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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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My Bohol Tour

When I went to Cebu last time I resolved I will also go to Bohol and do a tour, a real tour which means going around and not just going to some tourist spot (which I don’t do as I have no taste for that as I am old school in that I really want to go around). It was not just for ship spotting but also for buses as I needed to replenish my stock of Bohol bus photos which was already depleted. And for another reason, I wanted to see Bohol again after two years to update myself, see how its recovery from its earthquake went.

My planned entry was via Tubigon on an early morning trip on the cheap Lite Ferries ship as that is a good platform for ship spotting and spacious too (for ship spotting I don’t have a taste for High Speed Crafts as the view it affords is limited). However, on the morning I was due to depart the queue was long (wished I purchased the ticket the day before but their ticketing office outside Pier 1 always had a line). They also had no separate window for senior citizens and for the disabled (is that a violation of any law?). When I was already nearing the window the guard announced the closing of the ticketing since we wouldn’t make the 7am departure of the ferry. And that is one bad effect of the “cattle herding” of the Cebu Port Authority (and by PPA for that are ISPS) forcing passengers to use the passenger terminal and the X-ray machines when in earlier days one goes direct to the ship especially when time is running out (and just be ticketed aboard the ship). The guard announced they have a 12:30pm departure but I wonder who is the crazy passenger that will wait for that when it is just 7am.

I mulled my alternatives. It was not to be Star Crafts on the opposite side of the road. A fastcraft with its low windows dirtied by sea water splash is never good for ship spotting and one can’t anticipate a ship coming by. If it has an open-air accommodation it isn’t as comfortable as that missed Lite Ferry and besides it will be noisy. Wanting to make up for lost time since I will still be touring I decided on the FastCat in Pier 3 although I know it will cost more and I have to walk the distance.

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And that is where my bad experience with FastCat began. There was a line of apprentices in the ticket window and they said there was no more ticket for Premium Economy (which is the Tourist class) and Economy which is the open-air accommodation at the upper deck. And so I took the Business Class since there are no other ship alternatives left that leaves in the early morning for Tubigon.

I will then get ahead of the story. When the vessel departed I found out and so did other passengers forced to take the Business Class that there were still a lot of vacant seats in Economy and Premium Economy. We then knew we were scammed. I then asked one of the personnel attending to the passengers and the flippant reply was they know nothing about the booking. Huh! Is that all? I thought they had better training now but this is straight from the book of the old-style ferries whose favorite trick is handwashing. I told her straight into her face that it was scamming and bad for them since Archipelago Philippine Ferries, their company is beginning to make inroads in covering its unsavory reputation from its bad Maharlika ships of the recent past.

Then a second incident happened which made us Business Class passengers feel scammed again – there was no free snacks. Actually, the seats and accommodation of the premium Economy and the Business Class are the same. The former even have the advantage that its farther seats are by twos only and the canteen is located right there. Plus its air conditioning is stronger because the Business Class front is a door to the storage room covered with only a curtain and cold air is lost there.

I asked a steward why there is no free snacks when it is the only feature that can justify the higher fare when Business Class which is not superior in any way to Premium Economy (what a way to degrade the name of the Tourist class!). He said they have long ago requisitioned for supplies but it seemed management thinks passenger ridership to Tubigon is like the Bulalacao-Caticlan route (aha! so that route is weak in passengers?).

I told the steward that in this age of the internet and smartphone that excuse will not fly. So what is the use of computers and unlimited calls over the smartphone? So they cannot monitor? And management needs months to adjust? I told him that was a very lousy excuse and if that is true then that reflects badly on management. Maybe the owner Christopher Pastrana and his wife should better attend to things like these rather than bragging too much in media and in their own video. I told the steward that it seems FastCat is already sliding to their lowly Maharlika standard and everybody knows how lousy their Maharlika ships were (well, except for Archipelago Philippine Ferries employees which seem to have convenient amnesia).

I got many ship pics alright since a route from Pier 3 is better than a route to the south compared to from Pier 1 since up to Pier 4 can be covered well unlike in the Lite Ferry originating in Pier 1 that can only cover the Cokaliong ships. Then in the Talisay anchorage I was able to capture more ships. And there I took a rest and did not gamble anymore on chance encounters as I have a long day ahead. However, I was lucky to notice the coming Anika Gayle 2 of Aleson Shipping and I also caught her on cam.

