The Miyuki Maru

The Miyuki Maru which is in the Philippines now is one ferry that is lucky to have a long life although she had many owners already. And recently she was given another lease of life although she is already pushing to fifty years in age and of sailing. At the moment, however, I will leave the reader in suspense what this familiar ship is. What I can say however is she was always wanted all of her years and not all ferries were that lucky.

“Miyuki” is a common feminine given Japanese name and many Japanese women carry that as their first name. Translated, in many cases she is associated with the word “beautiful” and maybe that is the reason why she had been lucky all these years. “Maru”, of course, always referred to a ship but actually that is not the exact translation. So loosely, “Miyuki Maru” can be regarded as a “beautiful ship”. Not that most will agree with that description but as they say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

The Miyuki Maru is a ferry built in 1970 by the Kanda Zosensho in Kure, Japan for the Sado Kisen K.K. as a ferry of the Sado Island (Sadogashima) which lies in the Sea of Japan just off the Niigata prefecture and the island is alsoa  part of that prefecture. With that connection, I am not surprised the Miyuki Maru is powered by Niigata engines, the manufacturer of which is based in the namesake prefecture. (Now, that engine make served her well).

The Miyuki Maru which has the permanent ID IMO 7044225 is a ROPAX (RORO-Passenger ship) which has RORO (Roll-on, Roll-off) ramps at the bow and stern with a single cargo deck, a steel hull, a raked stem and a transom stern. She has a Length Over-all (LOA) of 62.0 meters, a Length Between Perpendiculars (LPP) of 55.5 meters and a Beam of 13.4 meters. Her Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) in Japan was 797 tons, a Net Register Tonnage (NRT) of just 151 tons (which means that originally her passenger accommodation was small), and a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 411 tons. The total output of her twin engines is 3,600 horsepower which gave her a top sustained speed of 14 knots when new. The ferry had a single passenger deck, two masts and two funnels.

In 1987, this ferry was sold to Awashima Kisen K.K. and she became an Awashima Island ferry. Though with a change of ownership her name was not changed (because maybe there was no need to change a beautiful name). That was until 1992 when she was sold to the Philippines at 22 years of age. At that time, Japan shipping companies try to sell their ship after 20 years as there are incentives by the Japan government for re-fleeting their old ships. But that practice was misrepresented by some in the Philippines as if the ship is already “old” or worse just good enough for the scrapyard (which isn’t true) and worst is the charge by those who are ignorant of ships that they are simply “floating coffins” (because then at 20 years of age their cars are already dilapidated but they don’t understand that cars and ships are not exactly comparable as ships are much more durable than cars).

In the Philippines, the ferry Miyuki Maru went to Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) of Cebu which in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s was already busy in converting from cruiser ships to RORO ships (more exactly ROPAX ships), one the first Philippine companies to do full conversion of their fleet (while the national liner companies like Sulpicio Lines, William Lines, Negros Navigation and Aboitiz Shipping can’t make that claim then as they were still clinging to their cruiser liners). Yes, that was how great and modern that company was then compared to the recent years when their glory was already faded. Yes, they were that advanced before the emergence of the Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC) from the “Great Merger” of William Lines, Gothong Lines and Aboitiz Shipping. That merger inflicted them a very serious blow as from the biggest overnight ferry company in Cebu, a new entity bigger than them suddenly emerged. In Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, the Miyuki Maru became known as the Asia Singapore, the second ship in the fleet to carry that name (the first was a cruiser ship).

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The Asia Singapore. From TM Brochures.

As the Asia Singapore, an additional half-deck was added as passenger accommodation and together with an extension of her original passenger deck these served as the open-air Economy accommodations of the refitted ship. Air-conditioned Tourist and Cabin accommodations were also added and being equipped with bunks she became a full-pledged overnight ferry. Her new Gross Tonnage (GT) became 830 tons with a Net Tonnage (NT) of 251 tons (a figure that is suspiciously low) and a passenger capacity of 533 persons. In the fleet of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines she was the sixth ROPAX ship after the Asia Hongkong, Asia Japan, Asia Thailand, Asia Taiwan and Asia Brunei. Locally, the ferry has a Call Sign of DUHE7. Of course, the IMO Number is unchanged.

In 2001, the Asia Singapore was sold to Palacio Shipping Lines (which was otherwise known as FJP Lines) that was then already acquiring ROPAX ships. She then was renamed into the Don Martin Sr. 9, the third ROPAX ship in the Palacio fleet. Later on, she was further renamed into the Calbayog in honor of the port and city that was the origin of Palacio Lines (she was however not the biggest ferry in the fleet as the honor belonged to the Don Martin Sr. 8, a sister ship of the Zamboanga Ferry of the George and Peter Lines).

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The Calbayog. Photo by Janjan Salas.

When Palacio Lines felt the pressure of new competition allowed into Samar from Cebu, their old strong route, that triggered her terminal decline which started from the loss of their Bantayan route from Cebu Port. This was exacerbated by the situation then that their old, small cruisers no longer had viable routes especially with the advent of the ROPAXes of the competition. When the company’s last remaining stronghold, the Plaridel route was also opened to competition, it signaled that the end of the company was already near. In size, quality and cleanliness of the ferries, Palacio Lines was no match to the new competition.

