When the early 2010s entered, it was depressing for both the ship spotters and liner passengers. The Sulpicio Lines fleet was basically grounded by MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), a consequence of the capsizing of the Princess of the Stars in a strong typhoon and the company had begun disposing liners. The Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) including the SuperCat had already stopped from buying ferries and was more intent on a sell-out in order for them to concentrate on the more lucrative power generation field.
If there was growth, it was in the sector of short-distance ROROs (but only slightly) plus in the Cargo RORO sector (those ROROs that just load container vans and vehicles). Overnight ferries also increased but oh-so-slowly. There was not much to be excited then and in the main the observers are not excited by the LCTs of some shipping companies concentrating here like those of Broadway One Shipping, Seen Sam Shipping/Cebu Sea Charterers, Concrete Solutions/Primary Trident Marine Solutions, Asian Shipping Corporation, etc. Nor would they be impressed by a few brand-new tankers by Chelsea Logistics and a few container ships of Solid Shipping Lines. Very few noticed the new local-builds of Tri-Star Megalink, the unrecognized shipping company of Negros.
The latest brand-new ship of Tri-Star Megalink in her maiden voyage. Photo by ‘wandaole’ of PSSS.
I myself did not expect much in the last half of the 2010s (I even thought the liners will be singing their swan song). The decade was dominated by a landlubber President and we had lackluster MARINA Administrators who seem to be short on vision and also in budget. We did not seem to have a direction in maritime development early in this decade. If there was any bright light in that darkness is there was a new type of ship starting to come, the catamaran-ROROs of Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the FastCats.
But miracles do happen at times. The country unexpectedly had a President whose mantra is “Build, Build, Build” and soon that also spilled over to the transportation sector and not only in infrastructure. And that included the maritime sector. Soon I saw a procession of new-build ROROs, High-Speed Crafts (HSCs) along with the usual LCTs which is now filling a new sector, the Cargo RORO LCT sector.
The latest in the FastCat series. Photo by GoukaMaekkyaku of PSSS.
The FastCat series continued and is now of its 13th ship as of this writing (July 2019) and news said the series will comprise of 20 ships. And there is even a rumor that it will be 30 ships in total with some plying foreign routes (there is really an effect when the banks open their lending to shipbuilding). As such this catamaran-RORO will be the most successful design in the country although its plans came from Australia and the ships were built in China. What a comeback for a shipping company that used to operate ferries that were derided by the public and observers. The FastCat series started in 2013 and on the average two ships per year come.
The newest ROPAX of Starlite Ferries. Photo by Mark Anthony Arceno of PSSS.
The Starlite series of new ferries which started in 2015 with the StarlitePioneer also continued and this should be 10 in number and is now on its 5th ship. But that does not include 2 Southwest Maritime (SWM) ferries that are also now also in the fleet of Starlite Ferries. These ferries were designed and built in Japan. Now, just the FastCat and Starlite fleets already comprise of 20 brand-new ships as of today and more are coming.
Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) also has a new-build in an overnight route and a second brand-new ship for them has just been very recently launched in Japan and one more of this type will be built for them.
The brand-new ferry of TASLI. Photo by Jose Zeus Bade of PSSS.
The Ocean Fast Ferries which is more popularly known as Oceanjet continues to locally assemble fastcraft kits from Australia in Mandaue that started with the Oceanjet 8 in 2011. As of the moment they already have 10 own-build fastcrafts. Actually once they launch a new fastcraft, they already have another one being built. As of today they are already the biggest HSC (High Speed Craft) company in the country with more than half of its fleet acquired brand-new.
The Aboitiz shipyard in Balamban, Cebu which was taken over by Austal of Australia re-started making HSCs for local use and so far they have delivered two as part of the SuperCat fleet and one to Grand Ferries of Calbayog, the Seacat One. It seems there are still about 3 or 4 of this kind of ship that that is being built by Austal Philippines in Balamban.
Seacat One by Mark Edelson Ocul of PSSS.
Lite Ferries also took the brand-new route when the built 4 passenger-cargo LCTs from 2012 to 2016. These were built in China and finished in Mandaue. Island Shipping also bet on passenger-cargo LCTs but all were just locally-built in Hagnaya, Cebu. They had some 5 LCTs built in this decade and 4 of these were in the last 5 years when they began dumping their old cruiser ferries. Orange Navigation which is related to Besta Shipping Lines also had three passenger-cargo LCTs built locally starting in 2014 maybe to replace the losses of the mother company.
A new-build from China of Lite Ferries. Photo by Russell Sanchez of PSSS.
Tri-Star Megalink of Negros had 7 ferries built this decade in a shipyard in Sagay City. Their design started with passenger-cargo LCTs albeit with extended passenger accommodations. Their design evolved until the later ones looked like conventional ferries already with bridges on the bow and no longer at the stern like those in LCTs. This meant a bigger and more comfortable passenger accommodation with the vehicle deck less hot or less wet depending on the season.
In Davao, Mae Wess/CW Cole also built two LCTs to connect Davao and Samal in their own shipyard in Samal. In Albay, the RLMC Ferry also came with two new ferries to serve Rapu-rapu and Batan islands.
A new-build ferry of Mae Wess. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.
And, in the past two years two new HSC companies came into being. Lucio Tan established a HSC company, the Mabuhay Maritime Express to ferry Philippine Airline (PAL) passengers from Kalibo to Boracay utilizing two beautiful catamarans. The other one was Island Water, a subsidiary of Shogun Shipping, a tanker company. This new company acquired 7 HSCs from Jianlong Shipbuilding of China. With such fast expansion their problem now is lack of viable routes. Shogun Shipping also contracted for 4 new ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships)and the first was already completed while three are still being built.