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The promised one-and-a-half hour cruising time of FastCat M11 did not materialize. Our trip lasted nearly two hours and to make it worse we left Cebu late because they had difficulty in loading an empty truck because FastCat can’t ballast (so much for their ads that the ship does not have ballast water). Since the tide was high the underside of the truck was scraping the port. So I did not gain any time by riding FastCat. It seems they are saving on fuel and was no longer running at 100% speed (is this the start of their run that will just manage to outspeed a little their competitor Lite Ferries?)

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In Tubigon port there was already the missed Lite Ferry and Star Crafts 6 when we arrived. I did not linger long in port and immediately took a pedicab (it is better than a cramped tricycle albeit slower of course). I then took a nearly empty commuter van bound for Talibon (well, I was glad the driver was true to his announced ETD and did not regret taking the van) and I got off in Inabanga and made a short tour of it. I found out everything was completely normal as if no fighting occurred within its territory. There was no suspicious looks nor questions and I was surprised by that (good its people are not “praning” and its officials not over-reactive unlike in Cebu South Bus Terminal which is under the Provincial Capitol). And so I thought the heightened security I saw in other parts of the country are just “arte” or overreaction including the Capitol of Cebu which has barriers and questioning guards already (but go by its back entrance and anybody can enter without question). And to think Cebu City has no serious incidents yet. I wonder what will be their reaction when they have one (but I know Mayor Tommy Osmena is not “praning” as one can easily access the 8th floor of his City Hall where his office is located, take photos of ships from there and not once was I questioned what I was doing).

From Inabanga I then took a commuter van to Tagbilaran and upon reaching Tubigon we were transferred to another van that is already more full. I welcomed it rather than waiting for passengers and losing more time. I was right in the choice of the ride as the van proved faster because we were overtaking buses. Of course I was enjoying the views that were always changing. Much better than being cocooned in some beach resort that is not free anyway.

I then made a fast check of the Dao integrated terminal of Tagbilaran while taking quick shots of buses. I asked the ride to Loboc and they pointed to me the converted Canter (into a jeep equivalent) parked by the market just outside the terminal. While waiting for it to depart (it was nearly full already) I asked permission to take more shots of buses and I darted inside the terminal.

When I returned after ten minutes as I promised I found out that they positioned three short benches in the middle of the Canter (and so I understood why it was wider) for eight more passengers. I counted the capacity. 35 sitting passengers not including five others clinging at the rear or “sabit”. I thought not a bad replacement for a minibus. And I have to thank the lady student who exchanged her better seat than my uncomfortable one.

The route of the Canter was Tagbilaran-Sikatuna-Loboc, a different route from the Loay route which me and Vinz Sanchez (a PSSS Moderator from Bohol) took when he toured me the whole coastal roads of Bohol a few years ago, a favor I still cherish. Sikatuna is a town by the hills of Bohol and so what we passed looked like a mountain road. I was glad I saw different vistas. It seemed to me the people, my co-passengers, were friendlier too. It rained very hard however after Sikatuna town until we reached Loboc. The fare looked cheap to me. P25 for what seems to be 29 kilometers (and so when did the LTFRB which only listens to big operators but not the people learned how to set correct fares?).

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The Loboc tour boats

My tour and shots of Loboc were forgettable. The rain did not abate and there was no banca ride to Loay (they say I should have taken it by the Loay bridge which I visited before with Vinz). With such rain I was not interested to take the boat tour upriver with its native banquet food (I did not go to Loboc to partake food).

I went to the town where a I found a nice eatery, the biggest in the town where there was a wide selection. I found out that the food prices were very moderate and the owner friendly. I was tempted to enter it because I saw foreigners eating there (and so I thought there must be a reason for that). It was there when the rain subsided a little. Over-all it was a lousy tour of Loboc but I saw the restoration work of their church that was heavily damaged by the quake was already underway. In Loboc nearly a lot of the tourists were foreigners.