In 2012, Palacio Lines stopped sailing although they were still advertising their old schedules and routes in the local papers of Cebu. They even went to the extent of denying that to media although it was plainly visible that their ships were always moored in Cebu port and without lights at night. In a short time, however, the truth can no longer be hidden when the company started disposing her remaining ships and those disappeared one by one from the Port of Cebu. The cruelest was when their biggest ship, the Don Martin Sr. 8 went to a Cebu breaker after there were no takers at her. Maybe Palacio Lines needed money then to settle some things.

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The Calbayog in Batangas Bay waiting to be converted into Starlite Neptune. Photo by Mark Anthony Arceno.

There was a shipping company in Batangas that had a track record of acquiring old ferries that were already being disposed especially those that were no longer sailing including from defunct shipping companies. This was the Starlite Ferries of Alfonso Cusi then which started from old, unreliable ferries being disposed by William, Gothong and Aboitiz (WG&A). Those were followed by a small ROPAX from one of the Atienzas of Mindoro shipping that was going out of business (a victim of the change-over from wooden motor boats or batels to ROROs), then a fastcraft from the defunct DR Shipping of Don Domingo Reyes and two ferries from the Shipsafe/Safeship duo of shipping companies that was also going out of business, among other acquisitions. So it was not a surprise to me when they grabbed the Calbayog which then became the Starlite Neptune in their fleet. From the point of view of Miyuki Maru that was a saving move as it proved to be her salvation. And not only that. She also went to a shipping company that knows how to refurbish and maintain old ships although her owner later developed a taste of bullying in the media old ferries when he was able to acquire a loan package from the government to build new ferries (now Starlite Ferries is already disposing of their old ferries).8235177182_630daf5d2b_k

The Miyuki Maru as Starlite Neptune. Photo by Nowell Alcancia.

The Starlite Neptune or Miyuki Maru was also a success in Starlite Ferries although soon her owner faced a problem when their new ferries started arriving from Japan and they were not able to develop new routes. So it was obvious they would have to dispose old ferries especially if her owner would have to be honorable enough in backing up with action his attacks against old ferries. Shockingly, it was not the old ferries that were disposed by Alfonso Cusi but his whole company when he sold lock, stock and barrel to the new king of Philippine shipping who is Dennis Uy that was buying shipping companies left and right. After the takeover, it is notable that the first ship sold by Starlite Ferries was Starlite Neptune. This ferry  has been observed for months already darkened and just anchored in Batangas Bay not sailing and with no flags flying.

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The Starlite Neptune in Batangas Bay with no flags flying. Photo by Mike Baylon.

Then soon came the news that Starlite Neptune was docked in Lazi port in Siquijor being refitted after it turned out she was acquired by the GL Shipping of Siquijor which was lately in the acquisition and expansion mood. It is rumored she will be doing the Siquijor and Iligan route from Cebu, a route long wished by Siquijodnons and the people in Iligan City in general. It is seen as the revival of the old route then held by the small cruiser Pulauan Ferry of George & Peter Lines which unfortunately grounded and sank just south of Mactan island and was never replaced.

As of the time of the writing of this article the new name of Miyuki Maru is not yet known and her refitting works in Lazi port stopped. I do not know if there is a big problem although I might also think she might be too big a ship for her company which only used to operate small crafts before.

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The former Starlite Neptune in Lazi under GL Shipping. Photo by Roy Baguia Dumam-ag.

I just wish that will she will continue to live on as I am a sentimental person and I don’t want old ships that are still good to go to the breakers because it turned out that nobody no longer wanted her. And so I just hope the Miyuki Maru will live a little longer and that she provides joy to her new owners and to public that will sail with her.

Long live the Miyuki Maru!

[Now, if she doesn’t survive then let this piece be an ode to her.]

 

 

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Was It Choking Or Indigestion For Starlite Ferries?

Almost since its establishment I tried to monitor the Starlite Ferries which was founded by Alfonso Cusi who has Mindoro origins. Starlite Ferries was easier to track since unlike her pair Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. which is related in a way to them in patronship, Starlite Ferries did not expand beyond Mindoro unlike the other one which can be found practically all over the Philippines (and so it has the distinction of being a national shipping line without being a liner company). Starlite Ferries, meanwhile, remained a short-distance ferry company and in this segment they basically carry rolling cargo or in layman’s term we call that as vehicles and passengers, of course.

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Starlite Pioneer by Raymond A. Lapus

Over the years of its existence, Starlite consistently added ferries to its fleet (although they had sales and disposals too) until they reached some 11 passenger ships in 2013, to wit, the Starlite Jupiter, Starlite Phoenix (a fastcraft), Starlite Juno (a fastcraft), Starlite Neptune, Starlite Polaris, Starlite Annapolis, Starlite Atlantic, Starlite Navigator, Starlite Ferry, Starlite Pacific and the Starlite Nautica. In their track record, aside from surplus ships acquired from Japan they were not anathema to buying the discards of other local shipping company like when the Shipshape/Safeship ferry dual ferry companies quit operations and they took over its fleet (but not the routes to Romblon). And from Cebu they got a ferry from the defunct FJP Lines which is better known as Palacio Lines. Actually, the first three ships of Starlite Ferries which are no longer existing now were from other local shipping companies.

However, over the years, what I noticed with Starlite Ferries is although their fleet is already relatively big by local standards they did not get out of the confines of Mindoro where they were just serving four routes. These are the Batangas-Calapan, Batangas-Puerto Galera, Batangas-Abra de Ilog and Roxas-Caticlan routes. The longest of this route is the last named that takes four hours of sailing time while the other routes take two to two-and-a-half hours depending on the ship. With such length of sailing time it can be gleaned that actually their 11 ferries is  a little bit over already than their need for the four routes.

