The Disproportionality of the Ferry Losses in the Philippines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Unique Nasipit Port and Bay

Nasipit is the main port of Agusan after the Butuan ports (Butuan and Lumbocon) lost that status because the ships no longer came. That was because of the siltation of Agusan River and the general increase in the size and depths of the ships. Nasipit port is unique in topographic sense. It is located in a nearly enclosed bay which looks like a pond. Two enclosing spits of land nearly closes the outlet of the bay. As such Nasipit port is probably the most protected port in the Philippines. But it is deep enough that 160-meter ferries used to dock before in Nasipit. Those were great liners Princess of Paradise of Sulpicio Lines Inc. and the Our Lady of Akita of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. which later became the SuperFerry 6 of WG&A.

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Photo by Janjan Salas

The very small Nasipit Bay was once the home of the famed Nasipit Lumber Inc. which used to produce veneer, plywood and other types of processed wood products. The plant of the company was once the original user of that bay and the bay also served as the stocking pond of their logs and their wharf inside the bay was where the cargo ships loading their products once docked. Nasipit port was built adjacent to Nasipit Lumber with the latter nearer the entrance of the bay. Nasipit Lumber has closed long ago when logs and lumber became scarce and new rules protecting the ancestral domain were drawn. Now that plant is even gone now including the buildings. What remained are some the concrete floors and just parts of their old wharf.

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The former location of Nasipit Lumber

Now the permanent resident of the bay is the power barge of Therma Marine Inc., an Aboitiz Power Corporation subsidiary and this is located in the inner part of the nearly-enclosed bay. Also in Nasipit Bay, inside the port is the Port Maritime Office (PMO) of the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) which is in charge of all the ports in the Caraga Region. The manager of it and the employees wants it transferred to Butuan, however, because it is there that where most of them live. I don’t know if that will push through. Nasipit Bay is also home to swirling rains I have not observed anywhere else and maybe that is due to the peculiar topography of the Nasipit inlet which are surrounded by high hills in a particular way.

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The power barge of Therma South

Nasipit port is a straight quay where the middle it was broken by a slanted RORO ramp which is just a recent alteration. In the inner end smaller ships like tugs and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) patrol boats are docked. There is a transit shed for cargo and a passenger waiting area in the port terminal building. Docking for big ships is a precise maneuver inside the Nasipit inlet as the bay is very small and there are shallow portions and it is especially dangerous when it is low tide. However, there are not s to contend unlike in the exposed ports.

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Nasipit port has been the port of passenger ships for a long time now not because it is convenient or near the city (it is actually out of the way and relatively far from the town and highway). The change happened in the 1970’s when the ports of Butuan became shallower because of siltation and there was lack of dredging (the results of which are often just undone by raging annual floods of the great Agusan River). By the 1980’s, Nasipit port has already supplanted the Butuan ports especially since the shallow-draft ex-”FS” ships were already dying from old age and the replacements of that type were already bigger. However, even though the ports have changed many passenger shipping companies still used the name “Butuan Port” when actually they were already docking and using Nasipit port and this entailed confusion to the uninitiated including land-bound researchers doing shipping studies.

There were passenger vessels which did both the Butuan and Nasipit ports. They just gave up on Butuan port when docking there became much dependent on high tide (and risk waiting until noon at times when this would already jeopardize departure time because loading and unloading using booms and porters is slow). One example of this were the former “FS” ships of the Bisaya Land Transport Company of the Cuencos of Cebu (no typo there, that is the actual name of a shipping company which is a division of their land transport). When they find it impossible to dock in Butuan, they then proceed to Nasipit port (to the complain of many passengers).

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The MV Samar of Compania Maritima (Credits to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen)

Compania Maritima, the leading shipping company after the Pacific War was one of the earliest to use Nasipit port. Their passenger-cargo ship Samar which is the bigger type of US war-surplus ship used to dock in Nasipit port. That was also true for their passenger-cargo ship Mactan which was in the 80-meter class and whose depth is two meters over the depth of an ex-”FS” ship, the last type of passenger ship that can be shoehorned in the shallow Butuan ports. Their Mindoro and Romblon, both converted ex-”FS” ship docked at both Butuan and Nasipit ports (and maybe that is to increase the passengers and cargo). Their Panay, a bigger ship docked at Nasipit when it can’t in Butuan. Later, even their ex-”FS” ship Leyte was calling exclusively in Nasipit port. Compania Maritima was the first to dominate Nasipit port when the Chinoy shipping companies were just on their way up and not calling on Nasipit port. In the main they came to Nasipit port when Compania Maritima was already gone.

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The MV Panay of Compania Maritima (Credits to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen)

Some actually just gave up on the Agusan trade when their ships can no longer dock in Butuan and they did not really try to earnestly use Nasipit port like Escano Lines which used to be strong in Butuan. Well, it must have been frustrating for them when the ship can’t dock after a few hours of waiting and then would have to go to Nasipit port anyway to load and unload. Moreover, the floods of Agusan River that happen many months of the year with its floating logs and other debris which can damage the ship propellers and rudders also added to the vagaries in docking in Butuan.

By the 1980’s the passenger ship calls on Nasipit, Butuan and Surigao which are all connected ports went down considerably. There was a big, general downturn in the economy because of economic crisis and container ships began supplanting the passenger-cargo ships in carrying cargo (where before this type carried a lot of the express cargo that are not in bulk or liquid). These new container ships cannot fit in the Butuan ports. However, few of them are coming in Butuan anyway. Another thing, the cargo ace of Nasipit before which were the forest products began slumping as the forest cover was fast going down and it raised a howl and therefore restrictions on logging were placed by the new Aquino administration.

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The pocket liner Surigao Princess (Photo by Edison Sy)

At the tail end of the Compania Maritima dominance a new liner was calling in Nasipit, the Surigao Princess of Sulpicio Lines which was a pocket liner. In the post-martial law period the Our Lady of Guadalupe of Carlos A. Gothong Lines, Inc. (CAGLI) came. And so these two liners succeeded Compania Maritima were gone as the company went out of business at the height of the political and economic crisis of the mid-1980’s. Soon, the better Our Lady of Lourdes of CAGLI replaced the Our Lady of Guadalupe in that route. In 1988, the big Nasipit Princess of Sulpicio Lines began calling in Nasipit port. But her route was mainly Cebu only as it was still Surigao Princess that was the liner there of Sulpicio Lines Inc. And, the Dona Lili of Gothong was also sailing from Nasipit to Cebu.

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The Nasipit Princess by Suro Yan

William Lines, Lorenzo Shipping Corporation and Negros Navigation Company, among the great survivors of the crisis of the 1980’s did not have Nasipit among their ports of call when the 1990’s started. Escano Lines will soon be leaving passenger shipping as well as Bisaya Land Transport. Aboitiz Shipping Corporation is also much-weakened in passenger shipping then as they did not buy liners for 15 long years (however, the will be back with a flash with their SuperFerry series and the were strong in container shipping)

It was Carlos A. Gothong Lines and Sulpicio Lines which were competing in Nasipit port in the 1990’s both in the liner route to Manila and the overnight route to Cebu. Although Nasipit was no longer as grand a destination like when Butuan still had a lot of ships calling, the two companies brought some great liners in Nasipit port like the Our Lady of Akita and the Princess of Paradise and what a show of confidence it was for Nasipit port. That was the heyday of competition when there was much optimism in business and the shipping liberalization and modernization policies of the administration of Fidel V. Ramos (FVR) took effect. A little before the “Great Merger” William Lines will also enter Nasipit port with their liner Mabuhay 2.

