The Super Shuttle RORO 12 and Its New Route

Last April 30, the RORO Cargo ship Super Shuttle RORO12 of the Asian Marine Transport Corporation or AMTC participated in a very notable ceremony, the inauguration of the new Davao-General Santos City-Bitung route. I do not know when was the last time two Heads of State were present in the Philippines for a shipping inauguration. If there was one, it was eons ago. But right after the ASEAN Summit, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia came to Davao City for the inauguration. President Jokowi of Indonesia was even accompanied by her wife, the First Lady of Indonesia Iriana Widodo. I thought wow! that was the importance given on the opening of the route connecting the southern Philippines with eastern Indonesia. And the host of AMTC in Davao City, the Kudos Port was that lucky to have the presence of two Presidents. Wow, how lucky was Mr. Johnny Ng, the owner of the port. The inauguration might be “The Event” of his successful business career.

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And the ship Super Shuttle RORO 12 was also very lucky. Imagine all the photos and videos of her not only in media but also the social media. That goes true too to Kudos Port and its owner. Both the ship, the port are now famous and not only in Davao City. And then just past the narrows of Pakiputan Strait, the Super Shuttle RORO 12 met the China PLAN flotilla which is in a world tour and which picked Davao City as the first port of call. I do not know if that is auspicious but what a timing! It seemed a lot of attention was on Davao City that day and Super Shuttle RORO 12 was part of all that.

Viewing, talking of Super Shuttle RORO 12, I always have charged emotions. Many do not know but she is not a new ship in our waters for in 1994 she came to William Lines as the ROCON I. When she came she became the biggest cargo ship in the whole country, bar none. She was then the pride of William Lines and justifiably so. During the time she came, William Lines was in a battle to keep pace with Aboitiz Shipping and Sulpicio Lines which were both ahead of her in container ships before ROCON I arrived.

But when she arrived I had the thought, “Can ROCON I be fit for local routes or is she meant to do Far Eastern routes?” The reason behind that thought is ROCON I was much larger than the container ships in the country which is just about 90 meters or 100 meters in length and ROCON I was 160 meters in length. Even compared to the Ramon Aboitiz and Vidal Aboitiz of Aboitiz Shipping which were built in Ukraine, she was significantly bigger. And I thought “Is ROCON I the William Lines slam dunk a la Filipina Princess and Princess of the Orient of Sulpicio Lines?” When those two grand liners of Sulpicio Lines came in 1988 and 1993m they were much larger than the liners of the competition. And now ROCON I was just like those two.

I noticed the name “ROCON” was a play on the characteristics of the ship which is “RORO” and loads container vans. Before she came most the container ships in the country load and unload “LOLO”, an acronym for “Lift On, Lift Off”. That means in loading and unloading booms are used to lift the container vans. Meanwhile, ROCON I is a true RORO Cargo ship true. There are no cargo booms and container vans are hauled into or hauled off the ship. This means the container vans are aboard trailers that are pulled by prime movers. This system is actually faster in loading and unloading but trailers are an additional capital expense and there can’t be maximization like in LOLO ships where container vans are stacked with practically no wasted space.

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In Europe, the origin of ROCON I, RORO Cargo ships carry all types of vehicles crossing the seas from sedans to trucks to trailers. Since the load are vehicles then ramps are needed as access to the different car levels. Aside from ramps as access to the port, the RORO Cargo ships have car ramps connecting the various level and up to the sun deck. Sometimes lifts or elevators are also used. So even though ROCON I is a big ships in TEU her capacity is only 500. She was certainly not the first container ship with ramps here as the very first container ship of William Lines, the Wilcon 1 has a ramp and operates ROLO which means she has cargo booms at the front and a car ramp at the stern for combined RORO and LOLO loading and unloading. The Wilcon 4 of William Lines also has a RORO ramp and so do the Sinulog of Escano Lines but what really sets apart ROCON 1 is she has no booms and that is actually a leap of faith for William Lines as not much cars and trucks are loaded locally and for a ship to just carry 500 TEUs on 6,500 horsepower, the ratio does not seem to be too good.

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The ROCON I was built as the Mercandian Gigant for Nolis in 1984 by Frederikshavn Vft in Fredirikshavn, Denmark. Her name was already a giveaway to her size and she measured 160.5 meters by 22.3 meters with a gross register tonnage (GRT) of 15,375 tons. In those days those measurent were already very big (nowadays, container ships of over 200 meters are already common). Mercandian Gigant has a design speed of 16 knots from 6,500 horsepower from a single MaK engine. The ship was already equipped with the modern bulbous bow. Of course, she has only a single funnel.

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The lift. The mezzanine is at the background.

Inside the ship has three RORO decks for vehicles plus a mezzanine for cars aside from the top or sun deck which is also used for loading vehicles. Ramps connect the different levels and lifts are also employed. Like most RORO Cargo ships there is a tower at the front which accommodates the crew and the drivers of the vehicles and the bridge at the top. There are cabins for the drivers with its own toilet and bath and there are drawing rooms and a common galley which in layman’s word is the kitchen and restaurant of the ship (the term “galley” comes from the earlier centuries). Drawing rooms are the lounges of the ship and the officers have a separate drawing room. 

In 1995, ROCON I came to the Philippines and William Lines as mentioned before. She really seemed too big then for the route to Cebu. The ship did not sail long for William Lines because the “Great Merger” that produced the William, Gothong & Aboitiz or WG&A shipping company came on January 1, 1996 and she became the SuperRORO 200 in the new company. The next year the ship was sold abroad. And that was one thing I cannot understand about WG&A. They were able to accumulate a few good container ships that do not look like general-purpose cargo ships like the bulk of the Wilcons, Sulcons, Lorcons and Aboitiz Concarriers but instead of maintaining the routes to Hongkong and other ports in the Far East what WG&A did instead was to withdraw from foreign routes and surrender to the foreigners. What happened next was only foreign ships were carrying our container vans with the probable exception of Eastern Shipping Lines. While withdrawing from foreign routes what WG&A did was also to bully the smaller shipping companies in the country and in some cases that resulted in the collapse of the weaker shipping companies.

Of the ships we sold aboard it was ROCON I which first came back and that was completely unexpected as ships sold abroad never come back. The only other ship to come back here was the former SuperFerry 16 which became the St. Therese of Child Jesus of 2GO. So when the former Amirouche came here in 2015 to become the Super Shuttle RORO 12 I was shocked when the IMO Number (which is IMO 8222733) told me she was the former ROCON I. I was able to visit her in AMTC Pier 8 days after she arrived. I asked Yangyang Rodriguez, a high officer of AMTC if she was a former ship here and it seems he played coy with me. But of course IMO Numbers don’t lie and that is the beauty of it. Very easy in tracing a ship but MARINA, the local maritime administrator doesn’t use that because they insist on their own ship identification number which is useless in tracing ships.

Amirouche, the last name of the ship was refitted and she became the Super Shuttle RORO 12, the last big RORO Cargo ship so far of AMTC. She did not have a permanent route like the other RORO Cargo ships of the company. Sometimes she would come to Davao.

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Docked off Davao before inauguration

The news came of the planned inauguration of the Davao-General Santos City-Bitung (Indonesia) route. Two weeks before the planned inauguration Super Shuttle RORO 12 was already waiting in the southern Davao anchorage in Pakiputan Strait. She was obviously newly painted. I imagine her interiors were spruced up too. Who can tell if the two Presidents will board the ship together with their First Ladies and other dignitaries? And two days before the inauguration she was already docked in Kudos Port. Maybe top officers of AMTC was already around to make sure all goes well. I am also sure the Presidential Security Group (PSG) checked every nook and cranny of the ship and practically sealed it.

I was surprised by the choice of the Super Shuttle Ferry 12 for the route as she is a big RORO Cargo ship and the route to Bitung is just starting. This route was already in the news for the last four years or so and nothing came out of it. Once I was told the route is already off because, “Bawal ang bigas, bawal ang asukal, bawal ang (cooking oil). E, ano na lang ang ikakarga namin?” There is really a very strong protectionist lobby because if we will follow the zero tariff ASEAN scheme we will be flooded by goods from our neighbors because they are more efficient, their labor and fuel costs are less and so their consumer goods are cheaper. Many Filipinos and even the educated ones don’t know that the prices of our basic goods is well over the world market price. That is why so many Filipinos are poor and they can’t even buy the basic necessities.

