The Graceful Stars

The Graceful Stars is one of the most recent ships of Roble Shipping Incorporated, a major regional shipping line serving the ports of western Leyte (which I wonder why it is not a separate province as it is economically viable on its own, it has a ready capital in Ormoc and it speaks a different language from eastern Leyte) which sailed just in 2015 although she came to the Philippines earlier (as she stayed long in the Roble wharf in Pier 7 of Mandaue). As refitted, the Graceful Stars is an overnight ferry-RORO which means she is fitted with bunks, the main distinction of overnight ferries from the short-distance ferries (well, aside from the size, of course).

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I look at Graceful Stars from the evolutionary point of view of Roble Shipping. This company started from the Marao, a converted cargo ship and then from that humble beginning they were true with a humble path to greatness by first taking in the discards of the other shipping companies of Cebu and by concentrating on their strong route, the Cebu-Hilongos route which is now already a major route and a gateway to the province of Southern Leyte. Actually eight discards from other shipping companies passed through the fleet of Roble shipping (the Don Bonifacio, the first Guady Cristy, the second Guada Cristy, the Hilongos Diamond, the Hilongos Diamond – II, the Queen Belinda, the Leyte Diamond, and the Cebu Diamond) and that list does not even include the May Josephine, the former Surigao Transport which was more of a cargo ship too like the Marao. A lot of discards but those established what Roble Shipping is today. And there is nothing wrong with the path of Roble Shipping, they should be proud of it because what is important is where they ended up with and where they are now. Actually Roble Shipping in its early days even acted as the conservator of old ferries that might have ended up earlier in the breakers if they have not shown interest in them especially since those were already the obsolete cruiser ferries then (more difficult to load and unload but Roble started in arrastre anyway).

From that simple and humble beginning, Roble Shipping suddenly landed the Heaven Stars which was a former cruiseferry in Japan (cruiseferries are the ferries in Japan that had good amenities and accommodations compare to ferries that were more inclined to the taking in of rolling cargo). Heaven Stars was big for an overnight ferry and she had the amenities of a multi-day liner (I thought then Roble would use her for their approved route to Nasipit). Roble Shipping also snared the Wonderful Star, a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO which unfortunately was lost early (Note: that ferry is different from the current Wonderful Stars). The two ushered the entry of Roble Shipping into the age of ROROs, the successor type to the obsolete cruisers.

But still Roble Shipping was operating a mixed fleet as shown by their acquisition of the Ormoc Star, a cruiser ferry that became a loved ship in her namesake port and city. Then the Wonderful Stars arrived for the company and save for the Heaven Stars she was the most beautiful ship in the fleet of Roble Shipping, and an embodiment of what a moderately sized overnight ferry should be.

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Next to come for Roble Shipping was the Beautiful Stars which was just a little bigger than the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO before a slew of another discards from other shipping companies came which became the Joyful Stars, the Theresian Stars, the Blessed Stars and the Sacred Stars in their fleet. These discards needed practically needed no more refitting from Roble Shipping except maybe in the engine department. In modern shipping companies it is Roble Shipping which is the master in making discarded ships work.

The Wonderful Stars, Theresian Stars and Joyful Stars were significant for Roble Shipping because that firmly established the shipping company in the 70-meter class of ROROs (okay, the Theresian Stars is 0.3 meters short of 70 meters). Let it be noted that the Heaven Stars was 89 meters long and that will show the jump then made in size by Roble Shipping when they acquired her. These overnight ferry-ROROs might have been smaller than what Cebu Ferries, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines or Cokaliong Shipping Lines have or had (and to a certain extent George & Peter Lines too) but let it be noted that Roble Shipping is only operating routes to Leyte (until recently) and not to Mindanao unlike the other mentioned ones. And so Roble Shipping actually was leading then what can be called the second pack of Cebu ferries except that Lite Ferries’ fleet exploded later in size courtesy of the wand of a patron saint.

