The Masbate-Pio Duran Route and How It Grew

The last time I was in Masbate City and that was last year, I have already observed that this new competing route is already dominating the old connection by RORO to the Bicol mainland or peninsula and that is the Masbate to Pilar, Sorsogon route although it is a longer route and people of Masbate except for Burias island have no normal connection with Albay.

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Masbate Port by Mike Baylon of PSSS

The leading shipping company in the route, the combined Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, can already field three ROROs there and mind you those are not basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs but the size of small overnight ferries. Plus they also have a Cargo RORO LCT for the trucks because in the ROROs the priority are the buses because they carry passengers. Besides there is also a new competitor in the route, the CAVS Transport Services whose second RORO has just arrived.

In terms of capacity, that of the Masbate-Pio Duran route is already well ahead of the Masbate-Pilar, Sorsogon route because only basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs or Korean hybrid LCTs can be accommodated there because of the shallow depth of the port although there are also High Speed Crafts (HSCs) in that particular route plus many big motor bancas which is in decline already although they are very friendly and accommodating (and it seems they are no longer reinvesting for fear of phase-out).

When the route first opened a few years ago, I did not expect such growth of the intermodal can happen. I had my doubts as the Masbate-Pio Duran route is longer than the Masbate-Pilar route and I know that if the rates of the new route are far off that the old route then it would just die as the vehicle owners and crews will stick to the old but cheaper one which is already familiar to them although the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs  of the old are less comfortable. Now, using faster ROROs meant that the transit time of the new route is just the same that of the old route.

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Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS

But Sta. Clara Shipping, the primary company really knows its salt as shown by their history. The mantra really is how to encourage the buses to cross. Buses are a different breed because they have passengers and that is a multiplier of revenues whether there rebates or there is none. And Sta. Clara Shipping knows how to encourage that by many kinds of incentives (and that even having to provide the bus crew with a good meal) and the buses just came and came. Soon, the intermodal trucks found that the route through Masbate is a good alternative to Luzon from Cebu rather than using the longer route via Samar and Leyte islands.

The development  was a resounding slap to the pioneering Archipelago Philippine Ferries (better know as the Maharlika ferries) which did not last in the Masbate to Bicol route via Bulan in Sorsogon although they are horizontally integrated as in one person owns the bus and the ship. Who says Economics books are always right? With incentives the RORO is full and that is the critical thing. What is the use of a RORO without incentives if it is not even half-full?

Early on, a new shipping company in the route, the Medallion Transport Inc. of Cebu and Leyte had a misstep as fate played games. Not long after they opened the route, their Lady of Carmel sank at night while on the way to Masbate from Pio Duran. That happened near Burias island in 2013. At its peak Medallion Transport had two basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs in the route and they even named the ship that sank as “Barko Masbateno”.

Medallion Transport then lost their foothold in the route as the policy of the Masbate provincial government is they won’t let a shipping company continue sailing until and unless the shipping company settle first its obligations to the victims of the tragedy. That was actually the reason too why Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) lost its Masbate to Lucena, Quezon route when their Maria Carmela caught fire in Pagbilao Bay near the end of its route.

Meanwhile, the original route of Sta. Clara Shipping/Penafrancia Shipping was actually Pasacao, Camarines Sur to Masbate City, a far longer route and they started it in the habagat (Southwest monsoon) and early on they had a scare there and with that and the unfeasibility of the route they decided to transfer to the Pio Duran to Masbate City route. With no competition and the right strategy they soon flourished. The buses flourished too and the Manila bus passengers benefited also. What lost were the local buses and jeeps (since the passengers are already aboard the intermodal buses) and the big motor bancas were impacted too. But then that is how the world goes. Some gain, some lose but change will always be there.

The Pio Duran port which was a very basic port before in an out-of-the-way place is now improved and expanded. The port back-up area was expanded and there is now a passenger terminal building. However, like before the berths will not be enough for the ferries in the route because in the dawn and early morning all the ROROs will be there in Pio Duran port. Masbate port has no such problem as it has been continuously expanded over the years.