A brand-new cat of Island Water from Jianlong Shipbuilding. Photo by Mark Ocul of PSSS.
Last but not least, Jomalia Shipping also ordered a brand-new HSC from Jianlong Shipbuilding, the Maica 5.
As of my count, there are now over 40 ferries of various types that have arrived in the last half of this decade and more are definitely coming. I have not seen or have known a rate of new-builds arriving in the country at this rate. And this does not even include more than two dozen brand-new LCTs for Cargo RORO LCT use. Those will ferry vehicles across short sea distances or container vans from Manila to the Visayas and Mindanao like what Ocean Transport does.
A Cargo RORO LCT of Ocean Transport. Photo by John Carlos Cabanillas.
Liners, when they come have more impact in the imagination of the people. But their time has come and gone and we should acknowledge that the intermodal is already catching up with the container ships and the express container service of the liners. That is why these new-builds are mainly serving short-distance routes. The growth is already there.
I am glad that I was wrong when I thought our shipping doldrums will continue for a long time. I now look forward to more new ships coming into our seas.
One morning I went to the foot of the SRP Road in Cebu to cover the remnant of the Sinulog fluvial procession. I just make do in that area because I will still see most of the participants and besides it is great effort to fight for a good view in the earlier parts of the fluvial procession. Anyway, it is in the vessels that I am more interested in.
I was just in time. It was still early morning and there was a constant drizzle. But the position of the sun, the early morning and the drizzle made visibility and shots terrible. I have to make do with what is presented by nature. It seems more small crafts participated compared to the last time I covered the fluvial procession but less ferries going to Cebu port were forced to wait near the SRP. The Filipinas Iligan and the Oceanjet 6 were the only prominent ships waiting.
There were motor bancas which stopped and disgorged the participants in the rocks by the SRP approach and I also covered those. The viewers did not stay long as the drizzle was continuous and there was no sight anymore in that areaexcept for the Coast Guard patrol ships, the Filipinas Butuan plus participant boats which were just idling.
I then decided to make my way to Ouano-House. I called it such because it is there that the E. Ouano house is located. Actually it is more like an office (I have already entered it). And I doubt if it is the ancestral house of the Ouanos because from what I can gather it is also located on reclaimed land like the other facilities in the area.
The jeep driver I rode was kind as he insisted on driving me to the wharf area. I appreciated it since there was a slight precipitation and I did not have to pay for a pedicab. The entry is easy as the guards didn’t mind. I thought it would be like that if the Lite Ferry LCTs to Tubigon have already transferred there. I might look like just one of its passengers.
After the gate, however, it was a different matter. With the never-ending rains and the constant movement of trucks, the surface of the wharf area was already muddy though firm that one’s shoe will not get stuck. I was not surprised. If Ouano can’t maintain the road in the Ouano near the Mercado then they won’t maintain this one either. I thought FastCat would not have to worry for passenger competition to Tubigon. The muck here is already an advertiser for them. Ditto for the rolling cargo or vehicle loading trade.
It was a maze to get inside because the only firm ground with no mud was occupied by the new Litexpress CHA-ROs parked and blocking the pathways. I would go in one direction and pull back because I can’t go on. Finally I had to cross the muddy road where the trucks roll. I ended up in the Star Crafts area but this time it was already too crowded because the future Lite Ferry 17 and Lite Ferry 18 were being refitted there and steel sheets, acetylene tanks, generators and other equipment were occupying the spaces. The only open area is the road going to Star Crafts and it is also muddy.
The Lite Ferry 17 and Lite Ferry 18 are ROPAX LCTs that came from China. Those were former HNSS vessels already phased out. HNSS means Hainan Strait Shipping and that tells where it formerly plied routes. One of them arrived earlier and is already sailing here, the Lite Ferry 16 which looked like a sister ship of them. It looked derelict then like the two now docked in Ouano-House but as always Filipino ship repairers will make them look good again.
Besides them was the new Lite Tug 1. It seems tugs are the vogue now of these competing overnight ferry companies. Roble have theirs already, Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) also got one, Cokaliong Shipping Lines followed suit and now Lite Shipping also have one too.
Also there were Lite Ferry 26 and Lite Ferry 23. It seems those two were the ones doing the Mandaue-Tubigon route last December altho the latter is not the normal LCT but a catamaran-RORO (a slow one tho). Also there near the SMC Shipping and Lighterage facility was the brand-new Lite Ferry 30. It seems like what they did in the earlier Lite Ferry 27 they were building additional passenger accommodations. It looks like they are sister ships together with the Lite Ferry 29.
I did not stay that long in that wharf. Sometimes it is the rain that makes you decide that. I left after my functional shipspotting and I have to go through the maze again but that was easier than navigating the mud in various parts of that wharf. I really wonder how the passengers make do with such situation. Is the cheapness enough to make them stick? I was able to see the tail end of their way out when one LCT just arrived. I saw no shuttle and here the walk to the jeepney terminus is even longer with less shade.
Sometimes I cannot imagine in this era that such hardship can still be thrown to the passengers. Those LCTs, the wharf and the road were just really designed for trucks. Not passenger-friendly in any way. Maybe the FastCat and Star Crafts are a little more expensive but there is still the Lite Ferry 1 which also does a route to Tubigon. I also wonder. Why don’t the Super Island Express II just come back and maybe hold some off-hour schedule versus the Lite Ferry 1. Pier 1 might even have less expensive connections to the buses and jeeps of Cebu. Sorry not jeeps because that type is so few in Cebu. What I mean are the AUVs, Multicabs and converted Elfs and Canters of Cebu.
