Cagayan de Oro Port And Trans-Asia Shipping Lines

Cagayan de Oro port is the main connection of Mindanao to Cebu through the sea and in the south it is Cebu that is the primary trade and commercial center. Cebu supplies so many goods to Mindanao and it also attracts a lot of students and professionals from northern Mindanao. Besides a lot of people in Mindanao have Cebu origins. Cebu’s pre-eminence goes back a long, long time ago and that was even before the Spaniards came. When Magellan reached Cebu they noticed that there were many ships from Siam! Sugbu was already a great trading center even before Fernando Magallanes and Lapu-lapu were born.

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Cagayan de Oro port

Cagayan de Oro was not always the main port of entry from Cebu to Mindanao. Misamis town (Ozamis City now) reached prominence earlier than it and that was why it was the capital of the unified Misamis province then. And in the boom of copra before the 1929 Wall Street Crash in the US, Medina town and Gingoog were even more prosperous than Cagayan de Misamis, the old name of Cagayan de Oro (by the way there is no gold in that city; it was just a name creation to make it more attractive-sounding). Camiguin was also more prosperous then than Cagayan de Misamis (because of copra and not because of lanzones). All these are validated by the biography of former Vice-President Emmanuel Pelaez who hails from the area and whose father was the former Governor of the unified Misamis province.

But things always change and when the interior of Mindanao was opened for exploitation and the Sayre Highway that extended up to Cotabato province was built, slowly the central position of Cagayan de Misamis buoyed it up until it exceeded Misamis, Medina, Gingoog and Camiguin. The Americans’ interest in Bukidnon agribusiness (think pineapple and Del Monte) also helped a great deal and with that even Bugo port in Cagayan de Misamis became a port of importance.

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Part of Sayre Highway leading to Bukidnon

Many shipping companies served the growing commerce between Cebu and Cagayan de Oro. Some of earlier ones were national liner companies (almost all liners then going to Cagayan de Oro call in Cebu first) and some were regionals like Central Shipping (but this graduated to the national liner company Sweet Lines). The situation then was national liner companies dominated the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro corridor (in fact the entire Cebu-northern Mindanao corridor). On the side of the regionals, they were then dependent on wooden motor boats and at best they would have ex-”F” ships or ships converted from minesweepers or PT boats.

In 1974, a new shipping company was born in Cebu which was first known as Solar Shipping Lines but they immediately changed their company name to Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. or TASLI for short. This company had an entirely new tack which made them surpass their regional rivals immediately. Their strategy was to buy good surplus cruisers from Japan whose size even exceeded the former “FS” ships which in those days still dominated the fleet of the national liner companies (but which actually are already reaching the end of their reliable service and were already prone to accidents). The age of those surplus ships of TASLI was about the same of the small liners being purchased then from Japan by the national liner companies. So imagine TASLI’s edge in the regional and specifically the Cebu-northern Mindanao shipping wars especially the premier route to Cagayan de Oro.

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Asia Philippines by TASLI

The cruisers of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines were of course faster, more reliable and more comfortable as comfort was not the strength of the former “FS” ships then which has cargo origins. And, of course, the ex-”F” ships, etc. were even more inferior along with the wooden motor boats. Even in the 1970’s when our population was much smaller and the trade of goods then smaller too, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was able to form a fleet of seven of these modern (by Philippine standards) cruisers which were all built in Japan in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

These TASLI ships bore the names which later became familiar even to the current generation: Asia Philippines, Asia Japan, Asia Indonesia, Asia China and Trans-Asia (two were sold and replaced by ships that bore the same name). To complete the modernist approach, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines built a modern main office and an airconditioned ticketing office just across Plaza Independencia which stands until now and the company was justifiably proud of those. And I say I have to congratulate its architect and the owners because the building still looks beautiful four decades later. Their buildings were just near where their ships docked then. Actually, I sometimes go there just to feel the ambiance and the history of the place.

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TASLI ticketing office

When the new shipping paradigm came which we know today as the RORO ships, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines immediately went aboard and sold their old cruisers. In this field, among the Visayas-Mindanao regional shipping companies, only Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) was ahead of them. In the 1980′,s after the break-up with Lorenzo Shipping Corporation, CAGLI stressed regional operations and they were first to realize the superiority of the ROROs even in the overnight ferry field. Roble Shipping Inc. and Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) were among the recipients of the cast-off cruisers of TASLI.

