The Short-Lived Return of Madrigal Shipping Company to Passenger Shipping

The Madrigal Shipping Company is a shipping company with a long history although few are still familiar with the name. They started before World War II with the name Madrigal & Company and was probably the Philippines biggest shipping company at that time if listing is limited to Filipinos. However, they were mostly in cargo shipping unlike the rival Compania Maritima of the Fernandezes which concentrated on passenger shipping. The founder of the company, Vicente Madrigal was considered the top Filipino industrialist-businessman then by the reckoning of many and probably is the richest Filipino then. He was also politically very well connected to Malacanang and is a political heavyweight himself being a Senator of the Commonwealth of the Philippines. The Madrigal Shipping Company was connected to the many businesses of Vicente Madrigal and it moved their goods like abaca (Manila hemp), coal, ore, copra and also sugar. However, when World War II happened Madrigal Shipping Company lost their entire fleet save for one. Most were captured by the Japanese which were then subsequently lost to American attacks.

After World War II, the company was renamed to Madrigal Shipping Company and started shipping again in 1946. The company has a mixed passenger-cargo and cargo fleet and the latter has the bigger ships. The passenger-cargo ships of the company was smaller and it might have something to do with the routes it was sailing. Madrigal Shipping Company concentrated its branch of passenger shipping on routes to Bicol and Northern Luzon. The route to Bicol would extend to as far as Larap port in Jose Panganiban town in Camarines Norte and the Northern Luzon route would call on Salomague (in Ilocos Sur), Batanes and Aparri. They also had a passenger-cargo ship that would go round the entire Luzon starting from Manila to Northern Luzon before proceeding to Bicol ports and round the Sorsogon tip of Luzon on the way back to Manila.

The passenger-cargo fleet of Madrigal Shipping Company cannot be called luxury liners by any means as they were simply basic passenger-cargo ships. They can even be described as primarily cargo ships with passenger accommodations and the accommodations are generally of one class only, the Economy class. Half of their passenger fleet consisted of former “Y” ships, the smaller cousin of the ex-”FS” ships which were former tankers. In the postwar shipping fleet of the Philippines only they and Luzon Stevedoring Company (LUSTEVECO) operated ex-”Y” ships but the latter operated them as they were originally were – as tankers. In Madrigal Shipping Company, their ex-”Y” ships were converted in passenger-cargo ships with cargo holds. These ex-”Y” ships seemed to be the replacement ships for the Madrigal ships commandeered by the US for the war effort. The other half of the postwar passenger-cargo fleet of Madrigal Shipping Company consisted of old ships from Europe. The company has a penchant for buying old ships from Europe just like another major shipping company, the Manila Steamship Company.

In 1955, in the aftermath of the capsizing and sinking in Babuyan Channel of their ex-”Y” ship Cetus which was trying to beat a typhoon, Madrigal Shipping Corporation sold all their ex-”Y” ships to North Camarines Lumber Company (no typographic error; this is also a shipping company). I wonder if this has a connection to their reputed superstitiousness. However, it was a favorable sale from the Bicol point of view since North Camarines Lumber Company also has the same passenger routes to Bicol and so no ship was lost on that region. Maybe Madrigal Shipping Company made sure of that as the patriarch Vicente Madrigal was actually born in Bicol and had many businesses there.

However, they held on to their other passenger-cargo ships but of course their routes and frequencies were affected by the sale since they did not purchase replacement passenger-cargo ships. In cargo shipping they were still strong and still buying cargo ships but in passenger-cargo shipping this sale of ex-”Y” heralded their slow retreat. This retreat might also be in anticipation of paradigm changes. Even in those days it is easy to foresee that the rail and the trucks will challenge the ship in Luzon in due time. Being in politics (the daughter Pacita of Vicente Madrigal succeeded him in the Senate) and conversant with government plans they might even have the inside track in foreseeing the future. By the 1970’s only one passenger-cargo ship was still sailing for Madrigal Shipping Company, the Viria and before the end of that decade they were already out of passenger shipping. However, the cargo shipping of the company remained but it also declined in due time. It however sprang a surprise later when together with a Taiwan shipping company it bid for the state-owned National Shipping Company of the Philippines which was then being privatized.

In 1988, to the welcome surprise of many Madrigal Shipping Company came back to passenger shipping as the A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. This time it was truly liner shipping and not just like the basic passenger-cargo shipping of before. They did that when they fielded the Madrigal Tacloban in 1988 (this was later known as the Madrigal Romblon), the Madrigal Surigao in 1989 and the Madrigal Masbate in 1990. The notable thing about the three is they were all cruiser ferries and the negative thing is by that time nobody is buying or fielding cruiser ferries anymore because it was already obsolescent and the RORO (Roll On, Roll Off) ships have already proven their superiority over the cruisers (well, maybe not in safety or stability).

