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.

A Report on the Recent Situation of Bicol Passenger Shipping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Burias motor banca arriving in Pasacao

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

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

[Written based on January 2017 data.]

The Sea Connections of Camiguin and the Ferries From Balingoan

Camiguin, which is a medium-sized island off the coast of northern Misamis and which lies south of Bohol is a province that was once part of the province of Misamis Oriental before it became a separate province in the 1970’s. Camiguin was once a prosperous island and even more prosperous than Cagayan de Misamis during the first peak of copra and coconut oil during World War I and the period right after that. Maybe the reason was because the sea lanes there was more defensible in the late period of Moro attacks when the Mindanao interior was not yet open and so it became more developed first. And being nearer to Cebu might have also helped.

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Photo by Michael Denne

However, when the interior of Mindanao was opened for exploitation and Cagayan de Misamis bloomed, Camiguin slowly became a backwater. If Camiguin is still known today it’s maybe because of its lanzones which is probably the best in the entire Philippines (I hail from Luzon and I will say it easily beats the Paete lanzones). In recent decades, however, Camiguin’s tourism boomed. It is a destination place now like Siargao and Samal. These are the three islands of Mindanao that glitters in the tourists’ minds (why is it that islands are the tourist meccas?).

Per capita, Camiguin has the most number of ferry crossings in a day next only to Samal. Some islands like Mindoro are sky high in this count but if divided by the population then Camiguin will still be ahead. Of all the other islands maybe only Guimaras can tie with Camiguin in this statistic. I intentionally did not count Mactan because it is an unusual case and there is no RORO connecting it to Cebu. I also omitted Boracay which is also a unique case.

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Photo by Travis Break

Camiguin’s main connection to the outside world to the town of Balingoan in Misamis Oriental. Once, it has two ports having connection to that port, the Guinsiliban and Benoni ports but lately only Benoni still has a connection to Balingoan. Besides the Balingoan connection, Camiguin also has a daily connection to Jagna town in Bohol which is served by Asian Marine Transport Corporation. Its ferries leave Balbagon port in Mambajao in the morning and the return trip will be after midday and arriving again in Mambajao in the late afternoon.

Asian Marine Transport Corporation also has a weekly Cebu-Mambajao connection leaving Cebu Friday night and arriving Saturday morning which will then depart Mambajao Sunday night. The Camiguin connection to Cebu is no longer strong because people of Camiguin already treats Cagayan de Oro as their commercial and trading center. In this way, Camiguin really belongs to Mindanao.

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Kalinaw and Yuhum by Bemes Lee Mondia

The Jagna-Mambajao connection is stronger. The proof is a daily connection can be sustained. The reasons are many. For some the Cebu-Bohol-Camiguin-Balingoan connection is the best way to get a vehicle across as the overnight ferries connecting Cebu and Cagayan de Oro do not stress that and thus rates are high. For Bol-anons in Mindanao this is an alternate way to visit their province. And there is maybe enough trade and people crossing between the two islands. The two islands actually had been connected for so long already.

There are many ferries connecting Balingoan and Benoni ranging from basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs to steel-hulled motor launches. The trips start from dawn and lasts up to dusk with an interval of about an hour or even less. The crossing times vary slight with about an hour or less being the normal. Fares are on the cheap side, just like a bus and so people from both directions just cross either to take a vacation or from the other side to make pasyal or laag in Cagayan de Oro and shop and visit. Many families in Camiguin also have sons and daughters studying in Cagayan de Oro.

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Royal Princess by Bemes Lee Mondia

Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) is the strongest ferry serving the route to Balingoan. Usually their Super Shuttle Ferry 1, Super Shuttle Ferry 6 and Super Shuttle Ferry 9 alternates in the route. All are basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. ROROs are superior in this routes as there are a lot of vehicles crossing and rolling cargo earns much more than passenger revenues. It seems the coming of AMTC practically sealed the fate of the old but once fine cruisers of Camiguin, the Camiguin Oro and Jagna Oro which both belonged to Sea Jade Express which are both gone now. Also gone were the cruisers of Tamula Shipping.

Among the locals fighting AMTC are Philstone Shipping Corporation, Davemyr Shipping and Hijos de Juan Corrales. Philstone is the strongest of the three with three ferries, the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs Kalinaw and Yuhum and the small cruiser Royal Princess. Meanwhile, Davemyr Shipping operates the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO Dona Pepita. Hijos de Juan Corrales operates the ancient but still good motor launch Hijos-1, the longest-serving steel-hulled ferry in the route.