From the wharf I made my way to the old Villa Shipping wharf which was just rented from Ouano. I was glad the K-9 guard of Ouano was not there. Their compound was closed and it seems no one is around. Good. I can approach their Elvira-1 and take shots. I wonder why they were too jealous of this old, derelict and bad-looking now former hydrofoil converted into a fastcraft which did not last in service. They should even be glad someone is taking interest. It seems they have a different psychology from us.
There were no more Villa ships there and it seems they have already left as I can see no more ships and facility of them there. What was docked there was the West Ocean 1 of Ocean Transport. I can’t make of the the jumble there. It seems different entities are using that area and not all are connected to shipping.
It was at the far end where I was interested because I want to go near the Lady of Love of Medallion Transport which has not been sailing for some time already. Got some shots but it was not easy as the rain got heavier. Beyond Lady of Love the LCT Poseidon 19 was also docked. Last December this ship was still running the Matnog-Allen route for NN+ATS as a Cargo RORO LCT. Primary Transport Solutions owns this vessel and NN+ATS only charters it.
Again I did not stay long. On the way out I took shots of the old derelict F/C Magallanes, a fastcraft for private use. I was told before it was a Durano gift to Ouano. I did not know enough of Cebu politics and shipping of before to work out how that happened. All I heard was before Durano has shipbuilding and was a Cebu shipping player. In fact one of their derelicts is there in Labogon by the Goldenbridge wharf.
I thought Ernesto Ouano was lucky (except he died prematurely). Well, just to have a big reclaimed area near Cebu, how much is that in legacy worth? Plus their wharves. It is practically a Lite Ferries wharf now but Lite pays them. They are rich just because of the payments for the use of the wharves. But later it seems F.F. Cruz and Lua stole their thunder in Cebu reclamation. And I don’t think they are players in the future Cordova reclamation. But still they are very lucky.
I no longer pushed my ship spotting that day. Too much rain and I am not a farmer. Rain would have been nice in April but the programmer is a little awry. But the next day I came back to the same area but this time my targets were Pier 8 and Pier 7. It was a Sunday and there was no activity there past CDU. I first asked the guard of Ravago/Asian Shipping Corporation. A little canine too but I didn’t mind, didn’t press. Can’t call their GM as all mobile lines of Metro Cebu were down to prevent bombing. I was really more interested to see what was the denouement in the AMTC (Asian Marine Transport Corporation) eviction case nearby.
The AMTC yard was deserted now along with the Dakay Construction yard which was also part of the AMTC lot that was in dispute with F.F. Cruz through the MARRECO entity. MARRECO sought the eviction of AMTC for non-payment and they won in the court. MARRECO then blockaded the facility to prevent AMTC from using it. And AMTC left and transferred to Ouano after a failed bid for the Talisay fishport.
The guards by MARRECO there were suspicious but they told the reason why the Super Shuttle RORO 8 was docked there last December was to take in all AMTC materials left that can still be loaded. But I don’t really know why Super Shuttle RORO 3 and Super Shuttle RORO 2 were also there last December. The two had long been just anchored and not sailing for the best part of 2016.
From there I made my way to the Roble wharf. The left side of that if facing to the sea actually belongs to F.F. Cruz and it is where aggregates carrier LCTs and barges dock. The right side belongs to Roble Shipping. There were three newly-arrived freighters there and I was told two belongs to the scions already. There was also the many docked ships of Roble including the non-running ones. The Ormoc Star was there. She is really ready now for the breakers. On the far end was the fire-hit Wonderful Stars where no work is going on.
It was lonely in that area on a Sunday Sinulog. Almost no people and movement. I caught a jeep going to Mactan and then I walked again the old Mactan bridge. From there I took a Multicab to Muelle Osmena and took the Metro Ferry. The light was dying when I reached Pier 3 and that ended my ship spotting for that day.
I was able to visit the area twice, actually, the first one with the official PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) tour-meet and the second one in my private tour with Joe Cardenas, the PSSS member from Catarman (so he was a native of the area). I stayed longer the second time because I wanted to do some interviews in the ports of Allen and in the ships there (which I was able to do).
My first visit to the San Bernardino Strait area happened with the big group of the PSSS (the Philippine Ship Spotters Society). Joe Cardenas provided the car, a very good one and James Verallo provided the gas money. We were eight in the group including an American guest of Chimmy Ramos. He was Tim Alentiev, a retired B747 pilot from Seattle. Others in the group were Raymond Lapus from Los Banos, Nowell Alcancia from Manila. Mark Ocul from Ozamis and yours truly.
On the first day on the way to Allen, the first port of Northern Samar we visited was the San Isidro Ferry Terminal. It was already getting late in the afternoon when we reached the port as we came all the way from Tacloban and have visited already the ports of Catbalogan, Calbayog and Manguino-o. We were not able to start early because me and Mark’s ship from Cebu, the Oroquieta Stars of Roble Shipping departed four hours late because of the company’s Christmas party.
The FastCat M9
Though late, it was just perfect as the FastCat M9 of Archipelago Ferries has just docked and was beginning to disembark passengers and vehicles. This catamaran RORO is the only regular user of the government-owned port and without it it would have been an empty visit save for the lone regular beer carrier which happened to be also docked and unloading that day. For some in the group it was a first experience to see short-distance ferry-ROROs in action.
