New Developments in Masbate Port

I had been to Masbate port twice in recent days in this month of July of 2017. The first one was when my ship Super Shuttle RORO 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) was on the way to Batangas and dropped anchor in Masbate first. The second was when I took the route via Pilar and Masbate ports on the way back to Cebu. Those two visits afforded me a chance to compare and weigh developments in Masbate port since last January of 2017 when I was also able to visit the port.

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Masbate port

The first notable thing is all works in expanding Masbate port has already been completed. The lineal distance of the port is a little longer now. On the other hand, talking of infrastructure, the Masbate port terminal building deteriorated in the same span of time as it is no longer air-conditioned and yet the dear terminal fee which is more expensive than the much better Cebu and Batangas ports remained the same when Masbate port does not even have shuttle buses and does not really have the capacity to take in all the passengers of the buses. And so it copied the Batangas port model which means bus passengers have to go down when the bus enters the port in order for them to pay the terminal fee and then board the bus again or walk to the ferry. The former is the preferred mode now.

Another new thing is Masbate port has an X-ray machine now for the baggage but it is not operational yet. Another useless piece of equipment just to justify the terminal fee and to have another reason for “cattle-herding” the passengers. It seems what is good enough for the buses is not good enough for PPA (Philippine Ports Authority), security-wise, because buses don’t bother checking the baggage of the passengers because they know the chance of them being victims of terrorist attacks is next to nil, at least in Bicol. And I think if one asks the ferries they will say they are not bothered if there is no X-ray machine. The buses and the ferries do not have the ISPS thinking that all passengers are possible terrorists. Actually that is simply ridiculous and is just the product of “praning” minds.

One more notable thing is that the passenger motor bancas are now practically gone from Masbate port and they have already transferred to the municipal port of Masbate near the public market and the bus/van terminal because of the high passenger terminal fee being charged by the port when passengers have no actual need for the terminal as they go direct to their vessels. Actually, last January I saw a terminal building (it was named as a community fish landing center) being built in Masbate municipal port and I saw that it is already finished when I went to the bus and van terminal.

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The problem now in Masbate municipal port is congestion, I was told, especially in the rush hours of the morning and the early afternoon. The boat landing areas there are actually the facility being used by the so-many small passenger motor bancas and motor launches headed to the different barrios across Masbate Bay. Add to that that that is also the docking area of the passenger motor bancas to barrios just outside Masbate Bay and up to Baleno town. Now the bigger motor bancas to Ticao island, Pilar port and Burias island are also lumped there now. That also includes a few cargo motor boats that were once passenger motor boats.

Actually, some small motor launch operators also built docking areas just beyond the northern end of Masbate port. I was told these transfers were the reaction to the terminal fee that costs P30. A terminal fee of that amount for a P10 boat fare? So right now just a very few motor bancas use Masbate port. One effect is congestion of the port was gone in one stroke. So I wonder now if there was any need to lengthen the port after all. Maybe they could have just donated the construction materials to the boat landing areas at the end of the port. The surface there is still dried muck which is obviously undulating and slippery. Well, if the funds were really meant to benefit the public.

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A makeshift boat landing area adjacent Masbate port

Regarding steel-hulled ferries, the competition in Masbate port is heating up and truck volume was obviously bigger than last January. Not in the buses though as July is already part of the lean months. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation fielded their Cargo RORO LCT there, the LCT Aldain Dowey which was identified in PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) as the former LCT Ongpin. So now they have a total of three ferries in Masbate and I was told in summer Sta. Clara Shipping even fielded a fourth ferry. Their LCT is of the same length as their Jack Daniel and Anthon Raphael, their two ROPAXes there which are the best in the fleets of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (this is before the fielding of the former Tamataka Maru ships from Japan).