A commuter van arrived and enticed me again. I took it to Tagbilaran. I did not try to go anymore to Carmen, the site of the Chocolate Hills because I do not want to be disappointed again by the rain and there might not be enough time already (but a motorcycle driver was offering me a private ride). I thought maybe it was not my day. And it was there that I realized my mistake. From Inabanga I should have gone straight to Carmen via Sagbayan. It happened I was not that sure though how fast the ride there will be and it also happened Chocolate Hills was not on the top of my priority being just a simple tourist spot to me (in Loboc at least there are bancas).

With an early arrival back in Tagbilaran I had time to take more photos of buses in the terminal. I noticed that compared to two years ago the remaining rivals of the dominant Southern Star bus have essentially re-fleeted and some have air-conditioned units already. I thought that was good and it seems they will not be simply swept away or gobbled by the giant yellow bus company like what I feared before.

I next made a round of the Island City Mall which is conveniently near the Dao terminal. I planned to take dinner there before I proceed to Tagbilaran port to take the 10pm Lite Ferry ship back to Cebu. In the said mall there was a trade fair in the upper floor and that for me somehow made up the failure in Loboc as I enjoy seeing the displayed products of so many places as it gives me a glimpse of what their place is (and later google the Net for more information about them). I also took note of the places where the PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) group made tambay when we attended the wedding of Vinz Sanchez in Panglao.

I arrived in Tagbilaran port at 7:30pm only to found out there were no more tickets available in whatever class of the Lite Ferries ship (and it seems I have bad luck with this shipping company). I waited a little since a few years back our PSSS group that attended the Tagbilaran fiesta was able to still board as chance passengers and we were even five then, a relatively big group. But this time instead of being encouraging the Lite Ferries ticketing office suddenly closed. I was marooned as I was told the last trip of the bus to Tubigon was 8pm (there is still a midnight ferry there to Cebu and Mandaue). I suddenly remembered the fate of the PSSS group three years ago during Vinz’s wedding when they slept in Dao terminal.

I then pulled my way into Harborview Inn which has a commanding view of the port right outside the port gates and no more sleeping in the terminal as I was thinking of another day’s tour if I can’t go home. It was not cheap if going by its age. The greater negative was the noise and vibration of the trucks going in and out of the port. But the big plus is it has a view of the ships in Tagbilaran port. As an ISPS port there was no chance for me to go inside the port if I am not a passenger and Tagbilaran will no longer be my exit later in the day.

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The next morning, after taking shots of Tagbilaran port I walked to the mall near the old bus terminal and partook breakfast there. It was near the place where we took a taxi to Loon when Aris Refugio, a PSSS Moderator will be having a short vacation in Sandingan island in her sister’s place (it was a nice place with a commanding view of the sea). I was able to take photos of the buses inside that minor terminal now and then I made my way back to Dao, the main terminal. There was a cheaper multicab that I found and I an-seminarian as co-passenger who was engaging and helpful.

Upon reaching the terminal another van called offering a cheap fare to Tubigon and a promise of an immediate departure (am I that a magnet for commuter vans in Bohol?). But I declined as I said I needed to take bus photos first for my collection and I was not yet on that direction I actually wanted to stay first in the terminal, get a feel of the possibilities and mull my options (yes, I tend to feel my guts when I am on a trip in a not-so-familiar place and my plans did not fall into place). What I just wanted was a bus going to northern Bohol because the ferries back to Cebu are there. I noticed a bus going to Talibon passing through Carmen (and I know the Chocolate Hills are located over there). I can’t resist riding that bus even though I haven’t finalized yet where my exit will be (now isn’t that touring in the finest sense?). But the bus will pass by Dagohoy town and that to me was another bonus.

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Baclayon port and lighthouse

The route was by Baclayon and Loay this time and I was able to get shots of their ports). It was the seaside route and after a junction Loboc came into view again. I was not tempted to get off as I know a route to Talibon will take long knowing how slow are the buses in Bohol (nope, they will never need a GPS-based warning device telling them they are already over the speed limit as buses there don’t run over 60kph anyway). And the bus driver quoted 4 hours of travel time but I always assume that is an optimistic estimate.