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Starlite Reliance by Carl Jakosalem

So it came as a bombshell for me and many others that they will be getting 10 new ferries from Japan through a loan with a government loan window (and the first one, the Starlite Pioneer arrived in 2015). They were too proud of the coup and acquisition, of course, and they crowed about it in the media with all the jeers about the old ferries but I was skeptical. My first question is where will they put it. It is easy to apply for new routes but the approval is another matter. They do not own MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the maritime regulatory agency, it is no longer the reign of the nina bonita Maria Elena Bautista who did a lot for her patron and its pet Montenegro Lines. And I was sure the players that will be affected by their planned entry will fight tooth and nail (who wouldn’t?) and the approval process for franchises goes through public hearings anyway and if there is real opposition then it will be difficult to rig it (what are lawyers for anyway?). Getting route franchises is not as easy as getting it from a grocery shelf unless it is a missionary route which no shipping company has plied before except for motor bancas. And there is no more possibility now that a program like the “Strong Republic Nautical Highway” of Gloria which created new routes (and made it appear that old routes are “new routes”). It was the time of Noynoy when their new ferries came and Al Cusi who is identified with Gloria was out of power.

It is obvious that they can only absorb the new ferries well if they can dispose all their old ferries. But regarding the price it will be, “Are they buying or are they selling?”. That means forced selling will not gain them a good price and with the ferry structure in the country and their fleet size I am not even sure if there will be enough buyers especially when banks are averse to extending loans to shipping companies. Pinoys are averse to the breaking of still-good ships unless one’s name is starts with “A” and ends with “z” or maybe connected to 2GO (well, Negros Navigation’s case then was different as there was force majeure in it).

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Starlite Eagle by Carl Jakosalem

And they might be forced to sell their old ships if they have honor because after all the owner Al Cusi is one of the hecklers of our old ferries and pushing for their forced retirement (and the sauce for the goose should also be the sauce for the gander but then Al Cusi was not selling old ferries until his end in shipping). I thought those in government should lead by example? By 2016, with the ascension of Digong, Al Cusi was back in power and my fears of an administrative fiat to phase out old ships intensified.

Then a news item came out that they will enter the prime Ormoc route. My immediate thought was of a dogfight not only in sailing but also in the approval process of a franchise. The Ormoc route from Cebu has a lot of parallel routes competing with it (like Palompon, Baybay, Hilongos, Bato and Albuera routes) and all of them will raise a howl against the entry of an outsider especially one with good ships, naturally. I was even titillated how that will play out (it could have been a good boxing match or worse an MMA fight). But then nothing came out of that news. Well, certainly Al Cusi knows how to pick a good route, I thought, but he might have underestimated the opposition (of course, the better the route, the fiercer will be the opposition).

And then another news item was published that Starlite Ferries will go into Southeast Asia routes. Well, really? That was my thought as I had doubts again. It is Indonesia that is the most archipelagic in our region but I knew the rates there are too cheap and sometimes as ROROs there is practically no fare charged in the old ships if patrons don’t want to pay (and so I remember the problem of some of our operators in our ARMM Region where collection of fares can be a problem and rates are really so low). They wanna go there with brand-new ships, I thought? Won’t there be demand for reciprocity? Oh, well, I would welcome Indonesian ferries in our waters especially if they are liners, why not? Now, what a way of upsetting the cart, I mused. But then nothing came out of that too.

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Starlite Saturn by Raymond A. Lapus

The logical is actually to phase out his old ferries immediately as there is no way to create a bonanza of new routes given how difficult it is to secure new routes in the country and actually the situation is the feasibility of routes are limited as it is dictated by people and goods movements and not by wish, simple geography as in nearness or MARINA inducement. They can try the Pilar-Aroroy route that was validated by three titled international experts on shipping with all the feasibility study calculations but then as known by the locals it wouldn’t last and they were proven right as the route lasted only a few months (Archipelago Philippine Ferries tried it). Plus they might have to dredge Pilar port as that is shallow for their ships (the government will pass on to them their dredging responsibilities and they will be lucky to earn a thank you). MARINA has actually a lot of routes that they were promoting like the Pasacao to Burias route, the Cataingan to Maripipi route, et cetera but shipping operators not biting as they are not fools unlike some sitting in some MARINA chairs. With Starlite Ferries obliged to pay the bank amortization they cannot simply let their ships gather barnacles in Batangas Bay.

But where will he sell his old ferries? Many of the ships of Starlite Ferries are not fit to be small short-distance ferry-ROROs, the type most needed and most flexible to field (that will survive better in low-density routes) and now the problem is that is being supplanted now in many cases by the passenger-cargo LCTs and RORO Cargo LCTs which may be slow but are cheap to operate (and so many of these are arriving from China brand-new and not surplus with good terms). The reinforcements that entered San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait were actually LCTs (the former are operated by SulitFerry, a 2GO enterprise) and there are LCTs that are new arrivals in Tablas Strait that belong to Orange Navigation, a sister company of Besta Shipping.