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Dona Pepita by Joel Bado

The ferries of Camiguin in the south are all small. Maybe because of the small population it is the only size that can be maintained there without the passengers waiting too long for the vessel to depart. However, small size also has its negative. In a strong swell that sometimes visit the strait separating Camiguin from Mindanao, when hit broadside these ferries suffer along with the passengers. This is true when there is a storm somewhere or when the monsoons are acting up or simply when the barometer is low and the wind is blowing hard.

Before, Camiguin also had High Speed Craft (HSC) connections. Pioneer was the Paras Sea Cat which had a daily Cagayan-Mambajao-Jagna route. Oceanjet also tried a Balingoan-Benoni-Jagna route. The two quit and both did not come back. Maybe they found out that the demand for premium service to Camiguin is highly seasonal. For a very short route, the locals do not take too much to the HSCs which has double the fares for so little a time-saving. Ironically, it was Oceanjet which was the buyer of the Paras Sea Cat.

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Hijos-1 by Janjan Salas

So aside from the ferries from Jagna and Cebu, Camiguin has 8 ferries on the south side connecting to Balingoan. Not a bad number for an island of Camiguin’s size and population.

Camiguin is not a backwater anymore.

The Blue Magic Ferries and Starhorse Shipping Lines

These two shipping companies are actually successors of the once-dominant Viva Shipping Lines and its legal-fiction companies Sto. Domingo Shipping Lines and DR Shipping Lines which once dominated the seas of the old Southern Tagalog region before four provinces of it were spun out as the MIMAROPA region. These two companies were founded by the sons of the founder of Viva Shipping Lines, the widely-known Don Domingo Reyes or “DDR” to many. This founder was a powerful man during his time as he was the landsman in the Bondoc Peninsula in Quezon of the martial law dictator then. Don Domingo Reyes’ main base was Bondoc Peninsula although most people thought it was Batangas City and Lucena as he has his bases of his shipping there and people did not know of Villa Reyes in San Narciso, Quezon where he built his first wooden motor boats that were called batel in the region.

A laid-up Viva Shipping Line RORO by Edison Sy

The Blue Magic Ferries was first to be established among the two. This came into existence when the operations of Viva Shipping Lines, etc. were already winded down and its ships being disposed already. Almost all of the older ships of the Viva Shipping combine were sold and most to the ship breakers. Maybe that will be the logical fate since the Southern Tagalog region has a surplus of ferries then when two Zamboanga shipping companies (the Aleson Shipping Lines and A.S. Sakaluran) and a Cebu shipping company (ACG Joy Express Liner) even tried their fates there (none was successful, however).

Some fastcrafts of Viva Shipping Lines somehow survived and these combined with the remains of ACG Joy Express Line. This company started in shipping with the Sea Cat vessels that first operated out of Cebu and had routes to Bohol and whose founder is a well-known scion of Cebu who is Alvin C. Garcia (hence the initials). From what I can gather, Blue Magic Ferries is a sort of partnership between two sons of Don Domingo Reyes and Alvin C. Garcia.

Blue Water Princes 2. Blue Magic Feries Blue Line Shipping.

Blue Water Princess 2 by JM Litada

Blue Magic Ferries was able to accumulate at least five ferries with two ROROs and two fastcrafts and a catamaran High Speed Craft (HSC). The ROROs were the Blue Water Princess 1 which was known as ACG Joy 8 in ACG Joy Express Liner before. The other RORO was the Blue Water Princess 2 which was the former Asia Brunei of the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. The High Speed Crafts of Blue Magic Ferries that I was able to verify were the Blue Water Queen, the Blue Water Lady and the Blue Water Lady II. The first was the former Our Lady of Mt. Carmel of DR Shipping Lines which was purchased from Sun Cruises of Manila. The second was the former Sea Cat 25, a catamaran of ACG Express Liner and the last was the former Our Lady of Fatima of Sto. Domingo Shipping Lines.

Blue Magic Ferries based itself in Lucena, an old base of Viva Shipping Lines, their predecessor company (later Starhorse Shipping Lines based itself too in Lucena). From there they operated routes to Marinduque and Masbate which are also old routes of Viva Shipping Lines. Lucena then was not virgin territory and in fact there were many shipping companies operating routes from there including Montenegro Shipping Lines, Phil-Nippon Kyoei and Sta. Cruz Shipping. Meanwhile, Kalayaan Shipping Lines had a route to Romblon. [Note: Phil-Nippon Kyoei and Sta. Cruz Shipping are both defunct now.]