In succession from 1987, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines acquired Asia Hongkong, a new Asia Japan, Asia Thailand, Asia Taiwan, Asia Brunei and a new Asia Indonesia, a new Asia Singapore, a new Trans-Asia, a new Asia Philippines and a new Asia China with the last one added in 1995. Trans-Asia Shipping Lines were adding more than a new ship a year in this stretch and this brought them easily to the top of the Visayas-Mindanao regional shipping companies. From Cebu as a hub, their routes spread like the spokes of the wheel with routes to Mindanao, the all the major Visayas islands and even Masbate in the Bicol Region. And they dominated the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route. They even exceeded there Carlos A. Gothong Lines and Sulpicio Lines.

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The jewels of their fleet were the sister ships Trans-Asia and Asia China. The two were nearly liner in size and speed and they had the appointments and comforts of a liner. In those days, the two were probably the best overnight ships in the whole country and Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was justifiably proud of the two. It was more than a statement that “they have arrived”. They were the best among the regionals, the top in the totem pole of this category.

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But storms at sea can suddenly appear out of nowhere and their fury could be fiercer than one might expect. The “typhoon” that battered Trans-Asia Shipping Lines appeared on January 1, 1996 when the “Great Merger” between Williams Lines Inc., Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and Aboitiz Shipping Company happened which produced the giant shipping company WG&A. With the creation of WG&A, a new, more powerful regional shipping company suddenly appeared, the Cebu Ferries Corporation or CFC. It also had another subsidiary, the High Speed Craft (HSC) company SuperCat.

In Cebu Ferries Corporation, WG&A passed on their old liners and the former regional ships of William Lines and CAGLI. To top it and to challenge the jewels of TASLI which were ruling the prime Visayas-Mindanao route, the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route, CFC fielded the Our Lady of Lipa and later the Our Lady of Good Voyage, a small William Lines liner which was the former Mabuhay 6. So as not to lose in the one-upmanship, Sulpicio Lines then fielded the even bigger Princess of the Ocean which was really a liner in appointments, speed and size.

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Photo credit: Ray Smith

The Our Lady of Lipa and Princess of the Ocean were both capable of 20 knots and so the races between Cebu and Cagayan de Oro began. The bragging rights comes from which ship will arrive Cagayan de Oro port first. In Cagayan de Oro that matters because maybe half of the passengers will still be travelling long distances to Bukidnon, Davao, Cotabato, Gensan and Lanao (the farthest I heard was still bound for Sarangani islands). If one is able to hitch to a connecting ride before dawn then he will have lunch at home even it is as far as Davao. In won’t be dark already when the passenger reaches Sarangani province unlike before (if one is late and there are no more trips then one sleeps in Gensan).

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And reports of 2:00 or 2:30 am arrivals (or even earlier) began filtering back. From an 8pm departure in Cebu! There was no way the sister ships of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines can match that. In comfort and accommodations they probably can match ships fitted as liners (except in speed and maybe in the restaurant). But Cebu Ferries Corporation also has a more extensive route system and in conjunction with WG&A liners passing through Cebu their frequencies can’t be matched. WG&A liners acting also as Visayas-Mindanao liners were simply untouchable like the SuperFerries emanating from Cebu. Or when they use the likes of Our Lady of Sacred Heart in a Vis-Min route. Maybe TASLI then were asking what sea god they have crossed to deserve such a fate and tribulation!

Trans-Asia Shipping Lines tried to fight back (and show they are not cowered). They acquired three more ships in a short stretch between 1997 and 1998, the Trans-Asia 2, the Asia Malaysia and the Asia South Korea. However, they lost two ships to accidents in 1999 and they sold three more ships early this millennium. There was simply a surplus of bottoms in the Visayas-Mindanao routes so there was overcompetition (contrary to what Myrna S. Austria claims but those knowledgeable of Visayas-Mindanao shipping will easily contradict her). A lot of regional shipping companies failed in this period. The growth of others were stunted and that included Trans-Asia Shipping Lines.

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Soon, even Cebu Ferries Corporation stepped back, gave up routes and sold ships. It was not simply the effects of overcompetition on them. The “Great Merger” unraveled and the Chiongbian and Gothong families pulled out and they had to be paid for their shares and so still-good ships were thrown to the torches of the breakers. Later, reeling from the resurgence of competitors, Cebu Ferries Corporation gave up completely and its remaining ships were brought to Batangas (and becoming “Batangas Ferries”, jokingly).

But Trans-Asia Shipping Lines suffered a lot. For ten years from 1998 they didn’t acquire any ships until when the purchased the Trans-Asia 3 in 2008. From 2010, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines acquired four more ships. But the difference this time were they were purchasing ships discarded by others (that was the pattern of their clients Cokaliong Shipping Lines and Roble Shipping Lines before). It seems they have forgotten the formula which brought them to the top. As I observed, they were not the same company after that bruising battle with Cebu Ferries Corporation. The “Great Merger” was actually a curse to our shipping as it turned out. Not only to TASLI but to the whole shipping industry. Shipping companies that were growing were blighted by them, some were even snuffed out completely.