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The Our Lady of Akita (Credits to Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen)

When the Great Merger that produced the giant shipping company WG&A came there was a plethora of ever-changing ships that got assigned to Nasipit port unlike in the past when a ferry will hold a route for a decade or even longer. In WG&A, routes and route assignments happen at least once a year and so tracking of ships that served a port became difficult. However, Nasipit was a regular route of the company. That liberalization of FVR also brought the expanding Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) to Nasipit where they used their beautiful St. Francis of Assisi. Unfortunately, that liner burned right in Nasipit quay not long after in 1999 which resulted in the destruction of the ship. The revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) also tried the Manila to Nasipit liner route before it just became a Cargo RORO route when they got suspended from passenger shipping. Nasipit still has lots of load, no longer forest products but bananas.

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The Our Lady of Lourdes by Chief Ray Smith

With the “Great Merger” and the creation of Visayas-Mindanao subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC), that company also paraded a succession of ships in Nasipit port that is bound to Cebu on an overnight route. It began from the old Our Lady of Lourdes and it ended with Cebu Ferry 2 when CFC was already under the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS), the successor company of WG&A. Sulpicio Lines, their only competitor in the overnight route brought the Cagayan Princess in Nasipit when the Nasipit Princess can no longer sail. This was later followed by the much-better Princess of the Earth. And for a while, the Gothong Southern Shipping Lines Inc. (GSSLI) brought their Dona Rita Sr. to Nasipit port after they acquired the Our Lady of Good Voyage of Cebu Ferries.

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Filipinas Butuan in Nasipit port

The port has also a link to Jagna port in Bohol as service to the Bol-anons residing in Mindanao. Usually the Cebu-Nasipit ship of a company will do a once a week call to Jagna on their seventh day and the ship will go back to Nasipit within that seventh day and then resume their route to Cebu.

This decade saw a great downturn for Nasipit in sailing ships. There was only one liner left doing a once a week voyage to Manila and this was usually the St. Leo The Great of 2GO. Sulpicio Lines quit passenger sailing and Gothong Southern also gave up that segment. Even Cebu Ferries quit the Nasipit overnight route to Cebu when they transferred their ships to Batangas.

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The St. Leo The Great

Now, a completely new cast is in Nasipit port headed by Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) which use either their Filipinas Butuan or Filipinas Iligan in the Cebu to Nasipit overnight route with an off day diversion to Jagna. Lite Ferries also has a Nasipit to Jagna ship on the stronger months for sailing but there is no permanently assigned ship. 2GO still has that once a week liner from Manila. Nasipit is not a favorite of container ships except for Carlos A. Gothong Lines.

Passenger shipping which is down already ia affected by the intermodal buses and the budget airlines, both of which offer competitive fares compared to ships and with the advantage of daily departures. Nasipit is also not helped by it being out of the way from the city and the municipality’s policy of barring the buses and commuter vans from the port doesn’t help the case of Nasipit port either in attracting passengers who are turned off the expensive and very cramped tricycle ride which is also vulnerable from the rains driven by the swirling winds of Nasipit inlet.

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The legendary white-out of Nasipit port

I wonder when and how Nasipit port will have a renaissance. Somehow, some day, I just hope that it will come.

The Uneven and Controversial Record of Breaking of Passenger Ships in the Philippines

In the recent decades it is only in the 1980’s where I saw a relatively massive ship-breaking of Philippine ferries. Two big factors worked in confluence in that. One, the backbone of Philippine ferries of the postwar years, the former “FS” ships were already breaking down on its own because they were already 40 years old on the average which was already far beyond their estimated design life. Moreover, there was already a shortage of parts and to keep other “FS” ships running some others have to be cannibalized. And these ships were actually badly outgunned already by the newer ferries and as cargo carriers (some were used in that role when they were no longer competitive), they were already overtaken already by the newly-fielded container ships and by cargo ships with fixed schedules like the ships of Sea Transport.

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An example of a former “FS” ship (Credits to Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen)

The other big factor was the great economic crisis of the 1980’s, the greatest since World War II when there was a contraction of the economy, inflation and the exchange rate were runaway and there was simply no loans available then and interest rates were sky high. Such situation will simply contract the need for ships. This was exacerbated by companies falling by the wayside, bankrupt and shuttered. That even included our auto manufacturing plants. In shipping, a significant percentage of our shipping companies folded and with it went their ships because the remaining shipping companies were just in survival mode and in no mood to take over their ships. That was the second main reason why many of our former “FS” were broken up in the 1980’s. Most of them were scrapped locally specifically in Navotas. The passenger ships of the shipping companies that went belly up in the 1980’s like Compania Maritima also ended up in the breakers and they were not limited to ex-”FS” ships. The 1980’s was really a cruel decade for shipping.

Earlier, in the 1970’s, the former Type “C1” ships were also lost as a class because their engines were no longer good. That also was true of the former Type “N” ships. These ships simply surrendered because they were no longer reliable and parts were hard to come by. And that is one truth in shipping. If a ship is no longer good especially the engines and it cannot be re-engined anymore then it goes to the breakers and no government order to cull is needed for that.

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An example of a former Type “C1” ship (Credits to Phil. Herald and Gorio Belen)

After the 1980’s, ship-breaking followed three main trends. One is the trend set by William, Gothong and Aboitiz (WG&A) and later by its successor Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). WG&A has the penchant to dispose of ship they think are already superfluous. That is actually what happens in mergers and acquisitions (M&A’s). There will always an excess in assets including ships and personnel and the new entity will try to dispose of them to junk “non-performing assets” (NPA’s). That is the reason why still-good liners and overnight ships were disposed to the breakers. There was really no good technical reason to send them there and die.

On the other hand, WG&A and its subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC) had some ships that were nearly ready for the breakers because their engines were already beginning to get unreliable. WG&A tried to sell them as still “good” ships and a few shipping companies got conned buying ROROs with problematic engines and obsolete cruisers. The stinged companies like Sampaguita Shipping had to dispose later these ships.

Our Lady of Banneux (Mis-identified as SF10)

Our Lady of Naju (Mis-identified as OLO Banneux)

Probably the OLO Banneux but Identified as OLO Naju

Sold to raise cash (From http://www.greenshipbreaking.com)

When the two partners in WG&A divested, the Aboitiz family had to dispose of ships to pay them off. This was the reason why Aboitiz Transport System (ATS), the successor company to WG&A had to sell a series of still-good ships, passenger and container, to China breakers early this millennium. In effect, the Gothong and Chiongbian families were paid with cash from scrap metal and their old ships were gone forever.

Aboitiz Transport System also had to sell other ships to the breakers (their liners are too big to be overnight ferries) in order to acquire newer ferries. That was done in the middle of the 2000’s.This is called renewal of the fleet and this is done all the time in other countries. Of course, a company will try to sell their weaker ferries in order to acquire new ones. This pattern also carried over into the successor company of ATS, the shipping company 2GO.

