Roble Shipping Is Finally Sailing To Mindanao

Last month, September of 2017, Roble Shipping has finally sailed to Oroquieta, the capital of the small Mindanao province of Misamis Occidental (which actually hosts a lot of ports and among them are Ozamis and Plaridel ports). It is maybe the first port of call in Mindanao ever for Roble Shipping and it is actually a long-delayed move already for Roble Shipping as their namesake-to-the-city Oroquieta Stars has long been in the news that she will sail for that city and port since late last year (but since then although the ship is already ready she was just sailing for Hilongos in Leyte).

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Source: Oroquieta City LGU FB account

I have been observing Roble Shipping for long already and watched its consistent growth both in passenger shipping and cargo and even in cargo RORO LCTs in the recent years. But I am puzzled with their moves or more accurately their lack of moves in developing new passenger routes that their cousin shipping company and Johnny-come-lately Medallion Transport which with their courageous moves in developing new routes seems to have already overtaken them in passenger shipping (it even reached Mindanao ahead of them when Medallion’s Lady of Good Voyage plied a route to Dipolog).

Roble Shipping is actually one shipping company that has more ferries than routes, the exact opposite of another shipping company I am also observing which is Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) which in their tepidness in acquiring replacement ferries has more routes than ferries now. Does that mean the two shipping companies needed a merger? Just a naughty thought but that is actually impossible now as Trans-Asia Shipping Lines took the easy way out of their troubles which is selling themselves to the Udenna group of new shipping king Dennis Uy which is flush in money nowadays and might not need any help.

I remember that before Roble Shipping has an approved franchise to Nasipit but they never got about serving that route from Cebu. To think they had the big and good Heaven Stars then, a former cruiseferry in Japan then which should have been perfect for that route. However, that beautiful ship soon caught unreliability in her Pielstick engines and I thought maybe that was the reason why Roble Shipping was not sailing the Nasipit route (which actually had the tough Cebu Ferries and Sulpicio Lines serving it then and might really be the reason why Roble Shipping was hesitant).

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But then calamitous fate befell Sulpicio Lines when they got themselves suspended after the horrific capsizing of their flagship Princess of the Storm, sorry, I mean the Princess of the Stars in a Signal No. 3 typhoon in Romblon. In the aftermath of that Sulpicio Lines sold for cheap their Cebu Princess and Cagayan Princess to Roble Shipping in order to generate some immediate cash and anyway the two ships were suspended from sailing and were of no use to them.

With the acquisition of the two, suddenly Roble Shipping had some serious overnight ships after the Heaven Stars which was then not already capable of sailing regularly especially when the good Wonderful Stars already arrived for them to compete in the Ormoc route. And one of the two was even a former pocket liner, the Cebu Princess. One of the two is actually a veteran of the Nasipit route, the Cagayan Princess which was fielded there when Sulpicio Lines already had a better ship for the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route (the ship was named after that city actually as it was the original route of that ship) and their Naval, Biliran route bombed.

But no, the two ships just collected barnacles in the Pier 7 wharf of Roble Shipping, not sailing. I thought maybe there were still ghosts prowling the ships as they were used in the retrieval efforts on the capsized Princess of the Stars. Or maybe they wanted people to forget first as denying the two ferries came from Sulpicio Lines is difficult anyway.

The Cebu Princess and Cagayan Princess finally sailed as the Joyful Stars and the Theresian Stars but not to Nasipit but to Leyte (again!). I thought maybe Roble Shipping got cold feet in exploring Mindanao. And to think the service of the once-powerful and proud Cebu Ferries was already tottering then and everybody knows Gothong Southern Shipping Lines won’t last long in the Nasipit route with their Dona Rita Sr. (they eventually quit and sold their passenger ships).

With a surplus of ferries in their only routes which are all to Leyte (Hilongos and Ormoc), eventually their legendary cruiser Ormoc Star rotted in Pier 7. Soon, Roble Shipping got a reputation of laying up a lot of ships in Pier 7 (this is very evident when one takes a ride aboard the Metro Ferry ships to Muelle Osmena in Mactan island). They are all huddled up there including the cargo ships. Maybe as protection for the cold so they won’t catch flu (rust, that cannot be evaded).

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Taelim Iris, the future Oroquieta Stars

Two sisters ships also joined the fleet of Roble Shipping, the former Nikel Princely of Aleson Shipping Lines of Zamboanga and the former Filipinas Surigao of Cokaliong Shipping Lines. The two became the Blessed Stars and Sacred Stars in the fleet of Roble Shipping, respectively. However, although one route was added, the Baybay route of the former Filipinas Surigao (which is again in Leyte) there was no other route except for the route they opened in Catbalogan in the aftermath of the demise of Palacio Lines, the Samar native shipping line. With their small ferries Roble Shipping also tried a route to Naval, Biliran which was formerly part of Leyte. I thought maybe Roble Shipping really loves Eastern Visayas too much that they simply can’t get away from it.

