My Shipspotting Trips in Camarines Sur

I only had two shipspotting trips in Camarines Sur covering two ports. Overall, there are not that much shipspotting opportunities in Camarines Sur compared to the Albay or Sorsogon as the province is basically not an entrepot to big islands like the island-provinces of Catanduanes and Masbate. The only significant island offshore it has is the Burias island and half of this elongated island is not connected to Camarines Sur but to Pio Duran, Albay

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Pasacao National Port

I first went to Pasacao on the southwest of Naga along the province’s southern coast. Pasacao is the main port of entry by sea in Camarines Sur and also the connection to the western half of Burias island. There are four ports in this small municipality — the municipal port, the national port, the port of the old Bicol Oil Mill which has another name now (but people still refer to its old name anyway) and the tanker jetty of Shell Philippines.

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Pasacao Municipal Port

The first two ports are near and parallel to each other. The Bicol Oil Mill port is visible from the two government-owned ports but is located some two kilometers away. No need to go there because if there is a ship docked there it will be visible from the main ports anyway. The Shell jetty is not visible from that and I don’t go there anymore as most times no tankers will be docked there and going there will mean hiring a tricycle which is few in Pasacao.

I was lucky when I visited the Pasacao national port. It was the first time I saw that port full in all my visits there. And there was even no fishing vessels crowding the port (some of the fishing boats are in Pasacao municipal port instead). It was amihan (northeast monsoon) and so it is the peak of the fishing season in the southern seas of Bicol.

I was surprised a Medallion Transport ship was docked there, the Lady of Faith, an old reliable of the company. First time I saw a Medallion ship in Pasacao. Well, this shipping company has many freighters now and maybe that should not have been a surprise to me. After all they are Masbate port regulars.

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Freighters in Pasacao National Port

The Eduardo Juan of Jones Carrier Inc. was also there. I sometimes see this ship in Tayud and Surigao. The company reminds me that once they tried ROROs and they were among the early ones and that they pioneered the Dumaguete-Dapitan route but they did not last. Their ROROs were too small and it was the time of tight competition when Cebu Ferries was ruling the Vismin waves and were sinking smaller shipping companies in their wash.

The biggest ship in Pasacao national port was the Vietnam ship Thai Binh 16. Normally when I see a Vietnam ship its cargo would almost always be rice as we are a rice-deficient country and that includes the Bicol region. But this time the cargo it was unloading was corn. a surprise to me. Is Vietnam exporting corn to us already?

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There was a local ship there, the Princess Damaris of Candano Shipping Lines which is a shipping line from Bicol, in Tabaco. Their owners also own the only big shipyard in Bicol, the Mayon Docks in Tabaco. Princess Damaris was unloading flour in bags to a truck of Partido Marketing Corporation whose owners are major stockholders in Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, the dominant ferry operators in Bicol. Docked beside Princess Damaris because there was no more docking area was the Princess Sapphire.

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There was also an LCT anchored offshore waiting for a berth, the Seamine 9 which was loaded with cement. Also anchored offshore was the Claudia Alexis of Avega Brothers and this was also a surprise to me that they also serve Bicol now. Maybe like Medallion Transport they have so many ships now and their expansion was even faster. Claudia Alexis I usually only noticed in Cebu before.

While shipspotting in the Pasacao national port, the big motor bancas from Burias began arriving. I was there before lunchtime, the time they begin to arrive. Also there in the port were the smaller motor bancas to the coastal barrios of Pasacao and Libmanan. Bancas are a fixture of the southern coast of Bicol because unlike in the northern coast of Bicol there is no southern coastal road except in the road maps (no, they do not exist actually).

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I decided that to save on time and to prevent exhaustion that I should just cover the Pasacao municipal port from the Pasacao national port. Everything is within the range of my lens anyway and it is only motor bancas that are there anyway plus bancas of the subsistence fishermen. There are still other things and places in Bicol that I have to cover. I have not been to my place for a long time.

The next port of Camarines Sur that I covered was the fishport of Camaligan which is just adjacent Naga City and which looks like a suburb of it (actually, Naga has many small towns around it). I was determined to go the the fishport itself and see what it has to offer. This determination is actually an offshoot of a frustration that there is no other worthwhile Camarines Sur port to go to. Cabusao port I know will be a disappointment and I will be crazy if I go to Tandoc port in Siruma. With regards to Guijalo port in Caramoan I was thinking of something different (more on this later).

