Roble Shipping Is Finally Sailing To Mindanao

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

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Source: Oroquieta City LGU FB account

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Taelim Iris, the future Oroquieta Stars

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

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

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Oroquieta Stars just sailing to Hilongos, Leyte

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

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

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

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

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

Sayang naman kasi ng mga barko nila.

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The Asia Philippines

Just recently, I was on a tour and I took the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines ferry Asia Philippines on the way home by plan. I strove to sail with her since I want to compare her with her sister ship, the Danica Joy 2 of Aleson Shipping Lines of Zamboanga which is probably sadly gone now since she was no longer salvaged after she capsized in Zamboanga port due to a mistake in the unloading of the ship almost exactly a year ago on September 2016 (she is now gone from Zamboanga port having lain there on her side for some time).

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In the comparison I found that the Danica Joy 2 had the superior accommodations and better amenities between the two. Asia Philippines is no better than the sold-now former Asia Indonesia which formerly plied the Cebu-Masbate route for Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. The two are basic overnight ferries for maybe just the purpose of having sleeping accommodations while sailing and their early 1990’s refittings are clearly evident. There is an air-conditioned Tourist section alright plus a Cabin by the bridge deck in the officers’ cabin row and the usual Economy and a basic kiosk and a restaurant that offers hot food at a high price but nothing much else and there is not even a proper lounge for passengers. 

I found out that the appointments of the Danica Joy 2 are a little better. There are Cabins and the Tourist is larger and with more room to walk around plus there is a lounge and I got the feeling that with a limited space Danica Joy 2 tries to make the passengers more comfortable as its route to Sandakan is longer that it can also qualify as a liner route as it is more than an overnight route. The canteen is also better and hot food can be ordered also plus there is a separate restaurant for the crew in the aft of the navigation deck. What is more it is female attendants that attend to the canteen.

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The two ships have the same origins as both are former vessels of the Shikoku Ferry in Japan which links Shikoku island with Japan’s largest island of Honshu. The Asia Philippines was the Orange Star in Japan while the Danica Joy 2 was the Orange Hope.

The Orange Star was built by Nakamura Zosen in their Matsue yard in Japan in 1975. Her keel was laid in November 1974 (thus her IMO Number is 7434262) and she was completed in April 1975. She is a RORO ship with bow and stern ramps and a single car deck between the ramps. The Length Over-all (LOA) of the ship is 67.2 meters and the Length Between Perpendiculars (LBP or LPP) is 60.3 meters with a Beam or Breadth of 14.2 meters which means she is wider than most ferries of that length. Originally, the ship’s Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) was 997 tons with a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 413 tons.

Of course, the hull material of the ship is steel alloy and she has 2 masts and two funnels at the top signifying she has two engines which are two sturdy Daihatsu marine engines of 2,000 horsepower each for a total of 4,000 horsepower which is better than most of the ships this size at the approximate period the ship was built. As such the design speed was 15.5 knots which was better than most for ferries of this size built in the mid-1970’s. Incidentally, she was the last ship built by Nakamura Zosen in the Matsue yard (the Danica Joy 2 was built by Nakamura Zosen in their Yanai yard in 1982).

The Asia Philippines came to the country in 1994 when Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) was acquiring a lot of RORO vessels and expanding and has already disposed of their old cruiser vessels (the company was among the regionals which was early in shifting to ROROs from cruisers). The Orange Star was the replacement of an earlier cruiser Asia Philippines of the company which was sold to Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) which became their Tandag, the first steel ferry of the company (now who can believe that just over 20 years ago such is the disparity of the two companies that Cokaliong was just buying cast-offs of Trans-Asia then when now they are already the leading company?).

The first route of the new Asia Philippines was the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route in tandem with the beautiful and bigger Trans-Asia (1), the best overnight ship then from Cebu to Northern Mindanao. That pairing assignment lasted until 1975 only when the sister ship of Trans-Asia (1), the Asia China arrived and Asia Philippines was then reassigned to the Cebu-Iloilo route of the company. Now, until just recently the Asia Philippines was still doing that route at times, the concrete indication of the lack of progress of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines over the decades when nearly ten years ago the Asia Philippines already had to battle the much-superior Filipinas Cebu of Cokaliong Shipping Lines in the important Cebu-Iloilo route.

When I rode her, the Asia Philippines is the regular of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines in the Cagayan de Oro-Tagbilaran route, a minor route which she plies with three round trips a week every night with a diversion to Cebu from Tagbilaran once a week. As of now the Asia Philippines is already the lowermost in the totem pole of the Trans-Asia ships because the equally old Trans-Asia 2 is bigger and considered superior to her and holds the more important Cebu-Ozamis route. In size, the Asia Philippines is roughly approximate to the Trans-Asia 8 of the company but the is a newer ship than her with better appointments and speed.

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Asia Philippines Tourist section

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Asia Philippines Economy section

The Asia Philippines has only two passenger decks with a small Tourist section in the lower passenger deck ahead of the restaurant which is located at the middle of that deck and behind that is Economy section. The upper deck is an all-Economy accommodation. As mentioned earlier the ship has no lounge and no Cabin either (did I simply not saw it?) and there is just a small front desk at the front of the restaurant on the opposite side of the kiosk. The basic restaurant is air-conditioned and it is beside the mess for the crew and that area is also where they cook the food called the galley in a ship. With a tight space the crew eat standing up or otherwise they bring their meals on styropor boxes elsewhere and usually in the passageway either standing or crouching.

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Asia Philippines restaurant

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Asia Philippines crew lunch

Like in other overnight ferries linen is complimentary in the Tourist section and there is none for the Economy class. At first the aircon in the Tourist that not seem strong enough but as the night deepens one will also need the blanket provided free of charge. One very noticeable weak point of the ship is the toilet and bath. It is simply to small for the passenger capacity and at times one has to queue especially in the morning. And there is practically no provision for showering. Near the front desk and the canteen are two sofas which serves as the “lounge” of the ship.