The Graceful Stars is in the 70-meter class thereby consolidating the hold of Roble Shipping in that class. And more importantly, the Graceful Stars was the attempt of Roble Shipping into the type of converting vehicle carriers into ROPAXes like what was done before by Cebu Ferries Corporation with their Cebu Ferry line of ships (Cebu Ferry 1, 2 and 3) and what was to be done later by Roble Shipping in their Oroquieta Stars. Is this the new mode of the company aside from acquiring Cargo RORO LCTs and CHA-ROs?

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The TKB Emerald by James Gabriel Verallo

The Graceful Stars is the former ship of Toyama Kaigai Boeki Shipping named the TKB Emerald and was classified as a Vehicle Carrier in Japan or which is that used in ferrying vehicles in relatively short distances. This is different from the Pure Car Carriers which ferry new vehicles between countries or the Cargo ROROs or RORO Cargo ships which are bigger, have a bigger capacity and go longer distances and even to another adjacent country. A Vehicle Carrier has a limited accommodation for passengers which are usually the crew or drivers of the vehicles and that is their difference over the ROPAXes.

As such converting a Vehicle Carrier to a ROPAX or RORO-Passenger ship means a lot of steel still has to be added into the ship in the form of additional decks and passenger amenities and accommodations. And that is the difference in the conversion if the original ship is a RORO Cargo ship for in that type of ship not much steel is still needed and in some cases steel has to be cut to pave way for windows.

The TKB Emerald took long in conversion and much longer than the Cebu Ferry line of ships (about four years from 2011). With a surplus of ships Roble Shipping didn’t need to rush and the refitting of Joyful Stars and Theresian Stars took precedence (otherwise the two would have rotted). The conversion won’t also be that straighforward as the TKB Emerald has a sloping ramp which slid down to the car deck and two passenger decks had to be fitted (single passenger decks are just for the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs). And I have heard then too and confirmed it with the databases that the engine of the TKB Emerald was on the small side at just 1,370 horsepower and a single engine at that when ferries of this size normally have two engines with 2,000 horsepower as the very minimum (many even pack 4,000 horsepower or more). Adding lots of steel also slows down the ferry because of the added weight. With this and even with the aid of turbocharging one cannot expect TKB Emerald to run fast. However, one of the strengths of the TKB Emerald is a long and good three-piece ramp which is excellent for loading and unloading vehicles including container vans mounted on truck-trailers

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TKB Emerald magically converted into Graceful Stars (Photo by James Gabriel Verallo)

The Graceful Stars is 73.7 meters in length over-all with a breadth of 13.6 meters and a depth of 7.6 meters (which is on the deep side which means greater stability) and an original Gross Tonnage (GT) of 1,953 tons and an original design speed of 11.5 knots (which was not bad then but then a lot of steel has to be added to her in her conversion). She was built by Shin Kochi Jyuko Company Limited in Kochi, Japan in 1984 with the IMO Number 8314312. The ship is of steel construction and had a stern ramp leading to the car deck.

As rebuilt she already has two passenger decks with a little squat appearance (but not looking bad) as the bridge determined the height of the superstructure unlike the Cebu Ferry 1 of Cebu Ferries Corporation. This is not really unusual as Cokaliong Shipping has low-looking ferries too. The bridge was lengthened up to the sides as the original bridge is the small type.

In the lower passenger deck at the front are the highest class which are the Suites and the Cabins. These have a Chinese and wooden motif. Before reaching that from the stern where the passengers board is the Tourist section of the ship. The upper passenger deck of the ship contains the Economy Class which is open-air, as normal. Two gangways serve as the entry and exit for the passengers.

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Cabins and Suites of Graceful Stars (does it still look like a Vehicle Carrier?)

As rebuilt the Gross Tonnage (GT) of the ship went down to 970 which is an under-declaration with a Net Tonnage (NT) of 660. The ratio of the NT to the GT is suspicious. I have yet to learn of the passenger capacity of the ship.

