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.

Maharlika Cuatro

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.

Grand Star RORO 3

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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The Disproportionality of the Ferry Losses in the Philippines

Many times the question of if our ferries are safe is asked. This is especially true when a ferry has an accident or is lost especially when the casualty count is high. Rather than answering the question straight, if I am asked, I might answer it “it depends” because that is probably the most exact answer to the question anyway but then many will be puzzled by that answer (pilosopo ba?). Read on and you will be enlightened further and maybe your views about the safety our ferries might change.

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Even if a car is new it doesn’t mean it won’t take a dip into the water. Same principle applies with ships. Photo by Zed Garett (happened just today — what a timely photo for my article). Thanks a lot to the photo owner.

But first a clarification. I am purposely limiting this topic to ferries because tackling all the ship types at once will be very heavy and tedious as we have more freighters than ferries and add to that the other types like the tugs, tankers, etc. The ferry losses is the segment that actually raises the hackles of the people of the country who are mainly uneducated on the topic of maritime losses. This relative ignorance is further fanned by our also-uneducated media whose writers and editors cannot even seem to get the ferries’ names right (it seems they are too lazy to verify with MARINA, the maritime authority). Of course, it is well-known that our media is on the sensationalistic side and so oftentimes accuracy, objectivity and balance are lost with that (do these sell anyway?).

Another limitation I also pose here is I won’t include our wooden-hulled passenger crafts in the discussion. Those crafts are really flimsy especially those equipped with outriggers, the motor bancas. This ship type (those are ships because any sea craft having a passenger capacity of 12 is not a boat) lacks the basic safety equipment that even without a storm they can sink like when an outrigger breaks or when the hull develops a leak big enough that water can’t be bailed fast enough. But I would rather not comment on their seamanship or lack of formal maritime education because in my decades of traveling at sea I found that many of them are actually very good in reading the wind and the waves, a nautical skill that is not taught in maritime schools anymore. Also excluded in the discussion are the wooden-hulled lanchas and batels which were formerly called as motor boats which are not called as motor launches.

My topic here is about the disproportionality (or lack of proportionality) of our maritime losses to clarify that our ferry losses are not proportional with regards to the area and to the ship type (the implication is not all sink). Like what I just mentioned earlier, our wooden-hulled crafts especially the motor bancas are prone to losses especially in areas notorious for its dangerous waves like in Surigao. But these sea crafts continue to exist because in many cases these are the most practical crafts for certain routes like the routes to our small islands and islets or the coastal barrios that have no roads (or if taking the roundabout road will take too long). Motor bancas can land even on bare shores which the other crafts can’t do and moreover these can operate profitably on the barest minimum of passengers and cargo something which is impossible in steel-hulled vessels which have engines that are much, much bigger and are heavier.

The liners, our multi-day ships, among our class of ferries are also very vulnerable to losses (a surprise?) and much more than others classes pro rata to their small number. Relative to their small number, we have lost a lot of liners in the past for a variety of reasons – capsizing, foundering, beaching, wrecking, collision, fire, bombing and explosion. And this might come as a surprise to many because in the main it is our liners that are the biggest, these hold the highest of the certificates (and in insurance many have the comprehensive P & I or “Protection and Indemnity”), these have our most experienced and best crewmen supposedly (unlike in smaller ferries where a Second Mate can serve as Captain of the ship) and much pride of its shipping company is riding on them (well, not all, as we had liners that were no more than the average overnight ferry).