But again the reason to sell was not always based on technical reasons (as in the ship is no longer reliable) but on other considerations. I have observed that the creation of WG&A and its subsequent dissolution created a lot of crooked reasons for selling ships that were not based on the condition of the ship. Some of those were simply connected to cutting of routes and frequencies and the need to come up with cash.

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Sold before its time for crooked reasons (Photo by Vinz Sanchez)

Meanwhile, competitor Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) was hit with illiquidity after their massive expansion fueled by bank loans backfired and they had to seek court protection from garnishment proceedings. However, these resulted in ships being laid up and offered for sale. These ships ended up in the hands of foreign breakers because liners were in excess then (and ATS does not buy ferries from competitors) as budget airlines and intermodal buses cut into their revenue..

But the next chopping of ships en masse was even more cruel. This was as a consequence of Sulpicio Lines getting suspended from sailing after the Princess of the Stars capsized in 2008. Stringent conditions were placed by MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency on Sulpicio Lines’ return to passenger operations. Meanwhile, the bulk of their fleet rotted in their Mandaue wharf and in the middle of Mactan Channel. Along with strong public backlash, Sulpicio Lines lost heart and sold off their entire fleet to foreign breakers and a great passenger fleet that took five decades to build was lost in just one stroke. Those who knew shipping knew this great passenger fleet won’t ever be replaced again. Ironically, it is the government bureaucrats regulating them which did not know that.

Princesses laid up

None of these survived the suspension

As a general rule, companies that do not run into trouble do not send ships to the breakers. WG&A (divestment of partners), Negros Navigation (illiquidity) and Sulpicio Lines (suspension) all ran trouble (and MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency tasked with the country’s maritime development was of no help to them whatsoever). Non-liners frequently do not run into trouble and if ever they fold, many of their ships are taken over by other shipping companies (as their ships are easier to sell). That is what happened to the likes of Bicolandia Shipping Lines, San Juan Ferry, Western Samar Shipping Lines, Kinswell Shipping Lines, Shipsafe/Safeship, Mt. Samat Ferry Express, Moreta Shipping Lines, etc. But this did not happen to most of the big fleet of Viva Shipping Lines and its legal-fiction companies, to Sampaguita Shipping and SKT Shipping/Kong San Teo Shipping, both of Zamboanga, Tamula Shipping and many others..

Again, another rule, it is easier taking over a failed small company and small ferries because the sums involved are not astronomic. If it is a big liner company that gets into trouble, it is only the foreign ship-breakers that have the money to buy their ships.

Princess of Negros when she was for sale

A photo when this ship was for sale; ended in the breakers

I just hope our government understands more our ferry companies, their travails and the difficulty of keeping ferry companies afloat. From my observation with government it seems many of them think ferry companies are raking in money. It is not the lure of money which keeps them in shipping but simply their passion for shipping.

Our shipping sector is actually in distress but I still have to hear or read a government pronouncement acknowledging that. They push the shipping companies to modernize in a tone that as if buying ships is just as easy as acquiring buses. But the inescapable truth is our ferries are actually graying now. And so I fear for them, not because they will sink but we all know nothing lasts forever. I wonder if there will be a mass extinction of ferries in the future, say a decade from now like what happened to the “ex-FS” and ex-”C1” ships. If that happens maybe we will more LCTs and maybe surplus ferries from China.

The Ship Design Conflict Within WG & A

On the first day of the year 1996, the “Great Merger” officially happened. This brought the fleets and all assets of William Lines Inc. (WLI), Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) and Aboitiz Shipping Corporation (ASC) under one single company and management except for some very old ferries of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation (the likes of Legazpi) and a some ferries and container ships of Aboitiz Jebsens (that was a separate company) which were the container ships acquired from the Ukraine. This was supposedly a preemptive move so local shipping can compete against the purported entry of foreign competition in the inter-island routes which proved to be a bogey or a false story later. How some old shipping families believed that foreigners can enter with a Anti-Cabotage Law in effect that forbids foreign shipping firms from sailing in local routes is beyond me because repeal of any law passes through Congress and our Congress is usually not keen on passing laws that grants free passage to foreigners and if those three liner and container shipping companies are willing, the regional shipping companies and other companies might not be willing and they can also raise a ruckus. But anyway the unlikely merger happened and a very big shipping company was formed from previously competitors.

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Dona Virginia (Credits to Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center and Manu Sarmiento)

Any merger usually results in excess assets and in shipping that includes ships aside from management personnel and employees and logistical assets like containers, container yards and buildings. This was easily obvious with the WG&A merger. Since there were excess liners some of it were sent to its regional subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC) like when the Mabuhay 6 (the Our Lady of Good Voyage) and the Our Lady of Lipa were sent there. Meanwhile, all the cruisers liners were offered for sale. They also tried to dispose old and unreliable ROROs like the Dona Cristina, Don Calvino and the Dona Lili that were formerly regional ferries. Actually even some recent liners were also offered for sale. The total was about 10 and that was already about a third of the combined fleet. That also included a handful of container ships.

I knew it early there was a conflict with the disposal of ships when I had as a cabin mate in SuperFerry 7 the cargo manager of William Lines in North Harbor and he was furious because to him it seems that the liners of William Lines were being targeted. Well, that might have been the unintended result of getting Aboitiz Jebsens as fleet and maintenance manager because they will use their old standard in choosing ships (that company was subsequently renamed to WG&A Jebsens to reflect the changed circumstances).

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Don Calvino (Credits to George Tappan and Gorio Belen)

One has to look into recent history to understand this. Aboitiz Shipping Corporation as a liner company did not acquire any liners from 1974 to 1988 and the one they acquired in 1988 was inconsequential as it was just the small and old cruiser liner Katipunan of Escano Lines which became the Legaspi 1. By that time Aboitiz Shipping Corporation had just a few old liners sailing, a combination of former “FS” ships which were on its last legs and a few old cruisers including the pair acquired from Everett Steamship, the Legazpi and the Elcano which were also clearly obsolete already and getting unreliable. It looked to me that without their partner Jebsens Maritime that was influential in their container shipping (which was actually good), they might not have had their blockbuster SuperFerry series.

If one looks at the SuperFerry series of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, one will easily see its distinguishing characteristics. They are all ROROs (or more exactly ROPAXes) with car ramps at the bow and at the stern, the container vans are all mounted in trailers, trailer caddies hauled them in a fast manner and if possible the two car ramps are both employed so one is dedicated for loading and the other for unloading. Radios are also employed for communication to orchestrate the movement of the container vans so a trailer caddy hauling a container aboard will have a container being unloaded on the way down and markers are used so loading of container vans will not be helter-skelter which can mean difficulty in unloading a container van in an intermediate port.

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Maynilad by Britz Salih

To remedy their serious lack of liners due to non-purchase in the recent years past, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and Aboitiz Jebsens designed their liners to have short interport hours as in 2 to 3 hours only, the former the preferred time. In Manila and in the endport, the port hours were also very short. With this kind of operation the SuperFerries had a high number of hours at sea on a weekly basis which meant maximum utilization. While a Sulpicio Lines liner will only have a round-trip voyage if the route is Southern Mindanao, an Aboitiz ship will still have a short trip to the likes of Panay within the same week or else do a twice a week Northern Mindanao voyage. With this style, their 4 SuperFerry ships were in practicality the equal of 5 or 6 ships of the competition. Of course with this kind of use of ships a heavy load of preventive maintenance is needed and that happened to be the forte of Aboitiz Jebsens.

