Montenegro Lines is Challenging in the Zamboanga-Jolo Route

A few months ago, I got the incredulous (at least for me) update that Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) will be fielding their ship Maria Rebecca in the Zamboanga-Jolo route which is the next foray of the shipping in an exclusive Mindanao route after their Surigao-Dapa, Siargao route in northeast Mindanao (and so the logical next step is a southwestern Mindanao route?).

MV Maria Rebecca

Photo by Arnel Hutalla

A lot of questions come into my mind with their move. First is the question of security. This part of the country has bombings and extortion, of course. Western Mindanao is also known for another kind of taxation, one that does not have receipts. I was wondering, did Montenegro Lines already paid what is “due” them? If not their move is a hazardous proposition especially since they are newcomers and strangers to the place.

The alternative taxation “due” there from businesses probably does not give discounts or grace periods. However, I know the “patron saint” of the company is really strong and influential. Now, how that translates into more lenient or secure terms in that area, that I don’t know. Whatever, their move there is certainly brave. But if something bad happens, I will say it is stupid.

In shipping terms, the more important angle here is that of shipping competition and again I wonder deep about the move of Montenegro Lines. The Zamboanga-Jolo route is actually a crowded route. It is not an underserved route. It might even be an overcrowded route and bringing in a RORO is no advantage either.

The biggest competitor of Montenegro Lines in the Zamboanga-Jolo route is the dominant shipping company of Western Mindanao which is Aleson Shipping Lines, a homegrown shipping company which is even bigger than any Cebu-based overnight ferry company. Practically every night and at least six nights a week, Aleson Shipping Lines will have a ship from Zamboanga to Jolo and vice-versa and six of those will be dedicated ships in the route.

Aside from those, two other competitors of Aleson Shipping Lines with ROROs have up to four voyages to Jolo on the way to Siasi and Sitangkai in Tawi-tawi. These two are the Magnolia Shipping Company and Ever Lines. Actually these two don’t care that much for passengers to Jolo as their bread and butter is cargo. It is the Tawi-tawi route that they care about and they just pass by Jolo for the passengers going further from there.

Like Aleson Shipping Lines, they have ROROs but their rolling cargo is sparse. Cargo to Jolo is basically loose cargo. Trucks and cars are seldom loaded because after Jolo there is not much to go to because of the security situation and because of the ridos. Without proper security those vehicles might just be mincemeat for the extremists that teem in Jolo island. If those can kidnap foreigners that are not even in their land then imagine what they can do to a vehicle chugging along their un-maintained roads.

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Maria Rebecca and an Aleson ferry (Photo by Britz Salih)

Aside from Aleson, Magnolia and Ever with ROROs, the Zamboanga-Jolo route is also home to the Zamboanga cruiser ferries. The shipping companies that operate these are Sing Shipping, Ibnerizam Shipping and Evenesser Shipping and between the three they operate a total of four active cruiser ferries, the Mama Mia, KC Beatrice, Prince Glory and Bounty Cruiser. So on a given night two of the four will be headed to Jolo and two will be headed back to Zamboanga.

Zamboanga is also home to what I call the “Moro boats”, wooden motor boats (before they were wrongly renamed as “motor launches”) that are unique to the area and almost proprietary to the Muslim Filipinos. Several shipping companies operate this kind of vessel between Zamboanga and Jolo and among these the two with the most boats are Katrafar Shipping Lines which operate the Katrina boats and L5 Shipping/Maing Dimdi which operate the Sea Dayang/Sea Sayang boats. Malik Manajil also operates the Karmina boat.

These three operators sail some 8 Moro boats between them although not that regularly because their main load is copra and passengers come as secondary. Most of the time though they will have a boat docked in Zamboanga and at times three or even four of them will be there.

There are also a few unregistered Moro boats that run between Zamboanga and Jolo that use Zamboanga port. Unregistered Moro boats are not novelties in Zamboanga because in truth most of those are actually unregistered with MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the local maritime regulatory agency. And in Baliwasan there are also be a few Moro boats running irregularly plus some that sail to the other towns in Jolo island and the other islands of Sulu province. 

Aside from all those mentioned, SRN Fastcrafts, the operator of the Weesam Express fastcrafts also runs the Zamboanga-Jolo route with a day trip of their Weesam Express 1.

So all in all, maybe in a day some eight vessels are due to depart in Zamboanga for Jolo (if none is drydocked) and the Maria Rebecca of Montenegro Lines will be the ninth every other day. Now, is that 49.9-meter ferry already converted into an overnight ferry? By the way, her size is about average of the steel-hulled ferries that sail in the Zamboanga-Jolo route.

So what gives? Sulu only has a population of a little over 800,000 and some of the islands and towns in that archipelago have direct links to Zamboanga. It does not have tourism but it has lots of copra and rubber, crops that can be left behind when there is fighting. Plus, it has cottage industries producing additional millions and those are not the normal kind.

But nine vessels going there in a day? Come on!

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The PMS and PHIDCO Wharves

The two are actually private ports or wharves in Zamboanga City which are practically unknown to outsiders. Even in the city, few are really familiar with them or had visited them. You see these are practically Muslim wharves (although the owners might not be) and Christians in Zamboanga City normally don’t go to Muslim or Moro areas or places as the fear precede and rules the. But for me I go there regularly including the other Muslim wharves like the Tres Marias wharf which is an indigenous “fishport”. I just don’t go to the San Miguel Corporation wharf nearby because they won’t let me in (it is as if ISPS rules there). It seems the fear factor is also present there.

