A Report on the Recent Situation of Bicol Passenger Shipping

When I talk of Bicol passenger shipping that includes those that have routes to Samar for in the main Bicol ships do those route with the notable exception of Montenegro Shipping Lines which are dayo (foreigner) to Bicol but have a base in Masbate port. In the main, I don’t refer to the Cebu-Masbate steel-hulled ferries because those routes are just one of the operations of Cebu shipping companies with the notable exception too of Montenegro Lines which has a national operation of short-distance ferry-ROROs.

The biggest shipping companies in Bicol are the sister companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which are legal-fiction companies of each other. They have combined operations, single crewing and maintenance and their ships rotate within their common routes. The only difference is the ships bought out from the defunct Bicolandia Shipping are all in Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (PSC) and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) is what made Bicolandia Shipping cry, “Uncle!” (which means give up na).

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The twin shipping companies have a total of 10 ROPAX ships plus a Cargo RORO LCT which is a recent acquisition to match that of NN+ATS (more on this later). Their best ship, the beautiful Jack Daniel (no, there isn’t free tasting of the famous drink) was acquired not so long ago and it is almost a fixture in the Masbate-Pio Duran route where her beautiful and luxurious lounge can be fully used and appreciated by the passengers since it is a three-and-a-half-hour route.

SCSC and PSC ply all the Bicol routes except for some parallel routes like the Tabaco-San Andres and Masbate-Pilar routes (more on this later). Which means they ply the Tabaco-Virac, Matnog-Allen (now through their own Jubasan port) and Masbate-Pio Duran routes. They don’t ply the Masbate-Pilar route as their ships are too big for the shallow Pilar port which lies in an estuary. In Catanduanes, it seems they now have a modus vivendi with Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) which now is doing the Tabaco-San Andres route exclusively through Codon port (but that route is not necessarily weaker than the Tabaco-Virac route as buses and trucks going to northern Catanduanes prefer that route because the remaining distance is shorter). Additionally, SCSC and PSC also operate the Liloan-Lipata route (however, after the Surigao quake RORO operations were transferred from Lipata Ferry Terminal to the Verano port of Surigao).

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The new development in Catanduanes shipping is the arrival of a new player, Cardinal Shipping which fielded the High Speed Craft (HSC) Silangan Express 1 which has good schedules and a very interesting fare which is even less than one might expect for a Tourist accommodation in a ROPAX (P320 fare in airconditioned accommodation versus the P230 Economy fare of a ROPAX ship). That is very cheap compared to the fastcrafts of Montenegro Lines in Masbate that charges double of the Economy fare of the ROPAX. The route of Cardinal Shipping is also Tabaco-Codon like that of Regina Shipping Lines or RSL.

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Another ferry was also added to the fleet of Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) when they acquired the former Maharlika Cuatro from Gabisan Shipping which purchased it from Archipelago Ferries. It was in Mayon Docks of Tabaco City last January but as of this writing she is already running as the Regina Calixta VI. RSL now also has an operation in the Batangas-Abra de Ilog route through Aqua Real Shipping and Calixta-III.

Tabaco port is also building an extension again and this is probably the third already. I am thinking, what for? In all my visits there I never saw Tabaco port full and I don’t think port visit is increasing there. There is also not that need for a big back-up area. There are no container vans unloaded there and ships that visit are generally small. To compare now, Masbate port is even busier than Tabaco port and Legazpi port is even their rival in port calls (as they both serve the province of Albay).

I thought before that the refurbishment of Legazpi port was not needed but it seems I was mistaken. There are more ships docking there now and those are bigger than the ones which dock in Tabaco port. For one, when Cebu freighters visit Albay, they use Legazpi port and not Tabaco port because it is nearer from Cebu. And most freighters that use Tabaco are just Bicol ships which are smaller than Cebu ships. I was even surprised by the big, Malaysian coal barge I saw in Legazpi port.

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Like before there are no ROPAXes in Legazpi (as I argued before a population of 100,000 in an island is needed to keep a RORO afloat if there is no strong tourism and Rapu-rapu island does not meet that criteria). Instead it has lots of big passenger motor bancas to Rapu-rapu and Batan islands plus Cagraray island too. The new passenger terminal building of Legazpi looks beautiful and modern. Like in Tabaco, the port and port terminal building (PTB) is open to the public and there is no cloud of suspicion that hovers unlike in ISPS ports. It was just like in the past when ports are just like part of public domain. That openness was the thing changed by this damned ISPS.