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The Camaligan fishport is actually some distance away from Naga and not so near like in my imagination. But I was interested in it because it is the principal fishport of Camarines Sur although it is located along the banks of Bicol River and it is still some distance from the sea. Well, this is so because the Bicol River is a navigable river and Naga City which is even beyond Camaligan is reachable by steel-hulled trawlers from San Miguel Bay and beyond (once upon a time there were ferries from Naga to Mercedes, Camarines Norte, the port town besides Daet).

Once this fishport supported a sardines packing plant and it was the first in Bicol. Unfortunately it did not last very long and the cited reason was the lack of fish (well, even the legendary canneries of Zamboanga import fish). I was interested what the fishport still had to offer, the activities it has left and what kind of vessels are present there.

Unlike most government-owned ports, the Camaligan fishport is not under the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority). It is the Philippine Fish Development Authority (PFDA) which owns it. The atmosphere there was relaxed. If fact there seems to be not much activity and there were just a few vehicles.

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There was one basnig there and four trawlers which seems to be Dragon Marus. It is hard to gauge their activity especially as water lilies clog the port (and this indicates lack of activity; well, it was amihan and fishing north of Bicol is not good). There was also a yacht, the Artist Ryuma and two patrol boats of BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources), one of which is on dry land. The bigger patrol boat seems to be ensnared by the water lilies.

There was also the sad sight there of the cruise boat of Camaligan. The town tried to develop their waterfront and offer cruises along the Bicol River, an effort to generate tourism. Sadly it did not take off. The boat seems not be in sailing condition anymore.

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I decided that Camaligan fishport does not have much to offer anymore. If there is fish it seems it is just trucked direct to the market or to Manila. The small quantity of fish in the fishport might have just been trucked by refrigerated trucks. There are no signs of active fish trading unlike what I saw in the Port of Cantilan or Port of Placer when me and Joe visited Surigao.

I did not stay long. No need to. On the way back, I dropped by the Camaligan waterfront and see what’s there, try to gauge the ambience and offerings. I thought it would not sell really. Not much sight or experience to offer and it will be better if a cruise boat is actually based in Naga for easier access and with probably more experiences to offer.

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I thought of a Naga-Guijalo-Codon (San Andres, Catanduanes)-Tabaco-Naga tour, a long and daring one because I will try to complete it in one day. The impetus was the 24/7 trip now of the Naga-Caramoan bus. I was planning to leave early so I will reach the buses that will be loaded in San Andres for Tabaco and Manila (and go via Virac if there is still time). I had my doubts of course if I will reach it on time because I will be dependent on the schedule of the Guijalo-Codon motor banca.

But Typhoon “Nina”, the strongest to visit Camarines Sur in more than a decade threw my plans awry. It is hard to bet on a trip like that with all the disruptions and damages caused the typhoon. Plus it was rush season as it was Christmas and rides could be full especially after the suspensions and cancellations. I decided not to push through but reserve it on another time after more research and better preparation.

On a note, when I reached Tabaco port on another shipspotting trip I espied the glitch in this plan. I realized that the better plan is to go the other way, the counterclockwise way which means I should go to Tabaco first. There are dawn trips from Naga to Tabaco like there are dawn trips to Caramoan but the advantage of the counterclockwise way is that there are trips in Caramoan back to Naga even late and that is not so in the Catanduanes to Tabaco crossing.

When I realized this I had run out of time and budget in Bicol and resolved I will just do it next time.

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It’s An Uphill Fight Now For The Pilar-Masbate Big Motor Bancas

Once upon a time, some 50 years ago and earlier, the main connection of Masbate island through its main port of Masbate to the Bicol mainland was the progressive town of Bulan in the southernmost tip of Sorsogon. Masbate then had good and links to Manila through passenger-cargo liners. All of those that drop anchor in Masbate port were still proceeding to Sorsogon and the northern ports of Bicol, Samar, Leyte, Cebu and with some still going to northern Mindanao ports.