Blue Water Queen

Blue Water Queen by Edison Sy

Trouble first struck Blue Magic Ferries when the Blue Water Princess 1 was hit by storm waves while on a voyage from Lucena to Masbate which was an old route of Viva Shipping Lines. It seems the ship’s rolling cargo slid unbalancing the ship which then tried to seek refuge in western Bondoc Peninsula but capsized when the ship struck the shallows. This unfortunate incident happened in 2007 and it resulted in some casualties. To a beginning struggling company this type of incident can be hard to surmount especially if the company has other problems.

From a TV grab of Sydney Morning Herald

Starhorse Shipping Lines came later than Blue Magic Ferries around 2008 and started by leasing ships from DBP Leasing Corporation, the government’s ship leasing company. They named these into a series called “Virgen de Penafrancia”. That name is not surprising since Viva Shipping Lines originally started with the “Penafrancia” series of batels and then into a series of ROROs called the “Viva Penafrancia”. It was able to secure a route by accepting the promoted but harebrained route of MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority, the Philippines maritime regulatory agency). That route is from Laiya, San Juan, Batangas to Marinduque which does not make sense on two counts. One, the distance is double than that of from Lucena and those who know the sea knows it will not be able to compete in rates and fares with the ferries from Lucena. Second, the direction of the route means the ferry will be broadsided by the habagat (southwest monsoon) waves, the same problem usually encountered by the Lucena-Masbate ships which once nearly capsized a ferry in the Pasacao-Masbate route. Starhorse Shipping Lines was founded by Victor Reyes, the eldest son of Don Domingo Reyes. [Victor Reyes was recently deceased.]

Soon, as expected, Starhorse Shipping Lines was able to secure a transfer to the Lucena-Marinduque route and they chartered more ferries from DBP Leasing Corporation until their series reached the numeral “VIII” (however there was no “III” and “IV” but reports then said they purchased the Don Martin Sr. 6 of the defunct Palacio Lines of Cebu and Samar but this is missing now). So for a time, Starhorse Shipping Lines was able to accumulate more ferries from DBP Leasing Corporation, most of which were LCTs. This time around Starhorse, the successor, emphasized cleanliness and passenger service, two terms that were unknown in the predecessor company. However, they were in the route where the new dominant shipping company of Southern Tagalog and MIMAROPA, the Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. was operating. In the early days of Montenegro Lines, their predecessor company Viva Shipping Line applied the pressure on them, shall we say. This time around, it was already the pleasure of Montenegro Lines to return the favor.

M/V Pinoy Roro-1 Folio

From a folio by Irvine Danielles

Greater trouble erupted for Blue Magic Ferries at the same time Starhorse Shipping Lines started operations. It seems they found out then that they have no Certificates of Public Convenience (CPC or franchise) which supposedly should still be in the possession of the Reyes family. Actually, things are really puzzling for me. From records I can gather, some 24 ships of the Viva Shipping Lines combine were confirmed sold (I can name the 24 individually) and some was as late as 2006. However, the family can show nothing for it in terms of ability to purchase new ships (especially by Starhorse Shipping Lines). And what happened to the franchises? These thing do not disappeared in an instant as it is the residual of any defunct transportation company and can even be sold for cash or hoarded. Were the proceeds returned to a “patron saint”?

Blue Magic Ferries stopped operations in 2008. The Blue Water Princess 2 was sold to Navios Shipping Lines where she became their first vessel, the Grand Unity. Blue Water Lady II was sold to DIMC Shipping of Dumaguete where she became the Delta III. The fates of the other ships are unknown to me. Some might still be laid up and one was reported to be in a Navotas yard.

Starhorse Lines M/V Peñafrancia II

Virgen de Penafrancia II by Arnel Hutalla

Starhorse Shipping Lines isn’t doing too well lately. They have returned to DBP some ships (ironically some is already with their competitor Montenegro Shipping Lines) and now they are down to two, the Virgen de Penafrancia I and Virgen de Penafrancia II which are both LCTs. Heads-on, LCTs are usually at a disadvantage against short-distance ferry-ROROs although their Korean-made LCTs seem to be better than the ordinary LCT.

One of the two, Blue Magic Ferries is now out. I wonder if Starhorse Shipping Lines can hold on and i hope they can. They are trying but sometimes the death of the founder proves insurmountable.

Blue Magic Ferries and Starhorse Shipping Companies are two successor companies I have a hard time figuring out. I wonder if there are smokes and mirrors even in the predecessor company.

LG Flatscreen TV for Entertainment

Starhorse Shipping goodluck charms by Irvine Kinea

As a last note, I have learned that Viva Shipping Lines still have some ships in storage in Lucena and San Narciso, Quezon. Will there be a rebirth? Or is it already too late and the family is too fractured now?

I am still interested in the further developments of these successor companies of Viva Shipping Lines.