The first two ships were actually sister ships named the Tai Shan and the Nam Shan and they were originally Hongkong ferries. They were acquired by A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. as bareboat charter with option to purchase from Cortes Shipping of Zamboanga. Tai Shan became the Madrigal Tacloban here while Nam Shan became the Madrigal Surigao. Madrigal Tacloban‘s applied route was Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban while Madrigal Surigao‘s applied route was Manila-Maasin-Surigao. It was also a welcome move by many since these routes are exactly the same routes just recently vacated by Escano Lines which went out of passenger shipping (they however stuck to cargo-container shipping).

However, some shipping lines including Sulpicio Lines Incorporated and Aboitiz Shipping Company opposed their applications because of the so-called “prior operator” rule which was the usual “basis” for opposing a new entrant to a route. Actually, the two mentioned shipping companies were fearful because A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc.’s ships were better than their ships in those routes (however, Aboitiz Shipping Company had long ago abandoned their Catbalogan and Tacloban route). And besides Sulpicio Lines Inc. had no Catbalogan/Tacloban ship at that moment because of the sinking of Dona Paz. But however the opposition at the start, A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. was eventually allowed by MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency to sail the applied routes.

Even then, there was actually already a problem in these routes as these are also the same routes slowly being threatened already by the intermodal trucks and buses borne by the short-distance ferry-ROROs that were already serving as the “bridges of the sea”. Maybe this was the reason behind what was cited by Aboitiz Shipping Company that they experienced a 60% drop in passenger volume. However, as cruisers that can’t carry much cargo (they were even described as “pure cargo”) maybe Madrigal Shipping Company thought that won’t be much of a problem for them. Maybe they were just intent on beating the competition with superior ships, in their view. Their ships have more beautiful lines anyway. And as bare-boat charters their risk is not high as they can just return the ships if they did not turn in a profit.

Madrigal Tacloban (Madrigal Romblon) and Madrigal Surigao were sister ships and both were built by Niigata Shipbuilding & Repair Incorporated in Niigata, Japan in 1972. The two both measured 78.6 meters by 12.1 meters by 5.6 meters in L x B x D. The LPP was 70.0 meters but Madrigal Surigao had a higher GT at 2,147 while Madrigal Tacloban had 2,136. The NT was 1,035 and the DWT was 312 tons. Both had two masts and two passenger decks on a steel hull with semi-bulbous stem and a retrouvaille stern. They were not equipped with cargo booms. The sister ships were both equipped with twin Niigata diesel engines with a combined 5,100 horsepower that propelled them to a top speed of 17.5 knots. The two ships looked identical.

Another ferry, the Madrigal Masbate came to A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. from Taiwan Navigation Company Ltd. of Taipei but this ship was actually homeported in Kaohsiung. This was a beautiful ship with magnificent and modern lines that was built as the Tai Peng by Hayashikane Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Limited in their Nagasaki shipyard in Japan in 1971. The ship measured 77.5 meters by 12.6 meters by 5.5. meters with an LPP of 70.0 meters. She had a GT of 1,992, an NT of 743 and a DWT of 474 tons. The ship had two masts, two passenger decks with a steel hull with a raked stem and a cruiser stern. She was powered by a single Kobe Hatsudoki marine engine of 4,900 horsepower which gave her a top speed of 17 knots.

When all three were already sailing, the renamed Madrigal Tacloban which was now Madrigal Romblon was doing the Manila-Odiongan-Malay (this is better known as Caticlan now) route. Meanwhile, Madrigal Surigao was running the Manila-Odiongan-Maasin-Surigao route. And it was Madrigal Masbate which was sailing the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route. Although they were already set by 1990, the Madrigal ferries, however, did not sail long. This was already the era when more liners were coming fast including great liners with four passenger decks, a passenger capacity of well over 2,000 with a true gross tonnage of 10,000 and over and of speeds nearing 20 knots and with hotel-like accommodations, amenities and service.

And A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. was unlucky to bet in routes that were already being eaten up by the intermodal form of transport where trucks, buses and private vehicles are transported between island by the short-distance ferry-ROROs and whose travel times are shorter with flexibility of routes and ubiquity of departures. Moreover to some former ship passengers travelling by intermodal bus it is a new adventure and tourism too to places they have never seen before. To the traders and shippers, the intermodal option meant no more hassles with North Harbor port and the crooked Manila policemen. That also meant no more pilferage and delays and they are no longer at the mercy of the arrastre.