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Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS

In this route, the ROROs leave Pio Duran port from dawn till breakfast time. It is the buses that dictate that as the buses leave Manila from noon till late afternoon and the travel time from Manila is up to 12 hours. In Masbate port the ROROs depart starting 10am until 2pm because they have to wait for the buses from its starting points in the far Masbate towns. These buses have contracts already with the shipping companies in Masbate and so the ferry waits for them even if they are delayed. The policy is no bus will be left behind either way because they have passengers. Clearly, trucks are second priority but there is now a Cargo RORO LCT to cater to them although it is a slow ride because it is an LCT.

What is the future of this route? If the past is any indication and the progress is linear then I expect more traffic in the route in the future and both Masbate and Pio Duran ports will further gain in importance and improve. Maybe more companies will be sailing and that can lessen the rates in the route like what is now happening in the Cebu to Leyte routes.

Whatever, I see a rosy future for this route. By the way, this is not the route that was promoted in the SRNH of Gloria. Well, sometimes the best of plans is not what turns out to be. Pio Duran port graduated from being just a port to Burias island to being a busy port and that is good. And being a port under the PPA, the national government will back its expansion unlike the competing Pilar port which is a municipal port ran by the LGU (and so they collect its expensive passenger fees but the onus for its development is supposedly borne by the municipality).

Whatever, let’s be glad that this route came into being and it flourished.

 

 

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The MS Express That Turned Into The Star Crafts 7

I first saw the MS Express live inside the Varadero de Recodo (“varadero” is Spanish for shipyard and Chavacano of Zamboanga is a Spanish creole language), a shipyard in Zamboanga City some five years ago now. The High Speed Craft (HSC) was laid up there together with the AS Express and RS Express and they were all Malaysia-built fastcrafts of the Zamboanga-based shipping company A. Sakaluran (for Hadji Ahmad Sakaluran, the founder). The said shipping company has already stopped sailing then and that included even their cruiser ferries like the Rizma. When I approached the fastcrafts, I found out that they still have a caretaker crew and they were friendly if a little bit depressed, shall I say (who won’t be in such a situation anyway and there was further reason for that, I later found out).

It was a great opportunity for me because I really wanted to shipspot the A. Sakaluran fastcrafts which was the Zamboanga pioneer in fastcrafts if the Bullet Express fastcrafts of Lepeng Wee (Speaker Ramon Mitra was not the true owner of those unlike what was said by urban legend) are excluded because those did not base in Zamboanga and plied other routes starting in Batangas. Actually, they even antedated the more-known Weesam Express (or more formally SRN Fastcrafts) which later moved to the Visayas. In real life, the two shipping companies are related by blood but A. Sakaluran was into shipping much earlier starting with with what I call the “Moro boats” which is the Mindanao equivalent of the batel in Luzon or lancha in other places and which is based on the Arab dhow.

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So, actually I was very saddened by the collapse of A. Sakaluran evidenced by their stopping of sailing. I am always saddened with the departure of the old shipping companies because we again will lose a part of our shipping heritage and history. The reason is unlike abroad we are not good in collecting and preserving records and mementos. In other countries, books about old shipping companies can be written decades after they were gone because there are complete written records plus valuable photos. That is not the situation in our country which is not too keen in history (courtesy of the destruction of the Spaniards of our old history). Actually, I try to write because I want to commit on record what I know and what I remember about our shipping history.

The collapse of A. Sakaluran might follow the analysis of my friend, the Zamboanga-based Administrator of Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS), Britz Salih. He said the small Basilan Lines might have survived if they bought ROROs instead of the Australian catamaran Malamawi. That can also be true for A. Sakaluran. They might have had a longer life if instead of the three fastcrafts they acquired ROROs or maybe additional steel-hulled cruiser ferries. Fastcrafts were not cheap then but maybe the sales pitch of the Sibu fastcraft companies proved to be too tempting. It was also a success already then in Malaysia and in Singapore and so the implication is they will also be successful here.

