Allen is the King of Samar Shipping

Allen, a small town in the northwest tip of Samar island is the king of Samar shipping if measured by the number of ports existing and by the number of vessel arrivals and departures and even in the passenger throughput. This has not always been so because in the past Calbayog and Catbalogan have been the kings of Samar shipping. That was the time of cruiser liners and when the intermodal system did not yet exist.

Allen has been the connection of Samar to Sorsogon even before World War II when motor boat (lanchas) was the king of connections between near major islands. That was simply because Allen is the nearest town of Samar to the Sorsogon landmass. Additionally, Allen was also the connection then of the northwestern part of Samar to Calbayog when there was still no road connecting those two parts of Samar.

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Credit to Gorio Belen and Times Journal

The BALWHARTECO (Balicuatro Wharfage and Terminal Corporation) port was THE port of Allen even then. This port is a private port and founded by the father of the current owning Suan family. From a port handlings lanchas, BALWHARTECO port evolved into a RORO port with the coming of the ROROS. When it did, the Matnog-Allen lanchas gave way to the ROROs until they became extinct. With that, gone too was the cumbersome mano-mano cargo handling system done by the porters.

In the past, liners from Manila docked in Calbayog and Catbalogan mainly and also in Laoang, Caraingan, Allen and Victoria. But with the finishing of the Maharlika Highway, the buses and also the trucks came to Bicol and suddenly there was a need for a RORO to cross them across San Bernardino Strait to Samar which Cardinal Shipping through Cardinal Ferry 1 provided in 1979. This was followed by other companies with ROROs like Newport Shipping whose owner is from Laoang town. Other companies followed such as the Philippine Government through Maharlika Uno in 1982 and by the Bicolandia Shipping of Eugenia Tabinas.

When the intermodal buses and trucks came, the bottom suddenly fell out of Northern Samar ports and ships and in a few years they were gone. Calbayog and Catbalogan proved more resilient but the BALWHARTECO private port in Allen grew by leaps and bounds as the years showed consistent annual increase of trucks, buses and passengers crossing the San Bernardino Strait. From a wooden wharf BALWHARTECO port was converted in a concrete causeway-type wharf. Moreover, additional buildings were added to BALWHARTECO port and it housed pasalubong shops, eateries and various offices plus a lodge and a disco above.

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BALWHARTECO in earlier days. Photo by Lindsay Bridge.

When BALWHARTECO and the San Bernardino connection grew, others were tempted to also have their own like the Dapdap and Jubasan ports. Dapdap is owned by Philharbor Ferries and the new Jubasan port is owned by Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. So now Allen has three ports and very rare is a town that has three private ports catering to ROROs.

Meanwhile, the old dominant ports of Calbayog and Catbalogan no longer have liners from Manila nor overnight ferries from Cebu with the exception of the new Manguino-o port in Calbayog which hosts Cokaliong Shipping Lines. In the main they have already lost to the intermodal trucks from Cebu which use ports in the western seaboard of Leyte as entry like Palompon, Isabel, Ormoc including GGC, Albuera and Baybay.

These changes only showed the complete triumph of the new paradigm, the intermodal system where vehicles (buses, trucks, cars, etc.) are now just rolled into ROROs including LCTs and the traditional way of shipping cargo has already been superseded.

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BALWHARTECO port

In a day, Allen has nearly 20 ROROs dockings and an equivalent number of departures for a total of about 200 vehicles of at least four wheels either way so not counted here are the likes of motorcycles. Near ports of cities like Tacloban, Masbate, Legazpi and Tabaco do not even have such volume. It actually exceeds even the port of Ormoc, the greatest port in the western shores of Leyte. So that is how big is the traffic of Allen and probably many do not realize that. Additional some 2,000 passengers a day pass each way in Allen for a total of about 4,000 passengers. North Harbor of Manila doesn’t even have such passenger volume.

However and sadly, such growth, such traffic are not transferred in the locality. Where before a port confers prosperity because the big bodegas and trading houses will be there, this is not in the case of the intermodal system because the cargo, which is rolling cargo at that, just passes through. There are no bodegas or trading houses in Allen. And that is the case of all the short-distance ports in the eastern seaboard from Matnog to Allen to Liloan to San Ricardo and Lipata.