I was fascinated by the views and landscape right after Loboc. The scenery looks like a forest from there up to Bilar and Batuan, two places I have special interest in. It was an ascending road to the hills of Bohol up to its plateau. Comparing later to Chocolate Hills that world-famous tourist site looked unexciting to me. Just the site of mint-chocolate mounds although admittedly I did not get off then junction leading to its viewing point where there are habal-habals (chartered motorcyle rides) waiting. Later, I realized I could have gotten off there and just take the night ship back to Cebu (and that is the consequence of trip out of plan already). And not having a map or a pocket Wi-Fi also took its toll. But then I was generally tired too (my batteries are not that fast to recharge anymore) and I had wounds to take care of.

The cruising speed of the Southern Star bus was just 50kph even though it is an aircon bus (well, it was good for sightseeing). The passenger load was not high including that of the other buses I saw and to think buses in Bohol does not come one after another. I was even wondering if there were more ship passengers than bus passengers in Bohol (well, the commuter take a big chunk off their load). But at least I found out in Bohol that buses do not have many meal stops like in Cebu and Mindanao.

I was tempted to get off the bus in Trinidad town and head east to Ubay and take the night ship there. I found out that the J&N Ferry ship there to Cebu is very cheap compared to the Tagbilaran ship when the distance of Cebu from Ubay is about the same (now how did that happen?). Now I understand part of the reason why they are still existing. If one is going to Jagna from Cebu to take a ferry there the proper connection is the J&N Ferry to Ubay and not the ferry to Tagbilaran but it seems few realize that. Jagna is roughly equidistant from Ubay and Tagbilaran.

In Talibon I was able to take long-distance shots of the port. I did not go into the port and just felt the atmosphere of the bus terminal and the market (because I was already worrying about the time). I was divided into going to Tubigon (which will afford me daylight ship spotting) or going back to Ubay in order to extend my Bohol tour and visit Ubay again. But I did not have time to mull as the Tubigon bus was already honking. I was just intent on catching the 4:30pm Anika Gayle 2 ferry to Cebu which has a much better ship spotting view than the Star Crafts (there were no Lite Ferries ships in the late afternoon in Tubigon and I do not want to ride the FastCat again).

I asked the driver how long the ride to Tubigon will take. He answered one hour. But then our driver turned out he can just ride his mount at 50kph and so we took nearly 2 hours for the route. We passed by Inabanga again.

But with our slow speed I missed the Anika Gayle 2 and there was a long line in Star Crafts. But I was fortunate the guard pulled me to the senior citizens’ window and I was able to get a ticket leapfrogging over a dozen people. Otherwise I would have experienced shut-out again and I would be forced to take the FastCat (horrors!). This time the vessel was fully booked and I was in the very last row of seat near the toilet.

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It then happened that I was also very interested in our vessel the Star Crafts 7 (good she was on that schedule) and I already forgot my disappointment in not having made the Anika Gayle 2. The reason is because Star Crafts 7 was the former MS Express of A. Sakaluran in Zamboanga which I have already visited before in Varadero de Recodo, a shipyard in Zamboanga City. I want to see what changed and I want to feel her again.

One big change I noticed is she was already much less comfortable (and much less than Starcrafts 1). Instead of trying to put in some comfort like in Weesam Express now as Star Crafts she is just trying to pack as much people in. I have not seen seats as narrow and uncomfortable in a fastcraft. Fastcrafts are generally more cramped compared to catamarans but I have been to Weesam Express, A. Sakaluran, Oceanjet and the Montenegro Shipping Lines fastcrafts including its small ones and Medium Speed Crafts (MSCs) like the Anika Gayles of Aleson Shipping but all have sufficient level of comfort and space unlike the Star Crafts 7. And another, the good air-conditioning central vents of the MS Express were already gone in Star Crafts 7.

With its fare almost level with FastCat I wonder why Boholanos still patronize them when the like of FastCat is much more superior in terms of accommodations and passenger service (no, this is not a plug for FastCat). The seats of Star Crafts is even narrower and less comfortable than bus seats. With a 4+4 seating, maybe its fares should be much less. Is it time for FastCat to field a second MSC in Tubigon? Or Oceanjet should field one of their fastcrafts? But maybe the franchises of the Lite Jets were not sold to them to preclude competition with them.

