The Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation

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King Frederick by Britz Salih of PSSS.

On paper, the Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and Penafrancia Shipping Corp. of Bicol are two different companies but in actuality like Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) and Marina Ferries the two are simply legal-fiction companies of each other. That means in operation and routes they cannot be distinguished except for some differences in the livery and in the name, of course. They share the same crew and schedules and the same port and they operate as one. Companies resort to this tactic to avoid wholesale suspensions of fleets in case of accidents and also to minimize the damage in case of a suit. But in the case I am discussing here there is a deeper reason than simple maneuvering.

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Nelvin Jules by Mark Ocul of PSSS.

Sta. Clara Shipping started with the clamor of travelers and shippers across the San Bernardino Strait for better services. What happened was that when the competition of the dominant Bicolandia Shipping Lines of Eugenia Tabinas, the Cardinal Shipping, Newport Shipping and Badjao Navigation collapsed and newcomer PSEI Transport Services was TKO’d in the courts and Luzvimin Ferry Services moved elsewhere, there was a swing from dog-eat-dog competition to lousy services that happens when a company is already in a dominant position and the government-owned Maharlika I which was operating a longer route to San Isidro, Northern Samar wasn’t able to offer a credible competition. There came always the complaint of “alas-puno” departures (that means the ferry only leaves when it is already full). I was surprised that in the petition submitted by Sta. Clara Shipping to be allowed to serve the route practically all the Mayors of Leyte signed there.

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Hansel Jobett by Orly Calles of PSSS.

Sta. Clara Shipping started with provisional authorities to sail and their first two vessels were the King Frederick which was named after the top dog Frederick Uy and the Nelvin Jules. [In Bicol, Frederick Uy is associated not with Sta. Clara Shipping but with the Partido Marketing Corp. (PMC) which is now the top trading firm in the region after it surpassed the old title holder Co Say.] The sister ships were fielded in 1999 and the two were joined by its “cousin” Hansel Jobett (“The Dragon”) in 2004. The King Frederick and Nelvin Jules were newer, faster and better-appointed than the ships of Eugenia Tabinas (this is my description here as she was also using legal-fiction companies) and in a short time after she lost in the courts for her claim of “pioneering” status (which she tried to equate to barring entry of other competitors) she was already crying “Uncle!”.

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Eugene Elson by Dominic San Juan of PSSS/

An amicable settlement was reached and Eugenia Tabinas sold out lock, stock and barrel to Frederick Uy and his partners and this happened in 2006 and the fleet and routes were thereby transferred not to Sta. Clara Shipping but to the newly-created Penafrancia Shipping Corp. and the reason for that that I heard was that the latter has similar but still a different set of owner-partners than the former. Well, there is such a thing that can be called the Bicol-type of partnership where the ownership and partnership varies from ship to ship (or bus to bus, if you will) and that was the reason why in the sale and dissolution of 168 Shipping two ships of the company went to Gov. Antonio Kho of Masbate and another went to Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) that is owned by another Governor.

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Don Benito Ambrosio II and LCT ST 888 by Ken Ledesma

In the transfer, the “flagship-by-name” Eugenia became the Eugene Elson, the “flagship-by-size” Princess of Mayon, the biggest ferry in Bicol that time became the Don Benito Ambrosio II and the Princess of Bicolandia became the Don Herculano. The transfer was marred by two strong typhoons and the second one was legendary Typhoon “Reming” which was the strongest in Bicol for three-and-a half decades. Lost in the first typhoon in Tabaco port was the venerable Northern Samar, a refitted ferry that initially came from Newport Shipping of Northern Samar and has been serving in the route since 1982. In Super-typhoon “Reming”, the Princess of Bicolandia which has no functioning engine because of an engine room fire was pulled by the storm surge from its dock in Mayon Docks in Tabaco City, Albay. No one thought she will be seen again but lo and behold! she was found the next day atop a sandbar in a neighboring town and from there she was towed to the Villono shipyard (now the Nagasaka Shipyard) in Tayud, Cebu where she would spend the next three years being repaired and when she came out she was already the Don Herculano. To refurbish the old fleet the newly-arrived Anthon Raphael was added to the fleet of Penafrancia Shipping in 2008.

