A Trip Snafu

I had a trip snafu this New Year which disappointed me for I was not able to meet again the PSSS donor, Jun Marquez. We were supposed to meet in Leyte and he gave the new date, January 3, a reset of our earlier meet that was supposed to happen before New Year.

I had a little trepidation with that date when I knew it because I have to leave Davao on January 2 as the trip to Leyte is nearly a whole day. But January 2 and 3 are normally the busiest travel days for those who took a New Year visit to their loved ones. I knew it will be a little tough but I was more optimistic compared to an overnight ferry which has only nightly departures. In the short-distance Surigao-Leyte route there are several trips in a day and miss one or two, there is a high chance that one can ride the next ferry. And I wouldn’t mind a little delay in Lipata port if it will afford me more ship spotting chances. I had been in 11-hour waits in Liloan port before and so I already know what to expect.

But then a weather disturbance that I have been monitoring thwarted my plans. It developed into a Tropical Depression (TD) and at the current standard of government now, that will mean automatic trip suspensions of ferries and it began in the afternoon of January 1 which lasted until noon of the next day. With a suspension, there will be stranded vehicles and passengers and they will be the priority when trips resume. Higher in priority too are the bus passengers, the truck crews and the driver and passengers of the private cars. Now, I don’t usually take a direct trip as I am used to fractional rides as that is cheaper, faster and more flexible.

Normally, crossing Surigao Strait is already tough under normal circumstances in this time of the year. I have been to overloaded ferries in the past in this crossing when there were no more seats available. But recently, it seems the Coast Guard are already more strict. With a such tightness, me and Jun decided to call off our meet. He would be leaving for Cebu on January 3 too and even before I arrive in Leyte there are no more available ferry tickets to Cebu. With such a situation, I was prepared to take the 3am Ceres bus to Cebu via Palompon and Bogo. Or alternatively, go to Hilongos, take the ferry there to Ubay, Bohol, roll into Tubigon and take the ferry there to Cebu. But being no longer young, I already have doubts if I still have the stamina for extended trips not in a private, air-conditioned vehicle where I can rest well (thanks again, Joe Cardenas for the ride the other Christmas).

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Such snafu reminded me of trips years before where I was more successful in tight circumstances. I remember a December 24 when after visiting my sick mother I arrived in Lipata Ferry Terminal with the Millennium Uno still around as it was held up by the Coast Guard for being overloaded. A stand-off ensued as no one among the passengers wants to get off (who would anyway in a ferry that will be the last to leave that will still deliver the passengers before Noche Buena?).

Of course, they were no longer selling tickets but somebody in the port whispered to me that in the end the Coast Guard will relent and let the ferry sail (but the implication is the Coast Guard commander won’t be signing the clearance). He said I should time it when the commander is set to get off and with the ferry already starting to back off and the ramp is already going up. I know that window. It usually lasts about three seconds long only and my adviser said I should say the magic Bisayan word “hangyo” which translates into a plea. There were two others besides me waiting for that chance also.

And so the commander appeared, his face was of frustration and a little anger but still we said the magic word and he nodded. What a joy! We all made our jump and we all made it. There were a lot of passengers which missed the ferry and they were surprised by our maneuver. Of course, it was not a free ride. They still charged us the fare but so what? The important thing is we had a ride. I arrived at home December 25 at 1am. A little late but it didn’t matter anymore.

I also remember my ride aboard the Our Lady of Merjugorje which was the last ferry that will bring me home before Christmas. I came direct from a delivery in Bicol and I arrived in North Harbor on December 24 at 2am. The ETA of the ship was 5am but when I went to the ticket counter in Pier 6, I was surprised there were about 800 people lined up already. With a passenger capacity of just over 1,300 persons, I knew immediately not all of us can be accommodated.

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The Our Lady of Medjugorje by Albritz Salih

I knew what to do in such circumstances in those times then. I used to leave vehicles for pick-up in the Gothong parking area. I will just look for the Chief Security Officer and leave him the keys of the vehicle. Of course, there should be something for him. Never lost a car that way.

So I went looking for the CSO. I found him alright but he was not the same guy I knew before. Still, I laid to him my problem and need. He said he will talk to someone. By 3am he came back and said I am Priority #1 and asked me the amount for my ticket. Gave it to him plus his Christmas bills too. By 3:30am I had my ticket already and I boarded the ship. In this case I was at home before Noche Buena.

I have less trouble with other routes because maybe I also know how to stay clear of the crunch (and also I know how to check the weather). But in this recent case the date was not my choosing, a weather disturbance occurred and at dates where the crunch was heaviest. I let it pass this time especially since I am faced with a possible stranding in Leyte. And with such tightness I will also lose options to maximize my ship spotting. Normally, I avoid night strait crossings if I can avoid it as shots are limited by the dark. In this case there was also a weather disturbance with rains possibly lessening shot opportunities.

I won’t be going anytime soon. I want a schedule where I can maximize everything including bus spotting as my file of bus photos are now depleted. Usually, I avoid this time of the year when the amihan (northeast monsoon) is at its peak because that means a lot of rain and rain is the bane of good and many photos. Best is the turn of the month to February when the temperature is still cool, it is still lean month for the buses (and so discounts are more available) and the rain is already less.