When I rode with her to Baybay, her usual route, our ride was comfortable and it did not disappoint. The ship was clean and the aircon was cool. Our trip to Baybay took eight hours and for a distance of a little under 60 nautical miles that means our cruising speed was some 8 knots or so. I heard the maximum she can do is 10 knots although when first fielded I heard tales of late arrivals as in a breakfast docking already from a 9pm departure in Cebu. I heard most of the passengers did not complain as that is still a good arrival and they appreciated the superior amenities and accommodations compared to the earlier ships that served the Baybay route. Meanwhile, her competitor Rosalia 3 of Lapu-lapu Shipping with 3 engines and speedy for a small overnight ferry sped up her passage as that is all she can improve from being an old ferry of fishing vessel origins. To passengers still going far her 3am arrival will matter (her number matches well with that and so renaming her to Rosalia 3am to highlight her strength might be in order, pun intended).

But right now the Graceful Stars lords over the Baybay route and the funny thing is she is even better than the ships fielded in the premier Ormoc route which costs significantly more. And it is doubly funny because for nearly the same distance the Ormoc ships cost much more than the Baybay ships which turn out to be a bargain. For the P510 Tourist fare of Ormoc one can have a more luxurious and fresher-smelling ride in Graceful Stars for P380 and the difference will be enough for a Jollibee breakfast just outside the port gates of Baybay and the change will still be enough for a bus ride to Ormoc. Baybay by the way is a good alternate point of entry if one is headed to Tacloban or to any Samar town. It is good that she is in Baybay because if she is in Hilongos because if she is in the latter her lack of speed will show because the port is gateway to the Southern Leyte towns and so a pre-dawn arrival is preferred there so the passengers will arrive at their homes at breakfast time.

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Rosalia 3 and Graceful Stars in Baybay

It seems Roble Shipping made a correct bet in acquiring and refurbishing the Graceful Stars. In the Baybay route her lack of speed does not easily show as passengers don’t normally grumble unless the arrival is already past breakfast time already. Many actually don’t want to be bothered from sleep of the anchor dropping and the shrilly announcements in the public address system and the bustle of passengers moving and the porters coming. And her superior accommodations means she will lord over Baybay for a long time that I fear that if other older ships of Roble are rotated to Baybay (like the Joyful Stars and the Theresian Stars) the passengers there might grumble with the change.

It seems the former TKB Emerald has already found a home in Baybay and it seems she will be in there for a long time and dominate that route.

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Ports Served By Liners That Lost To The Intermodal Buses

Once, there were ports that were served by the liners of the national shipping companies in the postwar years. Liners from Manila sailed to these ports and the length of their calls or service already exceeded a century. Now, there are no more liners to these ports and instead intermodal buses are the ones now moving their passengers.

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Among the ports I am referring to are San Jose in Occidental Mindoro (called Mangarin in the past), Culasi port in Roxas City (called Capiz in the past); Dumaguit (or New Washington), Batan, Malay (more popularly known as Caticlan now), all in Aklan; Lipata port in Culasi, Antique, San Jose de Buenavista in Antique. The list also includes Masbate; Laoang, Carangian (or San Jose) and Allen in Northern Samar; Calbayog and Catbalogan in Western Samar; Tacloban, Calubian, Palompon, Isabel, Ormoc and Baybay in Leyte; Maasin, Sogod and Cabalian in Southern Leyte. The list would also Tagbilaran in Bohol and Surigao City. Yes, the list is really long. And that is not even 100% complete.

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Tacloban port

How come our good liners with true passenger service and free food lost to the simple bus where there is no service and food is not free? When many of our liners were hotel-like. The simple reason is simply frequency and ubiquity. Buses leave daily while liners don’t. Buses have several trips in a day, both at night and day and in a wide span of schedules and so people have a choice. They also have a choice from several bus lines.

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I first had a glimpse of their magic of the nearly 15 years ago. I was aboard a bus from Maasin to Manila. The first trip then of the bus was 2am. I noticed that whenever and wherever the bus will see bags in the road without people around, our bus will stop, blow its horn and the passenger/s will appear from the house. Yes, there was no need to wait in the dark suffering from the cold and mosquito bites. The bus will simply stop for you. In Eastern Samar 18 years ago, a relative of the passenger rode the bus in Borongan and stopped the bus in a house in a barrio. Turned out the lady passenger has not yet finished her bath. Well, our bus driver simply turned off the engine to the laughter of all and we all waited and when the lady boarded there were cheers and more laughter. Are those ease and leaning backward possible in a ship? Simply no.