We did not stay long and we hied off fast to the next port which was the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping. This port is a new development of the company and was built against the opposition of the Mayor then of Allen, Northern Samar which happened to be the owner of BALWHARTECO, the old dominant port in the area. It is a modern port, very clean and orderly, spacious and with lots of eateries that is more decent than the usual carinderia. There is not that mell of vendors and the hubbub one usually associates with ports that are not ISPS (International System of Port Security).
From Jubasan, we passed by the Dapdap port of Philharbor. We did not enter the port any more and just viewed it from outside as we knew there were no more operations there as related company Archipelago Ferries was using San Isidro Ferry Terminal instead of their own port and the Montenegro Lines vessels transferred to BALWHARTECO when Sta. Clara Shipping and sister company Penafrancia Shipping left it for their own port.
We next visited BALWHARTECO port when dusk was setting in. We did not tour the port any longer as we decided it will be more worthwhile the next day when there is light. In the original plan, we should have stayed for the night in the lodge of BALWHARTECO (and do some night shipspotting for those still interested) but Chimmy suggested that it might be better to stay in Catarman where there might be better accommodations and food. The group agreed as anyway Joe and Nowell are headed for Catarman as the latter has an early morning flight back to Manila.
The bonus of the Catarman sleep-over was we were able to see Catarman, the town, and see off Nowell to the airport. Maybe except for me and Joe, nobody in the group has been to Catarman before and visiting it was an added treat. On the way back there a bonus shipspotting too because we made short tours of Caraingan and Lavezares ports. The first is the main inter-island port of Northern Samar and the second is the gateway to the destination being slowly discovered which is Biri, an archipelago offshore Northern Samar.
Star Ferry II
Because of these extra tours and the need to secure first in Catarman a good bus ride for the members heading back to Manila, we were not able to cross early to Matnog. Even our tour of BALWHARTECO was peremptory and it was mainly just part of the effort to cross to Matnog. Still, it was enough as a ferry not yet leaving is a very good vantage point for shipspotting and the Reina Olimpia of Montenegro Lines proved to be that. The encounters with other ships in San Bernardino Strait added to the shipspotting prize.
We were not able to cross ahead of the bus and so the Manila-bound members have to board the bus immediately in Matnog. That in itself already shortened the Luzon part of the tour. When the bus rolled off, a member shouted to me (seems it was James) that the ramp of the Don Benito Ambrosio II of Penafrancia Shipping was already being raised. I looked at the bridge and I saw Capt. Sacayan, a friend of PSSS and I don’t know what reflex pushed me that I blurted out, “Capt, pasakay” and Capt. Sacayan immediately ordered the lowering of the ramp to the surprise of his deck hands. The Sta. Clara “Angels” (the three beautiful ladies in charge of arranging the passages of company-account trucks and buses) asked if we have a ticket and I pointed to Capt. Sacayan and from lip reading I think Capt. Sacayan said, “Oo, sa akin.”
The Don Benito Ambrosio II by James Gabriel Verallo
I told my remaining tour mates not to wait for the ramp to land as I don’t think it would lest the ship incur the penalty of another docking and so we hopped on the ramp that was still a foot above the wharf. And from there we went straight to the bridge where Capt. Sacayan warmly welcomed us and turned on the airconditioners to full. We were sailing “Bridge Class” like in the Reina Olimpia on the crossing to Matnog. But the letdown was Mark failed to taste the “Bicol Express”. However, the free ride on the bridge with its unmatched viewpoint more than made up for that.
We disembarked in the new Jubasan port where we took our dinner and whiled some time trying to soak the atmosphere of the port. Funny, but our car was parked in BALWHARTECO, our point of departure earlier where our group had an incident with the LGU collectors of “illegal exactions” as we call it in PSSS for it is actually against Supreme Court decisions and DILG memorandum circulars. I wondered if Joe was worrying then for his car.
The Nathan Matthew in Jubasan port (by James Gabriel Verallo)
After getting the car in BALWHARTECO we tracked back to Tacloban. It was uneventful as it was already night and it was just me and Joe keeping on the conversation.
I visited again the San Bernardino Strait area after the trip to Surigao del Sur where I accompanied Joe. This time my focus was BALWHARTECO and it is there where me and Joe separated, he headed back to Catarman and me on the way to Bicol but with an Allen stop-over. Night has set in when we parted ways and I stayed in the lodge of BALWHARTECO as I planned to do interviews the next day.
If there was still sunlight on our first visit to Allen, my second one was all rain and it was heavy with winds and so the swells were up, of course. But as Joe noted it was just the usual amihan (northeast monsoon) weather (with regards to this kind of weather, Joe and me are pretty much in agreement and so with typhoons). Good the Coast Guard in the area were not as praning (kneejerkish) as their counterparts in Cebu so they were not as trigger-happy in voyage suspensions. And to think the ferries that time in BALWHARTECO were barely able to hold position while docked even while ropes were already doubled. Some even anchor offshore to avoid damage to their hull.
The Star Ferry 7 in the rain
In the next morning when the rain was still light I managed to find the oldest living porter of Allen who was in his 80’s and who had been a porter since 1943. He is the father of the caretaker of the lodge and from him I was able to get the history of the private port of Allen owned by the Suan family which owns the present BALWHARTECO. I was also able to get the ships of the past in the area from the time of the motor boats (lancha) including the motor bancas which then connected Allen and Calbayog for then there was no road connecting the two localities.