These links had been around right after the war and even before the war. The trade driving it was copra and the port ’round Samar Sea and environs and the northern Bicol ports were great funnels of copra. Copra then was a powerful commodity such that there was even a “Coconut Alliance” in the same manner that there was a “Sugar Alliance” in the Philippine Congress and at the apex of that early on was presidentiable Jose Avelino of Samar which later passed on to Emmanuel Pelaez of Misamis Oriental with Emilio Espinosa of Masbate the local linchpin in the area. These “alliances” were pressure groups and plays a key role in selecting and supporting the national candidates.

Masbate port was a hub where goods can be exchanged with other ports in that area. This also involved goods to and from the national capital center and that was one of the reasons of the strong Masbate-Bulan connection. However, at the tail end of the 1970’s these nexus of links where Masbate was a major player began to go downhill. There were plenty of interconnected reasons for that and that will require a long discussion and hence will be left out of this article but two of those were the development of the highways and the rise of the intermodal transport system.

In the next phase when Masbate port just became a sideshow in the national liner network, the Masbate-Bulan link just became more of a purveyor of local goods. Masbate will no longer supply goods from Manila since Bulan has already a good road connection to Manila (courtesy of the buses Pantranco South and JB Lines). Motor boats and big motor bancas made the link between the two ports. However, in the same period emerged a new challenger to Bulan which was the port and town of Pilar in Sorsogon and in due time the Pilar-Masbate connection superseded in importance the Bulan-Masbate connection.

What tilted the balance was Pilar is much nearer than Bulan to the regional trade center of Legazpi-Daraga and to Manila. The bus factor got into the picture too. Where before JB Line and Pantranco South bus waited for passenger in Bulan terminal right beside the port, slowly “colorum” buses and Pantranco South buses began waiting for passengers in Pilar terminal right beside the port too. Pilar is significantly nearer to Manila than Bulan and so the fare is cheaper and the travel time shorter. Really, when roads get good, some paradigm changes are induced. Through the sea, Pilar and Bulan are nearly equidistant to Masbate port.

Big motor bancas and small motor boats connected Pilar and Masbate with the former much more in abundance. Both are powered by surplus truck engines (some are twin V-8s!) but the big motor boat being lighter is nimbler and faster. Another change that tilted the balance for Pilar was the reawakening of the Aroroy gold mines which was started by the small miners. This mine like the Larap mine shuttered in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s due to the drop of the world prices of copper and iron. Now such reawakening fueled people movement and the bus in Pilar and Pilar-Aroroy big motor bancas and small motor boats were there to serve it. Bulan cannot be the port of departure because it is simply too far from Aroroy. And so the start of the 1980’s saw the beginning of the heyday of the Pilar-Masbate big motor bancas.

The traffic in the route is heavy both ways in the early morning and approaching mid-afternoon. The reason for latter is these big motor bancas do not run at night and not because of MARINA or Coast Guard edicts. The trips last 3.5 to 4 hours and they hightail it before dusk settles. The reason, as anyone who is familiar with the coastal sea is the winds begin to get active and so do the swells when night is approaching. And the seas here, the Ticao Pass, the Masbate Pass and the Black Rock Pass have a high level of notoriety in showing no mercy to small crafts. These waters are graveyards of many motor bancas especially the fishing bancas. These three bodies of water are considered the most dangerous waters of Bicol, bar none.

There are many operators of big motor bancas in the Pilar-Masbate route but two entities dominated, the Denica Lines and the Lobrigo Lines and their rivalry is intense but not destructive. The two then raced with bigger and faster motor boats but their rivalry did not end in that sphere. Lobrigo Lines went into the bus business as vertical integration. So you ride their motor banca and you are assured of a bus seat (that was not sure in the past when there were not so many buses yet). In the reverse route, their bus passenger goes to their motor bancas. Of course all assistance and courtesy is extended and it was not simply like hauling cattle as this route is an epitome of free market competition. So aside from plenty of choices in bus and motor banca, the fares are fair game to haggle and courtesies are on full display. Pilar and Masbate are ports where there is no talk of porterage for motor banca passenger cargo. One does not queue for tickets also. They ask you inside the boat if you are already ready to pay and there is just a minimal charge for cargo.

Meanwhile, Denica Lines ventured into passenger ferries first with the cruiser ferry Bikol Express which was the former Elizabeth Lilly of Western Samar Shipping Lines. When they sold that Batanes Multipurpose Cooperative, they then acquire the Odyssey of Alabat Shipping Corporation which is a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO. Later, they also acquired the Vanessa P2 (ex-Torrijos) of Sta. Cruz Shipping which served the Lucena-Marinduque route and they renamed this the Marina Empress. This ship is another basic, short-distance ferry-RORO.