Maybe it is not right to expect to have bodegas in Allen. That is impossible as the cargo trucks will simply roll on. But there must be a way to grab some business from all those passing vehicles. Like fuel sales if the pump price is right. Or restaurants like Jollibee. There are passengers like me who desire such kind of restaurant which serve a standardized quality of food in an air-conditioned accommodation.

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BALWHARTECO offices and eateries. The lodge and disco are located above.

Well, maybe even hotels or lodging houses. But the price should be right otherwise the travelers will just continue on (Allen is known to travelers as having high lodging rates). BALWHARTECO port has a lodge and that shows this is possible. The best type will be a SOGO-type of hotel that offers 12-hour accommodation for half the price.

Pasalubongs and novelty items like T-shirts are also possible. Like in lodgings the price should be right. Novelties must have the reputation of being cheaply-priced. Tourism? Maybe not. The transients did not come to Allen for that.

Allen is king of Samar shipping but it is poor. As of today it is just a fourth-class municipality which means an income of just P25-35 million yearly. Its population is still small. So it means people are not moving in for maybe there is really no growth and progress.

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Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corp.

What Allen is famous for is its illegal exactions (illegal because the Supreme Court has twice declared it is so and that is the final authority on legalities) on the vehicles and passengers. They will charge the vehicles when arriving and when departing. At P75 per truck (their rate) and and about 300 trucks and buses passing daily both ways that would have been an easy P20,000 per day net or P7 million a year. Add to that the P5 per departing passenger. That would be about another P10,000 per day or P3.5 million a year. It seems these collections are not reflected properly in Allen’s income. At P10 million a year times for 30 years there should already been an infra that Allen can be proud of but it seems there’s none as Allen still has the look of a small town.

Allen has ports that is doing good business except Dapdap. Truth is its ports are the best infra in the town. Its incomes should have been a good addition too.

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Dapdap port of Philharbor

But Allen is still poor. Like Matnog, Liloan and San Ricardo although all have illegal exactions. Me and Rey B. called that the curse of the illegal exactions.

Sometimes they say the king is poor. Maybe that is Allen.

A Report on the Recent Situation of Bicol Passenger Shipping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Burias motor banca arriving in Pasacao

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

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

[Written based on January 2017 data.]

The MATNOG-ALLEN ROUTE

Since the historical days of yore, Samar has always been connected to Bicol. And that can be proven true from prehistory. How? Ethnologue, which is used by the United Nations for language analysis has reclassified the supposed “Bicol” dialect of southeastern Sorsogon as a dialect of Waray (and I asked a Sorsoganon friend and she declared to me they can talk to Samarenos without translation). This connection was also true in the days of the pre-Spanish Waray sea warriors (which were later called the “Pintados” by the Spaniards because of their body tattooing) who roamed the seas of our eastern seaboard up to the present-day Taiwan. In the glory period of our shipbuilding and seafaring traditions, Bicol and Samar were among the premier shipbuilding sites in our archipelago before we fell to the Spanish colonizers who then denied we had such traditions.
Converted to Christianity and ravaged by the hardships of forced labor of galleon-building for the Spaniards, Samar and Bicol did not lose its links. In Spanish times Samar boats called in Bicol places to trade and to pay homage to the premier religious image and pilgrimage site in the old Ibalon province (which now encompasses Albay, Sorsogon, Catanduanes, Masbate and the Partido district of Camarines Sur after it lost its province status) which is located in Joroan of Tiwi town. Sail-powered <i>paraus</> from Samar and Samar Sea islands continued to travel and trade to Legazpi and Tabaco until the early ’60s during the <i>habagat</i> and they roamed as far as Catanduanes. Samar to Legazpi <i>barotos</i> that dropped by some Sorsogon towns also sailed in this period. Even in recent times there were still boats from Samar that plied a route to Catanduanes from Biri islands which used Rapu-rapu island in Albay as the intermediate stop-over. Legazpi-based cargo-passenger motor boats also sailed to Rapu-rapu and Samar destinations. Ironically, although a historical maritime link, the sea between Samar and Bicol northeast of San Bernardino Strait has no name.
Islands are usually connected at their nearest crossing. So in the case of Bicol and Samar the logical connection will be really between Matnog in Sorsogon and Allen in Samar. Before the advent of ROROs the most established line here was the Trans Bicol Lines which has connections then to all the major islands surrounding the Bicol peninsula which are the Catanduanes, Samar and Masbate islands. Later this historical shipping company passed on to Eugenia Tabinas who used the shipping companies E. Tabinas Enterprises and Bicolandia Shipping. Included in the sell-out were the motor boats of Trans Bicol Lines.
Trans-Bicol Line. ©Edsel Benavides

