The Bad Maharlika and Grand Star RORO Ferries Transformed

It was more than two decades ago when I first became acquainted on a regular basis with the Maharlika ships. This fleet consisted of the Maharlika I, Maharlika II, Maharlika III, Maharlika IV, Maharlika V, Maharlika VI and Maharlika VII. I just used their names with the Roman numerals for consistency because at other times they were also known with the Spanish numerals like “Uno”, “Dos”, “Tres” and so on and so forth. The fleet was basically fielded in the Eastern seaboard routes of the country like Lipata to Liloan, San Isidro or Allen to Matnog, other pioneering Bicol routes which they failed to hold (either too early for the day plus they didn’t know the tactic of subsidizing the buses) like Tabaco to Virac and Bulan to Masbate. Later, they tried the Pilar to Aroroy route where it seems they followed the feasibility study made by three renowned international shipping experts, each of have good Ph.Ds but unfortunately does not know local shipping plus they had a blip in their brains (like if a route has only one motor boat how can it then support a ROPAX?). And so,unfortunately. their data is shot full of holes and so it became a GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out).

Maharlika I

Maharlika I by Edison Sy of PSSS.

They also tried routes outside of the Eastern seaboard like Lucena to Marinduque, Batangas to Calapan and Roxas to Caticlan in support of the buses of their sister companies, the storied Philtranco which was fast becoming a shell of its former self and JAM. The Marinduque route did not last long and fortunately for them the two other routes mentioned lasted even though their buses didn’t last long in Panay island (they recently came back after the dominant bus Dimple Star was permanently suspended because of accidents). Maharlika, for brevity, is a long story of failing ships and failing routes. On the other hand, they have a boisterous and humbug CEO who is so full of himself (well, I won’t be surprised if he is a graduate of the Trump School). Like that resident of the White House, Christopher Pastrana also scored a coup with his later FastCat ships. Who said a bad thing can’t be turned in to a good thing?

When I was sailing with the Maharlika ships, I feel a letdown but this was very well-tempered because I am a grad of the even worse ships of Viva Shipping Lines of Batangas and its two legal-fiction companies. That was more palpable in the Maharlika I and Maharlika II which were fielded brand-news just fifteen years earlier (1982 and 1984) and yet were already worn down and beginning to break down (initially, a fault by the government). I did not know it yet then that Archipelago Philippine Ferries was just chartering those two ferries which were the pride of the government in the past. There is a claim that when the ships were already turning a profit the government one-sidedly changed the terms of the agreement. Whatever, it seems Archipelago Philippine Ferries, Pastrana’s company was just milking the ships out of its last value without care for the future life of the ships and the government was letting them. And to think that in the late 1990s there are even shut-outs (vessels can no longer be accommodated aboard) especially in the Liloan-Lipata route. In the main, Maharlika II was in this route and Maharlika I was in the San Isidro or Allen to Matnog route as they have been from the start.

Maharlika II in Liloan port

Maharlika II by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

After the sister ships Maharlika I and Maharlika II, Archipelago Philippine Ferries and its legal-fiction sister companies like Oro Star and Philharbor Ferries acquired two sister ships from Aki Kisen of Japan in 2000, just after the take-over of the of the first two ships, the Maharlika III and Maharlika IV which had the look of a double-ended ferry. They acquired these to bolster their operations as two ferries is not enough for their routes. The two were built in 1987 and 1993 and so in age they were younger than the first ships but just in the same decade of acquisition they are beginning to look worn down too and beginning to be unreliable. Sometimes there are cases when a ship will not sail for months and there was story of one of these newer Maharlika ships not capable of sailing being ordered towed out by the Port Manager of Liloan by a passing tug because it is clogging up his docking space (I saw that non-running ferry). Have anyone heard of ship’s ramp falling while the ship is sailing? There is a story of that in the Lipata-Liloan route and elsewhere but not necessarily running.

So in the 2000s, the period where I was frequently traveling using the Eastern seaboard route, I was wondering where Maharlika was headed. It seemed it was all a grand name (Maharlika is supposedly a legendary name with our national highway named likewise for that and there was even a Marcos plan to rename our country to “Maharlika” until some historians pointed out that “Maharlika” is of Hindu origin) but no substance or trait to support it. This was also the time when Maharlika was trying new routes which mostly bombed out.

