The MV Eugene Elson of Penafrancia Shipping Corporation of Bicol is one of the oldest ROPAXes (Roll-On, Roll-Off Passenger ship) still sailing in Philippine waters but she is still very reliable and well-appreciated. As a 1965-built ROPAX from Japan she has the looks and lines of the small ROPAX of that era which means she is a little chubby in looks and not that angular like the MV Melrivic Seven of Aznar Shipping which was also built in 1965. However, those looks do not detract from her primary purpose and mission which is to ferry passengers and rolling cargo (i.e. vehicles) safely and reliably.
Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS
This ship’s usual route is Tabaco, Albay to Virac, the capital and main port of the small island-province of Catanduanes. Tabaco City is the gateway to the province and the size of MV Eugene Elson is just right for that route as there are almost no ferries that is 50 meters in length there (except when there rotations due to drydocking). And also there are no 30-meter ferries in that route out of respect for the waves in the sea between the two provinces and besides single-engine ferries are not liked there, for safety and maneuvering reasons. So the MV Eugene Elson with its two engines and screws fits the bill well there too.
The MV Eugene Elson is a RORO ferry built by Hashihama Zosen of namesake city Hashihama in Japan where their yard is located. As said earlier, she was built in 1965 but her IMO Number is already 6601517 (in those days the first two digits of the IMO Number indicate the year the ship was built but that is not the case anymore nowadays). She was completed in December of 1965 and completion date is the date when the ship is already equipped and ready to sail. Her external measurements are 41.7 meters in Length Over-all (LOA), a Registered Length (RL) of 38.5 meters and a Length Between Perpendiculars (LPP) of 37.5 meters. The ferry’s Breadth is 14.6 meters locally although in Japan it was only 12.5 meters (the first one might be the more accurate one). Her Depth is 3.0 meters. As a whole she is not a big ship and a ship that is only a little larger than a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO (by the Philippines Ship Spotters Society definition) which in general is only 30 meters or so in length and sometimes even shorter.
In Japan, her Gross Tonnage (GT) was 526 (tons is no longer affixed in GT) but locally it was only 488. Her declared Net Tonnage (NT) which is the usable space of the ship for passengers and cargo is 118 which is rather suspiciously low. The ship’s Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) is 138 tons and she has a passenger capacity of 484 persons, all in sitting accommodations. The MV Eugene Elson is actually the smallest ferry in the fleet of the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (PSC) which was the successor company to the defunct Bicolandia Shipping Lines which used to own her. However small, this ferry still has two passenger decks with an airconditioned Mabuhay Class.
Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS
The ship’s hull material is steel. She has one mast, two funnels and two RORO (Roll-on, Roll-off) ramps for ingress and egress of vehicles but the bow ramp is also the one used by the passengers for the same purpose as ferries in Bicol do not have separate passenger ramps (the stern ramp of this ship seems to have been welded shut already). The bow ramp of this ship is extended to better cope with low tide conditions. This ferry has a raked stem (which was what was usual in the era) and a transom stern (which is still what is common nowadays).
The MV Eugene Elson is powered by two Daihatsu marine engines with a total output of 1,100 horsepower. This is sufficient to propel her at 11.5 knots when new but nowadays she just chugs along at about 10 knots, the reason she takes four hours for her route which is less than 40 nautical miles. That is not a shame as most ferries in the route have about the same sailing time although some are faster than her.
Our group, the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) is familiar with this ship as once the group has already toured her when she was drydocked in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu and the master then, Captain Jun Benavides was gracious and hospitable enough to let us roam his ship and use her as a ship spotting platform (yes, passengers can reach the roof of this ship which is also the Bridge deck). Of course, he had also shared plenty of stories to us. We whiled our time there savoring the cooling breeze of the late afternoon until it was time to go for daylight was soon dimming.
Photo by James Gabriel Verallo of PSSS
This ship, when newly-built was first named as the MV Shimotsui Maru of the Kansai Kisen K.K. of Japan In 1976, under the same name, she was transferred to Kansai Kyuko Ferry K.K. Then in 1984, before her 20th year (the time Japan begins replacing its old ferries), this ferry came to the Philippines as the MV San Agustin of May-Nilad Shipping, a Manila ferry company that was always short in routes. Later, she became the MV Eugenia of Esteban Lul.
After a short time, this ship was transferred to Eugenia Tabinas of E. Tabinas Enterprises under the same name MV Eugenia. I just wonder about the relationship of Eugenia Tabinas and Esteban Lul. E. Tabinas Enterprises and Bicolandia Shipping Lines which are synonymous and the same is headquartered in Tabaco, Albay. These dual companies took over the ships and operations of the pioneering Trans-Bicol Shipping Lines which was then just operating wooden motor boats or MBs then which otherwise were called as lancha in the region.
During its heyday, E. Tabinas Enterprises/Bicolandia Shipping Lines was the dominant Bicol shipping company and had routes from all the relevant Bicol gateways, i.e. Tabaco, Matnog and Bulan (which are both in the province of Sorsogon and Masbate. However, in 1999 a new shipping company with deeper pockets appeared in the critical Matnog-Allen, Samar route. This is the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) which challenged the claimed “pioneer” status of Eugenia Tabinas’ shipping companies. “Pioneer status” supposedly confers exclusivity to a route.
Eugenia Tabinas and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation fought initially from MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the Philippines’ regulatory agency in shipping and then all the way to the Supreme Court. When Eugenia Tabinas finally lost she offered a lock, stock and barrel sell-out to her enemy which was accepted and so she forever bowed out of shipping. This was the reason why MV Eugenia was transferred not to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation but to the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which was created specifically for the take-over of E. Tabinas Enterprises and Bicolandia Shipping Lines. This take-over and hand-off happened in 2006 and from then on the twin companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation were already the dominant shipping companies in Bicol (and until now).
MV Eugene Elson in older livery in Virac port. Photo by Edsel Benavides
Under Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, all the former ferries of Eugenia Tabinas were renamed (except for the sunk MV Northern Samar) and so the MV Eugenia became the MV Eugene Elson. In the fleet of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which has combined operations, she is the smallest in terms of Gross Tonnage and Length. But she is not the smallest ever ROPAX to operate in Bicol as there were and are a few that are even smaller than her.
As mentioned before, the Tabaco-Virac route along Lagonoy Gulf is her main route now, a route known for rough seas during the amihan (northeast monsoon) season as that route is exposed to the open sea. But even though small, she proved capable for that route although once a bus lain to her side even though lashed from the top when a rogue wave hit her in the bow. In the said route she would leave Tabaco port at daybreak and arrive in Virac at mid-morning. She would then depart Virac port after lunch and arrive in Tabaco at about 5pm and lay over in Tabaco port for the night. It is the buses’ schedules that dictate such departure times and buses and its passengers are the priority loads of the MV Eugene Elson like the other ROPAXes based in Tabaco. Nowadays, she always leave full as so many buses and trucks already cross to Catanduanes from the Bicol peninsula.
Over-the-top lashing is de rigueur in the Catanduanes route
All in all, the MV Eugene Elson had a successful career and it seems she is destined for many more years of sailing (well, unless MARINA loses its mind and cull old ships as that has been their threat for many years already). Barring that scenario, I hope she still sails and sails and sails. And keep the record as the oldest sailing ferry in Bicol.