The Matnog Ferry Terminal

The government ports that were built in the 1980’s to connect Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao through the eastern seaboard of the country were not called “ports” but instead were called “ferry terminals”. And so it became Matnog Ferry Terminal, San Isidro Ferry Terminal, Liloan Ferry Terminal and Lipata Ferry Terminal. The four actually had a common design in their port terminal buildings and general lay-outs. The paint schemes are also the same.

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Matnog town had been the connection of Sorsogon and Luzon to Samar even before World War II and it might even been before the Americans came. That situation and importance was simply dictated by location and distance as in Matnog is the closest point of Luzon to Samar. In the old past, that connection to Samar crossing the San Bernardino Strait was done by wooden motor boats or what is called as lancha in the locality.

These lanchas existed until the early 1980’s. Their fate and phase-out was forced by the arrival of the pioneering Cardinal Shipping RORO in 1979, the Cardinal Ferry 1. With the arrival of other ROROs and especially the government-owned and promoted Maharlika I, the fate of the lanchas were slowly sealed until they were completely gone. By this time the new Matnog Ferry Terminal which was a replacement for the old wooden wharf was already completed.

Maharlika I

The Matnog Ferry Terminal is a RORO port with a back-up area for vehicles waiting to be loaded. At the start when there were few vehicles yet crossing and there were only a few ROROs in San Bernardino Strait that back-up area was sufficient. But over time it became insufficient and so additional back-up areas were built twice. Before that the queue of vehicles sometimes went beyond the gate and even up to the Matnog bus terminal/public market. Worst was when there were trip suspensions and vehicles especially trucks snaked through the main streets of of the small town of Matnog.

The Matnog Ferry Terminal is one of the more successful ports of the government. Actually most ports owned by the government do not have enough revenue to pay for the operational expenses like salaries, security, electricity, transportation and communication and for maintenance. The performance and success of Matnog Ferry Terminal is dictated not by the quality of port management but simply by the growth of the intermodal system. From Luzon there is no other way to Eastern Visayas except via Matnog. The intermodal system began to assert itself in the 1980’s until it became the dominant mode of connection to most of the islands in the country.

The Matnog Ferry Terminal has a total of four corresponding ports in Samar, amazingly. These are the BALWHARTECO port, the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the Dapdap port of Philharbor Ferries, all in Allen town and the San Isidro Ferry Terminal. The first three are privately-owned ports. The government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal lost out early to the privately-owned ports because it has the longest distance at 15 nautical miles while BALWHARTECO port is only 11 nautical miles from Matnog. A shipping company using San Isidro Ferry Terminal will simply consume more fuel and it cannot easily pass on the difference to the vehicles and passengers.

The existence of those many ports in Samar showed the increase over the years of the number of ROROs crossing San Bernardino Strait and also the number of vessel arrivals and departures. Currently, on the average, a dozen ferries and Cargo RORO LCTs serve the routes here with the companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation/Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated, 168 Shipping Lines, Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation, SulitFerry and NN+ATS involved. The last two mentioned are operations of the liner company 2GO.

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In Samar, all those ferries can be docked simultaneously thereby showing enough docking capacity. In Matnog Ferry Terminal only about five ferries can be docked simultaneously especially since the two new RORO ramps there seems not to be in use. When they built that it was by means of bulldozing rocks into the sea to build a back-up area and those rocks seem to be dangerous to the ferries and their propellers and rudders which means a possible wrong design or construction.

When the government built a back-up area near the Matnog terminal/market, I assumed a true expansion of Matnog Ferry Terminal there. A causeway-type wharf could have been developed there and the docking ferries could have been separated there so there would be less mix-up of the departing and arriving vehicles. Causeway-type wharves like what was successfully deployed by the BALWHARTECO and Dapdap ports. This type of wharf is very efficient in using limited wharf space and it is very good in handling ROROs and LCTs.

Until now the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) insists on using pile-type wharves which is more costly but less efficient. A pile-type wharf is good if freighters and container ships are using the port but freighters do not dock in Matnog but in nearby Bulan port and there are no container ships hereabouts. If there are container vans passing here it is those that are aboard truck-trailers. But many know that if there are “percentages”, the less efficient pile-type wharves will guarantee more pie than can be “shared” by many. And I am not talking of the pie that comes from bakeshops.

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In a causeway-type of wharf the ferries can dock adjacent each other

Matnog Ferry Terminal by its evolution is actually a little bit different now from its sister ports because its wharf has an extention through a short “bridge” like what was done in Cataingan port although this is less obvious in the case of Matnog. The three other Ferry Terminals have no such extensions which is done if the water is shallow and there is enough money like in Ubay port which has an extension that is long and wide enough to land a private plane already (and yet it handles far less traffic than the Ferry Terminals). Almost always the priorities of government in disbursing funds is questionable at best. The budget used in Ubay port would have been more worthwhile if it was used in the shallow Pilar port which has far more traffic and is of much greater importance.