Dapdap port

Grand Star RORO 1 and Maharlika Tres in their Dapdap port by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

Next came to them in 2002 the Maharlika V and almost all failed to after having parts of her former substructure cropped out. She first came to a related company in the Allen-Matnog route as the Christ The King when that route had a surplus of bottoms with many shipping companies competing. Her next reincarnation was as the Mindoro Express but she also did not last long in her namesake island and so she plied a route to Puerto Princesa, Palawan. It was there where she took an excursion in a shallow portion of the sea when it seems she had a fire and possibly she capsized in the fire-fighting effort. A ship owner who is a PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member shot a photo of her in Keppel shipyard in Batangas. When posted to PSSS, an eagle-eyed member thought that if the superstructure of Mindoro Express is cropped then she will look like the Maharlika V. In her permanent route of Liloan-Lipata, nobody knew what happened to her in Puerto Princesa. But even with this background, Maharlika V proved to be reliable for almost a decade. Until she became sickly too and spent two years in a shipyard in General Santos City not being repaired.

In 2003 and 2004, two old ferries from Norway built in the early 1970s came for Archipelago Philippine Ferries which became the Maharlika Seiz and Maharlika Siete. The two have very robust Wichman and Normo engines which are easy to maintain as told to me by a Norwegian ship spotter which happened to inquire to me where and in what condition they are now. Moreover, Scandinavian ships should have very strong hulls, their pride. These ex-Norwegian ships ran well for some time although the first to come, Maharlika Seiz proved to be very slow because of its small engine. They did not last that long, however, not because of the engines but because of the variable-pitch propellers, a common feature in European ships. This kind of propeller makes the engine last longer because of less stress but when that kind of propeller becomes defective it is supposedly a nightmare to repair.

Maharlika Cuatro

Maharlika Cuatro by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

When Phil-Nippon Kyoei, a new shipping company, gave up operations early this decade, Philippine Archipelago Ferries snapped up two of three ships for sale, the Grand Star RORO 1 and the Grand Star RORO 3 which also resembled double-ended ferries. The two were basically fielded in the Allen-Matnog route but the two were never renamed. In a short time though, like the Maharlika ferries the Grand Star RORO ferries looked worn out too. I can’t fathom why for a company having a sister company that deals in paints (CAPP) can’t have enough paint to have the ferries looking good. Well, maybe, that was the Pastrana standard then, the Pastrana way of doing things. And when Pastrana got his first FastCat, he told the spiel that he dreamed of good ferries serving Philippine waters after seeing bad ferries all around. But, the storyteller that he was, Pastrana does not have the gumption to say he was looking at his own ferries.

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Maharlika Cinco and Maharlika Seiz in Liloan Ferry Terminal. From ppavis.com.

When the first FastCat came, some of his ferries are no longer running especially Maharlika I which was just sidelined. They tried to sell that but of course, the government being the owner calls the shots. The sale of this ship to the breakers made the sister ship Maharlika II a better ship and it was in a long time that I saw her in good paint, and faster. It is possible after all some parts were first transferred to the sister. However, as her wont, Maharlika II stalled off Panaon island and the crew failed to start even one engine (well, Maharlika is also used to running on one engine). It is a big question why Maharlika IV which was just nearby did not come to her rescue for several hours until the seas turned rough with the coming of the night (as if they didn’t know this will happen). A story from a former employee says that if Maharlika IV sails and rescues her more questions will be unearthed. It is just so bad for the passengers of Maharlika II, some of who died in Surigao Strait, a busy shipping lane but there is no Coast Guard rescue ship (it has to borrow ferries on the route to effect a rescue) because most of their better ships as just used as port guards and serve as offices and suites of their commanders in the big cities and ports.

The sinking paved way for the fast disposal of the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ships. Selling them fast will lessen the questions on their shipworthiness and the stoppage of their use will make people forget easy a tragedy happened and anyway they got suspended too. What remained running before the FastCats came in big numbers are the Grand Star RORO ships and so they only got sold later. That was important for them in the Matnog-Allen route when they were not immediately able to secure a berth where their peculiar docking ramp will be placed. Actually for a time they had no running ships in many routes as the early phase-out of their ships were forced unto them. But maybe that played into their hands as people who don’t normally sail fail to get the connection of Maharlika and FastCat.

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Maharlika Siete by John Carlos Cabanillas of PSSS.

The Maharlika Cuatro and Maharlika Cinco (their naming then) was sold a “neighbor” in Leyte, the Gabisan Shipping Lines. The Maharlika Cinco was retained by the company and this became the Gloria V and the Maharlika Cuatro was sold to Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) of Catanduanes. Meanwhile, the Maharlika Tres was sold to Atienza Inter-island Ferries of Manila but later they also sold this to Regina Shipping Lines. Maharlika Seiz and Maharlika Siete were sold to breakers in Navotas but the custom there is to “display” the ships first in the hope that someone will buy it whole. And it did not help them that world metal prices were low in the past half-decade. Later, the Grand Star RORO 1 and Grand Star RORO 3 were also sold to Regina Shipping Lines. So, in total of the ships not lost or sold to the breakers only one, the Maharlika V is not in the possession of Regina Shipping Lines which then thereby sold their basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. Traffic in Catanduanes is on the big upsurge after all.

