2GO Travel Has Stopped Its Manila-Davao Route

A few weeks ago, the liner St. Leo the Great of 2GO Travel plied its last voyage to Davao amid some send-off ceremony. That liner started again the Manila-Zamboanga-General Santos City-Davao route after a request from the Philippine President who changed his mind after saying right after he was elected that Davao does not need a liner. Now, Davao City is his own city and it recently produced a shipping great in Dennis Uy who was one of President Duterte’s supporters in his presidential campaign and they are close.

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St. Leo The Great by Mike Baylon and PSSS

A liner to Davao has been a debated thing in the last few years and the quirk is after our liner companies were decimated through various reasons, only one was left to serve the route if they wish and that is the company 2GO which changed ownership from Negros Navigation to the Chelsea Logistics of Dennis Uy. When the Aboitizes were still the owners of the predecessor company of 2GO, the Aboitiz Transport System, it seems they were discouraged by the Davao route. It was true that there were only a few passengers left and they are being beaten in cargo, they being who charge the highest and there was a secret reason for that.

I have long argued that liners should be downsized now because passenger loads of 2,000 people were already a thing of the past when the budget airlines came and it made the plane fare low as in to the level of liner fares. A voyage of over two days suddenly became passe and undesirable even though the meals are free. The availability of intermodal buses added to the pressure against the liners. That mode is not comfortable but they depart daily whereas the liner became a weekly thing when at its peak the liners have six sailing to Davao in a week.

The over-all situation is actually not favorable now to the liners even in other parts of Mindanao and even in the Visayas as there are alternatives already. So that impacts the capacity of the liner companies to invest in new liners. As of now, it is already obvious that liners are oversized even in the cargo capacity. I think it should go back to 110- or 120-meter length of the 1980s. The 155-meter liners of today are just relics of the 1990s when passenger shipping was still good. Engine capacity should also be downsized from the 25,000 horsepower currently to half of that like that of some 25 or 30 years ago. Speeds might go down from 19 knots currently to the 16-17 knots of before but that might not be a very big thing. What is important to consider is fuel is no longer as cheap compared to a generation ago because of US wars.

And this actually where 2GO might be headed. I heard a ferry in the 110-meter range is coming but it seems it is headed to a sister company, the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI). I will not be surprised if Trans-Asia Shipping goes into liners like they are already in cargo liners with their container ship fleet still growing. TASLI also might turn out to be cheaper to operate than 2GO. I heard the new ferry is destined for Davao so Dennis Uy can still fulfill his promise to President Duterte.

A 115-meter ferry with a passenger capacity of 1,000 to 1,200 passengers and a container capacity of about 60 to 70 TEUs is what might be needed by liner shipping today. The 2,000-passenger capacity is already archaic and so do the 100-TEU container capacity as liners can no longer fill that up now. Why field a full-size bus or truck when a midibus or a minitruck will do? However, I wish that that ship will have a mezzanine so cars can also be loaded without taking much space. The space or deck below that will still be usable.

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Princess of Negros by Chief Ray Smith of PSSS.  A 110-meter ROPAX of the past.

But if we really want to revive our liner industry then MARINA should change its rules. Exhortations from MARINA or the Department of Transportation will not do the trick and they should realize that.

In the 1980s, when the ROROs came (or ROPAXes to be more exact) the liners were allowed to charge more for the same cargo so that the passenger fares can be subsidized. It was simpler then because the liner companies were also the dominant players in the containerized cargo business and so the playing field was more or less equal. There were just a few container shipping companies which were not in the passenger liner business.

The liners can charge extra because it was treated as express cargo. They actually arrive in the destinations earlier than the container ships which just sail at half their speed and are not constrained to wait for cargo so that the ship will have more load.

But the problem is things changed as time went by. Lorenzo Shipping, Escano Lines, William Lines, Gothong Lines and finally Sulpicio Lines got out of the passenger liner business for one reason or another and a slew of new container lines emerged (it was no longer Solid Shipping Lines alone although there were other small container lines before them). The container ships can already undercut the express rates very significantly. Now most cargoes can actually wait and if one needed it really fast then one goes to the forwarding companies using airlines and their own panel trucks. This segment of the cargo business actually boomed in the last three decades. Aren’t they present in all malls now?

In truth, the container shipping companies do not want to do any passenger business anymore and the reasons are various. One, without passengers they can delay the departures of their ships and there are no passengers which will complain. Second, container vans do not need accommodations, nor food and nor passenger service. The crewing needs for passengers is actually great and restaurants and pantries will be needed plus a food supply system. A container van can be handled roughly and nobody will complain. The carrying of passengers actually has potential problems public relations especially in this time of social media. If the Princess of the Stars was a simple container ship then the furor and backlash would not have been that great. Life is much simpler for container lines and even their office staff is leaner.

