When Liners Were Still Small and Short-legged

After World War II and for a generation after, the Philippines had so many small and short-legged liners. This was dictated by the situation that when the United States replaced our merchant fleet that was destroyed in World War II as was their promise (since they requisitioned our passenger ships then and the others were ordered destroyed to prevent falling into enemy hands), the replacement they gave were mainly small ships that were not even ferries in the first place. Because of that we had very few big liners in the first two decades after the war. The bulk of our liner fleet then consisted of the small ex-”FS” cargo ships of World War II and the many and even smaller ex-”F” cargo ships, many of which were lengthened like the ex-”FS” ships to increase passenger and cargo capacity. Aside from those two types we also had a few ex-”Y” ships, former tankers which were a little smaller than but related to the ex-”FS” ships plus some “liners” converted from minesweepers and PT boats (can you imagine that?). Conversion to ferries of those were the shipping thing after the war much like the conversion of former Army jeeps of the US Army into the “jeepneys” which became a Filipino thing.

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An example of a converted ex-“FS” ship.  Credits to Gorio Belen and Evening News

The term “liners” here is liberally used to describe the multi-day ships then which had more or less definite schedules for departures of arrivals (they were never very prompt then for various reason but they have published estimated times of departures and arrivals). In general, being small they are of no match in terms of accommodations, comfort and amenities to the liners of the past two or three decades and almost all of them did not possess air-conditioning and some are practically single-class ships and just divided into upper deck and lower deck. Thus, they were really different from the luxury liners we take for granted now.

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A converted and lengthened ex-“F” ship. Credits to Manila Bulletin and Gorio Belen

Being small and doing long routes, the small liners had many intermediate ports of call and there were several reasons for that. One is more ports of call means more passengers and cargo and during that time the country’s population was just a fifth of today’s. Another reason is a lot of localities and islands need connections to the national center which is Manila when during that time our road system was still primitive. And another reason is these ships when built were never meant to carry about three hundred passengers and that meant food, water and other provisions can run out and so the ship must be replenished along the way especially since refrigeration of the ships was limited. This was the time when a rule was instituted that passengers must come to port four hours before departure time (and then suffer more wait if the cargo handling is not yet finished – there are important shippers who with one call can make the ship wait for his last-minute cargo). A reason for that rule is the need to make a head count of passengers and add some figure as allowance and from that calculate the provisions that must be carried by the ship. There was even a running joke that the chandler (the supplier) will only then order how many hogs and chicken must be slaughtered.

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Not an ex-“FS” ship but of the same size. Credits to The Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen.

A characteristic these small liners is the paucity of refrigeration. If there is such the capacity was not really meant for the number of passengers already being carried as a passenger-cargo ship because the ship was just a freight ship during the war with a limited number of crew. As such ice chests had to be employed so that the loaded food provisions will not spoil. But then the ship was not really big for all the supplies needed and revenue cargo is the priority in the holds and in the other cargo areas. Water is an important provision that must also be considered since not only the drinking needs of the passengers must be taken into account.

The longest single legs of these ships were from Manila to Cebu, Manila to Tacloban and Manila to Dumaguete, all of which were just short of 400 nautical miles. With a speed averaging 10 knots that meant a travel time of over one-and-a-half days which means five meals have to be served to the passengers. That transit time does not even include additional time in dodging bad weather and in hiding in coves and letting the storm pass if it is strong. But from Cebu, Tacloban or Dumaguete, these liners are still bound for Northern Mindanao or Southern Mindanao and if the final destination is Davao, it is not even half of the way yet. In fuel, however, it might not have been that much of a concern for these ships were capable of crossing long distances in the Pacific Ocean during the war (but with refueling at sea of course).

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A former minesweepers. Still on the way to Surigao and Davao before the accident. Credits to The Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen.

One advantage of being short-legged is the vessels have to call on a lot of ports along their routes. So in that time a lot of small and minor ports are being served and have connections to Manila, the national port. But maybe one had not heard now of Pulanduta port or Gigantes, Looc, Ibajay, Sangi, Anakan, Victoria, Nato, Angas, Tandoc, Mercedes, Larap, Bacuit, Araceli, Caruray, Casiguran, Carangian, Cabalian, Calubian, Kabasalan, Kolambugan, Sipalay,et cetera, when before they had connections to Manila. Aside from those ports mentioned, the liners then will also drop anchors in the various Mindoro ports, in several Panay ports, a few ports in Romblon province , in Marinduque ports, in Masbate ports too on the way to ports in the east or ports farther down south including ports of Mindanao, the so-called “Land of Promise” then to entice people to move there (but it was disaster for the natives and the Muslims as they lost their ancestral lands).

In the longest route to Davao these small liners will pass by Cebu, Tagbilaran, Dumaguete and Zamboanga ports before heading to Celebes Sea for Cotabato, Dadiangas or Davao. These might even drop by Iligan, Ozamis or Pulauan first. Using the eastern seaboard of Mindanao the liner could have already dropped anchor in Masbate, Catbalogan, Tacloban, Surigao and maybe even Mati or Bislig. Some will pass by Iloilo or Pulupandan ports and Cagayan de Misamis or Iligan ports before going to Southern Mindanao while still passing through some other ports along the way. That was one reason why Surigao was a very important port as it was a critical stop-over then (the next leg if Mati is still a long way to go and especially if it is direct Davao). When to think Surigao was very far from the size of Zamboanga City. That city also functioned as a critical stop-over like Dumaguete. In the longest route then to Davao the most number of interports called before Davao in a route was ten. It will then take over a week before the liner reach Davao and one week was the usual transit time to Davao.