The latter-day Northern Samar also had its own connection to Manila separate from the connection of the provincial capital then of Catbalogan. The main port of entry of the northern part of Samar island cannot be Catbalogan as there were no good roads then connecting it to the provincial capital (in fact Motor Boats then circumnavigated the island connecting Samar towns). These passenger-cargo ships from Manila to the northern part of Samar also called on Masbate and Sorsogon ports before docking in Allen and Carangian. Many of those ships then still proceed to Legazpi, Virac and Tabaco. Some even sail as far as Nato and Tandoc ports in Camarines Sur and a few sail up to Mercedes and Larap ports in Camarines Norte.

M/V Venus ©Gorio Belen/Philippine Herald

The ships mentioned above that called on Samar ports also served as Samar connection to Bicol including the freighters that also take in some passengers aside from cargo. Some of the shipping lines which had routes then in this part of the country were Madrigal Shipping, NORCAMCO and NCL (the earlier North Camarines Lumber), N&S Line, Rodrigueza Shipping and Newport Shipping. The passenger-cargo ships they operated were generally small.

With the strengthening of the South Line of the Manila Railroad and Railways (MRR, which was the latter PNR) that offered rail service up to Legazpi and bus connections to Larap, Daet, Tabaco and Sorsogon the shipping lines mentioned slowly lost market and patronage. Additionally, the legendary ALATCO bus company also offered Pasay-Larap-Daet-Legazpi-Naga-Tabaco buses with connections to Siruma and Nato, too). The first can bring passengers and cargo to its destination in less than 24 hours and the latter in just over a day or even less if it was up to the Camarines provinces only while the ship takes four days up to Legazpi and a week up to Camarines Norte. With better competition around first to go were the routes to the Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay and Catanduanes ports while the Sorsogon and Samar route held on for a while.
N%S Lines Ad. ©Gorio Belen
A momentous change then happened in early 1979 when Cardinal Shipping decided to field a short-distance ferry-RORO, the “Cardinal Ferry 1” between Matnog and Allen. With no port improvements yet it just used the wooden wharves of old that were meant for motor boats. Pantranco buses (now Philtranco) then rolled to the new province of Northern Samar up to Rawis, the port of Laoang which is also the base of motor bancas that connect to towns of Northern and northern Eastern Samar that have no roads. Slowly, the Matnog-Allen motor boats lost business and they retreated one by one to other Bicol routes that have no ROROs yet. With that the Samar-Bicol route served by steel-hulled ships from Manila also slowly withered but the service went on until about 1981 or 1982 and maybe it’s just because the shipping companies plying the route have nowhere else to go.
Cardinal Shipping Ad. ©Gorio Belen

Shortly after Cardinal Ferry opened the Matnog-Allen route, Newport Shipping also plied the route using the “Northern Star” (later known as the “Northern Samar”) and “Laoang Bay” (later known “Badjao”, “Philtranco Ferry 1” and “Black Double”). But government official accounts usually say that this route started with the fielding of the government-owned Maharlika I in 1982. That is, of course, historically and factually wrong. Maharlika I came when Matnog Ferry Terminal was already built and it connected to San Isidro Ferry Terminal, which is in another town south and not in Allen. (The two were called “Ferry Terminals” when they were actually modern RORO ports.) For government officials to say the government was the first to connect Matnog and Allen is then doubly incorrect.

