The Asia Philippines

Just recently, I was on a tour and I took the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines ferry Asia Philippines on the way home by plan. I strove to sail with her since I want to compare her with her sister ship, the Danica Joy 2 of Aleson Shipping Lines of Zamboanga which is probably sadly gone now since she was no longer salvaged after she capsized in Zamboanga port due to a mistake in the unloading of the ship almost exactly a year ago on September 2016 (she is now gone from Zamboanga port having lain there on her side for some time).

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In the comparison I found that the Danica Joy 2 had the superior accommodations and better amenities between the two. Asia Philippines is no better than the sold-now former Asia Indonesia which formerly plied the Cebu-Masbate route for Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. The two are basic overnight ferries for maybe just the purpose of having sleeping accommodations while sailing and their early 1990’s refittings are clearly evident. There is an air-conditioned Tourist section alright plus a Cabin by the bridge deck in the officers’ cabin row and the usual Economy and a basic kiosk and a restaurant that offers hot food at a high price but nothing much else and there is not even a proper lounge for passengers. 

I found out that the appointments of the Danica Joy 2 are a little better. There are Cabins and the Tourist is larger and with more room to walk around plus there is a lounge and I got the feeling that with a limited space Danica Joy 2 tries to make the passengers more comfortable as its route to Sandakan is longer that it can also qualify as a liner route as it is more than an overnight route. The canteen is also better and hot food can be ordered also plus there is a separate restaurant for the crew in the aft of the navigation deck. What is more it is female attendants that attend to the canteen.

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The two ships have the same origins as both are former vessels of the Shikoku Ferry in Japan which links Shikoku island with Japan’s largest island of Honshu. The Asia Philippines was the Orange Star in Japan while the Danica Joy 2 was the Orange Hope.

The Orange Star was built by Nakamura Zosen in their Matsue yard in Japan in 1975. Her keel was laid in November 1974 (thus her IMO Number is 7434262) and she was completed in April 1975. She is a RORO ship with bow and stern ramps and a single car deck between the ramps. The Length Over-all (LOA) of the ship is 67.2 meters and the Length Between Perpendiculars (LBP or LPP) is 60.3 meters with a Beam or Breadth of 14.2 meters which means she is wider than most ferries of that length. Originally, the ship’s Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) was 997 tons with a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 413 tons.

Of course, the hull material of the ship is steel alloy and she has 2 masts and two funnels at the top signifying she has two engines which are two sturdy Daihatsu marine engines of 2,000 horsepower each for a total of 4,000 horsepower which is better than most of the ships this size at the approximate period the ship was built. As such the design speed was 15.5 knots which was better than most for ferries of this size built in the mid-1970’s. Incidentally, she was the last ship built by Nakamura Zosen in the Matsue yard (the Danica Joy 2 was built by Nakamura Zosen in their Yanai yard in 1982).

The Asia Philippines came to the country in 1994 when Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) was acquiring a lot of RORO vessels and expanding and has already disposed of their old cruiser vessels (the company was among the regionals which was early in shifting to ROROs from cruisers). The Orange Star was the replacement of an earlier cruiser Asia Philippines of the company which was sold to Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) which became their Tandag, the first steel ferry of the company (now who can believe that just over 20 years ago such is the disparity of the two companies that Cokaliong was just buying cast-offs of Trans-Asia then when now they are already the leading company?).

The first route of the new Asia Philippines was the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route in tandem with the beautiful and bigger Trans-Asia (1), the best overnight ship then from Cebu to Northern Mindanao. That pairing assignment lasted until 1975 only when the sister ship of Trans-Asia (1), the Asia China arrived and Asia Philippines was then reassigned to the Cebu-Iloilo route of the company. Now, until just recently the Asia Philippines was still doing that route at times, the concrete indication of the lack of progress of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines over the decades when nearly ten years ago the Asia Philippines already had to battle the much-superior Filipinas Cebu of Cokaliong Shipping Lines in the important Cebu-Iloilo route.

When I rode her, the Asia Philippines is the regular of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines in the Cagayan de Oro-Tagbilaran route, a minor route which she plies with three round trips a week every night with a diversion to Cebu from Tagbilaran once a week. As of now the Asia Philippines is already the lowermost in the totem pole of the Trans-Asia ships because the equally old Trans-Asia 2 is bigger and considered superior to her and holds the more important Cebu-Ozamis route. In size, the Asia Philippines is roughly approximate to the Trans-Asia 8 of the company but the is a newer ship than her with better appointments and speed.