So, that’s it. I just hope it will be better a month from now.

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Do the Sinkings of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and MS Estonia Have Any Bearing On Us?

The two named incidents are among the most famous in the maritime world when RORO or ROPAX accidents are mentioned and discussed. The two cases have been used in many times to highlight the weakness of ROROs compared to conventional freighters which feature watertight compartments which the ROROs are sorely lacking (watertight compartments prevent ingress of water in case of a hull breach). Moreover, the two incidents have been used as rationales for RORO design changes and reforms in safety policies.

From “The Express” of UK

The MS Herald of Free Enterprise was a 131.9-meter ferry built in 1980 then sailing from Belgium to England. She sailed on a night of March 6, 1987 but the deck crew forgot to close the bow door and this door was not visible from the bridge and there was no CCTV to check that. When the ship reached cruising speed the sea entered the deck in great quantity which produced what is called the “free surface effect” which in this particular case was sea water sloshing within the hull that destroyed her stability causing her to capsize. That happened just minutes after leaving the port of Zeebrugge.

The MS Estonia was a 157.0-meter ferry built in 1979 then sailing from Estonia to Sweden. She sailed one night on September 28, 1994 on stormy seas of winds of 55 to 75 kilometers per hour which was considered normal in the part of the Baltic Sea in that part of the year. The significant wave height of the sea was estimated to be from 13 to 20 feet. On that particular night the visor bow door of the failed and it dragged the bow ramp of the ship. The visor door was not visible from the bridge. Water then entered the ship in great quantity and flooded the vehicle deck of the RORO and the free surface effect caused her to capsize much like what happened to the MS Herald of Free Enterprise.

From “The Local” of Sweden

These two grievious sinkings upset the ROPAX world causing changes in RORO designs like the recommendation that instead of having a bow ramp it is better for the ROROs to just have front quarter ramps where the blow from the waves will not be in great force. There was also the suggestion that front ramp mechanisms be done away completely and it seems this might already been adopted at least in principle. One effect is the sealing of bow ramps on some ships that have this feature. And the visor bow door was almost completely gone in RORO designs because of the MS Estonia incident as the thinking that it was an unsafe design (the hinges bear the whole weight of the visor door which are heavy).

But do these twin sinkings have any bearing on us, the Philippines, where a lot of ROROs especially the small ones have active bow ramps? All our basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs just have one ramp and this is located at the bow of the ship. Even the next size of ferries to the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs, those that are over 40 meters in length and have a passenger deck of more than one also commonly feature an active bow ramp (I am comparing this to ROROs that have bow and stern ramps but the bow ramp is not actively used or is permanently closed). And then all our LCTs and many of these are in passenger-cargo application also have just one ramp and the specific feature of LCTs is all of those just have one ramp and it is at the bow.

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The quarter-front ramp of the SuperFerry 18 (Photo by Jonathan Boonzaier)

But did any of our ferries with just one active ramp and at the bow at that ever sink like the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia? The answer is a big NO. We had sinkings of our ROROs with active bow ramps but not in the same circumstances as the sinking of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia. 

The MS Herald of Free Enterprise sank because of crew negligence and/or mistake. How would you call a ship sailing with its bow ramp and door open? Anywhere else that is plain idiocy. But here it happens commonly (LOL!). A lot of our small ROROs do not really close their ramps fully when sailing when the weather is good so that the hot car deck will have more ventilation (o ha!). That is against MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) rules of course but there are no MARINA people roaming the ports anyway. And if the bow ramps need to be completely closed that is easily checked and it is also very visible from the bridge as small RORO just have one car deck and so the bow ramp is almost line of sight with the bridge (actually if there is a problem it is that the bow ramp hampers the view of the navigation crew). Our ROROs also have a lot of crewmen and apprentices that failing to check the bow ramp is almost an impossibility and besides the Chief Mate will always be there (that high a position ha!) because he is in charge of the loading and unloading. So I say the MS Herald of Free Enterprise incident has no bearing here.

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The basic, short-distance ferry-RORO that only has a bow ramp

Our small ROROs also don’t have bow visor door like the MS Estonia. How can it be when their mechanisms are very simple? They don’t even have hydraulic three-piece ramps and winches are all that are needed to raise the ramps to close or lower it to open the ramps. So how can one thing fail when it isn’t there? Now, if there are cracks or rust-throughs in the ramp mechanism that will be visible to all including the passengers, the drivers of the cars, the truck crews, the arrastre people and the hangers-on in the port. And Coast Guard people check on the safety of the ship before departures and supposedly they are very good on that and so what is then the problem? If there is already weakening of the ramp mechanism that will easily show when a heavy truck is loaded or unloaded and all would notice that. After all we are very good in noticing things unlike the Europeans (we notice what one wears and what are the latest rumors in town).