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Their LCT is the first to leave at noon and in the afternoon they are the only ferry departures from Masbate at 2pm and 4pm. Their three ferries are the biggest in Masbate because what their competitors have are only basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs because they use the shallow Pilar port whose depth cannot handle bigger ferries. By the way in terms of rolling cargo traffic the Pio Duran route now of Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping is the favorite now since Pio Duran in Albay is nearer to Manila than Pilar of Sorsogon while the rolling cargo rate is just about the same.

With the exception of the ROROBus which is related to Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. practically all the other buses to Masbate are handled by Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and Penafrancia Shipping Corp. as the third operator Denica Lines, a Pilar native does not load buses. Loading buses from Luzon meant extending discounts, rebates, free tickets and free meals and Denica Lines does not play that game because they say they have their share of rolling cargo too. And I saw that when we left left Pilar port aboard their Marina Empress at 3am and the car deck was full. From Masbate port their three ROROs Odyssey, Regina Calixta-II and Marina Empress all left full. Denica Lines has already bought the Regina CalixtaII of Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) of Catanduanes and so they have three ROROs also now while Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) is down to two ROROs from three. Maybe because it is lean months now and maybe they have one undergoing refitting in a shipyard.

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If we assume that Montenegro Lines has a third RORO in Masbate then a total of 8 ROROs make a daily crossing now to Luzon plus there is a Cargo RORO LCT for a total capacity of about 100 truck/bus units (of course, since there are smaller vehicles mixed in, the actual total is higher). Many of these come from as far as Cebu island. Buses will be at least a fourth of that total. One will wonder why there is such a large number of people on the move when within Masbate island there are not that many number of buses although there is a significant number of commuter vans.

Montenegro Lines have three fastcrafts and a catamaran in Masbate including their newest and fastest, the City of Angeles which is a catamaran. They also have there one of their biggest fastcrafts, the City of Masbate. Their future rival, the two fastcrafts of Denica Lines are still not ready and are still being refitted in Pilar port. Meanwhile, I wonder if the Masbate-Pilar motor bancas are already in terminal decline. There are just so many ROROs and High Speed Crafts. Although the motor bancas are faster than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs, they are noisier. They might be noisy, however, but still they are better than the “Stairs Class” of Montenegro Lines.

But in trucks and buses Sta. Clara and Penafrancia are already beating Montenegro Lines by about 3:1. Denica Lines could also be level now with Montenegro Lines in trucks and buses. By the way, sedans, SUVs, AUVs are not that many in the Masbate crossing to Pilar and Pio Duran and jeeps are practically unknown.

However, there is a rumor in Masbate port that a new player will come and serve the Masbate-Pio Duran route and it seems it is not Medallion Transport which was gone from the route after their Lady of Carmel sank in 2013 off Burias island. It remains to be seen if this rumor will come true.

The Super Shuttle RORO 3 of AMTC is also back in Masbate port and it connects to Batangas and Cebu plus Cagayan de Oro but their schedule is irregular as in there are no definite day for arrivals and departures as it is more of a container carrier now. There are also still a few motor bancas to Bulan when where before that was the dominant route to Bicol from Masbate.

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There are also off-hours docking now in Masbate port as Denica Lines has an early evening departure from Pilar. To the credit of Masbate port they let the passengers stay in the port terminal as the arrival of that is midnight and there is still no transportation to the towns outside Masbate City (and that gave me an idea). And Sta. Clara Shipping sends back its ship from Pio Duran if there are a lot of shut-outs (vehicles left unloaded in port) and that becomes another off-hours docking. That was the reason why they fielded their LCT because shut-out were already happening frequently (I saw that last January when one Mega Bus cannot be accommodated and they asked passengers of that to get down the ship and it was an event not good to look at — I pitied the passengers).

Masbate port is changing. Traffic is obviously up and I think the port will only get more important in the future when more traffic will shift to it from San Bernardino Strait if the rates become lower. Maybe then competition will further heat up and we will see the full blooming of Masbate port.

But they have to get that passenger terminal fee down. It is much higher than Zamboanga port when that port is better than Masbate port and the passenger terminal is not really needed by most of the ship passengers. A sore point really and that must change.