It was a funny interview as the old man was speaking in Allen Waray which I found I can understand 95% by using my knowledge of the different dialects of Bicol including what was then known as Bicol Gubat and Bicol Costa which are now no longer classified as part of the Bicol language. The Bicolanos and the Pintados share the same seafaring history in the past and maybe this was the reason of the close association of the languages of Bicol, Masbate and Samar including the Balicuatro area of Samar where Allen is located.
From the father and son pair, I was able to get referrals to old mariners in the area and I visited one in his home and the other one in his ship. Both came from Virac and first became crewmen of the Trans-Bicol Shipping Lines, the predecessor of Bicolandia Shipping Lines in operating motor boats (lancha) which connected the Bicol island-provinces and Samar to the Bicol mainland. The latter is actually the Chief Engineer of the Star Ferry II of 168 Shipping and this provided a bonus because we were able to have a discussion about the oldest RORO sailing in Philippine waters that is not a Navy ship and is not an LCT.
I stayed a day more in BALWHARTECO because peak season caught me suddenly on a Friday afternoon and it was very difficult to get a ride with the sustained strong rains which produced landslides in Victoria town thus throwing the bus schedules into disarray (few were really coming). It was a nice courtesy stay which afforded me more opportunities to shipspot (and also do bus spotting) and to observe in general.
I absorb things fast even on limited time and even without asking too many questions. I just retrieve files in my head and add what I saw new, what changed and other observations. And from that I have a new mental picture of the port and area I visited. A two-day stay in Allen is a boon for observation and absorption of the movements and patterns in the area.
After two nights, I tried to wangle a trip to Matnog where I planned to take a local bus to Naga. There was no hope in hitching a ride with the buses from the south because of the landslides and anyway all that arrive in Allen were full and it was sellers’ market and even the colorum vans to Manila were having a field day (they were charging fares from Catarman while waiting for passengers in Allen).
It wasn’t easy booking a crossing as the combination of rough swells and high tide plus the strong wind delayed dockings. Even with tickets, we passengers feared cancellation of voyages by the Coast Guard anytime given the wind and seas prevailing. After a long wait onboard, we finally all heaved a sigh of relief when we were given clearance to sail.
The LCT Poseidon 26 of might have been the first to sail after the lull of sailings from Allen but she takes 2 hours for the 11-nautical mile route since her cruising speed is only 5-6 knots. She is a new ROPAX Cargo LCT and although her accommodations are all-Economy it is good, spacious and the seats are individualized with a row of industrial fans at the sides. Passengers are also allowed to visit the bridge which is a boon. She is sailing for NN+ATS or 2GO under the name SulitFerry.
We landed in Matnog at past mid-afternoon and the port was crawling with passengers and vehicles when normally such hour was already dead hour for the Matnog to Allen sailing. That is what usually results from voyage suspensions even though it is only for a few hours because everything piles up. I did not tarry at the port because I feared that I will be left by local buses leaving Matnog if I did not hurry up. Being left by the last trip would probably mean staying the night in Matnog. But like Mark, I ended up not being able to tour Matnog port. I tried to make up for this by touring the market and terminal area of Matnog and trying to take shots of the port from there.
What did I learn new in the San Bernardino Strait routes? Well, maybe the biggest development was the opening of the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping. That meant the break of Sta. Clara Shipping (and its sister company Penafrancia Shipping) and BALWHARTECO, a long partnership that benefited both greatly. Well, maybe some things really have to end but I feared the parting of ways weakened both but only time can tell that.
With the break, BALWHARTECO which was crowded and very busy in the past suddenly had a slack and maybe that is the reason why they invited Montenegro Lines to concentrate all their ships there thereby emptying the Dapdap port of Philharbor. Meanwhile, Jubasan port is just serving Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping. One advantage of that is they have full control and so everything is orderly.
A Cargo RORO LCT
The second biggest development in the strait crossing might be the emergence of Cargo RORO LCTs that takes on only trucks. One or two of them sail depending on the season plus there is a ROPAX Cargo LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26. These are operated by NN+ATS or 2GO and the LCTs are chartered from Primary Trident Solutions. The ferry is being billed as SulitFerry. Though brand-new and nice, it is cheaper than the rest. The drawback is its cruising speed is slow. Their ticketing office hands, however, are nicer than the rest and are better trained. It showed.
With the fielding of the Cargo RORO LCT and the ROPAX Cargo LCT, the long queues of trucks which were legend in the past seemed to have disappeared. These trucks are actually the “non-priority” ones which means they are not priority because they has no prior arrangements with the shipping companies. Trucks were singled out because buses which have passengers and fixed schedules always had the higher priority and so these trucks get shunted out.
The LCTs of NN+ATS definitely took rolling cargo from the other companies. Some seem to overstate it but hard figures will show there are usually ten short-distance ferry-ROROs by Sta. Clara Shipping, Penafrancia Shipping, Montenegro Lines, 168 Shipping, Regina Shipping Lines in the strait plus the catamaran RORO of Archipelago Ferries. Two or three LCTs were added in the route so it was a significant increase but not by much.
Another notable development in the strait was the closing of the Dapdap port of Philharbor. It seems it was not able to weather the rearrangements brought about by the opening of Jubasan port. It is ironic that its sister company Archipelago Ferries is instead using the San Isidro Ferry Terminal (but maybe that is what their franchise demanded). Maybe if the Grand Star ROROs were not disposed off it might still be operating. However, the motor bancas to the island off it are still there.