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Asia Philippines canteen. The ship galley is behind that.

The ship is equipped with a side ramp and a gangway on the side. I found out this is what they use in Tagbilaran port when they do side docking. At the stern of the ship is the usual two gangways for the passengers, a facility so that the cargo operations of the ships is unimpeded and this is a necessity since at times the ramp of the ship is over a meter below the wharf apron in low tide.

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Asia Philippines stern

The car ramp of the ship is the usual clipped or shortened type commonly found in Cebu overnight ferries that are better for the Cebu-type of forklift operation. This is so because almost all of the cargo of the ship is loose cargo or palletized and forklifts are used to move those. In Cebu overnight ferries one forklift at the wharf and another forklift at the car deck pass to each other the cargo and the lip of the ramp is just danger to the forklift above especially when wet or muddy. And besides the ship don’t ballast anyway like most Cebu overnight ships and when the tide is low there is no way to deploy the ramp to the wharf and so the ramp just resides at the side of the wharf and the lip will then just be an obstruction and so they just remove it.

The problem with clipped ramp happens when a car has to be loaded. It is not too difficult when the ramp can be deployed atop the wharf when the tide is high. The problem arises when the ramp can’t be deployed atop the wharf. That is what happened to us in Cebu. Light vehicles won’t depress much the ramp when the weight of the car is transferred to the ramp but loaded trucks are another matter. Of course the company has already mastered the art of making this difficult loading possible.

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The Asia Philippines is getting old and obsolescent already for Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. I don’t know if the company is already thinking of disposing her now that TASLI has already a more moneyed owner, the Udenna group of Dennis Uy that also controls now 2GO, the only liner company left in the country. Maybe Udenna will find out now that the amenities of Asia Philippines is already deficient by the standards of today and certainly far from their former Cebu Ferries ships. But then the company will always find out that this lesser ferry still fits their Cagayan de Oro-Tagbilaran route and will even fit their Cebu-Masbate route, a route where the passenger service of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines stopped (but not the cargo service) because they lacked ferries for some time now especially when the beautiful sister ships Trans-Asia (1) and Asia China were sold without replacements. However, if she is retained for a while for service in the minor routes I think it will be be better if her accommodations are improved and 2GO is an old  master of such improvements.

But should the coming five more ships of Starlite Ferries (a shipping company now also owned by the Udenna group) is diverted to Trans-Asia Shipping Lines then the Asia Philippines will be disposable and not necessarily to the breakers. She is still too good for the broken up and she can be sold to carriers in the eastern seaboard (or maybe to another overnight ferry company in Cebu). My only comment is her engines is a little big for the routes there where speed is not really that much needed there (and even with 4,000 horsepower Asia Philippines can’t seem to get much speed nowadays anyway). I remember that was also the problem of the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines’ Asia Japan with has the same 4,000 horsepower from two Daihatsu engines and of about the same size. Well, with the shorter Cagayan de Oro-Tagbilaran route that lack of speed will not be a problem. But in the Cebu-Masbate route it will be, a little.

With the entry of the Udenna group, I really can’t guess the future of Asia Philippines but it might not be the same as the other old ships of the company which is continually run because there are no new ships anyway. And the entry of big Udenna group is good because Trans-Asia Shipping Lines will be injected with new life again, for sure.

Wither Asia Philippines? We will see that in the coming days.

Allen is the King of Samar Shipping

Allen, a small town in the northwest tip of Samar island is the king of Samar shipping if measured by the number of ports existing and by the number of vessel arrivals and departures and even in the passenger throughput. This has not always been so because in the past Calbayog and Catbalogan have been the kings of Samar shipping. That was the time of cruiser liners and when the intermodal system did not yet exist.

Allen has been the connection of Samar to Sorsogon even before World War II when motor boat (lanchas) was the king of connections between near major islands. That was simply because Allen is the nearest town of Samar to the Sorsogon landmass. Additionally, Allen was also the connection then of the northwestern part of Samar to Calbayog when there was still no road connecting those two parts of Samar.

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Credit to Gorio Belen and Times Journal

The BALWHARTECO (Balicuatro Wharfage and Terminal Corporation) port was THE port of Allen even then. This port is a private port and founded by the father of the current owning Suan family. From a port handlings lanchas, BALWHARTECO port evolved into a RORO port with the coming of the ROROS. When it did, the Matnog-Allen lanchas gave way to the ROROs until they became extinct. With that, gone too was the cumbersome mano-mano cargo handling system done by the porters.

In the past, liners from Manila docked in Calbayog and Catbalogan mainly and also in Laoang, Caraingan, Allen and Victoria. But with the finishing of the Maharlika Highway, the buses and also the trucks came to Bicol and suddenly there was a need for a RORO to cross them across San Bernardino Strait to Samar which Cardinal Shipping through Cardinal Ferry 1 provided in 1979. This was followed by other companies with ROROs like Newport Shipping whose owner is from Laoang town. Other companies followed such as the Philippine Government through Maharlika Uno in 1982 and by the Bicolandia Shipping of Eugenia Tabinas.

When the intermodal buses and trucks came, the bottom suddenly fell out of Northern Samar ports and ships and in a few years they were gone. Calbayog and Catbalogan proved more resilient but the BALWHARTECO private port in Allen grew by leaps and bounds as the years showed consistent annual increase of trucks, buses and passengers crossing the San Bernardino Strait. From a wooden wharf BALWHARTECO port was converted in a concrete causeway-type wharf. Moreover, additional buildings were added to BALWHARTECO port and it housed pasalubong shops, eateries and various offices plus a lodge and a disco above.

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BALWHARTECO in earlier days. Photo by Lindsay Bridge.

When BALWHARTECO and the San Bernardino connection grew, others were tempted to also have their own like the Dapdap and Jubasan ports. Dapdap is owned by Philharbor Ferries and the new Jubasan port is owned by Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. So now Allen has three ports and very rare is a town that has three private ports catering to ROROs.