With the completion of the bridge from Albay mainland to Cagraray island through the Sula Channel, the old small Michael Ellis LCT to Misibis is now gone. A connecting bridge to an island is always better than a connection by an LCT. Maybe with that Cagraray island will develop faster.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation now have their new Jubasan port completed in Allen, Samar and so they already withdrew from using the BALWHARTECO port, their old port of entry to Samar, to the great disappointment and anger of the owner which nearly resulted into a court battle. I wonder if the judge-son-in-law of the owner was able to make clear to the patriarch that if it is all straight law then they would lose eventually and they might even be vulnerable to counter-suits they being the LGU holders (like a graft counter-charge).

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With the withdrawal of SCSC and PSC from their port, BALWHARTECO invited Montenegro Lines to just use their port exclusively. Before, Montenegro Lines used both BALWHARTECO and the Dapdap port of Philharbor, the sister company of Archipelago Ferries which once operated the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries. With the withdrawal of Montenegro Lines from Dapdap port now that port no longer has ferry operations. What is left there are the passenger motor bancas to the island off it which is Dalupiri island.

Before this, Philharbor invited Montenegro Lines to use Dapdap port since Archipelago have sold already their Maharlika ships and was already in the process of disposing their Grand Star RORO ships. If there is no other ferry company that will use the port it will fall vacant since the route allowed by MARINA to the new FastCats of Archipelago Ferries was the Matnog-San Isidro route. Before their withdrawal only Montenegro ferries were still using Dapdap port.

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It seems BALWHARTECO made a good offer to Montenegro Lines. They are known to be flexible and accommodating as their record of the past decades will show. Meanwhile, the Alvarez group which controls Archipelago Ferries, Philharbor and Philtranco is not known for that. They are instead known for quick retreats when subjected to the pressure of competition.

So I was not surprised by the result. Here is the queer situation of a port owner and operator with no ships of their sister companies docking because it is using a different port and a route that is significantly longer (which is the Matnog-San Isidro route). As a change, instead of being a ‘port to nowhere’ the San Isidro Ferry Terminal is now active again (she was active before Montenegro Lines left her for Dapdap and BALWHARTECO ports).

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It seems Montenegro Lines was the winner of the BALWHARTECO-Sta. Clara turmoil. Previously they were using four ferries in the Matnog-Allen route, two in Dapdap and two in BALWHARTECO. Recently they are now just using three ferries. It seems that was enough to have a ferry always on standby in the port which has more traffic (in the day that will be Allen and in the night that will be Matnog).

Another winner in the route is the NN+ATS outfit which is now openly admitted as an operation of 2GO. They are using chartered Cargo RORO LCTs from Primary Trident Solutions, owner of the Poseidon LCTs and now they even fielded a ROPAX LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26. They are operating that LCT under the banner of SulitFerry and the acronym is also “SF”, a reminder of their SuperFerry past before those liners were promoted into saints.

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With the Cargo RORO LCTs, the queue endured by the non-regular trucks in the Matnog-Allen route has come to an end as they are the priority of the Cargo RORO LCTs. These ships does not take in buses with its passengers and so no passenger accommodations are needed. The truck crews are just expected to stay with their vehicles for the duration of the voyage. MARINA is actually too suspicious of Cargo RORO LCTs having areas that can take in passengers on the sly.

The arrival of the Cargo RORO LCTs has affected the dynamics in the Matnog-Allen route. It has definitely taken traffic from the ROPAXes and the weight is significant because the non-regular trucks pay the highest rates. Actually, the rates paid by the regular trucks is heavily discounted and it is not always paid in cash (which means credit).

Another thing, from being second-class citizens the non-regular truck is now king but their loyalty now is on NN+ATS. What a turn-around too. From being largely ignorant of Matnog-Allen route because they were too confident of their CHA-ROs (Chassis-RORO) aboard their container ships and liners, now 2GO is already a player in intermodal route which helped kill their liners.

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It is also good that they use chartered LCTs whose crew is from Primary Trident Solutions. These crews are not graduates of the ‘shooing away’ seminars of 2GO, they have no knowledge of ISPS (and probably they don’t care too) and so like in the past they are very friendly to the passengers which they do not think or treat like potential “terrorists” like what is taught in 2GO seminars.

But even with NN+ATS and SulitFerry around and the concentration of Montenegro operations there, BALWHARTECO port is not too busy like in the past when to think 168 Shipping is still there with its three Star Ferry ships. Really, the weight SCSC and PSC is great especially since they have a lot of trucks and buses under contract.

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The PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) was impressed by the new Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. It was not small and unlike most private ports that will start with portions being unpaved in Jubasan it is a completely paved port. As such it is cleaner having no mud and people and patrons would not find it hard moving around (now one would wonder why after all these decades BALWHARTECO port is still mainly unpaved). They also maintained the slope of the land and so rain water immediately drains into the sea instead of forming puddles. There are a lot of eateries inside and it is a step up compared to what can be found in BALWHARTECO port including the presence of chairs and tables outside the eateries which are good for lounging around and sundowning.

