Montenegro Lines is Challenging in the Zamboanga-Jolo Route

A few months ago, I got the incredulous (at least for me) update that Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) will be fielding their ship Maria Rebecca in the Zamboanga-Jolo route which is the next foray of the shipping in an exclusive Mindanao route after their Surigao-Dapa, Siargao route in northeast Mindanao (and so the logical next step is a southwestern Mindanao route?).

MV Maria Rebecca

Photo by Arnel Hutalla

A lot of questions come into my mind with their move. First is the question of security. This part of the country has bombings and extortion, of course. Western Mindanao is also known for another kind of taxation, one that does not have receipts. I was wondering, did Montenegro Lines already paid what is “due” them? If not their move is a hazardous proposition especially since they are newcomers and strangers to the place.

The alternative taxation “due” there from businesses probably does not give discounts or grace periods. However, I know the “patron saint” of the company is really strong and influential. Now, how that translates into more lenient or secure terms in that area, that I don’t know. Whatever, their move there is certainly brave. But if something bad happens, I will say it is stupid.

In shipping terms, the more important angle here is that of shipping competition and again I wonder deep about the move of Montenegro Lines. The Zamboanga-Jolo route is actually a crowded route. It is not an underserved route. It might even be an overcrowded route and bringing in a RORO is no advantage either.

The biggest competitor of Montenegro Lines in the Zamboanga-Jolo route is the dominant shipping company of Western Mindanao which is Aleson Shipping Lines, a homegrown shipping company which is even bigger than any Cebu-based overnight ferry company. Practically every night and at least six nights a week, Aleson Shipping Lines will have a ship from Zamboanga to Jolo and vice-versa and six of those will be dedicated ships in the route.

Aside from those, two other competitors of Aleson Shipping Lines with ROROs have up to four voyages to Jolo on the way to Siasi and Sitangkai in Tawi-tawi. These two are the Magnolia Shipping Company and Ever Lines. Actually these two don’t care that much for passengers to Jolo as their bread and butter is cargo. It is the Tawi-tawi route that they care about and they just pass by Jolo for the passengers going further from there.

Like Aleson Shipping Lines, they have ROROs but their rolling cargo is sparse. Cargo to Jolo is basically loose cargo. Trucks and cars are seldom loaded because after Jolo there is not much to go to because of the security situation and because of the ridos. Without proper security those vehicles might just be mincemeat for the extremists that teem in Jolo island. If those can kidnap foreigners that are not even in their land then imagine what they can do to a vehicle chugging along their un-maintained roads.

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Maria Rebecca and an Aleson ferry (Photo by Britz Salih)

Aside from Aleson, Magnolia and Ever with ROROs, the Zamboanga-Jolo route is also home to the Zamboanga cruiser ferries. The shipping companies that operate these are Sing Shipping, Ibnerizam Shipping and Evenesser Shipping and between the three they operate a total of four active cruiser ferries, the Mama Mia, KC Beatrice, Prince Glory and Bounty Cruiser. So on a given night two of the four will be headed to Jolo and two will be headed back to Zamboanga.

Zamboanga is also home to what I call the “Moro boats”, wooden motor boats (before they were wrongly renamed as “motor launches”) that are unique to the area and almost proprietary to the Muslim Filipinos. Several shipping companies operate this kind of vessel between Zamboanga and Jolo and among these the two with the most boats are Katrafar Shipping Lines which operate the Katrina boats and L5 Shipping/Maing Dimdi which operate the Sea Dayang/Sea Sayang boats. Malik Manajil also operates the Karmina boat.

These three operators sail some 8 Moro boats between them although not that regularly because their main load is copra and passengers come as secondary. Most of the time though they will have a boat docked in Zamboanga and at times three or even four of them will be there.

There are also a few unregistered Moro boats that run between Zamboanga and Jolo that use Zamboanga port. Unregistered Moro boats are not novelties in Zamboanga because in truth most of those are actually unregistered with MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the local maritime regulatory agency. And in Baliwasan there are also be a few Moro boats running irregularly plus some that sail to the other towns in Jolo island and the other islands of Sulu province. 

Aside from all those mentioned, SRN Fastcrafts, the operator of the Weesam Express fastcrafts also runs the Zamboanga-Jolo route with a day trip of their Weesam Express 1.

So all in all, maybe in a day some eight vessels are due to depart in Zamboanga for Jolo (if none is drydocked) and the Maria Rebecca of Montenegro Lines will be the ninth every other day. Now, is that 49.9-meter ferry already converted into an overnight ferry? By the way, her size is about average of the steel-hulled ferries that sail in the Zamboanga-Jolo route.

So what gives? Sulu only has a population of a little over 800,000 and some of the islands and towns in that archipelago have direct links to Zamboanga. It does not have tourism but it has lots of copra and rubber, crops that can be left behind when there is fighting. Plus, it has cottage industries producing additional millions and those are not the normal kind.

But nine vessels going there in a day? Come on!