How do we revive liner shipping? It’s simple. Oblige the container lines to operate liners. The size and number should be proportional to their container ship fleet. That will level the playing field and 2GO, our sole and remaining liner company will breathe easier. At the rate it is going, getting cargo was already difficult for 2GO. Even here in Davao, there are a lot of new container lines and some are even using LCTs and deck loading ships which are even less expensive to operate thus they are capable of charging less.

Now, I wonder if the current crop of MARINA officers knows the history of the rates they approved or its rationale. I am not even sure if they really care for liner shipping because after all they do not ride ships (they take the plane, of course). Maybe they do not even realize that the more container ships they approve the more liner shipping goes down. Cargo is the lifeblood of shipping and the passenger liners are no longer competitive in that.

I hope the liners rise again. And I wish they will come back to Davao and be profitable at the same time.

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Starlite Ferries Has A New Fastcraft

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Photo credit from our Chinese Broker Friend: Fred Li

In the past, when Starlite Ferries was still owned by Sec. Alfonso Cusi, it also operated fastcrafts the first being the Super Seabus which was a cast-off when the Viva Shipping Lines (VSL) of Don Domingo Reyes (DDR) collapsed early this millennium. Actually, she was not owned by Viva Shipping but by its legal-fiction company which was DR Shipping.

Super Seabus has a checkered history. She was first owned in the country as the Island Cruiser II of Sun Cruises that made Manila Bay cruises up to Corregidor Island. But when Bullet Express and SuperCat made its appearance in the Batangas to Calapan route, Viva Shipping had to respond and they forced the acquisition of two fastcats from Sun Cruises in 1994.

Super Seabus  as Island Cruiser II did not serve very well with DR Shipping as she was already old and her motors were always  forced to the maximum as her competitors were really way faster than her. The difference in horsepower was the biggest reason for that.

More than a decade later, Starlite Ferries acquired the Starlite Juno which they used in the Batangas to Puerto Galera route when that route had a revival of sorts a few years ago after nearly dying at the hands of the Sabang motor bancas that went direct to the resort area of Puerto Galera. The motor bancas got tourists to their destination faster and cheaper and that can’t be beaten unless they go down.

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Now, at the hands of new owner Dennis Uy of Chelsea Logistics, Starlite Ferries has just acquired a new fastcraft from China, the Starlite Sprint  1 (is that the beginning of a ship series?). The fastcraft is equipped with Yanmar engines and is supposedly capable of 24 knots (that is the usual speed now of the SuperCats). Even at one passenger deck only, she can take in 250 passengers.

I heard it will be initially used in the Iloilo-Guimaras route which experienced a knee-jerk response after three motor bancas went down in a single day a few weeks ago and MARINA, the country’s maritime agency and the Department of Transportation diverted many ferries to the route after they suspended the voyages of the Iloilo-Guimaras motor bancas.

I just wonder how long will the Starlite fastcraft will stay in the route as the transferred ferries have to charge double or more than double than the motor bancas and with that it is not even assured that they will break even. Really, it is hard to replace the cheap and cheap-to-acquire-and-operate motor bancas although there is no question that they are less safe than the other types of ferries.

As for the final route of the new Starlite fastcraft, I am not sure where it will be. However, a new ferry is always good news to our maritime industry.

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N.B. Photos courtesy of the broker – Fred Li

When The Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) Attended The Inauguration of the Trans-Asia 19

On the last week of February this year, the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) received a formal invitation from Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, Inc. (TASLI) to the inauguration of their newest ship, the Trans-Asia 19 which was to be held in the Macabalan port of Cagayan de Oro City. To show respect for the invitation and to give importance to the occasion, our group immediately decided in the affirmative and began canvassing who can go as the invitation was RSVP and they immediately wanted the names of those coming to the inauguration. Unfortunately, none of the members near Cagayan de Oro was available and we prefer to send PSSS leaders to occasions like this as some big people will be around. And so although coming from afar, three of us prepared to come: yours truly from Davao City, Mark Ocul from Ozamis City and Aris Refugio from Samal City.  All are leaders of PSSS.