Now I wonder what changed that the route is on again. As usual the media is next to clueless. All they can say is the route is a boon to something (basta me maisulat lang). We have talked before to the Purser of Pelita Harapan, a big wooden motor boat that once had a Manado-Davao route. He said we have salable goods to Indonesia and that is what they carry like plywood, construction supplies, flour and Coca-Cola which are all produced in Davao. He said the equivalent goods that come from the industrial area near Jakarta is more expensive because of the distance. There are many Indonesia products that can be traded in Davao but because of quantitative restrictions (QRs) and denial of permits it will treated as “smuggling” here. That is the sad system and wrong understanding of “free trade” here. What they say as “free trade” is actually restricted trade.

The media and bureaucrats say that instead of container vans from Davao going the roundabout way to Indonesia via Manila and Jakarta (Tanjung Priok), the direct route will be cheaper. I don’t know who is fooling whom with that. There is practically no trade between southern Philippines and eastern Indonesia because “free trade” is regarded as “smuggling” and that was the previous viewpoint of Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. He didn’t want cheap rice, oil and sugar from Indonesia (that is why I am asking now what changed). If there was really significant trade that would have been visible in general-purpose ships. But actually it is hard to track them because MARINA cannot implement also the IMO requirement for AIS (Automatic Identification System) which is used track ships.

Actually what might happen is goods meant for eastern Indonesia will use General Santos City and Davao as intermediate ports (both these ports host foreign container ships regularly). So instead of the container vans offloaded in Tanjung Priok which is farther it will be offloaded in the two Philippine ports and supposedly there should be savings in cargo rates (but that is assuming there is enough volume).

I guess AMTC fielded only a big and good ship for the inauguration for pomp and effect. I do not think there is enough volume to sustain the Super Shuttle RORO 12. If needed be, AMTC has the smaller Super Shuttle RORO 14 and Super Shuttle RORO 6 (if it is running) for that.

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Super Shuttle RORO 12 on the way to Bitung

It is funny some are fooled by media that Super Shuttle Ferry 12 will accommodate passengers and some government officials echo that and even cited tourism. But the RORO Cargo ships of AMTC are not allowed to carry passengers. Did something change too in this regard? Bitung is the bigger port in that part of Sulawesi and the bigger city is Manado but its port is small. There was once a Davao-Manado plane but it was discontinued for lack of passengers. Even the Pelita Harapan is gone now and it was a Davao-Manado ship mainly used for cargo (and to repatriate Filipino prisoners in Indonesia). Pelita Harapan can carry cargo but not fuel for sale. Madidiskubre kasi na mura ang fuel sa Indonesia.

I wish Super Shuttle RORO 12 well. But let us just see what will happen to this new trade route.

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RORO Cargo Ships and Vehicle Carriers Can Be Good ROPAX Liners

In shipping, wherever that be in the world, fuel consumption is a critical factor because it takes up 40% of the operational costs of the ship. Here it might even be higher as our ships are old and our mariner rates are so low and apprentices comprise about half of the crew and they are the ones that pay and not the shipping company. So when fuel prices went really high a decade ago even the Fast ROPAXes of Europe capable of 30 knots slowed down to save on fuel. High Speed Crafts (HSCs) suffered also, had to slow down too and some stopped sailing for they were simply unprofitable even at very high load factors.

We too had been victims of that fetish with speed that in the 1990’s and so, many liners capable of 20 knots, locally, came into the country. The list of this is long and I would list it: Filipina Princess, Princess of Paradise, Princess of the Stars, Princess of the Universe, Princess of the World, Princess of the Ocean and Princess of New Unity, all of Sulpicio Lines; SuperFerry 1 of Aboitiz Shipping; Mabuhay 1 and Mabuhay 3 of William Lines; Our Lady of Lipa, SuperFerry 12, SuperFerry 14, SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 of WG&A; SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21 of Aboitiz Transport System; St. Francis of Assisi, St. Joseph The Worker, St. Peter The Apostle, Mary Queen of Peace, St. Ezekiel Moreno, St. Michael The Archangel and St. Francis Xavier of Negros Navigation. SuperFerry 16 then came back to become the St. Therese of the Child Jesus of 2GO. A total of 26 liners. Now isn’t that too many? And most are 150 meters in length or over and the average passenger capacity is over 2,000 with 3 even breaching the 3,000 mark.

I argue that most proved to be oversized.

That speed came from oversized engines, usually 20,000 horsepower and over which means more fuel consumption and I was not happy with that trend in speed and the trend of upsizing the ships because I know that in the past when liners became bigger than the ex-”FS” ship, many ports with previous connection to Manila were left out because the liners were already too big and their drafts too deep for the small and shallow ports. Then later, the fast cruisers became the new paradigm and more ports have to be left out because to shorten voyage duration the interports were reduced. Gone were the old routes which featured four, five or even six ports of call and with voyages lasting several days.

Those big, fast liners might have been okay when ship passengers were still overflowing when there were still no budget planes and intermodal buses as competition. But that was not okay for the passengers left behind in the abandoned ports. It just created a generation or two of passengers not catered to by ships and grew up not relying on them.

And in the end the liner companies paid dearly for that. Even with advertisements they can no longer be coaxed into riding ships (even if they are painted pink). And that became a disaster for liner shipping when passengers thinned. Too few port calls mean less passengers and cargo – when the ships were already big and guzzling fuel and heavily needing those. And that just helped sink the liner sector of our shipping which has not recovered until now.

I argue that for the passenger loads and cargo sizes now our liners sailing are simply too big and that is the reason why they can’t or won’t call in the smaller ports served by liners until the end of the millennium like Ormoc, Surigao, Tagbilaran, Dapitan and others. It should go down in size and maybe add ports of call and damn if transit times are longer. What is more important is that the ships become fuller so that it will be more profitable. Anyway, those who want fast travel will simply take the budget planes. But still there are still many people which prefer the ships to the planes.

Moreover, the remaining liners now have engines too big to be profitable on marginal routes and smaller ports. I think the engines also have to be downsized. If fuel prices go up once more the liners won’t be profitable again.

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Our Lady of Sacred Heart by Chief Ray Smith

In downsizing and saving on fuel, there is one type of ship that is actually fit for us. These are the former RORO Cargo ships and Vehicle Carriers and we have several  examples of that in the past. Actually for the same size and length, RORO Cargo ships have smaller engines than ships which were ROPAXes from the start. They were not really built for speed but for economy while having a decent speed. And moreover on RORO Cargo ships not much steel has to be added as additional decks.

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Our Lady of Medjugorje by Nat Pagayonan

In the past when liners were not that yet big and fast we had very successful liners whose origins were as former RORO Cargo Ships. I think the most famous of these were the sister ships Our Lady of Sacred Heart and the Our Lady of Medjugorje of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (CAGLI) which both came in 1990. Beautifully renovated, few suspected their true origins. Weighing the amenities of the ship, they were not inferior to liners of their size. And nor in speed although they have engine horsepowers less than the liners of their size.

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Butuan Bay 1 by Vinz Sanchez

It was the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines (when they split from WG&A) which brought in the next batch of RORO Cargo ships for conversion into liner ROPAXes when they acquired the Butuan Bay 1 and the Ozamis Bay 1 in the early 2000’s. But what puzzled me is they forgot how to convert them into beautiful ROPAXes like before and almost everybody that rode them said they were ugly. And that maybe helped doom the return of Gothong Lines into passenger shipping. When Butuan Bay 1 became the Trans-Asia 5 it became a beautiful ship with first-class interiors. Butuan Bay 1 should have been like that from the very start and if it were, the trajectory of Gothong Lines might have been different (of course they had other problems too).

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Ozamis Bay 1 by Mike Baylon

It was the Asian Marine Transport Corporation or AMTC that next brought RORO Cargo ships here for conversion into RORO liners. In their Super Shuttle RORO series, they started with the first three converted in to ROPAXes and these were the small Super Shuttle RORO 1, Super Shuttle RORO 2 and Super Shuttle RORO 3. However, the conversions were also not done well and were not worthy of the beautiful small liners of the past. Were they scrimping too like the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines? Or were they thinking more of the cargo than the passenger revenue?

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Super Shuttle RORO 1 by Fr. Bar Fabella

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Super Shuttle RORO 2 by Nowell Alcancia

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Super Shuttle RORO 3 by Mike Baylon

The next batch of Super Shuttle ROROs which were former RORO Cargo ships or variants from the Super Shuttle RORO 7 to Super Shuttle RORO 12 were all big, all former RORO Cargo ships but all were no longer converted in ROPAXes because maybe the first three of AMTC were not particularly successful. I was able to board all of them and their interiors were all good. The cabins for the vehicle drivers were still in good condition and being used along with ships’ drawing rooms and the good, functional galleys. Some even have gyms. Actually what was only needed is to maybe convert the top deck or another deck into good passenger accommodations. Our shipbuilders were good at that in the 1950’s and 1960’s when refrigerated cargo or cargo-passenger ships from Europe were converted into liners for Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines aside from Compania Maritima.

