Recent Developments in Bicol Passenger Shipping

A Backgrounder

A few years ago, Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) of Batangas entered the Matnog-San Isidro route using the government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal in San Isidro, Samar. Before that the company already plied before the Masbate City-Lucena route but got suspended when their MV Maria Carmela burned just before reaching Lucena and there were protests in Masbate backed up by their politicians. But aside from that route, Montenegro Shipping Lines had a route from Masbate City to Pilar using basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and hybrid LCTs (Pilar port can’t accommodate anything bigger because of its shallowness) and fastcrafts. In that route they were able to outlast the fastcrafts of Lobrigo Lines and the route became their staple and stronghold after they were driven out of the Batangas-Calapan route because the SuperCats there were simply superior than them.

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San Isidro Ferry Terminal

They then entered the Matnog-San Isidro route across San Bernardino Strait using the government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal. I knew it was a creeping move on their part and entry to the San Isidro route is easy since no ferry is using that route ever since Archipelago Philippine Ferries and Philharbor Ferries and Port Services left that port when they built their own port in Dapdap which is much nearer to Matnog than San Isidro. I knew MARINA, the maritime authority will easily grant a franchise since there is no ferry using that terminal and the 50-kilometer restriction has already been lifted by MARINA per Pres. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s instruction. Before, on parallel routes no franchise will be issued if the competing port is less than 50 kilometers away (but it seems that did not apply to the likes of western Leyte ports and the ports of near Dumaguete).

I was not worried for Bicol ferry companies as long as Montenegro Lines is in San Isidro because that route carries a significant penalty in distance as BALWHARTECO port which is being used by the Bicol ferry companies is just 11 nautical miles in distance while the San Isidro port is 15 nautical miles in distance from Matnog Ferry Terminal. I knew Montenegro Lines had to give near parity in rates if they want patronage. And they will have to field a faster ferry which they did and they suffered the fuel penalty. It was obvious that in using San Isidro Ferry Terminal that they are handicapped in competing with the Bicol ferry companies (Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, 168 Shipping Lines and Regina Shipping Lines).

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Dapdap port

But then it happened that the Archipelago/Philharbor operation which operated the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries was tottering they opened up Dapdap port for Montenegro Lines. And that is where I began to worry for the Bicol ferry companies as Montenegro Lines is a big shipping company (they even tout they have the most number of ferries which is actually true) and if transfer pricing was used by the big oil companies and by the bus group Vallacar Transportation Inc. locally then they can engage in price wars and the smaller Bicol ferry companies will suffer. With the move to Dapdap port and with the lessening of Archipelago and Philharbor ferries it is as if those twin companies are giving Montenegro Lines free business. Dapdap port is a little farther than BALWHARTECO port which the Bicol ferry companies are using but the difference in distance is minimal at about 11 nautical miles to 11.5 to 12 nautical miles. Of course, the shipping companies have their regular and locked patrons but there are a lot of non-committed vehicles especially the private vehicles (as differentiated from company vehicles) which pay the full, published rates unlike the regular and locked patrons.

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Jubasan port

A little later when the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) built its own port in Jubasan, also in Allen, for their and their sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation’s use, BALWHARTECO then opened its gates to Montenegro Lines and so the company finally had access to the most advantageous port in Samar (this port is in direct line to the vehicles from Catarman and Rawis). It seems the creeping strategy of Montenegro was finally working. In shipping it is not necessary that a company will get the most advantageous port or route at the start. With patience and resources, better arrangements and opportunities soon open.

Developments and the Current Situation

I was watching what will be the fate of the Bicol ferry companies especially since the long bond and partnership between BALWHARTECO and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the biggest Bicol ferry company was broken with the building of the Jubasan port against the wishes and objection of the owners of BALWHARTECO (this episode almost reached the courts since the owner tried to stop the construction as he was the Mayor of Allen where the ports are located and bitterness was really high). Well, none sank, most even grew and that was a surprise for me.

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Denica ferries in Masbate port

In Masbate, Denica Lines, which was basically only in motor bancas and cargo motor boats before fought back magnificently with the acquisition of the MV Odyssey to be followed by the MV Marina Empress which were just poor discards of other shipping companies. Both suffered engine troubles at the start and Denica Lines had to spend money for the two. Then this year Denica Lines was able to purchase a third basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the MV Regina Calixta II of Regina Shipping Lines of Catanduanes which was already buying bigger ferries. The MV Regina Calixta II is unrenamed as of this moment as changing names is actually not peanuts with regards to MARINA.

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Denica fastcrafts refitting in Pilar port

And last year Denica Lines got two rundown fastcrafts which they are slowly refitting right in Pilar port. So right now or soon, it seems Denica Lines is already ready to slug it out with Montenegro Lines toe-to-toe in the Masbate City-Pilar route. Meanwhile, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and twin company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation is doing roaring business in the parallel Masbate City-Pio Duran route especially since Medallion Transport was driven away from that route after their MV Lady of Carmel sank. The truck loading in that route is so good that Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation bought the LCT Ongpin, lengthened it and fielded it in the route as the LCT Aldain Dowey. And that is aside from two 60-meter ROPAXes they maintain in the route. So if the ferries of Denica Lines and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation in the route from Masbate City to the Bicol mainland is totaled then Montenegro Lines is outmatched already except in the High Speed Crafts segment which competes with the big motor bancas of different companies.