Two more ferries came, the former vehicle carriers TKB Emerald and Taelim Iris which slowly became the Graceful Stars and Oroquieta Stars, respectively (but then the Wonderful Stars was no longer wonderful as she was already out of commission after a fire in Ormoc port). Still the two just sailed to Leyte. And eventually, Roble Shipping quit Catbalogan which is a marginal destination to begin with because of the intermodal competition (trucks are loaded to western Leyte ports and just roll to Samar destinations and passengers also use that route). Roble then transferred the two sister ships Blessed Stars and Sacred Stars to become the Asian Stars I and Asian Stars II of the Theresian Stars, the new shipping company which was their joint venture with a former Governor of Sulu province. The two should have been alternating the the overnight Zamboanga to Jolo ferry route. But nothing came out of the venture and soon the two were back in Cebu. Technically, that was the first venture of Roble Shipping to Mindanao but not under the flag of Roble Shipping.

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Oroquieta Stars just sailing to Hilongos, Leyte

I thought Roble Shipping was really allergic to Mindanao but soon I was disabused of this thought when the news came out that definitely Oroquieta Stars will sail to Oroquieta City after supposedly some requirements were ironed out. That is good as some things will then be tested. Oroquieta is actually too near the Plaridel port which competitor (in Leyte) Lite Ferries is serving and which the defunct Palacio Lines was serving before. Roble Shipping and Lite Ferries will practically be sharing the same market and I do not know if enough cargo and passengers will be weaned away from Dapitan and Ozamis ports but then Dapitan port is nearer to Cebu with cheaper fares and rates.

Oroquieta Stars is fast among the overnight ferries having relatively big engines and has a design speed of 16 knots. I just thought that if it is worthwhile for Cokaliong Shipping Lines to extend their Ozamis route to Iligan, won’t it be profitable for Roble Shipping to extend their Oroquieta route to Tubod in Lanao del Norte or to Iligan perhaps? Tubod can be one of the origins of the Muslim-owned commuter vans which have a route to Cotabato City via Sultan Naga Dipamoro or Karomatan (these vans go up to Kapatagan in Lanao del Norte).

We will have to see if Roble shipping can stick with the Oroquieta route as their competitor Lite Ferries take all challengers very seriously. Funny, but Roble shipping was much ahead of them in the Leyte routes. However, Lite Ferries is very aggressive and is easily the most aggressive shipping company in this decade taking away that mantle from Montenegro Shipping Lines (but then they might just have the same patron saint anyway but the favors and flavors might have changed).

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Oroquieta Port by Hans Jason Abao. Might be improved by now.

I wish Roble Shipping all the luck in their Mindanao foray and how I wish they will explore more routes because after all the availability of ferries is the least of their concerns (sabi nga sa bus krudo lang ang kailangan para tumakbo). That could also be their case. Plus franchise and some explorations maybe (well, if Medallion was able to use their cargo ships for that so they can too as they also have a lot of freighters now).

Sayang naman kasi ng mga barko nila.

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The Tacloban Princess

The Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines, although on a more minor liner route is one ferry that impressed me a lot because she is the only ferry in the Philippines that is under 100 meters in length and yet she has a passenger capacity of over 2,000 persons (2,009 actually) which means dense yet clever packing. With only 8,000 horsepower from two main engines, her passenger capacity to horsepower ratio is tops in the land for liners which means a very high efficiency for me in carrying people. Maybe during the time she was fielded in her Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route the sailing was still good and since this route had never had good container van load, probably Sulpicio Lines just decided to pack it in in passengers. Maybe, too, the bite of the intermodal buses (and trucks) in Eastern Visayas were not yet that big and painful when she was fielded and Sulpicio Lines still had high hopes for the route because in the past the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route was a great route with many liner shipping companies competing including the biggest shipping companies in our seas then like Compania Maritima, William Lines, Aboitiz Shipping and many others which bowed out earlier. Probably, also, Sulpicio Lines which is in a one-upmanship game with its main rival William Lines do not want to suffer in comparison and heckling because some three years before William Lines fielded the first RORO liner in the route, the Masbate I (but not continuously at first) and this ship’s arrival was backgrounded by the infamous loss of their Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban liner which was the ill-fated Dona Paz and they do not want a ship inferior to the Masbate I. The Tacloban Princess was Sulpicio Lines’ direct replacement for that lost ship (because the company stopped sailing liners to Tacloban after the disaster and only used the container ship Sulpicio Container VII to carry cargo but not passenger; maybe the feared a backlash). Maybe Sulpicio Lines felt they needed an impressive ship for their comeback and so they fielded the Tacloban Princess, and it be named after Tacloban City for acceptance of the public. So when she was fielded she was the biggest and the best in the route and obviously Sulpicio Lines wanted to salvage lost pride and prestige. Such was the historical background of the coming of the Tacloban Princess.