M/V Northern Samar ©Lindsay Bridge
On another footnote, Carlos A. Gothong Lines, Inc. (CAGLI) also claims that they pioneered ROROs in the Philippines with their fielding of “Don Calvino” and “Dona Lili” in 1980 from Cebu. But evidence shows ROROs first came to Matnog-Allen among all places in the country and that is one significance of this route aside from it connecting Luzon to the Visayas and heralding the first intermodal buses and trucks in the country. (This is of course excepting the LCTs and barges pulled by tugs that connected some very near islands like Mactan and Cebu and Samar and Leyte though San Juanico Strait as those are technically ROROs too since vehicles roll on and roll off, too, to and from their car decks.)
After a few Newport Shipping quit (as their intermediate routes to Romblon was also drying) and “Northern Star” as “Northern Samar” was sold to Bicolandia Shipping in 1981. “Laoang Bay” meanwhile passed to different owners over the years. In due time Bicolandia Shipping dominated the route especially with the addition of “Princess of Bicolandia”, “Princess of Mayon” and “Eugenia”. Philtranco tried to challenge the monopoly of Eugenia Tabinas-San Pablo (who also used the company E. Tabinas Enterprises) and they rolled out the “Philtranco Ferry 1” which was the former “Laoang Bay”. They did not get a franchise and they argued instead that since they are just transporting their buses then they need not get a CPC (Certificate of Public Convenience). Unfortunately, the court did not agree with them and they were knocked out from the route. In the future though they will be able to come back.
M/V Princess of Mayon ©Gorio Belen

The 1980s was also the heyday of “Maharlika I”. She was fielded brand-new and as such was a great ship at the start. But being a government-owned company, mismanagement soon brewed and internal rot set in. She also had the disadvantage of serving a longer route (14 nautical miles vs. 11 nautical miles). Meanwhile, a new private port in Allen rose and BALWHARTECO soon showed the country how to develop properly a RORO port.

Maharlika and Northern Samar. ©Lindsay Bridge

Before the old millennium was over a new challenger to Bicolandia Shipping appeared on the horizon, the Sta. Clara Shipping Company with its more modern “Nelvin Jules” and it was very prepared for the challenge as it had a petition signed by all the Leyte mayors asking that the route be opened to other shipping companies. Bicolandia Shipping tried to TKO it like what they were able to do with Philtranco Ferries by claiming it had “missionary status” but the courts ruled that said status does not grant it a monopoly. Bicolandia Shipping by this time had a bad reputation where its ships only leave when it is already full or near-full without the observance of the proper ETD (Estimated Time of Departure which is part of the CPC along with the route).

Nelvin Jules ©Masaharo Homma

When Philtranco fell into the lap of Pepito Alvarez it also made a comeback. Under his landsman, it used the companies Archipelago Shipping, Philharbor Ferries and Oro Star. It leased the “Maharlika I” and “Maharlika II” from government and then added a few more ships including three double-ended ROROs, the “Maharlika Tres”, “Maharlika Cuatro” and the “Lakbayan I”. aside from other ferries (they were also serving many other routes aside from this route). They also built a new port in Dapdap, also in Allen and two kilometers south of Balicuatro (where BALWHARTECO is located) which had a route distance of 12 nautical miles to Matnog, a neglible increase over the 11 nautical miles of Balicuatro.