Jubasan port is more orderly and it looks more modern. Maybe with the shipping company being the operator it should end up that way as they have full control. By the way, Jubasan port will also have a lodge like in BALWHARTECO port. The structure is already there, that is the area above the eateries but it is not yet operating when PSSS visited the place. Now I don’t know if they will also have a disco like in BALWHARTECO port. Jubasan port also does not have the so-many hawkers of BALWHARTECO port.

Matnog meanwhile has minimal changes. I thought when they twice reclaimed new land the docking space will improve. It did not. There are two new RORO ramps on the left of the finger port (as viewed from the sea) but when I passed through it twice no ship was using it. Actually the docking space of Matnog port did not increase and on high tide a ship will still try to dock askew in the wharf for lack of docking space. During the late afternoon and evening peak hours not all the ships can dock and it has to undock after disgorging their rolling cargo and anchor offshore.

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I still cannot fathom how the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) inputs ship calls in their planning that they cannot see their docking area is not enough for the number of ships calling. They have two new RORO ramps but they bulldozed rocks beneath it. And so maybe the ships fear damage if they use those. Why can’t they just use the causeway-type of wharf like what is used in BALWHARTECO and Dapdap ports which can dock more ships for their given length of wharf space? The only reason I can see why PPA is too inept in port design is because they really can’t attract qualified people. And to compensate for this lack, their annual reports will be full of praises for themselves and their “achievements”. And now their top honcho says the Makati Car Club will test the RORO system. Now what does Porsche and Ferrari owners know about port design and the RORO system if one is not Enrique Razon? It was not designed for their kind of cars and heels.

Masbate port is actually more impressive than Legazpi or Tabaco in terms of activity. Unlike the two ports which looks semi-fringe in location (as in facing the ocean already), Masbate port is in the center of a nexus and connecting many islands. There are simply more ships there and more types from overnight ferries to short-distance ferry-roros to fastcrafts to motor bancas plus the usual freighters. The new port terminal building is now operating and so there is more try of control now to ensure everybody uses it (this is what I call as “cattle herding”). And I don’t like that system treating passengers not like people but like commodities.

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Actually, they can simply sell a ticket to anyone who wants to buy, passenger or not, like in Zamboanga port. With so many buses boarding their port terminal building is not sufficient (now tell me when did PPA learned how to input numbers). If the old system where buses simply park somewhere in the port and soon board afterwards was enough why try to force down the passengers down the bus so they will pass through the passenger terminal building when it does not have enough capacity anyway even in airconditioning? If terminal fee is all they want then they can just put in a table by the ship ramp. An explanation: bus passengers here already have their ferry tickets issued by the bus conductor so actually they do not need to queue as the buses offer free ferry tickets to their passengers. If the buses can be efficient why can’t the PPA? The reason is simple – they are a government entity.

What I noticed is it seems more passenger motor bancas are now using the Masbate municipal port cum fish landing area. Actually it has the advantage that it is just near the integrated bus, jeep and van terminal of Masbate City. The passenger motor bancas for Burias can also be found here. If I may have a suggestion, it is better if the passenger motor bancas just dock by the integrated terminal. Nothing beats that. If only they will see what is logical (but they might lose the votes of the cargadores and the tricycle drivers).

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The Masbate-Pio Duran route is now stronger compared to the Masbate-Pilar route in terms of RORO operation. It is actually the shorter route to Manila and it can accommodate bigger ships whereas Pilar can only accommodate basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. Medallion Transport has withdrawn from this route as a fall-out of the sinking of their Lady of Carmel. SCSC and PSC was the big winner in this and they now have made permanent two of their biggest ships in this route which have length of over 60 meters versus the 30 meters plus of the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs of Pilar.

In the Masbate-Pilar route, Denica Lines now has two ROROs that are running simultaneously and they were able to create a late departure from Bicol (or is it an early one?) when they created an early evening Pilar-Masbate schedule. Denica Lines also have two fastcrafts for refitting now that is moored in Pilar port. Obviously, they want to get a slice of the pie of the MSLI fastcraft business. If they price it like the Silangan Express to Catanduanes then MSLI will be forced to cut their high fares.

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In Pilar, I noticed they now have a Pilar-Mandaon passenger motor banca running. Plus they have pre-dawn departures now from Pilar for three destinations – Masbate City, Aroroy and Mandaon (Mandaon is a gateway to Romblon). They were able to expand Pilar port but its operation is just still like a municipal port as there is no good port lighting (are their charges for the ROROs and passengers not enough?). By the way, the ROROs from Pilar start earlier now. Good for those with still long land travel still remaining in Masbate island.

