The Graceful Stars

The Graceful Stars is one of the most recent ships of Roble Shipping Incorporated, a major regional shipping line serving the ports of western Leyte (which I wonder why it is not a separate province as it is economically viable on its own, it has a ready capital in Ormoc and it speaks a different language from eastern Leyte) which sailed just in 2015 although she came to the Philippines earlier (as she stayed long in the Roble wharf in Pier 7 of Mandaue). As refitted, the Graceful Stars is an overnight ferry-RORO which means she is fitted with bunks, the main distinction of overnight ferries from the short-distance ferries (well, aside from the size, of course).

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I look at Graceful Stars from the evolutionary point of view of Roble Shipping. This company started from the Marao, a converted cargo ship and then from that humble beginning they were true with a humble path to greatness by first taking in the discards of the other shipping companies of Cebu and by concentrating on their strong route, the Cebu-Hilongos route which is now already a major route and a gateway to the province of Southern Leyte. Actually eight discards from other shipping companies passed through the fleet of Roble shipping (the Don Bonifacio, the first Guady Cristy, the second Guada Cristy, the Hilongos Diamond, the Hilongos Diamond – II, the Queen Belinda, the Leyte Diamond, and the Cebu Diamond) and that list does not even include the May Josephine, the former Surigao Transport which was more of a cargo ship too like the Marao. A lot of discards but those established what Roble Shipping is today. And there is nothing wrong with the path of Roble Shipping, they should be proud of it because what is important is where they ended up with and where they are now. Actually Roble Shipping in its early days even acted as the conservator of old ferries that might have ended up earlier in the breakers if they have not shown interest in them especially since those were already the obsolete cruiser ferries then (more difficult to load and unload but Roble started in arrastre anyway).

From that simple and humble beginning, Roble Shipping suddenly landed the Heaven Stars which was a former cruiseferry in Japan (cruiseferries are the ferries in Japan that had good amenities and accommodations compare to ferries that were more inclined to the taking in of rolling cargo). Heaven Stars was big for an overnight ferry and she had the amenities of a multi-day liner (I thought then Roble would use her for their approved route to Nasipit). Roble Shipping also snared the Wonderful Star, a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO which unfortunately was lost early (Note: that ferry is different from the current Wonderful Stars). The two ushered the entry of Roble Shipping into the age of ROROs, the successor type to the obsolete cruisers.

But still Roble Shipping was operating a mixed fleet as shown by their acquisition of the Ormoc Star, a cruiser ferry that became a loved ship in her namesake port and city. Then the Wonderful Stars arrived for the company and save for the Heaven Stars she was the most beautiful ship in the fleet of Roble Shipping, and an embodiment of what a moderately sized overnight ferry should be.

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Next to come for Roble Shipping was the Beautiful Stars which was just a little bigger than the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO before a slew of another discards from other shipping companies came which became the Joyful Stars, the Theresian Stars, the Blessed Stars and the Sacred Stars in their fleet. These discards needed practically needed no more refitting from Roble Shipping except maybe in the engine department. In modern shipping companies it is Roble Shipping which is the master in making discarded ships work.

The Wonderful Stars, Theresian Stars and Joyful Stars were significant for Roble Shipping because that firmly established the shipping company in the 70-meter class of ROROs (okay, the Theresian Stars is 0.3 meters short of 70 meters). Let it be noted that the Heaven Stars was 89 meters long and that will show the jump then made in size by Roble Shipping when they acquired her. These overnight ferry-ROROs might have been smaller than what Cebu Ferries, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines or Cokaliong Shipping Lines have or had (and to a certain extent George & Peter Lines too) but let it be noted that Roble Shipping is only operating routes to Leyte (until recently) and not to Mindanao unlike the other mentioned ones. And so Roble Shipping actually was leading then what can be called the second pack of Cebu ferries except that Lite Ferries’ fleet exploded later in size courtesy of the wand of a patron saint.

The Graceful Stars is in the 70-meter class thereby consolidating the hold of Roble Shipping in that class. And more importantly, the Graceful Stars was the attempt of Roble Shipping into the type of converting vehicle carriers into ROPAXes like what was done before by Cebu Ferries Corporation with their Cebu Ferry line of ships (Cebu Ferry 1, 2 and 3) and what was to be done later by Roble Shipping in their Oroquieta Stars. Is this the new mode of the company aside from acquiring Cargo RORO LCTs and CHA-ROs?

