneously and they were able to create a late departure from Bicol (or is it an early one?) when they created an early evening Pilar-Masbate schedule. Denica Lines also have two fastcrafts for refitting now that is moored in Pilar port. Obviously, they want to get a slice of the pie of the MSLI fastcraft business. If they price it like the Silangan Express to Catanduanes then MSLI will be forced to cut their high fares.

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In Pilar, I noticed they now have a Pilar-Mandaon passenger motor banca running. Plus they have pre-dawn departures now from Pilar for three destinations – Masbate City, Aroroy and Mandaon (Mandaon is a gateway to Romblon). They were able to expand Pilar port but its operation is just still like a municipal port as there is no good port lighting (are their charges for the ROROs and passengers not enough?). By the way, the ROROs from Pilar start earlier now. Good for those with still long land travel still remaining in Masbate island.

As before there are a lot of passenger motor bancas in Masbate port going to Pilar, Ticao island, the west bank of Masbate Bay. But maybe the Baleno bancas are gone because there is a van going there now up to Aroroy. The passenger motor bancas are still fighting even though it is already the era of the ROROs and the buses and the trucks aboard them. With no porterage and running at hours when there is no RORO they are still surviving. Well, the buses dictate the schedules of the ROROs and so I can’t see them running 24 hours as the buses have only certain hours of departures from Masbate and Manila.

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Some things of note. One, the Super Shuttle Ferry 19 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation has been sold and Olmillo Shipping has taken over the Bogo-Cawayan route. A new development too in this area was the fielding of Island Shipping of a ROPAX LCT in the Hagnaya-Cawayan route. The MSLI ferry is still running the Bogo-Cataingan route and ditto for Lapu-lapu Shipping that runs the Cataingan-Cebu route. In the future, however, the Bogo and Hagnaya ferries will most likely transfer to the new Maya RORO port because it is simply nearer to Masbate. Meanwhile, the big passenger- cargo motor bancas running between Masbate and northern Cebu are still running and their business not threatened after the initial cut made by the arrival of the ROROs.

Recently, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines don’t have a ship anymore to Masbate from Cebu, a victim of their lack of ferries. Cokaliong Shipping Lines has not fully filled up the slack and it has only a once a week Cebu-Masbate sked but they are always fielding a new good overnight ferry of theirs in the route. Meanwhile, for a year now Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) doesn’t have an operation anymore to Masbate since their SuperShuttle RORO 3 had engine problems. It has been over a year since 2GO withdrew their liner that passes through Masbate on the way to Ormoc and Cebu. Can’t really beat the intermodal buses and trucks now and as the saying goes if one can’t beat then join them and so they already had that NN+ATS in the Matnog-Allen route.

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Burias motor banca arriving in Pasacao

In other Bicol routes, passenger motor bancas still connect Burias island to Pasacao and Pio Duran while Ticao island has passenger motor bancas sailing to Bulan and Masbate ports. Masbate is also connected by passenger motor bancas from Cataingan to Calbayog in Samar and to Roxas City in Panay from Balud and Milagros and to Romblon from Mandaon. Caramoan through Guijalo port also has passenger motor banca to San Andres in Catanduanes through the Codon port. San Miguel island is connected by passenger motor bancas to Tabaco port.

And that above is what comprises Bicol shipping all in all. Not tackled here are the minor routes served by small passenger bancas that go to small islands that does not have a municipality and to coastal barrios which has no roads.

[Written based on January 2017 data.]