When the Chiongbian and Gothong families agreed to the Aboitiz proposal to have Aboitiz Jebsens as fleet and maintenance manager they should have already known was in store and that is the liners should perform the Aboitiz Jebsens way and that meant those which can’t will fall into disfavor and might be the target for culling because with the Aboitiz Jebsens system a lesser number of liners will be needed to maintain their route system and frequencies. Of course at the start WG & A will try to employ all the liners that were not relegated to their subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation. But then new liners were still coming onstream, the liners William Lines, Gothong Lines and Aboitiz Shipping ordered when they were still separate companies. WG & A created new routes and frequencies but in a short time they realized what cannot be maintained because there are not enough passengers or cargo like the routes to Tacloban and Dipolog (Dapitan actually) and the Manila-Dumaguete-Cotabato and Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Davao routes.

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Tacloban City (Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen)

With that “weak” and “inefficient” ships will be targets for culling aside from the old liners and there was no question that cruiser liners will be first in the firing line. That type cannot carry much cargo and their cargo handling in the interport is longer as cargo booms are not as fast in loading and unloading unlike trailer caddies. So it was no surprise that the cruiser liners Misamis OccidentalTacloban City and Iligan City, formerly of William Lines were almost immediately up for sale. The small ROPAX Zamboanga City was also offered for sale because her engines were big relative to her size and capacity (16,800-horsepower engines) and she had no ramps at the bow. That also went true for the slow Maynilad (14-15 knots only on 16,800 horsepower). The problem with these is they were all former William Lines ship, the reason why some former William Lines people were upset. But they accepted Aboitiz Jebsens as the fleet manager and so that will almost inevitably be the result.

Some lesser liners survived. The “Our Lady” ships of Gothong Lines survived because for their size and capacity their engines were small and that speaks of efficiency and though while a little slower they were fit for the short routes like the northern Panay routes (Dumaguit and Roxas City) or in the periphery like Masbate and Eastern Visayas. The northern Panay route also became the refuge of the Our Lady of Naju, a former Gothong ship which was also a cruiser. The passengers and cargo of the route were not big and so a big cruiser liner like the Dona Virginia will not fit. But of course all that favored the former Gothong ships. It might just have been a quirk of fate and not necessarily because the Gothong representative to the WG & A Board of Directors who is Bob Gothong is close to the Aboitizes. But then I wonder how the Our Lady of Lipa survived. For her size she has big engines and speed was not really needed in the Dumaguit/Roxas City route. Was it because they wanted to show up their competitor the old but beautiful cruiser liner Don Julio of Negros Navigation? I thought when the old cruiser liner Misamis Occidental was refurbished to become the cruiser ship Our Lady of Montserrat, a former William Lines vessel she might have fitted the route (she was even re-engined and became all-airconditioned like the Our Lady of Naju). Was her speed not really enough for the route? Or WG & A wants a ship that is really superior to the competition?

Our Lady of Banneux

Credits to Keppel Cebu and Ken Ledesma

It was not surprising then that in the early merger years that former William Lines officers and employees would think it was only their vessels which was on the firing line or chopping block.

The beautiful SuperFerry 11 which was fielded after the merger was also not that favored. Her engines are just about okay for her size, she has the speed but then like the Zamboanga City she has no car ramps at the bow because she also came from A” Lines of Japan. She was also destined for William Lines if the merger did not happen. The beautiful Maynilad would have easily been a SuperFerry in terms of size and accommodations if not for her grave lack of speed. Being excess later the SuperFerry 11 and Maynilad were passed to Cebu Ferries Corporation and they were the biggest ships that company ever had. That was after WG & A created an entirely new route for them, the Manila-Ormoc-Nasipit route which in first report was good. But then along the years WG & A and successor company Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) developed a reputation for being very soft in holding and maintaining routes. In Cebu Ferries the SuperFerry 11 was renamed to Our Lady of Banneux and the Maynilad was renamed to Our Lady of Akita 2 after her top passenger deck was removed. The two happened to be ex-William Lines ships also! Although not clearly disfavored (as she made the SuperFerry grade), the Our Lady of Banneux which can run at up to 19 knots had a grounding incident in Canigao Channel from which she never recovered again.

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The ship Zamboanga by Wilben Santos

So actually the William liners were the great casualties of the merger due to redundancy and incompatibility and that was because they were unlike the original SuperFerry liners and they simply cannot make the SuperFerry grade (well, just like the former “Our Lady” ships of Gothong Lines only one of those made the SuperFerry grade, the former Our Lady of Akita which became the SuperFerry 6). Of course their former Mabuhay 1 and Mabuhay 3 which made the SuperFerry grade lived longer. The former Mabuhay 2 was not lucky as she was hit by fire early which led to complete total loss. In the longer run only the Mabuhay 1 and Mabuhay 3 survived and the Mabuhay 3 as SuperFerry 8 was even leased to Papua New Guinea because of the surplus of liners in WG & A.

The liners of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) were more lucky as they found niche routes and small engines played into their favor. Moreover many of the former Gothong Lines ships were in regional routes and they lived long there including their former small liners the Our Lady of Fatima and the Our Lady of Lourdes which were sister ships. That even included the venerable Our Lady of the Rule and their old Our Lady of Guadalupe which has unreliable engines and I even wonder how she lasted so long. In the regional routes some former ships of William Lines survived like the Our Lady of Good Voyage and the Our Lady of Manaoag.

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Dona Lili (Credits to PNA, Phil. Daily Express and Gorio Belen)

When the Chiongbian family of William Lines divested in 2003 only 2 of their former liners remained in WG & A aside from a few container ships. They were paid off in cash from the passenger and container ships that were scrapped. There were still many Gothong ships in the fleet of WG & A when they divested as most survived the culling but they preferred newly-acquired ships when they restarted independent operations.

And that was the story of the ship design conflict in WG & A which have been one of the reasons why the “Great Merger” unraveled so soon.

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 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 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.

And So Medallion Transport Will Challenge Cokaliong in the Surigao Route

I received a second update saying Medallion Transport will enter the Cebu-Surigao route starting tonight. In prior days, only Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) was serving this route which was for long a bread and butter route for them after Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) and Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) abandoned this route.

James Verallo told me it will be the Lady of Love which will be doing the Cebu-Surigao route for Medallion Transport. The Lady of Love is the biggest and best ship of the company and its size at 88 meters is really of the size of the Cebu to Northern Mindanao ships. Besides the size, this overnight ferry has good amenities because she had been a Manila to San Jose, Occidental Mindoro and a Manila to Roxas City ship of Moreta Shipping Lines in the past. She also has the speed because she is still capable of 15 knots cruising speed if fuel economy is not a consideration.