And besides all our ships here don’t sail in gale-force seas like the MS Estonia. Here when there is what is called a tropical depression (which means winds of 45 kilometers per hour), trips are already suspended. Even if there is no storm but the wind is high and the seas are choppy the local weather agency PAGASA that does not follow international conventions will already issue a “gale warning” even if there is no gale. So how can an MS Estonia incident happen here? That is impossible already when Malacanang and MARINA got too strict in sailings in bad weather.

Morever, our small ROROs were mainly built by the Japanese and Japan-built ships were never involved in failures and sinkings like what happened to the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia. We might have salty seas that produce rust but not the frigid waters and weather that accelerate the cracks in the metal like what befell the MS Estonia. Besides if there are ramp weakenings that is repaired early (who wants to earn the ire of vehicle owners when their rig can’t get out of the RORO and the RORO can’t sail and not earn revenues?). Our shipyards are experts in that type of repair/replacement (due to the high weights of some trucks and trailers the ramps normally buckle in loading and if it is already bent enough it is sent to the shipyard for ramp replacement).

Additionally, our local crew are really good and we are even known internationally for supplying hundreds of thousands of crew in international ships. There are small ROROs whose ramps fell our while in use but no sinkings ever happened because of that. But of course nobody would report such incidents to MARINA but I vow such things actually happened. Doesn’t that speak of the quality of our crews unlike the European crews (har har!). And our code of omerta?

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An LCT (Photo by Aris Refugio)

If we had capsizings of our small ROROs with bow ramps it was not because of “free surface effect” but of unbalanced loading maybe like what happened to Baleno Nine in Verde Island Passage and the Lady of Mt. Carmel in the Burias Gap. But I thought the Philippine Ports Author (PPA) had already installed weighing stations at the entrance of the important ports and so what is the problem? Our cargo masters are also very good in estimating the weight of a truck by just looking at its wheels, if there is no weighbridge available.

If sea water entered the car deck of our small ROROs it seemed the point of entry was at the stern like what happened to the Emerald 1 which seemed to fail in a sea surge off Matuco Pt. in Batangas and the Ocean King II which seemed to be a victim of a rogue wave in Surigao Strait (both of these ships also sank in the dark like the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and MS Estonia; it seems the dark is additional danger as checking of things are more difficult). This is also what happened to British RORO Princess Victoria in 1953 when her crew can’t handle water from storm surge in the English Channel entering the car deck through the stern door and ramp. So, empirically, shouldn’t we be closing stern ramps and not the bow ramp? I mean let us be consistent and logical? We should not just copying some rules because some dumb European ships experienced failures. Let us proceed from evidence.

We also have a RORO, a half-RORO at that because she looks like a conventional cargo ship but she has a stern ramp and she had a passenger deck built atop what should be cargo deck. This was the Kalibo Star which sank in daytime on a rainy day with choppy seas in 1997. Water seeped into a hatch that the crew failed to close and “free surface effect” capsized the ship. So from evidence it seems what we really should we be closing are the stern ramps and not ROROs (well, even the capsized Princess of the Orient and Princess of the Stars were stern loading ROROs). I mean shouldn’t we proceeding from empirical evidence instead of being copycats? (Disclosure: I have a private database of over 300 Philippine ships that was lost since the end of the war which I have consulted.)

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The Samar Star, a ship similar to the lost Kalibo Star (Photo by JC Cabanillas)

Hindi tayo dapat uto-uto (we should not be like marionettes). If there is a marionette in our maritime world it might our MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency who is wont to sign all the protocols handed down by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) so as the claim “we” are “IMO-compliant” and brag as if that is an achievement. Why, we don’t even use IMO Numbers as MARINA insists on its own numbers that are not searchable anywhere else. And when former Senator Miriam asked that those protocols be submitted to the Senate for ratification the government of Noynoy flatly refused. Now it seems these signed protocols are being bandied about as if they are official, as if those have the force of law like what they do with the ISPS protocol. From what I know only our Congress can pass national laws and that was why the late Miriam was pointedly challenging MARINA then. These protocols we signed are not part of our laws, they do not have the effect of a law and if one searches there are no penal provisions attached unlike in a law.

Besides we should not be bandying some rare failures in a different land (or sea) as if they general application. In engineering, the lessons derived from a cause of failure is specific in use and is not generalized. If a bridge or a building collapsed it does not mean that all the bridges and buildings with similar designs have to be torn down or closed. If a plane of sweptback wing design crashes not all sweptback planes are banned. Is the maritime world not an engineering world too (it was not when hulls were still wooden and we have not graduated from that?). So the maritime world is not an empirical world but a world of knee jerk artists?

Rather than blindly following IMO protocols we should have our own empirical study of our ship losses so more concrete lessons can be gained.

But then I doubt if MARINA and the Philippine Coast Guard even have a complete database of our ship losses (it seems they can’t provide a list of more than 50 sinkings).

As they say, let us proceed from evidence. Let us not assume we are as dumb like some Europeans.

My Northern Cebu Tour

When I was in Cebu I had the ambitious trip to cover Maya, Hagnaya and Tabuelan ports in one day. However, even though I started early I failed to cover all three ports. There was some glitch in my plan and simply put if a trip to Maya already takes five hours or so then with detours covering all three seems really iffy, if the plan had a glitch, which I only realized later.