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Asia Philippines Tourist section

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Asia Philippines Economy section

The Asia Philippines has only two passenger decks with a small Tourist section in the lower passenger deck ahead of the restaurant which is located at the middle of that deck and behind that is Economy section. The upper deck is an all-Economy accommodation. As mentioned earlier the ship has no lounge and no Cabin either (did I simply not saw it?) and there is just a small front desk at the front of the restaurant on the opposite side of the kiosk. The basic restaurant is air-conditioned and it is beside the mess for the crew and that area is also where they cook the food called the galley in a ship. With a tight space the crew eat standing up or otherwise they bring their meals on styropor boxes elsewhere and usually in the passageway either standing or crouching.

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Asia Philippines restaurant

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Asia Philippines crew lunch

Like in other overnight ferries linen is complimentary in the Tourist section and there is none for the Economy class. At first the aircon in the Tourist that not seem strong enough but as the night deepens one will also need the blanket provided free of charge. One very noticeable weak point of the ship is the toilet and bath. It is simply to small for the passenger capacity and at times one has to queue especially in the morning. And there is practically no provision for showering. Near the front desk and the canteen are two sofas which serves as the “lounge” of the ship.

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Asia Philippines canteen. The ship galley is behind that.

The ship is equipped with a side ramp and a gangway on the side. I found out this is what they use in Tagbilaran port when they do side docking. At the stern of the ship is the usual two gangways for the passengers, a facility so that the cargo operations of the ships is unimpeded and this is a necessity since at times the ramp of the ship is over a meter below the wharf apron in low tide.

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Asia Philippines stern

The car ramp of the ship is the usual clipped or shortened type commonly found in Cebu overnight ferries that are better for the Cebu-type of forklift operation. This is so because almost all of the cargo of the ship is loose cargo or palletized and forklifts are used to move those. In Cebu overnight ferries one forklift at the wharf and another forklift at the car deck pass to each other the cargo and the lip of the ramp is just danger to the forklift above especially when wet or muddy. And besides the ship don’t ballast anyway like most Cebu overnight ships and when the tide is low there is no way to deploy the ramp to the wharf and so the ramp just resides at the side of the wharf and the lip will then just be an obstruction and so they just remove it.

The problem with clipped ramp happens when a car has to be loaded. It is not too difficult when the ramp can be deployed atop the wharf when the tide is high. The problem arises when the ramp can’t be deployed atop the wharf. That is what happened to us in Cebu. Light vehicles won’t depress much the ramp when the weight of the car is transferred to the ramp but loaded trucks are another matter. Of course the company has already mastered the art of making this difficult loading possible.

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The Asia Philippines is getting old and obsolescent already for Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. I don’t know if the company is already thinking of disposing her now that TASLI has already a more moneyed owner, the Udenna group of Dennis Uy that also controls now 2GO, the only liner company left in the country. Maybe Udenna will find out now that the amenities of Asia Philippines is already deficient by the standards of today and certainly far from their former Cebu Ferries ships. But then the company will always find out that this lesser ferry still fits their Cagayan de Oro-Tagbilaran route and will even fit their Cebu-Masbate route, a route where the passenger service of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines stopped (but not the cargo service) because they lacked ferries for some time now especially when the beautiful sister ships Trans-Asia (1) and Asia China were sold without replacements. However, if she is retained for a while for service in the minor routes I think it will be be better if her accommodations are improved and 2GO is an old  master of such improvements.

But should the coming five more ships of Starlite Ferries (a shipping company now also owned by the Udenna group) is diverted to Trans-Asia Shipping Lines then the Asia Philippines will be disposable and not necessarily to the breakers. She is still too good for the broken up and she can be sold to carriers in the eastern seaboard (or maybe to another overnight ferry company in Cebu). My only comment is her engines is a little big for the routes there where speed is not really that much needed there (and even with 4,000 horsepower Asia Philippines can’t seem to get much speed nowadays anyway). I remember that was also the problem of the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines’ Asia Japan with has the same 4,000 horsepower from two Daihatsu engines and of about the same size. Well, with the shorter Cagayan de Oro-Tagbilaran route that lack of speed will not be a problem. But in the Cebu-Masbate route it will be, a little.

With the entry of the Udenna group, I really can’t guess the future of Asia Philippines but it might not be the same as the other old ships of the company which is continually run because there are no new ships anyway. And the entry of big Udenna group is good because Trans-Asia Shipping Lines will be injected with new life again, for sure.

Wither Asia Philippines? We will see that in the coming days.

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.