Meanwhile, Matnog Ferry Terminal has added two ramps plus an expansion of the back-up area but one of its ramps is now just for the use of FastCat which need a specific mechanism wherein to attach their catamaran ROROs. With four ramps available (and I doubt if all are usable) plus a docking area without ramp (which is only good if the tide is not low), one would wonder how it can possibly cope with the twelve vessels or so operating in the strait especially in the hours that the buses and trucks are concentrated in Matnog.
Reina Emperatriz and BALWHARTECO port by James Gabriel Verallo
Me, I always have questions and doubts about the ability of the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) regarding port planning and design. BALWHARTECO and Jubasan ports are clearly better than Matnog Ferry Terminal in its capacity to absorb ships. Imagine there are four ports on Samar side while there is only one in Sorsogon side. Maybe the town of Matnog should just develop their own port so capacity will be increased and they will have revenues at the same time.
San Bernardino Strait is one of the most important crossings in the country as it is the main connection between Luzon and the Visayas on the eastern side. It is used by a lot of buses and trucks plus private vehicles 24/7 and a lot of people move through it. In that way alone it is already fascinating to me.
The Nathan Matthew and ship spotters of PSSS (by James Gabriel Verallo)
When the FastCats first arrived I did not know how to assess them properly. It was brand-new but truckers and buses which are charged disproportionately higher (because they say of the weight) decide on the price point and not on the newness and amenities of the ship. Actually, rebates in the form of complimentary passenger tickets (which is then sold), outright discounts and cash bonuses are stronger inducements to them. The superior speed of the FastCats might not also be decisive because that can be trumped by longer waiting hours in the ports if the departure gaps are significant. And by large on many buses and trucks it is not the decision of the drivers where to board as that is a company decision if there are company-to-company arrangements and accounts. It might only be in private cars and SUVs where the FastCats might have a better pull but then most drivers will not wait if the departure time is still two or more hours away.
The amortization weight of the FastCats also played into my mind. These medium-speed ships were all loaned from the DBP (Development Bank of the Philippines) from a JICA loan window meant to modernize our shipping. I do not know the loan terms and that part not on the top of the table but it could be in the vicinity of P3 million a month, a rough guesstimate. That would translate to about P80,000 a day (it could be less if the amortization terms are longer and it could be higher if shorter or if the if it is not a soft loan) on top of operational costs and other costs incremental to operating a ship (think fuel and parts) and a shipping company (think offices and office staff) plus the mandatory taxes, insurance and registration. Add to that the expenses and downtime of drydocking which will also be in the millions of pesos.
A Moderator of Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS), our Math Professor induced me to Calapan to have a firsthand look. After observation and calculation, I immediately conceded that if the route is Batangas-Calapan with its high traffic the FastCats will be profitable since ferries sail there 24/7 except on rough weather and storms. But I had my doubts then on other routes where the traffic is not so strong. Weaning away patronage from competitors is not that easy because it is not really a free market since many trucks and buses are already locked in in contracts with some shipping companies especially those which are good in the rebate, discounting and hospitality (like free meals) game. These shipping companies generally have their ships fully or nearly-fully amortized hence their break-even point could be lower even if their fuel cost is higher .
The FastCats are catamaran ROROs but unlike what they say they were not the first to field this type of craft since the Starlite Ferry and Lite Ferry 23 came ahead of them. The FastCat are not High Speed Crafts (HSCs) because they only sail at 17 knots. Hence, their classification will fall to Medium Speed Craft or MSCs. It seems the choice of their name was meant to fool those who are not very knowledgeable of sea crafts.
The FastCats originated from a design of Sea Transport Solutions of Australia but all were built in China by different yards. These vessels feature aluminum alloy hulls for less weight which help in boost speed, lower fuel consumption and in resisting corrosion. A catamaran design means less drag but it can also be wicked in cross-swells. The FastCats do not carry their own ramp thus saving more weight and instead there is a hydraulically-activated ramp in the port which connects to the ship. The disadvantage however is they need a dedicated docking area because the ramp-in-the-port precludes the use of others of that space and so applying for a port are sometimes complicated by this requirement. The ramp can also be damaged by storm waves as shown by what happened in Calapan port.
The dimensions of the FastCat are 50.6 meters in length over-all, 47.2 meters in length between perpendiculars, 17.8 meters in breadth and 4.2 meters in depth. Originally the ship has 683 to 704 gross tons when these left China but with the added passenger deck for the Economy class on the bridge level (they call the bridge the “wheelhouse”) the gross tonnage rose and in the case of FastCat M6 it Is already 967 gross tons. The gross tonnage of the others would then not be far from that. The original net tonnage was 207 to 212 but definitely it is now far higher than that because of the additional Economy section. Generally, the declared DWT is 300 tons.
The passenger capacity of the vessel is between 275 to 290 divided into Tourist and Economy. The Tourist has cool airconditioning and airline-type seats with enough leg space and it is located on the deck below the Economy. The ship’s canteen which reminds one of a convenience store is also located there and its offerings are much better than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs around. The passenger service is much better too in all aspects. It seems the service personnel were recruited from Hotel and Restaurant Management course grads instead of the plain able-bodied seamen of competitions’. The passenger accommodations are located in only one side of the ship making for an unbalanced look. The bridge is located at the middle of the ship above the car deck.