Maharlika Tres became the Regina Calixta VIII, Maharlika IV became the Regina Calixta VII, the Grand Star RORO 1 became the Regina Calixta VI, the Regina Calixta III became the Regina Calixta IX and later as the second Regina Calixta IV after the former holder of that name, which was the former Grand Star RORO 2 was sold to Dinagat to become the Cab-ilan of Waters-up MPC. Six of the ships of Regina Shipping Lines were former ferries of Christopher Pastrana who treated them badly and just covered it up in media by being noisy and boastful.

Grand Star RORO 3

Grand Star RORO 3 by Joe Cardenas III of PSSS.

And how are these ferries faring under the care of Gov. Joseph Cua of Catanduanes, the owner of Regina Shipping Lines? Very, very well as Albayanos and Catanduganons know. The superstructures changed now (no, they are not taller) and the paint is good. The interiors changed a lot too. Central to the changed motif is to make the journey as experience although it will only last four hours or less, the usual transit time between Tabaco, Albay and San Andres (the former Calolbon), Catanduanes, a route where Regina Shipping Lines (RSL)has no direct competitor (their competitor holds another competing route, that to Virac, the capital of Catanduanes). Regina Shipping Lines is a pioneer on the route. The ships have an airconditioned sections now that is modeled after a KTV lounge where before these ships under Pastrana have no airconditioned sections. And of course everything is spic and span after a long remodeling in Mayon Docks in Tabaco under the supervision of an SNAME naval architect who happens to be a PSSS member.

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Regina Calixta VIII, the former Maharlika Tres by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

The engines were refurbished too and all are very reliable now aside from running even better than their design speed. And to think these are ferries built in the 1980s (five) and 1990s (one). Maybe the top guns of MARINA, the maritime regulatory body should first do an educational tour of the RSL ferries before they deliberate on the proposal to cull the 35-year old ferries. Maybe they can learn a thing or two there. They should also take note too that no steel-hulled ferry ever sank in the route to Catanduanes.

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Aircon accommodation of Regina Calixta VI, the former Gtand Star RORO 1. Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

I was not really surprised by all these happenings to the former bad ferries of Pastrana. Gov. Cua operated very good RSL buses from Catanduanes and Tabaco to Manila. Like the premium bus companies of Bicol they invested in good seats and refurbished their buses before it becomes worn out and are no longer looking good. And that has paid off in passenger loyalty and good words and respect to them. RSL (this is how they are called in Bicol) did these refurbishing even though they have no direct competitor and they are always full that at times their ship has to sail back again as there are a good number of shut-outs. That just shows how they care and greed is not their paramount norm in running their shipping business.

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Regina Calixta VII, the former Maharlika Cuatro. Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

Meanwhile, the only old bad Pastrana ferry not in RSL hands had also be refurbished and re-engined by Gabisan Shipping and is also reliable now except for some hiccups at the start. It looks like the hull might still be okay after re-plating given her stint beneath the waves and the long lay-over in Gensan (well, weakened hull plates can be replaced). The story said from the shipyard there she had difficulty reaching Liloan municipal port where first works was done on her. Now, the ship has a Tourist Class too with decent accommodations. She had had more visits to the shipyards maybe because further repairs might have been needed given the sorry state when Gabisan Shipping first acquired her. Anyway, I give enough credit to Gabisan Shipping for saving her. I thought before she no longer had a chance given her history and condition. Now I wish MARINA can give her more life.

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Regina Calixta VIII (ex-Maharlika Tres) Tourist. Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

Meanwhile, for the veterans of the Eastern seaboard, they all know Christopher Pastrana has long been in the Hall of Shame but maybe he is now trying to change that with his FastCats. Well, it is easy when one is given new ships and one looks always good at the start when handed new ships. It is credit to him for his innovate catamaran-RORO design whoever is his benefactor may be but the banks deserve the credit too for opening its purses. His challenge now is how to pay for all of those ships. If he fails it will be the banks which will be holding the empty bag.

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I Did Not Expect That The Panay Liners (Except For Iloilo) Will Easily Surrender To The Intermodal Trucks And Buses

In the island of Panay, liners from Manila (they were really liners but were doing practically what is an overnight route if 250 nautical miles can be called an overnight route) called in Dumaguit port in Aklan and in the Culasi port of Roxas City in Capiz and many liners were assigned here by WG & A, Aboitiz Transport System and Negros Navigation and by other earlier companies. There was also a once a week call by the Cotabato Princess of Sulpicio Lines in Estancia, Iloilo and of course there were many liners to Iloilo by the different liner companies as Iloilo port is an in-port to ships still headed to Zamboanga and beyond and to Cagayan de Oro and other northern Mindanao destinations. Of and on, there were also liners calling off and on in Boracay (through a transfer), Culasi and San Jose de Buenavista, the capital of Antique. The last that plied a route in Antique was the MBRS Lines of Romblon.