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The Tacloban Princess by Daryl Yting

In design and lines, I see a large similarity between the Tacloban Princess and the Manila Princess, another ship of Sulpicio Lines although the latter ship is bigger and was not built by the same shipyard and came two years later than the Tacloban Princess. In Manila Princess, Sulpicio Lines did not try anymore to “fill up” that “vacant area” after the poop deck and so there was no scantling above the stern portion of Manila Princess and container vans and other cargo can be stowed directly in that portion using the stern boom of the ship. In the Tacloban Princess, that “vacant area” or “free area” was fully built-up as a big Economy section and that boosted the passenger capacity of the ship (aside from also constructing passenger accommodations from the bridge of the ship up to the funnels). It seems Sulpicio Lines took care to make that stern section as it was beautifully done and her stern looked more modern than the stern of Masbate I. Looking at the quarter-front of the two competing ships, one can see a lot of similarity they being of almost the same size and built at about the same period and that reflects in the design of the ship. But it seems Sulpicio Lines stress more in the aesthetics of the lines and the superstructure and so the Tacloban Princess looked more modern and better pleasing to the eye. Of course, she would never have the lines and aesthetics of later ships as the bridge and forecastle section of the ship is something that is hard to refit or remodel.

The Tacloban Princess started life as the Shinko Maru of the shipping company Nihon Kaiun KK. She was built by the Fukuoka Shipbuilding Company Limited (Fukuoka Zosen) in Fukuoka, Japan and completed in September of 1970 with the IMO Number 7106243. The ship’s length overall (LOA) was 98.3 meters and her breadth or beam was 19.2 meters and her original gross register tonnage (GRT) was 2,664 tons. Her original load capacity in deadweight tons (DWT) as Shinko Maru was 1,266 tons. In Japan the ferry only had two passenger decks and she had no scantlings beyond the funnels.

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The Shinko Maru from Wakanatsu

The ship was fitted with two small engines much like in the mold of the sister ships Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Lourdes of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated . Her twin engines developed only 8,000 horsepower (it seems these ROPAX ships of about 100 meters in length only has about 8,000 horsepower) but her original sustained top speed was decent at 18.5 knots which was the same as the Gothong sister ships. Here with the added metal and additional age the most that can be coaxed out of her two Niigata engines was only 17 knots but that was already good enough for her size, her route and the general expectation of her shipping era. Actually when she was fielded in the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route she became the fastest liner there and equal to the fastest that sailed there before, the Tacloban City of William Lines.

The Shinko Maru came to the Philippines for Sulpicio Lines in 1990 and she was refitted in Cebu. Another deck was added at the bridge level and after the funnels two and a half passenger decks were added. Since the funnels were near midship, in totality in area of the passenger accommodations of the ferry more than doubled. That system of refitting and the increase in passenger accommodations were the norm of the era much to dramatically increase the passenger accommodations but to the consternation of the Japanese builders and designers but as a general rule they don’t sink or capsize (contrary to what old ship haters with vested interests say now). But the depth and the draft has to increase to maintain stability. Speed however suffers because of the additional steel and the greater draft.

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The Tacloban Princess (edited) by Chief Ray Smith

The maiden voyage of Tacloban Princess was on August 5, 1990 (and with her forthcoming fielding William Lines withdrew their aging and slower already cruiser ship Tacloban City and replaced her permanently with the RORO liner Masbate I. She leaves on Wednesdays at 12 noon for Catbalogan and arrives there 22 hours later and she will depart for Tacloban at Thursdays 1pm and will arrive there at 5pm (which is a little late already for those still needing connecting trips). Departure back to Manila will be Fridays at 12nn and arriving in Catbalogan 4 hours later. The ship will then depart at 6pm and arrives in Manila on Saturdays at 5pm (well, it seems she is fond of late arrivals). The second round-trip voyage of Tacloban Princess within the same week will be a direct one to Tacloban leaving on Sundays at 10am and arriving in Tacloban on Mondays at 1pm. She will then depart Tacloban Monday 4pm (it seems there is really not much cargo if she can leave after only 3 hours in port) and arrive in Manila Tuesdays at 4pm. The Tacloban Princess like her competitor Masbate I was a popular commute to Manila in the early 1990’s when the buses and short-distance ferries were not yet many. Her appeal lies in the free meals and the bunks where one can rest fully. Besides her travel time to Manila is equal that to the bus (if from Tacloban) while being more comfortable and with more amenities than the bus. However, she only had two trips in a week (but then Masbate I also has two trips a week). But then the Cebu Princess, also of Sulpicio Lines still had a Manila-Masbate-Calbayog-Catbalogan-Ormoc-Cebu route then and the Sweet Sail of Sweet Lines also had a Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route then. Beside Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. also tried a Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route (yes, that was how strong this route was then before it was eaten alive by the intermodal system). And so practically nearly everyday there was a ship to Manila and so the appeal of the daily departures of the bus was not that great yet then (I wonder if these competitors realized it then that they were actually “frenemies” but that term did not yet exist then).