Meanwhile, the old dominant ports of Calbayog and Catbalogan no longer have liners from Manila nor overnight ferries from Cebu with the exception of the new Manguino-o port in Calbayog which hosts Cokaliong Shipping Lines. In the main they have already lost to the intermodal trucks from Cebu which use ports in the western seaboard of Leyte as entry like Palompon, Isabel, Ormoc including GGC, Albuera and Baybay.

These changes only showed the complete triumph of the new paradigm, the intermodal system where vehicles (buses, trucks, cars, etc.) are now just rolled into ROROs including LCTs and the traditional way of shipping cargo has already been superseded.

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BALWHARTECO port

In a day, Allen has nearly 20 ROROs dockings and an equivalent number of departures for a total of about 200 vehicles of at least four wheels either way so not counted here are the likes of motorcycles. Near ports of cities like Tacloban, Masbate, Legazpi and Tabaco do not even have such volume. It actually exceeds even the port of Ormoc, the greatest port in the western shores of Leyte. So that is how big is the traffic of Allen and probably many do not realize that. Additional some 2,000 passengers a day pass each way in Allen for a total of about 4,000 passengers. North Harbor of Manila doesn’t even have such passenger volume.

However and sadly, such growth, such traffic are not transferred in the locality. Where before a port confers prosperity because the big bodegas and trading houses will be there, this is not in the case of the intermodal system because the cargo, which is rolling cargo at that, just passes through. There are no bodegas or trading houses in Allen. And that is the case of all the short-distance ports in the eastern seaboard from Matnog to Allen to Liloan to San Ricardo and Lipata.

Maybe it is not right to expect to have bodegas in Allen. That is impossible as the cargo trucks will simply roll on. But there must be a way to grab some business from all those passing vehicles. Like fuel sales if the pump price is right. Or restaurants like Jollibee. There are passengers like me who desire such kind of restaurant which serve a standardized quality of food in an air-conditioned accommodation.

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BALWHARTECO offices and eateries. The lodge and disco are located above.

Well, maybe even hotels or lodging houses. But the price should be right otherwise the travelers will just continue on (Allen is known to travelers as having high lodging rates). BALWHARTECO port has a lodge and that shows this is possible. The best type will be a SOGO-type of hotel that offers 12-hour accommodation for half the price.

Pasalubongs and novelty items like T-shirts are also possible. Like in lodgings the price should be right. Novelties must have the reputation of being cheaply-priced. Tourism? Maybe not. The transients did not come to Allen for that.

Allen is king of Samar shipping but it is poor. As of today it is just a fourth-class municipality which means an income of just P25-35 million yearly. Its population is still small. So it means people are not moving in for maybe there is really no growth and progress.

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Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corp.

What Allen is famous for is its illegal exactions (illegal because the Supreme Court has twice declared it is so and that is the final authority on legalities) on the vehicles and passengers. They will charge the vehicles when arriving and when departing. At P75 per truck (their rate) and and about 300 trucks and buses passing daily both ways that would have been an easy P20,000 per day net or P7 million a year. Add to that the P5 per departing passenger. That would be about another P10,000 per day or P3.5 million a year. It seems these collections are not reflected properly in Allen’s income. At P10 million a year times for 30 years there should already been an infra that Allen can be proud of but it seems there’s none as Allen still has the look of a small town.

Allen has ports that is doing good business except Dapdap. Truth is its ports are the best infra in the town. Its incomes should have been a good addition too.

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Dapdap port of Philharbor

But Allen is still poor. Like Matnog, Liloan and San Ricardo although all have illegal exactions. Me and Rey B. called that the curse of the illegal exactions.

Sometimes they say the king is poor. Maybe that is Allen.

Our Visits to the Other Ports of Samar on December of 2016

The Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) tour group, after assembling in Tacloban first stopped in San Juanico bridge to take photos and enjoy the views and the experience especially of walking part of the bridge. Well, just being there is experience for most of those in the tour group. If it could be considered shipspotting it is maybe because of the seascapes and Tacloban port is also visible but at a great distance. I was wishing a ship will navigate the narrow strait separating Leyte and Samar but I know that is almost impossible with the new uncharted depths of the strait, a result that historical storm surge that came with Typhoon “Yolanda”. Actually, deeper container ships coming to Leyte now take the southern approach round Southern Leyte.

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The group then took a long road ride because the next port Catbalogan was some 100 kilometers away from Tacloban and we did not try to visit the many municipal ports along the way which were not along the main road. These old municipal ports were once the lifelines of the coastal towns of Samar to Tacloban when the road was not yet developed some fifty or so years ago. It would have been nice to visit them but it would take time and we were tight on time as our leg to Allen is some 250 kilometers and we have more important ports to visit along the way. And we were not even able to start early and that was the reason why I didn’t mention to the group the former important port of Basey.

We arrived in Catbalogan past lunchtime and we headed straight to the Catbalogan bus terminal which is located astride the port (in fact it was sitting on borrowed port grounds). From there we walked towards the port and it was a lucky day for us. I have not seen such number of vessels in Catbalogan since I first visited the port many, many years ago. We were doubly lucky that the motor bancas to the island-towns off Catbalogan in Samar Sea have still not left. Plus there were the usual cargo ships and an aggregates carrier LCT, the LCT Poseidon 10. I wondered if that number of ships meant progress for Catbalogan. I would really like to know. The only dampener in our visit was the knowledge that recently Roble Shipping has dropped their Cebu-Catbalogan route and it has already sold to Jolo their ship serving that route.

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Catbalogan Port

Since our lunch took time I knew we can’t spend much time on the next ports or even visit some that are near the road like Victoria port. In Calbayog, our next port, we obviated all walking shipspotting and instead opted for shippotting by car the length of the quay road parallel the Calbayog River wharf and fish landing area. There were still many fishing bancas the time we arrived but most of the passenger-cargo motor bancas to the island-towns towns in Samar were already gone as the last of those leave just after lunchtime. We also did not enter Calbayog port and instead just viewed it from afar as we were already pressured for time since we did not want nightfall to come while we were still on the road.