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Super Shuttle RORO 7 by James Gabriel Verallo

The Super Shuttle RORO 7 and Super Shuttle RORO 8 were the two AMTC ships that were intriguing for me. At 145 and 146 meters length the size is good especially since this is a tall ship with at least 4 RORO decks. The original top sustained speeds are 17 and 17.5 knots from only 6,900 and 7,800 horsepower which is even less than the horsepowers of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart and the Our Lady of Medjugorje which both had top sustained speeds of 17 knots when new and did 16 knots here even with additional metal and age. If 16 knots can be coaxed from the small engines of the two AMTC ships then it might have been enough especially if compared to the speeds the former Cebu Ferries series converted liners are doing now. It will have a good container load with a decent passenger size if one deck is converted into passenger accommodations and the cabins for drivers are used for passengers here. I was hoping AMTC will go in that direction but they did not. It turned out AMTC was no longer interested in liner shipping and was more interested in container shipping and especially the loading of brand-new vehicles destined for car dealers in the south.

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Super Shuttle RORO 8 by Aris Refugio

A design speed or original top sustained speed of 15 or 16 knots might not do because converted here with additional metal and with age already they will probably just run at 13 or 14 knots and that is slow for a liner. 15 knots locally is still acceptable but 16 knots is better as proven by the Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje. But then on the other hand the last time the former Cebu Ferry 2 ran as a liner to Cebu from Manila she was just being made to run at 14 to 15 knots. Does it mean that speed is already acceptable? That will mean a 28 or 29 hour run to Cebu versus the 22 hours of the big liners. But then passing through interports will mask that. Just feed the passengers well. And I always wondered why liners to Cebu don’t pass Roxas City anymore when it is just on the way. Of course the big ones can’t. At least 2GO tried Romblon port with the St. Anthony de Padua (the former Cebu Ferry 2) the last time around. But then maybe small liners shouldn’t be doing the Cebu route.

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St. Anthony of Padua by Mike Baylon

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St. Ignatius of Loyola by Mike Baylon

It was Aboitiz Transport System which next brought in RORO Cargo ships for conversion into ROPAXes with their Cebu Ferry 2 and Cebu Ferry 3. Originally these two ships were refitted to be overnight ferries but later when they were transferred out of their Cebu base they were refitted again to become liners. The two are known now as St. Anthony of Padua and St. Ignatius of Loyola under 2GO. Aside from the two, there are other RORO Cargo ships which were converted into ROPAXes but they were not liners but overnight ships. Among these are the Graceful Stars and Oroquieta Stars of Roble Shipping.

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The future Trans-Asia (1) by Mike Baylon

I think there are many RORO Cargo ships around that are about 120-130 meters in length that have a design speed of 18 or 19 knots which can still run here at 16.5 to 17.5 knots and they might just be perfect. I don’t know if that is the case of the Warrior Spirit which recently arrived to become the third Trans-Asia (1) of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. This might be good as a test case. The length of 126.2 meters is perfect and the design speed is 19 knots from twin engines is also perfect. Trans-Asia Shipping Lines has a good record in conversion. But then she will just be an overnight ship but a big one at that. But the coming Panglao Bay 1 of Carlos A. Gothong Lines might not prove to be a test case as she will not be converted to ROPAX, per report.

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Panglao Bay 1 by Mark Ocul

Trying these former RORO Cargo ships for conversion into ROPAXes might be a safe bet. These RORO Cargo ships might be low-risk in acquisition as their purchases might just be above breaker prices. So if it does not make money the worth of metal as scrap might still pay for the acquisition price. In the future Trans-Asia (1) they are even cutting off metal so windows can be made. That is different from the experience of the Cebu Ferries ships were a lot of metal has to be added because decks have to built.

I think it is good time to try acquiring RORO Cargo ships as our future liners. They might turn out to be good bets and worthwhile liners a la Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje.

A Report on the Recent Situation of Bicol Passenger Shipping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Burias motor banca arriving in Pasacao

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

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

[Written based on January 2017 data.]

My First Cebu Tour Last December

My first Cebu tour in my long travel happened after I planed in to Cebu and I was met by Mark at the airport. After lunch there, instead of going to Cebu via Mandaue (and suffer its bad traffic), we made our way to Muelle Osmena in Lapu-lapu City to ride the Metro Ferry. Riding this ferry is the easiest way to cover the various ports and piers of Cebu from Ouano (House) up to Cebu Pier 2. From Pier 3, Mark and me went to the ticketing office of Roble Shipping to secure our passage to Baybay for our trip to Tacloban to be with the PSSS tour from Tacloban to Matnog and back.

After securing our tickets me and Mark parted ways in front of the new Robinson’s Galleria which is near Pier 4. I then haled a taxi for Ouano wharf near the Mandaue market but the driver said a car can’t enter Ouano with its deep muck. I assented but upon reaching the corner entering Ouano I directed him instead to the parallel road I once knew that was adjacent to the SMC Shipping & Lighterage facility that once was the alternate access to Ouano wharf.

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Turning right into that road, I was surprised it was full of trucks that will be loaded for Asian Marine Transport Corporation or AMTC. I thought I was mistaken but then we came to a gate bearing the AMTC mark. My driver asked for entry inside but the guard said I should just enter by myself. I paid my fare and soon I was already inside the new facility of AMTC, the wharf they transferred to after they were evicted from their former wharf in Pier 8. I can’t believe it was so easy to get in when the gate looked imposing from outside.

I asked about their Mandaue to Batangas trip inside one of their offices there which are converted container vans (but airconditioned). They said the Super Shuttle RORO 3 was just on trial voyage to Cagayan de Oro. That ship has not been running for about a year already but I was interested in it because it offers a direct and cheap passage to Batangas from Cebu and I have not dropped yet my plan to shipspot Batangas and Calapan. They gave me a number and they took my number but it became useless as there was no cellphone signal in the next days because of fears of bombings in the Sinulog activities.

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Snoopy inside the AMTC facility in Ouano

From the office I tried to make a round of the new facility of AMTC. There were actually some other customers inside their facility that were transacting rolling cargoes so I was not the only outsider. One thing I immediately noticed is the tanker Snoopy which supplies acid to San Miguel Corporation in Cebu was still docked in its usual place. Maybe part of the lease of AMTC with Ouano said it could not be touched.

It was not that easy to roam the new AMTC facility. The old road by the wharf was already destroyed by all the movements of the heavy equipment and the weight of the container vans. However, the inner portion when a container yard should be already has new concrete.

Docked there were the Super Shuttle Ferry 3 and the Super Shuttle RORO 9. It was the first time I saw the latter ship near. I made my way to Super Shuttle Ferry 3 and I was able to talk to a friendly officer. He said they were making some repairs because a previous typhoon dragged her anchor and she ended up beached. It happened when she had no crew onboard. They let me tour the ship and I was happy because I haven’t boarded yet this ship before. She was very similar to any other basic, short-distance ferry-RORO in terms of arrangement. Well, after all they came from one basic design in Japan.

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Though the Super Shuttle RORO 9 was just nearby I did not try to board her anymore. Too many people around there as there were works on the ship. I also was able to tour that ship already before. Besides, I also wanted to go to the other side of the fence to the remaining half of the old Ouano wharf by the market while there was still enough light. I also wanted to see the changes there, if there were any and photograph the ships there too.

I went out by foot and took a pedicab near the old wharf entrance. I found out that there was no way to get inside by foot as all footpaths are covered by deep muck. In the near portion were the usual ships doing Afloat Ship Repair (ASR) plus again some basnigs. The ships on ASR then were the Lite Ferry 7, the Filipinas Dinagat and the West Ocean 1. I found a friendly officer and so I boarded the Lite Ferry 7 again although I had already toured her before. There was no significant change inside her.

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Lite Ferry 7 and a basnig

On the far end by the wall dividing it and AMTC, I found the LCT Akira and the LCT Poseidon 19 docked. The Cargo RORO LCT Akira of Ocean Transport was discharging container vans. However, her access to their container yard was already cut off by the new AMTC facility and they have to use the muddy main road. I wonder if they were happy with the change. Meanwhile, LCT Poseidon 19 was just on standby without load or cargo movement.

The usual canteen that PSSS shipspotters patronize was still there and the wall of AMTC is touching its side already. So gone from the place were Eliezer Shipworks, a fine subcontractor for ship refitting works and the junk shop adjacent it. Feeling hungry and thirsty, I ordered merienda from the canteen. The lady there recalls me. She even asked where were my usual companions (it seems she remembers we order a lot of her softdrinks when we drop by her place).

