I Was Able to Cover The Inaugural Voyage of the Davao-General Santos City-Bitung (Indonesia) Route of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) by Accident

I said by accident because it was not really done based on a plan. As of yesterday I was not even sure on going to Samal because I was wary of the tight security because two Heads of State (President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia) will be in Kudos Port in Panacan, Davao City near the President Duterte office in Davao or what is called as “Panacanang” (the question was how near one can get without some sort of official pass) and I was sure there will be suspension of voyages for some hours. And I thought Aris Refugio, the superb Samal ship spotter will have a better vantage point than me although what he needed might be a superzoom cam.

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Kudos Port by Aris Refugio

What attracted me, however, was the knowledge that there will be plenty of ships around because even yesterday there were already nine ships off Sta. Ana port in what me and Aris call the “South Davao anchorage”. I already noticed the bottling of ships and I was sure it will be more bottled today since three Chinese warships were coming to Davao. I was actually amazed by the coincidence of the inauguration with two Heads of State and the coming of three China warships (were the Chinese ships there for additional security?).

But I decided to go anyway this morning. The Chinese warships were attraction enough and the knowledge of bottled ships was the bonus. I went not for the inauguration because I was not even sure of the schedule or what will happen. I thought the event will be confined to Kudos Port and there was no decent way to approach it when the two Heads of State were there (and it turned out the First Ladies were also there).

I did not go to Sta. Ana Port. In the morning the shots there are lousy because the cam is against the sun. I thought it would be best to cross to Samal because Sasa Port is best covered in the morning as the sun will be behind me. And if there are ships in Pakiputan Strait aside from Sasa Port it will be bonus. Plus if there is some happening in Kudos Port that is visible it will be another bonus.

I got off at Mae Wess Port. The passenger queue was up to the gate. It was hot and humid but since I was there already I waited a little. But somehow I guessed I was in the wrong place and I backed out and went to Km. 11 Port. I thought the queue there is shorter although the boat’s run is further from Sasa Port.

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Start of the inaugural voyage of Super Shuttle RORO 12 with water salute (M. Baylon)

There was also a queue there alright but shorter. After a few minutes I decided to move ahead of the queue to see what was happening in Pakiputan Strait. And I was lucky. The inaugural run of the Super Shuttle RORO 12 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) was just beginning and I have a good vantage point that was not against the sun and was not too far.

There were many tugs accompanying Super Shuttle RORO 12 and they were giving her the “water salute” which means a water spray that is not really aimed at the ship but instead is just a light plume. This ceremony is given by tugs during important departures or arrivals.

I was not sure how far the tugs will accompany Super Shuttle RORO 12. I was not even sure if the RORO Cargo ship will just then go back to port. In the vicinity there were also Coast Guard and Navy ships. It seems they were taking the security of the two Heads of State and other VIPs very seriously.

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The convoy with Super Shuttle RORO 12 (by Mike Baylon)

Then the convoy turned to starboard. The thought that the ship might really sail already crossed my mind. I had to get inside Km. 11 Port because the structure is already threatening to hide the convoy. I asked permission from the Coast Guard and they readily acceded and I had the full use of the wooden port to get good angles. I felt what a lucky day!

As I thought the voyages of the ferries between Davao and Samal were suspended. I thought if I waited in the queue in Mae Wess Port there would be no chance to get aboard its ships and use it as a vantage point. So I silently thanked my lucky stars.

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A motor boat crossed the bow of Super Shuttle RORO 12 (by Mike Baylon)

However, two motor boats from Babak Port crossed the convoy and one just by the bow of Super Shuttle RORO 12. I thought the Coast Guard in Babak Port did a lousy job in making sure that no ships will cross the convoy. By this time some of the tugs were beginning to fall back and there was no longer a water spray.

I noticed the LCTs and double-ended ROROs of Mae Wess were already drifting to Km. 11 Port. They wanted to cross right after the convoy passed. But there were still tugs trailing plus the Coast Guard and Navy ships (well, their base was actually in Sta. Ana Port a few kilometers down south and they probably have to tail Super Shuttle RORO 12).

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A Coast Guard ship tailing Super Shuttle RORO 12 and a tug that has turned back

By the time the ship leveled with Sasa Port, some of the tugs have already stopped or have already gone back. The tug that was accompanying the ship long was the Super Shuttle Tug 1 which also belongs to Asian Marine Transport Corporation. Eventually she also dropped back and so i thought Super Shuttle RORO 12 was really on her way now to her first voyage.

I then decided to take a motor boat to Babak Port to get a longer and a different view of Super Shuttle RORO 12. The crew of MB Ruby gave me a good vantage point when they realized I was covering the event. We also had some tete-a-tete. They were knowledgeable about the inauguration. Funny they were even talking about the snipers providing security to the event.

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Only Super Shuttle Tug 1 still accompanying Super Shuttle RORO 12 (by Mike Baylon)

When I reached Babak Port I had no intention of staying long. I wanted to cross immediately to Kudos Port to do some interviews about what transpired there and I took the DavSam II which has the same owner as Kudos Port. The crew said they were never able to observe the inauguration since it was done under a temporary enclosure and they also can’t get near.