The Star Crafts 7 is a full two-deck fastcraft now when it had only one-and-a-half passenger decks as MS Express. We took just over 1 hour for the voyage so that means we were cruising at about 20 knots. Its engines are Yuchai diesels now with a total of 1,850 horsepower, down from her former 3,100-horsepower Mitsubishi diesels, the same powerplant as her rival Sea Jet of Aleson Shipping which is not on the route now and replaced by the Anika Gayle 2 which we overtook before reaching the reef shallows south of Mactan island.

There was no ship spotting whatsoever when I was on board Star Crafts 7. No possibility as there was no open-air accommodation and the doors of fastcrafts are closed when sailing. I was only able to take some shots upon alighting in Cebu Pier 3 but it was already getting dark. Before I disembarked I tried to tour the fastcraft but it was too dour and there is no access to the bridge. I am imagining though that it might not have changed much since I visited her as MS Express.

It was a full two-day visit of Bohol. Nice but tiring too (and I had an accident but that is another thing).

The FastCats That Could Be Paradigm-Changing

When the FastCats first arrived I did not know how to assess them properly. It was brand-new but truckers and buses which are charged disproportionately higher (because they say of the weight) decide on the price point and not on the newness and amenities of the ship. Actually, rebates in the form of complimentary passenger tickets (which is then sold), outright discounts and cash bonuses are stronger inducements to them. The superior speed of the FastCats might not also be decisive because that can be trumped by longer waiting hours in the ports if the departure gaps are significant. And by large on many buses and trucks it is not the decision of the drivers where to board as that is a company decision if there are company-to-company arrangements and accounts. It might only be in private cars and SUVs where the FastCats might have a better pull but then most drivers will not wait if the departure time is still two or more hours away.

The amortization weight of the FastCats also played into my mind. These medium-speed ships were all loaned from the DBP (Development Bank of the Philippines) from a JICA loan window meant to modernize our shipping. I do not know the loan terms and that part not on the top of the table but it could be in the vicinity of P3 million a month, a rough guesstimate. That would translate to about P80,000 a day (it could be less if the amortization terms are longer and it could be higher if shorter or if the if it is not a soft loan) on top of operational costs and other costs incremental to operating a ship (think fuel and parts) and a shipping company (think offices and office staff) plus the mandatory taxes, insurance and registration. Add to that the expenses and downtime of drydocking which will also be in the millions of pesos.

A Moderator of Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS), our Math Professor induced me to Calapan to have a firsthand look. After observation and calculation, I immediately conceded that if the route is Batangas-Calapan with its high traffic the FastCats will be profitable since ferries sail there 24/7 except on rough weather and storms. But I had my doubts then on other routes where the traffic is not so strong. Weaning away patronage from competitors is not that easy because it is not really a free market since many trucks and buses are already locked in in contracts with some shipping companies especially those which are good in the rebate, discounting and hospitality (like free meals) game. These shipping companies generally have their ships fully or nearly-fully amortized hence their break-even point could be lower even if their fuel cost is higher .

The FastCats are catamaran ROROs but unlike what they say they were not the first to field this type of craft since the Starlite Ferry and Lite Ferry 23 came ahead of them. The FastCat are not High Speed Crafts (HSCs) because they only sail at 17 knots. Hence, their classification will fall to Medium Speed Craft or MSCs. It seems the choice of their name was meant to fool those who are not very knowledgeable of sea crafts.

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The FastCats originated from a design of Sea Transport Solutions of Australia but all were built in China by different yards. These vessels feature aluminum alloy hulls for less weight which help in boost speed, lower fuel consumption and in resisting corrosion. A catamaran design means less drag but it can also be wicked in cross-swells. The FastCats do not carry their own ramp thus saving more weight and instead there is a hydraulically-activated ramp in the port which connects to the ship. The disadvantage however is they need a dedicated docking area because the ramp-in-the-port precludes the use of others of that space and so applying for a port are sometimes complicated by this requirement. The ramp can also be damaged by storm waves as shown by what happened in Calapan port.