Verano port in Surigao

In entering the Surigao route, I am enthralled by the boldness of Medallion Transport. Its Cebu predecessors in expansion which are Roble Shipping Incorporated and Lite Shipping Corporation or Lite Ferries have been tiptoeing for so long now in trying to reach the Northern Mindanao ports. Lite Ferries was able to reach Plaridel in Misamis Occidental but I don’t consider it a major Mindanao port while Roble Shipping still are not able to reach Oroquieta in Misamis Occidental after all their announcements and the naming of a ship after the place and this is their Oroquieta Stars. Lite Ferries was able to get to Cagayan de Oro with the old Lite Ferry 8 which is a little outgunned by the overnight ferries of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, Inc. (TASLI). Meanwhile, Roble Shipping can’t seem to reach Nasipit although they have a CPC (Certificate of Public Conveyance) or franchise there for many years already.

Now here comes Medallion Transport without tiptoeing (and prior announcement) and even though it seems they lack true overnight ferries. Oh, well, they were able to reach Masbate before and operate in Bicol waters while Lite Ferries and Roble Shipping seem to have difficulty in going out of the confines of the rather tame Camotes Sea. Maybe Medallion Transport have some supply of “braveness pills” which the others don’t have.

Certainly, I welcome the move of Medallion Transport. It is time that the two shipping companies to Northern Mindanao ports (Cokaliong and Trans-Asia) have added competition to keep them on their toes (especially since Cebu Ferries has become the “Batangas Ferries”). I will even welcome if they go as far as Western Mindanao like to Zamboanga. Our country needs boldness from the shipping companies. It is one characteristic I have long found wanting in them since “The Great Merger” (the creation of the late WG&A and Cebu Ferries) bullied them in the late ’90’s and that was two decades ago already. I do not say they are not good but it is time to expand beyond Camotes Sea or in routes that are just in the 60-nautical mile range.

Will Medallion Transport succeed? That remains to be seen but I certainly hope so. However, with this move Palompon will lose a very good ship and James Verallo is certainly unhappy with that. Well, the Lady of Love is the best overnight ship to Leyte and also the biggest and that was a puzzle to me since Palompon is not even in the Top 3 in Leyte ports. Maybe she was really too good for that route.

Lady of Love

I think the former HNSS ferry acquired by Medallion Transport will replace the Lady of Love in the Palompon route. Its size will be more in character with the route. Meanwhile, the Lady of Love might be more fit in a Vismin route. Actually it was not only me which thought that the size and speed of Lady of Love would have been better utilized if Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was able to acquire her but maybe Medallion Transport is really bolder than the said company.

The Lady of Love has not been sailing for several months already waiting for engine parts from Japan. Maybe the parts and repairs have already been done and they are confident that the ship is already capable of the 111-nautical mile route to Surigao which double of her previous route to Palompon (double the route is the equivalent of a back-and-forth sailing to Palompon).

What will be now the implication of her entry to Surigao? Before, Cokaliong Shipping Lines used their weakest ships in the route including their smallest, the Filipinas Dumaguete since they have no competition. Certainly, the company has some very good ships especially their newer ones. Now I don’t know if the Medallion Transport entry will trigger a reshuffle of their ship assignments.

Whatever is the denouement, the Medallion Transport move is an intriguing one. I certainly hope it energizes the Vismin routes. The Lady of Love might have an impact bigger than the entry of Lite Ferry 8 in Cagayan de Oro which needed some discounting to get going.

We better watch out for further developments.

The First “Great” Merger: The Failed Saga of WG&A and CFC

When WG&A was formed it was ostensibly to combat the entry of foreign shipping companies on local inter-island routes. That was the time of many so-called “deregulation” initiatives of Fidel V. Ramos. But even then I had doubts about this as an cabotage law was in effect in the Philippines. Cabotage effectively prevents foreign shipping companies from plying local routes. And to repeal it an act of Congress is needed and I heavily doubted then that the Philippine Congress will go along with that.

It is generally accepted that it was Aboitiz Shipping that proposed this big merger. Rumors had it that the biggest shipping company, Sulpicio Lines, which was also Cebu-based was also invited but it refused and preferred to go it all alone.

The merger brought together the second, third and fourth-biggest shipping companies in the Philippines reckoned by passenger and cargo operations out of a total of five long-distance liner companies (but may I note which is in fourth place might be disputed by Negros Navigation). It had the effect of lowering the number of long-distance passenger shipping companies from five to three.

The merged company and its subsidiaries were the biggest shipping combine that ever existed in the Philippines in terms of fleet and in terms of route network. It significantly brought to that Visayas-Mindanao and intra-Visayas routes and High Speed Craft(HSC) operations. For the former, the Cebu Ferries Corp. (CFC) was formed and for the latter SuperCat was retained.

Brought into the merger were the following ferries (including their former routes):

WILLIAM LINES INC.
Mabuhay 1 (Manila-Cebu and Manila-Iloilo)
Mabuhay 2 ((Mnl-Surigao-Butuan-Tagbilaran-Mnl and Mnl-Tagbilaran-CDO)
Mabuhay 3 (Manila-Davao-Dadiangas-Manila and Manila-CDO-Iloilo-Manila)
Mabuhay 5 [after a few voyages permanent fielding overtaken by merger]
Dona Virginia (Manila-Dumaguete-Ozamis-Iligan v.v.)
Maynilad (Manila-Zamboanga-Davao)
Masbate I (Manila-Masbate-Catbalogan-Tacloban)
Zamboanga City (Manila-Puerto Princesa v.v.)
Tacloban City (Manila-Batan-Dumaguit-Dipolog v.v.)
Iligan City (Cebu-Iligan v.v.)
Misamis Occidental (Cebu-Ozamis v.v.)
Mabuhay 6 [unfinished]

CARLOS A. GOTHONG LINES INC.
Our Lady of Akita (Manila-CDO-Butuan v.v. and Manila-Cebu v.v.)
Our Lady of Medjugorje (Manila-Dumaguete-Ozamis-Iligan-Cebu v.v.)
Our Lady of Sacred Heart (Manila-Roxas-Palompon-Isabel-Cebu v.v.)
Our Lady of Lourdes (Manila-Dumaguit-Palompon-Cebu v.v.)
Our Lady of the Rule (CDO-Cebu v.v. and CDO-Jagna v.v.)
Our Lady of Naju (Cebu-Ozamis v.v.)
Our Lady of Fatima (Nasipit-Cebu v.v. and Nasipit-Jagna v.v.)
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (Iligan-Cebu v.v. and Iligan-Dumaguete v.v.)
Our Lady of Guadalupe [reserve/unreliable; formerly Cebu-Surigao v.v.]
Our Lady of Lipa (Cebu-CDO v.v.)
Dona Cristina (Cebu-Tacloban v.v. and Cebu-Palompon v.v.)
Dona Lili (Cebu-Surigao v.v. and Cebu-Maasin v.v.)
Don Calvino [reserve/unreliable; formerly Cebu-Iligan v.v.]
Our Lady of Akita 2 [unfinished]

ABOITIZ SHIPPING CORP.
SuperFerry 1 (Manila-Iloilo-GSC-Davao v.v. and Manila-Iloilo v.v.)
SuperFerry 2 (Manila-Cebu-CDO v.v.)
SuperFerry 3 (Mnl-Zamboanga-Cotabato v.v. w/ Boracay (summer) and Mnl-Dumaguit-Roxas v.v.)
SuperFerry 5 (Mnl-Cebu-Iligan-Dumaguete-Mnl) and Mnl-Dumaguete-CDO-Cebu-Mnl)
Elcano (was not used; obsolete/unreliable; supposedly not brought by ASC to the merger)
Allowing for database inaccuracies, the following cargo ships were brought to the merger:

CARLOS A. GOTHONG LINES INC.
Our Lady of Peace (112.9m x 18.0m, 17kts, b. 1974)
Our Lady of Hope (99.0m x17.3m, 17kts, b.1979)

ABOITIZ SHIPPING CORP.
Aboitiz Concarrier V (69.0m x 10.9m, b. 1968)
Aboitiz Concarrier XIV (71.0m x 10.9m, 13kts, b. 1965)
Aboitiz Superconcarrier I (115.1m x17.3m, 14kts, b. 1970)
Aboitiz Superconcarrier II (102.0m x 16.3m, 12.5kts, b. 1970)
Aboitiz Superconcarrier III (105.5m x16.3m, 12.5kts, b. 1976)
Aboitiz Megacarrier 1 (139.7m x 19.3m, 14kts, b. 1975)
Aboitiz SuperRORO 100 (108.2m x20.0m, 16kts, b. 1983)

WILLIAM LINES INC.
Wilcon II
Wilcon 4
Wilcon 5
Wilcon VI
Wilcon VII
Wilcon 8
Wilcon 11
ROCON I

Excluding HSCs which were just beginning to arrive in the Philippines, the combined fleet of WG&A was nearly 50 vessels, slightly more than double the fleet of Sulpicio Lines, previously the biggest shipping company in the country.

SHIP TRANSFORMATIONS AFTER THE MERGER
Mabuhay 1 became SuperFerry10
Mabuhay 2 became SuperFerry 7
Mabuhay 3 became SuperFerry 8
Mabuhay 5 became SuperFerry 9
Mabuhay 6 became Our Lady of Good Voyage
Our Lady Akita became SuperFerry 6
Our Lady of Akita 2 became SuperFerry 11 (and later the Our Lady of Banneux)
Masbate I became Our Lady of Manaoag (in 1998)
Misamis Occidental became Our Lady of Montserrat (in 1997)

VESSELS TRANSFERRED TO CEBU FERRIES CORP.
Our Lady of Lipa (later transferred to WG&A)
Our Lady of the Rule
Our Lady of Lourdes
Our Lady of Fatima
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel
Our Lady of Guadalupe
Dona Cristina
Dona Lili
Don Calvino
Misamis Occidental
Our Lady of Good Voyage (later)
Maynilad (later and also renamed Our Lady of Akita 2)
Our Lady of Banneux (later)
Our Lady of Manaoag (later)

Like all mergers and acquisitions (M&A), the terms “synergy”, “rationalization” and “streamlining” was bandied about as if these terms are positive terms in business. But soon these words brought chills to the rank and file because the sum of the 3 words is actually only one — “chopping block”. This is the field of bean counters where shipping passion is simply thrown out of the window.

Immediately, the Aboitiz Jebsens system was adopted. That means relying on bigger, faster ROROs and short in-port hours which equates to high utilization of ships. That called for good ship engines, a field of expertise of the now-renamed WG&A Jebsens. That system, however, also meant the death knell for the cruiser liners as their cargo booms meant long in-port hours and their having no car decks means low capacity for container vans.

The new style was to put all cargo in container vans and all container vans are mounted in trailers. For fast handling, tractor heads from trucks were no longer good enough. Only dedicated, automatic prime movers with the capability to raise the trailers were used. Calls on in-between ports generally were only 2-3 hours and ships don’t stay overnight at the farthest port of call of a voyage.

With so many ROROs sailing high hours per week (with some ships sailing 145.5 hours out of a 168-hour week), WG&A was confident it could sell less-efficient and slower ropax and container ships without affecting capacity and frequency. Soon some of the vessels were already for sale.

VESSELS SOLD SOON AFTER THE MERGER
Tacloban City (cruiser)
Iligan City (cruiser)
Dona Cristina (slow, small RORO)
Don Calvino (slow, small, unreliable RORO)
Dona Lili (slow, small RORO)
Wilcon 6 (old cargo ship)
Aboitiz Concarrier V (old cargo ship)
Aboitiz Megacarrier 1 (big, modern container ship)
Aboitiz SuperRORO 100 (big, modern container ship)
RoCon I (big, modern container ship, the biggest in the country)

VESSELS OFFERED FOR SALE BUT NOT SOLD THEN
Dona Virginia (cruiser liner)
Maynilad (big but slow RORO liner)
Zamboanga City (ROLO liner)
Our Lady of Naju (cruiser)
Masbate I (slow, small RORO)
Our Lady of Montserrat (cruiser)
SuperRORO 300 (former Our Lady of Hope, container ship)

With WG&A Jebsens managing the fleet, the merger upgraded the amenities, cleanliness and passenger service of the ferries. But initially all meals were for sale; vehement protests from patrons thereafter forced WG&A to backtrack. It was also claimed that safety standards improved as the whole fleet is now internationally-certificated. However this was not reflected in lower hull-loss rates. Ironically, it was the lesser Our Ladies (and not the SuperFerries) which proved to be unsinkable.

WG&A and CFC practiced branding. Branding is good in the sense that it promises consistent quality and service. On the other hand branding also utilizes ads and promotions. If that results in better market share then it should be good. Otherwise it only means higher level of costs. And higher costs are a threat to marginal routes and to less-efficient ships.

Initially, even with a fifth of their fleet sold (and with only one additional ship coming, the SF12 and while losing the SF7 to fire), WG&A was able to offer more frequencies because of the higher utilization of ships. But almost no new ports of call were added except for Bacolod. And probably the only significant new routes were the Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Davao (which passes through the eastern seaboard of Mindanao), Manila-Ormoc-Nasipit, Manila-Dumaguete-Cotabato and Manila-Cebu-Zamboanga-General Santos/Davao routes.

It was Cebu Ferries that added more new ports of call and routes (like Cebu to Dumaguit, Roxas City, Bacolod, Dumaguete, Larena, Jagna and Camiguin and Cagayan de Oro to Dumaguete) which in turn put a lot of pressure on the other Cebu shipping companies. CFC ships were faster than the competition and as former liners they simply outclassed the rest in terms of amenities and service.

Sulpicio Lines and Negros Navigation responded by adding ships. Sulpicio Lines basically kept to their old routes (except for the new Manila-Cebu-Davao-Dadiangas route) but Negros Navigation which previously concentrated only in Western Visayas has to venture in a lot of new routes and ports of call because their fleet more than doubled in a span of a few years. But then by sailing to Cebu, Nenaco also opened their former exclusive port of Bacolod to competition and they lost more than they gained.

This period right after the merger, the late 90s, was probably one of the best in Philippine passenger shipping. Competition was fierce, choices were many and there were a lot of newly-fielded ships. There were more shipping companies in the past but the ships of the 90s were far better than the ships of the earlier periods. In major ports there were nearly daily departures from all the liner companies combined.

But they say good times never really last. But I didn’t expect that the decline will be that soon, that fast, that continuous and what will be left is just the rump of the biggest-ever shipping company in the Philippines.