I had no exact day for the trip and I only planned to do it when it is not raining heavily (in my eleven days in Cebu last January it was raining almost everyday) and I was able to wake up early. So one morning I got up at 4:40am and before 6am I was already in Cebu North Bus Terminal in Mandaue.

The first segment of my trip was to Bogo City bus terminal. Along the way, we passed the junction that leads to Tabuelan. Since I was early I was already tempted to go down but I held (but it turned out later that going first to Tabuelan was the correct move but I should have been earlier).

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When I reached the Bogo bus terminal I was disappointed. Not much bus spotting there as the red buses were no longer around (they said there’s still a few left). I walked to the beach to get whatever shipping shots I can get. Just small fishing boats but Polambato port was visible in the distance including two vessels, one of which was the Super Shuttle Ferry 10 of the Asian Marine Transport System or AMTC which holds the Bogo-Palompon route.

I then left the terminal and I decided I will no longer go to Polambato port to save on time. The Super Shuttle Ferry 10 is already familiar to PSSS members (since it stays a lot on the AMTC wharf being repaired) and most that will be added in case are just fishing vessels and viewers don’t have much taste for that anyway (ah, only for their catch, seriously).

In Daanbantayan it was a long drive among its many big, separated barrios. The scars of the legendary Typhoon “Yolanda” were still visible. We then reached Maya but the Ceres bus does not go into it anymore so I still have to take a motorcycle (it is not really a habal-habal). It is the Island Autobus that still goes direct to it and one bus was waiting there for the big motor bancas from Masbate and Leyte to arrive. Ceres goes direct to the new port now.

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The old port was still the same as in it basically serves the many motor bancas and motor boats of Maya. The port in general was unimproved. Most of the motor bancas there were for Malapascua, the resort island. The motor bancas for tourists was way more expensive than the flat-bottomed motor launches for the locals of the island.

It was windy and there were white caps and the news was the big motor banca from Esperanza, Masbate will be late. It is the only daily craft from Masbate as all other big Masbate motor bancas dock in Polambato port. Also expected but not yet there was the big motor banca from San Isidro, Leyte. Actually, banca pilots don’t need the Coast Guard when to exercise caution as they have much more experience at sea than they Coast Guard. They won’t sail if they think it is dangerous.

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I was amazed by the number of motor bancas to Malapascua. I did not expect to see well over a dozen crafts altho travel that day was slow maybe due to the weather (and so they are all there). In port, they were also rolling plastic drums of diesel into the RORO ramp for loading to a motor banca. I was surprised the drums do not burst. It is supposed to be the fuel for the generator of Malapascua. It was from a big truck.

From the old port the new port being constructed was visible. The access road to it was cut from a hill and a RORO port with back-up area is being constructed. It seems it is still a year from completion. But rumor is once completed the Masbate ROROs in Polambato will transfer there. Makes sense as Maya is nearer to Masbate being the northernmost point in Cebu. But I also bet Cawayan will then be the stronger connection to Masbate rather Cataingan because of the shorter distance.

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Maya new port

There were other ports in Daanbantayan which I saw from the bus along with a cove near Maya which seemed to have been a marina of motor boats before as there were carcasses there aside from live motor boats. It is just near and south of Daanbantayan town. The other ports I saw seems to be fishing ports. Fishing as an industry is very evident in Daanbantayan. Well, being just by the Visayan Sea will dictate that.

I took a local jeep from Maya and sat beside the driver. That gives me the chance of asking some questions. Mainly I was concerned with the rides (in Maya I had an oldtimer from Masbate as resource person). I changed ride in the Daanbantayan bus terminal where I also took bus photos. I did not go back to Bogo and instead I just waited for a ride in the junction to San Remigio town. It was already lunchtime, I noted. My fear of the day being eaten by the long ride from Cebu is beginning to materialize.

At times if my sugar is okay I decide to forego lunch to save on time and this is what I did again. I just take knick-knacks as I go to have some fuel to burn. I arrived in Hagnaya port at about 12:30pm and I immediately went to the port terminal to see what’s new, what changed. But it was full as the passengers of my bus were almost all headed to Bantayan island, I found out.

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I decided to just enter the port proper and reserve my terminal roaming at the end of my Hagnaya tour. I was glad I was in a non-ISPS port. No questions, easy access. It is good that in non-ISPS ports there are no imaginary terrorists (will a terrorist be taking shots of ships openly? but then ganyan kagunggong ang mga opisyal at guards sa ISPS ports).

The new bruited-about LCT of AMTC was there and her name is Super Shuttle Ferry 26. She was big and wide and built in South Korea. The only problem is she was not sailing because of a transmission problem. There were so many passengers in the port and I found out the reason was of the three AMTC ships in port were not sailing. The Coast Guard again declared a “gale” warning (now why do they declared a “gale” warning when there is no gale? why don’t they check the dictionary for the definition of a gale?).