As before there are a lot of passenger motor bancas in Masbate port going to Pilar, Ticao island, the west bank of Masbate Bay. But maybe the Baleno bancas are gone because there is a van going there now up to Aroroy. The passenger motor bancas are still fighting even though it is already the era of the ROROs and the buses and the trucks aboard them. With no porterage and running at hours when there is no RORO they are still surviving. Well, the buses dictate the schedules of the ROROs and so I can’t see them running 24 hours as the buses have only certain hours of departures from Masbate and Manila.

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Some things of note. One, the Super Shuttle Ferry 19 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation has been sold and Olmillo Shipping has taken over the Bogo-Cawayan route. A new development too in this area was the fielding of Island Shipping of a ROPAX LCT in the Hagnaya-Cawayan route. The MSLI ferry is still running the Bogo-Cataingan route and ditto for Lapu-lapu Shipping that runs the Cataingan-Cebu route. In the future, however, the Bogo and Hagnaya ferries will most likely transfer to the new Maya RORO port because it is simply nearer to Masbate. Meanwhile, the big passenger- cargo motor bancas running between Masbate and northern Cebu are still running and their business not threatened after the initial cut made by the arrival of the ROROs.

Recently, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines don’t have a ship anymore to Masbate from Cebu, a victim of their lack of ferries. Cokaliong Shipping Lines has not fully filled up the slack and it has only a once a week Cebu-Masbate sked but they are always fielding a new good overnight ferry of theirs in the route. Meanwhile, for a year now Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) doesn’t have an operation anymore to Masbate since their SuperShuttle RORO 3 had engine problems. It has been over a year since 2GO withdrew their liner that passes through Masbate on the way to Ormoc and Cebu. Can’t really beat the intermodal buses and trucks now and as the saying goes if one can’t beat then join them and so they already had that NN+ATS in the Matnog-Allen route.

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Burias motor banca arriving in Pasacao

In other Bicol routes, passenger motor bancas still connect Burias island to Pasacao and Pio Duran while Ticao island has passenger motor bancas sailing to Bulan and Masbate ports. Masbate is also connected by passenger motor bancas from Cataingan to Calbayog in Samar and to Roxas City in Panay from Balud and Milagros and to Romblon from Mandaon. Caramoan through Guijalo port also has passenger motor banca to San Andres in Catanduanes through the Codon port. San Miguel island is connected by passenger motor bancas to Tabaco port.

And that above is what comprises Bicol shipping all in all. Not tackled here are the minor routes served by small passenger bancas that go to small islands that does not have a municipality and to coastal barrios which has no roads.

[Written based on January 2017 data.]

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The Sinulog Fluvial Procession, the Ouano House, Piers 8 and 7

One morning I went to the foot of the SRP Road in Cebu to cover the remnant of the Sinulog fluvial procession. I just make do in that area because I will still see most of the participants and besides it is great effort to fight for a good view in the earlier parts of the fluvial procession. Anyway, it is in the vessels that I am more interested in.

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I was just in time. It was still early morning and there was a constant drizzle. But the position of the sun, the early morning and the drizzle made visibility and shots terrible. I have to make do with what is presented by nature. It seems more small crafts participated compared to the last time I covered the fluvial procession but less ferries going to Cebu port were forced to wait near the SRP. The Filipinas Iligan and the Oceanjet 6 were the only prominent ships waiting.

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There were motor bancas which stopped and disgorged the participants in the rocks by the SRP approach and I also covered those. The viewers did not stay long as the drizzle was continuous and there was no sight anymore in that areaexcept for the Coast Guard patrol ships, the Filipinas Butuan plus participant boats which were just idling.

I then decided to make my way to Ouano-House. I called it such because it is there that the E. Ouano house is located. Actually it is more like an office (I have already entered it). And I doubt if it is the ancestral house of the Ouanos because from what I can gather it is also located on reclaimed land like the other facilities in the area.

The jeep driver I rode was kind as he insisted on driving me to the wharf area. I appreciated it since there was a slight precipitation and I did not have to pay for a pedicab. The entry is easy as the guards didn’t mind. I thought it would be like that if the Lite Ferry LCTs to Tubigon have already transferred there. I might look like just one of its passengers.

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After the gate, however, it was a different matter. With the never-ending rains and the constant movement of trucks, the surface of the wharf area was already muddy though firm that one’s shoe will not get stuck. I was not surprised. If Ouano can’t maintain the road in the Ouano near the Mercado then they won’t maintain this one either. I thought FastCat would not have to worry for passenger competition to Tubigon. The muck here is already an advertiser for them. Ditto for the rolling cargo or vehicle loading trade.

It was a maze to get inside because the only firm ground with no mud was occupied by the new Litexpress CHA-ROs parked and blocking the pathways. I would go in one direction and pull back because I can’t go on. Finally I had to cross the muddy road where the trucks roll. I ended up in the Star Crafts area but this time it was already too crowded because the future Lite Ferry 17 and Lite Ferry 18 were being refitted there and steel sheets, acetylene tanks, generators and other equipment were occupying the spaces. The only open area is the road going to Star Crafts and it is also muddy.