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Not and ex-“FS” ship but of the same size. Credits to Evening News and Gorio Belen

If one had the inclination these long voyages with many stop-overs also afford “free tourism” since the liner will be spending many hours on the intermediate port because of the slow cargo handling then and there will be time to roam the port city (that was what my late father used to do then). The stops then were really long compared to now as the cargo was not yet containerized and only a single boom handles all the loading and unloading aside of course from the backs of the porters. On the other hand for those prone to seasickness these long voyages are simply torture especially if during the monsoons when the weather is acting up. Summer travel doesn’t afford relief, however, as there is no air-conditioning on board, in the main.

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As can be gleaned from the photo there is no air-conditioned section. An ex-“FS” ship. Credits to Gorio Belen and the newspaper.

In those days the position of the Purser was important for he decides what supplies must be purchased along the way and by how much and he has the authority how much will be charged for the cargo loaded along the way. This is the reason why this position is filled by trusted men of the shipping owner. Nowadays, liners with their available big cargo space including refrigerated container vans and freezers plus big pantries is just basically loaded now in Manila and Cebu and if there is a local purchase then it must probably just fish or some vegetables which are cheaper than in the provinces than Manila or Cebu. With strong communication, too, now the tendency is to centralize everything unlike before (there is now what is called as the “commissary”) and so the Purser of the liner, if it still exist is no longer as important as before.

There were really a lot of these small and short-legged ferries then. The biggest reason is when there were no container ships yet these passenger-cargo ships were the main carriers of cargo then, too. So, all in all, some 60 converted ex-”FS” ships sailed our seas and approximately the same number of ex-”F” ships were also sailing. Plus there maybe two dozen small ships of the other types as liners too. So the small liners of the past might be some 140 ships in total or maybe the number will even reach 150 liners. Some of those, however, were primarily used only in the regional routes. But isn’t that number amazing?

But 25 years or a generation after these small liners came and dominated the local waters the fast cruiser liners began arriving in force and it was a paradigm-changing arrival. The main selling point of these fast cruiser liners was their speed. To maximize that selling point and the utilization of the ships that meant reducing travel time to Davao to three days which means a lot of interports had to be stricken off from the routes. Being bigger too that meant the small and shallow ports (and most of which still featured wooden wharves) can no longer be served by them. And so these small ports along the way lost their connection to Manila like the ports I listed earlier which people might no longer know now but had connections to Manila before when the liners were still small and short-legged.

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A fast cruiser liner but the interports are not shortened yet. Credits to Evening News and Gorio Belen.

And then in less than a decade’s time after the fast cruiser liners began arriving another paradigm-changing shift happened in local shipping when the first local container ships appeared in our waters. These container ships have a faster turn-around time than the small and short-legged liners because like the fast cruiser liners these just called on a few interports and sometimes there is even none. With the safety and security offered by the container vans and faster cargo handling soon the death knell to the old small and short-legged liners was sounded and in a few years they were practically gone from our waters.

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The first container ship in local waters. Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen.

But if there was a sector that lost with all these advances in speed and size it has to be the small and shallow ports along the way which lost their Manila connection. Some retained their Manila connection for a time but declined in importance like Romblon, Masbate, Catbalogan, Tacloban, Surigao, Tagbilaran and Pulupandan. Those that lost their Manila connection just look and wave at the ships passing their place. As replacement, regional and sub-regional ports had to be developed like Batangas, Lucena, Pilar, Matnog and later the intermodal system linking the islands had to develop, too.

But as a whole our number of regularly-scheduled ships dropped in number because the ships got bigger and the faster ships had more total voyages in a year. Actually, even the first generation container ships were bigger than the small and short-legged liners. Now their equivalent in size are just the bigger among our intermodal short-distance ferry-ROROs which connect our near islands and is the carrier of the intermodal trucks and buses like those which cross from Batangas to Mindoro, those which cross from Mindoro to Panay, those which link the eastern seaboard of the country, those which link Bicol, Masbate and Cebu and those which link the different Visayan islands, etc.

Now only a few will remember our small and short-legged liners which dominated our seas in the first 25 years or so after the end of World War II when our merchant fleet was born again. None of it exists now even as a museum piece.

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My Trip From Bicol To Cebu Via Masbate (Part 2)

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Arriving in Masbate Port

Upon disembarking from Marina Empress, I immediately went to the Cokaliong ship Filipinas Ozamis, my target ride to Cebu. I wanted to leave my things there and purchase a ticket from the Purser, if possible. I was rebuffed and not in a nice way (maybe they thought of me as just one feeble lolo). So things were no longer the same like when Trans-Asia Shipping Lines still held the Masbate route. Nor was it the same in Mangguino-o port in Calbayog when I rode their ship there to Cebu. So the arrangement is “more advanced” now. Gone was the old provincial port hospitality.