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Don Herculano by Edsel Benavides of PSSS/

Before Anthon Raphael came, the Ever Queen of Pacific was bought by Sta. Clara Shipping from Ever Lines Inc. of Zamboanga in 2007. After refitting her from an overnight ferry with bunks to a short-distance ferry with seats she was then rolled out as the Mac Bryan. This brought the fleet of the twin companies to eight, a mixture of relatively big ones and three that were smaller, the Eugene Elson, Don Herculano and the Mac Bryan. By that time, the twin companies were basically serving two routes, the Matnog-Allen (BALWHARTECO) route and the Tabaco-Virac route. The Anthon Raphael first served the Pasacao-Masbate route, a missionary route offered by MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency but they soon withdrew from that after realizing that the habagat (Southwest monsoon) will broadside the ship there and that it is not a competitive route due to the long sea distance. She was transferred to the Bulan-Masbate route but geography still said she cannot compete with the Pilar-Masbate ferries and this is similar to the lesson taught to the Maharlika ferry of Archipelago Philippine Ferries which plied that route before. Bulan is still a long drive to Pilar junction where the truck from Bulan and Pilar will meet. The difference is approximately 100 kilometers which is roughly equivalent to 25 liters of diesel fuel and that is no small deal.

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Anthon Raphael by Orly Calles of PSSS.

In 2012, Sta. Clara Shipping acquired the Strong Heart 1 of Keywest Shipping. This was the former second Asia Japan of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) and was acquired through dacion en pago for fuel advances when a syndicate hit the company (they thought then that the Trans-Asia 3 was a fuel guzzler; I don’t know if this was the reason why the sister ships Trans-Asia and Asia China was disposed  to the breakers). However, she was not immediately refitted and repaired and she languished long in Strong Heart 1just serving as crew quarters and office. That was a boon for PSSS as she became the reason of the group to visit the shipyard (and visit the other ships there too). But when she was rolled out she already have the new name Nathan Matthew. In the process she lost part of her superstructure. Well, as a short-distance ferry, there is more passenger capacity with seats than with bunks.

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Jack Daniel by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

In 2015, the beautiful Azuki Maru was acquired from Olive Lines and after some refitting in Nagasaka Shipyard she became the Jack Daniel (no, there are no offerings of that drink aboard). This was about the same time that Sta. Clara was in a struggle to build their own port in Allen, Northern Samar and move out of their old home port BALWHARTECO in the same town. The difficulty was not in the technical or financial sense. It just so happened that the owner of BALWHARTECO (an old private port that dissolved the old municipal port of Allen) is actually the Mayor of the town and he refused to give a Mayor’s permit. That was no problem with Sta. Clara Shipping which had been in legal bruises before and any good lawyer will easily tell that the Mayor will lose in court through a Mandamus and his act will probably earn him a graft case easy. And so the construction of the port continued and it was not delayed because although padlocked the construction equipment were already inside the port.

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Mac Bryan and Nathan Matthew in Jubasan Port. Photo by Ken Ledesma of PSSS.

This new port was in Jubasan in Allen when finished was a notch higher than their old home port as the entire compound was already completely concreted right from the start. The only problem was strong current (maybe because of the proximity of Capul Island) so much so that they withdrew the Jack Daniel here as they feared its beautiful glass windows could shatter. Aboard a moored ship here one can feel it shudder and the dents on the sides of the ship is proof of the strong current. Whatever, Jubasan Port is so clean and organized and an urban-bred passenger will not be turned off by its restaurants (they have nice tables and chairs to lounge in and appreciate the ships and views and that is not easy in an enclosed passenger terminal building).

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Adrian Jude by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

In 2017, Sta. Clara Shipping purchased the last two Tamataka Maru ships still remaining in Japan in a “buy one, take one” manner and this ended that line there and it is a little sad because a lot of Tamataka Maru ferries went to the Philippines starting with the very first in the series which was the Tamataka Maru No. 21 which became the Cardinal Ferry 1 in 1979 and became the country’s first ever short-distance RORO (two ROROs anteceded her but both were first used as liners) and she also served the San Bernardino Strait crossing. The two were sister ships and after refitting in Nagasaka Shipyard, Tamataka Maru No. 85 became the Adrian Jude and Tamataka Maru No. 87 became the Almirante Federico, again a play on the name of the top honcho of Sta. Clara Shipping. The two then became the biggest ships in the combined fleet though not necessarily in the official Gross Tonnage as MARINA oftentimes play quirks with this measure.