In the Matnog-Samar routes, the Bicol ferry companies are more than holding its own although both has not grown except in frequency. If there was growth it was taken by Archipelago Ferries Corporation which fielded a brand-new FastCat in the Matnog-San Isidro route which is also doing good business. But in terms of net, Archipelago Ferries is not ahead as the business they gained with the fielding of FastCat might not be greater than the business they lost with the disposal of the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries (and they are paying docking fees in San Isidro Ferry Terminal while their own Dapdap port is unused). In my comparisons, I still consider Archipelago and Philharbor as Bicol ferries since they started as such although with the good FastCats now they are trying to erase their connection to the lousy Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries because obviously they are ashamed of their record there.

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FastCat in San Isidro Ferry Terminal

And Montenegro Lines did not gain either in the Matnog-Allen route as the Bicol ferry companies was able to hold their own relative to them. If there was growth it was taken by the subsidiary of 2GO, the SulitFerry which operates a brand-new ROPAX LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26 and another one or two Cargo RORO LCTs depending on the season. Finally, 2GO discovered what was eating up their container shipping and passenger liner business and decided to compete (“if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”). Lacking enough resources, they started conservatively by just chartering new LCTs from Concrete Solutions Incorporated (CSI), owner of the Poseidon LCTs, whose fleet seems to be ever growing.

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The Poseidon 26 of Concrete Solutions and SulitFerry

In the routes to Catanduanes, there was obvious growth and changes. Initially, the most striking perhaps is the appearance of the two High Speed Crafts (although technically one is already a Medium Speed Craft) of the Cardinal Shipping Lines Incorporated, the MV Silangan Express 1 and the MV Silangan Express 3. I had my doubts early on about the viability of the two but it turned out they were doing okay. One reason maybe is their reasonable fares which is just about one will expect from a Tourist accommodation in a regular ferry and not double the Economy fare like what is charged in other parts of the country. The two HSCs of Cardinal Shipping also run in the hours not served by the regular ROPAX whose schedules are dictated by the arrivals of the buses (which means a morning departure from Tabaco and a noon departure from Catanduanes).

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The Regina Calixta VII (ex-Maharlika Cuatro). Photo by Dominic San Juan

One Catanduanes ferry company and a native of Catanduanes which made a great stride recently was Regina Shipping Lines or RSL. This company has already disposed their basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and instead bought bigger ferries. Part of their new acquisitions were the former MV Maharlika Tres, acquired from Atienza Shipping Lines and the former MV Maharlika Cuatro from Gabisan Shipping Lines. The two double-ended ferries became the MV Regina Calixta VI and and MV Regina Calixta VII in their fleet. The company was also able to acquire the former MV Grand Star RORO 3 which became the MV Regina Calixta VIII in their fleet. Rounding off the fleet is the MV Regina Calixta V which they acquired from China.

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The Regina Calixta VIII (ex-Grand Star RORO III)

The former ferries from Archipelago Ferries and Philharbor Ferries are no longer the sad ferries of Christopher Pastrana, the boastful. All feature Tourist accommodations now (there was none before) with a disco motif and sounds where good videos are played during the trip and all feature good, brand-new seats in Tourist (Regina Shipping Lines was in buses before and they know these things). Even the engines were refitted that the former MV Maharlika Tres is already running faster than her design speed (the maximum speed when new). The owner of Regina Shipping Lines simply opened his checkbook unlike Christopher Pastrana (who opened the checkbook of DBP instead) and the Mayon Docks of Tabaco City forthwith did the make-overs of the former lousy Archipelago and Philharbor ferries derided in the eastern seaboard. Now those ferries are already the favorites by the passengers.

There was also another change in the Masbate ferries. This was when Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) sold their MV Super Shuttle Ferry 19, a double-ended ferry that was off-and-on doing the Bogo-Cawayan route. She was bought by the D. Olmilla Shipping Corporation, refitted also in Mayon Docks and she became the MV Cawayan Ferry 1. She still plies the same route and schedule.

Meanwhile, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation was able to acquire last summer two former Tamataka Maru ships from Japan, the MV Tamataka Maru No. 85 and the MV Tamataka Maru No. 87 in a buy one, take one deal and the two ferries were refitted in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu (Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is a stockholder in the said yard). The MV Tamataka Maru No.85 is now running the new route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the Liloan-Lipata route across Surigao Strait, an expansion route outside Bicol acquired by the company some two or three years ago. The ship is now renamed as the MV Adrian Jude and she is meant to compete with the MV SWM Stella del Mar of the Southwest Premier Ferries, a new operator in that route using a brand-new ferry similar to and the sister ship of the new vessels of Starlite Ferries of Batangas.