But this vulnerability is actually completely true. We lost the SuperFerry 3 (fire in a shipyard in 2000), SuperFerry 6 (fire while sailing in 2000 too), the SuperFerry 7 (fire in port in 1997), SuperFerry 9 (capsizing in 2009), the SuperFerry 14 (firebombing in 2000 but the official report says otherwise). A total of five SuperFerries when only a total of 20 ships ever carried the name “SuperFerry” (it seems it is not a good name?). The St. Thomas Aquinas, the former SuperFerry 2 was lost in a collision in 2013 and the St. Gregory The Great, the former SuperFerry 20 was also lost (taking a shortcut and hitting the reefs and she was no longer repaired and just sold after equipment was taken out). These two ferries were already under 2GO when they were lost. Not included here were the groundings of the Dona Virginia and the Our Lady of Banneux (technically under Cebu Ferries Corporation then but an actual liner) from which they were never repaired and ending their sailing careers).

Sulpicio Lines is much-lambasted and derided by most of our people but actually they have less losses from their “Princess” and “Don/Dona” series of ships in the comparative period as the existence of the “SuperFerries” of WG&A (William, Gothong & Aboitiz and its successor company Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). However, it is true that in passenger casualties the total of Sulpicio Lines is much, much higher because they have the tendency to sail straight into storms like the revered Compania Maritima before them (in terms of ship losses and not in casualties) and that historical company took a lot of losses from those risk-takings too (and more than even Sulpicio Lines).

From 1996 when the WG&A was formed, Sulpicio Lines only lost the Philippine Princess (fire while under refitting in 1997), the Princess of the Orient (capsizing in a storm in 1998), the Iloilo Princess (fire and capsizing while under refitting in 2003), the Princess of the World (fire while sailing in 2005) and the Princess of the Stars (capsizing in a storm in 2008) and the Princess of the Pacific (serious grounding incident resulting in complete total loss in 2004). That is until they were suspended in 2008 when only one liner was left sailing for them, the Princess of the South which did not sink.

In the comparative period, WG&A and ATS employed a total of 24 liners (the overnight ferries of Cebu Ferries Corporation was obviously not included here are they are not multiday liners). Sulpicio Lines had a total of 22 liners in the parallel period so their numbers are about even. But the ship loss total of WG&A, ATS and 2GO is clearly higher and the public was never made aware of this. Maybe some good PR works while it seems Sulpicio Lines never took care of that and all they knew was feeding their passengers well (unli rice or smorgasbord, anyone?). But then however those liner losses are scandalous in number, by whatever measure. Imagine losing more than one liner per year on the average.

Some of the liners of WG&A and ATS were not SuperFerries in name but but the Our Ladies, the two Cities and a Dona from William Lines had perfect safety records as none of them was ever lost. Now, does the choice of name matter in safety? Or the “lesser” ferries do try harder and are more careful? That discrepancy certainly made me think and it might be worth a study.

Negros Navigation was far safer than the WG&A and Sulpicio Lines losing only the St. Francis Xavier in 1999. Do naming of liners after saints enhance their safety? Conversely, do naming of liners with the qualifier “Super” means the ship will sink faster? Questions, questions. But the lightly-regarded and revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (CAGLI) tops them all with absolutely no losses. Now for a company that sometimes have difficulty painting their ships that is something (while the spic-and-span WG&A and ATS which repaints their liners while sailing tops the losses department). Does it mean it is better not to repaint liners well? I observed in the eastern seaboard that the ships that are not painted well have no losses (until the dumb Archipelago Ferries let its stalled Maharlika II sank into the waves in 2014 without rescuing it and thereby breaking the record – that ship was newly painted when it went under so the repainting might have doomed her?). Well, in my earlier thesis and later in this article I find it funny that the ships which are more rusty does not sink as long as it is not a Batangas ship (ah, the disproportionality again). While those that can always afford new paint like WG&A and successor ATS sink. Is a new coat of paint a sign of danger for the ship? Or is it the P & I insurance that did them in? Funny, funny. Negros Navigation when it was already in trouble and lacks the money already did not have one ship sinking. So the illiquidity which Negros Navigation suffered means more safety? Har, har! Whatever, I want to commend them and top honcho Sulficio Tagud for taking the high road and not just let the ships sink just to collect insurance. And last note, in multi-day liner operations before, Aleson Shipping Lines never lost a ship.