Had a small talk with her. She said her business dropped 50% since the AMTC facility was built. She also said other contributary factors were the moving out of the Lite Ferries LCTs to the Ouano-House (that was the first time I knew they were no longer there). She said the passengers were complaining that with the muck one is forced to take the pedicab (whose drivers are taking advantage of the situation by doubling their fare to P20 for a distance of 200 meters; well, it is also hard going for them).

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I soon bade the canteen owner goodbye. I have to figure out a way how to get out since there were very few pedicabs and it was already near 5pm. Made my way to the market. There was no opening where a person can squeeze through. Now I know my only way now is to hitch a ride with one of the service vehicles going out. I was in luck that a Multicab was on the way out. They even gave to me the front seat and they wouldn’t want to accept any payment.

Finished my first day in Cebu by going to the Cebu North Bus Terminal to take bus pictures (can’t resist it as it was just on the way). I then went back to Robinson’s Galleria to take my knapsack. It was good Mark tipped me their hospitality service was still free. Soon my son was there to fetch me. Seamless.

I was really able to make full my first day in Cebu. And the extra trip to Ouano was well worth it as me and PSSS discovered what were the changes there.

I just rested next day for I know the next days will be consecutive long trips for me. It turned out to be one complete week of travel that was about 1,900 kilometers long including me and Mark’s trip from Baybay to Tacloban [I have reports on that already except for the Cebu to Tacloban section]. It broke my medical spell of no travel and this first-day tour of Cebu was the first part of it.

The Batangas-Caticlan Route

Once, as we were ship spotting Pier 4, me and Vinz noticed that there seems to be a ceremony involving Cebu Ferry 1 and Cebu Ferry 3. Asking the guard who is his friend, Vinz learned it was despedida (farewell ceremonies) for the two Visayas-Mindanao ferries which will be transferred in Batangas. We learned later that the Batangas manager of 2GO said he can make the two ferries earn more there than in Cebu. That was already the era of the retreat of Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC) when to think that in the late 1990’s they were bullying the Visayas-Mindanao ferry companies which led to the demise of some. This time around, Cebu Ferries Corporation can no longer keep with their competition. What a reversal of fortune!

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The despidida for two Cebu Ferry ships

Vinz asked me how the two ferries will fare in Batangas. I told him it is a different ballgame there. What I meant was in Cebu it was a matter of attracting passengers and loose cargo, I told Vinz the game in the intermodal ports of Luzon (and Batangas is one) is in attracting the buses and the trucks and I told him discounting (called “rebates”) is the name of the game there (and that also includes freebies). That means whichever has the biggest discount will have the rolling cargo and for the regulars long-term agreements apply so it is not the decision of the drivers what ship to board. I told Vinz the new “Batangas Ferries” (my monicker) will have to learn the new game.

The new “Batangas Ferries” plied a direct Batangas to Caticlan route compared to their competitors which ply both the Batangas-Calapan route and the Roxas-Caticlan route and let the buses and trucks roll from Calapan to Roxas in Oriental Mindoro, a distance of about 120 kilometers or so or about 3 hours of rolling time. The “Batangas Ferries” can easily sail that route as an overnight ferry because they have the speed to do it in less than 12 hours (and as overnight ferries they are already equipped with bunks). In fact, early on they tried a round trip in a day for the Batangas-Caticlan route. Then they found out they don’t have enough load because many of the buses and trucks are already tied to their competitors and there is no load yet in the early morning in Caticlan as the buses and trucks are still rolling from many parts of Panay and will still arrive at noon or in the afternoon.

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A “Batangas Ferry” sailing into the coming night by Nowell Alcancia

In reality, even the slower ferries of their competition can do a Batangas-Caticlan route should they want to do it. It will take more than 12 hours but they will still be able to sail the next night. Even at the usual 11 knots they can do that route in no more than 16 hours. Their faster ferries than can do 14 knots can do the route in about 14 hours. Their ferries will just have to become overnight ferries+ instead of being short-distance ferries.

That then was the first rub. The ferries of Batangas are not used to and are even loath to operate overnight ferries. For one, they will have to convert their ferries to have bunks. That means expenses, that means lessening the passenger capacity. Now for shipping companies that are even loath to adding scantlings and were just content to have the unofficial “Stairs Class”, that is a difficult sell. Good overnight ferries also must be able to provide a restaurant and hot food. Well, nothing beats the ease and profit margins of overpriced instant noodles where the only capital is hot water. Now what if MARINA obliges them to provide free meals if the voyage time is over 12 hours like what Administrator Pacienco Balbon required then of Viva Shipping Lines? That could be disaster.

Well, it seems nothing will beat requiring the rolling cargo and its passengers two ferry rides within the same night (for some that leave Manila late). They will earn twice and anyway the rolling cargo won’t go to “Batangas Ferries” because many are tied to them with discounting and rebates. And they won’t just transfer because the rates in the sea is high for the same distance and the distance of Batangas-Caticlan is high and so it is not cheap and Batangas Ferries is not used to discounting (actually, the reason they eventually lost in Visayas-Mindanao is they were the more expensive).

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Passengers can’t be aboard the bus during the voyage and in loading and offloading

The buses won’t go along with “Batangas Ferries” too. If they ride on a Batangas-Caticlan ferry they would have to forego the fare for 120 kilometers or so and that is not peanuts. It has long been held by the LTFRB that a bus cannot charge for the distance traveled at sea (of course, secretly they will try to do it since anyway most passengers don’t know how to compute the fare nor do they know of the number of kilometers). And they will have to pay higher for the longer sea distance crossed. Does anyone need a nail to the head?

And so the buses will rather have their passengers ride two ferries at night. That connotes all the trouble of disembarking and boarding again plus the queues for the various tickets. And never mind if it is raining. In that route, that can be the definition of “passenger service”. Is there a difference between passengers and cattle?

And so until now it is still just 2GO, the renamed “Batangas Ferries” which do the direct Batangas-Caticlan route. Montenegro Shipping Lines, Starlite Ferries, Archipelago Ferries Philippines, Super Shuttle Ferry (Asian Marine Transport Corporation) and Besta Shipping Lines never did that direct route. Who said they will walk the extra mile for their clients?

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“Batangas Ferry 3”

Anyway, passengers are appreciative of the superior accommodations of the 2GO ferries. They have never seen such ferries in Batangas before (and they haven’t been to Cebu either, the home of good overnight ferries). They never ever thought that their ropaxes are actually just cattle carriers. And they have never seen a true restaurant in a ship before which the 2GO ferries have. And oh, plus true, polite passenger service (they have been too used to masahista ng bakal in T-shirts before pretending as stewards).

Will Archipelago Ferries Philippines do a direct route since their catamaran ROROs are faster (theoretically they can do the route is just 10 hours but they will have to do it at daytime since they don’t have bunks)? Well, I don’t think so. I heard they are even happy with the farther Bulalacao-Caticlan route since their sister company bus rolls farther and thus earns more from fare.

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A catamaran RORO of AFPC by Jon Erodias

And that is the situation of the Batangas-Caticlan route. Now I wonder when the Panay passengers will demand for something better.

Are they just content to get up at night and disembark even if it is raining and continue the trip with their heads hanging out from seats and their bodies contorted in search of sleep?

The Sea Connections of Camiguin and the Ferries From Balingoan

Camiguin, which is a medium-sized island off the coast of northern Misamis and which lies south of Bohol is a province that was once part of the province of Misamis Oriental before it became a separate province in the 1970’s. Camiguin was once a prosperous island and even more prosperous than Cagayan de Misamis during the first peak of copra and coconut oil during World War I and the period right after that. Maybe the reason was because the sea lanes there was more defensible in the late period of Moro attacks when the Mindanao interior was not yet open and so it became more developed first. And being nearer to Cebu might have also helped.

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Photo by Michael Denne

However, when the interior of Mindanao was opened for exploitation and Cagayan de Misamis bloomed, Camiguin slowly became a backwater. If Camiguin is still known today it’s maybe because of its lanzones which is probably the best in the entire Philippines (I hail from Luzon and I will say it easily beats the Paete lanzones). In recent decades, however, Camiguin’s tourism boomed. It is a destination place now like Siargao and Samal. These are the three islands of Mindanao that glitters in the tourists’ minds (why is it that islands are the tourist meccas?).

Per capita, Camiguin has the most number of ferry crossings in a day next only to Samal. Some islands like Mindoro are sky high in this count but if divided by the population then Camiguin will still be ahead. Of all the other islands maybe only Guimaras can tie with Camiguin in this statistic. I intentionally did not count Mactan because it is an unusual case and there is no RORO connecting it to Cebu. I also omitted Boracay which is also a unique case.