Cotabato Princess (1)

The Cotabato Princess by Toshihiko Mikami.

I have noted before that the liners to Antique do not do well over the long term. Boracay ships, meanwhile, generally just call in the summer. Estancia, meanwhile was along the route of the Sulpicio ship to Iloilo. I thought Dumaguit and Roxas City routes were doing fine especially the service of WG & A and the successor Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). I don’t count too much the loss of the Negros Navigation ships as their problem lay elsewhere which was illiquidity. But Moreta Shipping Lines and for a time MBRS Lines also had ships in Dumaguit and Roxas City and the former was the last hold-out there.

Our Lady of Naju (Mis-identified as OLO Banneux)

The Our Lady of Naju which held the Manila-Dumaguit-Roxas route for a long time. From greeshipbreaking.com.

In the end of 2003, the Strong Republic Nautical Highway (SRNH) of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo finally reached Panay island through Caticlan after the road to Roxas town in Oriental Mindoro was paved (that was hell before) and the Dangay port was constructed. From then on intermodal trucks and buses from Luzon rolled into Panay island along with the private cars and other vehicles. And in a short time, Aboitiz Transport System quit the combined Dumaguit and Roxas routes. Moreta Shipping Lines and MBRS Lines, both of whom tried Panay rotes also quit in a few years’ time. Of course, the liner route to Iloilo is still existing but it was also impacted by the intermodal trucks and buses.

Don Julio

The Don Julio also held the Dumaguit and Roxas routes. Photo by Edison Sy of PSSS.

I was astonished by the fast defeat of the Panay liners because the defeat of the liners in Eastern Visayas did not come too suddenly (it actually took a generation). Also, I did think the intermodal buses to Panay were that superior to the liners but of course I know that passenger tastes could change suddenly. The traders will always leave the liners because with the intermodal trucks direct deliveries are possible obviating the need for a bodega and the double handling of cargo which can result in pilferage and damages.

Our Lady of Lipa Folio

The Our Lady of Lipa collage by John Michael Aringay of PSSS. One of the best ships in the Dumaguit and Roxas route.

An Aboitiz ferry leaves the North Harbor at 2pm and reaches Dumaguit port at 5am, leaves for Roxas City at 8am and arriving there at 10am. The passengers then will reach their homes at noon or past noon after a connecting trip was made. At 2pm the same ship will leave Roxas for Dumaguit, depart Dumaguit at 6pm and arrive in Manila at 9am the next day. A trip from Roxas City, the farther route takes 17 hours. Add the connecting trip that could be 18 hours or so for the passengers.

OUR LADY of SACRED HEART

Our Lady of Sacred Heart also sailed to Dumaguit and Roxas. Photo by Chief Ray Smith of PSSS.

Comparing it to an intermodal bus from Manila that leaves at noon it will be in Calapan at past 6pm and be aboard the RORO from Dangay port at about before midnight and arrive in Caticlan before dawn . The buses’ times are more or less predictable because they have contracts with the ROROs that support them through rebates to keep their loyalty. Like before when Dimple Star buses were still running to Panay (they have been banned because of repeated accidents) they will be loaded aboard the Starlite Ferries ROROs. Philtranco, when it was still running to Panay was supported by the Maharlika ferries of their sister company Archipelago Ferry Philippines (this is also the owner of the FastCats).

Dimple 7814 aboard Starlite Annapolis

Dimple Star buses aboard Starlite Annapolis. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

From a 4am arrival in Caticlan the furthest of the bus passengers which is Iloilo will be arriving at noon and the shorter one to Capiz will be disembarking from the bus at about about breakfast time or for about 18 to 19 hours of travel time which is just about the travel time if a liner from Manila was taken.

The fare aboard the bus with two ferry rides across Verde Island Passage and Tablas Strait was just about the same as the ferry but bus passengers always complained then of lack of sleep because they are given seats aboard a midnight RORO that has no overnight accommodations (it just came lately). Meanwhile the liner has bunks with mattress, there is toilet and bath plus a lot of amenities including a restaurant where in the earlier days the food was free. There was also plenty of space to move about and if one takes the bath before disembarking one would leave the ship smelling fresh.