Liners sink at a faster rate pro rata compared to overnight ferries (if the wooden-hulled ferries of the past are not counted) and that is a big puzzle to me. And of course nobody will know for sure because nobody studied that as we don’t have the equivalent of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) of the USA which call in true experts and go in depth why the transportation accidents happened. Is it because while on a voyage the liners are practically running 24 hours a days and systems, equipment and personnel are stressed more? Is it because the ships reach their reliability/cycles earlier in terms of hours of usage like the electrical lines which is a cause of fire? Or are their crew simply more tired and believes that their ships with high certifications are less vulnerable to sinking (as if those certificates will keep the ship afloat)?

In the earlier decades and even recently it is known that liners take more chances with storms and maybe because they think they can battle the waves better because they are bigger. There are shipping companies who were known to be more brave (or foolhardy?) in sailing ships when there are storms about and among them the old Compania Maritima and Sulpicio Lines almost surely top the list. Now, however, the field is more level as all Philippine ships are barred from sailing when the center wind of the storm reaches 60kph. And for the smaller ships less than 250gt they are not permitted to sail when the center wind is already 45kph or when the local weather agency PAGASA declares a “gale warning” even though there is no a gale. When the suspensions are in effect better just watch the foreign ships still continue sailing for they are not covered by the suspension and most actually use INMARSAT or equivalent which is just a curiosity in the local maritime world until now when that is already well-established outside of the Philippines (the lousy PAGASA which can’t do localized forecasts seems to be already good for them since it is free while they have to pay for INMARSAT).

Liners also sink faster than short-distance ferries whose sailing durations are all short and whose crews probably know their particular seas and routes more. When to think most short-distance ferries which are always small are captained in the main by Second or Third Mates and whose engine department are headed by Second or sometimes by just Marine Diesel Mechanics who have not even finished college but passed an exam just the same (well, competence in running and maintaining a machine well is not necessarily dictated by diplomas, trust me). Even though liners might be using ECDIS don’t be too sure they will reach their destination better than the lowly short-distance ferry using just what is called as dead reckoning. In truth, ECDIS or whatever better bridge equipment does not guarantee better seamanship or navigation. After all it will not show the wind and wave which only something like INMARSAT can.

So in liners disproportionality already exist. And their international certifications don’t even save them from disasters. So, I advise those who take liners, don’t be very sure and make the necessary precautions like memorizing the different alarms and making sure where your life vests are. And don’t jump to the water too early. Liners are tall and that plunge could hurt you. And when in the water at night tie yourselves together so as not to drift (a whistle is a big help in calling attention if you are drifting). Note the water can be cold at night and hypothermia can set in. Take a selfie too before jumping and upload it. Who knows if it will be your last photo. Your loved ones will sure prize it. Ah, don’t take all I said in this paragraph too seriously.

In overnight ferries there seems to be disproportionality with regards to companies and not to home port (if analyzed pro rata to the size of the fleet which means the size of the fleets are taken into consideration) and to the routes. Well, for practical purposes there are only a few home ports for overnight ferries – Cebu, Zamboanga, Batangas, Manila, Lucena and Iloilo, in that order maybe in terms of sailings (a clarification, there are overnight ships originating from say northern Mindanao but all of those ferries are actually based in Cebu). Analyzing, some overnight ferry companies deserve the Gold Award while some should be suspended from service, maybe.

It must be noted that one of the biggest overnight ferries two decades ago and which dominated the Visayas-Mindanao waters for nearly a decade, the Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC), a subsidiary of WG&A and successor Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) did not lose a single ship ever until it they left Cebu for Batangas and became the “Batangas Ferries” and even there their perfect streak continued. Maybe some of their people need to be recruited by other companies or sent there by MARINA to share the experience. They can lecture on the topic, “On How Not To Sink”. Maybe it is not just with the choice of name that they were safe? Or was it in the livery? The only problem it seems is they did not send their Captains to their liners like the St. Thomas Aquinas who made a dumb mistake trying to test the hardness of the ice-classed bow of the Sulpicio Express Siete.