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While Trans-Asia Shipping Lines still added four more ferries from 2010, they also lost about the same number through disposals and an accident, the sinking of the Asia Malaysia. And then they sold to the breakers their former jewels which might have weak engines already but the interiors were still superb.

Now one of the cast-offs they bought, the Trans-Asia 5 now just sails as a Cargo RORO ship and another has fast-weakening engine, the Trans-Asia 9 (the Captain of her as Our Lady of Good Voyage admitted to PSSS that its engines were weak already). Trans-Asia Shipping Lines severely lacks ships now and their fleet is beginning to get gray. They still try to hold to the premier Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route but challengers are now baying at their door.

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I hope they have a renaissance. And like in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s that they sail boldly on to a new dawn.

The Blue Magic Ferries and Starhorse Shipping Lines

These two shipping companies are actually successors of the once-dominant Viva Shipping Lines and its legal-fiction companies Sto. Domingo Shipping Lines and DR Shipping Lines which once dominated the seas of the old Southern Tagalog region before four provinces of it were spun out as the MIMAROPA region. These two companies were founded by the sons of the founder of Viva Shipping Lines, the widely-known Don Domingo Reyes or “DDR” to many. This founder was a powerful man during his time as he was the landsman in the Bondoc Peninsula in Quezon of the martial law dictator then. Don Domingo Reyes’ main base was Bondoc Peninsula although most people thought it was Batangas City and Lucena as he has his bases of his shipping there and people did not know of Villa Reyes in San Narciso, Quezon where he built his first wooden motor boats that were called batel in the region.

A laid-up Viva Shipping Line RORO by Edison Sy

The Blue Magic Ferries was first to be established among the two. This came into existence when the operations of Viva Shipping Lines, etc. were already winded down and its ships being disposed already. Almost all of the older ships of the Viva Shipping combine were sold and most to the ship breakers. Maybe that will be the logical fate since the Southern Tagalog region has a surplus of ferries then when two Zamboanga shipping companies (the Aleson Shipping Lines and A.S. Sakaluran) and a Cebu shipping company (ACG Joy Express Liner) even tried their fates there (none was successful, however).

Some fastcrafts of Viva Shipping Lines somehow survived and these combined with the remains of ACG Joy Express Line. This company started in shipping with the Sea Cat vessels that first operated out of Cebu and had routes to Bohol and whose founder is a well-known scion of Cebu who is Alvin C. Garcia (hence the initials). From what I can gather, Blue Magic Ferries is a sort of partnership between two sons of Don Domingo Reyes and Alvin C. Garcia.

Blue Water Princes 2. Blue Magic Feries Blue Line Shipping.

Blue Water Princess 2 by JM Litada

Blue Magic Ferries was able to accumulate at least five ferries with two ROROs and two fastcrafts and a catamaran High Speed Craft (HSC). The ROROs were the Blue Water Princess 1 which was known as ACG Joy 8 in ACG Joy Express Liner before. The other RORO was the Blue Water Princess 2 which was the former Asia Brunei of the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. The High Speed Crafts of Blue Magic Ferries that I was able to verify were the Blue Water Queen, the Blue Water Lady and the Blue Water Lady II. The first was the former Our Lady of Mt. Carmel of DR Shipping Lines which was purchased from Sun Cruises of Manila. The second was the former Sea Cat 25, a catamaran of ACG Express Liner and the last was the former Our Lady of Fatima of Sto. Domingo Shipping Lines.

Blue Magic Ferries based itself in Lucena, an old base of Viva Shipping Lines, their predecessor company (later Starhorse Shipping Lines based itself too in Lucena). From there they operated routes to Marinduque and Masbate which are also old routes of Viva Shipping Lines. Lucena then was not virgin territory and in fact there were many shipping companies operating routes from there including Montenegro Shipping Lines, Phil-Nippon Kyoei and Sta. Cruz Shipping. Meanwhile, Kalayaan Shipping Lines had a route to Romblon. [Note: Phil-Nippon Kyoei and Sta. Cruz Shipping are both defunct now.]

Blue Water Queen

Blue Water Queen by Edison Sy

Trouble first struck Blue Magic Ferries when the Blue Water Princess 1 was hit by storm waves while on a voyage from Lucena to Masbate which was an old route of Viva Shipping Lines. It seems the ship’s rolling cargo slid unbalancing the ship which then tried to seek refuge in western Bondoc Peninsula but capsized when the ship struck the shallows. This unfortunate incident happened in 2007 and it resulted in some casualties. To a beginning struggling company this type of incident can be hard to surmount especially if the company has other problems.

