The China-built LCTs

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

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

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

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Row of LCTs in North Mactan Channel

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

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Cargo RORO LCTs in Carmen port

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

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

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

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Brizu, a container carrier LCT by Ocean Transport

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

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ASC Ashley of Asian Shipping Corporation

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

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Owned LCTs by Roble Shipping

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

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

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

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

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The Trip from Tacloban to Surigao del Sur [Part 2]

When the smaller group of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) members split and said goodbyes in Tacloban bus terminal, I was aware it was already December 13 and it was the PSSS’ 8th anniversary. I dunno if anyone mentioned it but I didn’t coz I do not want to spook anybody since many associate the 13th with bad luck and we were still all traveling. In our drive to Surigao del Sur, I never mentioned to Joe the anniversary because active members remember the PSSS was founded on December 13. Well, the luck of PSSS is still holding, fingers crossed.

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From Surigao City, me and Joe followed the road to going to Butuan. In our short drive in the city I think Joe already had an idea of the lay-out of it since we took the main road going in and another road going out. Along the way we saw some prominent landmarks like the St. Paul College, the Lipata junction, the bus terminal and the airport plus the shuttered Pacific Cement company. If I remember right, what Joe told me this was his first time in Mindanao and I felt pangs of remorse we were not able to invite our two companions we left in Tacloban for I know they haven’t been to this place yet too. But our host in Surigao del Sur knows only two are coming and Joe didn’t want to abuse the hospitality.

It was a serene drive from the city punctuated by some curves and by some sea views. No meaningful ports really in the area until we arrived in the junction to Surigao del Sur by the progressive barrio of Bad-as which belongs to Placer town. I was surprised there was already a Prince hypermarket there, a Cebu chain. In a barrio no less, when the towns there don’t even have one. I thought the mines might be giving prosperity in the area and the chain bet that junction will soon boom (well, it already looks like a small town to me).

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From there it was a more serene drive. Fewer vehicles, fewer people. We were no longer in the main road, i.e. the Maharlika Highway or AH26 but the road is just as good with even less damage and bumps. We were some distance yet from the sea and small rice fields and low hills dominated the sight. We had a relaxed drive.

Soon, Joe rolled out his GPS map. We were now in an area where I was not familiar with the ports and roads so I can’t give him directions. I told him our first target is the Port of Placer that I have heard before which is named after the town that is still a part of Surigao del Norte (it always enters my mind that there is a port in Placer, Masbate and also in Placer in Surigao del Sur).

Not long after, the sea and then the town came into view. I have the impression of an old town but the progress we saw in Bad-as was not evident here. We made a tour of the town while looking for the protrusion in the GPS map that indicates a finger port. Soon we were running on a road by the sea that is also a docking wharf for the small fishing bancas. That road then led to the actual port which was walled with a gate.

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We paused, a natural reaction but when we entered slowly there was no challenge, just curious looks (maybe they were trying to figure who the big shots were entering the port). That’s the beauty of a port that is not ISPS. In an ISPS (International System of Port Security) port, the guards are generally hostile and visitors are not welcome (they only want people who have official business there).

The Port of Placer surprised me. Offshore there was a tanker (not the Pandacan-type, mind you) but in the port itself there were two Petron truck tankers transferring fuel to plastic drums aboard a motor boat and a big passenger-cargo motor banca (I thought this was illegal but, oh well, we have to be practical). We learned it is destined for a generating plant of an island. The fishing boats inside were bigger and mostly of the basnig type. There were also two motor boats one of which is discharging scrap metal to a truck and the other has drums for fuel also.

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Offshore were islands and islets. Not a surprise since looking at the map this portion of Surigao has many offshore islands. Fishing abounds here and it seems the Port of Placer is one of the recipients. There were fish trucks in the port along with fish brokers. Placer port, though out of the way did not disappoint me. The visit was worth it.

We next passed the small towns of Bacuag and Gigaquit. We had no target ports here. We next rolled into Claver town which was the last town of Surigao del Norte (and soon we understood how it came to be). It was more progressive and I half-expected it having heard of it in the past. The GPS indicated to us a finger port and so we came looking for it. It was small with just a motor boat which seems not to be too active. There was no open sight of the sea. Only mangroves. It was a disappointment. I only took long-distance shots because if we enter the only way out is by backing the car. Not good.

From sea level, the road began to climb and offshore at a long distance we can see LCTs and barges. I forced getting pics but the quality was not good as it was too far for my lens. It turned out I was over-eager. Later, we found out that the mining ports were still ahead of us and I already began to exhaust my supply of batteries (after visiting nine ports already it should have been no surprise). But i rued my over-eagerness.