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Calbayog Port

From Calbayog we made a short detour to Manguino-o port just a few kilometers north of Calbayog port. This is now the only port with ferry connection to Cebu and we were unlucky that day because the Cokaliong ship was not there when we dropped by. Basically, aside from that ship only fishing vessels use Manguino-o port. However, from Manguino-o the private port of Samar Coco Products just a few miles south was also visible. Funny, but instead of ships our talk leaving the port was about the Samar bulalo because of my good experience with it in Manguino-o (one should try it on a Samar visit).

It was a long run again in the sun threatening to set over roads that I knew once did not exist. Once upon a time, there was no road directly connecting Allen and Calbayog save for a logging road which was not always passable and only passable to the sturdiest of jeeps (or was it a weapon carrier?). But soon the San Isidro Ferry Terminal came into view and I knew Allen is just a short distance away now and so there is still time to shipspot this government port that is the official connection to Matnog. We did but as the sun sets earlier in December and there was precipitation I knew it will be a photofinish to BALWHARTECO as I expected. This part I have already told in another article:

https://psssonline.wordpress.com/2017/01/29/the-developments-in-the-san-bernardino-strait-routes-when-the-psss-visited-in-december-of-2016/

From a sleep-over in Catarman, on the way back, we made a short visit to the Caraingan port which is located in the town now renamed as San Jose. I told the group this town is more known for the claim of Asi Taulava, the basketball player. Though the main inter-island port of Northern Samar and improved by the government, this port never really took off. It was never able to shake off its reputation for thievery and the new enterprises like coco processing now have their own ports. The damage of the 175kph typhoon that visited Northern Samar just a few years ago was still visible in the port. We did not walk the port to save on time, we just let the car do the walking for us.

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Caraingan Port

We next visited Lavezares port which had a long history. It’s significant lies in that it is the connection to the Biri islands offshore which is now being promoted as a tourist place if one wants to escape civilization. Biri and Lavezares have a reputation in history. For the former, it is the rocks and waves that can threaten ships. For the latter it was a launching port of long-range motor bancas that went beyond Biri in the past like Catanduanes and the Bicol eastern and northern shores. To me Lavezares, like Allen, its mother town is a remnant of the old seafaring tradition of the Pintados which can reach Formosa in the past before the Spaniards forbid local boatbuilding so they can press (as in force) our boatbuiders in building their exploitative galleons. Again, we just made a tour by car of Lavezares port.

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Lavezares Port

[The portion where we made an Allen to Matnog crossing and back is already in the article I attached earlier.]

On our way back to Tacloban there was no more chance of shipspotting as night had already set in contrary to my hope that we can cross early to Matnog and then be back in Allen just past lunch (that would then have afforded us another chance at the ports we just made a cursory visit of). But no regrets. It just meant a realignment of targets (for me).

Reaching Tacloban at midnight, I made Joe Cardenas (the car owner and our driver) sleep while looking for our companion Mark Ocul’s ride back to Cebu (James Verallo eventually convinced him to take a Bohol detour to max his shipspotting experience). Meanwhile at the back of my mind I had a 3:30am cut-off from Tacloban for I will then convince Joe to make a dash to be able to board the 8am ferry in Benit which will afford us enough time to look for and visit the many unexplored ports of Surigao on the way to his friend in Claver, Surigao del Sur without hitting dusk. When we parted, little did our two companions suspect me and Joe were still embarking on a long trip. With 850 kilometers now under his belt who would then suspect Joe is still up for another thousand kilometers of continuous driving?

[However, that portion will be the subject of another article and I will henceforth jump to when we were able to get back to Tacloban to make another run back to Allen.]

From a Tacloban sleep-over after Surigao, me and Joe crossed again the San Juanico bridge but there was no more walking of the bridge this time for we were dead serious in finding the unexplored ports of Samar (or at least those where our daytime will be able to cover). We were elated by our success in Surigao in using maps based on GPS in finding the obscure ports without much turning around (why, it was even more accurate than the locals). Instead of turning left to Sta. Rita, Samar we turned right after the bridge on the way to Basey, the old connection of Samar to Leyte when San Juanico bridge was not yet existing. I was excited what it will show us.

The drive to Basey took longer that I expected. I had a premonition of things we will see because we passed by the cemetery of Basey and it was big and it had Chinese names on it. I have an inkling it was not a small town in the past and there was probably a Chinese quarters which equates to trade.

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Basey Port

We found Basey town alright and it was not the normal small town that I see in Samar. It was obvious it had a great past and the main street was densely packed, proof it had trade before. We found the port road and near it was the remnants of a Chinese quarters. There were concrete structures in the pier but obviously it was already a long-forgotten pier. Only passenger-cargo motor bancas were just using it. These were still active as it affords a shortcut and cheaper ride compared to the jeep (which seemed not to be thriving). I saw students going to Tacloban. It was a proof of links.

From Basey port, the port of Tacloban can be made out along with the San Juanico bridge. I mused – the bridge killed Basey and its progress. Like what I see when new roads bypassed towns. The sea was shallow. I was thinking what if the bridge had been built via Basey? What would have been the result?

We did not stay long in Basey. On the way back, me and Joe kept peering in our GPS map about that abutment which indicates another port which we disregarded on the way to Basey because the road signs contraindicated it. We then came to the junction leading to it and Joe decided we should check even though the road was not so inviting (well, that is one advantage of an SUV over a sedan). Not long after we saw a parish church. It was just before the port. A parish church in a barrio always indicated something more than an ordinary barrio. We learned that we are in San, Antonio, a barrio of Basey. So Basey has two ports not one!