In such a short time, Zamboanga had such a high concentration of High Speed Crafts (HSC) and mainly fastcrafts of Malaysian origin. Coupled with the sudden rise too in the number of ROROs because of the incentives of the Ramos administration there soon was overcompetition in Zamboanga (but the erroneous paper done by Myrna S. Austria didn’t see that because she believed the incomplete reports of the government agencies). Add to that the wont of passengers in Zamboanga not to pay fares if they are related to the owners or they are the followers of some VIPs, soon the High Speed Crafts of Zamboanga were threatened with bankruptcy (HSCs will go down first before the ROROs because they can’t carry a meaningful load of cargo and these have oversized engines guzzling large amounts of fuel and not the cheaper MDO by the way). In such a situation, Weesam Express brought most of their fastcrafts to the Visayas. Meanwhile, A. Sakaluran transferred two of their three fastcrafts to Batangas and one to Iloilo.

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The A. Sakaluran fastcrafts anchored in Batangas Bay (Photo by Nowell Alcancia)

The diversion did not prove to be successful because when A. Sakaluran transferred to Batangas there was also overcompetition there (when clueless-about-shipping Myrna S. Austria contended in her Philippine Institute for Development Studies paper that there was lack of competition there because she did not see that the government reports she was basing on was highly incomplete). Batangas was not only the base then of ever-increasing number of ROROs but also of High Speed Crafts especially the tough-to-beat, state-of-the-art SuperCats. Losing money, in a few short years the fastcrafts of A. Sakaluran were found just anchored in Batangas Bay and not sailing. And then these were no longer seen there again. However, they were spotted anchored in Bacolod a short while later before they disappeared once more.

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The MS Express spotted anchored in Bacolod (Photo by “boybacolod2”)

And so in one of my visits to Varadero de Recodo, I was really thrilled to see the three A. Sakaluran fastcrafts after they disappeared from view in Batangas. That was the confirmation that they were still alive and not sold anywhere else like in Indonesia which uses a lot of Malaysian-built fastcrafts. That was really a thrilling find since those fastcrafts were still in good condition and not just some kind of old and balky ferries.

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Just what is their origins? The MS Express is a fastcraft built in 1999 by Yong Choo Kui (YCK) in Sibu on the western shore of Sabah, Malaysia, the birthplace of the Malaysian type of fastcrafts. She was like almost all the other Malaysian fastcrafts which were developed by the Malaysian government from a riverboat design. That means a long sleek hull with a narrow beam and sitting low on the water but with oversized engines. The hull is made of strong steel unlike many High Speed Crafts with aluminum alloy hulls. I was told the hull was designed even for beaching if needed.

Now, I do not know if the tale that they can survive a 360-degree cartwheel but of course any passenger or crew not in harness will suffer injury from that. They are known for good seakeeping and stability but many fear wave splashes on the windows thinking it is already a sign of danger when definitely it is not. Well, I guarantee the waves of Celebes Sea can be higher than that and I have personally experienced it there in a fastcraft when we took the direct route from Baganian Peninsula to Zamboanga City and it was habagat (southwest monsoon) time. But the passengers there are used to rougher seas and bigger waves and we all agreed it was simply time to sleep already when it was actually daytime. Well, rather than worry we were not seeing any land anymore.

The MS Express has a registered length (LR) of 40.7 meters, a beam of 4.7 meters and a depth of 2.3 meters and so her height to depth ratio is actually very low which is a big factor in stability. Her gross tonnage is 143 and her net tonnage is only 25 (which I have doubt if that is correct). Like the RS Express and the Sea Jet of Aleson Shipping Lines she was powered by twin Mitsubishi high-speed engines with a total of 3,100 horsepower. Her design speed was 30 knots which is high-speed craft range even in the high European standard. The only problem with big engines in a small craft like a fastcraft is they generate a lot of heat and at full trot dissipating them becomes a problem. However, with no cabin above the engine this is less of a problem in MS Express unlike in Weesam Express fastcrafts.

