The Leyte-Surigao Crossing Is Heating Up

Just after Super-typhoon “Yolanda” in 2013, long lines of trucks formed in the Surigao Strait crossings connecting Leyte and Mindanao when the relief and reconstruction efforts were in full swing. I thought it was just a temporary phenomenon brought about by the typhoon destruction but the truck queues persisted after that (but the buses were not affected by that in the main because bearing passengers they always have the highest priority in boarding short-distance ROROs). Cargo RORO LCTs requested by the government helped in transporting trucks months after the super-typhoon passed until the situation more or less returned to normal.

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LCT sent by Asian Shipping Corporation to the Typhoon Yolanda relief effort (Photo by ASC)

But further developments showed there was really increased vehicle traffic already in the Liloan-Lipata and Benit-Lipata parallel routes that connect Leyte and Mindanao. So in the recent years the Surigao Strait saw more short-distance ferry-ROROs sailing the north-south direction. These included new players plus a dedicated Cargo RORO LCT plying the route and carrying trucks. With such there is a palpable increase in the sailing frequencies between Leyte and Surigao.

The once-oldest ferries in the route, the Maharlika ferries are now gone after the sinking in 2013 of its Maharlika Dos off the southwest tip of Panaon island when its engines conked out and she was swamped by waves when no help came after she drifted for hours. Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the owners of the Maharlika series then stopped operations until they were able to bring their new catamaran-ROROs which are part of the FastCat series.

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Now these new type of ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships) hold different time slots. Even with just a single ferry which is currently the FastCat M7, it can do three round trips in a day with its superior speed (17 knots) and favorable passenger and shipper response. The FastCat is gaining popularity in the route by offering the same rates but employing a brand-new craft with the best passenger service in the short-distance routes together with the legendary 2GO liners. They are practically the horse to beat there now from being derided in the past because of the lousiness of their Maharlika series.

FastCat still uses the Liloan-Lipata route even though Lipata port was damaged by an earthquake in 2016 which forced other ships to use the other port of Surigao City which is Verano port. This is the port that caters before to the passenger ships from Cebu (there are no more liners from Manila) and freighters plus different crafts to Dinagat, Siargao and various small islands off the Surigao mainland.

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Benit port and MSLI ferry

Giving them stiff competition because it enjoys a short route are the ferries of Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) which uses the Benit port exclusively to sail the Benit-Surigao route. Normally, this shipping company deploys two big short-distance ferry-ROROs in the route and these are usually the sister ships Maria Felisa and Maria Vanessa. The Benit-Surigao route is only a little over a third of the Liloan-Lipata route but the MSLI rates are only a little less than Liloan-Lipata rates and so MSLI enjoys greater profitability than competition and I wonder why MARINA allows the shipping company to prey on the passengers and vehicle owners when I thought they are the maritime regulatory agency (and they are regulating what and are they for the shipping owners or for the passengers and shippers?).

A newcomer on the route is the Southwest Premier Ferries which is using a brand-new ferry, the SWM Stella del Mar which is a sister ship of the new vessels of Starlite Ferries of Batangas. This company promised several trips in a day but I wonder how they can live up to that if they don’t have enough rolling cargo as many of the vehicles there are already locked to their competitors (well, they can offer discounting to attract the clientele of competition). Southwest Premier Ferries is just a few months on the route.

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Photo from Scoopnest.com

A Bicol shipping company has also invaded the route, the Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. which rotates some of their bigger ships in the route and sometimes it uses a ferry of its legal-fiction company Penafrancia Shipping Corp. As of the time of this writing they are using the ship King Frederick but with two ferries from Japan being refitted right now in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu, it is probable that one of the two might be assigned to their Liloan-Surigao route to better handle the challenge of the new ferries in the route.

Another old shipping company still plying the route through Liloan and Surigao is the Millennium Shipping Inc. which uses its old and slow Millennium Uno, a ferry with over half a century of sailing experience. At several times in the past this ferry was thought by observers to be already gone only to rise again like a phoenix and one of the recent episode was when they voluntarily stopped sailing after the hot eyes that came with the sinking of the Maharlika Dos (she has her own deficiencies after all). When the ruckus died down the ship quietly went back to sailing with some cosmetic changes and engine improvements so that from 4 hours plus she can now sail the 38-nautical mile distance in a little over 3.5 hours.

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Added to that mix of ships is a Cargo RORO LCT, the GT Express I of GT Express Shipping which was once connecting Negros and Panay islands through the Banago-Dumangas route. This LCT actually uses the Liloan municipal port which once had overnight ships to Cebu and not the Liloan Ferry Terminal. The two ports are just a kilometer apart in a very small bay. As a Cargo RORO LCT, the GT Express 1 can only take in trucks.