In the Cebu-based regional shipping companies which are operators of overnight ferries it is probably Lite Ferries who is the Valedictorian having lost no ships even though their fleet is already big. Maybe that will come as a surprise to many but whatever they deserve a big round of applause. Another company whose Captains might need to be recruited by other shipping companies or pry open their secret if there is any. Are they better readers of SOLAS? One thing I am sure though is its owner does not belong to the same fraternity as one former Batangas shipping company owner who threatens mayhem if his ship sinks.

There are other overnight ferry companies in Cebu that could have shared First Honors with Lite Ferries but in a tie-breaker Lite Ferries wins because they have the most ships and not by a small margin at that. Others with perfect records are the defunct Palacio Lines (well, some might argue that that is a Samar shipping company but I digress). Now I can’t understand why an overnight ferry company with a perfect safety record will go under as a company. Seems something is not right. Aside from Palacio Lines there are a lot of there Cebu-based overnight ferry companies that have perfect safety records in terms of having no ship losses. Some of these are still extant and sailing and some have already quit the business (it’s a waste, isn’t it, for them to just go away like that).

Among these is the legendary Gabisan Shipping Lines, VG Shipping, Kinswell Shipping, Roly Shipping, Jadestar Shipping, South Pacific Transport and many other smaller shipping lines with just one or two ships (most of these are already gone now but still their perfect records remain). I just don’t know why they can’t catch a break from MARINA as in they are not given special citations and handed more privileges in sailing because after all they have proven they know their stuff in shipping. But no, when MARINA goes headhunting in safety they are lambasted in the same vein as those which had sunk ships as if they are just as guilty. Actually, to set the record straight about half of the overnight ferry companies in the whole Philippines never had any ship losses. This is true even in Zamboanga where Magnolia Shipping Lines, Ever Lines and a lot of other operators with just one or two steel-hulled ferries have perfect safety records. Now, can’t MARINA even for once credit them properly and publish their names because the way I feel at times with media reports and with MARINA statements it is as if all our shipping companies already had sunk ships which is simply not the case. In the liner sector that is true but in the overnight ferry and short-distance sector, combined, most shipping companies never had any ship losses. Don’t they deserve credit and more respect and recognition? But no, they are sunk not beneath the waves but in obscurity and that is one of the purpose of this article, to set the record straight.

In Manila, the old MBRS Lines and its successor Romblon Shipping Line never lost a ship (but the company is dead now anyway, sunk by the intermodal). In Lucena, Kalayaan Shipping Lines might have a perfect safety record too at least in steel-hulled ferries. In Batangas, there are operators of just one or two ferries which have not lost a ship (do they take care not to lose one because that will mean the shutdown of operations?). In Iloilo, did Milagrosa Shipping Lines already lost a ship? In number half of the overnight ferry operators never lost a ship although in the number of ships owned theirs comprise just the minority, to clarify.

It is in short-distance ferries that I noticed a lot more of disproportionalities especially in the recent decades when maritime databases were able to keep track with them (the wooden-hulled short-distance ferries generally doesn’t have IMO Numbers so keeping track of them is difficult but these lanchas or batels were our early short-distance ferries aside from the motor bancas). For this sector or segment I would rather stick to steel-hulled ferries like what I mentioned early on especially since there is no way to track the hundreds and hundreds of motor bancas and their losses which are not even properly reported at times.