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The MV Georich

The MV Georich of George & Peter Lines which was built in 1961 is the oldest sailing cruiser ferry of Cebu. In the Philippines she is only beaten by the MV Bounty Cruiser of Evenesser Shipping of Zamboanga in “seniority” as that ship was built in 1956. MV Georich is also one of the ships in the Philippines which the most number of consecutive sailing years here at 41 years total because this ship arrived here way back in 1975 when it was still the era of cruisers.

With that span of service, MV Georich has already sailed the a big portion of the routes served by George & Peter Lines now and before and that includes Maasin, Surigao, Zamboanga, Dumaguete and Dapitan but maybe not Iligan, Tubod, Plaridel, Oroquieta or Lazi as far as I know. As of now, she is serving as one of the Dumaguete and Dapitan ships of George & Peter Lines whose route network has already compacted.

MV Georich was one of the three ships acquired by George & Peter Lines from the shipping company Sado Kisen KK of Japan. All of those three were cruiser ships and MV Georich was the first to come followed by MV Jhufel in 1977 and then MV Geopeter in 1978, all in the time when cruisers were still the ships arriving in the Philippines from Japan. Incidentally. MV Jhufel is a true sister ship of MV Georich.

MV Georich was born as the MV Namiji Maru. She was built by the Niigata Engineering Company, Ltd. in the Niigata shipyard and she was completed in April of 1961. Her permanent ID was IMO 5246269.

The ships’s external measurements were 57.0 meters length over-all by 9.3 meters extreme breadth with a depth of 4.1 meters. She measured 806 tons in gross registered tonnage with 770 tons in deadweight tonnage. She was equipped with a single Niigata marine diesel engine producing 2,000 horsepower which gave her a sustained top speed when new of 16 knots and 17 knots in bursts. 

She has a boom ahead of the bridge which also served as the front mast and there is an amidship mast. The ship had two passenger decks in Japan but the scantling of the upper deck was not full. Above that is the accommodations for the crew and on another deck above that is the bridge. This steel-hulled ship had a high prow and she has a raked stem and a cruiser stern. The low center funnel is located right behind the bridge.

After 14 years of sailing in Japan she was sold to the Philippines. In the local refitting, full scantlings were made on her second and third decks and hence she became a three-passenger deck ship here. The observable forecastle here was actually a Japan original and a stylish sloping superstructure was made as if connecting the third passenger deck to the bridge. The derrick, the masts and the funnel remained unchanged.

Originally the ship was a three-class ship with Cabins, two Tourist sections and the ubiquitous open-air Economy class. These Economy sections are located where the additional scantlings were built. The third or uppermost passenger deck that did not exist before is an all-Economy deck. Aside from the original entrance at the middle of the first deck there are now two side passenger ramps on each side of the ship so the Economy section will have direct access.

Locally, her declared gross tonnage is 694 nominal tons which is lower than her gross register tonnage. The net tonnage is 187 nominal tons but that seems to be too low (there is an International Maritime Organization or IMO rule that the declared net tonnage should at least be 1/3 of the gross tonnage). Her local passenger capacity is 565 persons.

Right now, those Cabins are already gone and instead a new Tourist section was built in its place. The old Tourist is still around but it is no longer advertised as Tourist and Economy passengers can occupy it. I had a guided tour of the ship and was able to visit the engine room. It is still clean (and to think my tour was spontaneous and not arranged) and I looked around it with some awe. Seldom is one present with machinery that is over 50 years old and as a sentimental ship guy I can only thank George & Peter Lines is not that kind of owner which will easily send ships to the breakers. 

I was also able to visit the bridge of the ship. Bridge visits help one imagine what the navigators see and that even includes the cargo which is ahead of the bridge and how cargo is handled. The equipment looks a little dated, of course but I trust all were still in good working condition. The bridge was still tidy and uncluttered.

MV Georich is still a clean ship but obviously her better days were already past and more and more she has difficulty in matching the newer ships of the competition. However, she still has her own set of regular set of passengers and shippers. Her main problems now are lack of speed and reliability although it is not that often that she has engine troubles. Her lack of speed though is mitigated by the fact that ships for Dumaguete and Dapitan spend the night anyway in Dumaguete after arriving at midnight and all leave at the morning. And George & Peter Lines pioneered the direct Dapitan ship so how can they be called “slow”?

However, MV Georich is on her last chapter now especially since she is a cruiser ship. As it is she is even disadvantaged in the volume capacity. But as a sentimental guy, I can only wish that she continues to sail on and be a living example of the bygone cruiser era.

The “Golden Ferries” of the Philippines

“Golden ferries” are passenger ships that are already 50 years old or even older which means they were built in 1966 or earlier. There are a handful of them in the Philippines, a country known for keeping ferries long. Filipinos are sentimentally attached to old ferries and wish that they will sail forever as long as they are decent shape and does not conk out. From the owner to the crew to the yard and the passengers and shippers there is the thinking, “Why dispose of the ship when it is still sailing nicely?”. The banking system is also not keen on lending for ship purchases. Being poor, the passengers does not welcome newer ships if will mean increased fares. Hence, the shipping operators tend to try to keep their ferries sailing for as long as possible. Meanwhile, the shipyards of the country which are actually more in the repairing and refitting business are more than cooperative to these wishes of the ship owners.