No use arguing with them so I went to their ticketing office outside the port gate. No shipspotting first as want to be ahead of the rest as I fear a big delegation or two might already be ahead of me given that next day was the start of Sinulog week in Cebu. I was the first in line when their office opened at 7am and I was able to get a Lounge ticket. It was my choice because I like the ambience and the space and besides I am a poor sleeper on rides anyway. It was easy except for a snafu as their ticket seller was new. A line was already forming behind me when I got my ticket.

I proceeded next to the newly-opened passenger terminal building (it was not operating before) and I tried to work on the lady guard. I need someone who I can trust my baggage to as I can’t lug it around while I shipspot. I said I need to take breakfast outside (the passenger terminal building has no eateries). She was kind and she took in my baggage. While free of my baggage already, I just took some shots of the port and its ship because my sugar was already dropping down.

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When I was outside the port already, I realized the info I got about Jollibee was bum. I did not like the heavy meals of the eateries near the port. It was then that I decided to take a risk of missing two ferry arrivals and a few fastcraft and motor banca departures. I wanted to see the new Gaisano mall which had a Bigg’s restaurant (the Bicol competitor of Jollibee which is more than their equal). It was somewhat near the market and the other Masbate port and bus terminal. I wanted to visit those places again because it will add to my Masbate photo collection and besides it had been sometime that I was there. It was also my intention to eat a farewell meal at Bigg’s since that is not available in Cebu and Mindanao.

I ate a fast breakfast at Bigg’s mindful that the ferries will arrive anytime. I was not mistaken coz going out of Gaisano I already saw buses from Manila rolling, the telltale sign that a ferry had already arrived. Nothing I can do anymore and so I just asked my tricycle driver to bring me to the Masbate bus terminal. On the way there we passed by the Masbate public market which is practically just across the street.

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The buses and commuter vans of Masbate fascinated me. Rarely do I see them and their spread is already the story of about the latest in Masbate land transportation. Adjacent to the bus terminal by the sea is the fishport, fish landing area and municipal port of Masbate. I found there the Burias motor bancas and other motor bancas aside from the fishing bancas of Masbate. I was lucky one Burias motor banca was already maneuvering to depart. The Burias motor bancas have a slightly different design from the other Masbate bancas.

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The other port of Masbate and the Burias motor bancas

It was just functional spotting there and I did not stay long although I was tempted to ride a van to Aroroy and ship spot there. But I thought if I did that I will miss a lot more in Masbate port and it is possible that when I come back most of the ROROs of Masbate port will have left already. But had I known then that there was a cheap Island Shipping LCT that leaves in the afternoon in Cawayan my plans might have been different (but that was no longer possible as I have already a Cokaliong ticket and I also wanted to ride the Filipinas Ozamis which I have not ridden before).

Back in port, I found the lady guard was really kind and accommodating. She agreed to take care of my things until her shift ends. By this time the port terminal building was beginning to get full of people as they force even the bus passengers to pass through it when actually short-distance ROROs are almost always ready for boarding. The building was already hot and stuffy as it has a bad airconditioning design and some aircon units were not working. Add to that people coming and going with the doors open.

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It was then that I made a full survey of the port. I noticed that the ferries Jack Daniel and Nelvin Jules of Sta. Clara Shipping were already docked there along with a small fastcraft of Montenegro Lines (it seems it had an early departure in Pilar given that at dawn there was no more RORO waiting there). Of course, passenger-cargo motor bancas from Pilar and Ticao island have already arrived too. Although there were some small crafts departures already this was the time (as in before 10am) that Masbate port is becoming already full. From 10am there will begin the RORO departures starting with Montenegro and Denica trips to Pilar (the trips to Pio Duran start later).

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The first notable departure I noticed was the fastcraft Lady Jacqueline which serves as the secure transport of a mining firm in Aroroy which fears the NPA (New People’s Army). Aside from personnel that craft is the daily carrier of the supplies sourced from the city. The fastcraft does not take in paying passengers.

This time around I already made up my mind that I will not try anymore to board all the ferries docked. One reason is to conserve my strength. When I try to do that I tend to distress in a few hours. Second, I have to be on guard regarding the vessels arriving and departures (I sometime miss some when I am touring ships). I know that soon the RORO departures will begin. But I also resolved I will try to visit the beautiful Jack Daniel of Sta. Clara Shipping. No member of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) has boarded that vessel yet and I will not pass up the chance.

Soon, as expected, starting just before 10am the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs Maria Angela of Montenegro Lines, the Odyssey of Denica Lines began leaving along with the small fastcraft of Montenegro Lines. And as usual motor bancas to and from Pilar and Ticao will arrive and depart along with small motor bancas from the other side of Masbate Bay. There was also a Burias motor banca that passed which emanated from the municipal port of Masbate. This was the time that the vessels in Masbate port will begin “thinning”.

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Two ROROs and a cargo in styropor boxes

As usual, docked in the port were a few freighters. In Masbate, freighters usually load copra and they use hoppers aboard trucks for that for ease in unloading (it will just be hooked by the boom of the ship). If the cargo is inbound to Masbate, it will most likely be cement. All other inbound supplies from Masbate is usually trucked. If the truck is outbound it might be carrying livestock as Masbate is known for that. In the bay, there were freighters anchored as usual, waiting.