When I landed in Kudos Port I tried to make some interviews with the canteen staff of Kudos Port and with a Coast Guard personnel. Like the crew of DavSam II, they said they also can’t observe the proceedings. And like the crew it seems to them what they noticed first was the water salute. They said the affair started at 9am and security was really tight and they can’t even move from their assigned places. I asked who the VIPs were. They can’t give me an answer.

Then I received a text message from Aris that two Chinese warships have already passed the point opposite Quaco. That point is just a half kilometer from Sasa Port. So finally I knew where Aris was and it seems he was able to cover the Chinese warships more. That was good as we were not duplicating efforts.

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The bigger Chinese warship docking in Sasa port (by Mike Baylon)

So I then hied off back to Km. 11 Port. I knew I will be able to capture the ships there as they are docking and I was not wrong. However, the restaurant ship The Venue of Mae Wess was beginning to spoil the view early. I wanted to go to Mae Wess and ride a ferry to Caliclic but I did not like the queue and I thought Aris will be able to cover it from Caliclic anyway.

No, he ran out of batteries. And we were not able to communicate well because my cellphone battery was very low too. I thought there was still tomorrow to cover the Chinese warships when the passenger volume to Samal is lighter. For sure Aris will be able to cover them docked. So I just went to Sta. Ana Port. The sun is already behind me. There were eight ships off Sta. Ana Port, five of which were not there yesterday.

It was not a bad day. A complete coverage of the inaugural run of the ship to Bitung, Indonesia plus two Chinese warships and an assortment of tugs, enforcement ships plus ferries wallowing for they can’t cross.

Sometimes an unplanned trip turns out better than a planned trip if one’s stars are aligned.

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The DavSam Link and DavSam II

Once upon a time, after the LCT Davao del Norte which was owned by the Provincial Government of Davao del Norte sank, it was only the Mae Wess/CW Cole ferries that were running the Davao-Samal route through their own wharves in Sasa in Davao and Caliclic in Samal. Their ferries sailed after every 15 or 20 minutes but during Fridays and weekends their ferries can’t cope and a long queue of vehicles waiting to be loaded form and it lines up to the main vehicle gate of Sasa port about half a kilometer away. Vehicles wait and queue for hours under the hot sun and most of these are private cars.

Even with this discomfort, the drivers happily paid the rates of Mae Wess. They don’t realize it that Mae Wess was actually charging them sky-high rates. This can be computed by dividing the RORO rate by the distance in nautical miles. In this method, Mae Wess charges the highest in the country, bar none but those going to Samal didn’t know because they have no comparison. They rarely venture into Lipata port, Mukas port or Zamboanga port where they can find rates that are more reasonable.

Meanwhile, Kudos Trucking has long been a player in Davao in a supplementary role in shipping. They are haulers of container vans and in renting yard space for container vans. Most of their clients are foreign shipping companies and they operate several container yards including one just across the Mae Wess wharf in Sasa, Davao. Then a few years ago they built a wharf or port in Panacan, Davao which has a back-up area for container vans. Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) was the first to use this wharf for their Cargo RORO ships and their container vans.

With their own wharf in Panacan and the availability of the Babak port just across them in Pakiputan Strait, Kudos Trucking decided to go into the RORO business. After all, Babak port has lost its RORO since LCT Davao del Norte was lost. So, they then barter-chartered two LCTs from Asian Marine Transport Corporation and these were the Super Shuttle RORO 16 and Super Shuttle RORO 14 which arrived in 2013 and 2014. The name of the new shipping company is DavSam Link which is a self-explanatory name.

On the first day when DavSam Link will start operations, the local head of MARINA (Maritime Industries Authority), the Philippine maritime regulatory agency came to Kudos Trucking Corporation wharf and told DavSam Link they should charge the same rate as Mae Wess which was P300 for a sedan. I was among the two ship spotters there covering the opening for PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society), the premiere and the authoritative ship spotting organization in the Philippines which has international links and so I came to know that. DavSam Link wanted then to charge lower. Now, isn’t that what newcomers need to do to gain business? Discounting is done everywhere – in malls, supermarkets, restaurants, hotels, by the plane companies and even by the great 2GO shipping company, etc. The MARINA head did not know that?

Immediately, I knew what the MARINA honcho was protecting was the interest of Mae Wess and not the interest of the public. In all my travels in the whole breadth of the Philippines the RORO rate of Mae Wess was the highest per nautical mile and there was not even a close second and it is the local MARINA was the one which approved it. In many RORO routes there is no such thing as rate parity. That is especially true in Cebu where the lowest charge for the Cebu-Leyte route is only half of those that charge the highest (and there is no need to say which are growing). Maybe the rate should be high enough so that there should be a spare for “gifts” for them? The MARINA honcho obviously has forgotten who are paying their salaries and allowances.