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San Antonio Port

San Antonio port is much closer to Tacloban than Basey port. It seems they are just separated by a wide river and I can almost make out some of the buildings in Tacloban. San Antonio port, though smaller, is busier with more passenger-cargo motor bancas going to Tacloban. It was there that I learned the many motor bancas docked near the market of Tacloban were actually going to San Antonio. The ones docked there were the same motor bancas I saw in Tacloban two hours earlier when me and Joe made short tours of the Tacloban ports. It seems San Antonio is more connected to Tacloban than to its own town of Basey. Again I wondered what if San Juanico bridge was built not on its present site but on a site in San Antonio?

Me and Joe bypassed the Sta. Rita port which was still near Tacloban so as to save time. As always the 250-kilometers stretch of Tacloban to Allen is a challenge to shipspotters to cover before nightfall sets in. I thought maybe one has really to start early like in first daylight if one wants to visit more ports. In the same regard we also bypassed the port of Pinabacdao although there is a clear road sign indicating it. Anyway we wondered if that port and similar ports are already ‘ports to nowhere’ since vans and buses are already their connection to Tacloban.

Joe and me also bypassed the ports of Catbalogan and Calbayog. We reasoned we had been there before and we were more interested in the old port of Victoria and others near there. We just contented our eyes watching the seascape, the occasional ship offshore and with the passenger-cargo motor bancas in the navigable rivers of Samar that connects to the inland municipalities. We also had a dash of adrenaline against a Toyota Grandia (but it was not ship spotting).

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Manguino-0 Port

However, me and Joe made a short detour to Manguino-o port because our first one there was “empty”. The Filipinas Dapitan of Cokaliong Shipping Lines was there. We were able to enter briefly but the guards this time were not accommodating. Maybe the field of Psychology should do a research of how the completion of gates and fences affect the mentality of the guards. It seems with those completed it is now their duty to “protect their fortress”. Manguino-o was hospitable before.

We also bypassed another port with a link to an island-municipality although it is not far from the highway. Alas, me and Joe’s tour was full of ‘bypasses’ that I thought maybe Tacloban, Basey and nearby ports can be covered by tour in one day and maybe one just have to stop for the day in Catbalogan or Calbayog and the next day cover the ports of Northern Samar. There is really no way to cover all the ports in the Tacloban-Allen axis in one day. One will “waste” 100 kilometers from Tacloban to Catbalogan in land travel and next “waste” some 65 kilometers from Manguino-o to San Isidro. And to think the distance of Catbalogan to Calbayog is another 60 “empty” kilometers (as in there are no ports along the way).

The only worthwhile port Joe and me was able to visit after leaving Western Samar was the old port of Victoria which once upon a time had a connection to Manila. We did not use the GPS this time as Joe knows the junction. Like what I expected its poblacion was more packed than a town of its size and the remnants of an old trading quarter was still visible. We reached the port and it is located inside a river mouth where the waters are clear and beautiful spans of Victoria bridge was visible (actually the river might be named Bangon River). There were just a few bancas using the disused concrete port now and most were fishing bancas. There was a wharf for passenger-cargo motor bancas a hundred meters downstream and it was more busy.

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The ports of Victoria

The road to Victoria town and port is just by the bridge of Victoria. It seems Victoria was born around the river that traverses its entire narrow territory and with a wide navigable river it seems that river also serves as an artery. With such a lay-out, Victoria is also a ship shelter during storms. With the sun preparing to set, the slight rains and the silhouttes it produces we left Victoria with me feeling sad. There was no way to be upbeat about what we just saw which was a faded town left by its ship.

I wanted to find the other ship shelter in Victoria town which was Buenos Aires. Joe vetoed it and so we continued north. With the rains sometimes pelting us, explorations become limited. We did not go inside San Isidro Ferry Terminal any more and i just took some shots from the outside. We also bypassed Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping and and just took shots from outside of Dapdap port. Time just flew and when me and Joe entered BALWHARTECO port the light remaining or the lack of it was just about the same when the big group of PSSS first reached it. Me and Joe tarried a little more making a long goodbye with some small talk. I will be staying in BALWHARTECO lodge while he will still be proceeding to Catarman.

I had a pleasant stay in the lodge and it was a great platform for viewing the activities in the port. I spent the next two day exploring BALWHARTECO and the ships there and making interviews. I also looked for my old opponents there, the collectors of the illegal exactions but they were gone. I thought it was not me they feared but the American in our big group who was Tim Alentiev. Well, with his demeanor, attire and shades he might have looked like a CIA operative. Seriously!

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Star Ferry II

In BALWHARTECO I was able to visit the Star Ferry II twice. I was not that much interested in the other ships because I have already boarded them. I became more interested in Star Ferry II when PSSS was able to establish it was now the oldest passenger RORO sailing that is not an LCT (built in 1961!) and there were rumors she might be headed for scrapping (once when she was not running I saw her precisely moored in Victoria port). I wanted simply to know more about her and her current condition.

My second visit came because I was looking for Roger Chape, one of the oldest mariners in Bicol waters who started his career in motor boats (lancha). He happened to be the Chief Engineer of Star Ferry II but I did not know him the first time I boarded the ferry. We had a good talk although the ship was bucking heavily in the night swells and wind (it that was Cebu the praning Coast Guard there would have suspended voyages already). From him I got a better understanding of the state of the ship, a little of its history and how it is managed.

It was really so hard shipspotting in my two days in Allen. The rains were heavy and it simply would not relent. If not for an old umbrella given to me I would have scarcely been able to get around. And there was not even an LPA (Low Pressure Area) but just the usual heavy amihan weather of the area (amihan winds there could even be stronger than LPA winds).

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A ship in San Bernardino Strait amihan

My last chance of shipspotting in Allen was when I left for Matnog. It was long before they sold tickets because dockings can’t be done because of the strong swells and high tide (have one heard of that in Cebu?) I mean it was hours of wait. Then we were able to board but the Coast Guard won’t give clearance to sail because of the weather. It was just a temporary halt and not full suspension. We passengers were worried of a full suspension of voyages and we will become statistics for the evening news on TV (i.e. stranded in the port). While waiting I turned it into an opportunity for shipspotting. But then again the rain messes up the visibility and quality of shots.