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The suspension was for crafts below 250 gross tons and unfortunately the Super Shuttle Ferry 3 and the Super Shuttle Ferry 11 were both under that limit. And so all the passengers and car owners were waiting for the arrival of the Island Shipping LCT from Bantayan island. There was a cruiser ship of Island there, the Super Island Express II, their former Cebu-Tubigon ship (they have withdrawn from that route) but she was not sailing too. She is rumored to be for sale.

From inside the port I first went to the fishing vessels just north of Hagnaya port near where the buses park and wait. I was interested in the four steel-hulled fishing vessels that seemed to be derelict (but it seems they are still repairable). They were and it seems they did not survive well Typhoon “Yolanda”. From that location there was another view of Hagnaya port.

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I passed by but i decided to forego the Hagnaya meal place and burger stand as I did not want to lose time and I started walking the small road south of Hagnaya port. The first one I entered was what looked like a private port just near the Hagnaya boat. It had basnigs docked there plus a big motor banca, the Froilan B to an island near Negros already. It was the only boat to that island to Hagnaya and practically all the passengers were local. They said they are leaving anytime now. They were friendly.

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Froilan B on the right

From that private port there is a view of the ferries of AMTC especially Super Shuttle Ferry 11 which view was blocked by Super Shuttle Ferry 26. There was also a preview there of the fishing vessels docked south of Hagnaya port.

I walked south. I know I will find there the various private fishports and dockyards of Hagnaya. The first one I espied was just near and the one they were building looked familiar and so I went inside to ask. There was a “No Entry” sign but since I have something to ask that trumps that sign because it is impolite to howl from the outside.

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Yes, they build the Leonida fishing vessels that one will normally see in Polambato and Danao. They have that distinctive curving bridge in their vessels and actually their vessels are beautiful that I thought they were Japan surplus. Now I know why none of their vessels have IMO Numbers. Four vessels were being built there, two steel-hulled and two wooden-hulled. I thought they were not small if they can build four at the same time.

If the Leonida facility is small and all for vessel construction the next one I entered was big and it serves mainly as a fishport. This was where the Debbie Joy fishing vessels were docked (and there were a few there then). Got into an engaging talk there with someone of rank. They build their own vessels too. He said there were many shipwrights in Hagnaya and practically all are freelancers (that means not tied to a shipbuilding company). They are on call when needed and free. I understood it was a craft inherited from the generation past. Maybe that I why I saw welders only about 20 in age who already seemed to know their craft. Their gear does not indicate they are TESDA grads.

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Fish was being handled in that facility when I was there plus there were refitting works. What I noticed is the Navy patrol boat was also docked there. It seems the fishport waters was calmer and that is why they were there (is there free fish too?). Their crew kept looking into my gear. It was practically a staredown. I took a lot of shots past them for I can see in the distance a lot more of fishing vessels docked and what looked like fish landing areas too. I will not be surprised if there are refitting places there also or dockyards. It was then that I realized that the Hagnaya fishing industry is bigger than I initially supposed. What they have there I did not see in Daanbantayan or Bogo. Not even in Carmen, Cebu. Or in a lot of other ports, too.

Even in my 20’s I have already heard of Hagnaya in Bicol. Now I am beginning to understand. Hagnaya is not just a port. It is also a shipbuilding area. I won’t wonder now why the past database of MARINA showed a lot of routes from Hagnaya including to Masbate. It seems the yards were a show or a remnant of a great Hagnaya past. It just wonder why it is not the town.

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Fishing vessels south of Debbie Joy

The road got smaller and I decided I didn’t have the strength and the time to visit all those fish landing areas and dockyards. I thought that in the future there should be a shipspotting tour to discover that. I then walked back to the port and along the way I entered some lots which had an access to views of the fishing boats of Hagnaya.

From Hagnaya I intended to take a jeep or bus to Tabuelan port direct through the coastal road. I asked around. They said there’s none and I was puzzled. They offered a taxi for P400. I said that is too big for me although it looked like a fair price (later, James said there is a jeep but it emanates from San Remigio town). I calculated that if I go by the main road junction to Tabuelan it might already be 3pm or so when I reach Tabuelan port. I then decided to forego Tabuelan reasoning other members were capable of covering Tabuelan. Besides when I go shipspotting I am always mindful of my chances to take bus pictures to. All chances of that are ruined when darkness starts to set in.

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While mulling all these, the LCT Island II of Island Shipping arrived. I rushed back inside the port to take shots. Since I already decided to forego Tabuelan I tried to max my Hagnaya shipspot. It turned out to be a minor mistake. I did not know that at a certain hour all the bus departures in Hagnaya for Cebu are already tied to ship arrivals from Bantayan unlike when it was early afternoon. And since AMTC has no trips then the buses were all just waiting for Island Shipping arrivals.

I made a last roam of the inside of Hagnaya terminal. I concentrated on the Island Shipping ticketing office. I was attracted to their Hagnaya to Cawayan LCT (the LCT Island Venture) which I did not know before. Its fares were very cheap compared to the Bogo to Cataingan ship of Montenegro Lines when their distance difference is not great. Besides all fare are promo. If I use my senior citizen card I will just be paying P176. Now the comparative MSLI fare and discount would be about double or more of that.