Lobrigo Lines took a different approach. They bought two fastcrafts from Japan which became the Maria Natasha and Maria Querubin. Not long after they sold the fastcrafts to Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. of Batangas which became the point of entry for that company in Bicol waters. The buses of Lobrigo Lines did not last that much long either. After less a decade only a few were still running until operations were nearly shut. It came back but other operators are merely riding on their permits. Maybe being good in seacrafts do not guarantee one will be good in land transport.

Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. whose inferior fastcrafts was trounced in the Batangas-Calapan route then was able to find a profitable haven in Pilar-Masbate. They actually invested in a jetty so their fastcrafts can safely use Pilar port which has notorious shallow waters because it lies in an estuary. They also invested in wharf improvement so they can also operate safely the basic-short distance ferry-ROROs they brought to the route. Then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo never saw fit to improve Pilar port because that happened to be under the district of a political opponent which was Francis Escudero. She would rather waste money in dozens of “ports to nowhere” than invest in one opposition port which has a true and growing traffic.

With the success of the fastcrafts and the basic-short distance ferry ROROs and with it the buses now crossing to and now rolling in Masbate island in its entirely, the Pilar-Masbate big motor bancas felt severe pressure. In most instances now, they are just the carriers of local passengers and cargo since Manila passengers and small cargo is now borne by the buses. Intermodal trucks has also invaded Masbate island and that further lessened the load of the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas.

Still the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas are still plying the route bravely and with elan. In the early morning from Masbate they rule the route since the buses and trucks are still not yet around and so the earliest RORO leaves around 10am. In the early morning hours from Masbate their competition are the fastcrafts. But the fare of those are double compared to them and so it is generally the middle and upper classes including the government workers who are patrons of that. The hoi polloi and the early cargo belongs to them because the fastcrafts don’t carry cargo.

In Pilar many leave too in the early morning hours especially if the ROROs are gone. The ROROs depart before morning since the buses and trucks are already there and those are early because most will still roll the length of Masbate island and it is their target to finish the route before lunch is well past. In the midmorning there will be no more ROROs in Pilar that will be crossing to Masbate and in Masbate there are no more ROROs after 1 pm. When there are no more ROROs that is the opening for the motor bancas. But it does not mean they will not leave if there are ROROs running. They will and they will try to overtake the RORO since they are faster (what are twin V-8s for anyway?).

However, a new development ratcheted up the pressure on the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas. A new route was developed, the Masbate-Pio Duran, Albay route. Pio Duran is nearer to Manila than Pilar and it has deeper waters and so there are no low tide restrictions. This route further took away traffic from the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas and since they are not running that route they cannot compete directly.

The Pilar-Masbate motor banca is not laying over and die. They are fighting hard especially on local cargo and passengers. They really try to lasso passengers and cargo. They will even take in cargo even without accompanying passengers and deliver it within the town through tricycles. They will treat the passengers well. Well they have to since they are no longer as full as before. There is no more way to take back the bus passengers although the knowing and especially those just from Masbate City or nearby know they can still take the motor banca which is cheap and they can haggle with the fare in the buses waiting in Pilar. Or be even to leave earlier if they will choose to proceed to Legazpi which has day morning bus trips which are faster (the buses from Pilar will still look for passengers along the way).

But still it is clear that the heyday of the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas is now over and it is already an uphill fight for them. I just hope it does not degenerate to a struggle for survival.

All The Ports of Bohol With Connection to Cebu Are Actually Competing Against Each Other

There are many Bohol ports with connections to Cebu and one way or another, all of them are competing against each other. This is a basic point or truth known by the people of Bohol and Cebu but missed by Myrna S. Austria in her paper on shipping competition. In that paper, she compared the competition of the shipping companies within a route but she completely failed to take account that different routes actually compete and shipping companies on those different shipping routes also compete against each other.

http://dirp3.pids.gov.ph/ris/rps/pidsrp0302.pdf

There are many Bohol ports that have connection to Cebu because simply put Bohol is tethered too to Cebu like Leyte (which I have discussed in another article). Cebu sends its many manufactured goods to Bohol and in return Bohol sends many agricultural produce and products of the sea to Cebu. There are also many Bol-anons that work or study in Cebu. On the other end, there are many Sugbuhanons who visit the many tourist sites of Bohol. In the less developed towns of Bohol where there are no big stores, the people go to Cebu for their needs since the goods are more complete there and cheaper and the fare and cargo rate are reasonable.

