My Bohol Tour

When I went to Cebu last time I resolved I will also go to Bohol and do a tour, a real tour which means going around and not just going to some tourist spot (which I don’t do as I have no taste for that as I am old school in that I really want to go around). It was not just for ship spotting but also for buses as I needed to replenish my stock of Bohol bus photos which was already depleted. And for another reason, I wanted to see Bohol again after two years to update myself, see how its recovery from its earthquake went.

My planned entry was via Tubigon on an early morning trip on the cheap Lite Ferries ship as that is a good platform for ship spotting and spacious too (for ship spotting I don’t have a taste for High Speed Crafts as the view it affords is limited). However, on the morning I was due to depart the queue was long (wished I purchased the ticket the day before but their ticketing office outside Pier 1 always had a line). They also had no separate window for senior citizens and for the disabled (is that a violation of any law?). When I was already nearing the window the guard announced the closing of the ticketing since we wouldn’t make the 7am departure of the ferry. And that is one bad effect of the “cattle herding” of the Cebu Port Authority (and by PPA for that are ISPS) forcing passengers to use the passenger terminal and the X-ray machines when in earlier days one goes direct to the ship especially when time is running out (and just be ticketed aboard the ship). The guard announced they have a 12:30pm departure but I wonder who is the crazy passenger that will wait for that when it is just 7am.

I mulled my alternatives. It was not to be Star Crafts on the opposite side of the road. A fastcraft with its low windows dirtied by sea water splash is never good for ship spotting and one can’t anticipate a ship coming by. If it has an open-air accommodation it isn’t as comfortable as that missed Lite Ferry and besides it will be noisy. Wanting to make up for lost time since I will still be touring I decided on the FastCat in Pier 3 although I know it will cost more and I have to walk the distance.

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And that is where my bad experience with FastCat began. There was a line of apprentices in the ticket window and they said there was no more ticket for Premium Economy (which is the Tourist class) and Economy which is the open-air accommodation at the upper deck. And so I took the Business Class since there are no other ship alternatives left that leaves in the early morning for Tubigon.

I will then get ahead of the story. When the vessel departed I found out and so did other passengers forced to take the Business Class that there were still a lot of vacant seats in Economy and Premium Economy. We then knew we were scammed. I then asked one of the personnel attending to the passengers and the flippant reply was they know nothing about the booking. Huh! Is that all? I thought they had better training now but this is straight from the book of the old-style ferries whose favorite trick is handwashing. I told her straight into her face that it was scamming and bad for them since Archipelago Philippine Ferries, their company is beginning to make inroads in covering its unsavory reputation from its bad Maharlika ships of the recent past.

Then a second incident happened which made us Business Class passengers feel scammed again – there was no free snacks. Actually, the seats and accommodation of the premium Economy and the Business Class are the same. The former even have the advantage that its farther seats are by twos only and the canteen is located right there. Plus its air conditioning is stronger because the Business Class front is a door to the storage room covered with only a curtain and cold air is lost there.

I asked a steward why there is no free snacks when it is the only feature that can justify the higher fare when Business Class which is not superior in any way to Premium Economy (what a way to degrade the name of the Tourist class!). He said they have long ago requisitioned for supplies but it seemed management thinks passenger ridership to Tubigon is like the Bulalacao-Caticlan route (aha! so that route is weak in passengers?).

I told the steward that in this age of the internet and smartphone that excuse will not fly. So what is the use of computers and unlimited calls over the smartphone? So they cannot monitor? And management needs months to adjust? I told him that was a very lousy excuse and if that is true then that reflects badly on management. Maybe the owner Christopher Pastrana and his wife should better attend to things like these rather than bragging too much in media and in their own video. I told the steward that it seems FastCat is already sliding to their lowly Maharlika standard and everybody knows how lousy their Maharlika ships were (well, except for Archipelago Philippine Ferries employees which seem to have convenient amnesia).

I got many ship pics alright since a route from Pier 3 is better than a route to the south compared to from Pier 1 since up to Pier 4 can be covered well unlike in the Lite Ferry originating in Pier 1 that can only cover the Cokaliong ships. Then in the Talisay anchorage I was able to capture more ships. And there I took a rest and did not gamble anymore on chance encounters as I have a long day ahead. However, I was lucky to notice the coming Anika Gayle 2 of Aleson Shipping and I also caught her on cam.

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The promised one-and-a-half hour cruising time of FastCat M11 did not materialize. Our trip lasted nearly two hours and to make it worse we left Cebu late because they had difficulty in loading an empty truck because FastCat can’t ballast (so much for their ads that the ship does not have ballast water). Since the tide was high the underside of the truck was scraping the port. So I did not gain any time by riding FastCat. It seems they are saving on fuel and was no longer running at 100% speed (is this the start of their run that will just manage to outspeed a little their competitor Lite Ferries?)

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In Tubigon port there was already the missed Lite Ferry and Star Crafts 6 when we arrived. I did not linger long in port and immediately took a pedicab (it is better than a cramped tricycle albeit slower of course). I then took a nearly empty commuter van bound for Talibon (well, I was glad the driver was true to his announced ETD and did not regret taking the van) and I got off in Inabanga and made a short tour of it. I found out everything was completely normal as if no fighting occurred within its territory. There was no suspicious looks nor questions and I was surprised by that (good its people are not “praning” and its officials not over-reactive unlike in Cebu South Bus Terminal which is under the Provincial Capitol). And so I thought the heightened security I saw in other parts of the country are just “arte” or overreaction including the Capitol of Cebu which has barriers and questioning guards already (but go by its back entrance and anybody can enter without question). And to think Cebu City has no serious incidents yet. I wonder what will be their reaction when they have one (but I know Mayor Tommy Osmena is not “praning” as one can easily access the 8th floor of his City Hall where his office is located, take photos of ships from there and not once was I questioned what I was doing).