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It seems passengers to Masbate have not yet discovered this cheap alternative. If it has a negative it is the 6am departure time. That means one has to leave Cebu North Bus Terminal no later than 2am.

When I got out of the terminal there was no more bus leaving and the next will be an hour later at 3pm. I then decided on an Island Express bus as I haven’t ridden that bus yet (it is a new bus service). I arrived in Cebu about 6:30pm in a light rain. I disembarked near Robinson’s Galleria and walked towards the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines office to get my ticket.

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I was in for a disappointment. Their Tagbilaran to Cagayan de Oro ships are no longer three times a week at MWF. It just leaves now on Mondays. There went my chance to shipspot Tubigon and Tagbilaran ports and get shots of Bohol buses. I then just asked for a Cebu to Cagayan de Oro passage aboard the Trans-Asia 9 (I was not able to board it because it was cancelled due to a “technical problem”).

In the ticketing office me and an imam tried to help a family going to Bukidnon to attend a burial. Passage was nil then because it was the day after the Sinulog Festival. Our advice fell into zero but I learned how the company handles situations such as this. They have a way and I was able to learn it. They guaranteed the family will be able to board the ship although it is supposedly completely full.

I then went home feeling tired from a trip that lasted nearly 15 hours. I realized tackling Maya from Cebu isn’t easy with its distance.

The Developments in the San Bernardino Strait Routes When the PSSS Visited in December of 2016

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Photo of Jubasan port by James Gabriel Verallo

I was able to visit the area twice, actually, the first one with the official PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) tour-meet and the second one in my private tour with Joe Cardenas, the PSSS member from Catarman (so he was a native of the area). I stayed longer the second time because I wanted to do some interviews in the ports of Allen and in the ships there (which I was able to do).

My first visit to the San Bernardino Strait area happened with the big group of the PSSS (the Philippine Ship Spotters Society). Joe Cardenas provided the car, a very good one and James Verallo provided the gas money. We were eight in the group including an American guest of Chimmy Ramos. He was Tim Alentiev, a retired B747 pilot from Seattle. Others in the group were Raymond Lapus from Los Banos, Nowell Alcancia from Manila. Mark Ocul from Ozamis and yours truly.

On the first day on the way to Allen, the first port of Northern Samar we visited was the San Isidro Ferry Terminal. It was already getting late in the afternoon when we reached the port as we came all the way from Tacloban and have visited already the ports of Catbalogan, Calbayog and Manguino-o. We were not able to start early because me and Mark’s ship from Cebu, the Oroquieta Stars of Roble Shipping departed four hours late because of the company’s Christmas party.

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The FastCat M9

Though late, it was just perfect as the FastCat M9 of Archipelago Ferries has just docked and was beginning to disembark passengers and vehicles. This catamaran RORO is the only regular user of the government-owned port and without it it would have been an empty visit save for the lone regular beer carrier which happened to be also docked and unloading that day. For some in the group it was a first experience to see short-distance ferry-ROROs in action.

We did not stay long and we hied off fast to the next port which was the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping. This port is a new development of the company and was built against the opposition of the Mayor then of Allen, Northern Samar which happened to be the owner of BALWHARTECO, the old dominant port in the area. It is a modern port, very clean and orderly, spacious and with lots of eateries that is more decent than the usual carinderia. There is not that mell of vendors and the hubbub one usually associates with ports that are not ISPS (International System of Port Security).

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From Jubasan, we passed by the Dapdap port of Philharbor. We did not enter the port any more and just viewed it from outside as we knew there were no more operations there as related company Archipelago Ferries was using San Isidro Ferry Terminal instead of their own port and the Montenegro Lines vessels transferred to BALWHARTECO when Sta. Clara Shipping and sister company Penafrancia Shipping left it for their own port.

We next visited BALWHARTECO port when dusk was setting in. We did not tour the port any longer as we decided it will be more worthwhile the next day when there is light. In the original plan, we should have stayed for the night in the lodge of BALWHARTECO (and do some night shipspotting for those still interested) but Chimmy suggested that it might be better to stay in Catarman where there might be better accommodations and food. The group agreed as anyway Joe and Nowell are headed for Catarman as the latter has an early morning flight back to Manila.

The bonus of the Catarman sleep-over was we were able to see Catarman, the town, and see off Nowell to the airport. Maybe except for me and Joe, nobody in the group has been to Catarman before and visiting it was an added treat. On the way back there a bonus shipspotting too because we made short tours of Caraingan and Lavezares ports. The first is the main inter-island port of Northern Samar and the second is the gateway to the destination being slowly discovered which is Biri, an archipelago offshore Northern Samar.

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Star Ferry II

Because of these extra tours and the need to secure first in Catarman a good bus ride for the members heading back to Manila, we were not able to cross early to Matnog. Even our tour of BALWHARTECO was peremptory and it was mainly just part of the effort to cross to Matnog. Still, it was enough as a ferry not yet leaving is a very good vantage point for shipspotting and the Reina Olimpia of Montenegro Lines proved to be that. The encounters with other ships in San Bernardino Strait added to the shipspotting prize.