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The Adrian Jude. Photo by Capt. John Andrew R. Lape

The former MV Tamataka Maru No.87 is also ready now, she is already in Bicol and waiting but unrenamed yet according to the last information I received a day ago. She is meant to ply the new route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation from Masbate to Cebu, another new expansion route of the company but the exact route is still being applied for. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is one Bicol company aside from Denica Lines which has shown aggressive growth in the past years.

Meanwhile, it seems Montenegro Lines has lost its aggressiveness. Their fleet size in Bicol is practically the same although they rotate ships especially in the Matnog-Samar route (except for the MV Reina Emperatriz there and the MV Maria Angela in Masbate). Their only addition in Bicol is their new catamaran MV City of Angeles, a High Speed Craft in the Masbate-Pilar route.

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The City of Angeles

I was trying to analyze the lack of zest and the lack of pep of Montenegro Lines in the recent years especially in the context of Bicol shipping. It seems that when their “patron saint” went out of power and was made an enforced guest, Montenegro Lines’ drive faltered. It also seems that the blessings usually going to Montenegro Lines already went to another shipping company and so Montenegro Lines had to scrounge for additional ferries whereas before, they were buying ferries as if the supply of it won’t last (now it is the new favorite which is precisely doing that). Now, i don’t really know how come their blessings went away.

I do not know. Things can always change and it seems Montenegro Lines is no longer that great a threat to the Bicol ferry companies which showed spunk in the recent years except for 168 Shipping Lines, the owner of the local Star Ferry ships which seems to be languishing with no ship additions.

One loss, however, is something that cannot be averted and has long been expected. This is the discontinuance of the LCT to Cagraray island from the Albay mainland across the very narrow Sula Channel which has been a ship shelter for centuries now. A new bridge has been built connecting the fabled island which hosts the well-promoted Misibis Resort, the best resort in Albay province.

But as a whole Bicol ferry shipping was on the rise in the recent years and that is surely a good thing for the region.

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My Bohol Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Loboc tour boats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Baclayon port and lighthouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Philippines, No-Name, Shoddy Ferries Have a Better Safety Record Than Internationally-Certificated Ferries

A candidate for Ripley’s “Believe It or Not”? That’s true and so better read on.

Yesterday, it was in the news that Christopher Pastrana, The Boastful is hosting the 41st Interferry Conference that will be held in Manila starting today, October 15. There will be many sponsors for that and it is usually attended by shipping owners, shipbuilders, marine engine makers, various suppliers and other entities connected to shipping to exchange notes and learn about the latest trends and products. By the way, Interferry is not the sole organizer of maritime conferences.

A news item said the FastCats of Pastrana can provide safe ferries as do the ferries of Starlite and the implication is because those are new. Well, not so fast as it is not just the newness of the ship that is a factor in safety. May I remind too that Pastrana lost the Maharlika Dos to capsizing and sinking near Panaon island in 2014 after its engines failed and his Maharlika Cuatro, though just nearby, did not come to its rescue. And Starlite Voyager grounded and reached BER status when it was on the way to a shipyard in 2011. Are they blaming now the oldness of their vessels that sank?

I was angry when Maharlika Dos capsized and sank in 2014 because Pastrana broke the 35-year record of Bicol steel-hulled ferries not sinking while sailing ever since the RORO Cardinal Ferry 2 of Cardinal Shipping came in 1979. The Northern Samar sank in 2006 in a storm but she was not sailing and was just moored in Tabaco port. This perfect record extends to Surigao Strait because no steel-hulled ferries ever sank there since Cardinal Ferry 2 came in 1980, a record that Maharlika Dos broke infamously.

And to think the eastern seaboard short-distance ferry routes are home to the some of the most shoddy ROROs in Philippine waters led by the Maharlika ships of Christopher Pastrana and the Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping. Well, the ships of Bicolandia Shipping then were also not topnotch and are old. But no matter what these ferries don’t sink even though the eastern seaboard straits are among the most dangerous in the country. As I have said in an earlier article it is seamanship that carried them through. The seamen there would not let their ships sink because they know that among their passengers might be their kins, their friends, their school mates or somebody known to them. But Maharlika Cuatro‘s captain didn’t know that and so he let Maharlika Dos wallow in the ever-strengthening swells until it capsized. And now since he got new FastCats, Pastrana always boasts now about safety and misses no chance to deride the “lack of safety” of his rivals. What gall!

Before Pastrana or even Cusi of Starlite Ferries, another boastful owner, gets carried away let me state that going by the records and empirically there are a lot of ferry companies which are their rivals which have a perfect safety record, i.e. they did not lose ships to sinking. In Bicol, Sta. Clara Shipping, Penafrancia Shipping, Regina Shipping Lines and 168 Shipping Lines have never lost a ferry of theirs. That goes true to the defunct ferry companies that served Bicol like Cardinal Shipping, Newport Shipping, Badjao Navigation and the short-serving Luzvimin Ferry Services. Well, even Denica Lines have not lost a steel-hulled ferry so far.

