A Report on the Recent Situation of Bicol Passenger Shipping

When I talk of Bicol passenger shipping that includes those that have routes to Samar for in the main Bicol ships do those route with the notable exception of Montenegro Shipping Lines which are dayo (foreigner) to Bicol but have a base in Masbate port. In the main, I don’t refer to the Cebu-Masbate steel-hulled ferries because those routes are just one of the operations of Cebu shipping companies with the notable exception too of Montenegro Lines which has a national operation of short-distance ferry-ROROs.

The biggest shipping companies in Bicol are the sister companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which are legal-fiction companies of each other. They have combined operations, single crewing and maintenance and their ships rotate within their common routes. The only difference is the ships bought out from the defunct Bicolandia Shipping are all in Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (PSC) and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) is what made Bicolandia Shipping cry, “Uncle!” (which means give up na).

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The twin shipping companies have a total of 10 ROPAX ships plus a Cargo RORO LCT which is a recent acquisition to match that of NN+ATS (more on this later). Their best ship, the beautiful Jack Daniel (no, there isn’t free tasting of the famous drink) was acquired not so long ago and it is almost a fixture in the Masbate-Pio Duran route where her beautiful and luxurious lounge can be fully used and appreciated by the passengers since it is a three-and-a-half-hour route.

SCSC and PSC ply all the Bicol routes except for some parallel routes like the Tabaco-San Andres and Masbate-Pilar routes (more on this later). Which means they ply the Tabaco-Virac, Matnog-Allen (now through their own Jubasan port) and Masbate-Pio Duran routes. They don’t ply the Masbate-Pilar route as their ships are too big for the shallow Pilar port which lies in an estuary. In Catanduanes, it seems they now have a modus vivendi with Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) which now is doing the Tabaco-San Andres route exclusively through Codon port (but that route is not necessarily weaker than the Tabaco-Virac route as buses and trucks going to northern Catanduanes prefer that route because the remaining distance is shorter). Additionally, SCSC and PSC also operate the Liloan-Lipata route (however, after the Surigao quake RORO operations were transferred from Lipata Ferry Terminal to the Verano port of Surigao).

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The new development in Catanduanes shipping is the arrival of a new player, Cardinal Shipping which fielded the High Speed Craft (HSC) Silangan Express 1 which has good schedules and a very interesting fare which is even less than one might expect for a Tourist accommodation in a ROPAX (P320 fare in airconditioned accommodation versus the P230 Economy fare of a ROPAX ship). That is very cheap compared to the fastcrafts of Montenegro Lines in Masbate that charges double of the Economy fare of the ROPAX. The route of Cardinal Shipping is also Tabaco-Codon like that of Regina Shipping Lines or RSL.

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Another ferry was also added to the fleet of Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) when they acquired the former Maharlika Cuatro from Gabisan Shipping which purchased it from Archipelago Ferries. It was in Mayon Docks of Tabaco City last January but as of this writing she is already running as the Regina Calixta VI. RSL now also has an operation in the Batangas-Abra de Ilog route through Aqua Real Shipping and Calixta-III.

Tabaco port is also building an extension again and this is probably the third already. I am thinking, what for? In all my visits there I never saw Tabaco port full and I don’t think port visit is increasing there. There is also not that need for a big back-up area. There are no container vans unloaded there and ships that visit are generally small. To compare now, Masbate port is even busier than Tabaco port and Legazpi port is even their rival in port calls (as they both serve the province of Albay).

I thought before that the refurbishment of Legazpi port was not needed but it seems I was mistaken. There are more ships docking there now and those are bigger than the ones which dock in Tabaco port. For one, when Cebu freighters visit Albay, they use Legazpi port and not Tabaco port because it is nearer from Cebu. And most freighters that use Tabaco are just Bicol ships which are smaller than Cebu ships. I was even surprised by the big, Malaysian coal barge I saw in Legazpi port.

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Like before there are no ROPAXes in Legazpi (as I argued before a population of 100,000 in an island is needed to keep a RORO afloat if there is no strong tourism and Rapu-rapu island does not meet that criteria). Instead it has lots of big passenger motor bancas to Rapu-rapu and Batan islands plus Cagraray island too. The new passenger terminal building of Legazpi looks beautiful and modern. Like in Tabaco, the port and port terminal building (PTB) is open to the public and there is no cloud of suspicion that hovers unlike in ISPS ports. It was just like in the past when ports are just like part of public domain. That openness was the thing changed by this damned ISPS.

With the completion of the bridge from Albay mainland to Cagraray island through the Sula Channel, the old small Michael Ellis LCT to Misibis is now gone. A connecting bridge to an island is always better than a connection by an LCT. Maybe with that Cagraray island will develop faster.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation now have their new Jubasan port completed in Allen, Samar and so they already withdrew from using the BALWHARTECO port, their old port of entry to Samar, to the great disappointment and anger of the owner which nearly resulted into a court battle. I wonder if the judge-son-in-law of the owner was able to make clear to the patriarch that if it is all straight law then they would lose eventually and they might even be vulnerable to counter-suits they being the LGU holders (like a graft counter-charge).

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With the withdrawal of SCSC and PSC from their port, BALWHARTECO invited Montenegro Lines to just use their port exclusively. Before, Montenegro Lines used both BALWHARTECO and the Dapdap port of Philharbor, the sister company of Archipelago Ferries which once operated the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries. With the withdrawal of Montenegro Lines from Dapdap port now that port no longer has ferry operations. What is left there are the passenger motor bancas to the island off it which is Dalupiri island.

Before this, Philharbor invited Montenegro Lines to use Dapdap port since Archipelago have sold already their Maharlika ships and was already in the process of disposing their Grand Star RORO ships. If there is no other ferry company that will use the port it will fall vacant since the route allowed by MARINA to the new FastCats of Archipelago Ferries was the Matnog-San Isidro route. Before their withdrawal only Montenegro ferries were still using Dapdap port.

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It seems BALWHARTECO made a good offer to Montenegro Lines. They are known to be flexible and accommodating as their record of the past decades will show. Meanwhile, the Alvarez group which controls Archipelago Ferries, Philharbor and Philtranco is not known for that. They are instead known for quick retreats when subjected to the pressure of competition.

So I was not surprised by the result. Here is the queer situation of a port owner and operator with no ships of their sister companies docking because it is using a different port and a route that is significantly longer (which is the Matnog-San Isidro route). As a change, instead of being a ‘port to nowhere’ the San Isidro Ferry Terminal is now active again (she was active before Montenegro Lines left her for Dapdap and BALWHARTECO ports).

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It seems Montenegro Lines was the winner of the BALWHARTECO-Sta. Clara turmoil. Previously they were using four ferries in the Matnog-Allen route, two in Dapdap and two in BALWHARTECO. Recently they are now just using three ferries. It seems that was enough to have a ferry always on standby in the port which has more traffic (in the day that will be Allen and in the night that will be Matnog).