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Almirante Federico by Naval Arch. Rey Bobiles of PSSS.

After the sister ships Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. joined the new paradigm, that of the Cargo RORO LCTs which cater to trucks and which do not carry passengers unless those are the crews of the trucks. The San Bernardino St. crossing really needs this type of ship as before there were plenty of complaints about the kilometers-long truck queues in peak season and after the usual weather disturbances. The intermodal trucks which were second-priority to buses before (because it has passengers and they will complain of delays) now have their dedicated transport.

Sta. Clara Shipping’s first Cargo RORO LCT was the LCT Aldain Dowey which was acquired in 2017 and actually this was formerly the locally-built LCT Ongpin but was lengthened. The next year they acquired the LCT ST888 from China and this was assigned to Penafrancia Shipping. Both crafts are slow by ferry standards but that is the characteristic of LCTs. They were not built for speed and buses and sedans are not fit for them as they were not really built for comfort especially with their limited passenger accommodations.

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LCT Aldain Dowey by Anthon Briton of PSSS.

Right now, Sta. Clara Shipping is (…censored…) like the other shipping companies of note and that is just a reflection on how intermodal shipping is booming across the country. But in the Bicol region there is no doubt that the combined Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping is the tops not only in ships because remember they also have their own port and the worth of that will approach that of a good and big overnight ferry that is still in a good condition. Now they are also operating in the Liloan-Lipata route across Surigao Strait.

Over-all, Sta. Clara Shipping is one good success story that is nice to tell and I wish them more successes in the future.

 

The Unsinkable Ferry

Me and Angelo Blasutta, owner of Grosstonnage.com, a very good maritime database but now defunct collaborated in finding the IMO Numbers of Philippine ships so their origins can be traced. This difficulty of tracing our ships is brought about by the continued refusal of MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the local maritime regulatory agency, to use IMO Numbers which are unique, lifetime identification numbers of the ships (to be fair, the MARINA of Marcos’ time used IMO Numbers). Me and Angelo were able to trace a few dozen ships but most simply eluded our tracing. Many are impossible to trace because they were local-built and did not possess IMO Numbers from the very start. The sad thing is that consisted the majority of our fleet.

One of the ships that eluded me is about an “unsinkable ship” which has Japan origins. Her specifications is near that of ferry Sanyo Maru but international maritime databases say she was broken up (well, that is not an ironclad guarantee because some “broken” ships ended up in other shores). I asked Rey Bobiles, then the nautical engineer of Sta. Clara Shipping Corp., sister company of the owner Penafrancia Shipping Corp. and he laughed and said they also can’t trace the IMO Number of the ship.

In late 2006, the ferry I am talking about can’t sail. She was then known as the Princess of Bicolandia. The ship was hit by a minor engine room fire and her engine control panel was burned and so she was laid up in Mayon Docks in Tabaco, Albay awaiting parts for repairs in the engine room. While in this condition, the strongest typhoon to ever visit Bicol region in recorded history, the Typhoon “Durian” which was better known locally as Typhoon “Reming” came in November of 2006. This super-typhoon had 10-minute sustained center winds of 195kph and gusts of 250kph.

For comparison, Typhoon “Yolanda” which wrecked Eastern Visayas in November 2013 had 10-minute sustained center winds of 200kph and Typhoon “Ruping”, the strongest typhoon to ever hit Cebu City in November 1990 has 10-minute sustained center winds of 190kph. All three generated powerful storm surges and all were deadly to shipping (Typhoon “Reming” was least deadly for shipping because Bicol has good ship shelters including the legendary and historical Sula Channel). Incidentally, all came in the month of November. We in Bicol know the amihan typhoons are the strongest ones.