Grand Star RORO 3 and Maharlika Tres ©Mike Baylon
Bicolandia Shipping vessels cannot compete with the Sta. Clara and the Alvarez ships which were newer and better. Exercising pragmatism Bicolandia Shipping proposed to fold operations and sell the ships and franchises to the Sta. Clara group. The deal was done and Penafrancia Shipping was born.
Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping had the backing then of the Balicuatro Wharfage and Terminal Corp. (BALWHARTECO) which which was developing its new port slowly but consistently and which served as a model for RORO port development and operations with its shops, offices, lodging house, disco, flea market, eateries and gas station where regulars can load vehicles and even gas up on credit. BALWHARTECO also supported the intermodal buses and trucks with generous discounts and rebates so much so that the development of this shipping sector now poses a threat to container shipping.
Balicurato Wharf ©Joe Cardenas

Later, BALWHARTECO also hosted and supported 168 Shipping (the Star Ferries). With so many ships in the Matnog-Balicuatro route using advanced marketing techniques and cultivated tie-ups with bus and trucking companies and supported by BALWHARTECO, the Dapdap port wilted especially when Philtranco drivers were freed and given a choice and where to load their buses. Meanwhile with the opening of Dapdap and withdrawal of Maharlika the San Isidro Ferry Terminal became practically a “port to nowhere” (a port hosting no ships). This was reversed when it was leased to Montenegro Shipping Lines but after their lease expired they also left for Dapdap and Balicuatro after finding the distance uncompetitive and San Isidro Ferry Terminal had no more ferries again.

Nelvin Jules, Hansel Jobbett, and Star Ferry II ©Jazon Morillo

Recently, because of some reasons and misunderstandings, the Sta. Clara group tried to build its own port in another barrio in Allen and located further south of Dapdap (which means buses and trucks see it first except when these came from Catarman and beyond). The Allen LGU had it closed and no wonder because the Mayor is the owner of BALWHARTECO (now how legal is that is another matter). Construction continued as the heavy equipment were actually inside the port. Now the Hizzoner and the Sta. Clara group are fighting it out in the court and this battle royale will probably define the shape of the Matnog-Allen route in the future.

New Sta. Clara Shipping Port ©Mike Baylon
With two ports in Allen and possibly three soon and with ROROs mushrooming in the route the problem now is in Matnog port which is presently congested and overcrowded as its expansion followed a snail’s pace and because the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) does not know efficient RORO port design. While the limited wharf length of Balicuatro can accommodate six ROROs all at the same time, the Matnog port can only dock four ROROs simultaneously (although it is trying to add two more). And to think there are other ferries coming from Dapdap. So at peak hours the ROROs have to wait offshore in Matnog and pull out or undock to give way to priority ferries that will load or unload. This contributes to delays, added fuel consumption, more work for the crews and unnecessary risks for the ships. And that is not to mention frayed nerves at times and hot tempers especially when there are mishaps, near-mishaps and strong winds and currents. Matnog is not a protected port and as a southern-facing port is affected by the habagat and surges especially when there are weather disturbances in our eastern seaboard.
Whatever the twist and turn in its varied history ,the Matnog-Allen route will probably last nearly forever as the need for bridging of islands and the imperative for moving of cargo and people will probably never vanish there as it is the shortest connection between Luzon and Eastern Visayas. As they say, it is always, “Location, location and location…”.
Matnog Port ©Mike Baylon

THE “PORTS TO NOWHERE”

In the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS), “Ports to Nowhere” are ports that have no ships or have no meaningful traffic. In the whole country, there might be 200 or so such ports if useless municipal ports are included. Mar Roxas, by his department’s reckoning counted over a hundred. He counted ports whose meager revenues was not even enough to cover the operational costs. This was what the author of this article meant when he first used the term “ports to nowhere” many years ago even before the creation of PSSS. He equated “ports to nowhere” to ports whose incomes cannot cover the salaries of the personnel, the transportation and communication costs, security costs, electricity and let alone the maintenance of the ports. Usually, these are the ports that have no regular calls. Fishing bancas are not counted as usually they are not charged any docking fees and are just accommodated as a matter of courtesy.

Tubod Port ©Mark Ocul

In the past our towns had municipal ports and it was mainly fishing bancas which used them. In the coastal towns that have no roads then, these ports also hosted passenger-cargo motor boats. Whatever, many municipal ports then were no more than fish landing areas and were not suitable for steel-hulled ships. Most are of pile-type and many have piles made of timber and even the wharf floor is made of wood. Slowly as the ports were modernized concrete piles and wharf were used. Concrete was more durable as they did not rot unlike timber and wood.