From Inabanga I then took a commuter van to Tagbilaran and upon reaching Tubigon we were transferred to another van that is already more full. I welcomed it rather than waiting for passengers and losing more time. I was right in the choice of the ride as the van proved faster because we were overtaking buses. Of course I was enjoying the views that were always changing. Much better than being cocooned in some beach resort that is not free anyway.

I then made a fast check of the Dao integrated terminal of Tagbilaran while taking quick shots of buses. I asked the ride to Loboc and they pointed to me the converted Canter (into a jeep equivalent) parked by the market just outside the terminal. While waiting for it to depart (it was nearly full already) I asked permission to take more shots of buses and I darted inside the terminal.

When I returned after ten minutes as I promised I found out that they positioned three short benches in the middle of the Canter (and so I understood why it was wider) for eight more passengers. I counted the capacity. 35 sitting passengers not including five others clinging at the rear or “sabit”. I thought not a bad replacement for a minibus. And I have to thank the lady student who exchanged her better seat than my uncomfortable one.

The route of the Canter was Tagbilaran-Sikatuna-Loboc, a different route from the Loay route which me and Vinz Sanchez (a PSSS Moderator from Bohol) took when he toured me the whole coastal roads of Bohol a few years ago, a favor I still cherish. Sikatuna is a town by the hills of Bohol and so what we passed looked like a mountain road. I was glad I saw different vistas. It seemed to me the people, my co-passengers, were friendlier too. It rained very hard however after Sikatuna town until we reached Loboc. The fare looked cheap to me. P25 for what seems to be 29 kilometers (and so when did the LTFRB which only listens to big operators but not the people learned how to set correct fares?).

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The Loboc tour boats

My tour and shots of Loboc were forgettable. The rain did not abate and there was no banca ride to Loay (they say I should have taken it by the Loay bridge which I visited before with Vinz). With such rain I was not interested to take the boat tour upriver with its native banquet food (I did not go to Loboc to partake food).

I went to the town where a I found a nice eatery, the biggest in the town where there was a wide selection. I found out that the food prices were very moderate and the owner friendly. I was tempted to enter it because I saw foreigners eating there (and so I thought there must be a reason for that). It was there when the rain subsided a little. Over-all it was a lousy tour of Loboc but I saw the restoration work of their church that was heavily damaged by the quake was already underway. In Loboc nearly a lot of the tourists were foreigners.

A commuter van arrived and enticed me again. I took it to Tagbilaran. I did not try to go anymore to Carmen, the site of the Chocolate Hills because I do not want to be disappointed again by the rain and there might not be enough time already (but a motorcycle driver was offering me a private ride). I thought maybe it was not my day. And it was there that I realized my mistake. From Inabanga I should have gone straight to Carmen via Sagbayan. It happened I was not that sure though how fast the ride there will be and it also happened Chocolate Hills was not on the top of my priority being just a simple tourist spot to me (in Loboc at least there are bancas).

With an early arrival back in Tagbilaran I had time to take more photos of buses in the terminal. I noticed that compared to two years ago the remaining rivals of the dominant Southern Star bus have essentially re-fleeted and some have air-conditioned units already. I thought that was good and it seems they will not be simply swept away or gobbled by the giant yellow bus company like what I feared before.

I next made a round of the Island City Mall which is conveniently near the Dao terminal. I planned to take dinner there before I proceed to Tagbilaran port to take the 10pm Lite Ferry ship back to Cebu. In the said mall there was a trade fair in the upper floor and that for me somehow made up the failure in Loboc as I enjoy seeing the displayed products of so many places as it gives me a glimpse of what their place is (and later google the Net for more information about them). I also took note of the places where the PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) group made tambay when we attended the wedding of Vinz Sanchez in Panglao.

I arrived in Tagbilaran port at 7:30pm only to found out there were no more tickets available in whatever class of the Lite Ferries ship (and it seems I have bad luck with this shipping company). I waited a little since a few years back our PSSS group that attended the Tagbilaran fiesta was able to still board as chance passengers and we were even five then, a relatively big group. But this time instead of being encouraging the Lite Ferries ticketing office suddenly closed. I was marooned as I was told the last trip of the bus to Tubigon was 8pm (there is still a midnight ferry there to Cebu and Mandaue). I suddenly remembered the fate of the PSSS group three years ago during Vinz’s wedding when they slept in Dao terminal.

I then pulled my way into Harborview Inn which has a commanding view of the port right outside the port gates and no more sleeping in the terminal as I was thinking of another day’s tour if I can’t go home. It was not cheap if going by its age. The greater negative was the noise and vibration of the trucks going in and out of the port. But the big plus is it has a view of the ships in Tagbilaran port. As an ISPS port there was no chance for me to go inside the port if I am not a passenger and Tagbilaran will no longer be my exit later in the day.

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The next morning, after taking shots of Tagbilaran port I walked to the mall near the old bus terminal and partook breakfast there. It was near the place where we took a taxi to Loon when Aris Refugio, a PSSS Moderator will be having a short vacation in Sandingan island in her sister’s place (it was a nice place with a commanding view of the sea). I was able to take photos of the buses inside that minor terminal now and then I made my way back to Dao, the main terminal. There was a cheaper multicab that I found and I an-seminarian as co-passenger who was engaging and helpful.