I immensely enjoyed my Samar shipspotting despite of the rains which made it difficult to move around. It was a continuation of my summer of 2014 shipspotting with Jun Marquez (summer shipspotting that had plenty of rain too). It was nice and good by any means. I actually love Samar.

The Dumaguete-Dapitan RORO Connection – A Connection That Took Too Long in Coming

Dumaguete and Dapitan have been blessed with relatively good ports (by Philippine standards) since decades ago because they have Manila connections. True liners and Manila passenger-cargo ships like the former “FS” ships called on them regularly in the past. But what puzzled me is the short-distance RORO connection between them took too long to materialize. Looking at the map, this is the obvious connection point between Mindanao and Negros (and Cebu by extension through the Negros-Cebu connections) because of the relatively short distance (the second shortest after Leyte-Surigao but that is too far away). Compared to the Sorsogon-Samar, Leyte-Surigao and Batangas-Mindoro short-distance ferry connections, the Dumaguete-Dapitan short-distance RORO connection came many, many years too late.

If there was ever a RORO connection before between the two ports, it was the ROROs of the overnight ferries serving the Cebu-Dumaguete-Dapitan route. However, the peculiarity of the Cebu overnight ferry companies is that they stress break-bulk cargo (like those in sacks and cartons) and loose cargo (those not in containers like pieces of GI sheets or rolls of wire) and not rolling cargo (which means vehicles) or containerized cargo. So these Cebu overnight ferry companies like Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, Cokaliong Shipping Lines or George & Peter Lines, to name a few that called on Dumaguete and Dapitan ports didn’t see the need for short-distance ferry-ROROs loading trucks. Maybe that was the reason they did not acquire that type of ferry. But actually it is that type that was really fit for the Dumaguete-Dapitan route and just shuttling between the two ports like what is the practice now.

The Cebu overnight ferry companies which were established later than the three were the ones which saw the need for short-distance ferry-ROROs. The prime example of that is Lite Ferries which had a passenger-cargo LCT at the start and later acquired ROROs in the 40-meter and 50-meter class for dual short-distance and overnight ferry operations. And maybe that is the reason why Lite Ferries is flying high now because they were able to tap a business and a paradigm overlooked by their overnight ferry competitors. Probably this is the reason too for the fast success of a late entrant, the Medallion Transport which started with basic short-distance ferry-ROROs and doing a lone short-distance route. Later they branched into overnight routes using small ROROs. Now they already have true overnight ferry-ROROs.

In comparison, in the Sorsogon-Samar, Leyte-Surigao and Batangas-Mindoro short-distance ferry connections, the shipping companies there started as short-distance ferry companies. They were then able to specialize in this kind of service and type of market which means they carry vehicles almost exclusively including the intermodal buses. Their passengers are mostly passengers of the buses loaded on them. The intermodal trucks they load especially the wing van trucks are long-distance carriers and those eventually developed into the competitors of container shipping with the support of this short-distance ferry-ROROs which became the “bridges” between the islands.

If these short-distance ferry companies have a near-contemporary that tried in that Dumaguete-Dapitan route it was the obscure shipping company Jones Carrier Inc. But that company did not last long as it had too many diverse routes, its ships were too small and old and maybe they were undercapitalized and not strong enough for the long run needed to establish and hold and a new shipping connection. And most likely the presence of the three overnight ferry companies from Cebu also impacted them. On the other hand, I also wonder why the “locals” Maayo Shipping, DIMC Shipping or Tanjuan Shipping which all have routes to or near Dumaguete did not try that route. Or maybe even the nearby Millennium Shipping which just sold its LCTs to Maayo Shipping rather than compete. At the start of a company or route in those earlier times an LCT is enough like what Lite Shipping did in the Argao-Loon route connecting south Cebu and mid-Bohol. But maybe except for the Millennium Shipping of the Floirendos, maybe it is capitalization and lack of vision that was the problem of these Dumaguete ferry companies.

Looking back, maybe it was overnight shipping company Palacio Lines which could have taken advantage of the opportunity offered by the short-distance RORO shipping in this route. They were not unfamiliar with Dumaguete as they had a ship then going to Dumaguete from Tagbilaran and Cebu but it was a cruiser ferry. They were then using their first ROROs on overnight routes much like what the Cebu overnight ferry companies as in concentrating on breakbulk and loose cargo. Maybe if they only looked north and south of them, they might have gotten the idea that short-distance ferry-RORO service is the wave of the future. After all they were a shipping company from Calbayog City in Samar and a little north of that was the Sorsogon-Samar short-distance ferries and down south to them were the Leyte-Surigao short-distance ferries that were both making good. But then they seemed to have been also be too protective of their route to Oroquieta which is not far from Dapitan.

Actually, if one analyzes, it might not only be the overnight ferry companies which might be at fault in the late RORO connection between Dumaguete and Dapitan. For after all, as a general principle, if there is a demand then a supplier responds. But then maybe the shippers were also not aware that there is a better mode than the one they were used to. Actually, the goods from Mindanao sent over that connection eventually find their way to Cebu, the biggest market after Manila. But for too long I noticed the shippers tend to rely on Zamboanga and Ozamis ports. Of course, the bad roads then in the Zamboanga provinces was a hindrance along with the presence of some banditry. So before, Dapitan might have looked too far and unsafe for those from Zamboanga City. And those from Baganian Peninsula, Pagadian and Panguil Bay were too used, too dependent on Ozamis port, their old port of departure (well, with Ozamis, they have a Manila and Dumaguete connection, too).

It took a push from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for the Dumaguete-Dapitan connection to come true and hold. Half of the push needed was actually the cementing of the roads of Zamboanga Peninsula. The roads should have been completed much earlier since AusAid (Australian Agency for International Development) is funding the road construction but that stalled for many years because AusAid only wanted to employ Korean construction companies, for quality reasons. However, the local politicians wanted local contractors (for “percentage” reasons, of course). A compromise was worked out and the roads were finally completed (though the Filipino-built sections were obviously substandard). Moreover, the military took control of the mountain pass near Vitali and security was improved after that. After those, travel at night was already possible and that was key to using Dapitan port especially from Zamboanga City. Soon, Dapitan port no longer look too distant. Passengers, instead of waiting for the ship that was not daily even then were soon taking the bus to Dipolog to connect to Dapitan. The trucks followed suit soon, too.