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The TKB Emerald by James Gabriel Verallo

The Graceful Stars is the former ship of Toyama Kaigai Boeki Shipping named the TKB Emerald and was classified as a Vehicle Carrier in Japan or which is that used in ferrying vehicles in relatively short distances. This is different from the Pure Car Carriers which ferry new vehicles between countries or the Cargo ROROs or RORO Cargo ships which are bigger, have a bigger capacity and go longer distances and even to another adjacent country. A Vehicle Carrier has a limited accommodation for passengers which are usually the crew or drivers of the vehicles and that is their difference over the ROPAXes.

As such converting a Vehicle Carrier to a ROPAX or RORO-Passenger ship means a lot of steel still has to be added into the ship in the form of additional decks and passenger amenities and accommodations. And that is the difference in the conversion if the original ship is a RORO Cargo ship for in that type of ship not much steel is still needed and in some cases steel has to be cut to pave way for windows.

The TKB Emerald took long in conversion and much longer than the Cebu Ferry line of ships (about four years from 2011). With a surplus of ships Roble Shipping didn’t need to rush and the refitting of Joyful Stars and Theresian Stars took precedence (otherwise the two would have rotted). The conversion won’t also be that straighforward as the TKB Emerald has a sloping ramp which slid down to the car deck and two passenger decks had to be fitted (single passenger decks are just for the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs). And I have heard then too and confirmed it with the databases that the engine of the TKB Emerald was on the small side at just 1,370 horsepower and a single engine at that when ferries of this size normally have two engines with 2,000 horsepower as the very minimum (many even pack 4,000 horsepower or more). Adding lots of steel also slows down the ferry because of the added weight. With this and even with the aid of turbocharging one cannot expect TKB Emerald to run fast. However, one of the strengths of the TKB Emerald is a long and good three-piece ramp which is excellent for loading and unloading vehicles including container vans mounted on truck-trailers

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TKB Emerald magically converted into Graceful Stars (Photo by James Gabriel Verallo)

The Graceful Stars is 73.7 meters in length over-all with a breadth of 13.6 meters and a depth of 7.6 meters (which is on the deep side which means greater stability) and an original Gross Tonnage (GT) of 1,953 tons and an original design speed of 11.5 knots (which was not bad then but then a lot of steel has to be added to her in her conversion). She was built by Shin Kochi Jyuko Company Limited in Kochi, Japan in 1984 with the IMO Number 8314312. The ship is of steel construction and had a stern ramp leading to the car deck.

As rebuilt she already has two passenger decks with a little squat appearance (but not looking bad) as the bridge determined the height of the superstructure unlike the Cebu Ferry 1 of Cebu Ferries Corporation. This is not really unusual as Cokaliong Shipping has low-looking ferries too. The bridge was lengthened up to the sides as the original bridge is the small type.

In the lower passenger deck at the front are the highest class which are the Suites and the Cabins. These have a Chinese and wooden motif. Before reaching that from the stern where the passengers board is the Tourist section of the ship. The upper passenger deck of the ship contains the Economy Class which is open-air, as normal. Two gangways serve as the entry and exit for the passengers.

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Cabins and Suites of Graceful Stars (does it still look like a Vehicle Carrier?)

As rebuilt the Gross Tonnage (GT) of the ship went down to 970 which is an under-declaration with a Net Tonnage (NT) of 660. The ratio of the NT to the GT is suspicious. I have yet to learn of the passenger capacity of the ship.

When I rode with her to Baybay, her usual route, our ride was comfortable and it did not disappoint. The ship was clean and the aircon was cool. Our trip to Baybay took eight hours and for a distance of a little under 60 nautical miles that means our cruising speed was some 8 knots or so. I heard the maximum she can do is 10 knots although when first fielded I heard tales of late arrivals as in a breakfast docking already from a 9pm departure in Cebu. I heard most of the passengers did not complain as that is still a good arrival and they appreciated the superior amenities and accommodations compared to the earlier ships that served the Baybay route. Meanwhile, her competitor Rosalia 3 of Lapu-lapu Shipping with 3 engines and speedy for a small overnight ferry sped up her passage as that is all she can improve from being an old ferry of fishing vessel origins. To passengers still going far her 3am arrival will matter (her number matches well with that and so renaming her to Rosalia 3am to highlight her strength might be in order, pun intended).

But right now the Graceful Stars lords over the Baybay route and the funny thing is she is even better than the ships fielded in the premier Ormoc route which costs significantly more. And it is doubly funny because for nearly the same distance the Ormoc ships cost much more than the Baybay ships which turn out to be a bargain. For the P510 Tourist fare of Ormoc one can have a more luxurious and fresher-smelling ride in Graceful Stars for P380 and the difference will be enough for a Jollibee breakfast just outside the port gates of Baybay and the change will still be enough for a bus ride to Ormoc. Baybay by the way is a good alternate point of entry if one is headed to Tacloban or to any Samar town. It is good that she is in Baybay because if she is in Hilongos because if she is in the latter her lack of speed will show because the port is gateway to the Southern Leyte towns and so a pre-dawn arrival is preferred there so the passengers will arrive at their homes at breakfast time.