So whenever and wherever a bus begin crossing the straits I noticed they will simply kick out the liners from Manila. This first happened in Samar in the 1980’s. This was followed by Mindoro and Panay in the 2000’s. Masbate, Leyte, Bohol and Surigao soon followed suit. Practically it is only Negros and Cebu islands and northern  and western Mindanao that are immune from the buses from Manila.

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Intermodal buses in Masbate port

In the examples I gave I made sure it was the buses that torpedoed the liners and not the budget airlines. In those examples I am pretty sure most of the passengers transferred to the intermodal buses because if one checks the frequency of the airlines when there were still liners and today one will notice that the frequency increases of the airlines were modest while the intermodal buses grew by leaps and bounds. That is very clear in Panay. That is very clear in Eastern Visayas and Masbate. That is also true in Surigao, Bohol and Mindoro (maybe in Bohol many make a transfer to a Cebu plane).

I think the liners never knew what hit them. Probably they can not believe that they passengers will move from bunks to seats that taxes the butt and hurts the back. Their liners have toilets and baths and buses don’t have that. They have free food, good service (they have stewards and attendants), functioning restaurants, lounges and areas where passengers can mill around. There are even spas, discos and chapels. Yet the passengers exchanged them for seats where once can barely move. Sounds improbable, isn’t it? But that happened and not only in one place.

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And to think the bus fares are not even significantly cheaper, if it is. And there are ancillary costs like food, terminal fees, payment for using the comfort rooms of the terminals and eating places. And the perilous and embarrassing case of a sometime traveler’s diarrhea.

I once asked a lady seatmate in a bus (they are more inconvenienced as unlike males they need a true CR) from Surigao why. She said she likes the views when the bus runs, that she likes reaching places she had never been to before. Yes, on a liner you only see the sea, the seascape and some ports.

The bus passengers don’t even need to go to the ports and there be charged unfairly by the porters. And on the return trip they can stop the bus right by their gate (is there a convenience greater than that?). No need for porters again and relatives will be waiting by the gate since there is SMS now. And also in many cases the trip of the bus is shorter than the voyage of the ship. Many also think there is more risk in traveling in a ship. Courtesy of the highly-publicized sinkings like the Dona Paz and the Princess of the Stars.

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Even in places like Davao the intermodal bus was also a factor. That was also true in Iloilo and maybe Gensan also.

Those are the things that torpedoed the liners. Maybe the shipping companies never knew what hit them. Their belief is the budget airlines tripped them. That cannot be proven empirically in a lot of places. Maybe their pride is simply too high they cannot admit a lowly bus beat them.

If liners want to make a comeback they should do a real study why the passengers walked away. But I still doubt if they can really beat the intermodal bus. They are simply too ubiquitous.

My Davao-Cebu Trip via Baybay

My “Maria Lolita” and “Rosalia 3” Ship Spotting
written by: Mike Baylon

When I go on travel, I usually integrate ship spotting with free viewing while on board a bus as I really love trips combining the bus and the ship. A little tiring especially for one no longer young but I dislike airline travel not because I am afraid of flying but because I find airline travel boring and aseptic as there is almost nothing to absorb in airports and in one-hour plane rides.

If my health permits me, I try routes that I have not done before. This is one way of knowing the country, our people and culture. This also brings not only excitement and surprises but also failures and disappointment but one learns in both cases. Mastery of different routes and schedules is one result and capability for travel advice is a future benefit.

Having not sailed yet with a Baybay-Cebu ship I made a plan for a trip that will pass by a Philippine Ship Spotter Society in Baybay City, Leyte. My plan from Davao Ecoland terminal was to the first bus to Manila then, a Philtranco ordinary bus (their aircon bus is too late for my purpose). [Anyway now, there are buses for Manila that leaves earlier if they are full enough.]

Having ridden a lot of buses going to Manila from Davao, I was already familiar with their running schedules. The 9 pm bus loads into the 6am Montenegro Lines ferry in Lipata port for Benit port. This will be my first trip through the length of Panaon Island and will be my first pass through the renowned “The Saddle” mountain pass between San Ricardo and Pintuyan towns in the island.