The shipping companies which pioneered the RORO connection between Dumaguete and Dapitan were actually “foreigners”, which mean they were not natives of the area. The first two in the route were the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC), a Cebu shipping company and Aleson Shipping Lines, a Zamboanga City shipping company. Later, Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) also came and they are a shipping company from Batangas. The common characteristic of the three is they have a good understanding of short-distance ferry shipping, an understanding which was clearly lacking in the earlier Cebu overnight ferry companies. And all three have the type of ROROs needed here, the basic, short-distance ferry RORO which the old Cebu overnight ferry companies simply didn’t have.

Today, all these three shipping companies are still in the Dumaguete-Dapitan route and thriving, adding ships and frequencies. Now, Montenegro Lines and Aleson Shipping have even invaded the Siquijor route using ROROs from Dumaguete and so maximizing their ships and personnel stationed there. Meanwhile, DIMC Shipping, Maayo Shipping and Tanjuan Shipping all seem to have steam and two of them are obviously floundering while another, the Maayo Shipping company was selling off excess ships (the coming of a competitor in their route is the primary reason for that). Palacio Shipping is even gone now as in they are already defunct and their ships have been sold already. Well, talk of a wrong bet, lack of vision and maybe even too much conservatism.

Why would the Dapitan-Dumaguete route hold? Actually, there is plenty of cargo emanating from that portion of Mindanao and going to Central Visayas. After all Cebu is the second biggest market after Manila and it has sea connections to many islands for further distribution of goods. One of the biggest and most valuable produce being sent from way back by Zamboanga Peninsula to Cebu is fish, the frozen and the canned varieties. Most of the frozen fish emanate from the many “pulo”. This is what they call there Basilan, the Pangutaran group, Jolo, the Tawi-tawi group and the many other islands off Zamboanga. The Sangali Fishport, the regional fishport is also located in Zamboanga City and it is there where many basnigs, trawlers and purse seiners fishing in the Moro Gulf unload their catch. Zamboanga City meanwhile is host to seven canneries. Dapitan is now the ports of choice in bringing the frozen fish through fish carrier trucks. However, a ship is still preferred for canned fish as it is heavy. Meanwhile, Spanish sardines in bottles also became a hit produce in the Dipolog area and they use Dapitan port in bringing their goods to the Visayas.

There is also plenty of freshwater and brackish fish from the fishponds of Zamboanga Sibugay especially those located in the marshes of Sibuguey Bay. Meanwhile, fishing vessels catching off Zamboanga del Sur, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao unload in Pagadian and Tukuran ports and fish carriers pick them up these catches. Practically all of them now use Dapitan port to bring the fish destined for Negros island and Cebu province instead of Ozamis port. This portion of Mindanao has finally discovered the superiority of the intermodal truck (including the intermodal fish carriers) which can deliver goods along the way and not be dependent on distributors or wholesalers. That flexibility and ubiquity was also discovered by the company and distributor trucks from Cebu. Instead of just relying on distributors based in Ozamis City like before, their trucks now normally roll to up to Ipil, the capital and trade center of Zamboanga Sibugay and along the way they deliver their products to the markets, stores and groceries. Now, there are even intermodal buses with routes from the Visayas to Zamboanga City. First to roll was the Bacolod-Zamboanga Ceres Lines bus and recently they also have a Cebu-Zamboanga bus service too.

In recent years, it is obvious that the Dapitan-Dumaguete route has impacted the Cebu-Zamboanga and Cebu-Sindangan routes heavily. There is now just one regional passenger ship left sailing the Zamboanga-Cebu route, the Zamboanga Ferry of George & Peter Lines where before Trans Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) and George & Peter Lines put emphasis in that route. There is also one liner of 2GO from Dumaguete and Manila, a liner route that was previously abandoned. Meanwhile, Cokaliong Shipping Lines has already abandoned the Cebu-Sindangan route.

Intermodal trucks rolling long distances to other parts of Mindanao and Negros island also use this connection and some even go as far as Panay island. This is especially true after the liner service to Southern Mindanao was halted by Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). With that halt, the shippers of Southern Mindanao also began rolling their trucks. Private vehicles running to or from Cebu to Mindanao also use this connection since the rolling rate from Cebu to Ozamis, Iligan and Cagayan de Oro is very high (rolling sea rates by kilometer is far, far higher than rolling a vehicle in the highway). And again, rolling cargo is not the specialization or priority of the overnight ferries. For many, this western route is preferred over the eastern route that passes through Leyte and Surigao unless the destination or origin is eastern Mindanao or southern Mindanao.

Unless threatened by the direct Samboan-Dapitan route (or a possible Samboan-Dipolog route), the Dumaguete-Dapitan route will continue to grow.

That we will have to see in the future.

The Emergent Port of Masbate

Twenty years ago, the port of Masbate was mainly known for the so-many motor bancas (and a few motor boats) that ply routes to Pilar, Sorsogon, to Ticao Island and to the western portion of Masbate Bay up to the town of Baleno, Masbate. The only liners from Manila that call then in the port were the MV Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines and a liner of WG&A Philippines. Surprisingly, they were not the RORO connection of Masbate Island and neither is the overnight ferry from Cebu of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. Actually, the RORO connection of the Masbate then was the unlikely ferry of Viva Shipping Lines that originates from Batangas Port.

Pilar then was the main connecting port to Masbate. Buses from the semi-regional trade center of Daraga, Albay roll to Pilar. Then, there are many buses from Manila whose end point is Pilar. The motor bancas that ply the Pilar-Masbate route usually have already an arrangement with the buses. Motor banca tickets can even be issued aboard the buses in many cases. In the reverse route from Masbate, aboard the motor bancas, bus tickets can also be issued. But for those who are experienced enough, they won’t buy those tickets and instead look for discounts in the buses to Manila waiting in Pilar. They know that the buses with only a few passengers are vulnerable to these discounting tactics.