From a TV grab of Sydney Morning Herald

Starhorse Shipping Lines came later than Blue Magic Ferries around 2008 and started by leasing ships from DBP Leasing Corporation, the government’s ship leasing company. They named these into a series called “Virgen de Penafrancia”. That name is not surprising since Viva Shipping Lines originally started with the “Penafrancia” series of batels and then into a series of ROROs called the “Viva Penafrancia”. It was able to secure a route by accepting the promoted but harebrained route of MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority, the Philippines maritime regulatory agency). That route is from Laiya, San Juan, Batangas to Marinduque which does not make sense on two counts. One, the distance is double than that of from Lucena and those who know the sea knows it will not be able to compete in rates and fares with the ferries from Lucena. Second, the direction of the route means the ferry will be broadsided by the habagat (southwest monsoon) waves, the same problem usually encountered by the Lucena-Masbate ships which once nearly capsized a ferry in the Pasacao-Masbate route. Starhorse Shipping Lines was founded by Victor Reyes, the eldest son of Don Domingo Reyes. [Victor Reyes was recently deceased.]

Soon, as expected, Starhorse Shipping Lines was able to secure a transfer to the Lucena-Marinduque route and they chartered more ferries from DBP Leasing Corporation until their series reached the numeral “VIII” (however there was no “III” and “IV” but reports then said they purchased the Don Martin Sr. 6 of the defunct Palacio Lines of Cebu and Samar but this is missing now). So for a time, Starhorse Shipping Lines was able to accumulate more ferries from DBP Leasing Corporation, most of which were LCTs. This time around Starhorse, the successor, emphasized cleanliness and passenger service, two terms that were unknown in the predecessor company. However, they were in the route where the new dominant shipping company of Southern Tagalog and MIMAROPA, the Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. was operating. In the early days of Montenegro Lines, their predecessor company Viva Shipping Line applied the pressure on them, shall we say. This time around, it was already the pleasure of Montenegro Lines to return the favor.

M/V Pinoy Roro-1 Folio

From a folio by Irvine Danielles

Greater trouble erupted for Blue Magic Ferries at the same time Starhorse Shipping Lines started operations. It seems they found out then that they have no Certificates of Public Convenience (CPC or franchise) which supposedly should still be in the possession of the Reyes family. Actually, things are really puzzling for me. From records I can gather, some 24 ships of the Viva Shipping Lines combine were confirmed sold (I can name the 24 individually) and some was as late as 2006. However, the family can show nothing for it in terms of ability to purchase new ships (especially by Starhorse Shipping Lines). And what happened to the franchises? These thing do not disappeared in an instant as it is the residual of any defunct transportation company and can even be sold for cash or hoarded. Were the proceeds returned to a “patron saint”?

Blue Magic Ferries stopped operations in 2008. The Blue Water Princess 2 was sold to Navios Shipping Lines where she became their first vessel, the Grand Unity. Blue Water Lady II was sold to DIMC Shipping of Dumaguete where she became the Delta III. The fates of the other ships are unknown to me. Some might still be laid up and one was reported to be in a Navotas yard.

Starhorse Lines M/V Peñafrancia II

Virgen de Penafrancia II by Arnel Hutalla

Starhorse Shipping Lines isn’t doing too well lately. They have returned to DBP some ships (ironically some is already with their competitor Montenegro Shipping Lines) and now they are down to two, the Virgen de Penafrancia I and Virgen de Penafrancia II which are both LCTs. Heads-on, LCTs are usually at a disadvantage against short-distance ferry-ROROs although their Korean-made LCTs seem to be better than the ordinary LCT.

One of the two, Blue Magic Ferries is now out. I wonder if Starhorse Shipping Lines can hold on and i hope they can. They are trying but sometimes the death of the founder proves insurmountable.

Blue Magic Ferries and Starhorse Shipping Companies are two successor companies I have a hard time figuring out. I wonder if there are smokes and mirrors even in the predecessor company.

LG Flatscreen TV for Entertainment

Starhorse Shipping goodluck charms by Irvine Kinea

As a last note, I have learned that Viva Shipping Lines still have some ships in storage in Lucena and San Narciso, Quezon. Will there be a rebirth? Or is it already too late and the family is too fractured now?

I am still interested in the further developments of these successor companies of Viva Shipping Lines.

Quo Vadis, Lite Ferry 8?