Cebu won’t buy it as what is mainly needed there are overnight ships and generally bigger than what Starlite Ferries have. The actual direction of ferry sales is from Cebu to Batangas and not the other way around. It is also hard to sell the Starlite ferries to Zamboanga as only one shipping line has the capability there to buy (Aleson Shipping Line) and they have enough ships already and they can afford to buy direct from Japan. It won’t be Manila as there are no more overnight ships there remaining to Mindoro and Romblon (Starlite Ferries helped sank Moreta Shipping Lines, MBRS Lines and its successor Romblon Shipping Lines). The operators to Coron and Cuyo are not that big and the Starlite ships are too big for those routes. It is really hard to dispose of 11 ferries unless Starlite gives it on a lay-away plan but then they have to pay the bank for their new acquisitions.

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Starlite Archer by John Edmund

I feared Al Cusi with his Malacanang clout and political clout (he is vice-president of the ruling party now) will resort to administrative fiat through the Department of Transportation. But that will be bloody and when the old operators feared something was afoot with the Tugade trial balloons they were ready with deep questions like if there is a study that shows old ferries are unsafe (good question) and MARINA was put on the defensive. These old operators are not patsies, they can hire good lawyers and they have congressmen as padrinos that Tugade and Cusi cannot just push around.

And so came the announcement that there will be no phase-out of old ferries (which is nonsense anyway as phase-out should be based on technical evaluations and not on age). It seems that was a big blow to Starlite Ferries which by that time was already shouldering the burden and amortizing five new ferries with five more on the pipeline and their old ferries still around and unsold (their other new ferries are Starlite Reliance, Starlite Eagle, Starlite Saturn and Starlite Archer). Trying to force their old ferries in some near routes might just mean competing with their sister Montenegro Lines and their shared patron saint will look askance to that.

I guess the financial burden of the new ships were getting heavier by the day for Starlite Ferries. With a surplus of ferries they were even able to send Starlite Annapolis to Mandaue just to get some new engines if what I heard was true. There is really no way to cram 15 ferries (as Starlite Atlantic was lost maneuvering in a typhoon) in just four short-distance routes. I just don’t know, should have they converted some of their new ships into overnight ferries and competed in the longer Batangas to Caticlan route? But the accommodations of the former Cebu Ferries ship of 2GO are superior to them. How about the Batangas to Roxas City route that is irregularly served by Asian Marine Transport Corporation?

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The most senior now in the fleet of Starlite Ferries

But instead of fighting to resolve their problem, Al Cusi took the easy way and sold out. Well, it is never easy to finance five new ferries with five more still on the way with no new routes coming. They might drown in debt and default. Or end up just helping the bank make their living (in Tagalog, “ipinaghahanapbuhay na lang ang bangko”).

I wonder why Al Cusi did not just get two or three units for testing and evaluation and proceed slowly. With that they might have known with less pain and pressure that although their ferries are new it does not have a technological edge nor an advance over the old ferries unlike the new FastCats. They knew already that intermodal vehicles are mainly locked like the Dimple Star buses are locked to them and so newness of the ship will not easily sell and not even to private car owners whose main concern is what RORO is leaving first (and that is also the main concern of the passengers who do not even have a free choice if they are bus passengers).

It looks to me the 10 new ROROS ordered by Starlite Ferries was a simple case of indigestion or worse a choking. It looks like more of the latter and so Al Cusi spit it out and settled for a half billion pesos as consolation for the sale of Starlite Ferries to the Udenna group, the new hotshot in shipping which also owns Trans-Asia Shipping Lines of Cebu now. That might be a good decision for Udenna as their Trans-Asia Shipping Lines lacks ferries now whereas Starlite Ferries has a surplus and so it might be a good match. Converting the ships into overnight ferries is not difficult nor would it cost much although the ships of Starlite Ferries is a little small than what Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was accustomed to (but then it is also possible to lengthen the upcoming ferries).

Now I don’t really know exactly where Starlite Ferries is headed and it will not be as easy to guess that but in all likelihood a Starlite and Trans-Asia marriage might work out especially since the Udenna group has the money to smoothen out the kinks.

Nice experiment but it seems the 10 new ships was too much for Starlite Ferries to chew.

Now They Are Selling The Shipping Company With The Ships They Say Are The Most Modern

What is happening?

Shipping news recently said that the Cusi family is selling Starlite Ferries to Chelsea Shipping which has recently gained control of 2GO, the only national liner shipping company left and Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI), once the biggest regional shipping company in the Visayas before the advent of Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC). When to think Alfonso Cusi is politically powerful and influential in his own right being in and out of government at usually Cabinet level.

Until just recently Starlite Ferries was very proud of their brand-new series of ships from Japan which is supposedly the best in the short-distance routes. These ships are a series of ten ships financed through a leasing window of the government-owned Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP), the DBP Leasing Corporation. This window is the arm of the government in modernizing our shipping industry and for Starlite Ferries to corner ten ships speaks of their clout.

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Starlite Archer, the latest ship of Starlite Ferries (Photo by Jon Erodias)

Just a while ago Starlite Ferries announced they are extending the run of these modern ships from ten to twenty because they said they were expanding operations to the ASEAN Region which if it materialized will be our first foray ever in international passenger shipping operations. The news was believable because in the ASEAN Free Trade Zone any company should in theory would be allowed free entry in any country within the FTZ.

Now this news of the sell-out looks like a hot potato being dropped and of course questions will be raised.

Starlite Ferries already had nine ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships) and two fastcrafts when they started to acquire a series of ten brand-new ferries from Japan which to me, with its size looks better if it had been used in overnight routes rather than the short-distance routes. I was puzzled when they first announced it because they have only four routes – Batangas-Abra de Ilog, Batangas-Puerto Galera, Batangas-Calapan and Roxas-Caticlan which are all Mindoro routes. Mindoro is the origin of Alfonso Cusi, the founder and owner of Starlite Ferries.