In due time, however, the buses and the trucks increased in numbers, they became more ubiquitous with more routes (it was not up to Tacloban mainly anymore but to almost all points of Leyte and Samar islands) and more powerful units (both buses and trucks and the latter segment already had wing van trucks which were built for ease loading and direct delivery). And one strength of the many colorum buses is they know how to search for passengers (they don’t just wait for them to pop up in the terminals). They had the advantage of multiple daily departures and the capacity to pick up or drop by the gates of the houses of the passengers. Plus for those just going to CALABARZON the advantage of taking the bus over the ship is much greater (as in they need not backtrack from Manila anymore). Besides going to or coming out of North Harbor increasingly became more difficult for the passengers compared to the Pasay or Cubao terminals and the Alabang and Turbina pick-up of the buses. I remember then that the buses coming from Eastern Visayas would stop by the eateries before the ascent to Tatlong Eme. There for two pesos one can take a bath from a very strong spring water piped in straight from the mountain and it is so strong one will feel as if he is drowning (but then rinsing takes a very short time only and so the bus need not wait long). Passengers then will arrive in Manila still feeling fresh. Like the ships the Eastern Visayas buses will take in any volume of passenger cargo and will even allot the seats for it for a fee. Passengers will willingly pay for it because getting it to the pier or out will cost money from porters who demands high porterage fees (or from taxi drivers that will demand “special rates”).

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The Tacloban Princess by John Carlos Cabanillas

Before the end of the millennium, however, shipping in Eastern Visayas has already showed signs of distress. The buses and the trucks got more experienced and more organized and additional ferries arrived in the San Bernardino Strait crossing and so more schedules were available. Meanwhile, Sweet Lines and Carlos A. Gothong Lines quit the route and so there were less ships going to Manila. Even before this happened in the Catbalogan/Tacloban route the liners from Manila has already been driven away from Northern Samar and next the Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines has to drop the Calbayog call on the way to Ormoc from Masbate and to think Sulpicio Lines has the reputation of being very gritty in terms of abandoning ports of call. The intermodal buses and trucks were already eating the business of the liners even before the last millennium ended.

At the start of the new millennium the Tacloban Princess was forced to drop the Catbalogan port of call and just make two direct Tacloban voyages in a week. She would leave Manila on Wednesdays at 9am and arrive in Tacloban Fridays at 3pm (which means she slowed down already). She would leave Tacloban on Fridays at 12nn and arrive in Manila on Saturdays at 6pm. Her second voyage to Tacloban would leave on Saturdays at 12 midnight and arrive in Tacloban on Mondays at 6am. She will then forthwith leave Mondays at 12nn and arrive in Manila on Tuesday at 6pm (I never liked these arrivals in Manila; these played right into the hands of the unscrupulous drivers and the holduppers). The Tacloban Princess was then only running at 13 knots and the buses were already faster than her (which normally don’t take more than 24 hours from Tacloban). That was a killer and the end of the line was already showing and only cargo was sustaining her now (plus the diehard ship passengers). But I was already wondering then if the revenues was still enough to sustain her operations but I heard the oldies of Sulpicio Lines are sentimental that they will never really give up on routes (or even of ships).

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The Tacloban Princess by Chief Ray Smith

During that time I was wondering if it is better for Sulpicio Lines to just transfer the Tacloban Princess on another route (and just leave the Cebu Princess and the Palawan Princess on the eastern seaboard routes). I thought Sulpicio Lines was a little wasteful on ships in that part of the country when the handwriting on the wall was already very obvious – that the end I nearing. I thought they could have replicated what Gothong Lines and William Lines did then and combined the Ozamis and Iligan routes (that meant the Cebu Princess will take the Masbate and Tacloban plus the Ormoc routes). Of course if she is transferred she will be up against superior ships of WG&A which with the disposal of their 16-knot ships has none sailing at less than 17.5 knots (but then the Dipolog Princess serving Iligan was also inferior during that time already). But then I know that move could send the Dipolog Princess to the breakers (but by then the comparative Iloilo Princess was lost by fire and she could have taken in its Puerto Princesa route). But then why not swap her with the bigger and faster Princess of the Ocean which was just being used in the overnight Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route? I thought her lack of speed could be hidden there like the Our Lady of Good Voyage. She will be competing with that ship and she is near-parity in size, speed and accommodations. But then Sulpicio Lines was just using the probably more than equal Princess of the Earth in the Cebu-Nasipit route where the big but unreliable Nasipit Princess stayed for long. Sometimes I can’t get the logic of the fielding of ships of Sulpicio Lines. They could have swapped Tacloban Princess for Princess of the Earth and the latter could have been sent to the Palawan routes and she would have been more competitive there to the Aboitiz Transport System (the successor company of WG&A) ferries.