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The Lite Ferry 17 and Lite Ferry 18 are ROPAX LCTs that came from China. Those were former HNSS vessels already phased out. HNSS means Hainan Strait Shipping and that tells where it formerly plied routes. One of them arrived earlier and is already sailing here, the Lite Ferry 16 which looked like a sister ship of them. It looked derelict then like the two now docked in Ouano-House but as always Filipino ship repairers will make them look good again.

Besides them was the new Lite Tug 1. It seems tugs are the vogue now of these competing overnight ferry companies. Roble have theirs already, Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) also got one, Cokaliong Shipping Lines followed suit and now Lite Shipping also have one too.

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Also there were Lite Ferry 26 and Lite Ferry 23. It seems those two were the ones doing the Mandaue-Tubigon route last December altho the latter is not the normal LCT but a catamaran-RORO (a slow one tho). Also there near the SMC Shipping and Lighterage facility was the brand-new Lite Ferry 30. It seems like what they did in the earlier Lite Ferry 27 they were building additional passenger accommodations. It looks like they are sister ships together with the Lite Ferry 29.

I did not stay that long in that wharf. Sometimes it is the rain that makes you decide that. I left after my functional shipspotting and I have to go through the maze again but that was easier than navigating the mud in various parts of that wharf. I really wonder how the passengers make do with such situation. Is the cheapness enough to make them stick? I was able to see the tail end of their way out when one LCT just arrived. I saw no shuttle and here the walk to the jeepney terminus is even longer with less shade.

Sometimes I cannot imagine in this era that such hardship can still be thrown to the passengers. Those LCTs, the wharf and the road were just really designed for trucks. Not passenger-friendly in any way. Maybe the FastCat and Star Crafts are a little more expensive but there is still the Lite Ferry 1 which also does a route to Tubigon. I also wonder. Why don’t the Super Island Express II just come back and maybe hold some off-hour schedule versus the Lite Ferry 1. Pier 1 might even have less expensive connections to the buses and jeeps of Cebu. Sorry not jeeps because that type is so few in Cebu. What I mean are the AUVs, Multicabs and converted Elfs and Canters of Cebu.

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From the wharf I made my way to the old Villa Shipping wharf which was just rented from Ouano. I was glad the K-9 guard of Ouano was not there. Their compound was closed and it seems no one is around. Good. I can approach their Elvira-1 and take shots. I wonder why they were too jealous of this old, derelict and bad-looking now former hydrofoil converted into a fastcraft which did not last in service. They should even be glad someone is taking interest. It seems they have a different psychology from us.

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There were no more Villa ships there and it seems they have already left as I can see no more ships and facility of them there. What was docked there was the West Ocean 1 of Ocean Transport. I can’t make of the the jumble there. It seems different entities are using that area and not all are connected to shipping.

It was at the far end where I was interested because I want to go near the Lady of Love of Medallion Transport which has not been sailing for some time already. Got some shots but it was not easy as the rain got heavier. Beyond Lady of Love the LCT Poseidon 19 was also docked. Last December this ship was still running the Matnog-Allen route for NN+ATS as a Cargo RORO LCT. Primary Transport Solutions owns this vessel and NN+ATS only charters it.

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Again I did not stay long. On the way out I took shots of the old derelict F/C Magallanes, a fastcraft for private use. I was told before it was a Durano gift to Ouano. I did not know enough of Cebu politics and shipping of before to work out how that happened. All I heard was before Durano has shipbuilding and was a Cebu shipping player. In fact one of their derelicts is there in Labogon by the Goldenbridge wharf.

I thought Ernesto Ouano was lucky (except he died prematurely). Well, just to have a big reclaimed area near Cebu, how much is that in legacy worth? Plus their wharves. It is practically a Lite Ferries wharf now but Lite pays them. They are rich just because of the payments for the use of the wharves. But later it seems F.F. Cruz and Lua stole their thunder in Cebu reclamation. And I don’t think they are players in the future Cordova reclamation. But still they are very lucky.

I no longer pushed my ship spotting that day. Too much rain and I am not a farmer. Rain would have been nice in April but the programmer is a little awry. But the next day I came back to the same area but this time my targets were Pier 8 and Pier 7. It was a Sunday and there was no activity there past CDU. I first asked the guard of Ravago/Asian Shipping Corporation. A little canine too but I didn’t mind, didn’t press. Can’t call their GM as all mobile lines of Metro Cebu were down to prevent bombing. I was really more interested to see what was the denouement in the AMTC (Asian Marine Transport Corporation) eviction case nearby.