But the Princess of Bicolandia can’t run and can’t hide. Mayon Docks secured the ships in their shipyard but with the strength and height of the storm surge the Princess of Bicolandia was pulled from her docking place by the storm surge. The people in Mayon Docks never thought they would see her again. After all, so, so many ships with crews and running engines got sunk in lesser typhoons and here is a super-typhoon for the ages and the ship was crewless and powerless (literally). And this is a RORO with no scantling at the bow area and at the stern and so water will easily slosh through her semi-open vehicle deck.

But lo and behold! The next morning, some rescue personnel braving the highway of the next town of Malilipot, Albay saw an unusual scene. There was a RORO ship sitting on a sandbar just off the shore. Not wrecked, not listing, not capsized. And so the news reached the shipyard and they can’t believe it. She was left there for a time and so the Princess of Bicolandia became an unusual “tourist spot”. Most thought the ship was gone, dead and will just be a “sitting monument” that will be chopped later on. That time was a period of indetermination because it happened during the sale and turn-over of Bicolandia Shipping Lines, the previous owner of the Princess of Bicolandia to Sta. Clara Shipping Company and Bicolandia Shipping Lines became the Penafrancia Shipping Company. The sale was lock, stock and barrel.

In May 2010, while in the company of fellow ship spotters of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) I was jolted while in Villono Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu. I saw a gray ship and I was electrified (really! I had goose bumps) because I immediately recognized she was the former Princess of Bicolandia which was then known in Bicol as a lost ship. I drew closer, to ask the skeleton crew. No, they said they do not know the name. I told them the name and the origins and the accident. It drew a blank stare. I did not know if they were playing poker with me.

The repairs in Villono Shipyard took over one-and-a-half years. On December 19, 2011 Vincent Paul Sanchez of PSSS espied her pulling out of the shipyard and heading north to Bicol. When he posted the photo I felt proud and ecstatic. Imagine a ship surviving such ordeal and sailing again! The great ships Princess of the Orient and Princess of the Stars did not even manage to survive typhoons of lesser magnitude than Princess of Bicolandia. Maybe the Bicol sili and Bicol Express were her charms. I knew when she reaches Bicol that jaws will drop (later Matnog porters confirmed to me that when they saw the ship they cannot believe their eyes too). Many really thought she was gone already, chopped up and dead. Her new name under Penafrancia Shipping was Don Herculano.

Don Herculano was a ship built in 1970 according to MARINA records. She is supposedly built by Shin Nihon, a shipyard I have difficulty in tracing. I am not sure if that is the same as Nihon Zosen Tekko KK which has records. This ship is a short-distance ferry-RORO with steel hull and ramps in the bow and at the stern (now closed). She has two masts, two funnels (only one before), two passenger decks, a forecastle and a single vehicle deck. Don Herculano has a raked stem and a transom stern.

The ship’s measurements are 46.4 meters length by 12.0 meters beam with a depth of 3.2 meters. Her original gross tonnage was 490 which was probably correct but this was re-declared to 1,029 so she can sail at typhoon signal number 1 (1,000gt ships can sail then at that storm signal but that is useless now since the rule changed; the rule for motor bancas are now the one used for steel-hulled ferries of whatever gross tonnage).

Don Herculano‘s net tonnage is 454 now and up from just 98 (which is probably underdeclared) as Princess of Bicolandia. She packs in 855 passengers all in seating accommodations and she has about 130 lane-meters in RORO capacity. She is powered by twin 1,000hp Daihatsu engines which propelled her to 13.5 knots in her better days.

I was able to interview her Captain when I sailed with her in the Allen-Matnog route. He confirmed to me that when found in the sandbar her engine room was half-flooded. I asked if they were able to order a new engine control panel. “No” was the answer because none was available in the surplus market, there are no more manufacturers and so they simply rigged switches and controls. There was even no oil separator available and so they just do things manually.

In the shipyard, they made repairs to the engines, the hull, the rudder and the propellers which were damaged by the typhoon. That was why she stayed a long time in Villono Shipyard. I moved around the ship. All traces of storm damage were no longer visible and not even in the engine room which I also visited. The Yanmar auxiliary engine was new, they said. The bridge was clean, spic and span.

Today, she mainly sails the Matnog-Allen route. She holds a powerful reputation there as people know the trials she went through and which she survived. “Hindi lulubog” (She will not sink.), that is what some whisper. I do agree.

