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

by Mike Baylon

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

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

Port of Cataingan ©Mike Baylon

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

M/V Rosalia 3 ©Mike Baylon

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

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

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

A Livestock Motor Banca ©Mike Baylon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katrafar Shipping Lines

Katrina-II of Katrafar Shipping Lines ©Mike Baylon

The Katrafar Shipping Lines, an operator of Moro boats in the Zamboanga-Jolo and Bongao routes, is unique in the sense that it is probably the only Moro boat shipping company that still have regular schedules (aside from the related ship Karmina) after a lot of contemporaries like A. Sakaluran were already gone. As such they are still entitled to docking space and operation in the Zamboanga PPA port while most Moro boats were already relegated to different Baliwasan wharves like Tres Marias, PHIDCO and PMS. Moro boats are the name that Philippine Ship Spotters Society use to denote wooden-hulled ships of distinct Moro design usually found in western Mindanao (and southern Mindanao before) that are related to the Arabian ‘dhow’.

M/V Katrina 5 ©Mike Baylon
Katrafar Shipping Lines is now just composed of three gold-liveried Moro boats, the Katrina II, Katrina III and Katrina V after the first of the series, the Katrina IV caught fire off Tawi-tawi Island on July of 2007. Katrafar boats carry mainly copra in her cavernous hold from Jolo and Bongao and the heat it generates in a closed hold is a fire risk, the reason passenger-copra carriers now install industrial fans aside from water sprays to cool the copra. The Katrina can carry double sacks of copra in the mid-hundreds up to the high hundreds, the reason why unloading extends up to the afternoon after her early morning arrival. Carried also at her bow are cargoes that should be separated like sea products and even animals. From Zamboanga they are loaded with groceries, dry goods, the occasional hardware supplies and drinks. All loading are done ‘mano-a-mano’ by true porters (as distinguished to ‘porters’ who try to welsh cargo from passengers while charging high rates). Here a sack might only pay P5 or so but there is cargo aplenty and it needs a gang of porters to handle her load.
Katrafar uses the quay near the covered bodega of the Zamboanga International Port which is by the main port road. They occupy the same length of berth reserved for the cruiser ferries of Zamboanga. Like the cruisers Moro boats also need side docking for their specific kind of cargo handling (as in unloaded through the side) as they were not designed for stern docking like the ROROs.
Katrina III with her load of copra ©Mike Baylon
Katrina II docked sideways at Zamboanga ©Mike Baylon

Like other Moro boats the Katrinas are not equipped with bunks and instead they use folding tarpaulin cots and if these are arranged side-by-side perpendicular to the length of the ship starting from the sides and going to the center if more passenger berths are needed. Since passenger space and amenities are more restricted they charge less than the Zamboanga steel-hulled ferries and they can afford this since their fuel consumpation is lower. At times they even lead in discounting and the fare can really get low as is P175 for the 93-nautical mile Zamboanga-Jolo route. Now consider that 55-nautical mile or so Cebu-Leyte ferries can already charge P400 for economy bunks. Like the Zamboanga cruiser ferries the Katrafar ships leave at night and they reach Jolo or Zamboanga, their main route in the early morning which is the preferred arrival time of the passengers.

Folding Cots of Katrina III ©Mike Baylon

A relic of the past, it seems Katrafar will still not go away anytime soon. There is always room for budget carriers that offers simple, no-frills passage. And if ever they lose patronage they can still go to the Baliwasan wharves and become cargo-passenger ships which prioritizes cargoes over passengers. The worst and final scenario is they will be used as barter ships and become mainstays of Varadero de Recodo and Varadero de Cawit.