Gradually, over time, some ports were extended and usually those ports that have connections to major cities were given priority. Some of these were considered district ports and these were usually deeper and some were sheltered. During the end of the 1960’s, regional ports were declared and they were improved and expanded so they can handle foreign and bigger ships.

Tabaco Port, a regional port ©Dominic San Juan

Ironically, after the build-up of ports, the downward slide of our shipping started. This started with the fall of abaca fiber to nylon fiber. Suddenly one of our major export crops fell and once upon a time this was the most major crop being traded from the 1880s up to the 1950’s. This was followed by the downturn in the ‘70s of the export of metallic ores due to the emergence of the plastic industry. In the same decade the trade and exploitation of our forests declined because the precipitous fall of our forest cover already showed its effects. Then in the early 1980’s, the trade and export of copra and coconut oil began to decline. Substitute edible oils appeared in the world market and coconut oil mills sprouted in the regions and ironically it was the government which pushed for this. So, one after another, the major crops being shipped declined.

The final nail came in the 1980’s with the policy that any shortfall in cereals (as in rice and corn) will simply be imported and in sufficient quantities so that the price can be depressed or brought down. This policy was even extended to the manufacture of animal feeds and so manufacturers can just import corn, soybeans and green peas. Suddenly, crops being traded between the regions were supplanted by imports being brought by foreign ships direct to regional and private ports ports and bypassing Manila entirely.

Nasico Eagle ©Mike Baylon

When the instant snack sector boomed in the 1980s local shipping did not benefit. This is so because the ingredients for the instant snack were coming direct from abroad to the regional ports. The snacks ingredients were actually imported animal feeds like yellow corn, powdered potato and greens peas. They can import those for “chicheria” use here since the animal food grade of the US for these commodities is even higher than our local grade, ironically. All of these factors depressed shipping and this sector never fully recovered after the ravages of the great financial crisis of the 1980’s.
With the decline of our commodities, the so-many foreign shipping companies that have ships calling in our country slowly pulled out from the 1980’s. The log ships and ore ships also stopped calling in the same decade. What replaced that in effect was our export of workers and domestic helpers but they ride the planes and not the cargo ships.


1979 Manila Bulletin Shipping Schedule ©Mike Baylon

The final nail in the coffin for shipping was the emerging dominance of the intermodal transport system especially with the arrival of the surplus and wing van trucks in the 1990’s. This was coupled with incentives which made it easy for bus operators to acquire new units. This was amplified by the great drive of industrialist Pepito Alvarez who pushed new buses with financing to the operators. Meanwhile, incentives were also laid out for shipping and many used this to acquire short-distance ROROs. And so suddenly there were enough ROROs to connect the near islands. By this time vehicles were already rolling as the major roads were already concreted including in Mindanao.

Balicuatro Port Buses ©Mike Baylon

When our national fleet was getting smaller both in ferries and in cargo ships the government through the Philippine Ports Authority held on to the completely wrong mantra that “if ports are built then ships will come”. They and their booster Aquilino Pimentel compared this to roads that when built even ahead of time will slowly have traffic. This is so because people will migrate along the route, people will try to take advantage of the land and forest and also, many roads are actually shortcuts.

It is a completely different thing in ports and shipping because the correct mantra is “ships come when there is something to load”. In the eastern seaboard of Mindanao, Samar and Luzon there were a lot of ports before and many were privately-built. Those ports existed because they were trying to exploit the forests and the mines then. When the forest was gone and when metallic ore trade fell those many ports suddenly became disused and became “ports to nowhere” and slowly they dilapidated. Ports dilapidate faster than roads because of the weathering action of the winds and waves and of the sun. Add to that our many typhoons that damage ports especially since we don’t construct breakwaters.

An example of wrong advanced preparations was the 12 fish ports that Luis Villafuerte was able to wangle for Bicol from Ferdinand Marcos in 1983-84. Those were supposed to be dual-use ports as in other ships can also use them. When the ROROs came 25 years later the ports were already damaged and dilapidated. If only bureaucrats and politicians open their closed eyes they should easily see that empirically and historically their mantra is completely wrong.