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Rosalia 3 and Graceful Stars in Baybay

It seems Roble Shipping made a correct bet in acquiring and refurbishing the Graceful Stars. In the Baybay route her lack of speed does not easily show as passengers don’t normally grumble unless the arrival is already past breakfast time already. Many actually don’t want to be bothered from sleep of the anchor dropping and the shrilly announcements in the public address system and the bustle of passengers moving and the porters coming. And her superior accommodations means she will lord over Baybay for a long time that I fear that if other older ships of Roble are rotated to Baybay (like the Joyful Stars and the Theresian Stars) the passengers there might grumble with the change.

It seems the former TKB Emerald has already found a home in Baybay and it seems she will be in there for a long time and dominate that route.

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The Ship That Might Have Eluded the Grasp of TASLI But Helped Medallion Transport Move in Rank

In this decade, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) has been buying the discards of the other shipping companies. They acquired the Trans-Asia 5 from Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) which was the former Butuan Bay 1. From Gothong Southern Shipping Lines they acquired in a package deal the Trans-Asia 8 and the Trans-Asia 9 which were the former Dona Rita Sr. and Dona Conchita Sr., respectively. And from Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp. (PSACC), they acquired the Trans-Asia 10 which was the former Princess of the Earth.

In those acquisitions, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines batted only two out of four as the Trans-Asia 5 and the Trans-Asia 9 did not perform according to expectations. After publicized episodes of her single engine conking out, MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the maritime regulatory agency, more than gently suggested something radical be done about the Trans-Asia 5 (actually it was the threat of the cancellation of her Certificate of Public Conveyance). Now she is just a RORO Cargo ship albeit a successful one and her superstructure has already been modified and the passenger accommodations had already been taken out.

Trans-Asia 9 now has episodes of late arrivals and word of it has began to seep out. Even as Dona Conchita Sr., it was already known that her engines were no longer than strong and that was even admitted by her Captain then. For the two ships it is a big sayang as Trans-Asia Shipping Lines really poured money into the two vessels so that they will be good overnight ships (the Trans-Asia 5‘s interiors were superb). However, it was the old engines that failed them.

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Photo by James Gabriel Verallo

These gambles of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines backfired on them. After forgetting what brought them to the top before which was buying good ships from abroad, both cruisers and ROROs, it seems they have lost their leadership of the Visayas-Mindanao routes to Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) which made it a habit to buy ships from abroad every two years. Now their fleet looks modern by local standards while TASLI’s increasingly looks old.

There is actually nothing wrong with buying cast-offs of other shipping companies. It actually depends on the ship one is buying. The Trans-Asia 8 was predicted to be good for them as this ship had a good record in Gothong Southern and it is not yet that old. The Princess of the Earth was also a reliable ship (except recently) for PSACC although she is also getting on in years now.

There was actually a good cast-off that eluded the grasp of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. This was the Love-1 of Moreta Shipping Lines of Manila. When I first saw her docked in Ouano for refitting, I thought she was destined for TASLI. Her length, her size and her speed all screamed she was perfect for the routes of TASLI. This ship was not too old and in Moreta Shipping Lines she was not used heavily because she came when the routes of Moreta was already winding down because of the assault of the intermodal system. Late in her career in Moreta, she was sailing just once a week.

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Photo by Edison Sy

The Love-1 was the former Ferry Okiji in Japan of the Oki Kisen. She measures 93.1 meters (88.3 meters in LBP) by 15.3 meters by 6.0 meters. The length is perfect for TASLI although the breadth is maybe less than what they might desire but then that breadth is better than the 15.0 meters of Trans-Asia 2 and that ship has just an LOA of 88.0 meters. So that means Love-1 is a little bigger than Trans-Asia 2, a ship that TASLI loves.

The design speed of Love-1, the maximum speed that can be sustained when new was 18.5 knots while the design speed of Trans-Asia 2 was only 16 knots. Love-1‘s Daihatsu engines are bigger than the Daihatsu engines of Trans-Asia 2. It is 8,400hp vs 6,000hp. Trans-Asia 2‘s passenger capacity is 655 while the passenger capacity of Love-1 was 790.