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One prominent loose cargo that will be seen in Masbate are frozen fish and crustacean that are in styropor boxes. This comes from Sorsogon and it passes through Pilar port. Pilar and Sorsogon Bay is known for crustaceans. Some of the products are crab meat for the consumption of Cebu (most likely a crab omelet). If it is fish, it is the high-value kind which they call “isdang-bato”. Some of these are even for export. If there is a ship for Cebu like that day they will load it onboard. Otherwise, it will be loaded in the ferries in Cataingan port in the southeastern side of Masbate island. This port has connections to Bogo City and Cebu City.

When I came back to the port, there was still buses from Manila going out of the port bound for the far towns of Masbate like Aroroy, Balud, Esperanza and Pio V. Corpus. But soon all the many buses in the port are Manila-bound buses already. Many of them are early for their ships and their passengers contribute to the overflow inside the passenger terminal. It was still peak season and the buses were all full. Those who cannot be accommodated board the vessels bound for Pilar. There will be buses for Manila waiting there like my ride to Pilar.

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Jack Daniel lounge

When the sun was getting high I decided to take a break walking the length of the port by visiting the Jack Daniel. I did this before the lunchtime departures of the ferries began. I had an easy access and I went up immediately to the passenger deck. Her lounge and tourist was magnificent by short-distance RORO standards. Even the color motif was beautiful. At the back of it and at the bridge level there was the usual Economy section. The latter was the one we saw being built when PSSS first saw her in Nagasaka Shipyard.

I was able to talk with the Captain who is Alexander Saplat. He told me he was already the Captain way back in Nagasaka Shipyard and I was amazed when he told me they finished the painting of the ship in Pantao port (to nowhere) because it is cheaper to dock a ship there. He said the Niigata main engines are still good but they have a problem with an auxiliary. I told him his ship for its size has the biggest engine and highest design speed in the Philippines. However, in the Masbate-Pio Duran route they just aim for a three-and-a-half hour sailing time. It seems her good lounge will be appreciated for that voyage. Maybe that is the reason why they keep the ship there. It won’t be appreciated much in the one-hour-ten-minute sailing time between between Allen and Matnog.

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There were three Montenegro fastcrafts which I saw in Masbate Port. One is a small one and then the fastcraft City of Sorsogon. What attracted me, however, was the fastcraft City of Angeles that is the newest fastcraft of Montenegro Lines which I haven’t seen before. She was just the size of the City of Sorsogon.

At lunchtime the Maria Sophia of Montenegro Lines, the Marina Empress of Denica Lines left to be followed by Nelvin Jules of Sta. Clara Shipping which is still sporting the old blue and white livery of the company. We all took notice when she stopped at the middle of Masbate Bay still near the port. Soon we noticed a motor banca sidled with her. It turned out that a well-wisher was aboard when she departed. The motor banca then docked not for from us and soon a Montero SUV was flying inside the port (it was the fastest drive ever I saw inside a port). The driver must still be fuming.

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Nelvin Jules disembarking a well-wisher

Had a field day taking photos in Masbate port. I was so busy I decided to forego lunch and just relied on knick-knacks. Hard to go outside when one knows about four vessels will be departing around lunchtime and all the time buses (which I take shots of) were being loaded aboard.

I used the port terminal building to get some respite from the sun and have some rest. I registered a complaint to the highest official around that the airconditioning is not sufficient. He said even the Masbate local authorities have already complained but the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) has not acted on the matter. I said that they should discount their fees then. Their terminal fee is even higher than the port of Cebu when that port even supplies free shuttle and the airconditioning and seats are good.

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I also found another issue inside the port terminal. I noticed that the area reserved for kids with a playpen which is also the cooler portion of the terminal building was being occupied by Coast Guard men and their K-9 dog. Without much ado, I asked them to leave and they did (I prefaced it with the fact that they are college graduates hence should be act educated). After that some kids and a few adults used the place. The highest-ranking official of the port was there all the time and he did nothing and it seems that practice has been going on for some time. A Coast Guardsman went back and we had a polite but not a dry talk. Maybe it was the first time they faced someone like me. I said the Filipinos have a legacy of martial law in their brains – usually they can’t complain if across him was a man in uniform with guns.

The last ferry that was scheduled to leave Masbate port was the Jack Daniel. But past its ETD of 4pm I noticed she was still docked although most of her load was already inside her RORO deck. They said they were still waiting for some buses. Buses have contracts with ROROs in Bicol and it will not leave until all buses it should load were already accounted for. This reserved slot, this waiting for them is what new-to-intermodal private car owners do not understand in the intermodal system. It usually infuriates them because they thought everything is “first come, first served”. They don’t understand the the system of reservations works anywhere and everywhere.

By this time nearing late afternoon the only passengers left at the passenger terminal building were the passengers bound for Cebu. If one arrives he is immediately asked it he is for Pio Duran and if yes they will immediately tell him to go direct to the ship. With two ferries left and fastcrafts done for the day and just a few buses and cars inside the port there was no longer the bustle and the hubbub of the peak hours. Together with the sun beginning to dim I already feel a pang of loneliness inside the port. I went out. The pall is the same there. The business of the port for the day was drifting to a close. Even the kind lady guard was no longer around.