One shipping company that is gone now in the route is Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) which stopped their sailing when they found themselves lacking ferries because of mechanical failures on their other ferries. It is a loss and a perplexity because they fielded in the route the first decent ferry when all that was available 15 years ago were the lousy Maharlika and Millennium ferries. I don’t think they will come back in the route because they still lack short-distance ferry-ROROs.

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Verano Port of Surigao City

So right now 6 different ROROs ply the routes across Surigao Strait from 5 different shipping companies and total of about a dozen voyages in a day with a capacity for over 200 assorted vehicles each way excluding motorcycles plus a passenger capacity of more than 4,000. Such is the available capacity now on the route which is a far cry from that of a decade ago when shut-outs happen.

One reason from the increased demand in the route is Surigao Strait became a favorite crossing point of vehicles to or from Cebu of vehicles not only from CARAGA Region but also from Southern Mindanao as Northern Mindanao is not a viable entry for the rates there are very high. This is aside from the fact that that strait is the old crossing point of buses and trucks coming from Luzon and going to Mindanao.

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“The Saddle” dominates the view of the Surigao Strait crossings

The competition in the route might be heating up for now with some threatened over-capacity but in a few years, with the growth in traffic being shown by the route then maybe more ships and frequencies will again be needed. Actually there is a report that a new port will be built in San Ricardo east of Benit and it will be connected to the eastern coastal road being built in Panaon island that will bypass the mountain pass called “The Saddle” which gives some trucks problems because of the inexperience now of drivers in mountain passes.

Maybe by then there will also be more routes across Surigao Strait in the future. More is merrier and normally that redounds to the benefit of the passengers and shippers if only MARINA will do its job. Let us see it then.

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The Trip From Tacloban to Surigao del Sur (Part 1)

The smaller tour group of the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) reached Tacloban on the midnight of the second night of the tour. Waiting for Mark to get a ride, we finally parted at about 3:30am of December 13 with Mark on the way to Bato, Leyte for a shipspotting of Bohol and James on the way back to Cebu via Palompon. Me and Joe’s destination was unmentioned but we were actually on the way to Cortes, Surigao del Sur, near the capital of Tandag to visit a shipmate of Joe and shipspot along the way.

There are really not many ports on the Tacloban-Panaon island axis if one follows the road to Mahaplag. From Tacloban, Joe and me had to take the Mahaplag route mainly because it was still dark and Joe also wanted to see the Agas-agas bridge. Besides, a trip via Silago will take longer and I want us to be on the 8am ferry in Benit because that will afford us the greatest chance of visits to the unexplored ports of Surigao without nightfall overtaking us. We had the thought of passing it on the way back, halfheartedly, because our tentative route on the way back now was via Isabel, Leyte to pick up a puppy.

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Liloan Ferry Terminal and Liloan bridge

We reached Liloan at about 6am and Joe tried entering the Liloan Ferry Terminal. I dissuaded him because I feared we will get in trouble with the LGU collectors of illegal exactions and we will lose more time if a scene erupts and anyway I don’t want to take the ferry there because I thought it will reach Lipata Ferry Terminal not sooner but later. I told Joe we can cover Lipata Ferry Terminal from the Liloan municipal port which is located just a kilometer from the other end of the Liloan bay.

I was not mistaken and we were lucky because as tipped by member Mervin Go Soon of Baybay (whom we met on the Oroquieta Stars on the way to the PSSS tour-meet assembly in Tacloban), the former Maharlika Cinco of Archipelago Ferries was there. The other tip of Mervin that the Grand Star RORO 3 was doing a Liloan Municipal Port to Surigao route also proved true because she was there besides the former Maharlika Cinco. We noticed no work was being done on the former Maharlika Cinco which would become the Gloria Five of Gabisan Shipping. I was wondering then who is operating the Grand Star RORO 3. I thought it was “M Shipping” whose AUV we encountered on the road (I was mistaken on that assumption as Mervin very recently told me that Grand Star RORO 3 was also bought by Gabisan Shipping and I wonder now if she is the Gloria One advertised by the company in Liloan port).

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Across the bay, we saw that it was only the Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping which was docked in Liloan Ferry Terminal. With its slow speed and the triple distance of Liloan compared to Benit port, it would have been disaster to our schedule had we taken it (so our bet not to enter Liloan Ferry Terminal was right after all). There was also anchored in the bay the Cargo RORO LCT GT Express 1 of GT Shipping which was doing a route to Surigao so that trucks wouldn’t queue long like in the past. I noticed the old Liloan municipal port terminal was already converted into an office by the municipality. But the old arrastre office was still there.

At the end of our short, alloted time in Liloan we made a run for Benit in San Ricardo town at the tip of Panaon island. I did not want a photofinish and I told Joe we need to put in some allowance on time lest we were shut out of the ferry (“shut out” in maritime use here means one’s vehicle or cargo fails to be loaded to a ship) and probably have to backtrack to Liloan and so we did not look for a place to eat anymore (anyway there was probably none that is inviting as Liloan is just a small town). Along the way we saw the abandoned port of San Francisco which once docked the copra ships of great shipping line Go Thong in the past.