The dimensions of the FastCat are 50.6 meters in length over-all, 47.2 meters in length between perpendiculars, 17.8 meters in breadth and 4.2 meters in depth. Originally the ship has 683 to 704 gross tons when these left China but with the added passenger deck for the Economy class on the bridge level (they call the bridge the “wheelhouse”) the gross tonnage rose and in the case of FastCat M6 it Is already 967 gross tons. The gross tonnage of the others would then not be far from that. The original net tonnage was 207 to 212 but definitely it is now far higher than that because of the additional Economy section. Generally, the declared DWT is 300 tons.

The passenger capacity of the vessel is between 275 to 290 divided into Tourist and Economy. The Tourist has cool airconditioning and airline-type seats with enough leg space and it is located on the deck below the Economy. The ship’s canteen which reminds one of a convenience store is also located there and its offerings are much better than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs around. The passenger service is much better too in all aspects. It seems the service personnel were recruited from Hotel and Restaurant Management course grads instead of the plain able-bodied seamen of competitions’. The passenger accommodations are located in only one side of the ship making for an unbalanced look. The bridge is located at the middle of the ship above the car deck.

The first FastCats are powered by 4 Cummins engines with a total of 2,600 horsepower while the latter ones are powered by Cummins clones built in China with the same power output. From a report I got the FastCats have 4 screws which means they are not using synchronizers. That means less weight, less complication, less power lost and there is no possibility of an unbalanced and difficult run if ever one engine loses power (as they will just shut down another engine on the opposite bank). The bridge of the FastCats are also modern like that of a High Speed Craft (not the ones from Malaysia) and for me the most notable feature is it produces its own power and is not dependent on the power supplied by the engine room (and that is a lot of safety margin).

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The FastCats were built by different companies in different yards in China. They total ten but the owner of Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation recently announced they will order more and will apply for routes in our neighboring countries and on additional routes in the country. The ship series was originally intended to be named “FastCat M1” to “FastCat M10” but heeding the Chinese aversion to the number “4” there is no “FastCat M4” and instead there is a “FastCat M11”. The first one in the series of sister ships arrived in 2013 and the last one arrived in 2016.

Analyzing the FastCats and comparing it to other ROROs of the same length what I noticed is the 17.8 meters breadth of the FastCats means an extra RORO lane. At 2,600 horsepower the FastCats do not use a bigger engine than many ROROs of the same length. That means the extra speed comes not in overpowering these catamaran ROROs. It was instead coming from the less weight due to the aluminum alloy hull, the less drag of the catamaran design and the minimalist superstructure. The last one might be the key along with the use of aluminum. The old-style ROROs really have a lot of steel being carried around. That will tell on fuel consumption and it will weigh down the speed. That is the reason why most ROROs in the 50-meter class with about the same or a slightly higher power output runs at only 13-14 knots. And for sure with the higher vessel weight and conventional hull design plus the age they consume much more fuel than the FastCats.

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And that is the reason why the FastCats can, at the start, match the fares and rolling rates of the competing ROROs although they are carrying a much higher amortization rate. Anyway they cannot charge significantly higher because the better amenities and passenger service will only primarily attract the private vehicle owners driving sedans and SUVs.

However, total revenues of any transport will primarily depend on the kilometers or nautical miles run. That is true for airplanes, that is true for the buses and that is also true for ships. That is one of the reasons why budget airplanes are successful now because they practically fly round-the clock with just a few hours of lay-over and to be able to do that they use double crewing. That is also the reason why Philtranco loves the Manila-Davao run because night and day the bus runs and the more kilometers and hours it run the more is its revenues.

And that brings to the tactic that Archipelago Philippine Ferries is and will be using to have enough revenue in routes not as strong as Batangas-Calapan — they will run the opposition to the ground by running the FastCats with as many trips as possible in a day like in the 44-nautical mile Dumaguete-Dapitan route where they now have 3 round trips in a day (there is no guarantee, however, that this will not change). Somehow, something has to give way and since they are running they will be able to gain load and passengers. There is really no reason for them to wait for the next ferry unless they are contracted to it as they are not faster. Everybody loves time saved as long as the rates are about the same.