We were not able to cross ahead of the bus and so the Manila-bound members have to board the bus immediately in Matnog. That in itself already shortened the Luzon part of the tour. When the bus rolled off, a member shouted to me (seems it was James) that the ramp of the Don Benito Ambrosio II of Penafrancia Shipping was already being raised. I looked at the bridge and I saw Capt. Sacayan, a friend of PSSS and I don’t know what reflex pushed me that I blurted out, “Capt, pasakay” and Capt. Sacayan immediately ordered the lowering of the ramp to the surprise of his deck hands. The Sta. Clara “Angels” (the three beautiful ladies in charge of arranging the passages of company-account trucks and buses) asked if we have a ticket and I pointed to Capt. Sacayan and from lip reading I think Capt. Sacayan said, “Oo, sa akin.”

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The Don Benito Ambrosio II by James Gabriel Verallo

I told my remaining tour mates not to wait for the ramp to land as I don’t think it would lest the ship incur the penalty of another docking and so we hopped on the ramp that was still a foot above the wharf. And from there we went straight to the bridge where Capt. Sacayan warmly welcomed us and turned on the airconditioners to full. We were sailing “Bridge Class” like in the Reina Olimpia on the crossing to Matnog. But the letdown was Mark failed to taste the “Bicol Express”. However, the free ride on the bridge with its unmatched viewpoint more than made up for that.

We disembarked in the new Jubasan port where we took our dinner and whiled some time trying to soak the atmosphere of the port. Funny, but our car was parked in BALWHARTECO, our point of departure earlier where our group had an incident with the LGU collectors of “illegal exactions” as we call it in PSSS for it is actually against Supreme Court decisions and DILG memorandum circulars. I wondered if Joe was worrying then for his car.

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The Nathan Matthew in Jubasan port (by James Gabriel Verallo)

After getting the car in BALWHARTECO we tracked back to Tacloban. It was uneventful as it was already night and it was just me and Joe keeping on the conversation.

I visited again the San Bernardino Strait area after the trip to Surigao del Sur where I accompanied Joe. This time my focus was BALWHARTECO and it is there where me and Joe separated, he headed back to Catarman and me on the way to Bicol but with an Allen stop-over. Night has set in when we parted ways and I stayed in the lodge of BALWHARTECO as I planned to do interviews the next day.

If there was still sunlight on our first visit to Allen, my second one was all rain and it was heavy with winds and so the swells were up, of course. But as Joe noted it was just the usual amihan (northeast monsoon) weather (with regards to this kind of weather, Joe and me are pretty much in agreement and so with typhoons). Good the Coast Guard in the area were not as praning (kneejerkish) as their counterparts in Cebu so they were not as trigger-happy in voyage suspensions. And to think the ferries that time in BALWHARTECO were barely able to hold position while docked even while ropes were already doubled. Some even anchor offshore to avoid damage to their hull.

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The Star Ferry 7 in the rain

In the next morning when the rain was still light I managed to find the oldest living porter of Allen who was in his 80’s and who had been a porter since 1943. He is the father of the caretaker of the lodge and from him I was able to get the history of the private port of Allen owned by the Suan family which owns the present BALWHARTECO. I was also able to get the ships of the past in the area from the time of the motor boats (lancha) including the motor bancas which then connected Allen and Calbayog for then there was no road connecting the two localities.

It was a funny interview as the old man was speaking in Allen Waray which I found I can understand 95% by using my knowledge of the different dialects of Bicol including what was then known as Bicol Gubat and Bicol Costa which are now no longer classified as part of the Bicol language. The Bicolanos and the Pintados share the same seafaring history in the past and maybe this was the reason of the close association of the languages of Bicol, Masbate and Samar including the Balicuatro area of Samar where Allen is located.

From the father and son pair, I was able to get referrals to old mariners in the area and I visited one in his home and the other one in his ship. Both came from Virac and first became crewmen of the Trans-Bicol Shipping Lines, the predecessor of Bicolandia Shipping Lines in operating motor boats (lancha) which connected the Bicol island-provinces and Samar to the Bicol mainland. The latter is actually the Chief Engineer of the Star Ferry II of 168 Shipping and this provided a bonus because we were able to have a discussion about the oldest RORO sailing in Philippine waters that is not a Navy ship and is not an LCT.

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I stayed a day more in BALWHARTECO because peak season caught me suddenly on a Friday afternoon and it was very difficult to get a ride with the sustained strong rains which produced landslides in Victoria town thus throwing the bus schedules into disarray (few were really coming). It was a nice courtesy stay which afforded me more opportunities to shipspot (and also do bus spotting) and to observe in general.

I absorb things fast even on limited time and even without asking too many questions. I just retrieve files in my head and add what I saw new, what changed and other observations. And from that I have a new mental picture of the port and area I visited. A two-day stay in Allen is a boon for observation and absorption of the movements and patterns in the area.