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Photo by Travis Break

Camiguin’s main connection to the outside world to the town of Balingoan in Misamis Oriental. Once, it has two ports having connection to that port, the Guinsiliban and Benoni ports but lately only Benoni still has a connection to Balingoan. Besides the Balingoan connection, Camiguin also has a daily connection to Jagna town in Bohol which is served by Asian Marine Transport Corporation. Its ferries leave Balbagon port in Mambajao in the morning and the return trip will be after midday and arriving again in Mambajao in the late afternoon.

Asian Marine Transport Corporation also has a weekly Cebu-Mambajao connection leaving Cebu Friday night and arriving Saturday morning which will then depart Mambajao Sunday night. The Camiguin connection to Cebu is no longer strong because people of Camiguin already treats Cagayan de Oro as their commercial and trading center. In this way, Camiguin really belongs to Mindanao.

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Kalinaw and Yuhum by Bemes Lee Mondia

The Jagna-Mambajao connection is stronger. The proof is a daily connection can be sustained. The reasons are many. For some the Cebu-Bohol-Camiguin-Balingoan connection is the best way to get a vehicle across as the overnight ferries connecting Cebu and Cagayan de Oro do not stress that and thus rates are high. For Bol-anons in Mindanao this is an alternate way to visit their province. And there is maybe enough trade and people crossing between the two islands. The two islands actually had been connected for so long already.

There are many ferries connecting Balingoan and Benoni ranging from basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs to steel-hulled motor launches. The trips start from dawn and lasts up to dusk with an interval of about an hour or even less. The crossing times vary slight with about an hour or less being the normal. Fares are on the cheap side, just like a bus and so people from both directions just cross either to take a vacation or from the other side to make pasyal or laag in Cagayan de Oro and shop and visit. Many families in Camiguin also have sons and daughters studying in Cagayan de Oro.

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Royal Princess by Bemes Lee Mondia

Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) is the strongest ferry serving the route to Balingoan. Usually their Super Shuttle Ferry 1, Super Shuttle Ferry 6 and Super Shuttle Ferry 9 alternates in the route. All are basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. ROROs are superior in this routes as there are a lot of vehicles crossing and rolling cargo earns much more than passenger revenues. It seems the coming of AMTC practically sealed the fate of the old but once fine cruisers of Camiguin, the Camiguin Oro and Jagna Oro which both belonged to Sea Jade Express which are both gone now. Also gone were the cruisers of Tamula Shipping.

Among the locals fighting AMTC are Philstone Shipping Corporation, Davemyr Shipping and Hijos de Juan Corrales. Philstone is the strongest of the three with three ferries, the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs Kalinaw and Yuhum and the small cruiser Royal Princess. Meanwhile, Davemyr Shipping operates the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO Dona Pepita. Hijos de Juan Corrales operates the ancient but still good motor launch Hijos-1, the longest-serving steel-hulled ferry in the route.

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Dona Pepita by Joel Bado

The ferries of Camiguin in the south are all small. Maybe because of the small population it is the only size that can be maintained there without the passengers waiting too long for the vessel to depart. However, small size also has its negative. In a strong swell that sometimes visit the strait separating Camiguin from Mindanao, when hit broadside these ferries suffer along with the passengers. This is true when there is a storm somewhere or when the monsoons are acting up or simply when the barometer is low and the wind is blowing hard.

Before, Camiguin also had High Speed Craft (HSC) connections. Pioneer was the Paras Sea Cat which had a daily Cagayan-Mambajao-Jagna route. Oceanjet also tried a Balingoan-Benoni-Jagna route. The two quit and both did not come back. Maybe they found out that the demand for premium service to Camiguin is highly seasonal. For a very short route, the locals do not take too much to the HSCs which has double the fares for so little a time-saving. Ironically, it was Oceanjet which was the buyer of the Paras Sea Cat.

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Hijos-1 by Janjan Salas

So aside from the ferries from Jagna and Cebu, Camiguin has 8 ferries on the south side connecting to Balingoan. Not a bad number for an island of Camiguin’s size and population.

Camiguin is not a backwater anymore.

The Bogo Connection to Masbate

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Photo credits: Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

In the old days, the Cebu connection to Masbate went from Cebu port. And among those that provided that connection were liner companies whose ships pass by Masbate first before heading to Cebu and northern Mindanao and from there their liners will retrace back the route. That is gone now and the last Manila liner that provided such connection was the Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines which stopped sailing in the aftermath of the Princess of the Stars‘ sinking in a typhoon in 2008. However, until a few months ago there were a ROPAX Cargo ship, the Super Shuttle RORO 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation that was running a route from Batangas to Cebu (Mandaue actually) and Cagayan de Oro via Masbate.

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Photo Credit: Wakanatsu

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Trans-Asia Shipping Lines also had an overnight ferry route from Cebu to Masbate since almost 40 years ago. That is gone now too, a victim of the decline of their fleet and now it is only Cokaliong Shipping Lines that has a Cebu-Masbate passenger service but it only runs once a week. Also long gone was the Palacio Lines’ route from Cebu to Placer, Masbate. But still around is the Lapu-lapu Shipping Lines’ route from Cebu to Cataingan, Masbate which is usually run by their Lapu-lapu Ferry 1, a cruiser ship.

In the past, wooden motor boats also did routes from various ports in Masbate to northern Cebu using the ports of Hagnaya, Maya and Polambato. The three are in San Remigio, Daanbantayan and Bogo towns, respectively. However, from the 1980’s, MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency, consistently pressured the wooden motor boats (the lancha) to retire citing them as “obsolete” and “unsafe”. Some had their franchises revoked and that practically ended the lives of the shipping companies owning them (many operate wooden motor boats because they can’t afford to buy steel-hulled ferries).

MARINA was so successful in that campaign that no motor boats still do a Cebu-Masbate route. What remained were the big passenger-cargo motor bancas which run until now (maybe these are “modern” and “safer” than the phased-out motor boats?). These motor bancas originate from Cawayan, Placer, Esperanza and Pio V. Corpus towns in Masbate. The eastern portion of Masbate island, by the way, is actually Cebuano-speaking and their economic tether is to Cebu. Their motor boats connect their people and their goods to Cebu. Some of their scions actually study in Cebu, too, and work there later on.

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Polambato port (Photo credit: James Gabriel Verallo)

This was the state of things when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pushed her Central Nautical Highway which pushed for ROROs. Since the nearest Maya port was in disrepair and there are issues of depth, the port of Polambato was designated as the connecting RORO port to Masbate. That was a two-birds-in-one-stone move as Polambato was already the connecting port to nothern Leyte via the Palompon port (it still is until now). So only one RORO port had two be developed for two routes. Neat but a route from Polambato is longer than a route from Maya port.

On the side of Masbate, two ports were offered as connection, the port of Cawayan on the southern side of Masbate island and the port of Cataingan on the southeastern end on the island in the protected Cataingan Bay. Cataingan port is the logical choice since it is actually the best port in eastern Masbate as it is considered the district port and it lies in a protected bay. In the past, it was a home of motor boats going to Cebu. It also has a shorter road distance to Masbate City, the main economic center of Masbate province and the take-off port of Masbate to the Bicol mainland. There was also an attempt for a two-birds-in-one-stone move there as Cataingan was also declared to be the Masbate port that will connect to Naval, Biliran and Leyte island.

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Cawayan port (Photo credit: Noel de Mesa)

Cawayan port, meanwhile, is a bit more distant from Masbate City and when the RORO route was opened its roads were in a worse state compared to the Cataingan-Masbate road which was at least asphalted though beginning to crack (now, however the roads of the two towns to Masbate are already improved). And in the Cataingan-Masbate road there are more towns and hence more commerce, more sources of produce and of course, passengers. But how come they still built the Cawayan RORO port? Well, maybe there was politics (I don’t know just where) and Gloria was actually too fond then of duplicate ports. It brings more income to you-know-where. So it was actually a one-bird-with-two-stones maneuver.

I also just wonder about the fate of Placer port on the southern side of Masbate island. In the past, Placer was the connecting port of the southern side of Masbate island to Cebu City. It is even closer to Bogo than Cawayan (or even Cataingan) and the RORO will be less broadsided by the habagat and amihan waves in that route. They said there is an issue with the port with regards to depth but it was never clear to me (again was there politics?). Whatever, Cawayan won out over Placer and that was that. One’s fate and progress can really just be decided in an instant in Manila and NEDA, the validator of projects is actually just a stamp pad.

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Cataingan port

Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) pioneered the Polambato (Bogo) to Cataingan route. Among its early clients were its own ROROBus intermodal buses doing a Manila-Cebu route via Masbate. Meanwhile, it was the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) that pioneered the Polambato (Bogo) to Cawayan route with their Super Shuttle Ferry 19, a double-ended ferry. Montenegro Lines used a rotation of ferries in the Bogo-Cataingan route while Super Shuttle Ferry 19 is sometimes not in the route and none is running at times as AMTC lacked ships as the years went by because they lose ships (as in hull losses) and also because of ship unreliability.