Upon reaching the terminal another van called offering a cheap fare to Tubigon and a promise of an immediate departure (am I that a magnet for commuter vans in Bohol?). But I declined as I said I needed to take bus photos first for my collection and I was not yet on that direction I actually wanted to stay first in the terminal, get a feel of the possibilities and mull my options (yes, I tend to feel my guts when I am on a trip in a not-so-familiar place and my plans did not fall into place). What I just wanted was a bus going to northern Bohol because the ferries back to Cebu are there. I noticed a bus going to Talibon passing through Carmen (and I know the Chocolate Hills are located over there). I can’t resist riding that bus even though I haven’t finalized yet where my exit will be (now isn’t that touring in the finest sense?). But the bus will pass by Dagohoy town and that to me was another bonus.

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Baclayon port and lighthouse

The route was by Baclayon and Loay this time and I was able to get shots of their ports). It was the seaside route and after a junction Loboc came into view again. I was not tempted to get off as I know a route to Talibon will take long knowing how slow are the buses in Bohol (nope, they will never need a GPS-based warning device telling them they are already over the speed limit as buses there don’t run over 60kph anyway). And the bus driver quoted 4 hours of travel time but I always assume that is an optimistic estimate.

I was fascinated by the views and landscape right after Loboc. The scenery looks like a forest from there up to Bilar and Batuan, two places I have special interest in. It was an ascending road to the hills of Bohol up to its plateau. Comparing later to Chocolate Hills that world-famous tourist site looked unexciting to me. Just the site of mint-chocolate mounds although admittedly I did not get off then junction leading to its viewing point where there are habal-habals (chartered motorcyle rides) waiting. Later, I realized I could have gotten off there and just take the night ship back to Cebu (and that is the consequence of trip out of plan already). And not having a map or a pocket Wi-Fi also took its toll. But then I was generally tired too (my batteries are not that fast to recharge anymore) and I had wounds to take care of.

The cruising speed of the Southern Star bus was just 50kph even though it is an aircon bus (well, it was good for sightseeing). The passenger load was not high including that of the other buses I saw and to think buses in Bohol does not come one after another. I was even wondering if there were more ship passengers than bus passengers in Bohol (well, the commuter take a big chunk off their load). But at least I found out in Bohol that buses do not have many meal stops like in Cebu and Mindanao.

I was tempted to get off the bus in Trinidad town and head east to Ubay and take the night ship there. I found out that the J&N Ferry ship there to Cebu is very cheap compared to the Tagbilaran ship when the distance of Cebu from Ubay is about the same (now how did that happen?). Now I understand part of the reason why they are still existing. If one is going to Jagna from Cebu to take a ferry there the proper connection is the J&N Ferry to Ubay and not the ferry to Tagbilaran but it seems few realize that. Jagna is roughly equidistant from Ubay and Tagbilaran.

In Talibon I was able to take long-distance shots of the port. I did not go into the port and just felt the atmosphere of the bus terminal and the market (because I was already worrying about the time). I was divided into going to Tubigon (which will afford me daylight ship spotting) or going back to Ubay in order to extend my Bohol tour and visit Ubay again. But I did not have time to mull as the Tubigon bus was already honking. I was just intent on catching the 4:30pm Anika Gayle 2 ferry to Cebu which has a much better ship spotting view than the Star Crafts (there were no Lite Ferries ships in the late afternoon in Tubigon and I do not want to ride the FastCat again).

I asked the driver how long the ride to Tubigon will take. He answered one hour. But then our driver turned out he can just ride his mount at 50kph and so we took nearly 2 hours for the route. We passed by Inabanga again.

But with our slow speed I missed the Anika Gayle 2 and there was a long line in Star Crafts. But I was fortunate the guard pulled me to the senior citizens’ window and I was able to get a ticket leapfrogging over a dozen people. Otherwise I would have experienced shut-out again and I would be forced to take the FastCat (horrors!). This time the vessel was fully booked and I was in the very last row of seat near the toilet.

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It then happened that I was also very interested in our vessel the Star Crafts 7 (good she was on that schedule) and I already forgot my disappointment in not having made the Anika Gayle 2. The reason is because Star Crafts 7 was the former MS Express of A. Sakaluran in Zamboanga which I have already visited before in Varadero de Recodo, a shipyard in Zamboanga City. I want to see what changed and I want to feel her again.

One big change I noticed is she was already much less comfortable (and much less than Starcrafts 1). Instead of trying to put in some comfort like in Weesam Express now as Star Crafts she is just trying to pack as much people in. I have not seen seats as narrow and uncomfortable in a fastcraft. Fastcrafts are generally more cramped compared to catamarans but I have been to Weesam Express, A. Sakaluran, Oceanjet and the Montenegro Shipping Lines fastcrafts including its small ones and Medium Speed Crafts (MSCs) like the Anika Gayles of Aleson Shipping but all have sufficient level of comfort and space unlike the Star Crafts 7. And another, the good air-conditioning central vents of the MS Express were already gone in Star Crafts 7.

With its fare almost level with FastCat I wonder why Boholanos still patronize them when the like of FastCat is much more superior in terms of accommodations and passenger service (no, this is not a plug for FastCat). The seats of Star Crafts is even narrower and less comfortable than bus seats. With a 4+4 seating, maybe its fares should be much less. Is it time for FastCat to field a second MSC in Tubigon? Or Oceanjet should field one of their fastcrafts? But maybe the franchises of the Lite Jets were not sold to them to preclude competition with them.