Another winner in the route is the NN+ATS outfit which is now openly admitted as an operation of 2GO. They are using chartered Cargo RORO LCTs from Primary Trident Solutions, owner of the Poseidon LCTs and now they even fielded a ROPAX LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26. They are operating that LCT under the banner of SulitFerry and the acronym is also “SF”, a reminder of their SuperFerry past before those liners were promoted into saints.

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With the Cargo RORO LCTs, the queue endured by the non-regular trucks in the Matnog-Allen route has come to an end as they are the priority of the Cargo RORO LCTs. These ships does not take in buses with its passengers and so no passenger accommodations are needed. The truck crews are just expected to stay with their vehicles for the duration of the voyage. MARINA is actually too suspicious of Cargo RORO LCTs having areas that can take in passengers on the sly.

The arrival of the Cargo RORO LCTs has affected the dynamics in the Matnog-Allen route. It has definitely taken traffic from the ROPAXes and the weight is significant because the non-regular trucks pay the highest rates. Actually, the rates paid by the regular trucks is heavily discounted and it is not always paid in cash (which means credit).

Another thing, from being second-class citizens the non-regular truck is now king but their loyalty now is on NN+ATS. What a turn-around too. From being largely ignorant of Matnog-Allen route because they were too confident of their CHA-ROs (Chassis-RORO) aboard their container ships and liners, now 2GO is already a player in intermodal route which helped kill their liners.

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It is also good that they use chartered LCTs whose crew is from Primary Trident Solutions. These crews are not graduates of the ‘shooing away’ seminars of 2GO, they have no knowledge of ISPS (and probably they don’t care too) and so like in the past they are very friendly to the passengers which they do not think or treat like potential “terrorists” like what is taught in 2GO seminars.

But even with NN+ATS and SulitFerry around and the concentration of Montenegro operations there, BALWHARTECO port is not too busy like in the past when to think 168 Shipping is still there with its three Star Ferry ships. Really, the weight SCSC and PSC is great especially since they have a lot of trucks and buses under contract.

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The PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) was impressed by the new Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. It was not small and unlike most private ports that will start with portions being unpaved in Jubasan it is a completely paved port. As such it is cleaner having no mud and people and patrons would not find it hard moving around (now one would wonder why after all these decades BALWHARTECO port is still mainly unpaved). They also maintained the slope of the land and so rain water immediately drains into the sea instead of forming puddles. There are a lot of eateries inside and it is a step up compared to what can be found in BALWHARTECO port including the presence of chairs and tables outside the eateries which are good for lounging around and sundowning.

Jubasan port is more orderly and it looks more modern. Maybe with the shipping company being the operator it should end up that way as they have full control. By the way, Jubasan port will also have a lodge like in BALWHARTECO port. The structure is already there, that is the area above the eateries but it is not yet operating when PSSS visited the place. Now I don’t know if they will also have a disco like in BALWHARTECO port. Jubasan port also does not have the so-many hawkers of BALWHARTECO port.

Matnog meanwhile has minimal changes. I thought when they twice reclaimed new land the docking space will improve. It did not. There are two new RORO ramps on the left of the finger port (as viewed from the sea) but when I passed through it twice no ship was using it. Actually the docking space of Matnog port did not increase and on high tide a ship will still try to dock askew in the wharf for lack of docking space. During the late afternoon and evening peak hours not all the ships can dock and it has to undock after disgorging their rolling cargo and anchor offshore.

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I still cannot fathom how the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) inputs ship calls in their planning that they cannot see their docking area is not enough for the number of ships calling. They have two new RORO ramps but they bulldozed rocks beneath it. And so maybe the ships fear damage if they use those. Why can’t they just use the causeway-type of wharf like what is used in BALWHARTECO and Dapdap ports which can dock more ships for their given length of wharf space? The only reason I can see why PPA is too inept in port design is because they really can’t attract qualified people. And to compensate for this lack, their annual reports will be full of praises for themselves and their “achievements”. And now their top honcho says the Makati Car Club will test the RORO system. Now what does Porsche and Ferrari owners know about port design and the RORO system if one is not Enrique Razon? It was not designed for their kind of cars and heels.

Masbate port is actually more impressive than Legazpi or Tabaco in terms of activity. Unlike the two ports which looks semi-fringe in location (as in facing the ocean already), Masbate port is in the center of a nexus and connecting many islands. There are simply more ships there and more types from overnight ferries to short-distance ferry-roros to fastcrafts to motor bancas plus the usual freighters. The new port terminal building is now operating and so there is more try of control now to ensure everybody uses it (this is what I call as “cattle herding”). And I don’t like that system treating passengers not like people but like commodities.

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Actually, they can simply sell a ticket to anyone who wants to buy, passenger or not, like in Zamboanga port. With so many buses boarding their port terminal building is not sufficient (now tell me when did PPA learned how to input numbers). If the old system where buses simply park somewhere in the port and soon board afterwards was enough why try to force down the passengers down the bus so they will pass through the passenger terminal building when it does not have enough capacity anyway even in airconditioning? If terminal fee is all they want then they can just put in a table by the ship ramp. An explanation: bus passengers here already have their ferry tickets issued by the bus conductor so actually they do not need to queue as the buses offer free ferry tickets to their passengers. If the buses can be efficient why can’t the PPA? The reason is simple – they are a government entity.

What I noticed is it seems more passenger motor bancas are now using the Masbate municipal port cum fish landing area. Actually it has the advantage that it is just near the integrated bus, jeep and van terminal of Masbate City. The passenger motor bancas for Burias can also be found here. If I may have a suggestion, it is better if the passenger motor bancas just dock by the integrated terminal. Nothing beats that. If only they will see what is logical (but they might lose the votes of the cargadores and the tricycle drivers).

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The Masbate-Pio Duran route is now stronger compared to the Masbate-Pilar route in terms of RORO operation. It is actually the shorter route to Manila and it can accommodate bigger ships whereas Pilar can only accommodate basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. Medallion Transport has withdrawn from this route as a fall-out of the sinking of their Lady of Carmel. SCSC and PSC was the big winner in this and they now have made permanent two of their biggest ships in this route which have length of over 60 meters versus the 30 meters plus of the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs of Pilar.

In the Masbate-Pilar route, Denica Lines now has two ROROs that are running simultaneously and they were able to create a late departure from Bicol (or is it an early one?) when they created an early evening Pilar-Masbate schedule. Denica Lines also have two fastcrafts for refitting now that is moored in Pilar port. Obviously, they want to get a slice of the pie of the MSLI fastcraft business. If they price it like the Silangan Express to Catanduanes then MSLI will be forced to cut their high fares.

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In Pilar, I noticed they now have a Pilar-Mandaon passenger motor banca running. Plus they have pre-dawn departures now from Pilar for three destinations – Masbate City, Aroroy and Mandaon (Mandaon is a gateway to Romblon). They were able to expand Pilar port but its operation is just still like a municipal port as there is no good port lighting (are their charges for the ROROs and passengers not enough?). By the way, the ROROs from Pilar start earlier now. Good for those with still long land travel still remaining in Masbate island.

