The Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation

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King Frederick by Britz Salih of PSSS.

On paper, the Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and Penafrancia Shipping Corp. of Bicol are two different companies but in actuality like Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) and Marina Ferries the two are simply legal-fiction companies of each other. That means in operation and routes they cannot be distinguished except for some differences in the livery and in the name, of course. They share the same crew and schedules and the same port and they operate as one. Companies resort to this tactic to avoid wholesale suspensions of fleets in case of accidents and also to minimize the damage in case of a suit. But in the case I am discussing here there is a deeper reason than simple maneuvering.

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Nelvin Jules by Mark Ocul of PSSS.

Sta. Clara Shipping started with the clamor of travelers and shippers across the San Bernardino Strait for better services. What happened was that when the competition of the dominant Bicolandia Shipping Lines of Eugenia Tabinas, the Cardinal Shipping, Newport Shipping and Badjao Navigation collapsed and newcomer PSEI Transport Services was TKO’d in the courts and Luzvimin Ferry Services moved elsewhere, there was a swing from dog-eat-dog competition to lousy services that happens when a company is already in a dominant position and the government-owned Maharlika I which was operating a longer route to San Isidro, Northern Samar wasn’t able to offer a credible competition. There came always the complaint of “alas-puno” departures (that means the ferry only leaves when it is already full). I was surprised that in the petition submitted by Sta. Clara Shipping to be allowed to serve the route practically all the Mayors of Leyte signed there.

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Hansel Jobett by Orly Calles of PSSS.

Sta. Clara Shipping started with provisional authorities to sail and their first two vessels were the King Frederick which was named after the top dog Frederick Uy and the Nelvin Jules. [In Bicol, Frederick Uy is associated not with Sta. Clara Shipping but with the Partido Marketing Corp. (PMC) which is now the top trading firm in the region after it surpassed the old title holder Co Say.] The sister ships were fielded in 1999 and the two were joined by its “cousin” Hansel Jobett (“The Dragon”) in 2004. The King Frederick and Nelvin Jules were newer, faster and better-appointed than the ships of Eugenia Tabinas (this is my description here as she was also using legal-fiction companies) and in a short time after she lost in the courts for her claim of “pioneering” status (which she tried to equate to barring entry of other competitors) she was already crying “Uncle!”.

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Eugene Elson by Dominic San Juan of PSSS/

An amicable settlement was reached and Eugenia Tabinas sold out lock, stock and barrel to Frederick Uy and his partners and this happened in 2006 and the fleet and routes were thereby transferred not to Sta. Clara Shipping but to the newly-created Penafrancia Shipping Corp. and the reason for that that I heard was that the latter has similar but still a different set of owner-partners than the former. Well, there is such a thing that can be called the Bicol-type of partnership where the ownership and partnership varies from ship to ship (or bus to bus, if you will) and that was the reason why in the sale and dissolution of 168 Shipping two ships of the company went to Gov. Antonio Kho of Masbate and another went to Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) that is owned by another Governor.

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Don Benito Ambrosio II and LCT ST 888 by Ken Ledesma

In the transfer, the “flagship-by-name” Eugenia became the Eugene Elson, the “flagship-by-size” Princess of Mayon, the biggest ferry in Bicol that time became the Don Benito Ambrosio II and the Princess of Bicolandia became the Don Herculano. The transfer was marred by two strong typhoons and the second one was legendary Typhoon “Reming” which was the strongest in Bicol for three-and-a half decades. Lost in the first typhoon in Tabaco port was the venerable Northern Samar, a refitted ferry that initially came from Newport Shipping of Northern Samar and has been serving in the route since 1982. In Super-typhoon “Reming”, the Princess of Bicolandia which has no functioning engine because of an engine room fire was pulled by the storm surge from its dock in Mayon Docks in Tabaco City, Albay. No one thought she will be seen again but lo and behold! she was found the next day atop a sandbar in a neighboring town and from there she was towed to the Villono shipyard (now the Nagasaka Shipyard) in Tayud, Cebu where she would spend the next three years being repaired and when she came out she was already the Don Herculano. To refurbish the old fleet the newly-arrived Anthon Raphael was added to the fleet of Penafrancia Shipping in 2008.

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Don Herculano by Edsel Benavides of PSSS/

Before Anthon Raphael came, the Ever Queen of Pacific was bought by Sta. Clara Shipping from Ever Lines Inc. of Zamboanga in 2007. After refitting her from an overnight ferry with bunks to a short-distance ferry with seats she was then rolled out as the Mac Bryan. This brought the fleet of the twin companies to eight, a mixture of relatively big ones and three that were smaller, the Eugene Elson, Don Herculano and the Mac Bryan. By that time, the twin companies were basically serving two routes, the Matnog-Allen (BALWHARTECO) route and the Tabaco-Virac route. The Anthon Raphael first served the Pasacao-Masbate route, a missionary route offered by MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency but they soon withdrew from that after realizing that the habagat (Southwest monsoon) will broadside the ship there and that it is not a competitive route due to the long sea distance. She was transferred to the Bulan-Masbate route but geography still said she cannot compete with the Pilar-Masbate ferries and this is similar to the lesson taught to the Maharlika ferry of Archipelago Philippine Ferries which plied that route before. Bulan is still a long drive to Pilar junction where the truck from Bulan and Pilar will meet. The difference is approximately 100 kilometers which is roughly equivalent to 25 liters of diesel fuel and that is no small deal.