The Star Crafts 7 is a full two-deck fastcraft now when it had only one-and-a-half passenger decks as MS Express. We took just over 1 hour for the voyage so that means we were cruising at about 20 knots. Its engines are Yuchai diesels now with a total of 1,850 horsepower, down from her former 3,100-horsepower Mitsubishi diesels, the same powerplant as her rival Sea Jet of Aleson Shipping which is not on the route now and replaced by the Anika Gayle 2 which we overtook before reaching the reef shallows south of Mactan island.

There was no ship spotting whatsoever when I was on board Star Crafts 7. No possibility as there was no open-air accommodation and the doors of fastcrafts are closed when sailing. I was only able to take some shots upon alighting in Cebu Pier 3 but it was already getting dark. Before I disembarked I tried to tour the fastcraft but it was too dour and there is no access to the bridge. I am imagining though that it might not have changed much since I visited her as MS Express.

It was a full two-day visit of Bohol. Nice but tiring too (and I had an accident but that is another thing).

My Trip to Danao and Carmen Ports

When I was in Cebu I had other tours and trips for I was always out in my 11 days there, rain or shine but it was almost always rain and so I bought a small, cheap umbrella from Prince upon the suggestion of the TASLI guard. The umbrella served me very well and without it I wouldn’t have been able to shipspot much. I also want to show that as I said we eat LPAs for breakfast when I was still studying in elementary and high school. A whole day rain for several days was not stranger to us then and it was even stronger like what I experienced in Allen.

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The view from the roof deck of the Danao fishport

Once I took a trip to Danao and Carmen ports. One reason is I also have to get a Sugbo Transit ticket for my friend Grek as he is a ticket collector. I got off before the bridge leading to Danao fishport, walked and took stock. The fishport trading section and its restaurants in the upper deck which we patronized in a PSSS tour then was already gone, not repaired after Typhoon “Yolanda”. They let me in but it was sad moments for I was all alone in the top deck. I can still imagine the laughter and gaiety of the group when we were there.

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I know how to time shipspotting events and I was there before lunchtime. As I expected two ferries from Camotes arrived, the Maica One of Jomalia Shipping and the Super Shuttle Ferry 24 of Asian Marine Transport System (AMTC). They joined the Mika Mari VI of Jomalia Shipping which was in port when I arrived. All throughout I used the fishport top deck as vantage point since I know getting inside the port will mean negotiations like last time and that will take time.

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One new thing in the area is a Jollibee restaurant by the port called the “Sands”. Its patronage is strong and I wonder if that was the one who sank the restaurants in the fishport. I queued but I realized my sugar will not hold and so I went instead to the fishport and ordered a meal in one of the carinderias there. After my meal I took notice of things I should take pictures of and it turned out mainly to be the ticketing offices there plus ship shots from the outside of the gates. Another thing also was they called the Maica One as the “Express”. It might have basis as her designed speed was 17 knots.

From the port I went to the Danao integrated terminal. I found out that the Carmen buses do not use the that and so there were no buses. Instead there were a lot of other vehicles including mountain, double-tire jeeps. I took one of the Multicabs and got off in Republic Drydock in Dunggo-an. Sad to say I was not able to gain entry (they want a recommendation from the Mayor but that will waste my time) and have to content myself with ships that were visible outside. It was mainly fishing boats that were there including derelict ones.

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Marker at the entrance of Republic Drydock

I then took a ride to Carmen and got off at the port junction near the Carmen campus of Cebu Technological University (CTU) and took a tricycle. I did not make the tricycle wait and so I know I am in for a long walk later. In the port I saw two Cargo RORO LCTs of Cebu Sea Charterers of the Premship group, the LCT 208 and the (yes, they will always have the number “8” because that is supposedly lucky. They were not loading yet (actually there was just one truck in the port) and so port activity was almost dead.

These Cargo RORO LCTs are what is threatening now the old overnight ROPAXes to Leyte (and Bohol) like that of Roble Shipping and Lite Shipping with their very cheap rates as in just barely over half of the usual rates. Of course it is a no-frills ride intended just for trucks and its crews. A memo in the Cebu Sea Charterers office made clear that they are only taking trucks and not passengers. The pioneer Cargo RORO LCT in Carmen, the LCT Mabuhay Filipinas was not there (later I found out she was undergoing Afloat Ship Repair or ASR near the Second Mandaue bridge).

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There was also a very small tanker in Carmen port, the Anna Rose. She was the smallest tanker I have seen and she was just powered by a single surplus Isuzu 10PE1 engine. Well, in the past there were tankers of just 300 horsepower too so I thought maybe that engine was sufficient. Of course she will not run fast. She was tied up there because of an engine problem (but there are many mechanics who can tackle that and parts are easy to source).

As usual, at a distance were the many yachts anchored in Carmen marina. There were about a dozen of them and many of those are actually owned by foreigners. I thought Carmen is also a good storm shelter. Again the decaying yachts and motor boats of Carmen port were still there. However, their decomposition are more advanced now compared to several years ago in my last visit with PSSS. There was also a DA-BFAR patrol boat (I wonder, Carmen is not a lair of fishing boats).

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With me just walking back to the highway, I was able to distill more info and understanding of Carmen. I found out that the enclosed marina leading to the visible stadium were the experimental fish farm of the College of Fisheries of CTU. And near Carmen port was an experimental station for fisheries research. Also visible in the enclosed marina was the “dunking machine” used to train the nautical students of the said university (Marine Engineering and Marine Engineering are the main offerings of CTU-Carmen).

I made a mistake once I got back to the highway after walking past the entrance of CTU-Carmen. I immediately took a bus going back to Cebu. What I should have done was go to Carmen poblacion, took a tour there and rode the Carmen-Cebu buses. I only realized that on my later trip north when I went to Maya and Hagnaya that were enough sights in Carmen town.