As before there are a lot of passenger motor bancas in Masbate port going to Pilar, Ticao island, the west bank of Masbate Bay. But maybe the Baleno bancas are gone because there is a van going there now up to Aroroy. The passenger motor bancas are still fighting even though it is already the era of the ROROs and the buses and the trucks aboard them. With no porterage and running at hours when there is no RORO they are still surviving. Well, the buses dictate the schedules of the ROROs and so I can’t see them running 24 hours as the buses have only certain hours of departures from Masbate and Manila.

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Some things of note. One, the Super Shuttle Ferry 19 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation has been sold and Olmillo Shipping has taken over the Bogo-Cawayan route. A new development too in this area was the fielding of Island Shipping of a ROPAX LCT in the Hagnaya-Cawayan route. The MSLI ferry is still running the Bogo-Cataingan route and ditto for Lapu-lapu Shipping that runs the Cataingan-Cebu route. In the future, however, the Bogo and Hagnaya ferries will most likely transfer to the new Maya RORO port because it is simply nearer to Masbate. Meanwhile, the big passenger- cargo motor bancas running between Masbate and northern Cebu are still running and their business not threatened after the initial cut made by the arrival of the ROROs.

Recently, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines don’t have a ship anymore to Masbate from Cebu, a victim of their lack of ferries. Cokaliong Shipping Lines has not fully filled up the slack and it has only a once a week Cebu-Masbate sked but they are always fielding a new good overnight ferry of theirs in the route. Meanwhile, for a year now Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) doesn’t have an operation anymore to Masbate since their SuperShuttle RORO 3 had engine problems. It has been over a year since 2GO withdrew their liner that passes through Masbate on the way to Ormoc and Cebu. Can’t really beat the intermodal buses and trucks now and as the saying goes if one can’t beat then join them and so they already had that NN+ATS in the Matnog-Allen route.

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Burias motor banca arriving in Pasacao

In other Bicol routes, passenger motor bancas still connect Burias island to Pasacao and Pio Duran while Ticao island has passenger motor bancas sailing to Bulan and Masbate ports. Masbate is also connected by passenger motor bancas from Cataingan to Calbayog in Samar and to Roxas City in Panay from Balud and Milagros and to Romblon from Mandaon. Caramoan through Guijalo port also has passenger motor banca to San Andres in Catanduanes through the Codon port. San Miguel island is connected by passenger motor bancas to Tabaco port.

And that above is what comprises Bicol shipping all in all. Not tackled here are the minor routes served by small passenger bancas that go to small islands that does not have a municipality and to coastal barrios which has no roads.

[Written based on January 2017 data.]

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The Developments in the San Bernardino Strait Routes When the PSSS Visited in December of 2016

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Photo of Jubasan port by James Gabriel Verallo

I was able to visit the area twice, actually, the first one with the official PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) tour-meet and the second one in my private tour with Joe Cardenas, the PSSS member from Catarman (so he was a native of the area). I stayed longer the second time because I wanted to do some interviews in the ports of Allen and in the ships there (which I was able to do).

My first visit to the San Bernardino Strait area happened with the big group of the PSSS (the Philippine Ship Spotters Society). Joe Cardenas provided the car, a very good one and James Verallo provided the gas money. We were eight in the group including an American guest of Chimmy Ramos. He was Tim Alentiev, a retired B747 pilot from Seattle. Others in the group were Raymond Lapus from Los Banos, Nowell Alcancia from Manila. Mark Ocul from Ozamis and yours truly.

On the first day on the way to Allen, the first port of Northern Samar we visited was the San Isidro Ferry Terminal. It was already getting late in the afternoon when we reached the port as we came all the way from Tacloban and have visited already the ports of Catbalogan, Calbayog and Manguino-o. We were not able to start early because me and Mark’s ship from Cebu, the Oroquieta Stars of Roble Shipping departed four hours late because of the company’s Christmas party.

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The FastCat M9

Though late, it was just perfect as the FastCat M9 of Archipelago Ferries has just docked and was beginning to disembark passengers and vehicles. This catamaran RORO is the only regular user of the government-owned port and without it it would have been an empty visit save for the lone regular beer carrier which happened to be also docked and unloading that day. For some in the group it was a first experience to see short-distance ferry-ROROs in action.

We did not stay long and we hied off fast to the next port which was the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping. This port is a new development of the company and was built against the opposition of the Mayor then of Allen, Northern Samar which happened to be the owner of BALWHARTECO, the old dominant port in the area. It is a modern port, very clean and orderly, spacious and with lots of eateries that is more decent than the usual carinderia. There is not that mell of vendors and the hubbub one usually associates with ports that are not ISPS (International System of Port Security).

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From Jubasan, we passed by the Dapdap port of Philharbor. We did not enter the port any more and just viewed it from outside as we knew there were no more operations there as related company Archipelago Ferries was using San Isidro Ferry Terminal instead of their own port and the Montenegro Lines vessels transferred to BALWHARTECO when Sta. Clara Shipping and sister company Penafrancia Shipping left it for their own port.

We next visited BALWHARTECO port when dusk was setting in. We did not tour the port any longer as we decided it will be more worthwhile the next day when there is light. In the original plan, we should have stayed for the night in the lodge of BALWHARTECO (and do some night shipspotting for those still interested) but Chimmy suggested that it might be better to stay in Catarman where there might be better accommodations and food. The group agreed as anyway Joe and Nowell are headed for Catarman as the latter has an early morning flight back to Manila.

The bonus of the Catarman sleep-over was we were able to see Catarman, the town, and see off Nowell to the airport. Maybe except for me and Joe, nobody in the group has been to Catarman before and visiting it was an added treat. On the way back there a bonus shipspotting too because we made short tours of Caraingan and Lavezares ports. The first is the main inter-island port of Northern Samar and the second is the gateway to the destination being slowly discovered which is Biri, an archipelago offshore Northern Samar.

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Star Ferry II

Because of these extra tours and the need to secure first in Catarman a good bus ride for the members heading back to Manila, we were not able to cross early to Matnog. Even our tour of BALWHARTECO was peremptory and it was mainly just part of the effort to cross to Matnog. Still, it was enough as a ferry not yet leaving is a very good vantage point for shipspotting and the Reina Olimpia of Montenegro Lines proved to be that. The encounters with other ships in San Bernardino Strait added to the shipspotting prize.

We were not able to cross ahead of the bus and so the Manila-bound members have to board the bus immediately in Matnog. That in itself already shortened the Luzon part of the tour. When the bus rolled off, a member shouted to me (seems it was James) that the ramp of the Don Benito Ambrosio II of Penafrancia Shipping was already being raised. I looked at the bridge and I saw Capt. Sacayan, a friend of PSSS and I don’t know what reflex pushed me that I blurted out, “Capt, pasakay” and Capt. Sacayan immediately ordered the lowering of the ramp to the surprise of his deck hands. The Sta. Clara “Angels” (the three beautiful ladies in charge of arranging the passages of company-account trucks and buses) asked if we have a ticket and I pointed to Capt. Sacayan and from lip reading I think Capt. Sacayan said, “Oo, sa akin.”