Actually, Love-1, though originating from Manila was not a true multi-day liner. She was actually an overnight ship as the length of the voyages of her routes takes less than a day (an overnight run plus a few more hours which was similar to the former WG&A ferries that did the Dumaguit and Roxas City routes). In accommodations, though TASLI is known for top class she is not that far behind. In Ouano, it seemed most of the work done in Love-1 so she will fit the needs of buyer Medallion Transport was the construction of wing passenger ramps which is de rigeaur for Cebu ships and the closing of the side ramps.

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Photo by homepage2.nifty

The Ferry Okiji was built by Kanda Shipbuilding Company in Kure, Japan in 1979 (the same year Trans-Asia 10 was built). In Japan she had 2,584gt which rose to 3,184gt here because of the additional metal for the Economy class. Her net tonnage is 964 which looks to be understated. Since she was doing the Okinawa route in Japan which is in the open sea, her sides are high. Her permanent ID is IMO 7927099.

This ferry was sold to Moreta Lines in 2004, a few months after the Roxas-Caticlan route that connected Mindoro and Panay islands was opened. She mainly did the Dumaguit and Roxas City route for Moreta Shipping Lines although she was also used for the San Jose, Occidental Mindoro route of the company. In the middle of the 2000’s, WG&A along with Negros Navigation was already vacating Dumaguit and Roxas City routes due to the onslaught of the intermodal trucks and buses.

Moreta Shipping Lines still tried though but even before the end of the last decade it was obvious the ship from Manila won’t last against the buses and the trucks which were multiplying in the route year after year. Love-1 found herself increasingly not being used and at times she was just tied up in North Harbor along with the other ships of the company which were Nikki and Conchita.

Soon, Moreta Shipping Lines offered for sale her three ferries to just concentrate on container shipping. In 2011, Conchita went to Besta Shipping Lines and became the Baleno 168. In 2013, in a package deal, Love-1 and Nikki went to Medallion Transport which was a surprise since before this all the Medallion Shipping had were ships the size of basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs which they try to fit on overnight routes. The only bigger ship they had was the double-ended RORO Lady of Miraculous Medal which is 46.0 meters in length.

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Lady of Love in Cebu for conversion to Lady of Love (Photo by James Gabriel Verallo)

The Love-1 became the Lady of Love. I had a laugh when I heard the name from her guard in Ouano. At first I am not sure if he was pulling my leg. But the name became true and she became a Medallion Transport ferry doing the Cebu-Palompon route which was a new route for the company. This route was overlooked by the other shipping companies doing the Cebu-Leyte routes. Few realized it then that it was a good alternative to the Cebu-Ormoc route like the Cebu-Baybay route.

Cokaliong Shipping Lines was the one doing the Cebu-Palompon route after the smaller shipping companies on that route sunk. But they had no ship permanently fielded there and were just using the 7th day of their ships. Lady of Love has an easy entry because she can match the ships of Cokaliong toe-to-toe and she was even better than the lesser ships of CSLI. With rolling rates more competitive than those offered in Cebu-Ormoc route, soon her car deck was full of trucks and other vehicles.

Passengers also began to notice she was superior than the ships of Roble Shipping and Lite Ferries that were doing the Cebu-Ormoc route. Even her passenger fares were competitive. And she is fast. I once saw her docking in Cebu at 1:30 in the morning. I thought those passengers still going to the northern and southern tip of Cebu have the chance to arrive there by breakfast time should they decide to disembark and go to CNBT or CST.

Now the route of Roble Shipping to Naval, Biliran is already kaput. For rolling cargo, the Palompon route to Biliran is a good alternative especially if the rates are cheaper. Besides, Palompon is also a good and nearer entry to the towns of the northwest corner of Leyte island which has lost their ships from Cebu. Palompon is also a good entry to the towns of Isabel and Matag-ob.

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The Lady of Love proved to be an ace for Medallion Transport which now has a roaring route to Palompon. She also elevated Medallion Transport to the first rank of Cebu-Leyte shipping companies from a second-run position. I even wonder now if Roble Shipping or Lite Ferries can claim that they have a ship better or equal than Lady of Love. The Lady of Love became the queen of the Cebu-Leyte ships and ironically she is not even doing the premier Cebu-Ormoc route.

I just wonder why TASLI did not make a bid for Love-1. Was the package for Nikki a deterrent? But that can be sold if they do not want it (it is too small for TASLI maybe except for their Tagbilaran-Cagayan de Oro route).

Now TASLI obviously looks that they lack passenger ships. I just wonder had the two ships instead went to them. Without the two Medallion Transport can’t claim parity with Roble and Lite in the Cebu-Leyte routes. And TASLI would not have been wanting for passenger ships and they might have had a ship to match the Filipinas Cebu of Cokaliong in the Cebu-Iloilo route.