FastCats can do that many trips a day because they are faster. That is the same line of reasoning why regional container ships normally sail now at 20 knots, the same speed as our SuperFerries that became saints of 2GO. With such speed they can make more voyages in a year and that means more revenues. Or put it another way the shipping operator can make the same revenue with less number of ships. Neat, huh?

Faster time is also a come-on on ferries that have close time departures. If there is a FastCat that is promising a 2.5hr sailing time in a route then dumb is the passenger of private car owner which will opt for a 4-hour sailing. Well maybe if he is related to the owner or the Captain then it is forgivable. That is the reason why then I do not take the slow Maharlika II in the Liloan-Lipata route since Super Shuttle Ferry 18 will overtake it even if it left later and I have the benefit of a ship with better accommodations. But in shorter routes the sailing time difference will be not that much great and the come-on of greater speed will be less. The time consumed waiting in the port will be the more decisive factor then.

That is why the FastCat is dangerous for the old-style ferries and even to new Starlite Ferries. Speed is their ace. I have heard that even in the Batangas-Calapan route some now opt for the FastCat rather than the SuperCat because at 17 knots versus 22 knots the travel time difference in the 24nm route is not that great and yet there is a significant difference in fare as in almost double while their facilities are just about the same. So even the High Speed Crafts which gulp a lot of fuel and do not carry any significant volume of cargo is threatened by them.

A view of some of the old-style ferries of the competition or possible competition, same size class and engine size:

King Frederick 56.8 m x 14.0m, 2400hp, 13.5 knots when new

Nelvin Jules 56.8 m x 14.0m, 2400hp, 13.5 knots when new

Maria Zenaida 54.0m x 11.4m, 2400hp, 12.5 knots when new

Reina Genoveva 59.9m x 11.0m, 2600hp, 14 knots when new

Reina Hosanna 59.9m x 11.0m, 2600hp, 14 knots when new

Super Shuttle Ferry 12 53.0m x 10.4m, 2700hp, 14 knots when new

Lite Ferry 15 60.3m x 11.4m, 2600hp, 14 knots when new

Starlite Navigator 57.3m x 13.5m, 2400hp, 14 knots when new

Lite Ferry 1 48.7m x 11.0m, 2000hp, 13.5 knots when new

Lite Ferry 7 50.8m x 10.8m, 2000hp, 14 knots when new

Maria Helena 49.0m x 12.2m, 2000hp, 14 knots when new

Maria Rebecca 49.9m x 13.2m, 2000hp, 13.5 knots when new

Hansel Jobett 51.1m x 14.0m, 2000hp, 13.5 knots when new

Star Ferry III 46.4m x 11.5m, 2000hp, 13.5 knots when new

Those ferries are already 1.5 knots down, on the average, from their speed when new. And those 2,000hp ferries will be using more fuel now per nautical mile than the 2600-horsepower FastCats. Even when new it is not sure they were consuming less fuel because of their higher weight and drag. Those 2,600-horsepower ferries will be definitely consuming much more fuel now than the FastCats.

Note also the difference in the breadth which translates to lane-meters of rolling cargo. Those ferry sampling have on the average a greater passenger capacity than the FastCats especially since all except one have two passenger decks. But on ROROs the rolling cargo earn a disproportionate share of the revenues compared to passengers and FastCats have one or two more lanes for vehicles compared to that sampling. And if the passenger capacity of the FastCats will prove lacking then another passenger compartment can be added to the vacant side of the vessel. So sometimes it is said that the FastCats are not full but their rolling cargo load might already “full” if compared to the load of that sampling which has a narrower and smaller vehicle deck than the FastCats.

