In the Philippines, Surigao is the greatest haven or center of the Large Motor Banca type of vessel. This is because of the many islands in the area which are not yet well-developed for steel-hulled vessels that cost more to operate aside from needing a much, much bigger investment at the start. Passengers and traders also prefer the Large Motor Banca because of its ubiquity and the type can dock in the most basic of landing areas. Among Large Motor Bancas in the country the Surigao design is the most beautiful and most luxurious in the country.

©Mike Baylon

The Large Motor Bancas of Surigao serve the Dinagat and Siargao islands mainly along with some Surigao City islands especially Nonoc Island and the Bucas Grande Island. These islands have about twenty towns while Nonoc island, though not a town has the biggest nickel mine in the country. Although there are main ports of entry to the islands with steel-hulled ferries to Dinagat and Siargao (and two fastcrafts, too) the Surigao Large Motor Banca continues to thrive as the type goes straight to the individual towns or even to the barrio. There is also a big volume of passengers and cargo as Surigao City is still the main market and recreation area of the islands. From the islands, harvest of the sea and land is carried (like copra and other crops) along with the passengers and going back groceries, dry goods and other supplies are carried. Other uses of the Surigao Large Motor Banca are to serve as supply ships of the mines in the area and also as pilot/tender boats.

Valencia Nickel 4 ©Mike Baylon

There are also Large Motor Bancas that connect San Ricardo town in Southern Leyte to Surigao City. Historically the southern tip of Panaon island has been linked to Surigao City because it is nearer than the Leyte centers of commerce. There is also the longer-distance Cabalian to Surigao City Large Motor Bancas which show that once Surigao Strait and Cabalian Bay is just one economic and demographic area.

Cabalian-Surigao LMB ©Mike Baylon

A further proof of this phenomenon are the Large Motor Bancas that connect Liloan town in Panaon island direct to Dinagat island. Today they also connect to the buses coming from Manila. The buses arrive in the late afternoon and these Large Motor Bancas sail at night. The bancas then from Dinagat will connect to the buses leaving Liloan for Manila in the morning. However, most of the banca passengers will still be locals.

Seahorse Express, a Dinagat-Liloan LMB ©Mike Baylon

These ferries usually have a length of about 20 to 30 meters and a breadth of two to three meters. Some have VIP accommodation on a second deck where the pilot house is also located. That section is reserved for local officials, businessmen, other dignitaries and close relatives. Some have a full second deck and these are the bigger ones. Passenger capacity of 50 is the low end with some reaching up to a hundred. Gross Tonnage can range from 20 to 50 and Net Tonnage from 10 to over 20. Large Motor Bancas here generally have cushioned seats, one of their difference to the Large Motor Bancas of other areas.

Nickel Cruiser 2 ©Mike Baylon
Valencia Nickel 4 ©Mike Baylon
Many of this craft-type have walkways outside the boat and this design affords benches that extend from one side to the other side The walkways not only facilitate movement of passengers but it also eases cargo handling. In fact, that walkway can also serve as additional cargo stowage area.
As bancas this type is wooden-hulled and is usually equipped with bamboo or wooden outriggers with bamboo or fiberglass floats. The outriggers not only balance the boat but with crew as counterweight atop it prevents the banca from keeling over and breaking its outriggers in a strong crosswind and swell.
Libjo Nickel ©Mike Baylon

In strong winds and swells the Large Motor Banca cannot and generally do not sail. So it is not unusual if it is already morning and yet they are still not around the Surigao Boulevard, their main landing area and none is leaving. If weather is fair they start arriving in Surigao before dawn and they leave before lunch with the last leaving just past lunch.

Lineup of Large Motor Bancas at Surigao Blvs. ©Mike Baylon
Engines are generally sourced from surplus trucks but power is adequate and many can beat the normal 11 knots of the steel-hulled Basic Short Distance Ferry.
The downside of the Large Motor Banca is its vulnerability to big waves as attested by the near-yearly capsizing of boats here. Outriggers can break as this part of the country has one of the stronger seas and winds can suddenly shift when rounding the islands especially since we no longer have coast watchers.
Vulnerable or not the utilitarian value of the Large Motor Banca cannot be denied so it looks like for a long time they will still be around and in service in the sea around Surigao.
©Mike Baylon

When my Friend’s Motor Banca was Hit by a Summer Squall in the Visayan Sea

by Mike Baylon

A few years back my friend and his wife were invited to a Holy Week vacation in Cebu. Wanting to visit Bicol too, they decided to drop by Naga first, his hometown. Since he has already experienced travelling via Samar and Leyte they decided to take the Masbate route to Cebu upon my advice. So from a bus to Kimantong junction, Daraga in Albay they took a van for Pilar, Sorsogon. From that port they took a four-hour motor banca ride to Masbate City to connect with the Trans-Asia Shipping vessel for Cebu.