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The ferry next bigger to the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO in Polambato (Photo credit: John Carlos Cabanillas)

Both routes are still running now and Montenegro Lines even tried a twice a day sailing but settled with a once a day sailing with a ship next bigger in size to the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the starting ship of both routes (or a modernized LCT at times). Lately, however, Asian Marine Transport Corporation sold out both its ships and its route to Cawayan and Super Shuttle Ferry 19 became the Cawayan Ferry 1 of the new company D. Olmilla Shipping Corporation. The Bogo-Cawayan route, as a note, still has no intermodal bus and it is the weaker of the two. I heavily doubt if it can overtake Cataingan.

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Cawayan Ferry 1 (Photo credit: James Gabriel Verallo)

Even with these two routes running, the motor bancas of Masbate still sail regularly to Bogo and Maya. These motor bancas sometimes carry hogs (in a deck below the passenger deck) and that is a commodity not acceptable to MSLI or AMTC unless it is loaded in trucks and even then it will only be loaded with reluctance (as their passengers might complain of the smell in the 6-hour voyage). And besides, the passengers and the cargo of the motor bancas enjoy a point-to-point direct sailing with no land transfer (the ROROs doesn’t go to Placer or Esperanza). It might even stop offshore near a remote barrio and the passenger and cargo will be transferred to his own motor banca. Bookings can also be done informally (and even by cellphone). A passenger from Placer can be picked up by the Cawayan boat at sea if they receive a validated text message and if there is no motor banca from Placer.

Though affected by the development of the Bogo-Cataingan route, the Cataingan-Cebu ship of Lapu-lapu Shipping is still running. Its service of loading frozen fish in styrofoam boxes without using trucks can’t still be equaled by the Cataingan-Bogo RORO as a truck would be needed from Bogo. They send it out by Lapu-lapu Ferry 1 and it will just be picked up by the customer in Cebu Pier 3 and the empty boxes will be loaded by the customer in the return trip. Sometimes, the advantage of a RORO is overstated by the government which is always pushing it. How can shipping 2 or 3 styrofoam boxes be sulit using a truck or a Multicab?

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Lapu-lapu Ferry 1 in Cataingan port

The route from Cebu via Masbate to Manila is not cheaper compared to the Cebu to Manila route via Leyte and Samar although looks shorter on the map. That was found out by a Swiss member of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member who did both routes in the same month. The RORO rates via Masbate is high because there is lack of competition and maybe the sea crossing is longer if the Bogo-Palompon route is taken as the comparison. Meanwhile the rates via Leyte and Samar are cheaper and sometimes there are discounting plus there is the cheap Cargo RORO LCTs. However, the land route through it is some 225 kilometers longer compared to a Pilar, Sorsogon route and 265 kilometers via a Pio Duran, Masbate that both uses Masbate.

Whatever, the Bogo routes will definitely stick. That is what was shown by the last decade. Well, unless it is supersed by the Maya port which is under construction now. It might not necessarily be cheap but there are people and goods that has Masbate as a destination (and newbies who will think it is cheaper through there since it looks nearer on the map). And there are those who will still prefer the shorter route and just save on time. And also save on wear on the vehicles and the driver. And arrive earlier and for truck owners save on wages and have their trucks be available for an extra day.

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Maya port (Photo credit: bUs sPoTTeRs

If only their rates are more competitive then maybe the Bogo connection will be flying now.

It Seems They Are Beginning To Fear The Cargo RORO LCTs Now

Once upon a time, in the early days of connecting islands, LCTs had a place as exemplified by Millennium Shipping in the 1970’s and the LCTs connecting Mactan island and the islands of Samar and Leyte. But as it moved into the 1980’s and the 1990’s, it was the short-distance ferry-ROROs that began connecting the islands like in San Bernardino Strait, in Surigao Strait, in Verde Island Passage, in Guimaras Strait, in Tanon Strait, in Bohol Strait, across Camotes Sea, in Basilan Strait and in Panguil Bay. LCTs began losing favor then and some of the reason might be psychological. There was a belief then that LCTs were “less safe”.

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It was actually only Maayo Shipping and Tri-Star Megalink which bucked the trend in those decades before the change of the millennium by still using LCTs as passenger-cargo carriers. To some extent, Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) can also be counted here before the start of the new millennium. Among the the most notable operator of passenger-cargo LCTS in this millennium are Lite Ferries and Starhorse Shipping Lines. Of course, LCTs also connected Samal island, Guimaras and Olutanga islands but I would rather exclude it here as they were very short connections like the connection across Sula Channel of Albay to Cagraray island.

LCTs as means of transport are slow and slower than short-distance ferry-ROROs. Their passenger accommodations are also very basic and small and can be uncomfortable. They were never really meant to be people carrier unless one is talking of the hybrid Korean LCTs (like the Ma. Angelica Grace, Reina Banderada, Reina Justisya and Star San Carlos among others) which have more comfortable passenger accommodations and even airconditioning plus bigger engines which afford speeds higher than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs.

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I do not know which started the trend of using LCTs for vehicles mainly with not much intent to carry passengers. The most significant I noticed that had an operation like this was Golden Bridge Shipping of the Lua family (owner of a tramper company and Oceanjet) which has its base in Cansaga Bay and had a route to Hindang, Leyte. Early on they were known as Socor Shipping. Of course, Mandaue Transport also had a route from Mandaue to Tagbilaran and Simpoi Shipping had a route from Carmen to Ormoc.

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There were also LCTs that were used not for rolling cargo but as container van carriers. Ocean Transport chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation for this purpose which was copied by others until they were able to acquire their own LCTs. But of course, transit time from Manila to Cebu can take up to 4 days but container vans won’t protest unlike passengers. Some Asian Shipping Corporation LCTs were also chartered to load container vans from Manila to Cagayan de Oro.

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These operations are of course Cargo RORO operations. The only difference is instead of using Cargo RORO or RORO Cargo ships, LCTs are used. That is why I termed these LCTs as “Cargo RORO LCTs”.

Starting in 2012, LCTs from China began appearing in great number in Mactan Channel and the biggest owners were Cebu Sea Charterers, Broadway One Shipping, Concrete Solutions/Primary Trident Marine Solutions and Royal Dragon Ocean Transport. The first two simply had numbers as names of the LCTs. The third one was the owner of the Poseidon LCTs and the last one was the owner of the Meiling LCTs. Asian Shipping Corporation also bulked up their LCT fleet. Supposedly, these LCTs which were called “deck loading ships” in China will be used to transport ores from Surigao to China.

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However, two major happenings intervened. One, the need of China for ores declined and in November of 2013, Typhoon “Yolanda” wreaked havoc in Eastern Visayas. In the aftermath, in the need for relief and rehabilitation of the region, trucks and trailers have to cross. This happened during a time that the long-distance trucks were already running via Eastern Visayas as substitute for the ship-borne container vans and many of these are still destined for Mindanao.

Immediately, mile-long queues of trucks formed in the ports of Matnog, Allen, Liloan, Benit and Lipata leading to loud protests. MARINA then allowed the temporary use of LCTs which became de facto permanent until today. Meanwhile, there was also a great demand for bottoms to be used by trucks across Camotes Bay. Suddenly, the moored “deck loading ships” in Cansaga Bay was crossing Camotes Bay, San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait. Cebu Sea Charterers and the Poseidon LCTs slowly begans Cargo RORO LCT operations together with the Adnama LCTs (many more were used in Surigao and elsewhere). Roble Shipping meanwhile chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation which they replaced when they were able to acquire their own LCTs.

There was also an upsurge in LCT demand to Bohol and some old LCT began plying routes. Feeling their grip threatened, Lite Ferries bought them all lock, stock and barrel aside from buying additional LCTs. Meanwhile, Cebu Sea Charterers invaded other routes like the Carmen-Ormoc, the Dumangas-Banago and the Tuburan-Escalante routes. Suddenly, the lowly LCTs which became Cargo RORO LCTs looked menacing. Even the pioneer Golden Bridge Shipping which had queues even before “Yolanda” feels threatened now.

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How did this come to be? One reason is at the start, the overnight ferry companies crossing Camotes Sea did not give due regard to the rolling cargo or vehicles. They were too content in their successful palletized and loose cargo operations and they underestimated the need of the rolling cargo. At the start only Golden Bridge Shipping, Simpoi Shipping and Asian Marine Transport Corporation were servicing them. It seems Lite Ferries saw the need earlier than their fellow overnight ferry companies. Well, they are strong in rolling cargo operation in Bohol and is even dominating it.