There are short-distance ferry-ROROs that are in the 60-meter class that can run at 14-14.5 knots true speed if they want but on the average these feature engines that are on the average are bigger as in nearly 1,000 horsepower more. The fuel consumption difference compared to the FastCats will even be greater and actually they might be one truck longer than the FastCats but still the rolling cargo capacity of the FastCats are bigger. A sampling:

Maria Felisa 57.4m x 13.0m, 3600hp, 15.5 knots when new

Maria Vanessa 57.4m x 13.0m, 3600hp, 15.5 knots when new

Maria Oliva 64.3m x 13.5m, 3200hp, 16 knots when new

Maria Ursula 61.4m x 14.0m, 3400hp, 16 knots when new

Reina de los Angeles 60.9m x 12.8m, 3600hp, 16 knots when new

Anthon Raphael 61.4m x 14.0m, 3400hp, 15.5 knots when new

For sure this set consumes a lot more fuel than the FastCats and there is still a 2.5-3-knot disadvantage.

The only one in this size which will not be too a laggard compared to the FastCats is the Jack Daniel of the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. She is 65.0m x 14.0m and sailed at 17 knots when new but her engine has 4,300 horsepower already, well over the 2,600 horsepower of the FastCats. Maybe the aluminum hull and the catamaran design did a lot of magic to keep the FastCats separated from the pack.

Which brings us to the new Starlite ferries. These are 66.8-67m x 15.3m ferries and that means a car deck capacity nearly equal to the FastCats. These definitely has more passenger capacity at 750 persons but as I have said if a new passenger compartment will be built on the other side of the FastCats the current passenger capacity of 300 of the FastCats will nearly double to 600 which will not be much behind than the new Starlite ferries. These new Starlite ferries have a speed of 14.5 knots and 3,650 horsepower are needed to produce that speed. So for a possible equality in passenger and rolling cargo capacity the new Starlite ferries are using more fuel for even less speed. Now I begin to understand why there are a lot of catamaran ROROs in other countries with aluminum hulls. They are simply more efficient. And these are the aces of the FastCats.

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If all can run 100 to 150 nautical miles average in a day (that is about the back-and-forth run of the Cebu ferries to Ormoc) then they might be able to amortize their fleet, my guess. In Batangas-Calapan they have no problem with that quota. In Cebu-Ormoc, the Oceanjets and SuperCats do over 200 nautical miles in a day, to think and they are profitable (with maybe a 2/3 load) even though they guzzle a lot of fuel. That will take a lot of wrestling customers away from other shipping companies. Well things do not happen in a vacuum. With amortized ships the others could choose to lower the fares and the rates (now that will be good for the the riding public and shippers; after all rolling and cargo rates in the Philippines is really high).

But then I don’t place too much emphasis on that now. If the amortization is only P80,000 a day, if a FastCat runs 8 trips in a day that will be only P10,000 per trip and if that is Batangas-Calapan that will just mean taking out the revenues from two trucks! And it might just be one truck in longer routes! Above and beyond the operational costs like fuel, labor, etc. Dangerous, dangerous! For the competition, that is. That also shows how high our rolling rates are (as I always asked since when did MARINA learn how to properly compute rolling and container rates?)

However, in the Liloan-Lipata route I heard a disquieting report. One FastCat has left and the remaining one also cheats now on the schedule as in they compact the schedules if there is not enough load (well, useless to run and run if the load cannot justify it). The reason is the Cargo RORO LCTs there are suctioning the trucks like vacuum. That is also a phenomenon noted in the various Cebu-Leyte routes and even in the various Cebu-Bohol routes. Cargo RORO LCTs can offer rates as low as half of the conventional ROROs and for trucks that is a decisive come-on. And that is the reason why and Cargo RORO LCTs seem to be also a new paradigm change.

And besides many commercial vehicles (trucks, buses and panel trucks like those of LBC, etc.) are already locked in through company-to-company arrangements and through the use of super special rates and special rates plus other inducements. As I said it it not really a free market and the only ones that actually pay the published rates are the newcomers and the seldom travelers. The published rates are actually artificially high so as to cover all the discounts that the RORO ferry companies are giving to their regulars. This is actually a sucker’s world but the newbies do not realize that.

Which of the two paradigm changes will prevail? And will the old RORO ferry companies hold on through the locking game? Well, only the future can tell (how can we guess all their moves, counter-moves, guts and instincts?). But I love paradigm changes. With those things begin to get interesting.

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Photo Credits: Carl Jakosalem, Nowell Alcancia, Mike Baylo, PSSS