With such a schedule, I know I will be in mountainous Mahaplag junction in Leyte before lunch the next day. I already know that area in the past because I disembark there when my bus from Naga is bound for Baybay. Travelers say there are “poisoners” in the area but I am not a believer in urban legends and I buy and eat their “puto”. Well, I am still alive with no stomach ache ever after leaving that area. By the way, the name of the barrio is Cuatro de Agosto and it is just over 30 minutes by van (called “V-hire” there) from Baybay.

Philtranco 1709
Philtranco 1709 ©Mike Baylon

Our Philtranco Daewoo bus was new but being non-reclining was not comfortable for me and so I slept little. Our trip was uneventful and being a night trip the passengers were mostly asleep. Just before daybreak we were already on queue on the weighing scale of Lipata port. The port authority PPA measures the weight of the rolling cargo because after 30 years of experience they found out they do not know how to estimate weights because they don’t know where to look at and they are too shy to ask the ship cargo masters how they estimate the weight and how to balance the cargo and they don’t have an idea what is ship deadweight tonnage. Seriously, that weighing is just a money-making project of theirs that is charged to the vehicle owners.

Lipata Ferry Terminal
Lipata Ferry Terminal ©Mike Baylon

Feeling low blood sugar, I decided not to fall in line into the ticket and terminal fee queue and be caged like cattle before departure and go through the X-ray machine where they try to see if some dumb passenger is carrying Abu Sayyaf bombs. So like in boarding processes in the past, I went straight to the “Maria Lolita” of Montenegro Lines. Nobody was really noticing as it was just beginning to get light. I took a seat on a bench in the car deck beside a crewman eating his breakfast and true to custom he offered me to eat. It was not yet boarding time for passengers.

Maria Lolita
Maria Lolita at Lipata Port ©Mike Baylon

It turned out the crewman was the 2nd Engineer of the ship and we hit off immediately. We talked about the ship, his experience, the working conditions, from where he is, his family and aspirations. Sometimes, a ship spotter will feel the next logical question is, “Can I see the engine room?” And so I went down the stairs and into a clean and orderly engine room with young oilers and apprentices who were all friendly.

While touring the engine room, I noticed the engine rev up. I looked at the gauges and saw the RPM was at running speed. I took my time because anyway it is not a usual occurrence a passenger is in the engine room while the ship is sailing. Later on, I still talked to the second engineer but on the cargo deck already in the same bench. It was hard to carry a conversation in the engine room as it doesn’t have a sound-proofed engine control room.

Maria Lolita engine room
Maria Lolita Engine Room ©Mike Baylon

Knowing the crossing to Benit is short, I bade goodbye to the 2nd Engineer because I still want to tour the ship which was a rare one because it is a double-ended ferry. I hastened to the double bridge not being used as the ferry is already nearing Benit port. I know the other double bridge will look exactly like the bridge not being used. Before going down I spent some time in the airconditioned Tourist section as I want to cool down a bit.

In Benit port, I disembarked early so I can get port photos including the Illegal Exaction Point of San Ricardo LGU. These Illegal Exaction Points are rampant throughout the country like the illegal checkpoints of the military, police and the Local Government Units. Those are nothing more than tools for shakedowns and extortion and no amount of Supreme Court decisions and DILG memorandums declaring them illegal can ever do away with them. Greed after all is not a sin and nobody goes to jail for defying Supreme Court decisions. Anyway, in this country that is how they define “rule of law” (pronounced “woool of low” like how a toothless person would pronounce that).

Illegal exaction point in Benit
Illegal exaction point in Benit ©Mike Baylon

Soon after leaving Benit, our bus began climbing “The Saddle”. It reminded me somehow of “Tatlong Eme” in Quezon National Park between Pagbilao and Atimonan except that the drivers don’t know the right-of-way rule of steep mountain passes. The climb and the top affords glimpses of the serene-looking Sogod Bay and Limasawa Island. We passed by the small towns of Panaon island. Passing the junction in Sogod, I knew we were already headed to the mountain range separating Southern Leyte and Leyte provinces.