After just a few years, A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. quit passenger shipping (however, they were still in cargo shipping). The sister ships Madrigal Romblon and Madrigal Surigao were sold to the breakers and they were broken up in 1994. It was an early death as the ships were only 22 years old. It was also a premature death because if they waited a little longer they might have gone to Sampaguita Shipping Lines which soon geared up to buy former liners to be used in the then-developing Zamboanga-Pagadian route and the Zamboanga-Jolo or Bongao route. They would have better choices than the ships they acquired from WG&A, the former Tacloban City and the former Iligan City as they were newer and have sailed far less nautical miles.

Madrigal Masbate was far luckier than the sisters. In 1994, another Zamboanga shipping company that was buying better overnight ferries (and the shortcut to that is to buy hand-me-down liners), the SKT Shipping Line (later the Kong San Teo shipping company or KST Shipping Line) purchased the laid-up Masbate Madrigal. She was fielded in the premier route to the east Zamboanga then, the Zamboanga-Pagadian route. Appropriately, she was named the Pagadian City. She was by far the best ship in the route, the most beautiful and the most gorgeous ever to call on Pagadian port, as the locals would concede and included in the comparison were the Manila liners which called on Pagadian port in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Zamboanga City was actually a beehive of acquiring new ferries in the mid-1990’s including new-build fastcrafts. They actually had the most acquisitions of Malaysian fastcrafts then which was equal in number to the Cebu HSCs. Bullet Express and Weesam Express plus the fastcraft Sea Jet actually all originated in Zamboanga and just migrated to the Visayas. In 1996, the latter great Aleson Shipping Lines of Zamboanga was also gearing up. It was actually a dogfight then in Zamboanga between Sampaguita Shipping Lines, SKT Shipping Lines and Aleson Shipping which was latter won by the latest-named. Too unfortunate Madrigal Romblon and Madrigal Surigao were not snagged up in Zamboanga then.

After this episode, Madrigal never went back to liner shipping again. Well, I hope they will try again. After all we have almost no liners left now. They will be applauded this time if they do.

[Photo Credit: Manila Bulletin through Gorio Belen]

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The Dumaguete-Dapitan RORO Connection – A Connection That Took Too Long in Coming

Dumaguete and Dapitan have been blessed with relatively good ports (by Philippine standards) since decades ago because they have Manila connections. True liners and Manila passenger-cargo ships like the former “FS” ships called on them regularly in the past. But what puzzled me is the short-distance RORO connection between them took too long to materialize. Looking at the map, this is the obvious connection point between Mindanao and Negros (and Cebu by extension through the Negros-Cebu connections) because of the relatively short distance (the second shortest after Leyte-Surigao but that is too far away). Compared to the Sorsogon-Samar, Leyte-Surigao and Batangas-Mindoro short-distance ferry connections, the Dumaguete-Dapitan short-distance RORO connection came many, many years too late.

If there was ever a RORO connection before between the two ports, it was the ROROs of the overnight ferries serving the Cebu-Dumaguete-Dapitan route. However, the peculiarity of the Cebu overnight ferry companies is that they stress break-bulk cargo (like those in sacks and cartons) and loose cargo (those not in containers like pieces of GI sheets or rolls of wire) and not rolling cargo (which means vehicles) or containerized cargo. So these Cebu overnight ferry companies like Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, Cokaliong Shipping Lines or George & Peter Lines, to name a few that called on Dumaguete and Dapitan ports didn’t see the need for short-distance ferry-ROROs loading trucks. Maybe that was the reason they did not acquire that type of ferry. But actually it is that type that was really fit for the Dumaguete-Dapitan route and just shuttling between the two ports like what is the practice now.

The Cebu overnight ferry companies which were established later than the three were the ones which saw the need for short-distance ferry-ROROs. The prime example of that is Lite Ferries which had a passenger-cargo LCT at the start and later acquired ROROs in the 40-meter and 50-meter class for dual short-distance and overnight ferry operations. And maybe that is the reason why Lite Ferries is flying high now because they were able to tap a business and a paradigm overlooked by their overnight ferry competitors. Probably this is the reason too for the fast success of a late entrant, the Medallion Transport which started with basic short-distance ferry-ROROs and doing a lone short-distance route. Later they branched into overnight routes using small ROROs. Now they already have true overnight ferry-ROROs.