I thought if they will acquire ten new ships then all old ships have to be disposed unless they create new routes. But then Alfonso Cusi was jeering our old ferries and so I thought he will really dispose his old ships. That is if he is true to his word.

But then I never saw a shipping company dominate a route simply because their ferries were all-new. One simply has to look at the experience of Maharlika I and Maharlika II then in the eastern seaboard routes of Matnog-San Isidro and Liloan-Lipata. They did not dominate. Schedules, discounts and rates are decision points too for shippers and passengers and it is not only the newness of the ship that matters. If it is 12 noon and the new ship will still be available at 3 or 4pm the shippers and the passengers will not wait for that. That is particularly true in the short-distance routes which are the routes of Starlite Ferries.

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A view of the stern of one of the new ships of Starlite Ferries (Photo by Carl Jakosalem)

There was news then that Starlite Ferries will enter the overcrowded Cebu-Western Leyte routes through the Cebu-Ormoc route. But though Starlite Ferries already had its new ferries nothing came out of that rumor. They were still on their home base and they still have no new routes while their fleet expanded by about 50% already and they were already shelling out amortization and carrying costs for the new ferries. And with probably no additional income to boot. Somehow something have give as additional ferries are being built for them in Japan. Was the ASEAN routes just a trial balloon?

If Starlite Ferries was doing well as what can be concluded from their press releases and as indicated by their new ships then why the sell-out?

I do not know if theirs is a case of biting what they cannot chew. A PhP 2.4 billion loan without new successful routes and with no sign competition is backing down is not easy to digest. Their new ships have no technical edge over competition unlike the new FastCats of Archipelago Philippine Ferries. It is simply new, nothing more. Maybe that was the reason there was rumor they will be given exclusive routes. But to where? Franchises or Certificates of Public Conveyance (CPC) of the competition can’t simply be cancelled. And maybe that was the reason for the underhanded push to get rid of 35-year old ferries through a questionable administrative fiat which has actually no empirical basis.

Is Alfonso Cusi bailing out before he chokes? The shipping company that acquired Starlite Ferries which is Chelsea Shipping has owners and patrons with very deep pockets. And they have cheap fuel and lubricants to boot which could be decisive in making sense for the new ferries of Starlite.

I am just reminded of a critical juncture in our shipping history in the 1960’s when we already needed to enlarge our inter-island passenger-cargo fleet. Some national liner companies like Escano Lines, General Shipping Corporation, Compania Maritima and Southern Lines Inc. took the route of acquiring loans to order brand-new ships from the National Shipyards and Steel Corporation (NASSCO) and West Germany shipyards. They regretted their decisions eventually.

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Port view of one of the new ships. Starlite Pioneer is the lead ship of the series (Photo by Carl Jakosalem)

Meanwhile at the same time Carlos A. Gothong & Company, William Lines Inc. and Sweet Lines Inc. decided to purchase second-hand vessels from Europe to be converted into passenger-cargo liners here and they came out ahead. For the same amount as a brand-new liner they were able to acquire two to three surplus ships of the same size, reliability and speed. Guess who was able to offer more routes and frequencies and which had more passengers and cargo. That decision vaulted Carlos A. Gothong & Company , William Lines and Sweet Lines to the Top 5 when they were not in that position the decade before.

Is history repeating itself here and Alfonso Cusi has seen the handwriting in the wall and wants to bail out early?

Some Musings on Ship Sinkings

Lately, there have been rumors that ferries of over 35 years old will be phased out and supposedly one of those pushing that is the current Secretary of Transportation which is Arthur Tugade and also supposedly involved is Alfonso Cusi, Secretary of Energy who is a shipping owner (Starlite Ferries). I do not know what Tugade knows about ships. He is a lawyer. Cusi, meanwhile has vested interest in the issue. Shipping owners got so alarmed that a meeting between them was called and attended by different shipping companies and they voiced opposition to such move which is also supported by the regional director of MARINA Central Visayas.

The proposal to phase out ferries is rooted in the belief that it is old age that sinks ships. Unfortunately, that is simply not true, that is just an assumption by those who have no true knowledge of shipping and empirical evidence do not support that. As one knowledgeable Captain said, it is human error that is the most common cause of sinking and I agree to that.

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Photo Credit: Dr. Normand Fernandez

I just wish when media and government officials discuss ship sinking that they be more specific and don’t use the term generically. Sometimes a ship is simply wrecked as in it lies on the shore incapable of sailing but it is not under water. Some of these can still be refloated and still sail later. This happened to many ships caught by the storm surges of super-typhoons like the Typhoon “Ruping” of 1990 and Typhoon “Yolanda” of 2008. Old age was not the cause of the capsizing or wrecking of those caught in those typhoons as most were actually in shelter and not navigating. In maritime databases they call these events “wrecking”. They will even indicate if it was refloated and indicate “broken up” when that was the subsequent fate of the wrecked ship.

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Photo Credit: Philippine Star and Gorio Belen

Sometimes a ship loses buoyancy and capsize but not all of them sink to the bottom of the sea. Those on their side or even upside down but located in ports or in shallow waters can still be righted and salvaged and maybe it will still be capable of sailing after repairs if it is not Beyond Economic Repair (BER). Most of these cases are results of accidents like errors in unloading cargo (like Ocean Legacy or Danica Joy 2) or even ramming like Dingalan Bay and not from the age of the ship. Some had their rolling cargo shift due to rogue waves but reach port, and subsequently capsize like what happened in Ocean King II in Benit port. Some capsize in port due to action of other ships like what happened to Ma. Angelica Grace in Cabahug wharf. In maritime databases these are simply called “capsizing”. They contrast it when ships lose buoyancy while sailing which they call “capsizing and sinking”.