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The stem of MS Express is raked as can be expected of fastcrafts and the stern is transom. There is a main passenger cabin which is airconditioned and on a stair leading to the upper deck is the bridge and behind that was still a half-deck of passenger accommodation. There is the usual-for-HSCs single mast with flashing light which distinguishes High Speed Crafts from other vessels especially in the night. A distinguishing mark for MS Express is the presence of two tall, slanted funnels with the air intakes for the engines just ahead of the funnels.

The pilot houses of the Malaysian fastcrafts are not as great as the High Speed Crafts from Japan and might even look primitive to some. There is that big stainless steel steering wheel (why is it not powered?) and the throttles are just at the right of the helmsman who sits on the port side of the pilot house. At the middle of the dashboard are the gauges and monitors of the ship. The side windows of the pilot houses can swing out.

In Varadero de Recodo, me and Britz heard the three A. Sakaluran fastcrafts have a buyer already and the amount we heard seems to be ridiculously low for us knowing what their original prices were (well, laid-up vessels usually don’t command good prices unless it is in Korea). But on my visit back to Varadero de Recodo, I heard Ernesto Ouano of Mandaue offered a much higher price for the three. Me and my companion Britz looked at each other. We know there are implications for that but we cannot be sure if that was related to an unfortunate incident that occurred in Mandaue later (as we say your guess is as good as mine).

And so one by one the three A. Sakaluran fastcrafts disappeared from Varadero de Recodo starting in late 2012 with the AS Express going first and the RS Express the last remaining. They were to be brought back under their own power to Sibu for refurbishing and that was a puzzle for us. They don’t look in need of massive refitting and so what was the need then to bring them back to Sibu? Why not Cebu directly? That great shipping place has a lot of shipyards and Varadero de Recodo is also a shipyard. Later it turned out that they will be re-engined also and there will be some other modifications. And so maybe re-engining was the major reason for bringing them back to Sibu. We knew they will already be Star Crafts upon their return.

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It will be 2014 already when MS Express returned to the country and she turned out to be the Star Crafts 7 of the shipping company known as either SITI Interisland or Sea Highway Carrier. There is really no difference between the two but everybody knows them as Star Crafts. The mutual legal-fiction companies have two routes from Cebu to Bohol which are to Tubigon and Jetafe (or Getafe) which are just a distance of about 20 nautical miles or so each. And maybe this is why the reason they derated the engine to a YC Diesel (or Yuchai) of China of just a total of 1,850 horsepower with a cruising speed of about 20 knots or a little bit above, just good enough for her to quality as a fastcraft by PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) definition as MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency has no definition for that.

The upper deck of the fastcraft was lengthened a little by three windows. It has two direct stairs to the upper deck of the ship and it seems primary loading now is through the upper deck as the fastcraft sits low now compared to the docks. The high funnels are no longer around and those were transferred to the stern (that is good because including the derated engines means less noise for the passenger cabins). There is also now a built-up structure in the stern for the crew (they look more like cadets to me, however, as the real crew seems to be just in T-shirts). Between that and the upper passenger deck is space for some light cargo.

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The big negative thing that happened to the fastcraft as Star Crafts 7 is in the seating arrangement that is now 4+4 with a small seat pitch which is the distance between the seats and so seating is very tight and there is obvious lack of space. Star Crafts 7 is the tightest-sitting High Speed Craft I ever saw and I wonder if Boholanos are not complaining . She is now a slower fastcraft with tight spaces and almost no legroom. And of course the seats are not reclining.

Now I wonder what kind of refurbishing or improvement is that? It looks more like downgrading to me. For the ownership and the revenues that is good and a plus. But for the passengers, what is the benefit of that? The ship has no canteen and so a crewman not in uniform hawks food when the ship is already sailing (that is also what I observed in Starcrafts 1). Well, even if there is a canteen someone not in the aisle will have difficulty in getting out. The tight spaces forbid movement for the entire ride as the passengers in the cheapest class (which is also airconditioned) are packed like sardines. This cheapest class occupies majority of the passenger accommodation in the fastcraft.

There are also higher class passenger accommodations in the upper deck that seats 3+3 and 3+4 which have a different seat motif and these sell higher. I wonder if they call that the Business Class. Those were farther from the engines but of course the upper deck will sway more in rough seas. Maybe with less water splash the view of the outside is better there.