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The AMTC yard was deserted now along with the Dakay Construction yard which was also part of the AMTC lot that was in dispute with F.F. Cruz through the MARRECO entity. MARRECO sought the eviction of AMTC for non-payment and they won in the court. MARRECO then blockaded the facility to prevent AMTC from using it. And AMTC left and transferred to Ouano after a failed bid for the Talisay fishport.

The guards by MARRECO there were suspicious but they told the reason why the Super Shuttle RORO 8 was docked there last December was to take in all AMTC materials left that can still be loaded. But I don’t really know why Super Shuttle RORO 3 and Super Shuttle RORO 2 were also there last December. The two had long been just anchored and not sailing for the best part of 2016.

From there I made my way to the Roble wharf. The left side of that if facing to the sea actually belongs to F.F. Cruz and it is where aggregates carrier LCTs and barges dock. The right side belongs to Roble Shipping. There were three newly-arrived freighters there and I was told two belongs to the scions already. There was also the many docked ships of Roble including the non-running ones. The Ormoc Star was there. She is really ready now for the breakers. On the far end was the fire-hit Wonderful Stars where no work is going on.

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It was lonely in that area on a Sunday Sinulog. Almost no people and movement. I caught a jeep going to Mactan and then I walked again the old Mactan bridge. From there I took a Multicab to Muelle Osmena and took the Metro Ferry. The light was dying when I reached Pier 3 and that ended my ship spotting for that day.

The Davao Ports That Handle Foreign Ships

I would have liked to expound on the ports under the Davao PMO. But that would mean tackling all the ports in Davao Region and that is just too many. I also wanted to tackle the ports and wharves of Davao City but I will still be burgeoned with many ports and wharves that basically handle traffic only to Samal island. I thought the best was to focus on one distinguishing mark of the Davao ports and that characteristic is many of its ports handle foreign vessels. Among the combined ports in the country it is Davao which has the most since about 20 ports here handle foreign ships, some regularly and some occasionally. But this will not be limited to Davao City only but will include ports in Panabo, Tagum, Maco, all in Davao del Norte and Sta. Cruz in Davao del Sur. This is a stretch of ports of about 25-30 miles of almost straight linear distance. Another trait of Davao ports is a significant number of foreign ships that call in Davao dock in two or three different ports trying to fill up more cargo. Senator Bam Aquino filed a bill that became a law allowing that but he was two decades too late and his bill just showed his ignorance of maritime matters.

Handling foreign ships is one thing that became more important in the last several years in Davao. This became more pronounced especially when passenger liners from Manila stopped calling in Davao. To Sulpicio Lines that was force majeure since they were suspended by MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) from sailing in the aftermath of the capsizing of the MV Princess of the Stars in 2008. For Aboitiz Transport System (ATS), they said “there was not enough cargo” (and after that their competitors were simply too glad to fill up the void created).

The main type of foreign ship that calls on Davao are the regional container ships, otherwise called “feeder ships” abroad. I named it as such since they basically do regional routes especially in Southeast Asia and East Asia. Types like “Panamax”, “Handymax” or “Aframax”, etc. have no meaning in the Philippine context since only the smallest of international container ships call locally, in the main. Not that we are in an out-of-the way route but because that size is just what the size of our economy can muster (yes, we are mainly good only in producing people (and billiards players) and in fact, that is one of our main exports but they don’t ride container ships). Some of the ships that call in Davao goes all the way to Europe so not only regional container ships call in Davao.

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Regional container ships in Sasa Port by Mike Baylon

The second main type of foreign ships that call in Davao are the reefers or refrigerated container ships. These reefers and the regional container ships basically carry the export fruits (Cavendish bananas, broad-shouldered pineapples, solo papayas mainly but that can also include avocado, giant guavas and buko and many others) and export fresh produce (like lettuce, cauliflower and many other high-priced vegetables) grown in Southern Mindanao. Some of the refrigerated container vans loaded here come from as far as Agusan del Norte, Misamis Oriental, Bukidnon, Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur. Actually, almost all kinds of fruits and produce grown in farms and orchards are already exported now like camote, cassava, saging na saba (cardava in Bisaya), other varieties of bananas, mature coconuts, langka and gabi that we sometimes joke here that it seems they also cook ginataan (benignit in Bisaya) abroad now. Or make camote cue, banana cue, turon and ginanggang (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginanggang) abroad.

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Reefer by Aris Refugio

The third main type of ship that calls on Davao ports are the tankers (included here are the like-type LPG carriers). Some of these are chemical tankers and they load coconut oil in the many oil mills of Davao. Many of these are oil tankers that bring in fuel to the tanker jetties in Davao (and that is why fuel is cheaper here since many of our fuel is from Singapore). The fourth main type of foreign ships that call in the Davao are the general cargo ships or simply freighters. Some of these bring rice, some are Vietnam ships that load copra meal, some load desiccated coconut. The fifth main type are the bulkers or bulk carriers. However, this type is not that frequent in Davao.