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Photo Credit: James Gabriel Verallo

The most terrible and most straightforward sinking is when ships are caught in storms and sink. Maritime database call these “foundering” and that means more than enough water filled the ship making it lose buoyancy. There could be many causes of that. One is the pumps simply failed for several possible reasons and that is a possibility in smaller ships in stormy seas. The motor might have died in a storm and so the ship cannot maneuver and list. Foundering is the most terrible fate of a ship like the hull breaking in half (but this is rare and there is no local case like this here in recent memory) as casualties in a ship that failed to beat the storm is terrifying (remember Princess of the Stars). Holes in the hull might even afford a ship enough time to seek the coast and beach the ship like what happened to Wilcon IX. If the ship was beached, maritime databases call it “beached” and such an act avert loss of lives.

If it is a collision and the hull was breached, maritime databases are specific. They indicate “collision” or “collision and sinking” if that was the case. It might even be “collision and beached”. Collision and sinking was the case of St. Thomas Aquinas and that sank not because she was old (she was 39 years old when she sank). Cebu City was rammed too and sank and she was only 22 years old then. Her sister ship Don Juan was only 9 years old when she sank after a collision. Dona Paz was 24 years old when she was rammed then burned and sank. Collision and sinking are usually navigation errors which means human errors and the age of the ships is not a factor. The ramming hull of the other ship won’t ask first if the hull it is ramming is old or young or what is the age.

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Photo Credit: Philippine Air Force and Jethro Cagasan

When a ship catches fire, hull losses are sometime inevitable. It will not be certain if the cause of that is age and sometimes that does not in outright sinking because the ship can still head for the nearest land and beach itself like what Don Sulpicio did. SuperFerry 6 when it caught fire did not sink and was towed to Batangas. SuperFerry 14′s fire was not contained early too but she was towed and just keeled over when she was already in shallow waters and the fire out. Some caught fire in shipyards or in the docks and some of them were SuperFerry 3, SuperFerry 7, Philippine Princess, Iloilo Princess, St. Francis of Assisi, Manila City, Cagayan de Oro City and Asia Thailand. Again, it cannot be assumed that happened because of old age as some burned due to the sparks of welding. None of that four were over 35 years of age when they were destroyed by fire. Some others assume more morbid intentions that can’t be proved anyway.

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Photo Credit: Britz Salih

Ferry sinking is not common on short-distance ferries maybe because its routes are short and their transit times are not long. The only exception to this is Besta Shipping Lines which lost half of its fleet (four out of eight) to accidents. However, only their Baleno Nine sank outright. Baleno Six was wrecked by a typhoon (that wrecked other ships too like the Sta. Penafrancia 7), Baleno Tres grounded in rocks and was wrecked (a clear case of human error) and Baleno 168 capsized near the port because of water ingress due to a broken propeller shaft but she did not sink (and maybe this was because of old age; but then it is also possibly because of its propellers repeated hitting bottom in the shallow San Jose, Occidental Mindoro port when she was with her previous shipping).

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Photo Credit: Mike Anthony Arceno

In the past, I remembered two shipping companies notorious for being dirty and rusty. The Viva Shipping Lines combine had some 36 ships two decades ago and some of those were wooden-hulled. Only two of those sank, the Viva Penafrancia 2 which hit the wharf or a fish corral and was holed (which is navigation error and not old age) and the San Miguel Ilijan which was hulked by fire but did not sink. The feared owner of the shipping company had supposedly told his ship captains he will bury them if their ship sink and his reputation is good enough it will be believed. Well, those two ships did not sink outright and maybe the captains’ lives were spared.

In more recent years it was the Maharlika ships which was notorious for being dirty and rusty (but not as rusty as Viva). Yet for many years their ships do not sink even though it can’t sail because both engines failed or the ramp fell off. Maharlika Dos only sank because after four hours of wallowing dead in the water and with Maharlika Cuatro failing to come to the rescue she finally capsized and sank. It was a disservice to the original Maharlika ships which were fielded brand-new. However, the government is notorious for not taking care well of things and that continued under Christopher Pastrana who is infamous for making still relatively new ships look old and worn like the Maharlika Uno, Maharlika Dos, Maharlika Tres and Maharlika Cuatro. He also made the Grandstar ROROs look aged fast. And he will wail against the old ships (with crossed fingers) to promote his FastCats. What gall!

However the ship loss percentage of the two companies is low. As I have said before, the looks and lack of maintenance of the ships is not an automatic ticket to the bottom of the sea and Maharlika is the clear proof of that. And to think their ships are in the more notorious waters of the Philippines. Seamanship is actually probably more important. In Lucio Lim’s version (he of Lite Ferries Ferries), it is manning that is most important.