Going to Quezon, the safety record of the decrepit-looking ships of Kalayaan Shipping have a perfect safety record as do the defunct Sta. Cruz Shipping. Alabat Shipping also has a perfect safety record as do Phil-Nippon Kyoei when they were still existing. Noting these ferry companies, I purposely omitted those that have short service records like Starhorse Shipping.

In Western Visayas, Milagrosa-J Shipping and Tri-Star Megalink both have perfect safety records even though Milagrosa-J Shipping regularly crosses the Sulu Sea which has rough seas and strong winds many months of the year. And to think their sea crafts are small and are already old. It is really in the seamanship.

Batangas shipping companies have no great safety record especially Besta Shipping. But I would like to point out that for a ferry company which has a fleet of over 30, Montenegro Shipping Lines lost only one ferry in 20 years even though they can be found almost anywhere in the Philippines including those that have rough seas. They only lost the Maria Carmela when somebody threw a cigarette butt into a copra truck and thereby igniting a conflagration which was rather unfortunate. And Montenegro Lines have some of the oldest ships hereabouts.

Zamboanga is home to some of ferries that will not look so clean internally and many are also old. But two sailing companies there, Ever Lines and Magnolia Shipping, probably the Number 2 and Number 3 there have perfect safety records as they have not lost a ship even in their freighters. And Sulu, Tawi-tawi and Celebes Sea have strong seas when there is a storm somewhere in eastern Philippines or when the monsoons are blowing hard. Minor shipping companies of Zamboanga like Sing Shipping and Ibnerizam Shipping also have perfect records. The defunct Basilan Lines/Basilan Shipping of the Alanos also did not lose a ship although their Dona Ramona was bombed in Lamitan City.

Mae Wess of Davao has not also lost a ship as do the KSJ Shipping of Surigao. And as far as I know, the currently operating ferry companies of Camiguin – Philstone Shipping, Davemyr Shipping, and Hijos de Juan Corrales have not lost a ship too and it seems that also goes true for the defunct P.N. Roa and and Jade Sea Express. In Panguil Bay, Daima Shipping has not also lost a ship even though their Our Lady of Mediatrix was burned because of the firebombing of two Super 5 buses aboard her in 2000.

In Cebu, for all the size of their fleet Lite Ferries may not lost a vessel (was the Sta. Lucia de Bohol lost at sea?). FJP Lines/Palacio Shipping, defunct now, also has a perfect safety record. There are other defunct shipping companies of Cebu which has not lost a ship through accident and that includes VG Shipping, Roly Shipping/Godspeed, Kinswell Shipping, Jadestar Shipping, Goldenbridge Shipping, Maayo Shipping, Cuadro Alas Navigation, PAR Transport plus many smaller ferry companies. In the recent era, Gabisan Shipping are known for safety and the ability to “read” the waves and have not yet lost one.

If I go by routes, there was not a ferry lost in Roxas-Caticlan and Dapitan-Dumaguete even though their seas can sometimes be rough. No steel-hulled ferry was ever lost in any route in Bicol too except for the Blue Water Princess 2 which is a Quezon ferry going to Masbate and the Rosalia 2, a Cebu craft going to Cataingan, Masbate. There are many, many other routes in the country which has not seen a ship sink even though they are not using a new ship. It is all in the seamanship really. To say a new ships is “safer” is just like claiming a new car will not be involved in a collision.

Some of our HSC companies too are very safe. Oceanjet, the Number 1 now in HSCs, has not lost a ship ever and they did not always use new crafts. Weesam Express also has a perfect record. Even the defunct Bullet Express, the fastcrafts of the Viva Shipping Lines combine and the fastcrafts of A. Sakaluran have perfect safety records. The are a lot of other HSC companies which had perfect records but their service record was short like Star Crafts. Not included here is SuperCat which has lost one.

And which brings me to our liners which in the recent years are internationally-certificated, have P&I insurance and are mostly spic-and-span but unfortunately have a bad safety record. In the last 20 years, WG&A/CFC lost SuperFerry 3, SuperFerry 6 and SuperFerry 7, all to fire and Dona Virginia and Our Lady of Banneux due to grounding. Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) also lost the SuperFerry 14 to a terrorist act and the St. Gregory The Great to grounding. Sulpicio Lines lost the Princess of the Stars and Princess of the Orient to capsizing and lost the Princess of the World, Philippine Princess and the Iloilo Princess to fire and the Princess of the Pacific to grounding. Negros Navigation also lost the St. Francis of Assisi to fire.

Between the end of the World War II and 1995 I know of 75 (that is seventy-five) liners which were lost and mainly at sea. That is 75 in only 30 years! Can anybody believe that? So how can I be impressed by liners and international certificates in safety? Or in their being spic and span? The records say otherwise. And believe me I can easily name the 75 as I have my own database about maritime hull losses. This 75 does not even include regional ships like the Boholana Princess which was an overnight ship when she was lost.