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Philtranco bus aboard an Archipelago Ferry Philippines RORO. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

So I really cannot fathom why the passengers of Panay dumped the liners for the intermodal buses (I do not know if it was the same reason from a passenger to Manila from Surigao who said to me that “there are plenty of things to see along the way”). Even if the destination is Iloilo there are also liners there and its liners are way better than that in Dumaguit and Roxas City. I can understand the choice of the passengers of Antique because the ships to their province are not that regular.

The passenger and vehicular ferry Princess of Antique berthed at port of Iloilo City, Panay, Philippines.

The Princess of Antique, once a ferry to San Jose de Buenavista. Photo by John Ward of PSSS.

Was it the mistake of Aboitiz Transport System that they did not field a daily ship to northern Panay? They could have done so but the question of course is the cargo as it is cargo that makes routes and not some bureaucrat’s wish or dream. There might not be enough cargo but couldn’t they bid for the trucks to ride at discounted rates like when they tried holding on to the Davao route by giving a special rate to the trucks serving San Miguel Corporation?

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A Moreta Shipping Lines ferry in Daumaguit port. Photo by Mike Gutib.

Whatever, until now I cannot really understand what happened to the liner routes of Panay (except for Iloilo). It is as if the intermodal trucks and buses gave Aboitiz and the others a knock-out blow in just two or three rounds.

 

My Recent Trip to Masbate, Batangas, Mindoro and Bicol (Part 1)

I promised myself before that if I am in Cebu and if the Super Shuttle RORO 3 (SSR3) of Asian Marine Transport Corp. (AMTC) is running then I will take her to Batangas and that ship calls on Masbate on the way to there. I already inquired about her in AMTC Ouano last Sinulog but she was not running continuously yet then. She is my choice as she is the only direct trip to Batangas and she is the cheapest way to there. I also intended to take her on my way back to Cebu after I go on a short visit to Mindoro.

We thought she was just running recently but I found out she was already in the route since March but her schedule is irregular as it is already the cargo that determines when she leaves port making her more of a cargo-passenger ship or a RORO Cargo ship.

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When I verified she was sailing, I tried to get a ticket in their Gorordo office in Cebu but they were no longer issuing tickets there and so I just got one when I went to AMTC Ouano where she is docked. We left on a Monday midnight but actually I nearly left the ship even though I already had a ticket because upon boarding I found out many of her comforts were already gone when to think she wasn’t really a very comfortable ship to start with.

Gone already was the restaurant and the aircon sitting accommodation called “Theater”. Both were already closed. Of course the Tourist was never opened for since the very start SSR3 didn’t have enough passengers. Although I paid for the cheaper Seating accommodation in “Theater” they bumped me into the more uncomfortable Economy.

The Economy was the same and the mattresses are folded and the reason is to cut down on the dust settling in. But then it was still dusty as nobody takes care to clean them anymore and AMTC Ouano is dusty since the concrete has already turned into muck and the dust floating even diffracts my shots. The toilet and bath is also deteriorated too and less than clean (and its flies even go to the Economy section). The Economy is also hot even then but I found out the noise and vibration from the propeller shaft has lessened. There was no linen available. The Economy is basically for truck crews now and the passenger total was less than five.

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The only place to while away time in SSR3 where there is air. On the kiosk on the right some food is available. Getting hungry is a possibility in the ship. The seats are dusty.

For meals there is rice and the service crew of the kiosk in the bridge level will cook canned food in a single-burner stove when ordered and eggs are available plus drinks, biscuits and noodles. Even that kiosk is also deteriorated too and the seats are dusty. In the ship there were more apprentices than passengers and truck/vehicle crews (there was one pick-up in the load). But what they had were apprentices that do not know how to clean a ship.

My condition demands more comfort than the average person and I feared I won’t be able to sleep. I suffered in the trip but I tried the best I can to survive. But I cannot remember the last time I rode a more uncomfortable ship that has a reclining accommodation. Even the unimproved Lapu-lapu Ferry of more than ten years ago to Cataingan, Masbate with folding cots was more comfortable because it was airy and there was passenger service unlike in SSR3. In SSR3 I never saw a crewman in uniform and most of the persons doing some jobs were just apprentices. Now I wonder what they will learn after their apprenticeship expires when they don’t even tend to the ship and the passengers.

When I woke up in the morning we were still in the middle of Visayan Sea and it was the Samar Sea islands that were dominating the seascape. I knew there is just a small chance of a ship encounter as this place has few ships sailing at daytime. It is a long time before the islands seemed to move and the very few passengers and crewmen at the lounge by the kiosk don’t know them better than me. Until we passed by Cataingan Bay the Masbate land when we were astride it already seemed featureless. I just tried to view the islands in the east especially when we were approaching Naranjo islands. Yeah, with so many islands in the place and lots of fishes I was imagining the place as the birthplace of the Tausugs and the Badjaos which linguistic research says it is and they even have a descendant in the place, the Abaknons.