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Bulk Carrier by Aris Refugio

On the average, a total of more than 25 foreign ships call on Davao ports every week for an average of three four ships a day. In container volume, it is actually Davao which is number two in container ship calls ahead of Cebu and Batangas ports but behind Manila port, the national port. What happened is that after our first two main export commodity crops abaca and copra/coconut oil lost in the world markets because of economic shifts (abaca was displaced by nylon and copra/coconut oil lost to other edible oils) it is now fresh fruits and fresh produce (and also canned pineapple) which have taken their place. These are basically loaded in Davao as Southern Mindanao and Bukidnon practically lords it over the other Philippine regions in the production of those export goods as the other regions are still stuck to their traditional crops which are mainly not for export in significant quantity except maybe for the sugar of Negros.

Sasa Port is the main port of Davao. It is a government-owned port and it is the biggest in Davao. It is also the base port of Davao PMO (Port Management Office which is equivalent to a regional division). Sasa Port has a total wharf length of about a kilometer and six or more ships of 80 to 180 meters size range can dock simultaneously and more if the ships are smaller and/or local. Foreign ships, which are conscious of demurrhage are the priority here and there are inducements like crisp foreign bills so they will be given priority in docking. Since Sasa Port has the tendency to exceed its capacity then ships that cannot be accommodated or are displaced are made to anchor off Sta. Ana Port so as not to congest the narrow Pakiputan Strait separating Samal island from Davao.

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Sasa Port by Mike Baylon

One weakness of Sasa Port is the lack of gantry cranes. With that she cannot handle the gearless container ships that are now beginning to appear in Panabo Port. However, Sasa Port has the usual needs of foreign ships: reefer facilities, container yard, marshalling area aside from the usual open storage area. There are also transit sheds and a passenger terminal that is no longer being used. When regional container ships arrive speed is the essence in unloading so aside from their booms the reach stackers are widely used. There are two arrastre firms operating in the port. Sasa Port is due for expansion and renovation but its cost is shrouded in controversy and many local stakeholders and the local government unit of Davao City have formally objected. The administration of President Aquino then seems to be intent in ramming it through but now that plan is dead duck under the current Duterte administration. For sure, the plans will be modified as it was really overpriced.

The two Panabo ports are next in importance to Sasa Port. To an outsider Panabo Port might look to be a single port but they are actually two, the TADECO (Tagum Agricultural Development Company) wharf of the Floirendos and the PACINTER (Pacific International Terminal Services) wharf of Dole-STANFILCO. Together, the two along with minority interests reclaimed part of the sea and built an extension port and yard. This is equipped with gantry cranes and it is called the Davao International Container Terminal (DICT). It is the only port in Southern Mindanao that can handle gearless container ships at the moment and this port is the main handler of the produce of “Banana Country”, the wide flat swath of land in the localities of Panabo, Carmen, Braulio Dujali and Sto. Tomas plus parts of other towns that is dedicated to the propagation of Cavendish bananas. In “Banana Country” there is nothing else to see for kilometers on end but Cavendish bananas.

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Panabo ports (TADECO and Dole-STANFILCO) by Mike Baylon

These ports of Panabo are private ports. The DICT expansion cost only P2.7 billion (and was financed by private banks) and that was the comparison used why the local stakeholders blanch at the quoted price of the proposed expansion and modernization of Sasa Port (well, just adding gantry cranes, cold storage facilities and a little extension will already make it modern). [Of course, there are other and sometimes unspoken issues and projects that are related to this but that should be in another article.] Besides, the Panabo ports are also “Exhibit A” against those who badger the government to build ports for them for free or to pandering politicians who promise to build international ports and terminals just to get votes. If there is really traffic then the private sector will build its own ports rather than wait for government to build the ports for them (after all they will earn, won’t they?). And if the private sector builds the ports it always comes out cheaper than if government had it built (it is a question of corruption, inefficiency and waste). However, though expanded, DICT still lacks docking space many times and so container ships and reefers have to wait.

There is a modern, purpose-built port in Davao that was purposely-built for handling fresh fruits and fresh produce for export. This is the AJMR Port in the northern part of Davao City on the road to Panabo and this port is synonymous with Sumifru or Sumitomo Fruits, the biggest fruit distributor in Japan. Japan is known for having the highest quality requirement in fruits and they pay adequately for that. To meet that requirement, AJMR Port has its own vapor heat treatment (VHT) facility right inside the port, a plastic plant too and a factory for its carton boxes. However, the docking facilities of AJMR Port is rather limited and only two container ships or reefers can dock at the same time in its jetty-like wharf. By the way, AJMR is also classified as an “agro-industrial economic zone” which is similar to a “special economic zone”. That means it is enjoying a lot of perks from the government.