Secondly, in terms of rates none can beat the Cargo RORO LCTs. They might be slow but in terms of rates they are far cheaper than the overnight ferry companies as in they can give rates that are cheaper by 40%. Well, they don’t need to invest in passenger services and accommodations and they have small engines compared to overnight ROROs. Now they even carry container vans not in trailers to Leyte from Cebu superseding the container ships that used to call in Leyte ports from Manila.

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That is always the danger brought by Cargo RORO LCTs, the low rates. Now feeling they can’t beat it, the overnight ferry companies are beginning to acquire their own LCTs. Lite Ferries is so well ahead in this game but Roble Shipping is already following suit. Medallion Transport seems not to be that worried yet because compared to other they saw immediately the need for rolling cargo operations and were not too dependent on palletized and loose cargo operations. After all they started in short-distance ferry-RORO operations and so they might have had a better understanding of rolling cargo from the start.

The old ROROs better adjust now. From what I heard even the big Asian Shipping Corporation which has the most number of ships in the Philippines is joining the fray. It seems they might have already tired of just chartering LCTs.

In the eastern seaboard, I heard the Cargo RORO LCTs are already the favorites of the truckers. As they say money talks. Price point as decision point is simply too easy not to miss. Everybody wants savings.

To me, it is no longer a question if the Cargo RORO LCT sector will take a slice of the pie. The question is how much. From container ships to liners to overnight ships to short-distance ferries, all are threatened. They will not be overwhelmed but they must be prepared to share the pie with the Cargo RORO LCTs. By how much, now that is the guessing game. All I know is the Cargo RORO LCT rates are simply unbeatable. And that might be sending shivers now down the spine of the competition.

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And I dare say this development is good. Rolling rates are simply too high in the Philippines because the regulatory agency MARINA never learned how to compute rates. It is as if fuel and distance are never really factored in.

Rolling cargo rates of the LCTs across Camotes Sea is now lower than RORO rate across Surigao Strait. How did that happen?

The Cruel Loss of the Southern Mindanao Liner Routes

Talking here of Southern Mindanao ports, I am not only referring to Gensan (General Santos City) and Davao but also of Zamboanga and Cotabato which are technically Western Mindanao and Central Mindanao ports. But once the four were all closely interrelated as the routes through them are inter-connected. This connection also goes all the way to Iloilo port which was the intermediate port then of the Southern Mindanao liners.

In the late 1990’s, Davao had six liners to Manila per week which was about the same number Gensan and Zamboanga had. Cotabato had less as in only about two or three as it was not as big as the three other cities. Cotabato port, by the way, is actually the Polloc port in Parang, Maguindanao, a nearby town and not the river port in the city which is too shallow for liners.

I cannot believe that in just over a decade’s time from that all four ports will lose their liner connection to Manila or to Iloilo and Cebu. To think that since the Spanish times all had steamers from Manila with the exception of Gensan which was not yet existing then. Zamboanga has one ship a week now to Manila but several years ago she also lost her liner to Manila. The intermediate port of her liner now is Dumaguete and not Iloilo any more.

The slide first started when Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) shrunk operations due to financial difficulties. Among the routes they abandoned early were their routes to Southern Mindanao (but they held on to the Zamboanga route). The frequency they held was never filled up. Among that could be added to the early loss here was when Aleson Shipping Line of Zamboanga also dropped their liner route when they sold their Lady Mary Joy (not to be confused with the current Lady Mary Joy 1 which is a different ship) to the breakers because its run was not profitable.

But the big slide came when Sulpicio Lines got suspended in 2008 after of the floundering of the Princess of the Stars in a typhoon which drew international and local outcries. In the aftermath of that, stringent regulations were laid out for Sulpicio Lines in order for them to come back to passenger shipping. Only two liners were maintained by Sulpicio Lines after that and they withdrew from all routes in Southern Mindanao (among many other routes too).

I was saddened and worried by the departure of Sulpicio Lines. I know the passenger liner segment of shipping was weakening already as budget airlines and the intermodal buses were getting stronger but Sulpicio Lines is not the ordinary shipping company that will immediately withdraw from routes as soon as that route is no longer showing profit. It was one resilient liner that was actually needed then to shore up the weakening passenger liner sector.

I was apprehensive even then of that development because the only remaining liner company in Mindanao which is governed by bean counters is very fast in junking routes and in selling liners to breakers. Even when they fielded the SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21, my apprehensions were not quelled especially since I know they are fast weakening in container shipping because they have the highest rates and new challengers with lower rates are already around and challenging them.

And I was not mistaken in that apprehension because in just over a year they withdrew from Davao but still temporarily retained Gensan. But in about one or two years’ time again they withdrew from Gensan, Cotabato and Zamboanga. With that withdrawal the Iloilo-Zamboanga route was also eliminated.

At about that time, the buses for Manila leaving Ecoland terminal in Davao grew in number. It was not just Philtranco anymore but PP Bus came and soon the so-called “colorums” followed. It was not just the budget airlines that benefited from the withdrawal of the liners.

Davao was at least more fortunate because there are many Manila flights to it and there are plenty of intermodal buses to Manila. Gensan and Cotabato was not that fortunate because even though they have planes to Manila they do not have buses to Manila. Now some people are simply afraid to take flights and some do not have the identification papers needed to board planes. Some are too terrified to enter an airport because they fear losing their way around (well, I found out there were even people who do not know how to order in Jollibee) and also be exposed as stupid barrio folks. They may not really like the buses but they dislike the plane even more.

So some Cotabato folks would take the bus to Davao and transfer to the Davao-Manila bus. People from near Cotabato City also has the option to take the commuter van to Marawi-Iligan so they can take the ship there. Some can also opt for the commuter van for Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte and from there they can connect to Ozamis which both has a ship and a plane. Well, people from Davao or Cotabato province also take the bus or commuter van to Cagayan de Oro where there is also a plane and a ship.

But what kind of cruelty is that of forcing people to travel long land distances in order to catch a ship? Maybe to ameliorate that the only liner company offered tickets to Manila which included a bus ticket of Rural Transit of Mindanao to Cagayan de Oro for a ride that is 320 kilometers from Davao.

With the loss of the Southern Mindanao liners, people also lost their transport for the intermediate routes like Davao-Zamboanga, Gensan-Zamboanga and Cotabato-Zamboanga. Also lost was the intermediate route Iloilo-Zamboanga. Taking a ship then was cheap, relaxing and one disembarks freshened (after taking a bath) and probably fed and ready for the next trip. Now one has to take the plane or the very long bus or commuter van ride.

There is a Davao-Zamboanga plane but it is more expensive than the Tourist class of the former liners. There is no Gensan-Zamboanga or Cotabato-Zamboanga plane as of the present. There is a Zamboanga-Iloilo plane but not daily and it is more expensive than the former liners. Saying it is more expensive does not even include the airport terminal fee nor the airport transfer expenses.

From Zamboanga, people now take the cruel route of a Rural Transit bus up to Bacolod which takes over a day. Mind you the ordinary bus has no comfort room nor meals on board and one is tossed around for that length of time. So the meals are extra expense (it is automatically included in the ticket of Sulpicio Lines). I tell you that ride is backbreaking and it is hard to sleep because at every terminal the bus will stop, open its lights, vendors will board or hawk and there is the general shuffling of people coming up and going down. One also had to look if his luggage is already being taken down by other people.

I also take the very difficult bus-commuter van-bus ride from Davao to Zamboanga and it is backbreaking too and lasts nearly a day if via the Narciso Ramos Highway of Lanao del Sur. The trip is longer and more expensive if it is via Cagayan de Oro. All these alternatives to the ship I am mentioning are all more expensive and the wear to the body is maybe twenty times that of the ship. One reaches his destination fagged out, dehydrated, hungry and stinky.

The Gensan-Zamboanga land trip is no less arduous than the Davao-Zamboanga land trip. Look at the map and one can see the distance is almost the same. If it is via Cagayan de Misamis the distance is even greater. It is only Cotabato-Zamboanga which is a little nearer but the distance is still about 450 kilometers and the waiting time for the commuter van to leave is long as it is basically alas-puno. There is a certain minimum number of passengers before a van will leave (it will cancel the trip if filling up takes too long or the minimum is not reached). And mind you those commuter are not even airconditioned. And in the Pagadian-Zamboanga stretch, the Rural Transit bus is oh-so-slow because there is no competition. Expect up to 12 hours for a 280-kilometer route.

This is the cruel condition left to the passengers when the only remaining liner company in Southern Mindanao jilted and left them. There was a merger again later between the last two liner companies which produced 2GO but still the liners did not return and there is no hope on the horizon that they will return.