In comparison, in the Sorsogon-Samar, Leyte-Surigao and Batangas-Mindoro short-distance ferry connections, the shipping companies there started as short-distance ferry companies. They were then able to specialize in this kind of service and type of market which means they carry vehicles almost exclusively including the intermodal buses. Their passengers are mostly passengers of the buses loaded on them. The intermodal trucks they load especially the wing van trucks are long-distance carriers and those eventually developed into the competitors of container shipping with the support of this short-distance ferry-ROROs which became the “bridges” between the islands.

If these short-distance ferry companies have a near-contemporary that tried in that Dumaguete-Dapitan route it was the obscure shipping company Jones Carrier Inc. But that company did not last long as it had too many diverse routes, its ships were too small and old and maybe they were undercapitalized and not strong enough for the long run needed to establish and hold and a new shipping connection. And most likely the presence of the three overnight ferry companies from Cebu also impacted them. On the other hand, I also wonder why the “locals” Maayo Shipping, DIMC Shipping or Tanjuan Shipping which all have routes to or near Dumaguete did not try that route. Or maybe even the nearby Millennium Shipping which just sold its LCTs to Maayo Shipping rather than compete. At the start of a company or route in those earlier times an LCT is enough like what Lite Shipping did in the Argao-Loon route connecting south Cebu and mid-Bohol. But maybe except for the Millennium Shipping of the Floirendos, maybe it is capitalization and lack of vision that was the problem of these Dumaguete ferry companies.

Looking back, maybe it was overnight shipping company Palacio Lines which could have taken advantage of the opportunity offered by the short-distance RORO shipping in this route. They were not unfamiliar with Dumaguete as they had a ship then going to Dumaguete from Tagbilaran and Cebu but it was a cruiser ferry. They were then using their first ROROs on overnight routes much like what the Cebu overnight ferry companies as in concentrating on breakbulk and loose cargo. Maybe if they only looked north and south of them, they might have gotten the idea that short-distance ferry-RORO service is the wave of the future. After all they were a shipping company from Calbayog City in Samar and a little north of that was the Sorsogon-Samar short-distance ferries and down south to them were the Leyte-Surigao short-distance ferries that were both making good. But then they seemed to have been also be too protective of their route to Oroquieta which is not far from Dapitan.

Actually, if one analyzes, it might not only be the overnight ferry companies which might be at fault in the late RORO connection between Dumaguete and Dapitan. For after all, as a general principle, if there is a demand then a supplier responds. But then maybe the shippers were also not aware that there is a better mode than the one they were used to. Actually, the goods from Mindanao sent over that connection eventually find their way to Cebu, the biggest market after Manila. But for too long I noticed the shippers tend to rely on Zamboanga and Ozamis ports. Of course, the bad roads then in the Zamboanga provinces was a hindrance along with the presence of some banditry. So before, Dapitan might have looked too far and unsafe for those from Zamboanga City. And those from Baganian Peninsula, Pagadian and Panguil Bay were too used, too dependent on Ozamis port, their old port of departure (well, with Ozamis, they have a Manila and Dumaguete connection, too).

It took a push from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for the Dumaguete-Dapitan connection to come true and hold. Half of the push needed was actually the cementing of the roads of Zamboanga Peninsula. The roads should have been completed much earlier since AusAid (Australian Agency for International Development) is funding the road construction but that stalled for many years because AusAid only wanted to employ Korean construction companies, for quality reasons. However, the local politicians wanted local contractors (for “percentage” reasons, of course). A compromise was worked out and the roads were finally completed (though the Filipino-built sections were obviously substandard). Moreover, the military took control of the mountain pass near Vitali and security was improved after that. After those, travel at night was already possible and that was key to using Dapitan port especially from Zamboanga City. Soon, Dapitan port no longer look too distant. Passengers, instead of waiting for the ship that was not daily even then were soon taking the bus to Dipolog to connect to Dapitan. The trucks followed suit soon, too.

The shipping companies which pioneered the RORO connection between Dumaguete and Dapitan were actually “foreigners”, which mean they were not natives of the area. The first two in the route were the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC), a Cebu shipping company and Aleson Shipping Lines, a Zamboanga City shipping company. Later, Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) also came and they are a shipping company from Batangas. The common characteristic of the three is they have a good understanding of short-distance ferry shipping, an understanding which was clearly lacking in the earlier Cebu overnight ferry companies. And all three have the type of ROROs needed here, the basic, short-distance ferry RORO which the old Cebu overnight ferry companies simply didn’t have.