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Me and Aris will be going together but time was a little tight for us as Davao is far from Cagayan de Oro. Aris can only take the first trip of the motor boat from Samal and it is little dicey if we will be able to make the 6am aircon bus from Cagayan de Oro (we actually boarded the 6:30am bus). Mark, meanwhile, would have an easier trip. He would take the 8am ship Filipinas Nasipit from Ozamis to Iligan (and Mark knows the Captain of that ship). From Iligan City, he would take the bus to Cagayan de Oro. However, his ship departed late and by mid-morning we were all hoping badly we can make the 2:30pm start of the inauguration. Me and Aris was a little lucky the bus now uses the Cagayan de Oro coastal highway. Mark took the taxi from Bulua bus terminal, arrived just in time but preferred to wait for us by the gate. He advised us our entrance is via Gate 4, the cargo gate of Macabalan port.  Soon, we arrived and he showed the guards the invitation again and a PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) vehicle fetched us as walking inside the port area is forbidden. We arrived by the ship when the other guests were still signing the logbook. Maybe we were last among the guests to arrive but yes, they know and expect the PSSS.

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For my side I really wanted to go even though I was not feeling very well because occasions like these can be a little overwhelming for some. One reason is company bigwigs are around and their guests tend to be high-heeled. But fortunately they were all very friendly with us although we were dressed very casually. Maybe all of us just wanted a good send-off for the new vessel that is the signal for the resurgence of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) in passenger shipping. Trans-Asia 19 happens to be the first brand-new vessel fielded by the company.

Another fortunate thing was someone from the crew immediately recognized us. It was 2nd Engineer John Nino Borgonia who is a PSSS member and who remembered us when we visited C/E Mendoza, a PSSS friend aboard Super Shuttle RORO 9 when they were docked in Davao. Since it was understood that a tour of the ship is part of the package in the invitation, he immediately showed us the various parts of the ship. To my surprise, his first suggestion was the thruster room. In my long experience with ship spotting, I have never been to that portion of the ship and we accepted the invitation with eagerness. The thruster room is near the bow of the ship and access to it was not easy. The Trans-Asia 19 comes equipped with bow thrusters which aid in the docking of the ship.

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After the thruster room, John asked us where do want to go next and I said the engine room, of course. It’s easy to tour the upper decks of the ship but the engine room is a prize as that is restricted area and there are hours when even an acknowledged visitor is not allowed there. The engine room was immaculately clean. Plus it has an engine control room where the engineers are protected from the sound of the engines when running. The ship’s engines were all Yanmar marine engines from the main engines to the auxiliary engines. I commented that Yanmar is a very good make. Actually, it is an awarded make in Japan.

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We then went to the second deck (from the car deck) of the ship where passenger accommodations are located. A Tourist section is located in this as well as the Information Counter, the Restaurant and the Starsy convenience store. There are also Family Rooms (which is the equivalent of a Tourist Deluxe for four persons) and is paid by the room (but the rate is lower per person compared to Tourist Class so it is good for groups). There is also a Private Room which is equivalent to Cabin Class. For a 67-meter ship, the Trans-Asia 19 has plenty of choices in the accommodations and is a full-pledged overnight ferry.

We then toured the third deck which is also the Bridge Deck. Further Tourist accommodations are located here plus the Officers’ cabins and the Radio Room. A Jetseater class (the industry term for reclining chairs and this is air-conditioned) is also located in this deck plus the Economy section. We did not yet try for the bridge of the ship as we don’t want to go there without an escort. We also used the Trans-Asia 19 as a ship spotting platform to take shots of the other ships in the Port of Cagayan de Oro and in Macalajar Bay. Soon, I felt we had to get down as the upper decks is emptying of people and that means something is happening below.

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In the small makeshift stage near the aft of the car deck, we found Mr. Kenneth Sy, President and CEO of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, Inc. speaking about the Trans-Asia 19 and the reason for its acquisition which is modernization. I was touched by his optimism because Trans-Asia is one company I would not like to go given their great history when they fielded the best overnight ferries from Cebu when they started (versus the old ex-“FS” and ex-“F” ships of the competition which were relics from World War II). They were also the first to convert to RORO (Roll-on, Roll-off) ships among overnight ferry companies. And they were the first to have an all-RORO fleet, the wave of the future which is a big accomplishment given that they were ahead in this typw even compared to the liner companies (Sulpicio Lines, William Lines, Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc., Negros Navigation Co.and Aboitiz Shipping Corp. which still clung to their cruiser liners). Trans-Asia needs to remain and we were there in the affirmation of it and I felt a thrill with that.