Nobody might have realized it but Lite Ferry 8 might now be the RORO ferry with the second-most number of years of service in the Philippines after “Melrivic Seven” (excepting also the LCT’s). She first came to our country in 1980 as the “Sta. Maria” of Negros Navigation, the first RORO ship in their fleet. Later, in 2001 she was sold by Negros Navigation to George & Peter Lines where she became the “GP Ferry-1”. After several years, in 2007 she was sold by G&P Lines to Lite Ferries where she became the “Lite Ferry 8” and was designed to compete in the prime route across Camotes Sea, the Cebu-Ormoc route. She is certainly a well-traveled ferry.

“Lite Ferry 8” started life as the “Hayabusa No. 3” of Kyouei Unyu of Japan with IMO Number 7323205. She was built by Yoshiura Zosen in their Kure shipyard and she was completed on April of 1973. As built, her Length Over-all (LOA) was 72.0 meters and her Breadth was 12.6 meters with a Gross Tonnage (GT) of 691 and a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 1,680. She was powered by two Akasaka marine diesel engines totaling 4,200 horsepower routed to two screws. She had a maximum service speed of 15 knots when she was still new.

Sta. Maria ©Gorio Belen

Before leaving Japan, she was renamed as the “Hayabusa No.8”. In December of 1980 she came to Negros Navigation of the Philippines which added decks and passenger accommodations to her. She was among the first RORO’s in the Philippines and the first for Negros Navigation. She could actually be the first RORO liner in the country (as distinguished from short-distance and overnight ferries). Originally, she held the route from Manila to Iloilo and Bacolod and calling on Romblon port along the way. In one sense she replaced the flagship “Don Juan” of the Negros Navigation fleet which sank in a collision on April 22, 1980.

Sta. Maria ©Gorio Belen

With the advent of additional liners in the Negros Navigation fleet, the smaller and slower “Sta. Maria” was withdrawn from the Manila route and shunted to regional routes. Among the routes she did was the Cebu-Iloilo-Puerto Princesa route and later the Iloilo-Bacolod route. In 2000, when Negros Navigation already had a surplus of ships and the parallel route Dumangas-Bacolod was already impacting the Iloilo-Bacolod route she was sold to George & Peter Lines which needed a replacement ship after the loss of their ship “Dumaguete Ferry” to fire.

GP Ferry-1 ©Wakanatsu and Toshihiko Mikami

In George & Peter Lines, she became the “GP Ferry-1” where she basically did the staple Cebu-Dumaguete-Dapitan route of the company which was an overnight and day route on the way to Dapitan and an overnight route on the way back to Cebu. When there were still no short-distance RORO ferries between Dumaguete and Dapitan this was a good route. But when short-distance ferries multiplied in the route and with it dominating the daytime sailing, slowly George & Peter Lines saw their intermediate route jeopardized and the process accelerated with the entry of Cokaliong Lines in the Cebu-Dapitan-Dumaguete route.

I think it is in this context that G&P Lines sold her to Lite Ferries in 2007. By this time her engines were also beginning to get sickly, a factor of age exacerbated with longer route distances. Lite Ferries designed her to compete in the prime Camotes Sea route where the “Heaven Stars” of Roble Shipping Lines and the good overnight ferries of Cebu Ferries were holding sway. However, she was not too successful for Lite Shipping as her old engines seemed to be too thirsty and not too solid for the route. Sometime in 2010, Lite Ferries began using the Lite Ferry 12 for the Ormoc route and after that Lite Ferry 8 already spent considerably more time in anchorage than in sailing. Lite Ferry 12 had considerably smaller engines than “Lite Ferry 8” and her size was just a match for the like of “Wonderful Stars” which was also doing the Cebu-Ormoc route.

Lite Ferry 8 ©Jonathan Bordon

“Lite Ferry 8” was also put up for sale but with the history of her engines any sale except to the breakers will not be easy. Her accommodations and size is not what is used for the short-distance ferries and her engines are also too big for that route class. The only RORO now of her length, engine size and passenger accommodations are the overnight ferries from Cebu to Northern Mindanao but Lite Ferries do not sail such routes except for their route to Plaridel, Misamis Occidental and even in such route lengths the company prefers to use ROROs in the 60-meter class with engines totaling less than 3,000 horsepower.

As of now, “Lite Ferry 8” is almost a ship without a route. She is difficult to find a soft landing spot and she does not have the endurance of the Daihatsu-engined ex-“Asia Indonesia” and ex-“Asia Brunei” which more or less shares her age and size and engine power. Kindly to her, Lite Ferries is not a company known for contacting fast the breakers’ numbers unlike Cebu Ferries and its former mother company.

Lite Ferry 8 ©Aristotle Refugio

So the question lingering about her now is, Quo vadis?.