Her route is Cebu-Tubigon when I rode with her and from Tubigon it took us a few minutes over one hour and part of the reason is the slowing down approaching Shell island because of the speed limit imposed in Mactan Channel now. By whatever measure, I cannot say my ride with her was comfortable and actually I was disappointed.

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Star Crafts is dominating the Tubigon and Jetafe routes at the High Speed Crafts  segment (that route has many ROROs) especially since Lite Jet is already gone and it seems the Star Crafts 7 is also successful too. But it is my wish that she would be more comfortable. What is the cost anyway of removing a few seats? A High Speed Craft should offer more room, better leg space and better seats than a tourist bus, I should say, if they will use “Tourist” as designation of the passenger class. Am I wrong? After all, a High Speed Craft is the bigger craft, it costs more and so why not make it more comfortable all the way? That way, they will be deserving of the higher class or segment they are thought of to be occupying.

The Sister Ships “Maria Felisa” and “Maria Vanessa”

The Maria Felisa and the Maria Vanessa are true sister ships which means both came from one, single hull design. Additionally, the superstructures of the two look very similar and this is not always the case for sister ships (like the cases of the Our Lady of Banneux and Dona Virginia, the SuperFerry 2/5 and Cagayan Bay 1, the Surigao Princess and St. Kristopher of Viva Shipping Lines and many other cases). Incidentally, the two were built by different shipyards and three years apart and yet they look almost identical.

The Maria Felisa was built in 1983 by the Nakamura Shipbuilding and Engineering Works in Yanai yard as the Ferry Sumoto. Meanwhile, Maria Vanessa was built in 1986 by Naikai Zosen Corporation in Onomichi yard in as the Ferry Shinawaji. Both had identical external dimensions at 57.4 meters length over-all (LOA), 53.3 meters length between perpendiculars (LBP), a breadth of 13.0 meters and a depth of 4.1 meters. The gross tonnages (GT) of the sister ships are nearly identical too with the Maria Felisa at 1,018 and the Maria Vanessa at 1,019. Their gross register tonnages (GRT) in Japan were not identical with the Maria Felisa at 955 tons and the Maria Vanessa at 960. Locally, the net tonnages (NT) stood at 609 for Maria Felisa and 610 for Maria Vanessa. The deadweight tonnages (DWT) of the two in Japan were not close at 394 tons for Maria Vanessa and 349 tons for Maria Felisa. Locally, it was disparate too especially since Maria Vanessa‘s rose to 482 tons.

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However, though nearly identical, the passenger capacities of the two sisters are not close. Maria Felisa’s is 398 and Maria Vanessa‘s is 440. Maybe the difference came from the benches built in the superstructure side of the outside passageways of Maria Vanessa which are vulnerable to rain coming from the bridge deck. The sister ships have identical powerplants with twin Yanmar Marine diesels with a total of 3,600 horsepower which gave an identical top speed of 15.5 knots when new. And maybe this identical powerplants were part of the reason why the two were paired in the same route. They can share spares, the engine hands can share knowledge in maintenance and trouble-shooting and the ships can benefit with the many advantages that commonality can bestow.

Maria Felisa has the permanent ID IMO 8300676 while Maria Vanessa‘s is IMO 8608963. The Call Sign of Maria Felisa is DUE2171 and that of Maria Vanessa is DUE2170. The closeness of the call signs also indicate the closeness of their arrival and registration and it could have even be on the very same day in 1984. Now that suggests only one agent brokered their sale to Montenegro Lines. The two ships have no MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) Codes which means they are not trackable by AIS (Automatic Identification System).

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The sister ships are RORO (Roll On, Roll Off) ships with two ramps (at the bow and at the stern) leading to a single car deck. The bow is protected as it has a rectangular box with the docking equipment mounted on its roof. In the stern, the scantling is not full and so the car deck is not protected against rain and strong waves. There are three car lanes with small vehicles shoehorned in tight spaces in the car deck outside the three main car lanes. The sister ships might have a true total of 170 actual lane-meters of rolling cargo space because of that.