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The Don Benito Ambrosio II by James Gabriel Verallo

I told my remaining tour mates not to wait for the ramp to land as I don’t think it would lest the ship incur the penalty of another docking and so we hopped on the ramp that was still a foot above the wharf. And from there we went straight to the bridge where Capt. Sacayan warmly welcomed us and turned on the airconditioners to full. We were sailing “Bridge Class” like in the Reina Olimpia on the crossing to Matnog. But the letdown was Mark failed to taste the “Bicol Express”. However, the free ride on the bridge with its unmatched viewpoint more than made up for that.

We disembarked in the new Jubasan port where we took our dinner and whiled some time trying to soak the atmosphere of the port. Funny, but our car was parked in BALWHARTECO, our point of departure earlier where our group had an incident with the LGU collectors of “illegal exactions” as we call it in PSSS for it is actually against Supreme Court decisions and DILG memorandum circulars. I wondered if Joe was worrying then for his car.

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The Nathan Matthew in Jubasan port (by James Gabriel Verallo)

After getting the car in BALWHARTECO we tracked back to Tacloban. It was uneventful as it was already night and it was just me and Joe keeping on the conversation.

I visited again the San Bernardino Strait area after the trip to Surigao del Sur where I accompanied Joe. This time my focus was BALWHARTECO and it is there where me and Joe separated, he headed back to Catarman and me on the way to Bicol but with an Allen stop-over. Night has set in when we parted ways and I stayed in the lodge of BALWHARTECO as I planned to do interviews the next day.

If there was still sunlight on our first visit to Allen, my second one was all rain and it was heavy with winds and so the swells were up, of course. But as Joe noted it was just the usual amihan (northeast monsoon) weather (with regards to this kind of weather, Joe and me are pretty much in agreement and so with typhoons). Good the Coast Guard in the area were not as praning (kneejerkish) as their counterparts in Cebu so they were not as trigger-happy in voyage suspensions. And to think the ferries that time in BALWHARTECO were barely able to hold position while docked even while ropes were already doubled. Some even anchor offshore to avoid damage to their hull.

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The Star Ferry 7 in the rain

In the next morning when the rain was still light I managed to find the oldest living porter of Allen who was in his 80’s and who had been a porter since 1943. He is the father of the caretaker of the lodge and from him I was able to get the history of the private port of Allen owned by the Suan family which owns the present BALWHARTECO. I was also able to get the ships of the past in the area from the time of the motor boats (lancha) including the motor bancas which then connected Allen and Calbayog for then there was no road connecting the two localities.

It was a funny interview as the old man was speaking in Allen Waray which I found I can understand 95% by using my knowledge of the different dialects of Bicol including what was then known as Bicol Gubat and Bicol Costa which are now no longer classified as part of the Bicol language. The Bicolanos and the Pintados share the same seafaring history in the past and maybe this was the reason of the close association of the languages of Bicol, Masbate and Samar including the Balicuatro area of Samar where Allen is located.

From the father and son pair, I was able to get referrals to old mariners in the area and I visited one in his home and the other one in his ship. Both came from Virac and first became crewmen of the Trans-Bicol Shipping Lines, the predecessor of Bicolandia Shipping Lines in operating motor boats (lancha) which connected the Bicol island-provinces and Samar to the Bicol mainland. The latter is actually the Chief Engineer of the Star Ferry II of 168 Shipping and this provided a bonus because we were able to have a discussion about the oldest RORO sailing in Philippine waters that is not a Navy ship and is not an LCT.

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I stayed a day more in BALWHARTECO because peak season caught me suddenly on a Friday afternoon and it was very difficult to get a ride with the sustained strong rains which produced landslides in Victoria town thus throwing the bus schedules into disarray (few were really coming). It was a nice courtesy stay which afforded me more opportunities to shipspot (and also do bus spotting) and to observe in general.

I absorb things fast even on limited time and even without asking too many questions. I just retrieve files in my head and add what I saw new, what changed and other observations. And from that I have a new mental picture of the port and area I visited. A two-day stay in Allen is a boon for observation and absorption of the movements and patterns in the area.

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After two nights, I tried to wangle a trip to Matnog where I planned to take a local bus to Naga. There was no hope in hitching a ride with the buses from the south because of the landslides and anyway all that arrive in Allen were full and it was sellers’ market and even the colorum vans to Manila were having a field day (they were charging fares from Catarman while waiting for passengers in Allen).

It wasn’t easy booking a crossing as the combination of rough swells and high tide plus the strong wind delayed dockings. Even with tickets, we passengers feared cancellation of voyages by the Coast Guard anytime given the wind and seas prevailing. After a long wait onboard, we finally all heaved a sigh of relief when we were given clearance to sail.

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The LCT Poseidon 26 of might have been the first to sail after the lull of sailings from Allen but she takes 2 hours for the 11-nautical mile route since her cruising speed is only 5-6 knots. She is a new ROPAX Cargo LCT and although her accommodations are all-Economy it is good, spacious and the seats are individualized with a row of industrial fans at the sides. Passengers are also allowed to visit the bridge which is a boon. She is sailing for NN+ATS or 2GO under the name SulitFerry.

We landed in Matnog at past mid-afternoon and the port was crawling with passengers and vehicles when normally such hour was already dead hour for the Matnog to Allen sailing. That is what usually results from voyage suspensions even though it is only for a few hours because everything piles up. I did not tarry at the port because I feared that I will be left  by local buses leaving Matnog if I did not hurry up. Being left by the last trip would probably mean staying the night in Matnog. But like Mark, I ended up not being able to tour Matnog port. I tried to make up for this by touring the market and terminal area of Matnog and trying to take shots of the port from there.

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What did I learn new in the San Bernardino Strait routes? Well, maybe the biggest development was the opening of the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping. That meant the break of Sta. Clara Shipping (and its sister company Penafrancia Shipping) and BALWHARTECO, a long partnership that benefited both greatly. Well, maybe some things really have to end but I feared the parting of ways weakened both but only time can tell that.

With the break, BALWHARTECO which was crowded and very busy in the past suddenly had a slack and maybe that is the reason why they invited Montenegro Lines to concentrate all their ships there thereby emptying the Dapdap port of Philharbor. Meanwhile, Jubasan port is just serving Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping. One advantage of that is they have full control and so everything is orderly.

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A Cargo RORO LCT

The second biggest development in the strait crossing might be the emergence of Cargo RORO LCTs that takes on only trucks. One or two of them sail depending on the season plus there is a ROPAX Cargo LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26. These are operated by NN+ATS or 2GO and the LCTs are chartered from Primary Trident Solutions. The ferry is being billed as SulitFerry. Though brand-new and nice, it is cheaper than the rest. The drawback is its cruising speed is slow. Their ticketing office hands, however, are nicer than the rest and are better trained. It showed.