I had the chance to shake hands and pose with Mr. Kenneth Sy after his talk. He seems to be a gentle and a genial person (he is also a topnotch photographer). He invited us to partake of the food in the upper deck. We were still busy taking shots in the upper deck as we want the bigwigs to take food first when he spotted Mark and said, “Eat first before the pictures”. He said this in Bisaya. Every now and then we will bump into him as the area was small and smiles and some words will be exchanged. The catered food was good and it was a big sustenance for me as in our haste I had to forego lunch and I am a diabetic. There was also lechon (roasted pig) which seems to be obligatory in Philippine occasions such as this.

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Later, I had the privilege of talking to Ms. Pinky Sy, the wife of Mr. Kenneth and ask some questions about the situation and plans of the company. Ms. Pinky, I came to learn later was Trans-Asia Vice-President for Sales and Marketing. And so I now realized why she was very knowledgeable about the company. She said more ferries are coming for Trans-Asia but in the meantime they will still hold on to their veteran ships excluding the Asia Philippines and the Trans-Asia 9 which are now sold or being sold. They wouldn’t yet sell the old ferries until the new ferries arrived. I also asked about their relationship with Chelsea Logistics. She said it is now a partnership and they have not divested (that is contrary to earlier wrong reports that they have divested). It was an answer from a question of mine.

There will be three launching of new ferries this year plus five hold-overs means eight ferries total by this year. Well, that should be nearly enough to serve all their passenger routes but i think they will have additions for next year too. For cargo, we all know they now have container ships operating from Manila and reaching as far as Davao. Trans-Asia Shipping Lines has a total of six cargo and container ship plus one LCT. That is one sea change for Trans-Asia. They are no longer just an overnight ferry company.

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We came to meet John again and he accompanied us to the bridge of Trans-Asia 19. It is a modern bridge and being brand-new it was still in a spic-and-span condition. In the bridge we had a talk with John and it is there that we learned that Trans-Asia 19 already had four complete voyages before her inauguration and that her first official voyage happened on January 18 of this year. No, he had no exact idea why the inauguration was held in Cagayan de Oro when all will expect it would be held in Cebu. Well, a change is also good. Anyway, the Trans-Asia 19 is a replacement for their disposed-of ferry Asia Philippines and so her route is Cagayan de Oro to Tagbilaran three times a week with a once a week extension to Cebu from Tagbilaran (well, Bol-anons and Cagayanons are lucky they have a brand-new ship). John speculated that since their stay in Cebu is short and cargo has to be handled might have been the reason why Trans-Asia 19 was inaugurated in Cagayan de Oro. Before leaving the bridge we had that now- traditional photo with crew holding a paper saying “Trans-Asia 19 loves PSSS”. Of course, we love them and we are grateful for their hospitality and support.

Soon there was an advice for guests to disembark from the ship. It was already nearing 5pm, the scheduled time of the end of the inauguration (and the ship still has to load cargo) and so we headed down. On the way, we met Mr. Kenneth again and he forthwith invited us to the inauguration of Trans-Asia 18 (this ship is being refitted right now in Cebu) and the Trans-Asia 20 (so there is a coming Trans-Asia 20!). We said “Yes” of course and with alacrity. That is an honor and an experience. Dumb is the one who will refuse that. And coming from the President and CEO? And so are looking forward to that with excitement.

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Before disembarking we again congratulated Mr. Kenneth and asked with a little trepidation if we can tour the Trans-Asia 10 which is bound for Cebu and is just docked nearby. He readily said “Yes” and told us to just tell the people of Trans-Asia 10 that we have his permission. So it will be a double tour! We then proceeded to Trans-Asia 10 and they easily let us aboard even though it was already embarkation time. But, of course, the tour of that ship and of the meeting and talk with her Captain is another story that is worth another article.

It was past 7pm when we got off Trans-Asia 10 and walking out of Macabalan port the question is what next. Mark to ride immediately to Ozamis would be useless as the ferry in Mukas port will start sailing at 4am. Aris had the same problem as the motor boat to Samal is still at 5am. He can take the 24-hour Mae Wess ferry but he might have a long waiting time. And we were in a celebratory mood and we need dinner already. And so we proceeded to Ayala Centrio Mall to have a good dinner. We thought our successful trip needs extended talks and more camaraderie. And we therefore enjoyed this mood until the restaurant closed. We just hung around more in the mall and only parted ways at midnight.

The total journey was tiring and it was not cheap but I have no regrets whatsoever. We all felt it was all worth it. It was near to an experience of a lifetime and it will honor our group the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) and it will help highlight shipping and Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. Plus of course it will cement relations with this company.

Now, I just hope that this is just the beginning.

[Note: I will have a follow-up article which will be exclusively about Trans-Asia 19 which will focus on her specifications, equipment and accommodations. To treat it all here will be too heavy and focus will be a problem.]