The Don Juan and Cebu City were brand-new ships when they were fielded in the Philippines. But they sank in collisions at night. So Pastrana and Cusi be better warned by their boastfulness of their new ships. They better be more humble before shipping companies which have not ever lost a ship.

Newness of a ship is not a guarantee of anything except in shininess.

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Photo credit: Masahiro Homma

Some Musings on Ship Sinkings

Lately, there have been rumors that ferries of over 35 years old will be phased out and supposedly one of those pushing that is the current Secretary of Transportation which is Arthur Tugade and also supposedly involved is Alfonso Cusi, Secretary of Energy who is a shipping owner (Starlite Ferries). I do not know what Tugade knows about ships. He is a lawyer. Cusi, meanwhile has vested interest in the issue. Shipping owners got so alarmed that a meeting between them was called and attended by different shipping companies and they voiced opposition to such move which is also supported by the regional director of MARINA Central Visayas.

The proposal to phase out ferries is rooted in the belief that it is old age that sinks ships. Unfortunately, that is simply not true, that is just an assumption by those who have no true knowledge of shipping and empirical evidence do not support that. As one knowledgeable Captain said, it is human error that is the most common cause of sinking and I agree to that.

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Photo Credit: Dr. Normand Fernandez

I just wish when media and government officials discuss ship sinking that they be more specific and don’t use the term generically. Sometimes a ship is simply wrecked as in it lies on the shore incapable of sailing but it is not under water. Some of these can still be refloated and still sail later. This happened to many ships caught by the storm surges of super-typhoons like the Typhoon “Ruping” of 1990 and Typhoon “Yolanda” of 2008. Old age was not the cause of the capsizing or wrecking of those caught in those typhoons as most were actually in shelter and not navigating. In maritime databases they call these events “wrecking”. They will even indicate if it was refloated and indicate “broken up” when that was the subsequent fate of the wrecked ship.

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Photo Credit: Philippine Star and Gorio Belen

Sometimes a ship loses buoyancy and capsize but not all of them sink to the bottom of the sea. Those on their side or even upside down but located in ports or in shallow waters can still be righted and salvaged and maybe it will still be capable of sailing after repairs if it is not Beyond Economic Repair (BER). Most of these cases are results of accidents like errors in unloading cargo (like Ocean Legacy or Danica Joy 2) or even ramming like Dingalan Bay and not from the age of the ship. Some had their rolling cargo shift due to rogue waves but reach port, and subsequently capsize like what happened in Ocean King II in Benit port. Some capsize in port due to action of other ships like what happened to Ma. Angelica Grace in Cabahug wharf. In maritime databases these are simply called “capsizing”. They contrast it when ships lose buoyancy while sailing which they call “capsizing and sinking”.

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Photo Credit: James Gabriel Verallo

The most terrible and most straightforward sinking is when ships are caught in storms and sink. Maritime database call these “foundering” and that means more than enough water filled the ship making it lose buoyancy. There could be many causes of that. One is the pumps simply failed for several possible reasons and that is a possibility in smaller ships in stormy seas. The motor might have died in a storm and so the ship cannot maneuver and list. Foundering is the most terrible fate of a ship like the hull breaking in half (but this is rare and there is no local case like this here in recent memory) as casualties in a ship that failed to beat the storm is terrifying (remember Princess of the Stars). Holes in the hull might even afford a ship enough time to seek the coast and beach the ship like what happened to Wilcon IX. If the ship was beached, maritime databases call it “beached” and such an act avert loss of lives.

If it is a collision and the hull was breached, maritime databases are specific. They indicate “collision” or “collision and sinking” if that was the case. It might even be “collision and beached”. Collision and sinking was the case of St. Thomas Aquinas and that sank not because she was old (she was 39 years old when she sank). Cebu City was rammed too and sank and she was only 22 years old then. Her sister ship Don Juan was only 9 years old when she sank after a collision. Dona Paz was 24 years old when she was rammed then burned and sank. Collision and sinking are usually navigation errors which means human errors and the age of the ships is not a factor. The ramming hull of the other ship won’t ask first if the hull it is ramming is old or young or what is the age.

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Photo Credit: Philippine Air Force and Jethro Cagasan

When a ship catches fire, hull losses are sometime inevitable. It will not be certain if the cause of that is age and sometimes that does not in outright sinking because the ship can still head for the nearest land and beach itself like what Don Sulpicio did. SuperFerry 6 when it caught fire did not sink and was towed to Batangas. SuperFerry 14′s fire was not contained early too but she was towed and just keeled over when she was already in shallow waters and the fire out. Some caught fire in shipyards or in the docks and some of them were SuperFerry 3, SuperFerry 7, Philippine Princess, Iloilo Princess, St. Francis of Assisi, Manila City, Cagayan de Oro City and Asia Thailand. Again, it cannot be assumed that happened because of old age as some burned due to the sparks of welding. None of that four were over 35 years of age when they were destroyed by fire. Some others assume more morbid intentions that can’t be proved anyway.