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After two nights, I tried to wangle a trip to Matnog where I planned to take a local bus to Naga. There was no hope in hitching a ride with the buses from the south because of the landslides and anyway all that arrive in Allen were full and it was sellers’ market and even the colorum vans to Manila were having a field day (they were charging fares from Catarman while waiting for passengers in Allen).

It wasn’t easy booking a crossing as the combination of rough swells and high tide plus the strong wind delayed dockings. Even with tickets, we passengers feared cancellation of voyages by the Coast Guard anytime given the wind and seas prevailing. After a long wait onboard, we finally all heaved a sigh of relief when we were given clearance to sail.

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The LCT Poseidon 26 of might have been the first to sail after the lull of sailings from Allen but she takes 2 hours for the 11-nautical mile route since her cruising speed is only 5-6 knots. She is a new ROPAX Cargo LCT and although her accommodations are all-Economy it is good, spacious and the seats are individualized with a row of industrial fans at the sides. Passengers are also allowed to visit the bridge which is a boon. She is sailing for NN+ATS or 2GO under the name SulitFerry.

We landed in Matnog at past mid-afternoon and the port was crawling with passengers and vehicles when normally such hour was already dead hour for the Matnog to Allen sailing. That is what usually results from voyage suspensions even though it is only for a few hours because everything piles up. I did not tarry at the port because I feared that I will be left  by local buses leaving Matnog if I did not hurry up. Being left by the last trip would probably mean staying the night in Matnog. But like Mark, I ended up not being able to tour Matnog port. I tried to make up for this by touring the market and terminal area of Matnog and trying to take shots of the port from there.

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What did I learn new in the San Bernardino Strait routes? Well, maybe the biggest development was the opening of the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping. That meant the break of Sta. Clara Shipping (and its sister company Penafrancia Shipping) and BALWHARTECO, a long partnership that benefited both greatly. Well, maybe some things really have to end but I feared the parting of ways weakened both but only time can tell that.

With the break, BALWHARTECO which was crowded and very busy in the past suddenly had a slack and maybe that is the reason why they invited Montenegro Lines to concentrate all their ships there thereby emptying the Dapdap port of Philharbor. Meanwhile, Jubasan port is just serving Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping. One advantage of that is they have full control and so everything is orderly.

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A Cargo RORO LCT

The second biggest development in the strait crossing might be the emergence of Cargo RORO LCTs that takes on only trucks. One or two of them sail depending on the season plus there is a ROPAX Cargo LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26. These are operated by NN+ATS or 2GO and the LCTs are chartered from Primary Trident Solutions. The ferry is being billed as SulitFerry. Though brand-new and nice, it is cheaper than the rest. The drawback is its cruising speed is slow. Their ticketing office hands, however, are nicer than the rest and are better trained. It showed.

With the fielding of the Cargo RORO LCT and the ROPAX Cargo LCT, the long queues of trucks which were legend in the past seemed to have disappeared. These trucks are actually the “non-priority” ones which means they are not priority because they has no prior arrangements with the shipping companies. Trucks were singled out because buses which have passengers and fixed schedules always had the higher priority and so these trucks get shunted out.

The LCTs of NN+ATS definitely took rolling cargo from the other companies. Some seem to overstate it but hard figures will show there are usually ten short-distance ferry-ROROs by Sta. Clara Shipping, Penafrancia Shipping, Montenegro Lines, 168 Shipping, Regina Shipping Lines in the strait plus the catamaran RORO of Archipelago Ferries. Two or three LCTs were added in the route so it was a significant increase but not by much.

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Dapdap port

Another notable development in the strait was the closing of the Dapdap port of Philharbor. It seems it was not able to weather the rearrangements brought about by the opening of Jubasan port. It is ironic that its sister company Archipelago Ferries is instead using the San Isidro Ferry Terminal (but maybe that is what their franchise demanded). Maybe if the Grand Star ROROs were not disposed off it might still be operating. However, the motor bancas to the island off it are still there.

Meanwhile, Matnog Ferry Terminal has added two ramps plus an expansion of the back-up area but one of its ramps is now just for the use of FastCat which need a specific mechanism wherein to attach their catamaran ROROs. With four ramps available (and I doubt if all are usable) plus a docking area without ramp (which is only good if the tide is not low), one would wonder how it can possibly cope with the twelve vessels or so operating in the strait especially in the hours that the buses and trucks are concentrated in Matnog.

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Reina Emperatriz and BALWHARTECO port by James Gabriel Verallo

Me, I always have questions and doubts about the ability of the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) regarding port planning and design. BALWHARTECO and Jubasan ports are clearly better than Matnog Ferry Terminal in its capacity to absorb ships. Imagine there are four ports on Samar side while there is only one in Sorsogon side. Maybe the town of Matnog should just develop their own port so capacity will be increased and they will have revenues at the same time.

San Bernardino Strait is one of the most important crossings in the country as it is the main connection between Luzon and the Visayas on the eastern side. It is used by a lot of buses and trucks plus private vehicles 24/7 and a lot of people move through it. In that way alone it is already fascinating to me.

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The Nathan Matthew and ship spotters of PSSS (by James Gabriel Verallo)