With the fielding of the Cargo RORO LCT and the ROPAX Cargo LCT, the long queues of trucks which were legend in the past seemed to have disappeared. These trucks are actually the “non-priority” ones which means they are not priority because they has no prior arrangements with the shipping companies. Trucks were singled out because buses which have passengers and fixed schedules always had the higher priority and so these trucks get shunted out.

The LCTs of NN+ATS definitely took rolling cargo from the other companies. Some seem to overstate it but hard figures will show there are usually ten short-distance ferry-ROROs by Sta. Clara Shipping, Penafrancia Shipping, Montenegro Lines, 168 Shipping, Regina Shipping Lines in the strait plus the catamaran RORO of Archipelago Ferries. Two or three LCTs were added in the route so it was a significant increase but not by much.

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Dapdap port

Another notable development in the strait was the closing of the Dapdap port of Philharbor. It seems it was not able to weather the rearrangements brought about by the opening of Jubasan port. It is ironic that its sister company Archipelago Ferries is instead using the San Isidro Ferry Terminal (but maybe that is what their franchise demanded). Maybe if the Grand Star ROROs were not disposed off it might still be operating. However, the motor bancas to the island off it are still there.

Meanwhile, Matnog Ferry Terminal has added two ramps plus an expansion of the back-up area but one of its ramps is now just for the use of FastCat which need a specific mechanism wherein to attach their catamaran ROROs. With four ramps available (and I doubt if all are usable) plus a docking area without ramp (which is only good if the tide is not low), one would wonder how it can possibly cope with the twelve vessels or so operating in the strait especially in the hours that the buses and trucks are concentrated in Matnog.

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Reina Emperatriz and BALWHARTECO port by James Gabriel Verallo

Me, I always have questions and doubts about the ability of the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) regarding port planning and design. BALWHARTECO and Jubasan ports are clearly better than Matnog Ferry Terminal in its capacity to absorb ships. Imagine there are four ports on Samar side while there is only one in Sorsogon side. Maybe the town of Matnog should just develop their own port so capacity will be increased and they will have revenues at the same time.

San Bernardino Strait is one of the most important crossings in the country as it is the main connection between Luzon and the Visayas on the eastern side. It is used by a lot of buses and trucks plus private vehicles 24/7 and a lot of people move through it. In that way alone it is already fascinating to me.

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The Nathan Matthew and ship spotters of PSSS (by James Gabriel Verallo)

Ports Served By Liners That Lost To The Intermodal Buses

Once, there were ports that were served by the liners of the national shipping companies in the postwar years. Liners from Manila sailed to these ports and the length of their calls or service already exceeded a century. Now, there are no more liners to these ports and instead intermodal buses are the ones now moving their passengers.

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Among the ports I am referring to are San Jose in Occidental Mindoro (called Mangarin in the past), Culasi port in Roxas City (called Capiz in the past); Dumaguit (or New Washington), Batan, Malay (more popularly known as Caticlan now), all in Aklan; Lipata port in Culasi, Antique, San Jose de Buenavista in Antique. The list also includes Masbate; Laoang, Carangian (or San Jose) and Allen in Northern Samar; Calbayog and Catbalogan in Western Samar; Tacloban, Calubian, Palompon, Isabel, Ormoc and Baybay in Leyte; Maasin, Sogod and Cabalian in Southern Leyte. The list would also Tagbilaran in Bohol and Surigao City. Yes, the list is really long. And that is not even 100% complete.

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Tacloban port

How come our good liners with true passenger service and free food lost to the simple bus where there is no service and food is not free? When many of our liners were hotel-like. The simple reason is simply frequency and ubiquity. Buses leave daily while liners don’t. Buses have several trips in a day, both at night and day and in a wide span of schedules and so people have a choice. They also have a choice from several bus lines.

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I first had a glimpse of their magic of the nearly 15 years ago. I was aboard a bus from Maasin to Manila. The first trip then of the bus was 2am. I noticed that whenever and wherever the bus will see bags in the road without people around, our bus will stop, blow its horn and the passenger/s will appear from the house. Yes, there was no need to wait in the dark suffering from the cold and mosquito bites. The bus will simply stop for you. In Eastern Samar 18 years ago, a relative of the passenger rode the bus in Borongan and stopped the bus in a house in a barrio. Turned out the lady passenger has not yet finished her bath. Well, our bus driver simply turned off the engine to the laughter of all and we all waited and when the lady boarded there were cheers and more laughter. Are those ease and leaning backward possible in a ship? Simply no.

So whenever and wherever a bus begin crossing the straits I noticed they will simply kick out the liners from Manila. This first happened in Samar in the 1980’s. This was followed by Mindoro and Panay in the 2000’s. Masbate, Leyte, Bohol and Surigao soon followed suit. Practically it is only Negros and Cebu islands and northern  and western Mindanao that are immune from the buses from Manila.

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Intermodal buses in Masbate port

In the examples I gave I made sure it was the buses that torpedoed the liners and not the budget airlines. In those examples I am pretty sure most of the passengers transferred to the intermodal buses because if one checks the frequency of the airlines when there were still liners and today one will notice that the frequency increases of the airlines were modest while the intermodal buses grew by leaps and bounds. That is very clear in Panay. That is very clear in Eastern Visayas and Masbate. That is also true in Surigao, Bohol and Mindoro (maybe in Bohol many make a transfer to a Cebu plane).

I think the liners never knew what hit them. Probably they can not believe that they passengers will move from bunks to seats that taxes the butt and hurts the back. Their liners have toilets and baths and buses don’t have that. They have free food, good service (they have stewards and attendants), functioning restaurants, lounges and areas where passengers can mill around. There are even spas, discos and chapels. Yet the passengers exchanged them for seats where once can barely move. Sounds improbable, isn’t it? But that happened and not only in one place.

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And to think the bus fares are not even significantly cheaper, if it is. And there are ancillary costs like food, terminal fees, payment for using the comfort rooms of the terminals and eating places. And the perilous and embarrassing case of a sometime traveler’s diarrhea.

I once asked a lady seatmate in a bus (they are more inconvenienced as unlike males they need a true CR) from Surigao why. She said she likes the views when the bus runs, that she likes reaching places she had never been to before. Yes, on a liner you only see the sea, the seascape and some ports.

The bus passengers don’t even need to go to the ports and there be charged unfairly by the porters. And on the return trip they can stop the bus right by their gate (is there a convenience greater than that?). No need for porters again and relatives will be waiting by the gate since there is SMS now. And also in many cases the trip of the bus is shorter than the voyage of the ship. Many also think there is more risk in traveling in a ship. Courtesy of the highly-publicized sinkings like the Dona Paz and the Princess of the Stars.

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Even in places like Davao the intermodal bus was also a factor. That was also true in Iloilo and maybe Gensan also.

Those are the things that torpedoed the liners. Maybe the shipping companies never knew what hit them. Their belief is the budget airlines tripped them. That cannot be proven empirically in a lot of places. Maybe their pride is simply too high they cannot admit a lowly bus beat them.