The MATNOG-ALLEN ROUTE

Since the historical days of yore, Samar has always been connected to Bicol. And that can be proven true from prehistory. How? Ethnologue, which is used by the United Nations for language analysis has reclassified the supposed “Bicol” dialect of southeastern Sorsogon as a dialect of Waray (and I asked a Sorsoganon friend and she declared to me they can talk to Samarenos without translation). This connection was also true in the days of the pre-Spanish Waray sea warriors (which were later called the “Pintados” by the Spaniards because of their body tattooing) who roamed the seas of our eastern seaboard up to the present-day Taiwan. In the glory period of our shipbuilding and seafaring traditions, Bicol and Samar were among the premier shipbuilding sites in our archipelago before we fell to the Spanish colonizers who then denied we had such traditions.
Converted to Christianity and ravaged by the hardships of forced labor of galleon-building for the Spaniards, Samar and Bicol did not lose its links. In Spanish times Samar boats called in Bicol places to trade and to pay homage to the premier religious image and pilgrimage site in the old Ibalon province (which now encompasses Albay, Sorsogon, Catanduanes, Masbate and the Partido district of Camarines Sur after it lost its province status) which is located in Joroan of Tiwi town. Sail-powered <i>paraus</> from Samar and Samar Sea islands continued to travel and trade to Legazpi and Tabaco until the early ’60s during the <i>habagat</i> and they roamed as far as Catanduanes. Samar to Legazpi <i>barotos</i> that dropped by some Sorsogon towns also sailed in this period. Even in recent times there were still boats from Samar that plied a route to Catanduanes from Biri islands which used Rapu-rapu island in Albay as the intermediate stop-over. Legazpi-based cargo-passenger motor boats also sailed to Rapu-rapu and Samar destinations. Ironically, although a historical maritime link, the sea between Samar and Bicol northeast of San Bernardino Strait has no name.
Islands are usually connected at their nearest crossing. So in the case of Bicol and Samar the logical connection will be really between Matnog in Sorsogon and Allen in Samar. Before the advent of ROROs the most established line here was the Trans Bicol Lines which has connections then to all the major islands surrounding the Bicol peninsula which are the Catanduanes, Samar and Masbate islands. Later this historical shipping company passed on to Eugenia Tabinas who used the shipping companies E. Tabinas Enterprises and Bicolandia Shipping. Included in the sell-out were the motor boats of Trans Bicol Lines.
Trans-Bicol Line. ©Edsel Benavides

The latter-day Northern Samar also had its own connection to Manila separate from the connection of the provincial capital then of Catbalogan. The main port of entry of the northern part of Samar island cannot be Catbalogan as there were no good roads then connecting it to the provincial capital (in fact Motor Boats then circumnavigated the island connecting Samar towns). These passenger-cargo ships from Manila to the northern part of Samar also called on Masbate and Sorsogon ports before docking in Allen and Carangian. Many of those ships then still proceed to Legazpi, Virac and Tabaco. Some even sail as far as Nato and Tandoc ports in Camarines Sur and a few sail up to Mercedes and Larap ports in Camarines Norte.

M/V Venus ©Gorio Belen/Philippine Herald

The ships mentioned above that called on Samar ports also served as Samar connection to Bicol including the freighters that also take in some passengers aside from cargo. Some of the shipping lines which had routes then in this part of the country were Madrigal Shipping, NORCAMCO and NCL (the earlier North Camarines Lumber), N&S Line, Rodrigueza Shipping and Newport Shipping. The passenger-cargo ships they operated were generally small.