I also thought she could have been swapped with the faster Princess of Carribbean since the Tacloban route does not have much cargo (and the cargo capacity of the Princess of the Caribbean is limited being a cruiser ship). She could then make a three times a week voyage to Tacloban and a modus vivendi could be sought with Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) to also field a fast cruiser (like if they did not sell the Our Lady of Naju) so a six times a week sailing to Leyte could be made (the point of departure could also be Ormoc and the route will be shorter and shuttles could be employed to bring the passengers to and from Tacloban and Maasin; and container vans will be hauled too). But I knew even then such idea is too farfetched as ATS was simply too proud and blind and will rather give up an area as big as a region rather then fight the intermodal buses and trucks (and it is just easier to blame everything to the budget airlies but that palusot will not fly in Eastern Visayas as everybody knows the passengers went to buses and not to the airlines).

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The Tacloban Princess by John Carlos Cabanillas

Later on, the Tacloban Princess had bouts of unreliability, I heard, and sometimes she can’t be seen and the Cebu Princess will make a Manila-Masbate-Tacloban route with a diversion to Cebu. Sometimes it will be the Tacloban Princess making that route and Cebu Princess will be out (it seemed then it was only the ancient Palawan Princess which was always ready to sail the eastern seaboard routes). That time Sulpicio Lines doesn’t advertise much in the papers like before and so monitoring was more difficult. Whatever it can be seen that Sulpicio Lines was making great effort to retain the Eastern Visayas ports of call (and Masbate too) against the relentless onslaught of the intermodal buses and trucks (and almost alone). I heard also then that after a long furlough Tacloban Princess’ engines were being rehabilated. Sulpicio Lines does not easily give up on ships. Well, if they can retain the Palawan Princess and the Dipolog Princess that came in the 1970’s and were obsolete cruisers then why not the better Tacloban Princess? Their antiquated Palawan Princess, to think, was still doing a Leyte route when that ship was built in the 1950’s and was the only liner left without airconditioning.

But one incident and factor dashed all the hopes for the Tacloban Princess. Of course, Sulpicio Lines did not expect another incident on the scale of the Dona Paz tragedy will happen and this time it will doom the entire passenger shipping of the company. Their flagship Princess of the Stars sank in a storm in 2008 and in the aftermath of the reactions Sulpicio Lines was suspended from passenger shipping and in order to get back, stringent conditions were demanded by MARINA (the regulatory agency Maritime Industry Authority) from the company. In the early days of the suspension (which was killing to the mechanical viability of the ships), Sulpicio Lines decided to sell ships to raise cash and among the victims were the Tacloban Princess along with the highly-regarded Princess of Paradise and Cotabato Princess (and in this sense, the Cebu Princess and Cagayan Princess were luckier as they went to Roble Shipping and not to the breakers).

The Tacloban Princess was bought by a Tayud shipyard in Cebu for breaking as we heard. World metal prices was still high then and no shipping company was shopping for a liner as the liner industry was obviously on the way down already because of the growing shares of the budget airlines, the forwarding companies and the intermodal trucks and buses. However, while in the shipyard the Tacloban Princess caught fire and was reduced to charred metal. The incident just made her chopping faster.

And so in 2009 Tacloban Princess was already dead, killed by the aftermath of the sinking of the Princess of the Stars. Maybe if she was just the size of an overnight ship she might have survived like the Cebu Princess and Cagayan Princess.

Selling under pressure just kills ships.

The Sunset of Tacloban Port

Tacloban City is the regional commercial center of Eastern Visayas and this has been so for about a century now. It has the advantage of a central location and a sheltered port and bay. Its reach weakens, however, in the western coast of Leyte which has its own sea connections to a greater trade and commercial center, the great city of Cebu which has been ascendant in the south of the Philippines since half a millennium ago. 

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As a regional commercial center, it is but natural for Tacloban to have a great port with trade routes to many places. That has been the situation of Tacloban since before World War II and even before World War I. It also does not hurt that Tacloban is the capital of the province of Leyte. In fact, because of her superior strategic location, Tacloban even exceeded her mother town which is Palo which is still the seat of the church hierarchy.

Before World War II and after that, passenger-cargo ships from Manila will drop by first in Masbate, Catbalogan and Calbayog before hooking route and proceeding to Tacloban. Some of these ships will then still proceed to Surigao and Butuan or even Cagayan de Oro using the eastern seaboard of Leyte. Tacloban then was the fulcrum of these liner routes going to Eastern Visayas. That route was much stronger than the routes that drop by Ormoc and Maasin and perhaps Sogod and Cabalian before going to Surigao. The two routes were actually competing (like Ormoc and Tacloban are competing). If the route via Tacloban was stronger it is because Tacloban was the trade and commercial center of the region.

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At its peak, Tacloban port hosted some seven passenger-cargo ships from Manila per week from different liner companies. She also had daily regular calls from passenger-cargo ships emanating from Cebu. There were also some ships that originate from as far as Davao which dropped by Surigao first. Such was the importance of Tacloban port then which can still be seen in the size of Tacloban port and the bodegas surrounding it.