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The enclosed marina of Carmen

Got back to Cebu earlier but not really because of the traffic (which is worse now in Metro Cebu compared to the past years) and it was already a little late already for shipspotting. Darkness comes earlier on rainy days and Cebu was almost always raining during the Sinulog Festival week. And so I just instead went for bus spotting in the Cebu North Bus Terminal.

Glad to visit Danao and Carmen ports again and see what changed there. However, I can’t view my trip as very fruitful. Actually I felt a little bitin after that trip.

The Trip from Tacloban to Surigao del Sur [Part 2]

When the smaller group of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) members split and said goodbyes in Tacloban bus terminal, I was aware it was already December 13 and it was the PSSS’ 8th anniversary. I dunno if anyone mentioned it but I didn’t coz I do not want to spook anybody since many associate the 13th with bad luck and we were still all traveling. In our drive to Surigao del Sur, I never mentioned to Joe the anniversary because active members remember the PSSS was founded on December 13. Well, the luck of PSSS is still holding, fingers crossed.

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From Surigao City, me and Joe followed the road to going to Butuan. In our short drive in the city I think Joe already had an idea of the lay-out of it since we took the main road going in and another road going out. Along the way we saw some prominent landmarks like the St. Paul College, the Lipata junction, the bus terminal and the airport plus the shuttered Pacific Cement company. If I remember right, what Joe told me this was his first time in Mindanao and I felt pangs of remorse we were not able to invite our two companions we left in Tacloban for I know they haven’t been to this place yet too. But our host in Surigao del Sur knows only two are coming and Joe didn’t want to abuse the hospitality.

It was a serene drive from the city punctuated by some curves and by some sea views. No meaningful ports really in the area until we arrived in the junction to Surigao del Sur by the progressive barrio of Bad-as which belongs to Placer town. I was surprised there was already a Prince hypermarket there, a Cebu chain. In a barrio no less, when the towns there don’t even have one. I thought the mines might be giving prosperity in the area and the chain bet that junction will soon boom (well, it already looks like a small town to me).

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From there it was a more serene drive. Fewer vehicles, fewer people. We were no longer in the main road, i.e. the Maharlika Highway or AH26 but the road is just as good with even less damage and bumps. We were some distance yet from the sea and small rice fields and low hills dominated the sight. We had a relaxed drive.

Soon, Joe rolled out his GPS map. We were now in an area where I was not familiar with the ports and roads so I can’t give him directions. I told him our first target is the Port of Placer that I have heard before which is named after the town that is still a part of Surigao del Norte (it always enters my mind that there is a port in Placer, Masbate and also in Placer in Surigao del Sur).

Not long after, the sea and then the town came into view. I have the impression of an old town but the progress we saw in Bad-as was not evident here. We made a tour of the town while looking for the protrusion in the GPS map that indicates a finger port. Soon we were running on a road by the sea that is also a docking wharf for the small fishing bancas. That road then led to the actual port which was walled with a gate.

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We paused, a natural reaction but when we entered slowly there was no challenge, just curious looks (maybe they were trying to figure who the big shots were entering the port). That’s the beauty of a port that is not ISPS. In an ISPS (International System of Port Security) port, the guards are generally hostile and visitors are not welcome (they only want people who have official business there).

The Port of Placer surprised me. Offshore there was a tanker (not the Pandacan-type, mind you) but in the port itself there were two Petron truck tankers transferring fuel to plastic drums aboard a motor boat and a big passenger-cargo motor banca (I thought this was illegal but, oh well, we have to be practical). We learned it is destined for a generating plant of an island. The fishing boats inside were bigger and mostly of the basnig type. There were also two motor boats one of which is discharging scrap metal to a truck and the other has drums for fuel also.

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Offshore were islands and islets. Not a surprise since looking at the map this portion of Surigao has many offshore islands. Fishing abounds here and it seems the Port of Placer is one of the recipients. There were fish trucks in the port along with fish brokers. Placer port, though out of the way did not disappoint me. The visit was worth it.

We next passed the small towns of Bacuag and Gigaquit. We had no target ports here. We next rolled into Claver town which was the last town of Surigao del Norte (and soon we understood how it came to be). It was more progressive and I half-expected it having heard of it in the past. The GPS indicated to us a finger port and so we came looking for it. It was small with just a motor boat which seems not to be too active. There was no open sight of the sea. Only mangroves. It was a disappointment. I only took long-distance shots because if we enter the only way out is by backing the car. Not good.

From sea level, the road began to climb and offshore at a long distance we can see LCTs and barges. I forced getting pics but the quality was not good as it was too far for my lens. It turned out I was over-eager. Later, we found out that the mining ports were still ahead of us and I already began to exhaust my supply of batteries (after visiting nine ports already it should have been no surprise). But i rued my over-eagerness.

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As we proceeded, we noticed more and more ships were coming into view and most of those were LCTs and barges with loads that look like brown earth. We can also already see the mining wharves which are mainly causeways built by rocks and earth just bulldozed into the sea (but the biggest in the area, that of Taganito Mining is a pile-type port and it docks bulkers and tankers). The seawater of the area already has a tinge of brown when it was supposed to be blue. We were coming into the mining pollution we have read and seen from the news.

Soon, it was obvious we were nearing a mining community. The mud in the road tells it and what we are meeting now in the road were mostly mining trucks and vehicles. There were also truck depots of the mines along the road and there were also heavy equipment. China brands were almost universally the makes of the rolling stock here, some of which I just seen for the first time in my life.