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Photo Credit: Britz Salih

Ferry sinking is not common on short-distance ferries maybe because its routes are short and their transit times are not long. The only exception to this is Besta Shipping Lines which lost half of its fleet (four out of eight) to accidents. However, only their Baleno Nine sank outright. Baleno Six was wrecked by a typhoon (that wrecked other ships too like the Sta. Penafrancia 7), Baleno Tres grounded in rocks and was wrecked (a clear case of human error) and Baleno 168 capsized near the port because of water ingress due to a broken propeller shaft but she did not sink (and maybe this was because of old age; but then it is also possibly because of its propellers repeated hitting bottom in the shallow San Jose, Occidental Mindoro port when she was with her previous shipping).

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Photo Credit: Mike Anthony Arceno

In the past, I remembered two shipping companies notorious for being dirty and rusty. The Viva Shipping Lines combine had some 36 ships two decades ago and some of those were wooden-hulled. Only two of those sank, the Viva Penafrancia 2 which hit the wharf or a fish corral and was holed (which is navigation error and not old age) and the San Miguel Ilijan which was hulked by fire but did not sink. The feared owner of the shipping company had supposedly told his ship captains he will bury them if their ship sink and his reputation is good enough it will be believed. Well, those two ships did not sink outright and maybe the captains’ lives were spared.

In more recent years it was the Maharlika ships which was notorious for being dirty and rusty (but not as rusty as Viva). Yet for many years their ships do not sink even though it can’t sail because both engines failed or the ramp fell off. Maharlika Dos only sank because after four hours of wallowing dead in the water and with Maharlika Cuatro failing to come to the rescue she finally capsized and sank. It was a disservice to the original Maharlika ships which were fielded brand-new. However, the government is notorious for not taking care well of things and that continued under Christopher Pastrana who is infamous for making still relatively new ships look old and worn like the Maharlika Uno, Maharlika Dos, Maharlika Tres and Maharlika Cuatro. He also made the Grandstar ROROs look aged fast. And he will wail against the old ships (with crossed fingers) to promote his FastCats. What gall!

However the ship loss percentage of the two companies is low. As I have said before, the looks and lack of maintenance of the ships is not an automatic ticket to the bottom of the sea and Maharlika is the clear proof of that. And to think their ships are in the more notorious waters of the Philippines. Seamanship is actually probably more important. In Lucio Lim’s version (he of Lite Ferries Ferries), it is manning that is most important.

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Photo Credit: Mike Baylon

Overnight ships are also not wont to sink if one looks at their record. Uh, maybe not Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. which has lost 4 ferries, the first Asia Singapore (capsized and sank), the Asia Thailand (hulked by fire while not sailing), the Asia South Korea (grounded, capsized and sank but they claimed terrorist action) and the Asia Malaysia (holed and sank). But over-all, not many overnight ferries were lost in the previous decades. It is actually liners which are more prone to sink and it is funny because these are our biggest ferries and many of them carry international certifications. Many will bet that Sulpicio Lines leads in this infamous category. Well, not too fast because their rate of sinking is just about the same as William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) and Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). In a comparative period from 1996 to 2007 before the incident that forced out Sulpicio Lines from passenger shipping, WG&A lost SuperFerry 3 (fire in shipyard), SuperFerry 6 (fire while sailing) and SuperFerry 7 (fire while docked in North Harbor). And they had serious grounding incidents. Dona Virginia quit sailing after a grounding incident off Siquijor and Our Lady of Banneux also quit sailing after a grounding in Canigao Channel.

In the same period Sulpicio Lines lost the Philippine Princess (fire while refitting), Princess of the Orient (foundered in a storm), Princess of the Pacific (grounding leading to wrecking) and Princess of the World (fire while sailing, did not sink). Pro rata, the two biggest shipping companies were even in hull loss (my preferred term) rate until 2007. But with the so-infamous wrecking of Princess of the Stars in a storm, pro rata Sulpicio Lines exceeded WG&A/ATS in maritime hull losses. Then later for a much-reduced liner fleet losing St. Thomas Aquinas (collision and sinking) and St. Gregory The Great (grounding leading to BER) is also a high percentage for 2GO. Few in these cases of liners lost can be attributed to the age of the ships.one-way-bike-club

Photo Credit: ONE WAY BIKE CLUB

It is actually our wooden-hulled motor boats or batel which might have the second highest rate of sinking. And maybe that is the reason why MARINA is pressuring San Nicholas Shipping Lines to retire their batel fleet and convert to steel-hulled ships. But the Moro boats are not well-known for that. Bar none, it is actually the passenger motor bancas which have the highest loss rate. Every year a passenger motor banca will be lost to storms especially in the Surigao area. But this is due to rough waters and not to old age.

So, why cull ships after 35 years of age when it is still seaworthy? The examples of maritime hull losses I mentioned shows it was not old age which made them sink. I have a database of over 300 Philippine maritime hull losses dating back to the end of World War II (while the government authorities can barely list 50). The list of mine does not include motor bancas and fishing vessels. It will be more if that is included. I can show it is not old age which was the primary factor in the sinking of the 300+.