There were many liner companies that called over the years in Tacloban from Manila. Among them were Sulpicio Lines (and the earlier Carlos A. Gothong & Co.), Compania Maritima, General Shipping Company, Philippine Steam and Navigation Company, Philippine Pioneer Lines (and later the successor Galaxy Lines), Escano Lines, Sweet Lines, even the combined Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and Lorenzo Shipping Corporation. When it was still sailing local routes, even De la Rama Steamship served Tacloban. Among the minor liner companies, Royal Lines Inc., Veloso Brothers Ltd., N&S Lines, Philippine Sea Transport and Oriental Shipping Agency also served Tacloban. Not all of those served at the same time but that line-up of shipping companies will show how great was Tacloban port then.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

For many years there was even a luxury liner rivalry in Tacloban port. This was the battle which featured the Dona Angelina of Sulpicio Lines and the Sweet Rose of Sweet Lines which mainly happened in the 1970s. Sweet Rose was sailing to Tacloban from the late 1960s and was in fact the first luxury liner to that port. The two liners were the best ships then sailing to Tacloban port. The rest, of course, were mainly ex-”FS” ships which was the backbone of the national liner fleet then and there was no shame in that.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

Tacloban port was doing well until the late 1970’s when a paradigm change pulled the rug from under their feet. This development was the fielding of a RORO by Cardinal Shipping, the Cardinal Ferry I that connected Sorsogon and Samar. With San Juanico bridge already connecting Samar and Leyte and the Maharlika Highway already completed, intermodal trucks and buses started rolling into Tacloban and Leyte. In fact, in just one year of operation the intermodal link was already a roaring success with many trucks and buses already running to Manila. Soon other ferries were connecting Sorsogon and Samar including the Maharlika I of the government.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

With this development the irreversible decline of Tacloban port began. It was a slide that never ever saw a reversal because what happened over the years was the buses and trucks rolling to Tacloban and Leyte just continued to multiply without abatement (and the ROROs in San Bernardino Strait also increased in number). Soon the passengers were already filling the intermodal buses and freight except the heaviest and the bulkiest was also slowly shifted to the trucks. Over the years the number of passenger ships to Tacloban slowly declined as a consequence.

In the late 1980’s, when the pressure of the intermodal was great there were still three national shipping lines with routes to Tacloban – Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines. In the early 1990’s. when Sweet Lines quit shipping only the top two shipping lines then where still sailing to Tacloban with the Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines and the Masbate Uno of William Lines. Incidentally, the infamous Dona Paz which burned and sank after a collision with a tanker in December 1987 originated from Tacloban.

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Tacloban Princess by John Carlos Cabanillas

When the WG&A merger came in 1996 the company pulled out the Masbate I from the Tacloban route. The last liners ever to sail the Tacloban route were the Tacloban Princess and the Cebu Princess which alternated in the route. Both belonged to Sulpicio Lines. The liner route from Manila to Tacloban was finally severed when Sulpicio Lines got suspended from passenger service as a consequence of the sinking of the Princess of the Stars when both the Tacloban Princess and the Cebu Princess were sold.

The overnight ferry service from Cebu almost followed the same path and died at almost the same time. The last three shipping companies which had a route there were Roly Shipping, Maypalad Shipping and Cebu Ferries Corporation (which was the successor of CAGLI). But passengers slowly learned that the routes via Ormoc and Baybay were faster and cheaper and the connection was oh-so-easy as the bus terminals of the two cities were just outside the port gates of Ormoc and Baybay. The High Speed Crafts (HSCs) to Ormoc, mainly SuperCat and Oceanjet also made great strides and captured a large portion of the passenger market and it further denied passengers for Tacloban. With the HSCs and overnight ships from Cebu that leave Ormoc in the morning there was no longer any need for Tacloban passengers to wait until night.

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http://www.maritime-executive.com/article/Paralyzed-Philippine-Port-Resumes-Operations-2013-11-21

The last rope for Tacloban port passenger-cargo ships was cut when the new coastal highway from Basey, Samar to Guiuan, Eastern Samar was completed. With that the passenger ships connecting Tacloban and Guiuan had to go as the fast and ubiquitous commuter vans (called “V-hire” in the province) suddenly supplanted them. Trucks also began rolling and some of these were even coming from Cebu via the intermodal.

Now only a few cargo ships dock in Tacloban port. There is still one cargo shipping company based in Tacloban, the Lilygene Sea Shipping Transport Corp. Gothong Southern Shipping Lines meanwhile still has a regular container ship to Tacloban but there are complaints that the rates are high (the consequence of no competition). Whatever, there are still cargoes better carried by ships than by trucks. However, some of the container vans for Leyte are just offloaded now in Cebu and transferred through Cargo RORO LCTs going to several western Leyte ports.