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Islands in Samar Sea

Until the ship reaches the Uson area with its offshore islands Masbate island is not exciting to watch passing by. Maybe the lack of a true mountain range is the reason and though there is a coastal road few developments are visible. It is the islands on the starboard of the ship that seems to provide variety. And I was peering into it as if I am trying to peer into history and the peoples of the area. I feel that what is called Masbateno now could be the mother language of many languages. If our people came from Formosa and Bicol is their landing place on the way south and Bicol with its many dialects is a Visayan language then Masbate and the islands in Samar Sea might have been the key to the diaspora south.

The Uson area of Masbate also has a fascination to me as that was the only place in Masbate island that the Spaniards was able to control and the rest was controlled by the Moros. In Uson the Spaniards was able to established a galleon-building yard and the area south of the Bicol mountain ranges hosted the bulk of the galleon-building yards of the past as it had the best shipwrights then. I cannot help but think of that when I pass the place. By the way after Uson the ship will sail astride Ticao island too which was very important then to the galleon trade.

As forecast soon we were enveloped in heavy rain and visibility was hampered. The positive thing is everything cooled. It was a reminder that it was already habagat (southwest monsoon) season. We were now leaving the area where there is a gap in the far land mass. To the knowledgeable they know it is the San Bernardino Strait, the way of the galleons in the past into the Pacific Ocean (which is anything but pacific). It was also the way of our seafaring ancestors to Formosa and China, the Pintados with their boats that are even longer than the galleons. Their shipbuilding stopped when the Spaniards issued an edict outlawing them because they needed their skills for the galleons.

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Masbate port. We will try to dock sideways between the two ferries.

We arrived in Masbate after more than 14 hours of sailing and we had a long time docking because the Captain tried a 45-degree docking. Maybe the linear space was not enough for sideways docking. But then the Sta. Clara ferry Jack Daniel suddenly left ahead of time and maybe her Captain was apprehensive of our docking maneuver and she was not waiting for any more vehicles anyway. But with that the last chance I can take pictures of buses in Masbate port was gone. Regarding ferries there were still two Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) High Speed Crafts plus a small RORO of them that will spend the night in port.

I then just made my way to Masbate bus terminal where I found four buses and a few motor bancas in the nearby boat landing area for most have already left as it was already 4 o’clock in the afternoon and the activities in the two Masbate ports was already dying. I was clearly dissatisfied with my Masbate ship and bus spotting. My only consolation was eating the Reuben burger of Bigg’s Masbate but it cost over P200 already. I try to eat in Bigg’s whenever I am in Bicol because they can’t be found outside the region except for two of their outlets.

We left Masbate after more than three hours when night had already fallen after taking in livestock trucks and that meant cattle, carabao and goat (thanks there were no hogs). Masbate is known for livestock and the cattle was obviously for fattening. It was headed for Batangas and I assume when it reaches the market it will already be “Batangas beef”. The car deck of SSR3 when we left Masbate and actually they did not fully load it in Mandaue so the cargo in Masbate can still be loaded.

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For conversion to “Batangas cattle”

After dinnertime (there was actually no dinner), I was able to find a truck crewman that knows the area and like me has been around the country as he drifted from one job into another beginning with fishing. In terms of knowledge of the sea the contract fishermen in the big fishing fleets have almost the same knowledge as the seaman. Amazingly, he also knows buses. He has already lived in many places. We talked even past the Aroroy headland and lighthouse.

I was able to find a more comfortable position on an upper deck which I normally won’t take because of my condition but the only breeze was there. The alternative is to sleep on a bench in the bridge deck by the canteen. Even there it was dusty but at least it was airy. A practical passenger actually slept there and I also spent time there after a hypoglycemic attack when I needed to cool down.

In terms of uncleanliness I do not know if SSR3 has descended to the level of Viva Shipping Lines. Sorry to say it and no offense meant but SSR3 is only good for truck crews whixh is a hardy bunch and not passengers and may this serve as a warning. Cleaning is not part of the routine of the crew and the apprentices. If there is no regular schedule then MARINA could just withhold the passenger license like with what they did with Gothong Lines. It won’t matter on the part of AMTC anyway because for all practical purposes SSR3 is just a RORO Cargo ship now and she gets full anyway according to what I heard.