With the strengthening of the South Line of the Manila Railroad and Railways (MRR, which was the latter PNR) that offered rail service up to Legazpi and bus connections to Larap, Daet, Tabaco and Sorsogon the shipping lines mentioned slowly lost market and patronage. Additionally, the legendary ALATCO bus company also offered Pasay-Larap-Daet-Legazpi-Naga-Tabaco buses with connections to Siruma and Nato, too). The first can bring passengers and cargo to its destination in less than 24 hours and the latter in just over a day or even less if it was up to the Camarines provinces only while the ship takes four days up to Legazpi and a week up to Camarines Norte. With better competition around first to go were the routes to the Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay and Catanduanes ports while the Sorsogon and Samar route held on for a while.
N%S Lines Ad. ©Gorio Belen
A momentous change then happened in early 1979 when Cardinal Shipping decided to field a short-distance ferry-RORO, the “Cardinal Ferry 1” between Matnog and Allen. With no port improvements yet it just used the wooden wharves of old that were meant for motor boats. Pantranco buses (now Philtranco) then rolled to the new province of Northern Samar up to Rawis, the port of Laoang which is also the base of motor bancas that connect to towns of Northern and northern Eastern Samar that have no roads. Slowly, the Matnog-Allen motor boats lost business and they retreated one by one to other Bicol routes that have no ROROs yet. With that the Samar-Bicol route served by steel-hulled ships from Manila also slowly withered but the service went on until about 1981 or 1982 and maybe it’s just because the shipping companies plying the route have nowhere else to go.
Cardinal Shipping Ad. ©Gorio Belen

Shortly after Cardinal Ferry opened the Matnog-Allen route, Newport Shipping also plied the route using the “Northern Star” (later known as the “Northern Samar”) and “Laoang Bay” (later known “Badjao”, “Philtranco Ferry 1” and “Black Double”). But government official accounts usually say that this route started with the fielding of the government-owned Maharlika I in 1982. That is, of course, historically and factually wrong. Maharlika I came when Matnog Ferry Terminal was already built and it connected to San Isidro Ferry Terminal, which is in another town south and not in Allen. (The two were called “Ferry Terminals” when they were actually modern RORO ports.) For government officials to say the government was the first to connect Matnog and Allen is then doubly incorrect.

M/V Northern Samar ©Lindsay Bridge
On another footnote, Carlos A. Gothong Lines, Inc. (CAGLI) also claims that they pioneered ROROs in the Philippines with their fielding of “Don Calvino” and “Dona Lili” in 1980 from Cebu. But evidence shows ROROs first came to Matnog-Allen among all places in the country and that is one significance of this route aside from it connecting Luzon to the Visayas and heralding the first intermodal buses and trucks in the country. (This is of course excepting the LCTs and barges pulled by tugs that connected some very near islands like Mactan and Cebu and Samar and Leyte though San Juanico Strait as those are technically ROROs too since vehicles roll on and roll off, too, to and from their car decks.)
After a few Newport Shipping quit (as their intermediate routes to Romblon was also drying) and “Northern Star” as “Northern Samar” was sold to Bicolandia Shipping in 1981. “Laoang Bay” meanwhile passed to different owners over the years. In due time Bicolandia Shipping dominated the route especially with the addition of “Princess of Bicolandia”, “Princess of Mayon” and “Eugenia”. Philtranco tried to challenge the monopoly of Eugenia Tabinas-San Pablo (who also used the company E. Tabinas Enterprises) and they rolled out the “Philtranco Ferry 1” which was the former “Laoang Bay”. They did not get a franchise and they argued instead that since they are just transporting their buses then they need not get a CPC (Certificate of Public Convenience). Unfortunately, the court did not agree with them and they were knocked out from the route. In the future though they will be able to come back.
M/V Princess of Mayon ©Gorio Belen

The 1980s was also the heyday of “Maharlika I”. She was fielded brand-new and as such was a great ship at the start. But being a government-owned company, mismanagement soon brewed and internal rot set in. She also had the disadvantage of serving a longer route (14 nautical miles vs. 11 nautical miles). Meanwhile, a new private port in Allen rose and BALWHARTECO soon showed the country how to develop properly a RORO port.

Maharlika and Northern Samar. ©Lindsay Bridge

Before the old millennium was over a new challenger to Bicolandia Shipping appeared on the horizon, the Sta. Clara Shipping Company with its more modern “Nelvin Jules” and it was very prepared for the challenge as it had a petition signed by all the Leyte mayors asking that the route be opened to other shipping companies. Bicolandia Shipping tried to TKO it like what they were able to do with Philtranco Ferries by claiming it had “missionary status” but the courts ruled that said status does not grant it a monopoly. Bicolandia Shipping by this time had a bad reputation where its ships only leave when it is already full or near-full without the observance of the proper ETD (Estimated Time of Departure which is part of the CPC along with the route).