But horrors upon horror! The Trans-Asia ship was nowhere to be found as it cancelled its trip to Masbate. Reacting to the changed situation I advised them to move fast, hire a tricycle to the bus terminal and take the fastest commuter van to Cataingan, Masbate to connect with the Lapu-Lapu Shipping ferry there to Cebu.  It was already late afternoon and by that time the Montenegro Lines ferry had already left for Bogo (during that time Montenegro has only one trip to Bogo).

Port of Cataingan ©Mike Baylon

But a double horror! They were a little past the departure time when they arrived in Cataingan but the Lapu-Lapu Ferry was still there. The problem was Rosalia 3 was not sailing and will lay over until Holy Sunday and it was just Maundy Thursday! I soothed them don’t worry as the Montenegro ferry might sail the next day. I adviced them there was a small lodge near the port but the captain of the Rosalia 3 graciously invited them to stay aboard the ship for the night free of charge. So I thought the old ship hospitality system was not yet banished completely by ISPS (International System of Port Security). In the past the ships laying over for the night served as free hostels for the weary and hard-up travelers.

M/V Rosalia 3 ©Mike Baylon

Then a third horror unfolded! The Montenegro ship also cancelled voyage and did not arrive in Cataingan! I thought my friend and his wife’s fate was already done and they will lay over until Holy Sunday in Cataingan thereby missing entirely the Holy Week vacation in Cebu and just go back to Naga. But a friendly commuter van “barker” intervened and declared he knows that there will be a motor banca leaving for sure from Cawayan, Masbate to Maya, Daanbantayan, Cebu. I told them Cawayan is too far from Cataingan and they will not reach that on time. The barker said that motor banca from Cawayan can be hailed from Placer, Masbate and be met at sea and a sea transfer arranged! That looked like a tall tale then for me but Holy Cow! It proved to be true!

Riding a rickety jeep to Placer over bad roads my friend and his wife were able to locate the Placer contact given to them. Yes, he confirmed to them the motor banca will hover into view at about 9 or 10am and he can contact the “jefe de viaje” by cellphone and all they need to do is hire a small motor banca so a sea transfer can be made.

Everything worked well and so I thought their bad luck was finally over. The craft was a Large Motor Banca, the Masbate type, with double decking. The lower deck was reserved for livestock and it was carrying many hogs then and there were about 60 passengers which was about half the maximum passenger capacity. Everything went fine except that they had no lunch with them until….a summer squall hit them in the middle of the Visayan Sea on their supposed six-hour voyage!

A Livestock Motor Banca ©Mike Baylon

Seasoned sea travelers in small sea crafts know a squall can develop anytime, in any weather, in any sea. It is a sudden storm with fierce winds and seas developing suddenly and accompanied by heavy rain. It is visible from afar and smaller crafts avoid them but being a moving system and sometimes wide in diameter some crafts just get sucked into it. And like fate they were sucked into it, their next horror! Amazingly, we still had communication and having talked of the sea for long and with voyages together I told them to stay calm and just follow the instructions of the crew and in the worst scenario they tie themselves to the outrigger if the boat capsizes (and call all the saints that they know).

Soon enough they were struggling and aside from the waves, the heavy rain and the wind, flotsam was being driven into their craft. Flotsam is especially dangerous in this situation because if it hits the propeller or clings into it, it will be a goodbye for the craft as a propeller is a must in maneuvering in such situations.

The first reaction of the in-charge was to move the passengers to the front and the crew and passengers familiar with them mounted the outriggers and the gangplank on the side so the boat will not topple over. Soon a new problem arose – the outriggers were creaking and in danger of breaking. Now, Masbate motor bancas are ready and are equipped with materials for emergency repairs. Together with Sulu and Tawi-tawi motor bancas they have the longest routes of all with some routes taking 6-8 hours of sailing time. Masbate Large Motor Bancas connect to Samar island, Cebu island and Romblon islands (thence up to Lucena). So reinforcements to the outriggers were made and they tacked into the wind. Stability then but the next problem was they were tacking on the way to Bantayan island. They had then no choice if they do not want the banca to capsize.

Then, good luck and a guardian angel appeared in the form of an ATS  liner which greeted them with a horn! That was the magic question asking if they were in trouble. SuperFerry 12 then slowed down and shielded them from the waves and the wind. In due time they were out of the squall zone and they changed course for Daanbantayan after saying cheers and goodbye to the good liner which came to their aid!

Superferry 12, now M/V St. John Paul II ©Vincent Sanchez

Before dark they finally docked in Maya port, exhausted and a little shaken from the experience. They took the first bus to Bogo where our common friend was waiting. It was already Good Friday night but they still arrived safe and sound in Cebu with an experience of a lifetime they said they will never forget.