Old Port of Pio Duran, Albay ©Mike Baylon

One of the reasons for the rise of “ports to nowhere” is building or improving of ports is used as political patronage to show a local politician “was able to wangle a project”. Of course, in the corrupt Philippines almost all public works have percentages for the pockets of powers-to-be which are euphemistically called as “S.O.P” and that is a very great incentive. National powers meanwhile give that in exchange for political support. The worst excesses of this syndrome were in the previous administration which needed all the support it can buy to stave off impeachment. And the gall of it all was the contract with a French company using soft loan to acquire pre-fabricated ports to be built especially in our eastern seaboard which no longer has shipping! This is a very classic example of a “ports to nowhere” mentality. That lady responsible for that was also wont to transfer national ports to LGUs in exchange for political support and votes. As rightly observed by the next administration those ports deteriorated fast because there was no maintenance and were just being used as milking cows.

Bato Port ©Mike Baylon

The good development is the current dispensation reversed the policy of “ports to nowhere” creation and even took back some ports “donated” to LGUs and it also canceled the contract with the French company even under threat of a court case. The current administration is actually judicious with building new ports reasoning we have more than enough. And that is true because the truth is there are even more private port and this mushroomed after the incentive given by Marcos in the early ‘80s. These port can also handle ship commercially, a policy upheld by the Supreme Court when it was challenged by the PPA.

There is also another set of factors that speed up the creation of “ports to nowhere”. When the ships grew in size, both the ferries and the cargo ships, suddenly many old district ports can no longer accommodate the bigger ships for lack of depth. Also when containerization came the old wooden wharves were no longer able to handle the higher weight. Express ferries and container ships also came and so many intermediate ports were left behind. And finally, highways sprouted throughout the country. Towns that were reachable only by ships before now have roads. Because of that many routes both for passenger and cargo ships disappeared. That is part of the reason why so many shipping companies of the past are gone now.

To summarize, it was the retreat of shipping which first created the “ports to nowhere”. Subsequently this was exacerbated by a wrong and corrupt push from Malacanang for selfish motives full not only of political motives but also to build private fleets. With no more largesse to touch these recent times, these fleets fast growths suddenly slowed in the current dispensation when before they were buying ships as if there is no tomorrow.

Tagpopongan Port ©Aristotle Refugio

Ports to nowhere are just a big waste of taxpayer’s money. It is just like throwing billions of money to the wind. And the madness has not even completely stopped. They still completed ports like the Pulupandan port which cost P700 million and it has almost no traffic since 30 years ago. 24 kilometers north of that, they want to build a port in Bacolod for the same price because of just some politician’s pique at the successful private port operator BREDCO. To get one congressman to support that, another congressman offered that congressman to build a port in her district some two dozen kilometers to the north of Bacolod. When further down the road in Sagay, another port was just recently completed.

In Bislig, the port of PICOP was still operational and yet the government still built a new port. And soon after, another port was built which they promptly closed down because there was no traffic. In Samal, they also completed a port which is not even worth as a palay or corn drying area now. We must really be a country of mad people. And I marvel at the gall of politicians and bureaucrats and at the stupidity of “goalkeeper” NEDA. Recently, I read that improvement in the port in Tandoc, Camarines Sur was finished. Amazingly, there is no actual road to the place and access to that is via a motor banca. It seems the “goalkeeper” was just looking at some imaginary roads in the map and doesn’t even know how to pay for a satellite images to check if there really is a road. It can only be one of two things for NEDA – outright dumbness or corruption too. With such a distant and remote place with few inhabitants, who would dare ships through there when the port of Pasacao is nearer to the main commercial and population center?

Lawigan Port, Bislig ©Janjan Salas

Wastage and corruption are big banes to our country. In shipping that primarily manifests in the “ports to nowhere”.

M/V Northern Samar

Editor’s Note: We would like to apologize for the delay in posting due to technical problems.

