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.

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Some Musings on Ship Sinkings

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

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

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Photo Credit: Dr. Normand Fernandez

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

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Photo Credit: Philippine Star and Gorio Belen

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

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Photo Credit: James Gabriel Verallo

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

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

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Photo Credit: Philippine Air Force and Jethro Cagasan

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

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Photo Credit: Britz Salih

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

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Photo Credit: Mike Anthony Arceno

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

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

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

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Photo Credit: Mike Baylon

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

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

Photo Credit: ONE WAY BIKE CLUB

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experts do not matter in this land.

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Photo Credit: Lindsay Bridge

The Well-Travelled MV Asia Japan, the Third

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long live then this well-travelled ship!