Now if only MARINA will relent and allow again some cargo or container ships to take in passengers again that will be better but I don’t see it happening. All they know is to say they are open for new liners companies applying but entering the liner business is too unattractive for all the shipping companies. There are more regulations, more investments needed including in service people and supplies, passenger can balk at delayed arrival or of anything in the service if it is below par. And if there is an accident, for sure, the press and the social media will be baying at their door.

If MARINA knows anything about liner shipping and the plight of Southern Mindanao passengers they should even encourage Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) to take in passengers because their Cargo ROROs need no modifications to carry people. But does MARINA really know anything about passenger liner shipping? They didn’t even understand that with their too strong restrictions on Sulpicio Lines they will be killing a liner company and that there won’t be a replacement anymore.

Now that is the sad fate of us Southern Mindanao passengers.

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The DavSam Link and DavSam II

Once upon a time, after the LCT Davao del Norte which was owned by the Provincial Government of Davao del Norte sank, it was only the Mae Wess/CW Cole ferries that were running the Davao-Samal route through their own wharves in Sasa in Davao and Caliclic in Samal. Their ferries sailed after every 15 or 20 minutes but during Fridays and weekends their ferries can’t cope and a long queue of vehicles waiting to be loaded form and it lines up to the main vehicle gate of Sasa port about half a kilometer away. Vehicles wait and queue for hours under the hot sun and most of these are private cars.

Even with this discomfort, the drivers happily paid the rates of Mae Wess. They don’t realize it that Mae Wess was actually charging them sky-high rates. This can be computed by dividing the RORO rate by the distance in nautical miles. In this method, Mae Wess charges the highest in the country, bar none but those going to Samal didn’t know because they have no comparison. They rarely venture into Lipata port, Mukas port or Zamboanga port where they can find rates that are more reasonable.

Meanwhile, Kudos Trucking has long been a player in Davao in a supplementary role in shipping. They are haulers of container vans and in renting yard space for container vans. Most of their clients are foreign shipping companies and they operate several container yards including one just across the Mae Wess wharf in Sasa, Davao. Then a few years ago they built a wharf or port in Panacan, Davao which has a back-up area for container vans. Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) was the first to use this wharf for their Cargo RORO ships and their container vans.

With their own wharf in Panacan and the availability of the Babak port just across them in Pakiputan Strait, Kudos Trucking decided to go into the RORO business. After all, Babak port has lost its RORO since LCT Davao del Norte was lost. So, they then barter-chartered two LCTs from Asian Marine Transport Corporation and these were the Super Shuttle RORO 16 and Super Shuttle RORO 14 which arrived in 2013 and 2014. The name of the new shipping company is DavSam Link which is a self-explanatory name.

On the first day when DavSam Link will start operations, the local head of MARINA (Maritime Industries Authority), the Philippine maritime regulatory agency came to Kudos Trucking Corporation wharf and told DavSam Link they should charge the same rate as Mae Wess which was P300 for a sedan. I was among the two ship spotters there covering the opening for PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society), the premiere and the authoritative ship spotting organization in the Philippines which has international links and so I came to know that. DavSam Link wanted then to charge lower. Now, isn’t that what newcomers need to do to gain business? Discounting is done everywhere – in malls, supermarkets, restaurants, hotels, by the plane companies and even by the great 2GO shipping company, etc. The MARINA head did not know that?

Immediately, I knew what the MARINA honcho was protecting was the interest of Mae Wess and not the interest of the public. In all my travels in the whole breadth of the Philippines the RORO rate of Mae Wess was the highest per nautical mile and there was not even a close second and it is the local MARINA was the one which approved it. In many RORO routes there is no such thing as rate parity. That is especially true in Cebu where the lowest charge for the Cebu-Leyte route is only half of those that charge the highest (and there is no need to say which are growing). Maybe the rate should be high enough so that there should be a spare for “gifts” for them? The MARINA honcho obviously has forgotten who are paying their salaries and allowances.

DavSam Link began sailing with rate parity with Mae Wess. With no advantage to show and with people used to the fast departures of Mae Wess they had a very poor start. For truckers there is another disadvantage because an agent of Mae Wess who is in power in Samal threatens no loading if they ever patronize DavSam Link (in the end the truckers did not heed this). This island which calls itself a “garden city” is actually full of illegal exactions on passengers and vehicles which has long been outlawed by the Supreme Court and reiterated by 4 DILG (Department of the Interior and Local Governments) memorandums. Well, in the Philippines unless some mayors and councils are sent to jail, it seems those memorandums are just sheets with the same value as toilet paper. Will this change under President Rodrigo Roa Duterte?

Moreover, the LCTs sent by Asian Marine Transport Corporation to DavSam Link proved uncooperative and broke down with regularity. It got so bad that at one time DavSam Link did not sail for 8 months especially when they sent back the Super Shuttle Ferry 14 and the engine of Super Shuttle Ferry 16 permanently conked out after they hired some former crewmen of Mae Wess (well, I am just stating facts). Some then thought DavSam Link might have been gone for good and defeated in the war with Mae Wess but they might not have been aware of the depths of pockets and will of one Johnny Ng.

Super Shuttle Ferry 16 was sent to General Santos City for re-engining with a brand-new China-made Weichai marine engine (their local agent, the Dynamic Power of Mandaue, Cebu has an office there). Just before Super Shuttle Ferry 16 came back as the DavSam I with a new engine (by then DavSam Link has already bought her from Asian Marine Transport Corporation), a true double-ended ferry arrived from Japan for DavSam Link and she was named as the DavSam II. This was July of 2015.

DavSam II did not sail immediately because she had no meaningful passenger accommodations. It seems in Japan she only sails very short distances and so maybe the passengers just stay in their cars, in the main. A small passenger accommodation of glass and aluminum was then built and it was airconditioned because it was very exposed to the sun. The ferry was also repainted and generally spiffed up but not by much as she arrived as a clean ship and not from a laid-up condition. Well, if a small ferry can sail all the way from Japan then it can be assumed it is in good condition.

The DavSam II was the former ferry Tateishi in Japan with the permanent ID IMO 9004035. She was built by Naikai Shipbuilding and Engineering Co. Ltd. in Setoda yard in 1990. The ship is a double-ended RORO which means she is fitted with ramps on both ends and so both ends look the same anyway. In this type of ship there is no clear bow and stern as she can sail both ways. A RORO of this type might have only one engine but it has propellers and rudders on both ends. The advantage of a true double-ended RORO is she does not need to back up and change direction after leaving port (which means she can then “back up” all the way to the other port). This type of ferry is only used on very short distances as the drag of the propellers on the front end when sailing can be significant if used on longer distances and the advantage of not having to back up and turn is then lost.

The external dimensions of the ship are 32.8 meters length over-all (LOA), 23.9 meters length between perpendiculars (LPP) by 10.6 meters Breadth and 3.0 meters Depth. The cubic measurement is 144 gross tons and the load capacity is 102 deadweight tons. The ship is equipped with a single Yanmar Marine engine of 490 horsepower with two transmissions, two shafts and two propellers. She has raked stem and stern with ramps and her top speed is 9 knots. The ship has a small pilot house suspended atop the car deck and in there still intact is her build plate. A basic RORO, the ingress and egress of the vehicles also serves as the entrance and exit of the passengers.

She arrived with her engine still in very good condition. We heard she was found a long way from Tokyo and maybe she was really only used on very short distances with only few trips a day and that is why her engine was still pristine. Usually this is the type of ferry used to connect islets within the Inland Sea. We heard DavSam Link was able to purchase her for a very good price. The company is very satisfied with her and so it is looking for another double-ended ferry. And with only a 490 horsepower engine she is a fuel miser. Her conduction voyage from Japan took only 4 days without any incident.

She is sailing very regularly in the hours when there is light and until dusk. Where DavSam I has days off because of some mechanical glitches, DavSam II is always sailing. They have reduced the rolling rates for sedan now to P200 from P300 which is actually still high and the passenger fares were reduced to P7 from P10 (funny her fares are even lower than the jeepney fare in Davao). The truck rates which depends on size are also way down from what was once the standard in the Davao-Samal route. And to me it can even be chopped off if only DavSam ferries is always full. Their ship is actually seldom full and their better days are just the weekends or holidays as Samal functions as a getaway of the Dabawenyos. Aside from the tourists from other places, of course.

Now it seems vehicle owners and truckers are beginning to realize that Mae Wess has been overcharging them for too long (but there is no backlash). Where there is monopoly it is known abuse is not far off especially if the regulator is inside the pockets of the operator. They will then try to charge as much as the market will bear. The rates and fares of DavSam Link are now lower than that of Mae Wess even though its route is a little longer since they follow a boomerang route because of the shallows in Pakiputan Strait.

DavSam I is a beautiful ship. Her patronage is somewhat okay now. It seems she might be headed for a successful career here.

For me, I hope she even charges lower.