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What might remain for a long time maybe in Tacloban port are the big motor bancas for Buad island in Western Samar which hosts the town of Daram and Bagatao island which hosts the town of Zumarraga. I am not sure of the long-term existence of the other motor bancas for the other Samar towns except for maybe Talalora as more and more they have buses that go to Tacloban and maybe soon the commuter vans will follow. Or maybe even the jeep. The lesson is with roads established the sea connection always have to go in the long term.

Tacloban port is improved now. Improving the port eases port operations but it will not make the ships come back contrary to what the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) and the government say. It is cargo and passengers that make the ships come to a port but if there are other and better transportation modes that are already available then cargo and passenger volumes drop and sometimes it becomes uneconomical for the ship to continue operating.

So I really wonder what is the point in developing a port in the nearby town of Babatngon as an alternative to Tacloban port. Have the Philippine Ports Authority ever asked who wants to use it? It is not surprising however as the PPA is the master of creating “ports to nowhere” (ports with practically no traffic) especially in the time of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who was so fond of those (for many “reasons”, of course).

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Ormoc Port by John Luzares

In the past two decades the PPA always touted Tacloban port. For maybe they are based there. There was a denial that actually Ormoc port was already the main gateway to Leyte and it is no longer Tacloban port. Recently however, there seems to be an acknowledgment of the real score — that Ormoc port has actually been the de facto gateway already. The government is now developing Ormoc port and it is good that the PPA vessel arrival and departure site already covers it.

Whatever and however they try, it cannot be denied that the sun is already setting in Tacloban port. It is no longer the same port it used to be in the past because of the intermodal assault changed things.

Like they say, things always change.

The Bogo Connection to Masbate

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Photo credits: Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

In the old days, the Cebu connection to Masbate went from Cebu port. And among those that provided that connection were liner companies whose ships pass by Masbate first before heading to Cebu and northern Mindanao and from there their liners will retrace back the route. That is gone now and the last Manila liner that provided such connection was the Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines which stopped sailing in the aftermath of the Princess of the Stars‘ sinking in a typhoon in 2008. However, until a few months ago there were a ROPAX Cargo ship, the Super Shuttle RORO 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation that was running a route from Batangas to Cebu (Mandaue actually) and Cagayan de Oro via Masbate.

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Photo Credit: Wakanatsu

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Trans-Asia Shipping Lines also had an overnight ferry route from Cebu to Masbate since almost 40 years ago. That is gone now too, a victim of the decline of their fleet and now it is only Cokaliong Shipping Lines that has a Cebu-Masbate passenger service but it only runs once a week. Also long gone was the Palacio Lines’ route from Cebu to Placer, Masbate. But still around is the Lapu-lapu Shipping Lines’ route from Cebu to Cataingan, Masbate which is usually run by their Lapu-lapu Ferry 1, a cruiser ship.

In the past, wooden motor boats also did routes from various ports in Masbate to northern Cebu using the ports of Hagnaya, Maya and Polambato. The three are in San Remigio, Daanbantayan and Bogo towns, respectively. However, from the 1980’s, MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency, consistently pressured the wooden motor boats (the lancha) to retire citing them as “obsolete” and “unsafe”. Some had their franchises revoked and that practically ended the lives of the shipping companies owning them (many operate wooden motor boats because they can’t afford to buy steel-hulled ferries).

MARINA was so successful in that campaign that no motor boats still do a Cebu-Masbate route. What remained were the big passenger-cargo motor bancas which run until now (maybe these are “modern” and “safer” than the phased-out motor boats?). These motor bancas originate from Cawayan, Placer, Esperanza and Pio V. Corpus towns in Masbate. The eastern portion of Masbate island, by the way, is actually Cebuano-speaking and their economic tether is to Cebu. Their motor boats connect their people and their goods to Cebu. Some of their scions actually study in Cebu, too, and work there later on.

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Polambato port (Photo credit: James Gabriel Verallo)

This was the state of things when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pushed her Central Nautical Highway which pushed for ROROs. Since the nearest Maya port was in disrepair and there are issues of depth, the port of Polambato was designated as the connecting RORO port to Masbate. That was a two-birds-in-one-stone move as Polambato was already the connecting port to nothern Leyte via the Palompon port (it still is until now). So only one RORO port had two be developed for two routes. Neat but a route from Polambato is longer than a route from Maya port.

On the side of Masbate, two ports were offered as connection, the port of Cawayan on the southern side of Masbate island and the port of Cataingan on the southeastern end on the island in the protected Cataingan Bay. Cataingan port is the logical choice since it is actually the best port in eastern Masbate as it is considered the district port and it lies in a protected bay. In the past, it was a home of motor boats going to Cebu. It also has a shorter road distance to Masbate City, the main economic center of Masbate province and the take-off port of Masbate to the Bicol mainland. There was also an attempt for a two-birds-in-one-stone move there as Cataingan was also declared to be the Masbate port that will connect to Naval, Biliran and Leyte island.