The following ports of Bohol have connections to Cebu by steel-hulled ferries at present: Ubay, Tagbilaran, Catagbacan (Loon), Tubigon, Jetafe and Talibon. Aside from steel-hulled ferries, the towns of Jetafe, Talibon and islets off Bohol also have connections to Cebu by big motor bancas. Most of the steel-hulled ferries that connect Cebu and Bohol are RORO (Roll-On, Roll-Off) ships. Hence, they can also carry vehicles aside from passengers. There are also High Speed Crafts (HSCs) that connect Tagbilaran, Tubigon and Jetafe to Cebu. In all these connections there are ferries running day and night.

In decades past, it was Tagbilaran that was the main gateway to Bohol from Cebu. However, in the recent years, it seems Tubigon port has already exceeded Tagbilaran port especially in rolling cargo. Using Tubigon as the port of entry is cheaper and the travel time to there is just half as it is nearer in distance from Cebu. There are also the alternative Lite Ferries LCTs from Ouano in Mandaue to Talibon that caters mainly to rolling cargo. To match that, RORO Cargo LCTs have also been deployed in the Cebu-Tagbilaran route.

Since the main tourist attractions of Bohol are the world-famous RORO Cargo LCT and the Loboc River Cruise (plus SuperCat offers online booking, a feature foreign tourists are accustomed to), the tourists still use Tagbilaran port as entry. But lately Tubigon is also putting a fight for Chocolate Hills because the roads have already gotten better. If before it was only Tagbilaran that have HSCs from SuperCat and Oceanjet now Tubigon already have fastcrafts from Starcrafts and Oceanjet (via the franchise from Lite Ferries). The main competition in Bohol is actually between Tagbilaran and Tubigon ports.

In the northern part of Bohol, Tubigon has competition too from Jetafe and Talibon which are incidentally ports of adjacent towns. The Clemer and other boats are active in the two ports and they have a loyal clientele. A ship from Island Shipping and a RORO from VG Shipping also serve the two ports. The motor bancas and these ROROs serve as alternative if a passenger or shipper is going direct to Jetafe or Talibon or to towns east of the two.

Further east another option is the J&N ROROs to Ubay. But even though these are ROROs, they mainly take break-bulk cargo and passengers. Even then Ubay is competing against the other ports. Actually, Ubay port and Tagbilaran port sank the Cebu connection to Ubay especially when the roads got better and the buses multiplied. The weakness of Jagna as a connection to Cebu is that it is more distant because of the roundabout route.

There is also a RORO connection between Taloot port in Argao, Cebu to Catagbacan port in Loon, Bohol. This serves as alternative for vehicles coming from or going to the southern part of Cebu. With this route they need not go to Cebu City. If the ferry there is unavailable or when like the port was damaged by the big quake in Bohol then Tagbilaran or Tubigon ports become the alternative to this connection.

If the two ports of Tubigon and Tagbilaran are the main competing Bohol ports then all the other ports are alternatives to either of the two. That is simply the situation of the ports in Bohol especially now when the roads of Bohol are more developed and there are plenty of buses running and even into the night. People of Bohol know the permutations of the ship rides and they take what is most convenient or cheapest to them.

For example, if one misses the ferry in Ubay or if it is not running, then one just have to motor to either Talibon or Jetafe and take the ferries there. Similarly, if one misses the Tagbilaran ferry he can also take the bus or van to Tubigon and get a suitable ferry there. These two examples are also applicable to vehicles. Now, if one is short on budget then one can take the cheap ferry to Tubigon and just take the bus to Tagbilaran. If one can’t wait wait for the ferries to Jetafe, Talibon or Ubay, one can just take the Tubigon routes which has more ferries. If one’s town lies between two ports then he can take either route depending on his whims and needs. There are really many possibilities and there are many feasible ports of entries to or ports of departure from Bohol.

But, apparently, if one reads her paper, it seems Myrna S. Austria has no idea or knowledge of that.