Maybe it was not in the cards that Love-1 would go to TASLI. Maybe what was in the cards is Medallion Transport would reach first rank in the Cebu-Leyte routes through the Lady of Love and Lady of All Nations (the name of the Nikki in their fleet).

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The Lady of Love certainly helped Medallion Transport establish itself. But then good things certainly does not last and last year engine problems disabled the ferry and she was laid up for half a year and the Lady of All Nations had to carry the load for two routes, the Palompon and the Bato routes. That was certainly a heavy load for an old ferry which was also laid up for half a year after her own share of engine troubles.

The PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) was told the Lady of Love was waiting for parts from Japan. Well, if re-manufacturing of parts are needed the waiting time is certainly months long. I was told only Japan and Singapore do this kind of job with the former supposedly having better quality. So, for the last few months, the Lady of Love was laid up in Ouano north of the E. Ouano House. She was monitored to do sea trials where she did 15 knots until she “hibernated” again.

Then suddenly a news exploded! The Lady of Love will be doing a Cebu-Surigao route and enter Mindanao and that was just a few days ago. That route was the base of the weakest ferries of Cokaliong Shipping Lines as they have a monopoly of this route after their competitor Cebu Ferries quit the Vismin routes to go elsewhere supposedly for greener pastures.

But not to be outdone and become the butt of jokes, Cokaliong suddenly diverted a good ferry of theirs, the Filipinas Cebu which was formerly doing a Cebu-Iloilo route to run head-on with the Lady of Love (therefore the match happened in another route). So the languid Cebu-Surigao route suddenly had a marquee match-up. The Lady of Love is thought to be the flagship of Medallion Transport, she being their best ship. Meanwhile, many also think the Filipinas Cebu is the flagship of Cokaliong Shipping given her name and route assignment.

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In terms of speed like what was shown in their first night match-up, the Lady of Love will have a slight edge having a higher design speed although she is the older ship. In amenities, the Lady of Love will probably not cede anything being formerly a Manila ship and the best ship of Moreta Shipping. A member of PSSS, James Verallo said in terms of restaurant and food, the Lady of Love has the edge. In passenger service and cleanliness, Cokaliong Shipping is known for that and I wonder if the Lady of Love will be a match.

All in all, the two ferries might be able to slug it out toe-to-toe and so the decisive thing that another member of PSSS Badz Bado weighed in might be the fares. I myself might add the cargo rates can also be decisive. Medallion Transport has the record that when it entered Palompon she suddenly offered the cheapest rolling rates and it was Cokaliong which she challenged there. So this new match of them is like a rubber match. It seems Medallion Transport does not fear challenging Cokaliong in its home route.

I commend Medallion Transport for having the guts to enter the Vismin route, stirring the pot and making it lively again after years of stagnation because of the tailspin of Cebu Ferries and the obvious lack of gusto shown by Trans-Asia Shipping in the last few years. I also criticize two Cebu shipping companies that were ahead of Medallion Transport but which pussyfooted a lot. The two are Roble Shipping and Lite Shipping.

Long ago, the former has a franchise to Nasipit but didn’t serve it. Lately, they had a ship named after Oroquieta in Misamis Occidental, the Oroquieta Stars but they were just using it in a Leyte route. So until now that company has no route to Mindanao when to think the gates to the Vismin route had long been left open by Cebu Ferries.

Meanwhile, Lite Shipping has been able to open two Vismin routes. One of this is their route to Plaridel in Misamis Occidental which seemed to form part of the reason of the demise of Palacio Lines. But in the over-all scheme of Mindanao, Plaridel is just a minor route. It only becomes greater because it also connects to Siquijor and Bohol and becomes the connection of the migrants of the two provinces to Mindanao.

More than a year ago, Lite Shipping used their old Lite Ferry 8 to open a route to Cagayan de Oro. I applaud them for their efforts to extend the life of that old ferry which they even re-engined but for that route that ship is outgunned and maybe that was the reason they have to offer half off the fares. For the size of Lite Shipping which is in a race to match the number of ferries of Montenegro Shipping Lines, they should already be able to afford a ferry worth the premier route to Mindanao from Cebu.

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Photo by John Carlos Cabanillas

I just hope that with this move of Medallion Transport those two mentioned companies will feel challenged. It is certainly time for them to enter new routes and ports. And if they need some “brave pills”, they can maybe ask who is the supplier of that to Montenegro Lines which suddenly entered the dangerous and overcrowded Zamboanga-Jolo route. Well, Roble also tried to enter that route via the Theresian Stars shipping company but then they have a powerful politician of Sulu as partner to that venture.

Who will be the winner then? It will be the riding public and the shippers, of course, as usual.