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With lack of RORO ramps it is normal that ferries in Matnog will dock offshore. It is also usual that a ferry will wait a little for a ferry loading to depart before they can dock especially at peak hours. Again, the docking of ferries askew to the port in high tide where there is no RORO ramp still goes on. Matnog Ferry Terminal and the Philippine Ports Authority is really very poor in planning that one will question what kind of data do they input in planning. I even doubt if the idea of a breakwater ever crossed their minds. Matnog is one place where swells are strong especially both in habagat and amihan (it has that rare distinction) or if there are storm signals (and Bicol is so famous for that) or when there is what is called as “gale” warning by the anachronistic weather agency PAGASA (they issue a “gale warning” even if there is no gale; they could have just issued a “strong swell “ warning because it is actually what they are warning about).

In Bicol, Matnog Ferry Terminal has the most number of vessel departures per day if motor bancas are excluded. Matnog’s vessel departures can reach up to 20 daily in peak season with a corresponding equal number in arrivals. In this regard, Matnog Ferry Terminal is even ahead of the likes of Legazpi, Tabaco and Masbate ports and such it is Number 1 in the whole of Bicol. That will just show how dominant is the intermodal system now. And how strategic is the location of Matnog.

A few years ago there was a change in Matnog Ferry Terminal that I was bothered about. Matnog is one port that has a very strong traffic and traffic is what drives income up. But before her term was up Gloria gave the operation of Matnog Ferry Terminal passenger building to Philharbor Ferries. This was also about the same time she wanted to privatize the regional ports of the country with strong traffics like Davao, Gensan and Zamboanga.

Now what is the point of giving the control of a passenger terminal building of a very strong port to a private entity? That port terminal building is actually a cash machine. Imagine about 2,000-3,000 passengers passing there daily in just one direction. Of course Gloria has some debt to the true owner of Philharbor in terms of executive jet services during her term and for providing escape to Garci. Was the deal a payback?

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No covered passenger walkway in Matnog

After years of private operation I have seen no improvement in Matnog Ferry Terminal. From what I know the construction of the two new back-up areas were funded by government. So what was the transfer of control of the passenger terminal building all about? They cannot even build a covered walkway from the passenger terminal to the ferries when BALWHARTECO port was able to do that (and both have long walks to the ferry). Does it mean that BALWHARTECO port cares more about its passengers?

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BALWHARTECO covered walk for passengers

Matnog Ferry Terminal could have been a greater port if properly managed and it should have been properly managed and programmed because it is one of the critical ports of the country. It is actually the strongest of the four Ferry Terminals and by a wide margin at that. Now, if only they will plow some of the profits of the port back into improvements of the port. Or shell out money like what they did to Ubay and Pulupandan ports which severely lacks traffic until now even after spending three-quarters of a billion pesos each. Again one will wonder what kind of data PPA used. Did the “figures” come from whispers of powerful politicians? And did they twist the moustache of NEDA Director-General Neri?

Quo vadis, Matnog Ferry Terminal? You should have been greater than your current state.

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The Basic, Short-Distance Ferry-ROROs of the Batangas-Calapan Route

Basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs are generally the smallest ROROs one can find. They generally average only 30 meters in length and their breadth are generally 10 meters or less. Being basic, they only have a single ramp for vehicles at the front and this is maneuvered by simply hoisting or lowering it through chains and so it cannot compensate for low tide situations. This bow ramp also doubles as the entry and exit of the passengers. The front of the ship has no scantling and so in rainy weather the rain goes direct to the car deck and making it slippery and wet. It is also a disadvantage for the drivers having their vehicle parked there if it is really raining hard.

This type of RORO has only one car deck and only one passenger deck and usually the bridge or pilot house is on the same level as the passenger deck. The basic, short-distance ferry-RORO as refitted here might have two accommodation classes as in an open-air Economy section in the rear and an airconditioned Tourist section at the front which is usually the former sole passenger accommodation in Japan. If that is the case, usually there are benches at the side of the side which is the outside passageway and that is done to increase the passenger accommodation. The Economy section will usually have plastic benches while the seats of the airconditioned Tourist section will usually be foam upholstered seats with no head support. Sometimes fiberglass bucket seats can be found.

Almost all basic short-distance ferry-ROROs have only one engine and it will be 1,000 horsepower at most but in general even less. A few will even have an engine of just 500 horsepower. The most common engine make will be Daihatsu and the usual speed will be 10 to 11 knots which is the common speed too of the common general-purpose cargo ships sailing the Philippine waters.

In Japan, these kind of ferries were classified as “bay and inland ferries” connecting islands/islets or peninsulas of short distance and were expected to be sailing protected waters which means those are waters shielded from the stronger swells of the open seas. That is also the reason why there is no housing at the front of the ship because no rogue waves are expected in their routes in Japan. Some of these ferries will even have windows or openings at the sides and that shows they were really just designed for calm waters.