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Before descending to sea level, it was becoming obvious the mining community we supposed was not just composed of one company but of several distinct companies with it own compounds, gates and wharves. The community was several kilometers long and it already has the feel and flavor of an emerging town. I remembered our member ‘kensurcity’ mentioned to me in a shipspotting meet that Jollibee can open a store in Claver and he said it will thrive. Maybe, this place Taganito was what he was referring to. Well, mining boom towns have magic in terms of glittering metal.

At the center of this community is the legendary Taganito Mining Corporation of the sometimes-controversial Nickel Asia which hit jackpot with the rise of China’s metal needs. There are other mining companies in the area and all are just adjacent one another. One is Adnama Mining Resources and the PSSS is familiar with some of its LCTs that are normally caught by our cameras in Cebu waters.

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When i check the AIS sites, I often see MMSI vessels near Surigao that has Taganito port as the intended destination. It is not a government-owned port, by the way and there are actually many mining wharves in the area each hosting ships with many other ships anchored offshore. We saw about 20 ships in all in the Taganito area (it is actually several barrios) but one needs really long lenses to cover them all well.

Even in the descent to Taganito community (the mining companies are centered in the barrio of Taganito), one is already aware of the exposed rocks at the side of the road which really looked like ores. Slowly, one can also see the stripped mountains and the water run-offs that are brown in color. Ascending after Taganito, it was even more visible and the mining communities also come into view already along with the bays that hosts the wharves. Brown, stripped mountains up high, brown-colored water run-offs and a sea that is turning brown.

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There is no surprise in that because what is being done is plain strip mining (not open pit as there is no pit; the mining companies were just stripping the mountains) just several kilometers from the sea and there are no holding or containment pools. No wonder the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources is now threatening the closure of some of them. It was great shipspotting in that area, there are magnificent views but at the same time one would begin to understand the controversy surrounding the mining in that area.

Leaving the mining area, I began to understand why there was no proper road there before and why Surigao del Sur is cut then from Surigao del Norte then. The area is mainly rocks and it does not have good vegetation and so how much more agriculture? No agriculture, no people. No people, no roads. Then it turned out those rocks are valuable. And so the road connecting the two provinces was built (i was told it was mush before). It looks like a good mining road anyway because most of the vehicles that pass are connected to the mines.

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I exhausted my batteries after that place and me and Joe began to hasten because our target Cortes town is still a fair distance away and it was already past mid-afternoon. We just whizzed by the towns of Carrascal, Cantilan, Madrid, Carmen and Lanuza. We vowed just to cover them and whatever ports are there on our way back to Leyte and Samar. Then, we finally reached the house of Joe’s shipmate at 5pm which we found to be in a progressive but woody barrio off the main road. Good decision to just whiz by the five towns (and anyway I don’t have batteries anymore). Otherwise, we would be searching a woody, unfamiliar and probably dark place after nightfall.

A seafood fete awaited us and all were fresh catch (we learned the fishermen themselves hawk it house-to-house there). Joe immediately posted a shot of the feast in Instagram with a hashtag of the place. A companion we left in Tacloban immediately noticed it (chismoso talaga ang social media). Maybe he was wondering how Joe, in an area he hasn’t ever run was able to cover a lot of distance in just such a short span of time with a ferry crossing to boot and almost no sleep. I didn’t know why James immediately suspected I was with Joe. Was I missing something;)?

Ah, anyway our luck held. And it seemed we did very fine on the day of the PSSS’ anniversary and Joe was able to prove he was a superb driver. Imagine that distance (350 land kilometers plus the Surigao Strait crossing) and pace (13 1/2 hours) with nine ports and one port complex (Taganito) covered including a meal stop. Who will believe that was possible? I bet James was thinking i was holding the wheel.

[Part 3 will be in the next installment.]

The Davao Ports That Handle Foreign Ships

I would have liked to expound on the ports under the Davao PMO. But that would mean tackling all the ports in Davao Region and that is just too many. I also wanted to tackle the ports and wharves of Davao City but I will still be burgeoned with many ports and wharves that basically handle traffic only to Samal island. I thought the best was to focus on one distinguishing mark of the Davao ports and that characteristic is many of its ports handle foreign vessels. Among the combined ports in the country it is Davao which has the most since about 20 ports here handle foreign ships, some regularly and some occasionally. But this will not be limited to Davao City only but will include ports in Panabo, Tagum, Maco, all in Davao del Norte and Sta. Cruz in Davao del Sur. This is a stretch of ports of about 25-30 miles of almost straight linear distance. Another trait of Davao ports is a significant number of foreign ships that call in Davao dock in two or three different ports trying to fill up more cargo. Senator Bam Aquino filed a bill that became a law allowing that but he was two decades too late and his bill just showed his ignorance of maritime matters.

Handling foreign ships is one thing that became more important in the last several years in Davao. This became more pronounced especially when passenger liners from Manila stopped calling in Davao. To Sulpicio Lines that was force majeure since they were suspended by MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) from sailing in the aftermath of the capsizing of the MV Princess of the Stars in 2008. For Aboitiz Transport System (ATS), they said “there was not enough cargo” (and after that their competitors were simply too glad to fill up the void created).

The main type of foreign ship that calls on Davao are the regional container ships, otherwise called “feeder ships” abroad. I named it as such since they basically do regional routes especially in Southeast Asia and East Asia. Types like “Panamax”, “Handymax” or “Aframax”, etc. have no meaning in the Philippine context since only the smallest of international container ships call locally, in the main. Not that we are in an out-of-the way route but because that size is just what the size of our economy can muster (yes, we are mainly good only in producing people (and billiards players) and in fact, that is one of our main exports but they don’t ride container ships). Some of the ships that call in Davao goes all the way to Europe so not only regional container ships call in Davao.