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I was charging my camera batteries and it so happened the young lady near the outlet turned out she was from Rinconada (and a Cebu student) and we had a talk. She was not able to get a good accommodations because she was rather late in arriving because she just took the 6am van to Legazpi and so she arrived at mid-afternoon. It was her usual ride, a ride I do not take for twice it resulted in photo finishes years before. But it seems the Montenegro fastcraft have turned around some things. But still it cannot be the ride for me because if I arrive at 2pm or 3pm most of the ROROs except one will be gone already and that is shipspotting failure already (shows what shipspotters have to endure at times as in this case in have to take a midnight ride).

Boarded my ship before 5pm with the lady student. That was the most we can do with our charging in the terminal. I tried to notice the crew if Cokaliong is different. Nope, as one told me before, there are no more able-bodied seamen now. Just all apprentices or interns. Made my first round, a quick one of the Filipinas Ozamis. I was glad I had a good accommodation as the ship was nearly full. Took my first shots of the inside of the ship before it got too dark. I may not have that chance when we reach Cebu.

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No good meal

I went out of the port again to my dinner outside before it became dark. I noticed the Jack Daniel was still there and she was already one-a-half hours past her departure time. I was intrigued and so I visited her again even though she lies at the farther part of the port. I asked around. They were still waiting for three buses of Mega Bus. This bus being trounced already by competition is already the last bus that leaves their destinations. I hope some passengers were not stewing.

Our ETD was 7pm so there was really no rush in my meal. But I was surprised that when I came back the Jack Daniel was still there. The port was already dark by then and there was not much activity anymore except near the two ferries remaining, our Filipinas Ozamis and the Jack Daniel. Filipinas Ozamis was already rushing her loadings. Nearly all of her passengers were already aboard.

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If they can only load a bus on the roof

I cannot resist going again to Jack Daniel. I asked around again. The Mega Bus buses which the Jack Daniel waited for were already there. But there was a hitch. They can load only two of the buses and passengers of one of the buses were being asked to alight from Jack Daniel. What a horrible development and I pitied the passengers. Usually there are sure slots for the buses as their places are already confirmed hours before they arrived. I thought some Masbate bigshot might have bulldozed his way in.

We left at 7pm and Jack Daniel was still there. I thought it would be smooth for us. But then we circled and the stern ramp was dropped. I thought there was a problem and we will be going back to the port. But then after stopping near the Jack Daniel, our ship then finally departed at about 7:25pm. A passenger asked me what was that all about. I don’t really know so I just joked they must be letting out some bad air.

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Leaving Jack Daniel behind

Made a tour of the ship after boarding again . It was already all night shots and sometimes the result was not good. But I want to do it because usually at Cebu there won’t be a chance anymore. And a tour like this with the ship already sailing and all the passengers onboard telegraphs a different feel. I saw that the lounges near the canteens and the open-air passenger area with tables and seat where the ones the passengers that are not resting were gathered. Filipinas Ozamis does not have the usual restaurant.

Filipinas Ozamis was not that big, I thought. Being full it felt even cramped. I was glad I got the Lounge Class. The lounge itself is not ticketed; it is the jetseater seats that are. So the total space for so few passengers in this class is big. The class accommodations of Filipinas Ozamis is not balanced. Lots of cabins whose total capacity is even bigger than Tourist, I found out in the General Arrangement Plan (GAP). That is why Tourist is almost all sold out while there are vacancies in Cabin. I thought some of the Cabins in the center should have been converted into an additional Tourist section.

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Filipinas Ozamis Lounge class

The ship was clean and our voyage was smooth. Soon I was back in lounge and I noticed the passengers are angling to sleep on the couches. I also did the same and I had a pleasant lie. I noticed few were occupying the jetseaters anyway when actually we are full in that class. The lounge had a wonderful ambience by the way. Very nice if with a group of friends.

Was able to get a reasonably good sleep for my age and I was up in Cebu when we were nearing the Mactan bridges. Once they broadcast to the crew, I will surely be up. I just wished our arrival was some 30 minutes later. Nothing good to capture on my lens even when we were already docking on Pier 1. Sayang. Had we had a late arrival it would have been grand shipspotting. I had enough batteries for that.

I had a good Bicol to Cebu trip via Masbate over-all. I was not that tired as I already learned how to pace myself. The cool weather was also a factor. It was a good shipspotting trip by all means.

My Trip From Bicol to Cebu Via Masbate (Part 1)

When I go from Bicol to Cebu I usually pass through Masbate. Going via Eastern Visayas is farther, longer and costs more. The route via Masbate also affords me the chance to cover a southern port of Bicol and the nascent port of Masbate. However, whatever route I take I usually end up tired and lacking sleep. The reason is I start my trip on a midnight and this is dictated by the the hours that the bus pass by Naga on the way to Pio Duran or Pilar, the jump-off points to Masbate. Well, even if I take the Eastern Visayas route still the buses pass Naga at night and at midnight I will be there awake in Matnog port. I don’t sleep well on buses and that is more so when there are frequent stops and shuffling of people and baggages.