DavSam Link began sailing with rate parity with Mae Wess. With no advantage to show and with people used to the fast departures of Mae Wess they had a very poor start. For truckers there is another disadvantage because an agent of Mae Wess who is in power in Samal threatens no loading if they ever patronize DavSam Link (in the end the truckers did not heed this). This island which calls itself a “garden city” is actually full of illegal exactions on passengers and vehicles which has long been outlawed by the Supreme Court and reiterated by 4 DILG (Department of the Interior and Local Governments) memorandums. Well, in the Philippines unless some mayors and councils are sent to jail, it seems those memorandums are just sheets with the same value as toilet paper. Will this change under President Rodrigo Roa Duterte?

Moreover, the LCTs sent by Asian Marine Transport Corporation to DavSam Link proved uncooperative and broke down with regularity. It got so bad that at one time DavSam Link did not sail for 8 months especially when they sent back the Super Shuttle Ferry 14 and the engine of Super Shuttle Ferry 16 permanently conked out after they hired some former crewmen of Mae Wess (well, I am just stating facts). Some then thought DavSam Link might have been gone for good and defeated in the war with Mae Wess but they might not have been aware of the depths of pockets and will of one Johnny Ng.

Super Shuttle Ferry 16 was sent to General Santos City for re-engining with a brand-new China-made Weichai marine engine (their local agent, the Dynamic Power of Mandaue, Cebu has an office there). Just before Super Shuttle Ferry 16 came back as the DavSam I with a new engine (by then DavSam Link has already bought her from Asian Marine Transport Corporation), a true double-ended ferry arrived from Japan for DavSam Link and she was named as the DavSam II. This was July of 2015.

DavSam II did not sail immediately because she had no meaningful passenger accommodations. It seems in Japan she only sails very short distances and so maybe the passengers just stay in their cars, in the main. A small passenger accommodation of glass and aluminum was then built and it was airconditioned because it was very exposed to the sun. The ferry was also repainted and generally spiffed up but not by much as she arrived as a clean ship and not from a laid-up condition. Well, if a small ferry can sail all the way from Japan then it can be assumed it is in good condition.

The DavSam II was the former ferry Tateishi in Japan with the permanent ID IMO 9004035. She was built by Naikai Shipbuilding and Engineering Co. Ltd. in Setoda yard in 1990. The ship is a double-ended RORO which means she is fitted with ramps on both ends and so both ends look the same anyway. In this type of ship there is no clear bow and stern as she can sail both ways. A RORO of this type might have only one engine but it has propellers and rudders on both ends. The advantage of a true double-ended RORO is she does not need to back up and change direction after leaving port (which means she can then “back up” all the way to the other port). This type of ferry is only used on very short distances as the drag of the propellers on the front end when sailing can be significant if used on longer distances and the advantage of not having to back up and turn is then lost.

The external dimensions of the ship are 32.8 meters length over-all (LOA), 23.9 meters length between perpendiculars (LPP) by 10.6 meters Breadth and 3.0 meters Depth. The cubic measurement is 144 gross tons and the load capacity is 102 deadweight tons. The ship is equipped with a single Yanmar Marine engine of 490 horsepower with two transmissions, two shafts and two propellers. She has raked stem and stern with ramps and her top speed is 9 knots. The ship has a small pilot house suspended atop the car deck and in there still intact is her build plate. A basic RORO, the ingress and egress of the vehicles also serves as the entrance and exit of the passengers.

She arrived with her engine still in very good condition. We heard she was found a long way from Tokyo and maybe she was really only used on very short distances with only few trips a day and that is why her engine was still pristine. Usually this is the type of ferry used to connect islets within the Inland Sea. We heard DavSam Link was able to purchase her for a very good price. The company is very satisfied with her and so it is looking for another double-ended ferry. And with only a 490 horsepower engine she is a fuel miser. Her conduction voyage from Japan took only 4 days without any incident.

She is sailing very regularly in the hours when there is light and until dusk. Where DavSam I has days off because of some mechanical glitches, DavSam II is always sailing. They have reduced the rolling rates for sedan now to P200 from P300 which is actually still high and the passenger fares were reduced to P7 from P10 (funny her fares are even lower than the jeepney fare in Davao). The truck rates which depends on size are also way down from what was once the standard in the Davao-Samal route. And to me it can even be chopped off if only DavSam ferries is always full. Their ship is actually seldom full and their better days are just the weekends or holidays as Samal functions as a getaway of the Dabawenyos. Aside from the tourists from other places, of course.

Now it seems vehicle owners and truckers are beginning to realize that Mae Wess has been overcharging them for too long (but there is no backlash). Where there is monopoly it is known abuse is not far off especially if the regulator is inside the pockets of the operator. They will then try to charge as much as the market will bear. The rates and fares of DavSam Link are now lower than that of Mae Wess even though its route is a little longer since they follow a boomerang route because of the shallows in Pakiputan Strait.

DavSam I is a beautiful ship. Her patronage is somewhat okay now. It seems she might be headed for a successful career here.

For me, I hope she even charges lower.