Maria Felisa and Maria Vanessa have only one solitary passenger deck and a bridge deck accessible to passengers but there are no seats or scantling there for passengers and so it just functions as a viewing deck. Both ships have two masts and two funnels at each side. The original Japan passenger accommodation which is airconditioned serves as the Tourist section and benches were built at the stern and sides and these are the Economy sections. The spaces for the Economy is actually too little. The small canteen is located inside the Tourist section but it has only a few quickie offerings.

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The two sister ships are very much connected with Surigao and Southern Leyte as they were the primary ferries used by Montenegro Shipping Lines, Inc. (MSLI) to open the Benit (San Ricardo, Leyte) to Lipata (Surigao City) route which was a new route connecting the two provinces and two island groups (Visayas and Mindanao). This route is about 65% shorter than the old route of Liloan-Lipata and so it immediately became a success as the transit time is shorter and the rates cheaper (but much more expensive per nautical mile than the competing Liloan-Lipata route and so Montenegro Lines profits more and that calls the question again when did MARINA ever learned how to compute rates).

With a size bigger than a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the sister ships proved just fit for the requirements of the route. And with a speed faster than a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO that became an added boon as at full trot they can cover the entire 13-nautical mile distance in one hour if the time spent for docking maneuver is subtracted (the docking maneuver add minutes as the Surigao Strait has strong current and the sisters always have to turn as they always do stern docking). Compare that to the 3 to 4 hours of the ferries in the rival Liloan-Lipata route, the additional land distance of 41 kilometers no longer matters much as that can just be covered in one hour.

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The two ships have 4 hours between sailing on the average but that schedule can quicken if there is more load and on the other hand, cancel or shall we shall “retreat” a schedule is the load is not enough. That usually happens on lean months and during the dead of the night. Actually, these 24-hour sailing which Montenegro Lines is too accustomed to especially in Batangas-Calapan is too tiring to the crew and even the cleanliness suffers at times especially when loading starts as soon as unloading is complete (and that is a common occurrence especially during peak seasons).

One thing that helped Montenegro Lines and the sisters ships be immediate successes in the Benit-Lipata route was the 5-year exclusivity enjoyed by Montenegro Lines because they were also the operator of Benit port. That has recently lapsed and it remains to be seen what will be the further development. One thing that bars newcomers is the small docking space of Benit which is only good for only one ship at a time. However, the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) is expanding the port including its back-up area. There is also a talk of a new port in San Ricardo. One weakness of Benit port is it is too much exposed to habagat (southwest monsoon) waves and winds.

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Whatever, the size and speed of Maria Felisa and Maria Vanessa are just fit for the route and even if competitors come, there might be enough load for everybody as the load in this route is continually expanding with more trucks crossing as the intermodal is already fast shortcircuiting the traditional container shipping. Buses crossing are also increasing but it is the traffic of the private cars which is growing faster as Filipinos have already discovered the benefit of using their own vehicles in going home for a visit or vacation. Or even true touring. But as newcomers they don’t understand that it is not a “first come, first served” system as the regulars have already booked loadings that have already been arranged before.

One weakness of the sister ships, like the weakness of many Montenegro Lines ships is the lack of passenger accommodations. Montenegro Lines is always loath to add scantlings and passenger seats and since they load many buses (hence, many passengers), sometimes it becomes overloaded and passengers just seat themselves wherever they can and that includes the floor, the stairs and the air vents. Additionally, many just stand or mill around during the entire trip. This is true during the peak season when people attend fiestas in their hometowns and become ship passengers without being passengers of the buses to Manila, Tacloban or Ormoc. Analytically, the sister ships should better have another passenger deck or else extend the current passenger deck but I bet Montenegro Lines will not go that route being on the cheapskate side compared to other shipping lines of their size.

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The sister ships are still very reliable and I think that will remain so because the owner Montenegro Lines is very good in maintaining old ships. They might be transferred to another route or rotated but I guess one or both will again come back to the Surigao Strait route.

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Photo Credits: Mike Baylon