The first hint of trouble that I detected was when I noticed that WG&A was not properly assessing the threat, challenge and development of the intermodal system in Eastern Visayas which was then growing by leaps and bounds.

If Fidel V. Ramos had a deregulation program in shipping he also had a deregulation program in the bus and truck sectors. As deregulated area, bus companies can now ply Eastern Visayas routes with just a temporary operator’s permit. Soon a lot of buses were plying the Samar-Leyte-Biliran routes. Then the dominant short-distance RORO company in the Matnog-Allen route lost the case to protect their missionary status and new players entered that route ensuring that the ROROs needed will always be there. Long-distance trucking also developed with the loosening of the restrictions in the importation of surplus trucks. And with the advent of radial truck tires long-distance trucking became easy.

WG&A’s response was to withdraw from the Samar-Leyte routes except for the adjacent ports of Ormoc, Palompon and Isabel which actually comprises just one route. But soon under pressure from the buses these were lost too including the port of Masbate City which was also part of this route. Soon the islands of Masbate, Samar, Leyte and Biliran were lost to the intermodal trucks and buses.

Eastern Visayas was a signal victory for the intermodal system which was based on long-distance truck/bus plus the short-distance RORO ship. Wins by the challengers tend to have a multiplier effect. They become stronger, bolder and more confident. If the ship can be beaten in one area then nobody can pooh-pooh anymore that they will not be beaten in the next area of confrontation. And the next challenge probably happened before the WG&A has fully internalized their loss and it happened when they were in relative disarray.

A related development at this time was that WG&A’s new routes failed to stick and only the Bacolod route was able to survive. The new CFC routes also failed to pan out and were being abandoned one by one. One contributory factor for CFC’s retreat is fuel cost. The amenities and service of their ships might have been higher as those were former liners but as former liners it is also the reason why their engines are bigger and consume more fuel. Soon WG&A/CFC were selling ships. This was the second set of disposals and it happened at about the turn of the millennium. Also disposed in this period were at least six catamarans including vessels that came from mergers in the High Speed Craft (HSC) sector (the mergers with the Sea Angels of Negros Navigation and Waterjet).

At the same proximate time, it was already the strategy of WG&A to sell old and inefficient cargo ships and just let the ROROs liners carry the container vans. They then went for bigger ROROs later with twin cargo decks, the reason for the purchases of the SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18.

The next challenge did not come from the intermodal. Rather it was the withdrawal of the Gothong family from the merger except for one scion. Soon the Gothong family re-entered the shipping business and re-established Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (but they were not particular successful). Not long after this development the Chiongbian family (of William Lines) also withdrew from the merged company. But they did not re-enter the shipping business. Let it be noted, because it is important, that all the merged shipping companies independently retained their cargo forwarding businesess. For the Chiongbian family it was the Fast Cargo Transport Corp.(FCTC) and Gothong Cargo Forwarding Corp.(GCFC) for the Gothong family.

One can speculate that the sale of 10 vessels in 2000-02 (including those withdrawn from routes and old container ships) might somehow be connected to these withdrawals. When the company also took out a big loan in this period ($18.6 million) it might also have a relation to this state of affairs. Before the end of 2002, Aboitiz had already bought out its former partners. But it will still be later that the company will be renamed Aboitiz Transport System (ATS).

The next challenge came from the intermodal again. In 2003, the Western Nautical Highway opened and buses, trucks and jeeps were able to roll down to Panay island via Mindoro and Batangas. Soon the shipping routes and shipping companies serving Panay were under great pressure. Again, WG&A chose to withdraw (from Dumaguit and Roxas) and just tried to hold on to Iloilo port.

The opening of the Western Nautical Highway and the consequent withdrawal from routes, the withdrawal of the Chiongbian family and the need for new ROROs provoked a massacre of ships in this period as about 15 ships were disposed in the years 2003-06, both from WG&A and CFC, both ROPAX and container ships. It must also be noted that six catamarans were also sold in this period. WG&A was lucky that at this time world metal prices were peaking. If it hastened the disposal of ships I can say it is probable. Let me state that in the late 1990’s when all three families were still in WG&A, the company did not sell to the breakers, in general. In the first half of the first decade of the new millennium WG&A sold heavily to the breakers especially when world metal prices were peaking.

Attracted by the doubling of world metal price in 2007, WG&A then sold their prized ferries Superferry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 to foreign liner companies.In the process they earned a windfall. But this is not without cost as they suddenly lacked the ships needed to carry the container vans. As a stopgap measure WG&A chartered 3 container ships, the “Myriad”, “Markella” and “Eponyma”. They then also converted SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 9 and SuperFerry 12 into twin-cargo-deck ROPAX ships. Later the subsidiary cargo company 2GO was formed and the chartered ships were returned one by one.

At about the same time, in 2007, a very ominous development took place. Aboitiz partnered with MCC Transport of Singapore, the Asia subsidiary of the A.P. Moller – Maersk Group, the biggest container shipping company in the world and formed the MCC Transport Philippines (MCCTP). Since it met nationality rules, it was able to ply local routes and the ships invested by Maersk were given special permits by MARINA.

If the chartered ships of ATS and the ships of 2GO were a step up over local competition, the ships that came from MCC Transport were still another further step ahead in terms of size, speed and efficiency. MCCTP acted as feeder to MCC Transport which now dominates the Asia container routes. Together with the coming of more regional container ships (after APL) with direct foreign routes (like MELL, PIL, RCL and others), this completely undermined one important bread and butter of local container shipping which is the transshipment of foreign container vans. ATS and subsidiary 2GO cargo operations might have been affected by this but as a group Aboitiz is safe because they are also on the side of the winners through MCCTP.

After the sales of the four of the biggest and most modern SuperFerry ships in 2007, the fleet of ATS/CFC no longer grew. New ships have come like SuperFerry 20, SuperFerry 21, Cebu Ferry 1, Cebu Ferry 2 and Cebu Ferry 3. But ships have also been sold, lost or laid-up like SuperFerry 9, Our Lady of Medjugorje, Our Lady of Good Voyage, Our Lady of the Rule, Our Lady of Mount Carmel and SuperFerry 19.

With only six ships sailing, ATS ports of call were already down to half compared to its peak and in half of these ports the frequencies were down to once a week. CFC ports of call were also down to half and its fleet is less than a third of what it had before. CFC changed its website and no longer claimed it was the biggest Visayan shipping company (which is just a reflection of the truth). The Sulpicio Lines fleet was already bigger than the combined ATS and CFC fleets. If cargo ships are counted, Sulpicio’s fleet was almost double the combined ATS, CFC and 2GO fleets.

In 2008, KGLI-NM, the holding company owning Negros Navigation made an offer for Aboitiz Transport System. When the bank financing the take-over bid asked for more collateral the bid collapsed. This take-over bid was news for a long time because of the significance and it dragged. It was here that ATS propagated the canard that shipping is losing to the budget airlines and it obscured the fact that cargo is the lifeblood of shipping. Ironically it is this same year that regional container ships in Philippine ports multiplied. And not once did I notice Aboitiz discussing its shares in MCC Transport Philippines. But at least the Aboitiz group was frank enough to admit that the business of power generation attracts them more and that they are already heavily investing in it and if ATS is sold it will be one of their primary investment areas.