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Anthon Raphael by Orly Calles of PSSS.

In 2012, Sta. Clara Shipping acquired the Strong Heart 1 of Keywest Shipping. This was the former second Asia Japan of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) and was acquired through dacion en pago for fuel advances when a syndicate hit the company (they thought then that the Trans-Asia 3 was a fuel guzzler; I don’t know if this was the reason why the sister ships Trans-Asia and Asia China was disposed  to the breakers). However, she was not immediately refitted and repaired and she languished long in Strong Heart 1just serving as crew quarters and office. That was a boon for PSSS as she became the reason of the group to visit the shipyard (and visit the other ships there too). But when she was rolled out she already have the new name Nathan Matthew. In the process she lost part of her superstructure. Well, as a short-distance ferry, there is more passenger capacity with seats than with bunks.

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Jack Daniel by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

In 2015, the beautiful Azuki Maru was acquired from Olive Lines and after some refitting in Nagasaka Shipyard she became the Jack Daniel (no, there are no offerings of that drink aboard). This was about the same time that Sta. Clara was in a struggle to build their own port in Allen, Northern Samar and move out of their old home port BALWHARTECO in the same town. The difficulty was not in the technical or financial sense. It just so happened that the owner of BALWHARTECO (an old private port that dissolved the old municipal port of Allen) is actually the Mayor of the town and he refused to give a Mayor’s permit. That was no problem with Sta. Clara Shipping which had been in legal bruises before and any good lawyer will easily tell that the Mayor will lose in court through a Mandamus and his act will probably earn him a graft case easy. And so the construction of the port continued and it was not delayed because although padlocked the construction equipment were already inside the port.

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Mac Bryan and Nathan Matthew in Jubasan Port. Photo by Ken Ledesma of PSSS.

This new port was in Jubasan in Allen when finished was a notch higher than their old home port as the entire compound was already completely concreted right from the start. The only problem was strong current (maybe because of the proximity of Capul Island) so much so that they withdrew the Jack Daniel here as they feared its beautiful glass windows could shatter. Aboard a moored ship here one can feel it shudder and the dents on the sides of the ship is proof of the strong current. Whatever, Jubasan Port is so clean and organized and an urban-bred passenger will not be turned off by its restaurants (they have nice tables and chairs to lounge in and appreciate the ships and views and that is not easy in an enclosed passenger terminal building).

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Adrian Jude by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

In 2017, Sta. Clara Shipping purchased the last two Tamataka Maru ships still remaining in Japan in a “buy one, take one” manner and this ended that line there and it is a little sad because a lot of Tamataka Maru ferries went to the Philippines starting with the very first in the series which was the Tamataka Maru No. 21 which became the Cardinal Ferry 1 in 1979 and became the country’s first ever short-distance RORO (two ROROs anteceded her but both were first used as liners) and she also served the San Bernardino Strait crossing. The two were sister ships and after refitting in Nagasaka Shipyard, Tamataka Maru No. 85 became the Adrian Jude and Tamataka Maru No. 87 became the Almirante Federico, again a play on the name of the top honcho of Sta. Clara Shipping. The two then became the biggest ships in the combined fleet though not necessarily in the official Gross Tonnage as MARINA oftentimes play quirks with this measure.

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Almirante Federico by Naval Arch. Rey Bobiles of PSSS.

After the sister ships Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. joined the new paradigm, that of the Cargo RORO LCTs which cater to trucks and which do not carry passengers unless those are the crews of the trucks. The San Bernardino St. crossing really needs this type of ship as before there were plenty of complaints about the kilometers-long truck queues in peak season and after the usual weather disturbances. The intermodal trucks which were second-priority to buses before (because it has passengers and they will complain of delays) now have their dedicated transport.

Sta. Clara Shipping’s first Cargo RORO LCT was the LCT Aldain Dowey which was acquired in 2017 and actually this was formerly the locally-built LCT Ongpin but was lengthened. The next year they acquired the LCT ST888 from China and this was assigned to Penafrancia Shipping. Both crafts are slow by ferry standards but that is the characteristic of LCTs. They were not built for speed and buses and sedans are not fit for them as they were not really built for comfort especially with their limited passenger accommodations.

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LCT Aldain Dowey by Anthon Briton of PSSS.

Right now, Sta. Clara Shipping is (…censored…) like the other shipping companies of note and that is just a reflection on how intermodal shipping is booming across the country. But in the Bicol region there is no doubt that the combined Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping is the tops not only in ships because remember they also have their own port and the worth of that will approach that of a good and big overnight ferry that is still in a good condition. Now they are also operating in the Liloan-Lipata route across Surigao Strait.

Over-all, Sta. Clara Shipping is one good success story that is nice to tell and I wish them more successes in the future.