If liners want to make a comeback they should do a real study why the passengers walked away. But I still doubt if they can really beat the intermodal bus. They are simply too ubiquitous.

Can Grief And Distress Be Read?

At the turn of the millennium, my parents were already getting old and with it came the inevitable sicknesses. I began visiting Bicol through the intermodal route from Davao. The reasons were varied. One, I found out that it cost only half compared to a trip via Manila. Second, I don’t have mall eyes and it is the countryside view that I enjoy. I even hate more the always-present clouds in a plane trip. Third, I don’t enjoy battling the hassles of Manila. Fourth, I want to learn new places and I am also a fan of buses. Lastly but not least, I am a ship spotter and I wanted to learn more about the ferries of the eastern seaboard.

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San Bernardino Strait from BALWHARTECO

The trips were exacting but I was younger and more eager then. I was not daunted that I don’t know the route well. By that time, I have began to give up on the Philtranco direct bus that I didn’t like. Honestly, as a Bicolano I was not a fan of the bus company as it has failed and abused Bicol for so long. Second, I do not want the long lost hours in the hot ports waiting for the ferries of Archipelago Philippine Ferries, their sister company when one is already tired (Philtranco is tied to the ferries of Archipelago). Sometimes, the bus waits for up to 5 hours for them. Third, in peak season it can be a battle for seats in Naga and then one had to wait for hours for the bus.

Since I was a lifelong traveler, I decided to experiment by using Manila buses to and from Leyte plus the Surigao ride I already knew. At times I ride some local buses, commuter vans and jeeps like those in Bicol, Samar and Leyte. What a fun it is to ride the ugly-looking Samar Bus Lines buses in the bumpy roads of Samar! Or the kamikaze buses to Sogod that freewheel the descents from Agas-agas. And riding the faster Tacloban van to Allen to catch the last St. Christopher bus in Allen, a rotten bus most of the time but they were the ones that specialized then on the “stragglers”, the passengers left by the last Manila bus from Tacloban.

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Those early trips that rely on connections were trials and errors. Early, I didn’t know the windows of the trips in each places (what hour is the first trip and what hour is the last trip). That was when I am forced to stay overnight in dark bus terminals like in Tacloban or even the plaza in Maasin or even wait alone in a waiting shed near midnight in Sogod junction with only mosquitoes for companions. Sometimes, having eateries open at night in a junction was already heaven like in Buray. If I know the schedules well now and the window hours of the trips is because I have learned from the mistakes of my trials and errors in the past.

In the process of all these, I grasped how lousy and how few were the ferry connections then across Surigao Strait. And I learned that in one mistake or one unfavorable bus or jeep connection might mean an 11-hour wait in Liloan port (once what made us miss the ship was a near-fistfight between our driver and another driver!). Or suffer long waits in Lipata port because the ferry was not running. And after all the hours of waiting then not being able to get a seat because the ferry was over its capacity. Lucky then if one will have an air vent for a seat as the stairs were just too dirty. Sometimes I vowed I will bring a carton or a newspaper so I can sit on the deck at the top of the ship.

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Lipata port

It was much better in San Bernardino Strait as there were more ferries there and not once I encounter a ferry that there that was overloaded. Even if it was, it will not be a problem since usually I don’t sit in a Matnog-Allen ferry at day. I just roam around the ship and see the outside view if there is light since the ferry there normally took only 1 hour and 10 minutes to cross. Just milling around is difficult in the Liloan-Lipata route because the ferries there took at least three-and-a-half hours to cross.

The trip going north for me was much better and less tiring because I know when the bus will be leaving the terminal and so I don’t waste time and effort needlessly. In Naga, it was much difficult since one can’t predict the exact arrival of the bus from Manila (and sometime they were delayed if it is rainy or there was some kind of road obstruction or traffic). When it rains it was much more difficult especially since flagging a Manila bus to Visayas was very hard since one can’t immediately read the signboard (it is not lighted). Moreover, Visayas buses were hesitant to stop for one or two solitary passengers which they think might just be destined a few towns away (and this has consequences).

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Well, Visayas buses are not so kind to passengers in Bicol because Bicol bus operators tell them not to take passengers bound for Bicol (when they legally can and anyway Bicol buses ply routes to the Visayas) and if they do they are stoned. There were stretches in Bicol where the driver/conductor will tell the passengers to deploy the shades (these are curtains actually) to avert injury should a stone hit the bus. That is the reason why riding a Visayan bus I don’t speak Bicol nor do I introduce myself as a Bicolano (I say I am a Tagalog which is also true and I will speak Tagalog with the accent of my parents).

One of the trips I remember well was a southbound trip where I started it too tired and very much lacking in sleep plus I was out of sorts. My brother gave me extra money for a plane trip but on the last minute I decided against it and I took the bus from Naga. My trip started at night as usual (because there are no buses from Manila passing Naga to the Visayas during the day). I can’t remember my bus now but we reached Matnog uneventfully sometime midnight and we reached Tacloban about midmorning.

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Matnog port

Usually, if I had a direct Naga-Tacloban bus I will get off in Tacloban and look for a connecting ride to Liloan. I usually do that since it is very hard to time a Liloan or Davao bus from Manila in Naga. I know that in Tacloban there will always be vans for Liloan but these were not many then. So, if there is a Sogod bus leaving immediately I might take a chance on it since van waiting times to fill can take two hours or more then. Or else take the more frequent Hinundayan van and get off at Himayangan junction and take a habal-habal to Liloan.

I reached Liloan in time for the new-fielded Super Shuttle Ferry 10 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) which was then the best ship in the Liloan-Lipata route. Before boarding and in the bus trip maybe I was not looking too much at myself and I was just preoccupied in gazing the views and in trying to find sleep and peace.

2008 Super Shuttle Ferry 10 @ Lipata 1

Photo by: Gorio Belen

The crew of Super Shuttle Ferry 10 was welcoming unlike the crews of their competitors which nary had time for passengers and treats them like cattle. If one needs anything from them one still has to look for a crewman. Maybe since they are too used to then with overcrowded ferries they would just rather disappear and also to avoid complaints about the congestion and the dirtiness (one can’t see anyone of them take the mop to clean the muddy deck when it is rainy). Or to try to find a seat for passengers unable to find one. Or assist the elderly and pregnant.

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I was looking for a seat among the lounge seats of Super Shuttle Ferry 10 in the Tourist section where I can have the chance of a semi-lying position to sleep when a crewman approached me. “Sir, would you like to take a bath?” I was dumbfounded and astounded. Never in my hundreds of trips aboard ferries have I ever heard such a question. He offered a lounge seat and placed my knapsack there and said to the passengers around, “Let Sir have this seat so he can lie and sleep.” I was doubly astounded. And he nodded to the crewman in charge of checking the Tourist tickets at the door as if to say “reserve this seat for him, don’t let others take it”. And that angel of a crewman led me to a bath in the middle of the Tourist section and guarded it so there will be no intrusion. The bathroom was clean and so was the water. It was one of the most refreshing baths I ever had.