Trying to keep these old ferries continually running is easier compared to 30 years ago when the ex-FS ships and the former cargo ships used by the USA in World War II began to die. Changing steel plates and buttressing beams have always been easy unless poor maintenance has already compromised the structural integrity of the hull. Nowadays, with CNC manufacturing, it is easy to have parts duplicated with precision. Many surplus parts are also available from the ship breakers and there are companies worldwide that specialize on surplus parts and engines. If needed, replacement engines are also available on the market and looking for them is easy in this time of the Net. Meanwhile, all kinds of surplus equipment is available from the breakers and the open market whether they are auxiliary engines or bridge equipment.

Our oldest ferries are actually LCTs. The oldest is the “LCT Trans-Olango” servicing the route to their namesake island resort of Olango. She is a World War II LCT of the USA built in 1944 and her appearance certainly betrays her age. Next oldest to her is the “LCT Island Princess” of Zamboanga del Sur which connects the island of Olutanga to the Zamboanga peninsula. This LCT was built locally in 1947.

Among the cruiser ferries, it is the “Bounty Cruiser” of Evenesser Shipping which is the oldest. She was built in Zamboanga in 1956 and trades the Zamboanga-Jolo route. She is followed by the “Georich” of George & Peter Lines. This ship was built in Japan in 1961 and does the Cebu-Dapitan route. The Zamboanga-built “Ever Sweet” of Ever Lines follows next in age. She was built in 1963 and she plies the Zamboanga-Olutanga route.

Among the ROROs that are not LCTs, it is now the “Star Ferry II” of 168 Shipping that must be recognized as the oldest now after it was verified she is the rebuilt “Ace 1” of Manila Shipping. Actually, she does not resemble that ship at all anymore except in the bridge area. She plies the Matnog-Allen route.

The next oldest RORO is probably the “Millennium Uno” of Millennium Shipping. She was built in Japan in 1964 and she serves the Liloan-Lipata route, if she can. There are stretches when this ship cannot sail but they just wouldn’t let her go. I thought she was done when she voluntarily stopped sailing in the aftermath of the sinking of “Maharlika II” but then she still came back to sail her old schedule and route.

Actually, all the ferries mentioned above are already showing signs of mortality (except the “Ever Sweet”) and it is a wonder for how long they can hold up. Their speeds are even compromised now. But still they sail. If landlubbers think they should go, well, they simply do not know shipping. It is the ships younger than them that actually sink.

The “Elreen 2” of Rolly Frueda is a motor boat that was built locally in 1964. She plies the Romblon waters. She might be the oldest wooden-hulled vessel still sailing in the Philippines but this is a little hard to verify. Lite Ferries have the 1964-built ship from the US Navy, the “Lite Ferry 20” which was recently re-engined. Lite Ferries rotates her ship assignments so it is hard to pin down “Lite Ferry 20” at any given moment.

The “Melrivic Seven” of E. B. Aznar Shipping is another RORO built in 1964. Like the “Lite Ferry 20”, she is a reliable ship together with the next oldest, the “Eugene Elson” of Penafrancia Shipping which was built in 1965. The first plies the Tabuelan-Escalante route while the latter sails the Tabaco-Virac route. Both ferries were built in Japan.

For ships built in 1966, we have the local-built “Hijos 1” of Hijos de Juan Corrales. She is a very small Camiguin cruiser ship linking the island to Balingoan, Misamis Oriental. For ROROs, there is the “Maria Erlinda” of Montenegro Lines which are assigned various routes. It is a practice of her company to also rotate their fleet assignments so her exact route is hard to determine.

Last but not the least in this list is the “Ever Queen Emilia” of Ever Lines built in 1966, too. This RORO is a Zamboanga-Bongao ferry which also calls on various islands of Tawi-tawi. Actually, among the “golden ferries” this ship has the longest route which only shows she is still a very reliable ship at 50 years of age. The Ever ships are actually very well taken cared of by Varadero de Cawit.

Next year, in 2017 more ferries here will join the “golden ships” list. The graph will actually go up as the years come because we have a lot of ferries that are 40 years old and over. In Europe, they have “golden ferries” too. Japan have ferries that are over 40 years old. That is also true in Canada. There is actually no rule that says ferries over 40 years old must be disposed of already contrary to what some landlubbers say.

Many who really know shipping says it is not the age of ships that matter but it is in the maintenance and the care attended to them. Landlubbers think an old ship will easily be holed. That is true if there is no proper maintenance because speaking of hulls it is easy to replace the plates. Unreliable main engines can also be replaced and good parts sourced or ordered in Japan and Singapore. China is also now aggressive in promoting replacement engines.

In such a situation, I think many of our old ferries will still have long lives. And, our list of “golden ferries” will probably grow longer, too.

[Image: MV Bounty Cruiser]
[Photo Owner: Mike Baylon]