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Cawayan port (Photo credit: Noel de Mesa)

Cawayan port, meanwhile, is a bit more distant from Masbate City and when the RORO route was opened its roads were in a worse state compared to the Cataingan-Masbate road which was at least asphalted though beginning to crack (now, however the roads of the two towns to Masbate are already improved). And in the Cataingan-Masbate road there are more towns and hence more commerce, more sources of produce and of course, passengers. But how come they still built the Cawayan RORO port? Well, maybe there was politics (I don’t know just where) and Gloria was actually too fond then of duplicate ports. It brings more income to you-know-where. So it was actually a one-bird-with-two-stones maneuver.

I also just wonder about the fate of Placer port on the southern side of Masbate island. In the past, Placer was the connecting port of the southern side of Masbate island to Cebu City. It is even closer to Bogo than Cawayan (or even Cataingan) and the RORO will be less broadsided by the habagat and amihan waves in that route. They said there is an issue with the port with regards to depth but it was never clear to me (again was there politics?). Whatever, Cawayan won out over Placer and that was that. One’s fate and progress can really just be decided in an instant in Manila and NEDA, the validator of projects is actually just a stamp pad.

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Cataingan port

Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) pioneered the Polambato (Bogo) to Cataingan route. Among its early clients were its own ROROBus intermodal buses doing a Manila-Cebu route via Masbate. Meanwhile, it was the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) that pioneered the Polambato (Bogo) to Cawayan route with their Super Shuttle Ferry 19, a double-ended ferry. Montenegro Lines used a rotation of ferries in the Bogo-Cataingan route while Super Shuttle Ferry 19 is sometimes not in the route and none is running at times as AMTC lacked ships as the years went by because they lose ships (as in hull losses) and also because of ship unreliability.

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The ferry next bigger to the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO in Polambato (Photo credit: John Carlos Cabanillas)

Both routes are still running now and Montenegro Lines even tried a twice a day sailing but settled with a once a day sailing with a ship next bigger in size to the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the starting ship of both routes (or a modernized LCT at times). Lately, however, Asian Marine Transport Corporation sold out both its ships and its route to Cawayan and Super Shuttle Ferry 19 became the Cawayan Ferry 1 of the new company D. Olmilla Shipping Corporation. The Bogo-Cawayan route, as a note, still has no intermodal bus and it is the weaker of the two. I heavily doubt if it can overtake Cataingan.

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Cawayan Ferry 1 (Photo credit: James Gabriel Verallo)

Even with these two routes running, the motor bancas of Masbate still sail regularly to Bogo and Maya. These motor bancas sometimes carry hogs (in a deck below the passenger deck) and that is a commodity not acceptable to MSLI or AMTC unless it is loaded in trucks and even then it will only be loaded with reluctance (as their passengers might complain of the smell in the 6-hour voyage). And besides, the passengers and the cargo of the motor bancas enjoy a point-to-point direct sailing with no land transfer (the ROROs doesn’t go to Placer or Esperanza). It might even stop offshore near a remote barrio and the passenger and cargo will be transferred to his own motor banca. Bookings can also be done informally (and even by cellphone). A passenger from Placer can be picked up by the Cawayan boat at sea if they receive a validated text message and if there is no motor banca from Placer.

Though affected by the development of the Bogo-Cataingan route, the Cataingan-Cebu ship of Lapu-lapu Shipping is still running. Its service of loading frozen fish in styrofoam boxes without using trucks can’t still be equaled by the Cataingan-Bogo RORO as a truck would be needed from Bogo. They send it out by Lapu-lapu Ferry 1 and it will just be picked up by the customer in Cebu Pier 3 and the empty boxes will be loaded by the customer in the return trip. Sometimes, the advantage of a RORO is overstated by the government which is always pushing it. How can shipping 2 or 3 styrofoam boxes be sulit using a truck or a Multicab?

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Lapu-lapu Ferry 1 in Cataingan port

The route from Cebu via Masbate to Manila is not cheaper compared to the Cebu to Manila route via Leyte and Samar although looks shorter on the map. That was found out by a Swiss member of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member who did both routes in the same month. The RORO rates via Masbate is high because there is lack of competition and maybe the sea crossing is longer if the Bogo-Palompon route is taken as the comparison. Meanwhile the rates via Leyte and Samar are cheaper and sometimes there are discounting plus there is the cheap Cargo RORO LCTs. However, the land route through it is some 225 kilometers longer compared to a Pilar, Sorsogon route and 265 kilometers via a Pio Duran, Masbate that both uses Masbate.

Whatever, the Bogo routes will definitely stick. That is what was shown by the last decade. Well, unless it is supersed by the Maya port which is under construction now. It might not necessarily be cheap but there are people and goods that has Masbate as a destination (and newbies who will think it is cheaper through there since it looks nearer on the map). And there are those who will still prefer the shorter route and just save on time. And also save on wear on the vehicles and the driver. And arrive earlier and for truck owners save on wages and have their trucks be available for an extra day.

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Maya port (Photo credit: bUs sPoTTeRs

If only their rates are more competitive then maybe the Bogo connection will be flying now.