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Regional container ships in Sasa Port by Mike Baylon

The second main type of foreign ships that call in Davao are the reefers or refrigerated container ships. These reefers and the regional container ships basically carry the export fruits (Cavendish bananas, broad-shouldered pineapples, solo papayas mainly but that can also include avocado, giant guavas and buko and many others) and export fresh produce (like lettuce, cauliflower and many other high-priced vegetables) grown in Southern Mindanao. Some of the refrigerated container vans loaded here come from as far as Agusan del Norte, Misamis Oriental, Bukidnon, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur. Actually, almost all kinds of fruits and produce grown in farms and orchards are already exported now like camote, cassava, saging na saba (cardava in Bisaya), other varieties of bananas, mature coconuts, langka and gabi that we sometimes joke here that it seems they also cook ginataan (benignit in Bisaya) abroad now. Or make camote cue, banana cue, turon and ginanggang (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginanggang) abroad.

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Reefer by Aris Refugio

The third main type of ship that calls on Davao ports are the tankers (included here are the like-type LPG carriers). Some of these are chemical tankers and they load coconut oil in the many oil mills of Davao. Many of these are oil tankers that bring in fuel to the tanker jetties in Davao (and that is why fuel is cheaper here since many of our fuel is from Singapore). The fourth main type of foreign ships that call in the Davao are the general cargo ships or simply freighters. Some of these bring rice, some are Vietnam ships that load copra meal, some load desiccated coconut. The fifth main type are the bulkers or bulk carriers. However, this type is not that frequent in Davao.

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Bulk Carrier by Aris Refugio

On the average, a total of more than 25 foreign ships call on Davao ports every week for an average of three four ships a day. In container volume, it is actually Davao which is number two in container ship calls ahead of Cebu and Batangas ports but behind Manila port, the national port. What happened is that after our first two main export commodity crops abaca and copra/coconut oil lost in the world markets because of economic shifts (abaca was displaced by nylon and copra/coconut oil lost to other edible oils) it is now fresh fruits and fresh produce (and also canned pineapple) which have taken their place. These are basically loaded in Davao as Southern Mindanao and Bukidnon practically lords it over the other Philippine regions in the production of those export goods as the other regions are still stuck to their traditional crops which are mainly not for export in significant quantity except maybe for the sugar of Negros.

Sasa Port is the main port of Davao. It is a government-owned port and it is the biggest in Davao. It is also the base port of Davao PMO (Port Management Office which is equivalent to a regional division). Sasa Port has a total wharf length of about a kilometer and six or more ships of 80 to 180 meters size range can dock simultaneously and more if the ships are smaller and/or local. Foreign ships, which are conscious of demurrhage are the priority here and there are inducements like crisp foreign bills so they will be given priority in docking. Since Sasa Port has the tendency to exceed its capacity then ships that cannot be accommodated or are displaced are made to anchor off Sta. Ana Port so as not to congest the narrow Pakiputan Strait separating Samal island from Davao.

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Sasa Port by Mike Baylon

One weakness of Sasa Port is the lack of gantry cranes. With that she cannot handle the gearless container ships that are now beginning to appear in Panabo Port. However, Sasa Port has the usual needs of foreign ships: reefer facilities, container yard, marshalling area aside from the usual open storage area. There are also transit sheds and a passenger terminal that is no longer being used. When regional container ships arrive speed is the essence in unloading so aside from their booms the reach stackers are widely used. There are two arrastre firms operating in the port. Sasa Port is due for expansion and renovation but its cost is shrouded in controversy and many local stakeholders and the local government unit of Davao City have formally objected. The administration of President Aquino then seems to be intent in ramming it through but now that plan is dead duck under the current Duterte administration. For sure, the plans will be modified as it was really overpriced.

The two Panabo ports are next in importance to Sasa Port. To an outsider Panabo Port might look to be a single port but they are actually two, the TADECO (Tagum Agricultural Development Company) wharf of the Floirendos and the PACINTER (Pacific International Terminal Services) wharf of Dole-STANFILCO. Together, the two along with minority interests reclaimed part of the sea and built an extension port and yard. This is equipped with gantry cranes and it is called the Davao International Container Terminal (DICT). It is the only port in Southern Mindanao that can handle gearless container ships at the moment and this port is the main handler of the produce of “Banana Country”, the wide flat swath of land in the localities of Panabo, Carmen, Braulio Dujali and Sto. Tomas plus parts of other towns that is dedicated to the propagation of Cavendish bananas. In “Banana Country” there is nothing else to see for kilometers on end but Cavendish bananas.

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Panabo ports (TADECO and Dole-STANFILCO) by Mike Baylon

These ports of Panabo are private ports. The DICT expansion cost only P2.7 billion (and was financed by private banks) and that was the comparison used why the local stakeholders blanch at the quoted price of the proposed expansion and modernization of Sasa Port (well, just adding gantry cranes, cold storage facilities and a little extension will already make it modern). [Of course, there are other and sometimes unspoken issues and projects that are related to this but that should be in another article.] Besides, the Panabo ports are also “Exhibit A” against those who badger the government to build ports for them for free or to pandering politicians who promise to build international ports and terminals just to get votes. If there is really traffic then the private sector will build its own ports rather than wait for government to build the ports for them (after all they will earn, won’t they?). And if the private sector builds the ports it always comes out cheaper than if government had it built (it is a question of corruption, inefficiency and waste). However, though expanded, DICT still lacks docking space many times and so container ships and reefers have to wait.