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AJMR Port by Mike Baylon

In importance, the adjacent Craft Haven International Wharf and TEFASCO Port might be next in importance. Craft Haven is also a purpose-built port to handle fresh fruits for export. Formerly, the place was once a shuttered plywood factory. Many of its exports goes west to the Middle East and India which are new markets for Cavendish banana (introduced by “Operation Desert Storm”). Many of its cartons bear the trademarks of Arab brands as well as the famous Unifrutti brands (i.e. “Chiquita”). The operator and agent of Craft Haven have good connections with Muslim planters of Cavendish banana of SOCCSKSARGEN region. The port has cold rooms but compared to AJMR it does not have its own carton box or plastic factories. But wood for making boxes is delivered in the port. The Craft Haven International Wharf can handle up to three ships simultaneouslyvand the “Cala” ships are regulars there. These are ships that trade to Japan and Korea.

I will go next to TEFASCO Port as it is just adjacent. TEFASCO means Terminal Facilities and Services Corporation. They so-famously won a landmark case then against PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) which set the principle that PPA can’t collect fees on ships docking in private ports. TEFASCO mainly docks local ships especially the container ships of Solid Shipping Lines but a few years ago they were able to lure Pacific International Lines (PIL) of Singapore which uses their wharf now to load container vans (these are the container ships with the name “Kota”). They only dock and does not engage in any processing of the fresh fruits and produce as they are not a “clean” port (a no-no in fresh fruits and fresh produce as it leads to contamination). Fertilizers and other contaminants are present in their port but refrigerated vans are practically hermetically-sealed unless Customs comes knocking.

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TEFASCO, Craft Haven and Holcim ports by Aris Refugio

Holcim Port is just adjacent TEFASCO Port and it also handled foreign ships in the last few years when Sasa Port and Panabo Port were experiencing congestion. However, the primary ships that Holcom Port handles are ships that carry cement (naturally!) and these are mainly local ships. Holcim is actually a cement plant (actually the biggest in the Philippines) as many knows. With cement dust (and also coal)  it is not also a “clean” port and so there are no processing facilities there for fresh fruits and fresh produce. It is simply a come and go operation there.

In terms of future growth the Hijo Port in Madaum, Tagum City, capital of Davao del Norte might be next in weight. This port is now a joint venture between ICTSI (International Container Terminals Services Inc.) which is not just an arrastre service anymore but operator of ports in other countries and the Manila International Container Terminal (MICT) and Hijo Plantation with the former in the saddle. ICTSI is developing this port to rival Davao International Container Terminal although in volume they are not yet there. Hijo Plantation is the main user of the port although it is intended to intercept the container vans coming from the north and east of Tagum but the intent has not materialized yet.

I will no longer go one by one with the other ports handling foreign ships as they are relatively minor or can just be bunched together. Universal Robina Corporation (URC) wharf sometimes handle bulk carriers which bring in imported wheat for URC’s need. The frequency of this in every few months or so. Down south in Astorga, Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur, foreign ships load the products of Franklin Baker Company which is best known for its desiccated coconut which are mainly for export.

 

Meanwhile, Davao City is host to several coconut oil mills like Legaspi Oil, INTERCO, DBCOM and the New Davao Oil Mill. Foreign chemical tankers come to load their products and combined the arrivals are at least a week in frequency or even more frequent, on the average. Additionally, Vietnam freighters come to load their by-product copra meal (an ingredient and protein source for animal feed).

Davao is also home to several petroleum products depots like Chevron, Petron, Phoenix Petroleum and Shell. Aside from local tankers, foreign tankers also come especially those that come from Singapore. In addition, there are also LPG carriers that also come to the Price Gases jetty in Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur, the Isla LPG Corporation wharf in Davao City aside from the tanker jetties of the petroleum majors and many of these are foreign vessels. The frequency of these foreign tankers and LPG carriers combined might be every week also.

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Tanker jetties, oil depot, Legaspi Oil, URC by Mike Baylon

Once in a while, a foreign ship will also come to Maco Port in Davao del Norte. This port is just near the Hijo Port in Tagum and both are located in the innermost portion of Davao Gulf (which is actually a bay).

And that sums up all the ports of Davao PMO handling foreign vessels. Sasa Port and DICT dominates the handling of the foreign ships. DICT don’t even handle local ships, in fact. The other ports, except the tanker jetties, started handling foreign ships because of the congestion of Sasa Port and the Panabo ports (except Hijo Port which handled their own shipments from the start).

With many ports handling ships, both foreign and local, one unintended benefit was road traffic did not build up so fast in the port areas of Davao unlike in Manila which is dependent on so few ports. Maybe a lesson can be learned here.

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Sasa Port by Mike Baylon