Today, all these three shipping companies are still in the Dumaguete-Dapitan route and thriving, adding ships and frequencies. Now, Montenegro Lines and Aleson Shipping have even invaded the Siquijor route using ROROs from Dumaguete and so maximizing their ships and personnel stationed there. Meanwhile, DIMC Shipping, Maayo Shipping and Tanjuan Shipping all seem to have steam and two of them are obviously floundering while another, the Maayo Shipping company was selling off excess ships (the coming of a competitor in their route is the primary reason for that). Palacio Shipping is even gone now as in they are already defunct and their ships have been sold already. Well, talk of a wrong bet, lack of vision and maybe even too much conservatism.

Why would the Dapitan-Dumaguete route hold? Actually, there is plenty of cargo emanating from that portion of Mindanao and going to Central Visayas. After all Cebu is the second biggest market after Manila and it has sea connections to many islands for further distribution of goods. One of the biggest and most valuable produce being sent from way back by Zamboanga Peninsula to Cebu is fish, the frozen and the canned varieties. Most of the frozen fish emanate from the many “pulo”. This is what they call there Basilan, the Pangutaran group, Jolo, the Tawi-tawi group and the many other islands off Zamboanga. The Sangali Fishport, the regional fishport is also located in Zamboanga City and it is there where many basnigs, trawlers and purse seiners fishing in the Moro Gulf unload their catch. Zamboanga City meanwhile is host to seven canneries. Dapitan is now the ports of choice in bringing the frozen fish through fish carrier trucks. However, a ship is still preferred for canned fish as it is heavy. Meanwhile, Spanish sardines in bottles also became a hit produce in the Dipolog area and they use Dapitan port in bringing their goods to the Visayas.

There is also plenty of freshwater and brackish fish from the fishponds of Zamboanga Sibugay especially those located in the marshes of Sibuguey Bay. Meanwhile, fishing vessels catching off Zamboanga del Sur, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao unload in Pagadian and Tukuran ports and fish carriers pick them up these catches. Practically all of them now use Dapitan port to bring the fish destined for Negros island and Cebu province instead of Ozamis port. This portion of Mindanao has finally discovered the superiority of the intermodal truck (including the intermodal fish carriers) which can deliver goods along the way and not be dependent on distributors or wholesalers. That flexibility and ubiquity was also discovered by the company and distributor trucks from Cebu. Instead of just relying on distributors based in Ozamis City like before, their trucks now normally roll to up to Ipil, the capital and trade center of Zamboanga Sibugay and along the way they deliver their products to the markets, stores and groceries. Now, there are even intermodal buses with routes from the Visayas to Zamboanga City. First to roll was the Bacolod-Zamboanga Ceres Lines bus and recently they also have a Cebu-Zamboanga bus service too.

In recent years, it is obvious that the Dapitan-Dumaguete route has impacted the Cebu-Zamboanga and Cebu-Sindangan routes heavily. There is now just one regional passenger ship left sailing the Zamboanga-Cebu route, the Zamboanga Ferry of George & Peter Lines where before Trans Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) and George & Peter Lines put emphasis in that route. There is also one liner of 2GO from Dumaguete and Manila, a liner route that was previously abandoned. Meanwhile, Cokaliong Shipping Lines has already abandoned the Cebu-Sindangan route.

Intermodal trucks rolling long distances to other parts of Mindanao and Negros island also use this connection and some even go as far as Panay island. This is especially true after the liner service to Southern Mindanao was halted by Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). With that halt, the shippers of Southern Mindanao also began rolling their trucks. Private vehicles running to or from Cebu to Mindanao also use this connection since the rolling rate from Cebu to Ozamis, Iligan and Cagayan de Oro is very high (rolling sea rates by kilometer is far, far higher than rolling a vehicle in the highway). And again, rolling cargo is not the specialization or priority of the overnight ferries. For many, this western route is preferred over the eastern route that passes through Leyte and Surigao unless the destination or origin is eastern Mindanao or southern Mindanao.

Unless threatened by the direct Samboan-Dapitan route (or a possible Samboan-Dipolog route), the Dumaguete-Dapitan route will continue to grow.

That we will have to see in the future.

The Well-Travelled MV Asia Japan, the Third

The MV Asia Japan, the third to carry such name in the Trans-Asia Shipping Line, Incorporated (TASLI) fleet is the Asia Japan most would likely remember. But she was already the third to carry such name in the Trans-Asia fleet as two previous cruiser ships named Asia Japan came before her in the Trans-Asia fleet Shipping Line. The third Asia Japan I am describing here is a RORO (Roll-on, Roll-off) ship and not a cruiser ship like the first two to carry that name. Her company, the Trans-Asia Shipping Line, Incorporated is a regional shipping company based in Cebu that is sailing Visayas-Mindanao routes.