There are areas, routes and short-distance companies that have perfect safety records (again, wooden hulled ferries are not included here and that also mean the earlier years). In the eastern seaboard where the typhoons first strike and where it is fiercest the routes and shipping companies there have a perfect safety record ever since the steel-hulled ships first appeared in 1979. This was only broken in 2013 due to the dumbness of a stranger which invaded the Masbate waters (is that part of the eastern seaboard anyway? but Masbate is in Bicol). They withdrew from Bicol after that incident to just sail the more benign Camotes Sea waters. And that is one of the reasons why I was furious at Archipelago Ferries for not coming to the aid of their stalled ship for 6 hours when their good ship was just just two hours sailing away and so the stricken ship slid off the waves (shouldn’t someone be hanged for that?). Because of that the perfect record of the local shipping companies based in the eastern seaboard was broken. I just hope the crewmen of Maharlika Cuatro which failed to respond to an SOS then are not employed in the FastCats now.

Short-distance ferries also does not sink in the Tablas Sea crossings or in the routes to Marinduque from Lucena. However, I do not know what is the curse of the Verde Island Passage that many ships have been already lost there when to think practically the same shipping companies ply the three routes mentioned. To think the Tablas Sea wind and waves could be rougher than that in Verde Island Passage. Did they assign their lousier crews there? Just asking. As they say the proof is in the pudding (and the pudding tastes bad).

I just wonder too about the luck of the Mindanao Sea crossings. The waves there could also be rough and the crossing is longer but none was ever lost among the short-distance ferries running the Dumaguete-Dapitan, Samboan-Dapitan and Jagna-Balingoan routes. Like in Tablas Strait, do the longer route makes the crews more careful? Are the crews there better trained and has better seamanship?

The many routes connecting Cebu island and Negros island and Negros island and Panay island are also safe. Hard to find there a short-distance steel-hulled ferry that sank. That is also true for the steel-hulled ferries connecting Masbate island to Cebu island when the distance there is also long for a short-distance ferry and the wind and waves are no less dangerous. What is their secret there? Is it just that Camotes Sea navigators are lousier? With exceptions, of course because Gabisan Shipping surely will not agree.

I could go to the less obscure, short-distance routes. Just the same I will tell you these are also safe. Never heard of a steel ferry going to Alabat that sank. Or to Dinagat and Siargao islands (sure their motor bancas sink). Or the routes to Basilan from Zamboanga. Not even a RORO to Guimaras have sunk or a RORO to Bantayan island. That is also true for the short-distance connections within Romblon island served by steel-hulled ships (the Princess Camille that capsized in Romblon port in 2003 was an overnight ferry from Batangas). No steel-hulled ferry connecting Leyte and Bohol was ever lost too. And that is also true for the route connecting Siquijor to Dumaguete.

So a lot of our short-distance routes and the ferries plying them are actually safe. Who can argue against a perfect safety record? A little rust will not sink ships nor would a non-functioning firefighting pump (and the ship is not in the middle of an ocean anyway). Those are just a little margins that are not that critical. Does not look good to the eye but to a passenger like me it is more important if MARINA enforces their Memorandum Circular that ferries should feed its passengers if the arrival of the ship exceeds 7am. And I am more concerned if the ship is clean especially the rest rooms and if there is clean drinking water. Besides, trust me, our mariners are not that negligent or dumb that they will leave the ramps unclosed and then sail like what some Europeans did.

So are our ferries safe? Yes, it is except for the liners, some shipping companies and some routes and areas. Never mind if they are old. It is not necessarily the factor that will sink ships (a ship if it loses motive power still has the flotation of a barge). It is actually the lack of seamanship that sinks ships (old ship, new ship can both collide or fail to heed the weather). And trust the short-distance ferries on the fringes and don’t underestimate them. The crew won’t let their ships sink if their families, relatives, friends, schoolmates, etc. are aboard. Well, not all. Be a little wary in Verde Island Passage and in Camotes Sea.

Let us be more objective. Our ferries and mariners are not really that bad, contrary to what hecklers say.