On this particular trip, I had no firm decision whether to take the Pio Duran or Pilar route to Masbate. It was peak season, the buses were full, the weather was not very cooperative and so I decided I will just ride the first bus that will stop for me. Luckily,I was rewarded with a 4-day old bus, a brand-new unit recently fielded. It was SRO but I didn’t mind because as just a Pilar bus I know there will be passengers that will be going down in the next town or two and I was not mistaken. My bet to stay at the front paid off again and I was rewarded with a front seat (thanks again to the lady who pulled my arm so I can have her seat). I had opportunities to use my cam for bus pics although it was limited because it was night and dark. Besides the rain started again when the bus started rolling.

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Pilar Bus Terminal and my ride

This was the trip that fully exposed me to the damage of Typhoon “Nina” to the electrical lines (I had been exposed before to the physical damage when I made my shipspotting trip to Legazpi and Tabaco). All the towns we passed had no lights and the first one I noticed that had widespread lights was already the known junction in Kimantong, Daraga, Albay. But after passing that part of the poblacion of Daraga it was all dark again (and there was not even a moonlight) until we were already on the descent nearing the port town of Pilar (and Pilar is already some 130 kilometers from where I came from). After such a long drive the lights of Pilar felt welcome as we were no longer peering in the dark. And being just past the Yuletide season, the Christmas lights and decors were still on the streets and homes and those added to the welcoming feeling.

We stopped at the bus terminal of Pilar and I made small talk to the bus crew. This small talk enables me to update on some things I should need to know with regards to trips. The terminal is walking distance from the port of Pilar and we entered through a portion of the market that was converted as a port terminal. The ticket sellers (and the painitans) were there as well as their agents and runners. They were selling us the competing advantages of Denica Lines and Montenegro Lines (the RORO because just past midnight there were no fastcrafts yet). Showing my veteran side I passed by the terminal without deciding yet. I just asked what their fares and skeds were. The ferries are not yet leaving so I have time to get more info, assess the options and make the better decision. And who knows if a motor banca makes a very good offer?

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Motor banca to Mandaon

The row of motor bancas that were leaving comes before the ROROs. Uhm, there were more offerings now. Aside from the usual motor bancas to Masbate and Aroroy there was now a motor banca to Mandaon which on the southwest of Masbate island facing Romblon (and is a gateway to Sibuyan island by motor banca). And those were pre-dawn departures as in 3am to 4am. That was new to me. So they allow it now. In amihan? The waters of Ticao Pass, the Burias Gap and the Masbate Pass are not exactly known for gentleness. Cross-swells that need to be read well, you bet.

Made small talk with the motor banca people. Well, not only they know more of their trade but also to cross-check the info about the ROROs. They are better sources of info, not that partial and without the rah-rah. I noticed something that was not there before. They are quieter now. The quietness of the beaten? It seem i can’t see anymore the elan I used to see in them before. Was it all just a mirage before or they were simply sleepy? There seems to be attitude of “Thanks, there are still passengers”. Maybe they are not used to the likes of me. Maybe they are just used to the passengers they know that are “theirs”. Or probably they thought I will not ride their craft anyway? Well, I was not inclined to ride them on that situation because their engines are simply too noisy for sleeping.

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Motor banca to Aroroy

I was mulling on an Aroroy motor banca. But thinking ahead, I realized I might not reach Masbate port before the first ROROs leave (and the fastcraft and the motor bancas leave even earlier) so I decided in favor of Denica Lines. It was supposed to leave earlier at 3am compared to the 4am of the Montenegro RORO and an earlier arrival in Masbate is better. But the decisive thing was while I already knew the Maria Angela of Montenegro Lines, I have not yet ridden the Marina Empress of Denica Lines. A 3am departure is perfect as the arrival in Masbate is before breakfast, a good time to catch the early birds. I did not know yet then that the Marina Empress had other advantages compared to the Montenegro RORO.

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Marina Empress

To relieve myself of my baggage which was a burden to me, I boarded the Marina Empress after buying my ticket. I then made a tour of the small ship (I thought that in Masbate I might not have the chance anymore if I am pulled by other immediate attractions like ship departures and arrivals there). I noticed that the crew were still all asleep and no one was really minding the ship. I thought that was a show of small port behavior. They know their clientele and there is really no threat to the ship (contrary to the over-active imagination of the believers in ISPS or International System of Port Security).

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Pilar port

I went down and made my first round of the port and the vessels docked there. It was a little difficult to survey the port as it was dark from end to end. Pilar is a substandard port as there is really no overhead port lighting like what is usual in other ports. I thought Pilar still has the characteristic of a municipal port. I realized it was actually a little dangerous to shipspot. One to watch his steps.

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Hammity and Denica fastcraft

With the dark enveloping the port, it was hard to gauge the lay-out of the port and the vessels docked there. But aside from the two ROROs which are prominent because of the height and size and the many motor bancas (which is difficult to count in the dark), there were two fastcrafts on an unlit portion of the port beyond and ahead of the cargo motor boat Hammity of Denica Lines (that was the first time I saw this boat which I first became familiar with in the MARINA database). Hammity was being used as an “LPG carrier”.