The first Asia Japan was the former Ishu Maru from Kyushu Yusen of Japan with the IMO Number 5164459. She was built in 1957 and she came to the Trans-Asia Shipping fleet in 1975. This ship was later sold to Roble Shipping Incorporated where she became the second Guada Cristy of that company. The second Asia Japan, meanwhile, was the former Nankai Maru from Nankai Kisen of Japan with the IMO Number 7130191. She was built in 1956 and she came to the Trans-Asia Shipping fleet in 1974 where she was first known as the Solar before she became the second Asia Japan (Trans-Asia Shipping Line Incorporated was first known as Solar Shipping Line Incorporated). This ship was later sold also to Roble Shipping Incorporated where she became the first Guada Cristy. She was wrecked in 1990, the reason why there became a second Guada Cristy.

The second Asia Japan was sold by Trans-Asia Shipping Line Incorporated in 1988 when the third Asia Japan was purchased by the company from Ise Bay Ferry or Ise-wan Ferry. This Japanese company sold this ship, their Atsumi Maru because their brand-new Atsumi Maru was already delivered to them. Incidentally, this successor Atsumi Maru also came to the Philippines in 2007 to the fleet of Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated (MSLI) where she is known as the Maria Oliva.

The earlier Atsumi Maru was built by Naikai Zosen Taguma Works in Taguma, Innoshima, Japan in 1973. She is steel-hulled ship with a raked stem and a transom stern, two masts and a single passenger deck. A RORO ship, she has a bow ramp and a stern ramp and a single car deck. She has an over-all length of 64.0 meters, a length between perpendiculars of 60.3 meters and a maximum breadth of 13.1 meters. Her original Gross Register Tons (GRT) was 990 and her Deadweight Tonnage (DWT)was 403 tons. She is equipped with 2 x 2,000hp Daihatsu engines which propelled her to 16 knots on two screws. In the Philippines, her probable sister ships are the late Starlite Voyager of Starlite Ferries Incorporated (though their bows are different) and the Reina Timotea of Marina Ferries, the legal-fiction sister company of Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated.

When Atsumi Maru arrived in the Philippines in 1988 to become the third Asia Japan, another deck was added to her to increase the passenger capacity. She was also converted into an overnight ferry with bunks. With that, her Gross Tonnage rose to 1,302 with a Net Tonnage of 359 and her Deadweight Tonnage also increased to 443 tons. Her new passenger capacity was 454 persons in a three-class configuration – Cabin, Tourist and open-air Economy. She had a good restaurant, a bar-lounge, a lobby and a front desk. This Asia Japan already had a Hotel Department aside from the Deck Department and Engine Department, one of the first regional ships to have such distinction. Maybe that has a connection to its first route Zamboanga which I will discuss later. For easier docking this ship is also already equipped with side thrusters at the bow. She also had a cargo ramp at the port side and two passenger ramps at the stern and another ramp at the port side.

Her first route was the Cebu-Dumaguete-Dipolog-Zamboanga route. This was still the time when big Cebu regional shipping companies Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, George & Peter Lines and the Zamboanga-based Aleson Shipping Lines were still giving much importance to the Cebu-Zamboanga connection via Dumaguete (this was later downgraded by the opening of the Dapitan-Dumaguete RORO connection). It was amazing then that a new ship like the third Asia Japan will be fielded to this route when Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was still using their older overnight ferry-cruisers in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route which was the premier Visayas-Mindanao route.

Later, the third Asia Japan was also fielded in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route when Trans-Asia Shipping Lines began selling their old overnight cruisers in the early 1990’s. But with the arrival of the new and bigger RORO series of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines – the Trans-Asia (1) in 1993, the Asia Philippines in 1994 and the Asia China in 1995, Asia Japan was relegated to the secondary routes of the company like Cebu-Iloilo. Very soon the Visayas-Mindanao overnight ferry wars which was started with the creation of the big Cebu Ferries Company started and Trans-Asia Shipping Lines had to reserve her best and biggest ferries to the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro premier route. This was also marked by the withdrawal of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines in the Cebu-Zamboanga route and just sticking to cargo there with the Asia Pacific. The coming of the more superior Lady Mary Joy (1) of Aleson Shipping Lines practically closed the door to them in Zamboanga (this Aleson ship is different from the current Lady Mary Joy 1 of the company). Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was immediately under siege by the much bigger Cebu Ferries Corporation as they bore the brunt of the offensive of that subsidiary of the giant William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) shipping line.