There is a modern, purpose-built port in Davao that was purposely-built for handling fresh fruits and fresh produce for export. This is the AJMR Port in the northern part of Davao City on the road to Panabo and this port is synonymous with Sumifru or Sumitomo Fruits, the biggest fruit distributor in Japan. Japan is known for having the highest quality requirement in fruits and they pay adequately for that. To meet that requirement, AJMR Port has its own vapor heat treatment (VHT) facility right inside the port, a plastic plant too and a factory for its carton boxes. However, the docking facilities of AJMR Port is rather limited and only two container ships or reefers can dock at the same time in its jetty-like wharf. By the way, AJMR is also classified as an “agro-industrial economic zone” which is similar to a “special economic zone”. That means it is enjoying a lot of perks from the government.

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AJMR Port by Mike Baylon

In importance, the adjacent Craft Haven International Wharf and TEFASCO Port might be next in importance. Craft Haven is also a purpose-built port to handle fresh fruits for export. Formerly, the place was once a shuttered plywood factory. Many of its exports goes west to the Middle East and India which are new markets for Cavendish banana (introduced by “Operation Desert Storm”). Many of its cartons bear the trademarks of Arab brands as well as the famous Unifrutti brands (i.e. “Chiquita”). The operator and agent of Craft Haven have good connections with Muslim planters of Cavendish banana of SOCCSKSARGEN region. The port has cold rooms but compared to AJMR it does not have its own carton box or plastic factories. But wood for making boxes is delivered in the port. The Craft Haven International Wharf can handle up to three ships simultaneouslyvand the “Cala” ships are regulars there. These are ships that trade to Japan and Korea.

I will go next to TEFASCO Port as it is just adjacent. TEFASCO means Terminal Facilities and Services Corporation. They so-famously won a landmark case then against PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) which set the principle that PPA can’t collect fees on ships docking in private ports. TEFASCO mainly docks local ships especially the container ships of Solid Shipping Lines but a few years ago they were able to lure Pacific International Lines (PIL) of Singapore which uses their wharf now to load container vans (these are the container ships with the name “Kota”). They only dock and does not engage in any processing of the fresh fruits and produce as they are not a “clean” port (a no-no in fresh fruits and fresh produce as it leads to contamination). Fertilizers and other contaminants are present in their port but refrigerated vans are practically hermetically-sealed unless Customs comes knocking.

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TEFASCO, Craft Haven and Holcim ports by Aris Refugio

Holcim Port is just adjacent TEFASCO Port and it also handled foreign ships in the last few years when Sasa Port and Panabo Port were experiencing congestion. However, the primary ships that Holcom Port handles are ships that carry cement (naturally!) and these are mainly local ships. Holcim is actually a cement plant (actually the biggest in the Philippines) as many knows. With cement dust (and also coal)  it is not also a “clean” port and so there are no processing facilities there for fresh fruits and fresh produce. It is simply a come and go operation there.

In terms of future growth the Hijo Port in Madaum, Tagum City, capital of Davao del Norte might be next in weight. This port is now a joint venture between ICTSI (International Container Terminals Services Inc.) which is not just an arrastre service anymore but operator of ports in other countries and the Manila International Container Terminal (MICT) and Hijo Plantation with the former in the saddle. ICTSI is developing this port to rival Davao International Container Terminal although in volume they are not yet there. Hijo Plantation is the main user of the port although it is intended to intercept the container vans coming from the north and east of Tagum but the intent has not materialized yet.

I will no longer go one by one with the other ports handling foreign ships as they are relatively minor or can just be bunched together. Universal Robina Corporation (URC) wharf sometimes handle bulk carriers which bring in imported wheat for URC’s need. The frequency of this in every few months or so. Down south in Astorga, Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur, foreign ships load the products of Franklin Baker Company which is best known for its desiccated coconut which are mainly for export.

 

Meanwhile, Davao City is host to several coconut oil mills like Legaspi Oil, INTERCO, DBCOM and the New Davao Oil Mill. Foreign chemical tankers come to load their products and combined the arrivals are at least a week in frequency or even more frequent, on the average. Additionally, Vietnam freighters come to load their by-product copra meal (an ingredient and protein source for animal feed).

Davao is also home to several petroleum products depots like Chevron, Petron, Phoenix Petroleum and Shell. Aside from local tankers, foreign tankers also come especially those that come from Singapore. In addition, there are also LPG carriers that also come to the Price Gases jetty in Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur, the Isla LPG Corporation wharf in Davao City aside from the tanker jetties of the petroleum majors and many of these are foreign vessels. The frequency of these foreign tankers and LPG carriers combined might be every week also.

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Tanker jetties, oil depot, Legaspi Oil, URC by Mike Baylon

Once in a while, a foreign ship will also come to Maco Port in Davao del Norte. This port is just near the Hijo Port in Tagum and both are located in the innermost portion of Davao Gulf (which is actually a bay).

And that sums up all the ports of Davao PMO handling foreign vessels. Sasa Port and DICT dominates the handling of the foreign ships. DICT don’t even handle local ships, in fact. The other ports, except the tanker jetties, started handling foreign ships because of the congestion of Sasa Port and the Panabo ports (except Hijo Port which handled their own shipments from the start).

With many ports handling ships, both foreign and local, one unintended benefit was road traffic did not build up so fast in the port areas of Davao unlike in Manila which is dependent on so few ports. Maybe a lesson can be learned here.

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Sasa Port by Mike Baylon