M/V Northern Samar ©lindsaybridge
It is not usual for one to write about a dead ship if such ship is not remarkable or historical. But the M/V “Northern Samar” is one such ship and maybe even more.
The M/V “Northern Samar” is probably the first true RORO that came to our shores (the LCTs not counted) and it is also the oldest-by-birth RORO that ever served here.
M/V “Northern Samar” started life as the “Sakurajima Maru No. 6”. She was built by Taiyo Zosen in their Nagasaki yard upon the order of the first owner Nishisakurajima and she was completed in August of 1960. That was remarkable because RORO building in Japan started in earnest only in 1958 and in that period it was not yet in vogue so she is actually one of the earliest ROROs in Japan! At completion she was 49.0 meters over-all length with a breadth of 12.4 meters. She was 496 gross tons and she had a speed then of 9 knots on her two Hanshin marine engines developing 1,400 horsepower. Her IMO ID number was 5307520 and she was home ported in Kagoshima, Japan.
In 1977 when the new “Sakurajima Maru No. 6” arrived she was put on the bidding block and on 1978 she came to Newport Shipping of the Philippines as the “Northern Star”. That company was only recently formed then but it was already expanding and looking for new routes despite the lingering effects of the oil crisis then. The 1970’s was the decade when there were incentives to re-fleet and expand as there was a national leadership that understands shipping.
It is a wonder why Newport Shipping came into an area where other shipping companies were in retreat, the Samar island plus the provinces on the way to it which are Romblon and Masbate. Well, they have the better and newer ships and maybe they mistook the retreat as an opportunity. What it only showed was they didn’t understand the intermodal threat which in a few years was already ruling Samar. Newport then tried to join the Matnog-Allen route too and “Northern Star” became the “M/V Northern Samar”.
In due time with the arrival of more ROROs in the route the competition heated up in the ’80s under a condition where the ships were actually growing gray already. Consolidation then came into the scene and Newport Shipping went out of business. But one trademark of this route is ships never go away — they just fall into the hands of competition (except maybe for the cruisers which were already proving inferior to the ROROs in terms of earning revenues. Well revenue from a truck or bus can easily be the equivalent of 30-40 passengers and for a ferry with a passenger capacity of just several hundred that is huge and rolling cargo income can easily top the gross from passengers.
She then came to Bicolandia Shipping/E. Tabinas Enterprises of Eugenia Tabinas which retained her name, a not-uncommon practice to save on fees and to think of it why change a name with a distinctive name? And after all Eugenia Tabinas names ships after provinces anyway. She was re-engined to two Yanmar Marine diesels developing 1,500 horsepower total giving her a maximum speed of 15 knots and able to run with the Sta. Clara Shipping ferries. She then served the Matnog-Allen route many more years.
M/V Northern Star at Matnog. ©Janjan Salas

With the coming of additional competitors and more comfortable ferries and the opening of the RORO route between Tabaco City and Virac, Catanduanes she was transferred there. Having a respite from powerful competition she still served many more years successfully.

All that changed on May 12, 2006 when Typhoon “Caloy” (Severe Tropic Storm “Chanchu” internationally) came visiting Bicol. It was a weak typhoon that was just intensified by the hardheadedness and obtuseness of the captain of the “M/V Northern Samar”. Ordered to proceed to the traditional and historical ship shelter of Sula Channel between the Albay mainland and Cagraray island he instead left the ship moored in Tabaco port. At the height of the typhoon she repeatedly struck the wharf, developed a hole in the hull and capsized. The incident actually also impacted the fortunes of Bicolandia Shipping which quit the shipping business soon as it can no longer fend off the competition.
Later, the remains of “M/V Northern Samar” was dragged further to sea to free up wharf space. She was later salvaged for scrap.
“M/V Northern Samar” was remarkable even in her final chapter. She was actually the first Bicol-based steel-hulled ferry that ever sank and the only one until now if the “Lady of Carmel” is excluded as she is not a Bicol ferry but a Leyte ferry.
Adieu, “M/V Northern Samar”. Whatever the failure on you of your master you have served a long time — 46 years! Few ferries can ever claim that longevity.
M/V Northern Samar at Tabaco. ©Edsel Benavides