In 2010, with the assistance of the ASEAN-China Fund, Negros Navigation Company was finally able to secure the deal to buy Aboitiz Transport System and its subsidiaries especially Cebu Ferries Corporation, SuperCat and 2GO, the forwarding company. At its end as an Aboitiz company, ATS, CFC and 2GO had only 9 ROPAX ships and 2 cargo ships sailing which is not any bigger in gross tons than the company it merged in WG&A even if the SuperCats are counted. So in effect that means the bigger William Lines and Gothong sank without any replacement.

Aboitiz always says around that it has already gotten out of shipping and the maritime industry. But they completely obscure the fact that they are still in MCC Transport Philippines (MCCTP) and they completely own now the former Aboitiz Jebsens (renamed back when the Gothong and Chiongbian families withdrew from WG&A). The former Abojeb is in crewing and manning and that is one of the five recognized sectors of the Philippine maritime industry as defined by the government. MCCTP is already in expansion after Aboitiz sold Aboitiz Transport System. [Recently, Aboitiz clarified that some of their family members are engaged in MCCTP.]

Now, Negros Navigation Company owns Aboitiz Transport System and NENACO even retained the name and the brands. It will be a matter of time before it will be evident how big a bag they are holding.

The “great” merger of 1996 started out with a bang, lofty words and promises. It exited with just a whimper. But along the way it sank two great liner companies (William Lines and Gothong) and took down with it the liner industry.

The Batangas-Caticlan Route

Once, as we were ship spotting Pier 4, me and Vinz noticed that there seems to be a ceremony involving Cebu Ferry 1 and Cebu Ferry 3. Asking the guard who is his friend, Vinz learned it was despedida (farewell ceremonies) for the two Visayas-Mindanao ferries which will be transferred in Batangas. We learned later that the Batangas manager of 2GO said he can make the two ferries earn more there than in Cebu. That was already the era of the retreat of Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC) when to think that in the late 1990’s they were bullying the Visayas-Mindanao ferry companies which led to the demise of some. This time around, Cebu Ferries Corporation can no longer keep with their competition. What a reversal of fortune!

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The despidida for two Cebu Ferry ships

Vinz asked me how the two ferries will fare in Batangas. I told him it is a different ballgame there. What I meant was in Cebu it was a matter of attracting passengers and loose cargo, I told Vinz the game in the intermodal ports of Luzon (and Batangas is one) is in attracting the buses and the trucks and I told him discounting (called “rebates”) is the name of the game there (and that also includes freebies). That means whichever has the biggest discount will have the rolling cargo and for the regulars long-term agreements apply so it is not the decision of the drivers what ship to board. I told Vinz the new “Batangas Ferries” (my monicker) will have to learn the new game.

The new “Batangas Ferries” plied a direct Batangas to Caticlan route compared to their competitors which ply both the Batangas-Calapan route and the Roxas-Caticlan route and let the buses and trucks roll from Calapan to Roxas in Oriental Mindoro, a distance of about 120 kilometers or so or about 3 hours of rolling time. The “Batangas Ferries” can easily sail that route as an overnight ferry because they have the speed to do it in less than 12 hours (and as overnight ferries they are already equipped with bunks). In fact, early on they tried a round trip in a day for the Batangas-Caticlan route. Then they found out they don’t have enough load because many of the buses and trucks are already tied to their competitors and there is no load yet in the early morning in Caticlan as the buses and trucks are still rolling from many parts of Panay and will still arrive at noon or in the afternoon.

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A “Batangas Ferry” sailing into the coming night by Nowell Alcancia

In reality, even the slower ferries of their competition can do a Batangas-Caticlan route should they want to do it. It will take more than 12 hours but they will still be able to sail the next night. Even at the usual 11 knots they can do that route in no more than 16 hours. Their faster ferries than can do 14 knots can do the route in about 14 hours. Their ferries will just have to become overnight ferries+ instead of being short-distance ferries.

That then was the first rub. The ferries of Batangas are not used to and are even loath to operate overnight ferries. For one, they will have to convert their ferries to have bunks. That means expenses, that means lessening the passenger capacity. Now for shipping companies that are even loath to adding scantlings and were just content to have the unofficial “Stairs Class”, that is a difficult sell. Good overnight ferries also must be able to provide a restaurant and hot food. Well, nothing beats the ease and profit margins of overpriced instant noodles where the only capital is hot water. Now what if MARINA obliges them to provide free meals if the voyage time is over 12 hours like what Administrator Pacienco Balbon required then of Viva Shipping Lines? That could be disaster.

Well, it seems nothing will beat requiring the rolling cargo and its passengers two ferry rides within the same night (for some that leave Manila late). They will earn twice and anyway the rolling cargo won’t go to “Batangas Ferries” because many are tied to them with discounting and rebates. And they won’t just transfer because the rates in the sea is high for the same distance and the distance of Batangas-Caticlan is high and so it is not cheap and Batangas Ferries is not used to discounting (actually, the reason they eventually lost in Visayas-Mindanao is they were the more expensive).

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Passengers can’t be aboard the bus during the voyage and in loading and offloading

The buses won’t go along with “Batangas Ferries” too. If they ride on a Batangas-Caticlan ferry they would have to forego the fare for 120 kilometers or so and that is not peanuts. It has long been held by the LTFRB that a bus cannot charge for the distance traveled at sea (of course, secretly they will try to do it since anyway most passengers don’t know how to compute the fare nor do they know of the number of kilometers). And they will have to pay higher for the longer sea distance crossed. Does anyone need a nail to the head?

And so the buses will rather have their passengers ride two ferries at night. That connotes all the trouble of disembarking and boarding again plus the queues for the various tickets. And never mind if it is raining. In that route, that can be the definition of “passenger service”. Is there a difference between passengers and cattle?

And so until now it is still just 2GO, the renamed “Batangas Ferries” which do the direct Batangas-Caticlan route. Montenegro Shipping Lines, Starlite Ferries, Archipelago Ferries Philippines, Super Shuttle Ferry (Asian Marine Transport Corporation) and Besta Shipping Lines never did that direct route. Who said they will walk the extra mile for their clients?

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“Batangas Ferry 3”

Anyway, passengers are appreciative of the superior accommodations of the 2GO ferries. They have never seen such ferries in Batangas before (and they haven’t been to Cebu either, the home of good overnight ferries). They never ever thought that their ropaxes are actually just cattle carriers. And they have never seen a true restaurant in a ship before which the 2GO ferries have. And oh, plus true, polite passenger service (they have been too used to masahista ng bakal in T-shirts before pretending as stewards).

Will Archipelago Ferries Philippines do a direct route since their catamaran ROROs are faster (theoretically they can do the route is just 10 hours but they will have to do it at daytime since they don’t have bunks)? Well, I don’t think so. I heard they are even happy with the farther Bulalacao-Caticlan route since their sister company bus rolls farther and thus earns more from fare.

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A catamaran RORO of AFPC by Jon Erodias

And that is the situation of the Batangas-Caticlan route. Now I wonder when the Panay passengers will demand for something better.

Are they just content to get up at night and disembark even if it is raining and continue the trip with their heads hanging out from seats and their bodies contorted in search of sleep?