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Bath is in the middle of that structure in the middle of the passenger deck

The crewman led me back to the seat after my bath (I was actually a little numb and so I welcomed the assistance) and said to the effect that “please no one disturb him”. In an instant I was deeply asleep and only a gentle nudge woke me as we were docking in Lipata. I softly thanked the two crewmen and it was thanks from the bottom of my heart. Soon I was looking for a connecting bus to Davao.

Can grief and distress be read in a person? Maybe I was not aware of this before because growing up in a region where we have no relatives, we don’t attend burials. Actually, once when my wife was confined in a hospital I was froze when an employee burst into tears wailing, “Wala na si Sir”. I grew up not witnessing such things or taking care of patients in hospitals when they were already terminally sick.

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The TB of SSF10 on the right

Until now I can only thank from the bottom of my heart that crewman of Super Shuttle Ferry 10 who assisted me and showed me all kindness and assistance I needed then. The trip I was making then happened after the death of my mother.

Was he really able read me? Was there some angel whispering in his ears? Did a senior officer noticed me and gave instructions? I don’t know, I don’t have the answers.

Super Shuttle Ferry 10 was soon replaced in the Liloan-Lipata route and I never rode her again. But in one ship spotting session of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society), we were able to board her in Mandaue Pier 8, the AMTC wharf. Yes, the lounge seat where I lain was still there. The only change was it was already re-upholstered.

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I had goose bumps looking at that seat and at the same time my heart was pounding. I tried to look at the faces of the crew. My angel was no longer there. But whatever, this article is my way of saying thanks to you again. From my heart, I wish you reach far in your career.

The MATNOG-ALLEN ROUTE

Since the historical days of yore, Samar has always been connected to Bicol. And that can be proven true from prehistory. How? Ethnologue, which is used by the United Nations for language analysis has reclassified the supposed “Bicol” dialect of southeastern Sorsogon as a dialect of Waray (and I asked a Sorsoganon friend and she declared to me they can talk to Samarenos without translation). This connection was also true in the days of the pre-Spanish Waray sea warriors (which were later called the “Pintados” by the Spaniards because of their body tattooing) who roamed the seas of our eastern seaboard up to the present-day Taiwan. In the glory period of our shipbuilding and seafaring traditions, Bicol and Samar were among the premier shipbuilding sites in our archipelago before we fell to the Spanish colonizers who then denied we had such traditions.
Converted to Christianity and ravaged by the hardships of forced labor of galleon-building for the Spaniards, Samar and Bicol did not lose its links. In Spanish times Samar boats called in Bicol places to trade and to pay homage to the premier religious image and pilgrimage site in the old Ibalon province (which now encompasses Albay, Sorsogon, Catanduanes, Masbate and the Partido district of Camarines Sur after it lost its province status) which is located in Joroan of Tiwi town. Sail-powered <i>paraus</> from Samar and Samar Sea islands continued to travel and trade to Legazpi and Tabaco until the early ’60s during the <i>habagat</i> and they roamed as far as Catanduanes. Samar to Legazpi <i>barotos</i> that dropped by some Sorsogon towns also sailed in this period. Even in recent times there were still boats from Samar that plied a route to Catanduanes from Biri islands which used Rapu-rapu island in Albay as the intermediate stop-over. Legazpi-based cargo-passenger motor boats also sailed to Rapu-rapu and Samar destinations. Ironically, although a historical maritime link, the sea between Samar and Bicol northeast of San Bernardino Strait has no name.
Islands are usually connected at their nearest crossing. So in the case of Bicol and Samar the logical connection will be really between Matnog in Sorsogon and Allen in Samar. Before the advent of ROROs the most established line here was the Trans Bicol Lines which has connections then to all the major islands surrounding the Bicol peninsula which are the Catanduanes, Samar and Masbate islands. Later this historical shipping company passed on to Eugenia Tabinas who used the shipping companies E. Tabinas Enterprises and Bicolandia Shipping. Included in the sell-out were the motor boats of Trans Bicol Lines.
Trans-Bicol Line. ©Edsel Benavides

The latter-day Northern Samar also had its own connection to Manila separate from the connection of the provincial capital then of Catbalogan. The main port of entry of the northern part of Samar island cannot be Catbalogan as there were no good roads then connecting it to the provincial capital (in fact Motor Boats then circumnavigated the island connecting Samar towns). These passenger-cargo ships from Manila to the northern part of Samar also called on Masbate and Sorsogon ports before docking in Allen and Carangian. Many of those ships then still proceed to Legazpi, Virac and Tabaco. Some even sail as far as Nato and Tandoc ports in Camarines Sur and a few sail up to Mercedes and Larap ports in Camarines Norte.

M/V Venus ©Gorio Belen/Philippine Herald

The ships mentioned above that called on Samar ports also served as Samar connection to Bicol including the freighters that also take in some passengers aside from cargo. Some of the shipping lines which had routes then in this part of the country were Madrigal Shipping, NORCAMCO and NCL (the earlier North Camarines Lumber), N&S Line, Rodrigueza Shipping and Newport Shipping. The passenger-cargo ships they operated were generally small.

With the strengthening of the South Line of the Manila Railroad and Railways (MRR, which was the latter PNR) that offered rail service up to Legazpi and bus connections to Larap, Daet, Tabaco and Sorsogon the shipping lines mentioned slowly lost market and patronage. Additionally, the legendary ALATCO bus company also offered Pasay-Larap-Daet-Legazpi-Naga-Tabaco buses with connections to Siruma and Nato, too). The first can bring passengers and cargo to its destination in less than 24 hours and the latter in just over a day or even less if it was up to the Camarines provinces only while the ship takes four days up to Legazpi and a week up to Camarines Norte. With better competition around first to go were the routes to the Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay and Catanduanes ports while the Sorsogon and Samar route held on for a while.
N%S Lines Ad. ©Gorio Belen
A momentous change then happened in early 1979 when Cardinal Shipping decided to field a short-distance ferry-RORO, the “Cardinal Ferry 1” between Matnog and Allen. With no port improvements yet it just used the wooden wharves of old that were meant for motor boats. Pantranco buses (now Philtranco) then rolled to the new province of Northern Samar up to Rawis, the port of Laoang which is also the base of motor bancas that connect to towns of Northern and northern Eastern Samar that have no roads. Slowly, the Matnog-Allen motor boats lost business and they retreated one by one to other Bicol routes that have no ROROs yet. With that the Samar-Bicol route served by steel-hulled ships from Manila also slowly withered but the service went on until about 1981 or 1982 and maybe it’s just because the shipping companies plying the route have nowhere else to go.
Cardinal Shipping Ad. ©Gorio Belen

Shortly after Cardinal Ferry opened the Matnog-Allen route, Newport Shipping also plied the route using the “Northern Star” (later known as the “Northern Samar”) and “Laoang Bay” (later known “Badjao”, “Philtranco Ferry 1” and “Black Double”). But government official accounts usually say that this route started with the fielding of the government-owned Maharlika I in 1982. That is, of course, historically and factually wrong. Maharlika I came when Matnog Ferry Terminal was already built and it connected to San Isidro Ferry Terminal, which is in another town south and not in Allen. (The two were called “Ferry Terminals” when they were actually modern RORO ports.) For government officials to say the government was the first to connect Matnog and Allen is then doubly incorrect.