The "Saddle"
The “Saddle” ©Mike Baylon

At the top, we made a stop in the DPWH rest area in Agas-agas made famous first by the rushing waters during the rainy season that always destroyed the road. This was the reason why the Japanese designed and funded a bypass bridge (which is now being threatened again by the “agas-agas” of water). Pretty soon, I was in Mahaplag junction and I got off. I find the vendors of this place always nice and helpful and with them knowing there is a passenger waiting they will always flag down the needed ride – it is after all a chance also to sell their foodstuff.

Mahaplag junction
Mahaplag junction ©Mike Baylon

Rolling down into Baybay, I contacted the resident ship spotter of Baybay, “fatbudhha” Mervin. I arrived in the common terminal at 12:30 at by 1pm Mervin picked me up and we proceeded to the barbecue restaurant by the bay where he treated me for lunch. We had a rewarding exchange and I was amazed by his knowledge of the Cebu shipping families especially Gothong. It was also a surprise to me he knows my home region of Bicol as I didn’t suspect he was once an abaca buyer there.

We parted at mid-afternoon and Baybay town center being small I was able to roam the place. I had plenty of time since the earliest ferry for Cebu leaves at 8pm. I visited the adjoining ship ticketing offices and I chose the “Rosalia 3” of Lapu-Lapu Shipping over the “Filipinas Surigao” of Cokaliong Shipping for the simple reason I have already sailed with the latter. As much as possible I take the ship I have not sailed with before so I can have more ship experiences.

The boulevard and baywalk fronting Baybay port
The Boulevard and Baywalk fronting Baybay Port ©Mike Baylon

I have already experienced the side-by-side bunks of Lapu-Lapu Shipping before (and it was true canvass material) and I was not excited. So I took the cheap aircon Tourist of “Rosalia 3” to get a good sleep as I will still be ship spotting when I arrive in Cebu port. In this trip, I found out that the Economy bunks of Lapu-Lapu Shipping has already been upgraded in that it already has steel frame and mattress but still side-by-side and perpendicular to the side.

Rosalia 3 pax accommodations at night
Rosalia 3 Passenger Accommodations at night ©Mike Baylon

My trip aboard the “Rosalia 3” was uneventful except it was raining and I found out that the passenger terminal building of Baybay leaks and there is no covered walk to the ship nor is there a covered walk too from the road to the passenger terminal building and it is not near. We left ahead of the “Filipinas Surigao” (Note: the ship and franchise is now sold to Roble Shipping).

We arrived in Cebu at dawn and I didn’t disembark immediately because I still have to ship spot (there are no decent shots before light and arriving ships come by about breakfast time). Before leaving I toured the ship including the bridge and the engine room. Ship spotting is always better when there is light. I was also able to interview the Chief Cook who was also the Chief Cook of the ill-fated “Rosalia 2” which was hit by fire in Cataingan Bay in Masbate.

Rosalia - 3
Rosalia 3 ©Mike Baylon

For a ship spotter coming from Davao and Bislig (or even not), I can recommend the via Baybay route. Aside from ship spotting opportunities in at least two ports (with enough time allowance side trips to Surigao and Liloan ports are possible). If maximization is the aim then one can even go to Hilongos or Ormoc. The expense in going via Baybay, amazingly, is even lower than taking a ferry in Nasipit. They keys to going there is Mahaplag junction (or Mahaplag crossing in bus parlance) and taking a bus going to Manila and not the slow Bachelor bus.

To those who asked me for travel advice before in Agribusiness Week, if going to western Leyte, I always recommended this mode and route too as one arrived much earlier that the slow and round about to Maasin Bachelor bus to Ormoc. Funny, many in Leyte itself don’t realize the Manila buses and Mahaplag junction are the keys to faster travel within their island.

Over-all, though tiring, it was a successful and satisfying trip for me.

Baybay port
Baybay Port ©Mike Baylon

PS: If you have questions about this article regarding fares and travel tips, you may post it by clicking this LINK so that it would be answered and discussed. Thanks!