Pilar-Masbate motor bancas also take in a lot of cargo either way when there were no ROROs yet (actually, they still do today but on a comparatively smaller scale). One advantage offered by these motor bancas is there is no porterage. The crew takes care of the cargo and one just goes direct aboard and the purser will take care of charging the fare so there is no need to queue for tickets. Two motor boat companies dominated this trade here, the Denica Lines and the Lobrigo Lines. Though not comfortable, their motor bancas are fast.

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M/B Gloria Express at Masbate Port. © Mike Baylon

 

There were also a few cargo ships that called on Masbate Port aside from a few cargo motor boats. One regular incoming bulk cargo is cement and one regular outgoing bulk cargo is copra.

Archipelago Ferries (actually it could be another of their legal fiction companies) attempted the first short-distance ferry connection to Masbate through the MV Maharlika Tres. They used the Bulan Port since at the time the Pilar Port was not RORO-capable. With it also came the Philtranco buses rolling to Masbate. However these ferry and bus services did not last long. One problem is without RORO company support, the buses won’t last long because it was upheld by the maritime regulators that they cannot charge the RORO rate to the passengers (although some try to charge that on the passengers part of that, slyly). And without a good number of vehicles regularly boarding, the ferry companies would be hard put to give discounts.

Viva Shipping Lines and then its new competitor Montenegro Shipping Lines also tried a RORO connection from Lucena to Masbate. Parallel with this, the twin company of Viva, the DR Shipping Lines tried a fast ferry service from Lucena to Masbate using their own-designed and built ships, the MV Penafrancia 10 and MV Penafrancia 11. These services stopped after a few short years for different reasons. For Montenegro Lines, their RORO MV Maria Carmela burned in 2002 just before reaching Lucena, with casualties. Its local government authorization was canceled and they were embroiled in lawsuits. For Viva Shipping and DR Shipping, it was already the beginning of the tailspin of the Don Domingo Reyes shipping companies which ended with them defunct and their ferries sold or broken up.

Montenegro Lines then built their own ramp in Pilar and they were able to operate a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO from it. They have to do it themselves because the administration then of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo wouldn’t provide funds for the construction of a RORO port because the Representative then of the congressional district encompassing Pilar was a bitter political opponent (he is now a vice-presidential candidate).

Lobrigo Lines tried to operate two fastcrafts between Pilar and Masbate. Montenegro Lines also did so. Lobrigo Lines later quit and their fastcrafts ended up with Montenegro Lines. Later, this route became the niche of Montenegro fastcrafts driven out by superior competition in the Batangas-Calapan route (until now they are the only operator of High Speed Crafts in the route).

Sta. Clara Shipping with twin company Penafrancia Shipping tried to enter Masbate through different routes. They tried a Bulan-Masbate route (their ships are not fit for the shallow Pilar Port which is located in a river estuary) but the bus passengers from Manila were not willing to pay extra for the longer Manila-Bulan land route. They also tried a Pasacao-Masbate route but they found out early that the strong habagat swells were dangerous for their ship. Finally, they found the Pio Duran, Albay Port with its new RORO ramp as the Masbate connection and they stuck here along with newcomer Medallion Transport.

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M/V King Frederick of Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. © Mike Baylon

From Cebu, another player also entered the Masbate route, the MV Super Shuttle Ferry 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation and this ship continues its voyage to Batangas. Trans-Asia Shipping Lines continued plying its route until recently. However, a shortage of ferries forced them to stop but they replaced the service with a former ferry that was converted into a cargo ship, the MV Trans-Asia 5. The cargo was simply too big and too important for them to lose to competition. Cokaliong Shipping Lines is the new entrant from Cebu lately using a ferry. The Sulpicio and WG&A liners are gone now for different reasons but they have been more than replaced. Actually, they might not even be missed in Masbate.

Nowadays, Masbate is already a busy port and growing in importance because it is already the fulcrum of a growing intermodal route between Cebu and Luzon (that includes the National Capital Region, Bicol and CALABARZON). Many of the trucks loaded in Polambato Port in Bogo, Cebu that are unloaded in Cataingan and Cawayan ports still connect to Luzon (and they have to use Masbate Port on the way to that). Meanwhile, distribution trucks from Manila and CALABARZON now roll direct to Masbate along with the trucks of the Bicol traders (incidentally, some of them used motor boats and motor bancas in the past).

Today, fewer and fewer Masbate passengers still take the motor bancas. They now prefer the intermodal buses that come from Manila that roll to the various destinations in Masbate Island like Masbate City, Aroroy, Milagros, Esperanza, Cataingan and Placer. Because of the needs of the buses and trucks, Montenegro Lines now operates several ROROs and so do the twin company Sta. Clara/Penafrancia Shipping (and with even bigger ships) and Medallion Transport. Another new operator from Pilar is Denica Lines which bought their own small ROROs.

 

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Ferries at Masbate Port © zheek / Flickr

The fastcrafts are still operating between Pilar and Masbate and the motor bancas did not seem to lessen in number. More cargo ships are also now calling in Masbate Port. The port was expanded a decade ago and now a second phase of expansion is near completion. In Region 5, the Bicol Region, it is clear that Masbate Port is now the busiest port. Good thing it is not yet an ISPS (International System of Port Security) port and so it also functions as a people’s park (and a jogging area in the morning) and anyone can go in and go out.

As said by old timers, shipping activity is a accident of geography that cannot be dictated by the maritime authorities nor by legislation. In this sense, Masbate is fortunate because she lies between Luzon and Cebu, the commercial center of Central Visayas, part of Eastern Visayas and of northern Mindanao. As such, her growth as a port will surely continue in the coming years and probably she will be more well-known by then.