In the Philippines these ferries will be used even on routes that take several hours. Some were even shoehorned into overnight ferries with bunks and with sailing distances of up to 60 nautical miles and 6 hours of sailing. Talking of make do, that is what we are and that is only a manifestation that we are still a poor country with passengers forgiving the shortcomings of the ferries.

The problem with this is these ferries designed for calm and protected waters are suddenly forced into routes in semi-open waters which we call as “seas”. In order to not get into contradiction because they were “bay and inland” ferries in Japan, our maritime regulatory agency, the MARINA simply renamed the seas where they are sailing into “bays” like the Camotes Sea, the Visayan Sea, the Samar Sea and the Sibuyan Sea were renamed into “Camotes Bay”, “Visayan Bay”, “ Samar Bay” and “Sibuyan Bay”.

The Verde Island Passage that separated Batangas and Mindoro is not really narrow. It is actually a strait where swells can be rough and winds high during the habagat (the southwest monsoon) and it hits the ships there broadside, the worst possible. In the troughs of the high swells it is as if these basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs has been “swallowed” if the observer is far and at sea level. Breaking of the waves really becomes “breaking” where the whole ship shudders and lots of spray are created. Even in bigger ferries this condition results in damages to the loaded vehicles when they scrape against each other or against the bulkhead. Sometimes the wooden stoppers used on the wheels of the vehicles prove not enough.

And yet, two shipping companies regularly use this type of ferry in the Batangas-Calapan route, the Starlite Ferries Inc. and the Besta Shipping Lines Inc. Sometimes, one will also notice this kind of ship bearing the livery of Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. Normally, the Starlite Polaris and Starlite Nautica of the Starlite Ferries will be running this route. For Besta Shipping it will be their Baleno VII and Baleno Ocho.

Actually, with the fleet of the two mentioned shipping companies they don’t have much choice really unless they dispose of this kind of ship. Even if they bring their basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs to the Batangas-Abra de Ilog route it would be no better as the ferry will still be sailing the same waters, the route is even slightly longer and the seas not any milder. For Starlite Ferries bringing their basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs to their Roxas-Caticlan route would be even worse as a choice for that is a longer route with heavier swells and no island cover along the way unlike in the Batangas-Calapan route where Isla Verde is in the middle and even the “Mag-asawang Pulo” brings some protection. Besta Shipping meanwhile only has the Batangas-Calapan and Batangas-Abra de Ilog routes.

Among the 4 ships, actually Starlite Nautica, Starlite Polaris and Baleno Ocho are true sisters and all were built by Naikai Engineering and Shipbuilding Co. in Japan. The Starlite Nautica and the Starlite Polaris were built in the Taguma shipyard of the company while the Baleno Ocho was built in the Setoda shipyard. Meanwhile, Baleno VII was built by the Tokushima Zosen Sangyo in Fukuoka yard in Japan.

The particulars of the four:

Starlite Nautica

Built in 1985 as the Omishima No.7 of the Omishima Ferry with the ID IMO 8505317. She came to the Philippines in 1999. Her measurements are 35.4 meters by 10.0 meters by 3.1 meters. Her dimensional weights are 284 gross tons and 174 net tons with 138 tons in DWT. She is equipped by a single Daihatsu marine engine of 950 horsepower and top speed is 11 knots.

Starlite Polaris

Built in 1975 as the Ehime No.18 with the ID IMO 8895700. She came to the Philippines into the Safeship Marine Corp. as the Prince Kevin. When the company got defunct after the sinking of the Princess Camille in Romblon this ship was sold to Starlite Ferries. Her measurements are 35.4 meters by 9,9 meters by 3.0 meters. Her dimensional weights are 240 gross tons and 153 net tons. She is equipped by a single Daihatsu marine engine of 950 horsepower and top speed is 11 knots.

Baleno VII

Built in 1982 as the New Takashima with the ID IMO 8217702. She came to the Philippines in 2010. Her measurements are 37.2 meters by 8.4 meters by 2.9 meters. Her dimensional weights are 248 gross tons and 143 net tons with 116 tons in DWT. She is equipped with a single Kubota marine diesel engine of 900 horsepower and top speed is 11 knots.

Baleno Ocho

Built in 1984 as the Geiyo No.7 of the Merchant Marine Hub. Later she was known as the Kanon No.11 and Omishima No.5 of Omishima Ferry. She came to the Philippines in 2005. Her measurements are 39.8 meters by 10.0 meters by 3.1 meters. Her dimensional weights are 243 gross tons and 181 net tons with 155 tons in DWT. She is equipped by a single Daihatsu marine engine of 950 horsepower and top speed is 11 knots.

All four are still sailing reliably. All takes in big buses and big trucks and all four sail in both daytime and nighttime.

There are so many of their kind in the Philippines and their number run into the dozens. Some are even older that these four. Almost all are still alive but some have met accidents too and became maritime hull losses like the Sta. Penafrancia 7, Baleno Nine and the Lady of Carmel.

Hope the four won’t follow them.