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Marinduque behind

When I woke up in the morning we were just between Marinduque island and the Batangas headland which corresponds to the town of San Juan. I laughed because that route will make one feel what the view is if the Starhorse ferry was still sailing the San Juan to Marinduque route. Astride San Juan the plains of Naujan of Mindoro, the former developed area of Mindoro before Calapan was very visible along with the two tall mountains of Mindoro. Up ahead were the islands in the Verde Island Passage. But I was wondering why our ship was following the coastal route. Were we reclassified into a “coaster”?

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Mindoro up ahead

I was able to engage in some productive exchanges with people connected with AMTC before entering Batangas Bay. From Matuco Point I was already busy taking photos of ships. The only positive thing about SSR3 was I was able to charge all my batteries. As usual there were a lot of ships in Batangas port and in the bay. Maybe my most notable finding was the reappearance of the former Siquijor Island II which is now The Pegasus. Our trip from Masbate lasted over 16 hours and it was near lunch when we arrived.

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Batangas port

Disembarking from the ship the ATI (Asian Terminals Inc.) shuttle picked us up. Nobody walks around in Batangas port because ISPS tells them any passenger is a possible saboteur and ATI is the new operator. I really cannot understand this practice of government of handing over fully-developed ports with a lot of traffic to private operators for just a small rental when a port like Batangas costs in the billions. A chance to engage in “golden signatures”, perhaps?

I did not have much time in Batangas port because upon surveying the ticketing booths I noticed the Starlite Pioneer was leaving at 1pm and I wanted to take that to assess the design of the new ship series of Starlite Ferries. I did not even have enough time to take enough bus pictures or have a proper lunch. But one thing I noticed in Starlite Ferries is a lot of passengers have food in see-through plastic meal boxes. I found out later that was already the new way of selling meals in Batangas and Calapan. Neat and practical and the price just matches that of fast food chains and there is less garbage and mess in the ship.

I found out the new Starlite Ferries has no meaningful difference over the older ferries except the side passageways are wider and there was an elevator for disabled persons. A wing passenger ramp like in Cebu is a better improvement for Batangas ferries because what they do is hold the passengers so that the vehicles can load or unload first. A wing ramp will enable simultaneous passenger and cargo loading and unloading which the Batangas ferries can’t do unlike in Central Visayas.

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By the way the passenger bridges of Batangas port are no longer used as shuttles just whisk away the passengers to their ship. So the design was wrong? Well, one does not need to go to the second floor of the passenger terminal building anymore and then go down to wharf level near the ship. Bus passengers meanwhile has to go down to pay the passenger terminal fee and board again their bus up to the ferry. Well it seems “cattle-herding” won’t go anytime soon in the ISPS ports. Why can’t the port assign collectors to go up the buses? It seems passenger comfort is an unknown objective to them. If passengers can move their asses so should they can for they are paid after. Maybe they can recruit former bus conductors to do that job for them.

Starlite Ferries built an open-air Economy section on top of the Japan-built passenger section to increase passenger capacity much like what shipping companies do with the surplus ships from Japan. It should have been my accommodation but the good thing is they upgraded us to the aircon section. That was a nice facility to cool down when ship spotting. My senior citizen fare was only P171 and I wondered how they computed that since it was lower than what I expected. Their fare are like the Economy of Oceanjet and FastCat which is about equivalent to the Economy of MSLI and I heard MSLI is suffering as a result. It is really good if there is true competition as fares go down.

It is nice taking a ferry to Calapan as there are many ships anchored in Batangas Bay and there are also encounters with ships from Calapan and ships traversing the Verde Island Passage. Sabang of Puerto Galera also becomes visible along with Maricaban island and Verde island. Traversing the strait one might think it was not habagat yet as the sea shows no sign of it. Approaching Calapan one has view of the town (it is a city), the settlements to the port and the port itself which looks very long now with many buildings already.

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A part of Calapan port

We arrived in Calapan port at past 3pm. Starlite Pioneer was not able to deliver on their 1 hour 45 minute promised crossing time and we took two hours in the 24-nautical mile route. I thought the cruising speed of the ship was 14.5 knots? That is what they advertised. But anyway the crew was nice and I was able to charge batteries a little. And riding a new ship is always nice.

Upon arrival in Calapan, I realized I had no time anymore to go to Puerto Galera because if I do so I will arrive there when the sun is already setting down and I still wanted to roam Calapan port and take photos of ships and buses there if there are any around (there was none as it was still to early for the buses from Panay and Occidental Mindoro). I was also interested in the Mindoro jeeps which are actually trucks in disguise as they can’t be found anywhere else.

After finding an eatery where I was able to charge battery I went to Calapan market to visit old haunts (I did business in Mindoro before) and see what changed, what remained. When I visited Calapan three years ago with two PSSS Moderators as hosts I was not able to figure out well the market as we were more on the outskirts and the new developments in Calapan. Roaming the market, I just did it on foot to better absorb things. I already tried to find our old place. I can no longer find it. The place of a lady Chinese friend was shuttered already. And the legendary Ampo was no longer there too.