The first FastCats are powered by 4 Cummins engines with a total of 2,600 horsepower while the latter ones are powered by Cummins clones built in China with the same power output. From a report I got the FastCats have 4 screws which means they are not using synchronizers. That means less weight, less complication, less power lost and there is no possibility of an unbalanced and difficult run if ever one engine loses power (as they will just shut down another engine on the opposite bank). The bridge of the FastCats are also modern like that of a High Speed Craft (not the ones from Malaysia) and for me the most notable feature is it produces its own power and is not dependent on the power supplied by the engine room (and that is a lot of safety margin).
The FastCats were built by different companies in different yards in China. They total ten but the owner of Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation recently announced they will order more and will apply for routes in our neighboring countries and on additional routes in the country. The ship series was originally intended to be named “FastCat M1” to “FastCat M10” but heeding the Chinese aversion to the number “4” there is no “FastCat M4” and instead there is a “FastCat M11”. The first one in the series of sister ships arrived in 2013 and the last one arrived in 2016.
Analyzing the FastCats and comparing it to other ROROs of the same length what I noticed is the 17.8 meters breadth of the FastCats means an extra RORO lane. At 2,600 horsepower the FastCats do not use a bigger engine than many ROROs of the same length. That means the extra speed comes not in overpowering these catamaran ROROs. It was instead coming from the less weight due to the aluminum alloy hull, the less drag of the catamaran design and the minimalist superstructure. The last one might be the key along with the use of aluminum. The old-style ROROs really have a lot of steel being carried around. That will tell on fuel consumption and it will weigh down the speed. That is the reason why most ROROs in the 50-meter class with about the same or a slightly higher power output runs at only 13-14 knots. And for sure with the higher vessel weight and conventional hull design plus the age they consume much more fuel than the FastCats.
And that is the reason why the FastCats can, at the start, match the fares and rolling rates of the competing ROROs although they are carrying a much higher amortization rate. Anyway they cannot charge significantly higher because the better amenities and passenger service will only primarily attract the private vehicle owners driving sedans and SUVs.
However, total revenues of any transport will primarily depend on the kilometers or nautical miles run. That is true for airplanes, that is true for the buses and that is also true for ships. That is one of the reasons why budget airplanes are successful now because they practically fly round-the clock with just a few hours of lay-over and to be able to do that they use double crewing. That is also the reason why Philtranco loves the Manila-Davao run because night and day the bus runs and the more kilometers and hours it run the more is its revenues.
And that brings to the tactic that Archipelago Philippine Ferries is and will be using to have enough revenue in routes not as strong as Batangas-Calapan — they will run the opposition to the ground by running the FastCats with as many trips as possible in a day like in the 44-nautical mile Dumaguete-Dapitan route where they now have 3 round trips in a day (there is no guarantee, however, that this will not change). Somehow, something has to give way and since they are running they will be able to gain load and passengers. There is really no reason for them to wait for the next ferry unless they are contracted to it as they are not faster. Everybody loves time saved as long as the rates are about the same.
FastCats can do that many trips a day because they are faster. That is the same line of reasoning why regional container ships normally sail now at 20 knots, the same speed as our SuperFerries that became saints of 2GO. With such speed they can make more voyages in a year and that means more revenues. Or put it another way the shipping operator can make the same revenue with less number of ships. Neat, huh?
Faster time is also a come-on on ferries that have close time departures. If there is a FastCat that is promising a 2.5hr sailing time in a route then dumb is the passenger of private car owner which will opt for a 4-hour sailing. Well maybe if he is related to the owner or the Captain then it is forgivable. That is the reason why then I do not take the slow Maharlika II in the Liloan-Lipata route since Super Shuttle Ferry 18 will overtake it even if it left later and I have the benefit of a ship with better accommodations. But in shorter routes the sailing time difference will be not that much great and the come-on of greater speed will be less. The time consumed waiting in the port will be the more decisive factor then.
That is why the FastCat is dangerous for the old-style ferries and even to new Starlite Ferries. Speed is their ace. I have heard that even in the Batangas-Calapan route some now opt for the FastCat rather than the SuperCat because at 17 knots versus 22 knots the travel time difference in the 24nm route is not that great and yet there is a significant difference in fare as in almost double while their facilities are just about the same. So even the High Speed Crafts which gulp a lot of fuel and do not carry any significant volume of cargo is threatened by them.
A view of some of the old-style ferries of the competition or possible competition, same size class and engine size:
King Frederick 56.8 m x 14.0m, 2400hp, 13.5 knots when new
Nelvin Jules 56.8 m x 14.0m, 2400hp, 13.5 knots when new
Maria Zenaida 54.0m x 11.4m, 2400hp, 12.5 knots when new
Reina Genoveva 59.9m x 11.0m, 2600hp, 14 knots when new
Reina Hosanna 59.9m x 11.0m, 2600hp, 14 knots when new
Super Shuttle Ferry 12 53.0m x 10.4m, 2700hp, 14 knots when new
Lite Ferry 15 60.3m x 11.4m, 2600hp, 14 knots when new
Starlite Navigator 57.3m x 13.5m, 2400hp, 14 knots when new
Lite Ferry 1 48.7m x 11.0m, 2000hp, 13.5 knots when new
Lite Ferry 7 50.8m x 10.8m, 2000hp, 14 knots when new
Maria Helena 49.0m x 12.2m, 2000hp, 14 knots when new
Maria Rebecca 49.9m x 13.2m, 2000hp, 13.5 knots when new
Hansel Jobett 51.1m x 14.0m, 2000hp, 13.5 knots when new
Star Ferry III 46.4m x 11.5m, 2000hp, 13.5 knots when new
Those ferries are already 1.5 knots down, on the average, from their speed when new. And those 2,000hp ferries will be using more fuel now per nautical mile than the 2600-horsepower FastCats. Even when new it is not sure they were consuming less fuel because of their higher weight and drag. Those 2,600-horsepower ferries will be definitely consuming much more fuel now than the FastCats.