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Photo Credit: Mike Baylon

Overnight ships are also not wont to sink if one looks at their record. Uh, maybe not Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. which has lost 4 ferries, the first Asia Singapore (capsized and sank), the Asia Thailand (hulked by fire while not sailing), the Asia South Korea (grounded, capsized and sank but they claimed terrorist action) and the Asia Malaysia (holed and sank). But over-all, not many overnight ferries were lost in the previous decades. It is actually liners which are more prone to sink and it is funny because these are our biggest ferries and many of them carry international certifications. Many will bet that Sulpicio Lines leads in this infamous category. Well, not too fast because their rate of sinking is just about the same as William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) and Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). In a comparative period from 1996 to 2007 before the incident that forced out Sulpicio Lines from passenger shipping, WG&A lost SuperFerry 3 (fire in shipyard), SuperFerry 6 (fire while sailing) and SuperFerry 7 (fire while docked in North Harbor). And they had serious grounding incidents. Dona Virginia quit sailing after a grounding incident off Siquijor and Our Lady of Banneux also quit sailing after a grounding in Canigao Channel.

In the same period Sulpicio Lines lost the Philippine Princess (fire while refitting), Princess of the Orient (foundered in a storm), Princess of the Pacific (grounding leading to wrecking) and Princess of the World (fire while sailing, did not sink). Pro rata, the two biggest shipping companies were even in hull loss (my preferred term) rate until 2007. But with the so-infamous wrecking of Princess of the Stars in a storm, pro rata Sulpicio Lines exceeded WG&A/ATS in maritime hull losses. Then later for a much-reduced liner fleet losing St. Thomas Aquinas (collision and sinking) and St. Gregory The Great (grounding leading to BER) is also a high percentage for 2GO. Few in these cases of liners lost can be attributed to the age of the ships.one-way-bike-club

Photo Credit: ONE WAY BIKE CLUB

It is actually our wooden-hulled motor boats or batel which might have the second highest rate of sinking. And maybe that is the reason why MARINA is pressuring San Nicholas Shipping Lines to retire their batel fleet and convert to steel-hulled ships. But the Moro boats are not well-known for that. Bar none, it is actually the passenger motor bancas which have the highest loss rate. Every year a passenger motor banca will be lost to storms especially in the Surigao area. But this is due to rough waters and not to old age.

So, why cull ships after 35 years of age when it is still seaworthy? The examples of maritime hull losses I mentioned shows it was not old age which made them sink. I have a database of over 300 Philippine maritime hull losses dating back to the end of World War II (while the government authorities can barely list 50). The list of mine does not include motor bancas and fishing vessels. It will be more if that is included. I can show it is not old age which was the primary factor in the sinking of the 300+.

All sinking are investigated by the Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI). But after some time maybe they donate the investigation papers to the termites or throw them away to Pasig River. That is why they can’t complete the list and argue against abogados like Maria Elena Bautista or Arthur Tugade when they are the true mariners. Talo talaga ng abogado ang marino kahit pa commodore o admiral at kahit maritime issues pa ang pinag-uusapan.

If the Supreme Court will be asked, their definition of seaworthiness is simply the ships having relevant certificates. To them it does not matter if the ship gets holed in deep seas while sailing. This is the gist of their most recent decision on a cargo ship of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation that sank in the late 1970’s. See how idiotic? The dumbies want to rewrite maritime concepts, that’s why.

If I will be asked maybe the culling of Tugade which should be raised first. The reason is old age.

It is in the Philippines where I noticed that the decision-makers are often those who don’t know a thing about the issues they are deciding on.

Experts do not matter in this land.

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Photo Credit: Lindsay Bridge

What Could Be The First True Test Of The New Starlite Ferries

Since last year, 2015, the new Starlite ferries began arriving in Batangas, the home port of Starlite Ferries Incorporated. So far as of this writing (September 2016) four has arrived in the country, the Starlite Pioneer, the Starlite Reliance, the Starlite Eagle and the Starlite Saturn. These are brand-new ferries ordered from Japan from a loan extended by the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP). More are actually on the pipeline and coming soon.

These new ferries were built by the Kegoya Dockyard in Kure yard, Japan and by Fukushima Zosen in Matsue yard, Japan (another report said Shimane yard). The common measurements are 67.0 meters length overall (LOA) by 15.3 meters breadth by 9.4 meters depth with a Gross Tonnage (GT) of about 2,700. The DWT is about 915 and the passenger capacity is about 750 which indicates an all-seating arrangement. The top sustained speed of these ferries are 14.5 knots.

The owner of Starlite Ferries, Alfonso Cusi is too proud and expansive about his ferries. As advanced features he cites the bulbous stem but then most ferries of this size since 30 years ago already featured bulbous stems. This feature lessens drag which then increases the speed by a little. Cusi also cites its motion dampening system. Admittedly this is a plus on rough seas as added passenger comfort. The owner also cited the deep draft of his new ships. That will add to the stability of the vessel because it lowers the center of gravity.

I was hoping Cusi will mention other features like ECDIS but he did not mention it or even INMARSAT (it might have NAVTEX though). I hope the ship has an autopilot and automatic docking system. I also would want to see if she already has the joystick instead of the traditional steering wheel. Plus a collision avoidance system. And a depth finder that is mated to ship’s autopilot to immediately stop the ship if grounding or hitting an underwater object is imminent. If the ship has these features then all the expansiveness of Cusi will be justified. When he talks he makes it sound as if all the other ferries of his competition are already obsolete.

Externally, the new Starlite Ferries don’t look much. It is as if she borrowed the lines of a 1960’s ship, to be honest. Actually, the newer ship of Cokaliong Shipping Lines look better aesthetically. Also the Jack Daniel of Sta. Clara Shipping or even the Trans-Asia 3 of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. If her external lines looked impressive the more that there will have been be “Oh’s and Ah’s”.