We next came to “The Saddle”, a renowned mountain pass that Joe wants to conquer (it was called by that name because it resembles a horse saddle if viewed from the sea). It was not shipspotting but there were views of the sea from there and we knew right after that will come the town of San Ricardo but Benit port will still be some distance from it.

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Leaving behind Benit, its collectors of illegal exactions and “The Saddle”

Approaching Benit port, before the turn inside, I told Joe that if the San Ricardo LGU collectors of the illegal exactions flag him down that he continues driving as if he did not see anything. The ruse worked and upon entering the people of Montenegro Lines and the arrastre rushed us saying we will be the last vehicle that will be loaded. There were already shortcuts in the processing of papers and we were already on the ramp before all the papers were even processed. The ship left even before 8am and I saw two vehicles that arrived minutes after us were no longer accommodated (and there was actually still some space for at least one of them). So it was still a photofinish alright and a lucky accommodation. Sometimes that is one gets from being disciplined in the travel approach. I told Joe before that many said I am lucky with trips and it seems it was holding. Actually, it held during the 1,000 kilometers me and Joe ran with two ferry crossings and with many ports visited.

Our ship was the Maria Vanessa of Montenegro Lines, sister of the Maria Felisa (actually no other shipping company serves the Benit-Lipata route). Since we both lacked sleep, me and Joe barely toured the ship. Instead we immediately looked for a cool, comfortable and quiet place and soon we were asleep although the voyage usually takes only 1 hour and 15 or 20 minutes. We two really needed that rest even if it was so short. We did not even care for food as all we wanted is sleep.

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Lipata Ferry Terminal

That short sleep reinvigorated the two of us and there was no hassle in the disembarkation process nor in getting out of the Lipata Ferry Terminal. We did not try anymore to tour the port since we will be exiting Mindanao through that port anyway. What we wanted was food as our stomachs were grumbling already. It was already mid-morning and we only had hamburger the previous night in Tacloban terminal and no breakfast at all.

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“Voyagers” (Photo by Joe Cardenas)

Going out of the port, I espied a new place which looked like a diner to me although it looks more of a lodging place. I was able to convince Joe to backtrack and what a discovery! Well, they really serve meals and snacks and it turned out that the owner is a master mariner abroad and so the place was themed by maritime things. The was not the usual rush of people, it was quiet and clean and it does not look or smell like the usual roadside stands. The name of the place is “Voyagers” and we recommend it. Me and Joe took a little time to unwind and relax there before we proceeded to the city (i.e. Surigao City). 

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In the city, we first went to what is called the “Boulevard”. It is a boulevard indeed, a seaside one. It is adjacent to the main port of Surigao and it is there where the so-many big motor bancas of Surigao to Dinagat, Siargao and other islands dock. We were lucky since we were early they were still all there and since the sea was calm so many came. I walked the entire length of the Boulevard getting shots of all the bigger boats. Offshore, a few LCTs were moored, as always. LCTs are a fixture of Surigao now because the mines employ them.

From there me and Joe proceeded to the main port of Surigao which is called Verano port. Joe wanted to enter but I told him there is almost no chance of a free pass as it is an ISPS port which means visitors are not welcome. To buy a ticket for Siargao so we can enter means a bit heavy “entrance fee”. Might have been affordable for our pockets but I was always mindful of the time and I do not want the quest for the unexplored ports of Surigao be compromised (why is it that long-distance shipspotting is always balancing of compromises?). Besides I was more interested in the old docking area of boats nestled on the side of Verano which was not obvious or visible from outside it. So I just contented myself with some shots of Verano ships from the gate. There are not many of them at a given time anyway and two i even caught while departing.

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A view of Verano Port from the nearly-enclosed marina beside it

I then nestled myself into the narrow opening that leads to what I found to be a dirty marina where many bancas and motor boats were anchored (there were more than 15 of them). This looked like to be the old port as can be deduced from the road on the other side of where I was. It is now almost encircled by Verano port but I knew from observation inside Verano that passenger-cargo motor bancas emanate from it which I found to be bound to the smaller islands that belong to Surigao City.

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The MARINA nestled by Verano Port

Many of the vessels in that nearly-enclosed marina were actually fishing bancas. But it seems nobody cares anymore for that port and marina. It is dirty and it looks as if there is no order there and even the roads and pathways leading to it look unmaintained. I did not dare exploring anymore as the walkways looked dangerous to me.

From there me and Joe exited Surigao City not through the main road but through some shortcuts which Joe saw on the GPS map. We did not try anymore the Surigao-Lipata coastal road whose turn we missed earlier. The unexplored municipal ports and the mining ports of Surigao were the ones that were already pulling us. Their magnetites seem to be strong….

(More on the next installment.)