Note also the difference in the breadth which translates to lane-meters of rolling cargo. Those ferry sampling have on the average a greater passenger capacity than the FastCats especially since all except one have two passenger decks. But on ROROs the rolling cargo earn a disproportionate share of the revenues compared to passengers and FastCats have one or two more lanes for vehicles compared to that sampling. And if the passenger capacity of the FastCats will prove lacking then another passenger compartment can be added to the vacant side of the vessel. So sometimes it is said that the FastCats are not full but their rolling cargo load might already “full” if compared to the load of that sampling which has a narrower and smaller vehicle deck than the FastCats.
There are short-distance ferry-ROROs that are in the 60-meter class that can run at 14-14.5 knots true speed if they want but on the average these feature engines that are on the average are bigger as in nearly 1,000 horsepower more. The fuel consumption difference compared to the FastCats will even be greater and actually they might be one truck longer than the FastCats but still the rolling cargo capacity of the FastCats are bigger. A sampling:
Maria Felisa 57.4m x 13.0m, 3600hp, 15.5 knots when new
Maria Vanessa 57.4m x 13.0m, 3600hp, 15.5 knots when new
Maria Oliva 64.3m x 13.5m, 3200hp, 16 knots when new
Maria Ursula 61.4m x 14.0m, 3400hp, 16 knots when new
Reina de los Angeles 60.9m x 12.8m, 3600hp, 16 knots when new
Anthon Raphael 61.4m x 14.0m, 3400hp, 15.5 knots when new
For sure this set consumes a lot more fuel than the FastCats and there is still a 2.5-3-knot disadvantage.
The only one in this size which will not be too a laggard compared to the FastCats is the Jack Daniel of the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. She is 65.0m x 14.0m and sailed at 17 knots when new but her engine has 4,300 horsepower already, well over the 2,600 horsepower of the FastCats. Maybe the aluminum hull and the catamaran design did a lot of magic to keep the FastCats separated from the pack.
Which brings us to the new Starlite ferries. These are 66.8-67m x 15.3m ferries and that means a car deck capacity nearly equal to the FastCats. These definitely has more passenger capacity at 750 persons but as I have said if a new passenger compartment will be built on the other side of the FastCats the current passenger capacity of 300 of the FastCats will nearly double to 600 which will not be much behind than the new Starlite ferries. These new Starlite ferries have a speed of 14.5 knots and 3,650 horsepower are needed to produce that speed. So for a possible equality in passenger and rolling cargo capacity the new Starlite ferries are using more fuel for even less speed. Now I begin to understand why there are a lot of catamaran ROROs in other countries with aluminum hulls. They are simply more efficient. And these are the aces of the FastCats.
If all can run 100 to 150 nautical miles average in a day (that is about the back-and-forth run of the Cebu ferries to Ormoc) then they might be able to amortize their fleet, my guess. In Batangas-Calapan they have no problem with that quota. In Cebu-Ormoc, the Oceanjets and SuperCats do over 200 nautical miles in a day, to think and they are profitable (with maybe a 2/3 load) even though they guzzle a lot of fuel. That will take a lot of wrestling customers away from other shipping companies. Well things do not happen in a vacuum. With amortized ships the others could choose to lower the fares and the rates (now that will be good for the the riding public and shippers; after all rolling and cargo rates in the Philippines is really high).
But then I don’t place too much emphasis on that now. If the amortization is only P80,000 a day, if a FastCat runs 8 trips in a day that will be only P10,000 per trip and if that is Batangas-Calapan that will just mean taking out the revenues from two trucks! And it might just be one truck in longer routes! Above and beyond the operational costs like fuel, labor, etc. Dangerous, dangerous! For the competition, that is. That also shows how high our rolling rates are (as I always asked since when did MARINA learn how to properly compute rolling and container rates?)
However, in the Liloan-Lipata route I heard a disquieting report. One FastCat has left and the remaining one also cheats now on the schedule as in they compact the schedules if there is not enough load (well, useless to run and run if the load cannot justify it). The reason is the Cargo RORO LCTs there are suctioning the trucks like vacuum. That is also a phenomenon noted in the various Cebu-Leyte routes and even in the various Cebu-Bohol routes. Cargo RORO LCTs can offer rates as low as half of the conventional ROROs and for trucks that is a decisive come-on. And that is the reason why and Cargo RORO LCTs seem to be also a new paradigm change.
And besides many commercial vehicles (trucks, buses and panel trucks like those of LBC, etc.) are already locked in through company-to-company arrangements and through the use of super special rates and special rates plus other inducements. As I said it it not really a free market and the only ones that actually pay the published rates are the newcomers and the seldom travelers. The published rates are actually artificially high so as to cover all the discounts that the RORO ferry companies are giving to their regulars. This is actually a sucker’s world but the newbies do not realize that.
Which of the two paradigm changes will prevail? And will the old RORO ferry companies hold on through the locking game? Well, only the future can tell (how can we guess all their moves, counter-moves, guts and instincts?). But I love paradigm changes. With those things begin to get interesting.
Photo Credits: Carl Jakosalem, Nowell Alcancia, Mike Baylo, PSSS