Nelvin Jules ©Masaharo Homma

When Philtranco fell into the lap of Pepito Alvarez it also made a comeback. Under his landsman, it used the companies Archipelago Shipping, Philharbor Ferries and Oro Star. It leased the “Maharlika I” and “Maharlika II” from government and then added a few more ships including three double-ended ROROs, the “Maharlika Tres”, “Maharlika Cuatro” and the “Lakbayan I”. aside from other ferries (they were also serving many other routes aside from this route). They also built a new port in Dapdap, also in Allen and two kilometers south of Balicuatro (where BALWHARTECO is located) which had a route distance of 12 nautical miles to Matnog, a neglible increase over the 11 nautical miles of Balicuatro.

Grand Star RORO 3 and Maharlika Tres ©Mike Baylon
Bicolandia Shipping vessels cannot compete with the Sta. Clara and the Alvarez ships which were newer and better. Exercising pragmatism Bicolandia Shipping proposed to fold operations and sell the ships and franchises to the Sta. Clara group. The deal was done and Penafrancia Shipping was born.
Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping had the backing then of the Balicuatro Wharfage and Terminal Corp. (BALWHARTECO) which which was developing its new port slowly but consistently and which served as a model for RORO port development and operations with its shops, offices, lodging house, disco, flea market, eateries and gas station where regulars can load vehicles and even gas up on credit. BALWHARTECO also supported the intermodal buses and trucks with generous discounts and rebates so much so that the development of this shipping sector now poses a threat to container shipping.
Balicurato Wharf ©Joe Cardenas

Later, BALWHARTECO also hosted and supported 168 Shipping (the Star Ferries). With so many ships in the Matnog-Balicuatro route using advanced marketing techniques and cultivated tie-ups with bus and trucking companies and supported by BALWHARTECO, the Dapdap port wilted especially when Philtranco drivers were freed and given a choice and where to load their buses. Meanwhile with the opening of Dapdap and withdrawal of Maharlika the San Isidro Ferry Terminal became practically a “port to nowhere” (a port hosting no ships). This was reversed when it was leased to Montenegro Shipping Lines but after their lease expired they also left for Dapdap and Balicuatro after finding the distance uncompetitive and San Isidro Ferry Terminal had no more ferries again.

Nelvin Jules, Hansel Jobbett, and Star Ferry II ©Jazon Morillo

Recently, because of some reasons and misunderstandings, the Sta. Clara group tried to build its own port in another barrio in Allen and located further south of Dapdap (which means buses and trucks see it first except when these came from Catarman and beyond). The Allen LGU had it closed and no wonder because the Mayor is the owner of BALWHARTECO (now how legal is that is another matter). Construction continued as the heavy equipment were actually inside the port. Now the Hizzoner and the Sta. Clara group are fighting it out in the court and this battle royale will probably define the shape of the Matnog-Allen route in the future.

New Sta. Clara Shipping Port ©Mike Baylon
With two ports in Allen and possibly three soon and with ROROs mushrooming in the route the problem now is in Matnog port which is presently congested and overcrowded as its expansion followed a snail’s pace and because the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) does not know efficient RORO port design. While the limited wharf length of Balicuatro can accommodate six ROROs all at the same time, the Matnog port can only dock four ROROs simultaneously (although it is trying to add two more). And to think there are other ferries coming from Dapdap. So at peak hours the ROROs have to wait offshore in Matnog and pull out or undock to give way to priority ferries that will load or unload. This contributes to delays, added fuel consumption, more work for the crews and unnecessary risks for the ships. And that is not to mention frayed nerves at times and hot tempers especially when there are mishaps, near-mishaps and strong winds and currents. Matnog is not a protected port and as a southern-facing port is affected by the habagat and surges especially when there are weather disturbances in our eastern seaboard.
Whatever the twist and turn in its varied history ,the Matnog-Allen route will probably last nearly forever as the need for bridging of islands and the imperative for moving of cargo and people will probably never vanish there as it is the shortest connection between Luzon and Eastern Visayas. As they say, it is always, “Location, location and location…”.
Matnog Port ©Mike Baylon