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I rounded the Hammity to get a better gauge of where the fastcrafts were tied up and where is the possible vantage point. It was difficult as it was unlighted and Pilar port had changes since the last time as was there (it was finally refurbished by the government but I was not impressed; it deserved something better given its traffic – now why does ‘ports to nowhere’ deserve more funds here in our country?). It seems the main change was only the addition of RORO ramps.

I realized that the best vantage point for the fastcrafts is the motor banca leaving for Aroroy. I made my way to its outboard gangplank. They did not mind. It is really the humble local crafts that are the most hospitable. But the problem was there was some distance. My flash can’t cover the whole lengths of the fastcrafts which are now perpendicular to me. Their lengths are probably over 20 meters.

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The two fastcrafts are already old and probably was bought as junk given the state I saw it. But of course Japan junk when refurbished here looks good again. I asked around. They have no names yet and no work has been done yet. The loan from the bank is taking time? Well, our commercial banking system is known for not being appreciative of the shipping sector. They would rather fund chattel mortgages of new cars. Well maybe because that has greater “value” (is “value” like beauty that it depends on the eye of the beholder?).

It was also difficult to photograph the motor bancas. They are tied perpendicular to the wharf and so my flash can’t reach the sterns of the bancas. I thought had this been daytime I would have had a field day. Well, I can’t even have a good shot of the motor banca and small fastcraft docked parallel to and near the Marina Empress. Worse, I can’t even make out their names. That will show how dark it was (I realized what I actually needed was a good flashlight).

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Maria Angela

I boarded Maria Angela. Since she was filling up with passengers and rolling cargo, it was easy to get onboard. I look like one their passengers. The ferry was well lit unlike the Marina Empress. I thought maybe Dynamic Power of Mandaue made a sale of an auxiliary engine to them, seriously. I then went next to the fastcraft jetty of Montenegro Lines which I tried to use as a vantage point. It was still deficient – it was really too dark. I did not go anymore to the bigger fastcraft tied up in the jetty. I reasoned I will catch her in Masbate anyway in better light too.

Made more roamings of the port and port terminal to catch stories, size up things. When I noticed it was just less than an hour to departure time and there was no activity yet in the ferry I then went inside. The crew was still fast asleep including the Chief Mate. The Chief Mate is usually the one in charge of loading in the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. And horrors! The Maria Angela is undocking already and leaving before its ETD. Its vehicle deck was not even full.

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The small Montenegro fastcraft

I went down to their ticketing office to register a note. I was worried about a late departure especially if they try to take advantage of the absence of a Montenegro RORO. They said not to worry as loading is easy and fast as only three trucks are to be loaded and no bus. They said the Marina Empress normally doesn’t load a bus. They note it is an advantage to us because the accommodations do not get full. I understood it also that if true it will mean less noise, less people moving around.

In this talk with them, I also learned that their other RORO, the Odyssey left before 9pm and it was its usual schedule. That was new. Pilar has no night RORO to Masbate before. Maybe the competition with Pio Duran port which is on a parallel route to the Pilar-Masbate route is working wonders for options. The PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) knows parallel routes compete but a PhD holder in La Salle that did a thesis in shipping does not know that.

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Loading operation

About 20 minutes from departure time, the crew awakened and began loading the three trucks nonchalantly and right after that our vessel undocked. We were almost on time. And the ticketing office was right. There were just a few passengers since we have no bus on board. The former Tourist section where I was in was still half-lit. With the good seats that was more fit for sleeping than the usual Economy seat, we few passengers all had good benches for sleeping and in semi-darkness too. I opened the door near my head and there was freeze breeze and soon I was fast asleep.

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Nice to sleep in

It was the first ever that I had a good sleep on a ferry to Masbate that I woke a little late. I usually wake up when I feel a little commotion and when I opened my eyes it was already light. My thought that we were already in Masbate was correct. We already passed by the Masbate lighthouse and we were already inside Masbate Bay and the ship was already entering final docking maneuvers. It was not too late really but it was better had I woken up 15 minutes earlier. Now everything is already rush.

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Nearing Masbate Port

I tried to take as many photos of the ships and the port of Masbate before we docked. But as I said I was a little late and soon I have to disembark too. I cannot stay long because I have no ticket yet for Cebu and I have a worry because the entering week was Sinulog Festival week in Cebu and I fear a delegation or two might already have tickets aside from the Masbate tourists going to the festival.

(To be continued…)

Denica Lines

This small shipping company probably won’t be much heard outside Bicol and they might be small but they also carry some weight and they won’t topple easily. Alternately, the vessels of Denica Lines are also listed under the owner Carolyn Cua Sy-Reyes. The home port of Denica Lines is Pilar, Sorsogon and they are among the shipping companies connecting that town to Masbate island.

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The Lady Regina

Denica Lines started as a shipping company by operating big motor bancas. When I say “big” it is because its passenger capacity will run upward to 100 persons. Alternately, if loaded with just cargo it can take in the load of a mini-truck or cargo jeep (well, it cannot be all cement or rice because the weight of that might exceed the DWT of the banca thus sinking it).

The owners of Denica Lines actually started as sub-regional distributors and traders and like in many places elsewhere the possession of own motor bancas is a needed horizontal expansion as it gives flexibility to trading and also generate savings. Usually a shipping operator with its own trading business is much more stable than its competitors. One part might not earn much but then the other part will carry it through. And there will also be no problem with what is called in shipping as “shut-outs” which is the failure to have a cargo loaded. For perishables that could be disaster.