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Calapan public market and terminal

Before leaving the city I took my first food that can be called a meal. That was also my rest. Then a heavy rain fell and that precluded any more roaming or getting around. Getting a tricycle also got difficult. It was already a little dark when I arrived back in the port and roaming and taking shots were compromised. I got back to the eatery to retrieve my battery. I was able to interview the owner a little about the old ferries of Calapan when all were still wooden-hulled and moving cargo were all mano-mano (by hands).

In Calapan port I made calls and verification through others of my possible rides. I have the phone of AMTC Batangas but they were not answering calls. They had a notice in their ticketing office that boarding of SSR3 is 6pm the next day. If that is the case then I can while away the time in Batangas port, the city and the terminal (or go to Puerto Galera). But I was warned aboard the ship that it usually takes 3 days before SSR3 heads back to Cebu. Even the crewman aboard SSR3 was not taking my calls.

My alternative if it really that long was to take the 7am St. Francis Xavier of 2GO the next day in the North Harbor of Manila. It will cost me more but I can cover North Harbor again. But I anticipated a problem with the 2GO ship. All charging are charged there at P5 for 10 minutes. It will cost me a fortune to charge all my batteries which take a total of over 12 hours. And that is what I cannot understand about 2GO when the likes of Trans-Asia can offer free charging by the bunk and that is also what I found out about the refurbished Filipinas Maasin of Cokaliong which was my ship back to Cebu. It’s hard when there are stockholders to please like in 2GO. They always expect dividends from profits.

I tried to avoid an early Calapan departure because I know there are less passenger comforts in Batangas port than in Calapan port. The first one is an ISPS port in the fullest sense and the passengers have a very small “corral” to roam around with few “grazing” areas like stores. That is not a problem in Calapan. If needed I can take a tricycle and head back to the city if I want a better eat or surroundings. If I go early there is no sense arriving in Manila at 2am. Manila is more dangerous and going to North Harbor early is also no good as the terminal is not open much ahead of the departure time (why waste power?).

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Issuance of free ferry tickets for bus passengers in Calapan port

So I decided on an 11pm FastCat where I can have a nice rest. I declined the Starlite ferry at the same time because it is the older Starlite Jupiter. I am not sure if it has individual seats in an air-conditioned compartment and visually I dislike seeing people sleeping on seats (Batangas ferries are known for scrimping on bunks unlike in Cebu). If it was a new Starlite ferry that is different from the Starlite Pioneer I would have taken it because I need charging.

While waiting in Calapan port I was able to befriend two guards and I had a lively conversation with them that I was able to get more sense of Calapan-Batangas shipping now. We also had some talks of the past of Mindoro. Nothing beats a good talk when one is just waiting anyway. While i was talking to them the buses from Panay island and Occidental Mindoro kept arriving and after a short wait they board their ferries. Dimple Star is already the dominant bus in the routes that cross from Batangas going south.

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The FastCat and the Starlite Jupiter arrived one after the other in Batangas after leaving one after the other in Calapan. Are the new ferries limiting their speeds already to save on fuel? We took nearly two hours to Calapan. My FastCat was the M5 and I have not ridden it before like the Starlite Jupiter. Their fares are about the same but I got the feeling the FastCat is more comfortable as it is a new ferry.

When I arrived in Batangas port at 1 am there was only one bus available, an N. De la Rosa Transit which is a Cubao/Kamias bus and passes through the Cubao underpass. I didn’t like it. I don’t want to go down in Makati and so I waited. But there was no other bus because a 2GO ship arrived ahead of us and vacuumed the waiting buses. At that hour going to the Batangas Grand Terminal will cost money by tricycle. Yes, one can get marooned in Batangas port after midnight.

Until 3am arrived. The N. De la Rosa bus has not yet left. Seems it was waiting for the 1am ferries from Calapan. 3am is the critical hour for me. If my bus is not leaving by that time then there is no more point going after a 7am ferry in North Harbor as I might just miss it. Good i hedged my bet and didn’t get a 2GO ticket yet although their ticketing office was open.

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A view of Batangas port while waiting for a bus

And from there my plans changed in an instant. Good I was from Luzon and I know the other alternatives. I can’t wait for the other 2GO ferries in North Harbor as the next two departures are at night and the arrival in Cebu will also be at night and what is the use of that for ship spotting? It is also not a good alternative to wait for the SSR3 for 3 days. I was also not prepared for any long-ranging diversion in terms of days as I was not prepared for that in many ways.

I have to go some other way back….

(To be continued…)