All sinking are investigated by the Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI). But after some time maybe they donate the investigation papers to the termites or throw them away to Pasig River. That is why they can’t complete the list and argue against abogados like Maria Elena Bautista or Arthur Tugade when they are the true mariners. Talo talaga ng abogado ang marino kahit pa commodore o admiral at kahit maritime issues pa ang pinag-uusapan.

If the Supreme Court will be asked, their definition of seaworthiness is simply the ships having relevant certificates. To them it does not matter if the ship gets holed in deep seas while sailing. This is the gist of their most recent decision on a cargo ship of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation that sank in the late 1970’s. See how idiotic? The dumbies want to rewrite maritime concepts, that’s why.

If I will be asked maybe the culling of Tugade which should be raised first. The reason is old age.

It is in the Philippines where I noticed that the decision-makers are often those who don’t know a thing about the issues they are deciding on.

Experts do not matter in this land.

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Photo Credit: Lindsay Bridge

The Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation

The Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation is prominent in the shipping news lately because of the hype they are giving to their new series of ships, the catamaran-RORO FastCats which are actually MSCs (Medium Speed Crafts). The acknowledged owner of Archipelago is Christopher S. Pastrana who claims he is from Matnog, Sorsogon.

In his hype of the FastCats, Mr. Pastrana often mentions he is appalled by the state of our local ferries which he described as “old and unsafe”. Reading this, I nearly fell out of my chair because from my wide knowledge of Philippine shipping it is actually Archipelago Philippine Ferries and its Maharlika series of ships which are the prime examples of old and unsafe ferries. I know this from my frequent travels from Mindanao to Bicol starting in 1998 (because I hail from Bicol) and that is where most of Mr. Pastrana’s ships were located then.

Mr. Pastrana seems to have started his interests in shipping with the CAPP Industries. Among the businesses of the that company was operating tugs and barges. Mr. Pastrana admits his first ferry acquisitions were the Maharlika I and Maharlika II from the government and this happened about 1998. It looks now that those ferries were just chartered as the listed owner in MARINA then was still the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

These Maharlika ships have a close working relationship with the buses of the Philtranco Service Enterprises, Inc. (PSEI). For the most of its existence, Philtranco buses cannot ride any other ferries in the San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait routes even though there are no Maharlika ferries waiting and there are available ferries of the competition. Even at the very start, there have been rumors about the true relationship of Mr. Pastrana to the owner of PSEI, Mr. Pepito Alvarez. And that might have started even with CAPP and its servicing of Philpos and PASAR in Leyte which are Alvarez companies.

Not long after the acquisition mentioned, Mr. Pastrana bought a lot in Dapdap, Allen, Northern Samar and a port was developed. They transferred operation here from the San Isidro Port in Samar which is significantly farther than Allen, Northern Samar from Matnog Port in Sorsogon (San Isidro is less competitive because of the additional distance). The Dapdap port was registered under the Philharbor Ferries and Ports Services, a sister company. Among the declared objectives of the company were the development of ports (but nothing else followed after Dapdap).

In the year 2000, came the series of ships acquisitions by Archipelago Ferries. In this year, the sister ships MV Maharlika Tres and MV Maharlika Cuatro were purchased from Aki Kisen in Japan. When they arrived, they were still relatively new by Philippine standards. The next year, the MV Lakbayan I arrived but it was relatively old and slow. Maybe the lack of speed was the reason they gave it up and the ship ended with Millennium Shipping, another company with reputed links with a former President like Archipelago Ferries, Philharbor Ferries and Philtranco and not to mention PASAR and Philphos.

In 2002, Archipelago Ferries acquired the MV Maharlika V. It was a queer purchase because Philtranco once owned that through the Luzvimin Ferry Service. It did not sail long for that company because operations was stopped when they lost in the courts. It held that a bus company still needs a franchise to operate a ferry even though it will carry only their own buses (it was a reiteration of a Supreme Court decision from American times). And Luzvimin Ferry Service do not have a franchise.

The ferry was then subsequently known as MV Christ The King before it tried its luck in Batangas. She capsized just off the port of Puerto Princesa when she was already known as the MV Mindoro Express. She was salvaged, brought to Keppel shipyard in Batangas where her superstructure was lessened. She was then renamed as the MV Maharlika V and brought to the Liloan-Lipata route which was far from where she met the accident (truth is she was not recognized there as MV Mindoro Express and nor as MV Christ The King – it was Philippine Ship Spotters Society which recognized and trace her).

The year thereafter, in 2003, Archipelago Ferries bought the MV Maharlika Seiz from Norway which was followed by MV Maharlika Siete from the same country. They were already old ships but their hulls were still strong. Their weakness is the use of CPP (Constant Pitch Propellers) which can be demanding in maintenance when it gets old but it is kind on the engines.