The Magnolia Grandiflora

The cruiser-type long-route ferry Magnolia Grandiflora is the biggest ship in the fleet of Magnolia Shipping Company of Zamboanga City although it is not the tallest (that distinction belongs to Magnolia Liliflora). What is notable in this ship is not her looks but her age and what is unique with her is she started out as a fishing vessel and then she was converted locally into a passenger-cargo ship. There are only a few converted ships like that here and that includes the Lady Mary Joy 1 of Aleson Shipping Lines which has good lines and does not look like a former fishing vessel and the Gloria Two and Gloria Three of Gabisan Shipping Lines which looks like Magnolia Grandiflora as in low, squat and wide, no offense meant (however, she is slightly bigger than the two Gabisan ships, a comparison that is needed so some can imagine her size). The endearing quality of the three is they may be old but they still very reliable and it seems they are not ready to go anytime soon (especially since surplus and replacement engines are now readily available).

Magnolia Grandiflora started as the Shinnan Maru No. 18 of Izumi Gyogyo KK of Muroto, Japan. She was a trawler built by Kanasashi Heavy Industries (builder too of St. Gregory The Great, St. Leo The Great, among others) in Shimizu shipyard in Japan in 1969 with the permanent ID IMO 7003348. She has a steel hull, a raked stem and a cruiser stern. She was a big trawler at 52.5 meters length over-all, 45.5 meters in length between perpendiculars with a maximum breadth of 8.7 meters. She was originally 344 tons in gross register tons (GRT) with a deadweight tonnage (DWT) of 241 tons. This ship has a single Hanshin marine diesel engine of 1,300 horsepower which was enough for a speed of 12 knots originally.

In 1977, Shinnan Maru No. 18 was sold to Ricsan Development Corporation of Manila and she was used as a fishing vessel. In that fishing company, the Shinnan Maru No. 18 was known as the Ricsan 3. However, Ricsan Development Corporation was also one of the companies that was not able to ride out the deadly decade for shipping that was the 1980’s. In 1989, she was sold to Magnolia Shipping Corporation and she was brought to Varadero de Recodo (“varadero” is the Spanish word for shipyard and Zamboanga’s lengua franca is Chavacano which is a Spanish creole language). Varadero de Recodo is the premier shipyard of Zamboanga City and aside from repairs they are builders of ships, the Zamboanga-style of cruiser passenger ships aside from general cargo ships. Varadero de Recodo then converted Ricsan 3 into a passenger ship, one of the conversions made by that famous shipyard in Zamboanga. From then on the ship was known as the Magnolia Grandiflora. Her name was derived from a large evergreen tree in the US which can grow up to 30 meters tall.

As a passenger-cargo ship, the design of this ferry features two-and-a-half passenger decks of the basic, spartan kind with bunks and mattresses. Below that is a cargo/passenger deck and below that still is the engine deck and the cargo holds. This ship has a prominent high prow as well as a prominent, wide, rounded stern.

The design of this passenger-cargo ship is of the spartan kind similar to the ships of the old days. This kind of ship is the workhorse of the theroutes from Zamboanga to Bongao in Tawi-tawi, Jolo, the “3S” (Sibuco, Sirawai, Siocon) and Cagayan de Sulu before, Olutanga, Ipil, Kabasalan, Margosatubig and Pagadian before and many other destinations. This kind of ship is distinguished by the presence of large cargo holds in the engine deck. Above that is a deck that was both for the passenger and cargo but primarily for the latter (so as not to obstruct cargo loading and unloading this deck features folding cots or tejeras in the native languages. In Zamboanga, large cargo carrying capacity is prized as these ships are more like the cargo-passenger ships like the liners of the old days before containerization. These ships are loaded by sliding the cargo through wooden planks that are already shiny by years of use and thrown to porters waiting inside the hot cargo holds (now, some have industrial fans already to moderate the heat inside and to prevent the copra from combusting spontaneously). Unloading, the process is reversed. Loaded sacks of copra are arranged inside the hold to act as stairs and the cargo is handed to porters on the deck above and it is ported through a wooden ramp (a catwalk) connected to the wharf. Arriving at dawn unloading can sometime last until noon especially if the ship has a full load of copra and after a few hours of rest the porters should already be ready before mid-afternoon with loading (some too tired in unloading already beg off and would prefer to vend). By the way, with cargo that cannot be slid a ramp for porters like a catwalk.