The third Asia Japan sailed many secondary routes for Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. Before the end of the old millennium the assignments of the fleet got quaky with the losses of the Asia South Korea (grounding and sinking) and Asia Thailand (fire) with no clear replacement. Not long after, this the RORO Asia Singapore, the Second, was also sold to F.J. Palacio Lines. Later, the third Asia Japan was assigned to the Cebu-Masbate route of the company. She was a big success there as that route of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was practically a monopoly. And Masbatenos were not disappointed at her appointments especially since she was a former Cebu-Zamboanga ferry, a route which takes about a day with its two stop-overs. In routes such as this, the passengers’ comfort and sustenance needs are greater than that of a simple overnight ferry.

Once, I booked a ticket from Cebu to Cagayan de Oro hoping to catch either the Trans-Asia (1) or Asia China. Lo and behold, when I reached the waterfront what I saw waiting for us was the Asia Japan. I actually grumbled and said we are entitled to a discount as our fare was supposedly on that superior-than-her sister ships. I can accept the third Asia Japan as a Cebu-Masbate ferry as there was none better than her in that route (her reliever Asia Brunei was just as good) but the Cebu-Cagayan route is littered with superior overnight ferries that was at or near the level of Manila liners like the Princess of the Ocean, the Our Lady of Good Voyage, the Our Lady of the Rule and the Dona Rita Sr.

I was disappointed. The aircon was not strong and the restaurant was no longer as good as before. Maybe her best Hotel Department crewmen were already assigned to the better overnight ferries of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. And then I was furious that when I woke up we were still just at the entrance of Macalajar Bay and still distant from Cagayan de Oro. Other passengers were already impatient and I even saw one flash the pumping arm sign to the bridge which is a universal sign of “Hurry up!”. Passengers in this route were used to daybreak or even dawn arrivals which were needed by passengers still travelling 300 land kilometers or over by buses or commuter vans like me.

Soon, some were groaning they were already hungry. I was, too. I know that by MARINA rules they should have fed us breakfast but there was no decent breakfast to speak of even if one was willing to pay. It was a personal disaster to me as I was a diabetic. We finally reached Cagayan de Oro port and to a man I know all were disappointed. They should never have substituted Asia Japan in that route because it will just be a disaster for the goodwill and reputation of the company like what happened. I asked of the speed and a crewman grimly admitted she can just do 10 knots then, best. Use that in a 134-nautical mile route with a departure of 8PM and no breakfast; it does not need coconuts to foresee the consequences. I thought they should just better stick Asia Japan to the 110-nautical mile Cebu-Masbate route where the expectations of the passengers is not so high. In an afterthought, yes, I also realized she has been sailing for nearly nearly twenty years already and it seems time has not been very kind to her engines.

Not very long after that Asia Japan was seen by members of the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) to be just laid up in the Ouano wharf in Mandaue, tied up. It was intriguing the members especially since the fleet of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was very thin for its routes. Already gone were the Asia Brunei, Asia Hongkong which were both sold and soon Asia Malaysia was gone, too (she capsized and sank off Iloilo). And there was the third Asia Japan just lying around there. That time, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines cannot even serve her Nasipit route and just a single ship from two was serving her Iloilo route.

Once, on a visit to Ouano wharf, we were able to ask the in-charge of the ship her state. He told us third Asia Japan was sold by Trans-Asia Shipping Line to Key West Shipping Line Corporation which were operators of tugboats and partner then in the West Ocean Lines & Transport Incorporated operating container ships. We saw some works being done and the in-charge told us the ship will be used for a Cebu-Zamboanga run. That was intriguing as she was a former Cebu-Zamboanga ship and neither Key West Shipping Line Corporation nor West Ocean Lines & Transport Incorporated have operated ferries before. I am not even sure if they were holders of a franchise (CPC) in that route but in case it will be a welcome development since there was just one ferry left in the Cebu-Zamboanga route, the Zamboanga Ferry of George & Peter Lines and she was already very slow then.

Soon the little works we observed in Ouano wharf stopped and the next thing we knew was she was already in Nagasaka Shipyard in the shipyard row of Cebu in Tayud by the Cansaga Bay and bridge. We thought then further works will done there especially since the in-charge in Ouano admitted to us that the third Asia Japan doesn’t have strong engines anymore. Then me and a fellow ship spotter were able to board the ship and meet her new officer-in-charge, Engr. Rey Bobiles, the naval architect of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, a Bicol shipping company. It was a surprise and a further intrigue!