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As we proceeded, we noticed more and more ships were coming into view and most of those were LCTs and barges with loads that look like brown earth. We can also already see the mining wharves which are mainly causeways built by rocks and earth just bulldozed into the sea (but the biggest in the area, that of Taganito Mining is a pile-type port and it docks bulkers and tankers). The seawater of the area already has a tinge of brown when it was supposed to be blue. We were coming into the mining pollution we have read and seen from the news.

Soon, it was obvious we were nearing a mining community. The mud in the road tells it and what we are meeting now in the road were mostly mining trucks and vehicles. There were also truck depots of the mines along the road and there were also heavy equipment. China brands were almost universally the makes of the rolling stock here, some of which I just seen for the first time in my life.

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Before descending to sea level, it was becoming obvious the mining community we supposed was not just composed of one company but of several distinct companies with it own compounds, gates and wharves. The community was several kilometers long and it already has the feel and flavor of an emerging town. I remembered our member ‘kensurcity’ mentioned to me in a shipspotting meet that Jollibee can open a store in Claver and he said it will thrive. Maybe, this place Taganito was what he was referring to. Well, mining boom towns have magic in terms of glittering metal.

At the center of this community is the legendary Taganito Mining Corporation of the sometimes-controversial Nickel Asia which hit jackpot with the rise of China’s metal needs. There are other mining companies in the area and all are just adjacent one another. One is Adnama Mining Resources and the PSSS is familiar with some of its LCTs that are normally caught by our cameras in Cebu waters.

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When i check the AIS sites, I often see MMSI vessels near Surigao that has Taganito port as the intended destination. It is not a government-owned port, by the way and there are actually many mining wharves in the area each hosting ships with many other ships anchored offshore. We saw about 20 ships in all in the Taganito area (it is actually several barrios) but one needs really long lenses to cover them all well.

Even in the descent to Taganito community (the mining companies are centered in the barrio of Taganito), one is already aware of the exposed rocks at the side of the road which really looked like ores. Slowly, one can also see the stripped mountains and the water run-offs that are brown in color. Ascending after Taganito, it was even more visible and the mining communities also come into view already along with the bays that hosts the wharves. Brown, stripped mountains up high, brown-colored water run-offs and a sea that is turning brown.

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There is no surprise in that because what is being done is plain strip mining (not open pit as there is no pit; the mining companies were just stripping the mountains) just several kilometers from the sea and there are no holding or containment pools. No wonder the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources is now threatening the closure of some of them. It was great shipspotting in that area, there are magnificent views but at the same time one would begin to understand the controversy surrounding the mining in that area.

Leaving the mining area, I began to understand why there was no proper road there before and why Surigao del Sur is cut then from Surigao del Norte then. The area is mainly rocks and it does not have good vegetation and so how much more agriculture? No agriculture, no people. No people, no roads. Then it turned out those rocks are valuable. And so the road connecting the two provinces was built (i was told it was mush before). It looks like a good mining road anyway because most of the vehicles that pass are connected to the mines.

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I exhausted my batteries after that place and me and Joe began to hasten because our target Cortes town is still a fair distance away and it was already past mid-afternoon. We just whizzed by the towns of Carrascal, Cantilan, Madrid, Carmen and Lanuza. We vowed just to cover them and whatever ports are there on our way back to Leyte and Samar. Then, we finally reached the house of Joe’s shipmate at 5pm which we found to be in a progressive but woody barrio off the main road. Good decision to just whiz by the five towns (and anyway I don’t have batteries anymore). Otherwise, we would be searching a woody, unfamiliar and probably dark place after nightfall.

A seafood fete awaited us and all were fresh catch (we learned the fishermen themselves hawk it house-to-house there). Joe immediately posted a shot of the feast in Instagram with a hashtag of the place. A companion we left in Tacloban immediately noticed it (chismoso talaga ang social media). Maybe he was wondering how Joe, in an area he hasn’t ever run was able to cover a lot of distance in just such a short span of time with a ferry crossing to boot and almost no sleep. I didn’t know why James immediately suspected I was with Joe. Was I missing something;)?

Ah, anyway our luck held. And it seemed we did very fine on the day of the PSSS’ anniversary and Joe was able to prove he was a superb driver. Imagine that distance (350 land kilometers plus the Surigao Strait crossing) and pace (13 1/2 hours) with nine ports and one port complex (Taganito) covered including a meal stop. Who will believe that was possible? I bet James was thinking i was holding the wheel.

[Part 3 will be in the next installment.]