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Denica Lines has many big motor bancas. These are fast because those are powered by surplus truck engines and usually it is twin-engined. The total of the horsepower will be over 400 and that will guarantee the motor banca will travel at at least 13 knots which are even faster than the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO which usually travels at only 10 knots. I have seen in Ticao Pass and Masbate Pass that they are really faster. [Well, if used for heavy cargo then all that horsepower will be needed.] Of course, their weakness is the choppy waters and cross-swells. The motor bancas have to time the crests and throughs of the waves and look out for the cross-swells which can damage the outriggers which is called katig locally.

As of now the motor banca fleet of Denica Lines consist of the Lady Regina, Gloria Express, Gloria 7, Gloria 8, Gloria 9, Gloria 10, Phoenix Express I, Phoenix Express II, Hammity and Hammity 2 plus the motor boat Golden Blossom. I would assume that the missing in the series Gloria 1 to Gloria 6 were their earlier motor bancas that are no longer around. The first two, the Gloria Express and Lady Regina are supposedly the fastest in the fleet of Denica Lines including their steel-hulled ships. The two can do at least 14 knots in calm waters.

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In motor bancas, the biggest competitor of Denica Lines is the Lobrigo Lines which have a fleet as big as theirs and which operated buses before (which lost when the intermodal buses came as they didn’t have ROROs). Aside from Lobrigo Lines there are many other operators of motor bancas as Pilar is a motor banca haven after all. Aside from motor bancas there are also motor boats going to Aroroy, Masbate. This town also have many motor bancas from Pilar.

In 2002, Denica Lines ventured into steel-hulled ferries when the purchased the laid-up cruiser Elizabeth Lilly of the defunct Western Samar Shipping Lines. They refurbished the engines of the ship and it was again reliable. They renamed the ship as the Bikol Express but she was not really fast as she had only a single 550-hp Yanmar Marine engine and her design speed was only 11 knots. The size of the ship was just the equivalent of a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO at 29.3 meters by 6.0 meters and 189 in gross tons.

As a ferry, Bikol Express was not much. She didn’t even have bolted seats, just plastic benches that can be moved. The reason is like some of the motor bancas of Denica Lines is she doubles as a cargo ship with passengers. What cannot be carried by the motor bancas like a truckload or two of rice or cement, she will carry. Her DWT of 100 tons comes in handy for such loads.

M/V Marina Empress

Marina Empress by Irvine Kinea

But then ROROs of Montenegro Shipping Lines came and so Denica Lines has to adjust as the trucks instead of unloading their cargo in Pilar just board the RORO now and goes direct to Masbate. They sold the Bikol Express to Batanes Multi-purpose Cooperative (BMPC) and went hunting for a RORO. Again, true to form they settled on a RORO that was not sailing, the Torrijos or Vanessa P2 of the Sta. Cruz Shipping of Marinduque which was already then in the process of winding up their shipping operations having been on the receiving end of the pressure from stronger shipping companies like Montenegro Lines.

The ship was taken from a Navotas yard and she was renamed as the Marina Empress. The Marina Empress is a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO of just 700 horsepower from her single Daihatsu marine engine and with the external measurement of 32.3 meters by 7.8 meters and a gross tonnage of 195. However, like the earlier rumor, her engine was no longer strong.

With Alabat Shipping Corporation of Alabat island going out of operations too, Denica Lines purchased its only ferry, the Odyssey which was the former Starlite Odyssey of Starlite Ferries. This is another basic, short-distance ferry-RORO with a not-so-strong engine anymore. She is powered by a 550-hp Kubota marine engine and her external measurements are 30.5 meters by 7.0 meters with a gross tonnage of 176 which means she is slightly smaller than the Marina Empress. Denica Lines did not bother to rename the Odyssey.

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Denica Lines rarely sails the two ferries simultaneously as both are not really that reliable. Their ferries are in direct competition with the basic, short-distance ferries of Montenegro Lines which also do the Pilar-Masbate route. Their ferries might not be spic-and-span (it will remind one of the E.B. Aznar Shipping basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs) but most times their competition from Montenegro Lines are also basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs of the same age (which means old). Unless Montenegro Lines bring in the Reina Banderada which is a bit better.

If one considers that Denica Lines has a lot of motor bancas that carry not only people but also cargo it will not look that Montenegro Lines dominates them in the Pilar-Masbate route. The two might have some rough equality since Montenegro Lines has fastcrafts in the route. In glitz and glamour, of course, Montenegro Lines exceeds them.

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Pilar port and market

The owners of Denica Lines are also “well-positioned”, as they say. The husband was the Mayor of Pilar until 2016. In the May elections of this year Carolyn Cua-Sy Reyes was elected the Mayor and whitewashing her five opponents with 84% of the votes going to her. Well, it seems they are really respected in Pilar (in 2013 the husband also whitewashed his opponents). I do not know Pilar that much but from what I know it does not have the bokong of Leyte nor the use of muscles and influence in gaining an advantage for ship operations or in locking out the opponent.

Such is Denica Lines.