They used the MV Maharlika III to open new RORO routes in Bicol. They were the first short-distance ROROs from the Bicol mainland to Masbate and Catanduanes. It was even used to open the Marinduque route from Lucena (with Philtranco buses in tow). But when competition arrives, they cannot stand the heat and they pull out much like the track record of “sister company” Philtranco (well, they even go hand in hand).

MV Maharlika IV was mainly used in the Liloan-Lipata route spanning Surigao Strait. Maybe the reason was the then-sickly MV Maharlika II needed a companion in the route (before the arrival of MV Maharlika V). MV Maharlika IV was also used to relieve MV Maharlika Tres.

With the purchase of MV Maharlika VI and MV Maharlika VII, Archipelago Ferries tried the Batangas-Calapan and Roxas-Caticlan routes in Southern Tagalog (and later MIMAROPA), an expansion area for them in a new region to take advantage of the newly-opened Batangas-Mindoro-Panay intermodal connection.

Archipelago Ferries did not stop with the Maharlika series. When Phil-Nippon Kyoei closed operations and offered to sell their three ferries, Archipelago Ferries bought the MV Grand Star RORO 1 and the MV Grand Star RORO 3. They did not bother renaming these ferries. They were used to shore up their presence in San Bernardino Strait when MV Maharlika Uno can no longer sail well.

Not all the ships by Archipelago Ferries can sail in a given day because all became unreliable except for the newly-purchased Grand Star ROROs. Their custom is they sail ships even with just one of the two engines functioning. Some stop sailing and gets moored because no engine was still running like when the MV Maharlika II gathered moss in Lipata Port and clogged the wharf.

A few years ago, and even with such a sorry record, Archipelago Ferries was able to secure a big loan from the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP), the conduit for JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) soft loans for our shipping modernization. This was used to order the FastCats from several shipyards in China. While waiting, Archipelago started disposing their old ferries to other shipping companies and to the breakers.

The fates of their old ships were the following: The rickety MV Maharlika Uno was sold to the breakers (after clearing with the government); the MV Maharlika II sank off Panaon Island in 2014; the MV Maharlika Tres was sold to Atienza Shipping; the MV Maharlika Cuatro was sold to Gabisan Shipping; the MV Maharlika Cinco ended up with Gabisan Shipping too after a long lay-up in General Santos City; the MV Maharlika Seiz is laid up and is for sale; the MV Maharlika Siete was sold to a Navotas yard specializing in breaking; the MV Grand Star RORO 1 was sold to Regina Shipping Lines and MV Grand Star RORO 3 was disposed off to another company.

By the time the FastCats arrived they were no longer running the Batangas-Calapan and Roxas-Caticlan routes. At that time they were just running the Matnog-Allen and Liloan-Lipata routes where the Philtranco buses roll (before 2010 Philtranco already quit their Panay routes even though they were pioneers there; same story too with their Marinduque, Catanduanes and Masbate routes which they all abandoned much earlier).

In 2014, their FastCats started arriving. Its first route was Batangas-Calapan. Today, their ten ordered FastCats have all arrived and they are active in the Batangas-Calapan, Bulalacao-Caticlan, Matnog-San Isidro, Liloan-Lipata and Bacolod-Iloilo routes (although some waited for months in Batangas Bay waiting for their own-use docking spaces in applied ports). They are also applying for other routes at the moment and they have one approved but unserved route, the Dumaguete-Dapitan route. Meanwhile, they announced they will acquire more FastCats and expand to Southeast Asia.

Recently, they also applied with MARINA that Archipelago Philippine Ferries be recognized as a “new” company. Maybe they want to bury their sordid past when their ferries were one of the rustiest, one of the dirtier (and even smelly), one of the most unreliable and one with no passenger service to speak of. But to be fair to them, their ferries then don’t sink until they got caught in Surigao Strait in 2014.

Today, their fleet is all brand-new, it is spic and span, and the crew are well-trained and prim. I asked one of the crewmen about their old ferries and he seems to have amnesia. Feigned or not, I do not know. I am sure they would like to bury their past which they can never be proud of. And that is fair game. Many companies abroad did that. I just wonder why not just use a new name? Maybe they can’t because it was the name used for the loans.

Will they be successful? P240 million for each FastCat is a big amount to recoup. For a route like Batangas-Calapan where ferries sail 24 hours and with plenty of rolling cargo that is no problem. But for routes where they can only do two short round-trips a day that raise questions especially if the route is seasonal (which means strong only in summer, the semestral break and in December).

FastCats might be new and attractive but trucks and buses (not the sedans and SUVs) dominate the short-distance intermodal rolling cargo and for these the price point is the main point of decision (the bus passengers don’t decide the RORO their bus will take). Many of the regulars are actually already tied up in “special rate” deals with short-distance ferry-RORO companies which means it is not really an open market.

For them to survive they should not only forget the old Archipelago name but also forget the old ways of doing things. They have already resolved their problem with cleanliness, in passenger service and in reliability. Can they stand the heat of competition that have basically recouped their ships’ capital? That we have to see.