Yes, the third Asia Japan was renamed into Strong Heart 1, a show she was really transferred to the Key West Shipping Line Corporation as all the names of the vessels of the company starts with “Strong” like Strong Will, Strong Devotion, Strong Desire, Strong Dignity, Strong Bliss, etc. No, she will no longer be sailing for Zamboanga as she has already been sold to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and will become a Bicol ferry. It turned out that Trans-Asia Shipping Line sold her to Key West Shipping Line Corporation to settle fuel debts dacion en pago. I suddenly realized the connection. Trans-Asia Shipping Line was also intending to sell Trans-Asia 3 because “she consumes too much fuel”. It seemed believable at first glance because she has 2 x 4,500 horsepower engines. Then an investigation with the proper authorities commenced and it turned out Trans-Asia Shipping Line was simply a victim of a fuel scam as in fuel pilferage, a scourge of our local transport fleet. It happens even in the tankers, in the fishing fleets, in land tankers and in trucks.

Strong Heart 1 stayed very long in Nagasaka Shipyard with few works being done. She simply became the office of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and clearing house for the new crew recruits of the company and dormitory at the same time. She can stay in the shipyard long because Sta. Clara Shipping Company and her sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation are stockholders in Nagasaka Shipyard. Actually, vessels of the companies were withdrawn from the servicing of Mayon Docks Incorporated in Tabaco City in Albay and transferred to the care of Nagasaka Shipyard. Bicol ships also owned by the related stockholders of the two companies were also being transferred to the care of Nagasaka Shipyard. Nagasaka Shipyard was the former Villono Shipyard before the change in the ownership structure (Engr. David Villono, the founder is still the head of this shipyard).

While in the shipyard engine parts were ordered fabricated in Japan. When that arrived in 2014, serious restoration work was done on Strong Heart 1 which was already renamed to Nathan Matthew. Since she has lain untended in sea water for several years she was already rusty and when walking around one has to be careful not to fall in the weak deck plates and stairs. It was even raining at times inside some portions of her already. So, she was stripped to metal by sandblasting, her weak hull and deck plates were replaced and her engines were repaired.

A portion of her superstructure in the aft of the second deck was removed too since it was thought her space for passengers as a short-distance ferry will be enough since she will simply be fitted with sitting accommodations. With this, her gross tonnage was reduced to 1,030 nominal tons and her net tonnage was also reduced to 357 nominal tons. Her passenger capacity increased to about 800, however. So the rumor and the wish that she will still be an overnight ferry in the Liloan-Lipata route never materialized. Drivers and passengers in that route wished there will be a replacement of the Ocean King I in that route since when they arrive from Manila or Luzon they are already badly in need of an accommodation where they can lie down and sleep.

Upon finishing works in Nagasaka, the Nathan Matthew was first fielded in the Masbate-Pio Duran, Albay route. I don’t know if they want to tickle the Masbatenos but for sure many there will be many there who will recognize her even if she was already converted to a short-distance ferry, even though the bow ramp has changed and even though they chopped off part of the second passenger deck and even though the name has changed. Even with alterations, I noticed passengers really familiar with a ship still recognize them even after a long absence. Nathan Matthew won’t be an exemption.

She did not stay long there in that route, however. In not a long time she was transferred to the new Liloan, Southern Leyte to Lipata, Surigao route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. The company has long been a holder of a franchise (formally Certificate of Public Convenience) in that route but it is only now that they had a ship that can serve there. Right now, Nathan Matthew is the biggest ship in that route especially since the Archipelago Ferries Philippines Corporation ships (the Maharlika Dos, Maharlika Cuatro and Maharlika Cinco) are already gone in that route.

There, Nathan Matthew is directly competing with the newly-fielded FastCats of Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the obsolescent Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping and the Cargo RORO LCTs chartered by NN+ATS which is aimed against the truck congestion in that route (also for really heavy load like earth movers and trailers capable of carrying that). However, that route is slowly being squeezed by the shorter Benit, San Ricardo to Lipata route held by Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated (MSLI). Now it seems a new port will be built in San Ricardo, S. Leyte and if that will materialize that might be the end of the Liloan-Lipata route.

In won’t mean the end of Nathan Matthew, however, as she might simply be transferred to the new San Ricardo route. Otherwise, she can also be fielded in the other routes of owner Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (making her more well-travelled). It won’t be much of a burden for them because her owners are known also for having deep pockets, relative by Bicol standards. They are even operating their own port now in Allen, Northern Samar.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is known for taking care well of old ships. They are actually allergic to breakers, to put it in another way. And with the support of Nagasaka Shipyard, this refurbished ship looks like it still has a long way to go. With the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation officers and crew steeped and trained in the dangerous swells of San Bernardino Strait I don’t see her suffering the fate of the capsized and sank Maharlika Dos in Surigao Strait, knock on wood.

Long live then this well-travelled ship!