M/V Northern Samar ©Lindsay Bridge
On another footnote, Carlos A. Gothong Lines, Inc. (CAGLI) also claims that they pioneered ROROs in the Philippines with their fielding of “Don Calvino” and “Dona Lili” in 1980 from Cebu. But evidence shows ROROs first came to Matnog-Allen among all places in the country and that is one significance of this route aside from it connecting Luzon to the Visayas and heralding the first intermodal buses and trucks in the country. (This is of course excepting the LCTs and barges pulled by tugs that connected some very near islands like Mactan and Cebu and Samar and Leyte though San Juanico Strait as those are technically ROROs too since vehicles roll on and roll off, too, to and from their car decks.)
After a few Newport Shipping quit (as their intermediate routes to Romblon was also drying) and “Northern Star” as “Northern Samar” was sold to Bicolandia Shipping in 1981. “Laoang Bay” meanwhile passed to different owners over the years. In due time Bicolandia Shipping dominated the route especially with the addition of “Princess of Bicolandia”, “Princess of Mayon” and “Eugenia”. Philtranco tried to challenge the monopoly of Eugenia Tabinas-San Pablo (who also used the company E. Tabinas Enterprises) and they rolled out the “Philtranco Ferry 1” which was the former “Laoang Bay”. They did not get a franchise and they argued instead that since they are just transporting their buses then they need not get a CPC (Certificate of Public Convenience). Unfortunately, the court did not agree with them and they were knocked out from the route. In the future though they will be able to come back.
M/V Princess of Mayon ©Gorio Belen

The 1980s was also the heyday of “Maharlika I”. She was fielded brand-new and as such was a great ship at the start. But being a government-owned company, mismanagement soon brewed and internal rot set in. She also had the disadvantage of serving a longer route (14 nautical miles vs. 11 nautical miles). Meanwhile, a new private port in Allen rose and BALWHARTECO soon showed the country how to develop properly a RORO port.

Maharlika and Northern Samar. ©Lindsay Bridge

Before the old millennium was over a new challenger to Bicolandia Shipping appeared on the horizon, the Sta. Clara Shipping Company with its more modern “Nelvin Jules” and it was very prepared for the challenge as it had a petition signed by all the Leyte mayors asking that the route be opened to other shipping companies. Bicolandia Shipping tried to TKO it like what they were able to do with Philtranco Ferries by claiming it had “missionary status” but the courts ruled that said status does not grant it a monopoly. Bicolandia Shipping by this time had a bad reputation where its ships only leave when it is already full or near-full without the observance of the proper ETD (Estimated Time of Departure which is part of the CPC along with the route).

Nelvin Jules ©Masaharo Homma

When Philtranco fell into the lap of Pepito Alvarez it also made a comeback. Under his landsman, it used the companies Archipelago Shipping, Philharbor Ferries and Oro Star. It leased the “Maharlika I” and “Maharlika II” from government and then added a few more ships including three double-ended ROROs, the “Maharlika Tres”, “Maharlika Cuatro” and the “Lakbayan I”. aside from other ferries (they were also serving many other routes aside from this route). They also built a new port in Dapdap, also in Allen and two kilometers south of Balicuatro (where BALWHARTECO is located) which had a route distance of 12 nautical miles to Matnog, a neglible increase over the 11 nautical miles of Balicuatro.

Grand Star RORO 3 and Maharlika Tres ©Mike Baylon
Bicolandia Shipping vessels cannot compete with the Sta. Clara and the Alvarez ships which were newer and better. Exercising pragmatism Bicolandia Shipping proposed to fold operations and sell the ships and franchises to the Sta. Clara group. The deal was done and Penafrancia Shipping was born.
Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping had the backing then of the Balicuatro Wharfage and Terminal Corp. (BALWHARTECO) which which was developing its new port slowly but consistently and which served as a model for RORO port development and operations with its shops, offices, lodging house, disco, flea market, eateries and gas station where regulars can load vehicles and even gas up on credit. BALWHARTECO also supported the intermodal buses and trucks with generous discounts and rebates so much so that the development of this shipping sector now poses a threat to container shipping.
Balicurato Wharf ©Joe Cardenas

Later, BALWHARTECO also hosted and supported 168 Shipping (the Star Ferries). With so many ships in the Matnog-Balicuatro route using advanced marketing techniques and cultivated tie-ups with bus and trucking companies and supported by BALWHARTECO, the Dapdap port wilted especially when Philtranco drivers were freed and given a choice and where to load their buses. Meanwhile with the opening of Dapdap and withdrawal of Maharlika the San Isidro Ferry Terminal became practically a “port to nowhere” (a port hosting no ships). This was reversed when it was leased to Montenegro Shipping Lines but after their lease expired they also left for Dapdap and Balicuatro after finding the distance uncompetitive and San Isidro Ferry Terminal had no more ferries again.

Nelvin Jules, Hansel Jobbett, and Star Ferry II ©Jazon Morillo

Recently, because of some reasons and misunderstandings, the Sta. Clara group tried to build its own port in another barrio in Allen and located further south of Dapdap (which means buses and trucks see it first except when these came from Catarman and beyond). The Allen LGU had it closed and no wonder because the Mayor is the owner of BALWHARTECO (now how legal is that is another matter). Construction continued as the heavy equipment were actually inside the port. Now the Hizzoner and the Sta. Clara group are fighting it out in the court and this battle royale will probably define the shape of the Matnog-Allen route in the future.

New Sta. Clara Shipping Port ©Mike Baylon
With two ports in Allen and possibly three soon and with ROROs mushrooming in the route the problem now is in Matnog port which is presently congested and overcrowded as its expansion followed a snail’s pace and because the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) does not know efficient RORO port design. While the limited wharf length of Balicuatro can accommodate six ROROs all at the same time, the Matnog port can only dock four ROROs simultaneously (although it is trying to add two more). And to think there are other ferries coming from Dapdap. So at peak hours the ROROs have to wait offshore in Matnog and pull out or undock to give way to priority ferries that will load or unload. This contributes to delays, added fuel consumption, more work for the crews and unnecessary risks for the ships. And that is not to mention frayed nerves at times and hot tempers especially when there are mishaps, near-mishaps and strong winds and currents. Matnog is not a protected port and as a southern-facing port is affected by the habagat and surges especially when there are weather disturbances in our eastern seaboard.
Whatever the twist and turn in its varied history ,the Matnog-Allen route will probably last nearly forever as the need for bridging of islands and the imperative for moving of cargo and people will probably never vanish there as it is the shortest connection between Luzon and Eastern Visayas. As they say, it is always, “Location, location and location…”.
Matnog Port ©Mike Baylon