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PMS and PHIDCO wharves

The two wharves are just near each other as in almost adjacent. Both wharves are made of reinforced concrete and was really built for docking steel ships (PMS wharf which is well-maintained even has rubber bumpers). The two wharves lies between Baliwasan and Campo Islam. Now nobody just really visits the latter though there are jeeps going there. Inside the two wharves the lengua franca is Tausug.

PMS wharf or shall we say port is the more prominent of the two. PMS used to mean Petron Marketing Services, hence the initials. Before, it sells fuel, LPG, lubricants, etc. to the vessels going to the islands (called “pulo” there) nearer to Zamboanga. The local fuel companies are actually not competitive in the farther islands which are nearer to Sabah because the people buy their fuel there as it is much cheaper (as this article was written I read the price of gasoline in Malaysia is only P19 in our currency). In fact, Moro boats buy fuel there and bring it to Zamboanga although this is fraught with the risk of being apprehended along with explosion and fire.

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PMS wharf

In PMS wharf, the vessels that dock there also load fuel for their use. However, the bigger trade there is loading LPG in tanks. There are Moro boats there which act as “LPG carriers”. Of course, they have no official authorization to do that but hey! this area is not really known for doing things the “legal” way. In fact, most of the Moro boats in Zamboanga are not even registered. But they sail and it seems nobody really inspects them on the side of MARINA. Going back from Sabah (let me clarify that neither PMS not PHIDCO is not their origin) they can be intercepted, inspected or even apprehended. Not by MARINA or the Coast Guard but by the Navy. It seems it is only the Navy which has enough guns and guts to do that.

PHIDCO meanwhile means Philippine International Development Corporation which is identified with the famous and sometimes controversial Lepeng Wee, the true owner of the legendary but defunct Bullet Express. He has good Malaysian connections (and also to Erap) and thus he was able to establish a plant that will convert coconut oil into intermediate products like fatty alcohol, glycerin and tertiary amines. This was a good project because of its value-added nature but the plant was never able to operate because of the obstacles put by the Chavacano ruling elite of Zamboanga City. So, it was never able to get a permit. The port which was just near the plant fell into disuse until vessels started using it as a docking port. That included Moro boats displaced from Zamboanga Port when it was too congested with vessels docking three across.

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PHIDCO wharf

PMS and PHIDCO ports are home to Moro boats which is now official known as motor launch although they don’t have the hull of a launch since they are supposedly related to the Arab dhow (but in hull structure it looks more like a Chinese junk). It is also different from the Luzon and Visayas motor boats which are called batel or lancha. It is the dominant type of vessel there although there are also steel-hulled ships in PMS along with various types and sizes of fast Moro fish carriers and big passenger-cargo motor bancas some of which are double-deck. PHIDCO mainly docks Moro boats and their number is not great unlike in PMS where there is congestion most times.

The Moro boats and the steel-hulled vessels docking in the two ports are combined passenger-cargo and cargo-passenger. Cargo-passenger means it is primarily for cargo with a few passengers taken in and it might not even be paying passengers as it is customary to take in the owners of the goods and given free passage. These do not have fixed sailing schedules and they will only give an approximate date of departure which means that is the day they think they will already full of cargo and sometimes they are docked there for as long as three weeks. They have to have full cargo as their rates are really very low (I was astounded when I heard quoted rates). Most of the vessels have Bongao as a destination.

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The passenger-cargo motor bancas have a clearer schedule and these sail to the nearer and more minor islands including the Pangutaran group. These are practically the buses and trucks of these islands as the bigger vessels don’t sail to these islands. The two wharves also host Moro boats to other destinations like other towns in Jolo island and island-municipalities off the coast of Sabah like Taganak.

The fish carriers meanwhile come and go and many of these are the fast types that carry exotic and high-priced fishes destined for Hongkong and these will be loaded aboard a plane in Zamboanga for a connecting flight in NAIA. These boats have oversized engine and which are really meant for speed as freshness is a key to their trade (air compressors for the fish is one of their equipment, I have heard). They might not look grand or modern but they are one type of indigenous High Speed Crafts (HSCs). Supposedly some of these can even outrun a SuperCat.

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Since departures of the Moro boats take long, PMS wharf is on almost all days congested especially if the fish carriers are around. But then that adds to the gaiety of the place. It is easy to get inside both wharves. In PHIDCO the gate is always open and there is no guard. In PMS, sometimes they close the gate and one has to knock and be met by a blue guard. Inside, there are times that the operator of the port asks for terminal tickets.

That was when I met the lookalike of Abu Sabaya, the ASG. But he was so disarming (he always laughs) even when he asked what is the purpose of my visit. I told him, “to visit the ships, take photos”. And he had kilig to that. Imagine a Tagalog admiring the ships there that most persons won’t even throw a second look. When I was finished, he asked me if I was satisfied! And he told me to come back anytime.

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A motor launch to Tongkil and facade of PMS

From the sea when one is aboard the Zamboanga Ferry leaving Zamboanga, there is also a great view of the two wharves. From Tres Marias wharf nearby, a boat landing area (and a Muslim area), the two wharves can also be viewed. From Cawa-cawa Boulevard it’s not possible because the view is blocked by some city buildings and by the fishing boats anchored in Baliwasan.

There was a time PMS wharf was closed and was announced by government authorities that it will be shut down. But it still reopened. Knowing Zamboanga, I knew there is no other place where they can transfer the vessels docking there. If they bring it back to Zamboanga Port, it will just get congested again.

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PHIDCO wharf

PMS and PHIDCO wharves, though not favored by the government authorities is actually doing a great service to the city and to shipping and trade. They might not want to admit that but that is actually the situation and I think as long as Moro boats exists the service provided by the two ports will always be needed.

N.B.

Many days the two wharves would dock up to 20 ships. That does no include small motor or fishing bancas.