The ships have high sides. That is a plus on rough seas and also a plus when listing. However, that feature might not be tested as the government is already nervous about any kind of rough seas and will suspend voyages when storm winds several hundred kilometers away reach 60 kilometers per hour which is even less than a full gale in England. But for Cusi to say all ferries here were designed for the calm seas of the Inland Sea of Japan is too much. Some of our ferries from Japan had routes to the Ryukyus or some shimas outside the Japan main islands. To also say that his new ships are the only IACS-classified ship is also out of the line. China belongs to IACS and they have ships here along with the FastCats of Australian design and which are ABS-certified. Many ships from Japan when they came here were also Class NK.

I just wonder about the 9.4 meters depth of these new Starlite Ferries. That is double the normal depth of ferries her size. Does she have a second car deck below her main car deck? If that is the case then she will be carrying an impressive rolling cargo capacity. Whatever, her 15.4 meters breadth also caught my attention. ROROs her size normally don’t exceed 14 meters in breadth and many are even less than that. Maybe that is the reason why instead of being sleek they look a little bloated to me.

That 15.4 meters might be a plus as that might mean 4 full lanes. It might not accommodate 4 buses or trucks across but definitely it will accommodate two trucks and two sedans or SUVs across while the ferries of this size might have difficulty doing that over the entire length of her car deck. But the caveat is if she can attract that many vehicles.

Fifteen new ferries are arriving for Starlite Ferries. That means that where before they can just stick to Mindoro island routes, their home ground , this time around they have to expand to other routes. In media, it was stated that Starlite Ferries will enter the Cebu-Ormoc route. The Cebu to Leyte routes especially on the vehicle side is crowded especially with the entry of the Cargo RORO LCTs and even the well-established overnight shipping companies are cringing at the onslaught of that new paradigm as these offer rates as low as half of the rates they used to charge. Trucks are the biggest source of revenue across Camotes Sea not the sedans or AUVs, at least in rolling cargo. There are no buses in these routes.

Can Starlite Ferries compete against them? In trucks the rolling rate is the decision point. In Mindoro, Starlite Ferries has proven they are good in locking in buses as they have in their bag the biggest bus company to Panay, the Dimple Star. But there are no buses here. I wonder how Starlite Ferries will win the trucks which now make a beeline to the Cargo RORO LCTs for they are the cheapest in the route by a big margin. These can afford to do that since they have no investment in passenger comfort and amenities and they can sail slow with their less powered engines and the longer transit times are understood part of the low charge.

Compete in passengers? Somehow being new is a plus in the decision of the passengers – as long as the departure times are proximate. I wonder if Starlite Ferries will sail at night because if they will do that then they have to provide bunks and not only that but several classes of accommodations are well. The competition even has Suite Class. Meals and a dining area are also expected. The burned Wonderful Stars of Roble Shipping was the benchmark in that.

I wonder if the superior speed of the new Starlite can come into play. In the Cebu-Leyte route if the voyage is at night a superior speed might mean nothing at all because that will only result in an ungodly arrival which does not mean anything to most passengers. If Starlite leaves at 11pm like the competition what is the advantage of a 3am arrival over a 4am arrival? One thing sure if Starlite Ferries come into Ormoc with only benches or seats they will already be losing a lot of passengers. Unless it is a jetseater type of seat in an airconditioned accommodation that is priced low.

If it is a day trip the superior speed might factor in a bit. They can depart as late as 1pm and arrive at 5pm which is still acceptable and passengers will have the option of having lunch at shore that is not very early. Or leave at 8am and still arrive at noon. However, at sheer speediness they can’t make much out of it since those who want it real fast will opt for the fastcrafts of Oceanjet, SuperCat or Weesam Express. Or even the plane being sold now by Cebu Pacific.

The Starlite Ferries are also carrying a lot of amortization weight in every ship whereas their competitors do not have such burden. Some even have their ships debt-free and some are carrying the low interest and easy terms of the ships from China and that is common in the Cargo RORO LCTs. A rough guesstimate is about P3 million per month of principal and interest payments for each new Starlite Ferries. That could be some P100,000 a day. And that is above any operational cost, depreciation, mandatory fees and insurance charges.

Cebu-Ormoc will be the first real test of the new Starlite Ferries. They will be starting from scratch and will not have the advantages and favors of having operating for long in Mindoro where they have already locked-in customers. If in Mindoro they only have a handful of competition but in Cebu-Leyte since all parallel routes are actually competing then they are arrayed at dozen plus competitors which have ships of all kinds.

Their main opponent might not be even in Ormoc as it might be the better ships of Palompon, a parallel route where Cokaliong Shipping and Medallion Transport have ferries better than what can be found in Ormoc and are even cheaper. The tough opposition can also be found in the many nondescript ports in Leyte being used by the Cargo RORO LCTs like the GGC Port and the IDHI port along with the the Hindang Port used by Goldenbridge Shipping. A report to me said there is even a new unidentified port 27 kilometers south of Ormoc being used by the Cargo RORO LCTs. And of course Bato, Hilongos and Pingag, Isabel have more than a fair amount of rolling cargoes and passengers. Cebu-Ormoc is also a bread and butter route of the High Speed Crafts which are known to adjust fares to boost ridership.

I am really interested to watch how this will play out. They might see a dogfight soon.

Photo Credits:

Jefferson Provido [Starlite Pioneer]

Ralph Russell Abesamis [Starlite Eagle and Starlite Saturn]

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