Above the passenger/cargo deck is a pure passenger deck and above that is another half-deck for passengers. This ship is a one-class ship as is it is an all-Economy affair. There is actually no bunk assignment. One just chooses the bunk he fancies and get a mattress from a stack, clean it and it is ready for occupancy. One can board anytime, really. Actually one can board even if not a passenger and the crew won’t mind you. Magnolia Grandiflora is also used as a resting place by the porters and a vending place of the vendors (who plays a hide-and-seek game with the Philippine Ports Authority guards – at least in the ship it is the Captain who has the jurisdiction). Magnolia Grandiflora is also a favorite resting place of mine in ship spotting and in resting. What I like about her is when she loads blocks of ice near the galley at the stern – that cools down that portion of the ship. Those blocks of ice are meant for the fishes she will carry back from ports of Tawi-tawi and Siasi. So in arriving in Zamboanga that portion of the ship will be full of fishes in wooden boxes. That portion of the ship is actually always wet and cool most of the time.

Magnolia Grandiflora has two masts which looks like those were fabricated locally. She has a short center funnel and also not of the fancy kind. As a passenger ship, her declared passenger capacity is 400. It is now all bunks in the upper two passenger decks but in the old days tejeras (folding cots) was the order of the day (until it was banned by MARINA). Her declared gross tonnage (GT) went down to 247 which is an impossibility. Again the MARINA “magic meter” was at work here. If her Net Tonnage of 150 is taken as a guide and with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) rule is used that the NT should be at least a third of the GT we can assume that her true GT is 450 or more. This ship has a very prominent rounded cruiser stern.

The route of this ship is Zamboanga-Jolo-Siasi-Bongao-Sitangkai, a route that will guarantee a lot of fishes back. She leaves Zamboanga, her base port every Friday at 7pm. She only does this route once a week as she leaves her ports of call only at night with a day lay-over. Leaving Zamboanga, she if full of manufactured goods including groceries. Going back to Zamboanga, the ship is full of marine products including frozen fish in boxes and copra. She is actually more reliant on cargo than on passengers. The passenger fares on this part of the Philippines is actually very low (and there are many passes; and that is customary to shippers). But then on the obverse side don’t expect too much in creature comforts. In Magnolia Grandiflora a TV set is practically the only amenity available. And if one is travelling be sure to buy food at every port because although Magnolia Grandiflora and the other in the route are multi-day ships (it is too much to call them “liners”) there is no restaurant to speak of (some passengers will sell though). The passenger ships in this route are really spartan. No frills really. By the way, it is Magnolia Fragrance of the same company which also does her same route. Her competitor companies in her route are Ever Lines (the ships Ever Queen of Asia and Ever Queen of Pacific 1) and Aleson Shipping (the ship Lady Mary Joy 1 which has airconditioned accommodations).

Although Magnolia Grandiflora is already over 45 years old, she is still a very sturdy ship. Her Hanshin engine is still reliable and if need be it can be replaced. The shipyards of Zamboanga are very good in that and over-all they are very good in prolonging the life of old ships. Ships almost never die in Zamboanga unless the shipping company itself got bankrupt or else quit shipping and there are no buyers.

Ten years from now, we might still see Magnolia Grandiflora sailing (maybe she will still be the carrier of the goods to that section of the Philippines). After all, the Bounty Cruiser of Evenesser Shipping which was built in 1956 is sailing up to now (60 years old!). Hanshin engines are actually easy to replace (that is a favorite engine of the small cargo ships). And that is also true for the hull plates and bridge equipment.

Well, unless Dick Gordon gets crazy and makes some legislative fiat approved by dumb legislators.