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The “Seven Sisters”

In the world, there was once what was called as the “Seven Sisters”. These were the biggest oil companies in the world for more than half a century from the 1930’s to the 1980’s when further consolidation happened within their ranks. Five of the “Seven Sisters” were offspring of the forcibly broken-up Standard Oil Company of John D. Rockefeller, the most famous monopolist of the modern era which was hit by anti-trust legislation in the US as it was engaged in practices that restrict free trade. These were Exxon (Standard Oil of New Jersey), Mobil (Standard Oil of New York), Texaco, Socal (Standard Oil of California) and Gulf Oil. The two others were the biggest oil companies of Europe which were Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum (BP). Together, the “Seven Sisters” were suspected of collusion in fixing the prices of crude oil and the refined oil products and also in “transfer pricing”. The biggest of the “Seven Sisters” were among the biggest companies in the world in their heydays in the company of General Motors, First National City Bank and General Electric which were held in very high regard for the bigness and in market and financial clout.

In the Philippines, there is also what could be considered a version of the “Seven Sisters” if only for pun. These were the catamaran High Speed Crafts (HSCs) which all came from Macau as the share of Universal of Macau in Universal Aboitiz Inc. The seven catamarans are all sister ships built in Singapore by FBM Marinteknik which arrived in 1995 to 1996 which all but sank the hopes of competition (yes, they were as dominant as the “Seven Sisters” of the oil world). They were not brand-new but they were as good as that. Their names were SuperCat-I (the former Oregrund), SuperCat 2 (former Camoes), SuperCat 3 (former Estrela do Mar), SuperCat 5 (former Lusitano), SuperCat 7 (former Universal Mk. 1), SuperCat 8 (former Magellan) and SuperCat 9 (former Santa Cruz). Formerly, they were used in routes from Macau including Hongkong.

These “Seven Sisters” were the fastest ever to sail Philippine waters in the recent era. Powered by twin waterjets which prevent early cavitation, the seven were all capable of 38 knots sustained. That was almost double of the SuperFerries of the period and more than triple the 11 knots average of the common short-distance ferries then. Early in their careers the passengers marvelled at their very short route transit times like in Batangas-Calapan which just takes them 45 minutes versus the two-and-a-half hours of the regular ferries.

The lengths of the “Seven Sisters” were almost the same and averages 41.5 meters which was more than the average basic, short-distance ferry-RORO (that means they are not really small). Their breadths were all 11.0 meters and their depths between 3.6 to 3.8 meters. The gross tonnages ranged from 449 to 458 while the net tonnages ranged from 151 to 155, all small differences. The passenger capacities, meanwhile, ranged from 306 to 322. But all of them were powered by twin MTU engines with a total of 5,200 horsepower. They were the most powerful High Speed Craft engines ever seen in Philippine waters.supercat-7-marlon-griego

These “Seven Sisters” featured aluminum hulls for lighter weight. All had single masts, raked stems and transom sterns. The sisters had single passenger decks which means they all had low centers of gravity with the pilot house high above that. Aside from the common navigational devices, all had night vision devices, autopilots, joysticks and motion dampening systems. The engine room can also be monitored from the bridge.

Aboard, the passenger compartment featured airline-type seats with seatbelts. There were well-trained stewards and stewardesses to assist the passengers and make them comfortable. There was a perception of space and the passenger compartment floor is carpeted. However, at full speed the hum of the engines were audible (but it was a pleasant hum as they were MTUs) and in exchange of that there is really a perception of speed and great capability in acceleration.

These catamaran High Speed Crafts were fielded in the Batangas-Calapan, Bacolod-Iloilo, Cebu-Ormoc, Cebu-Tagbilaran-Dumaguete-Dapitan (with a Siquijor extension at one time) and Cebu-Maasin-Surigao routes. It was the time when High Speed Crafts were being used from short to long routes that were once done by overnight ferries. The first three routes were successes, the last one was a failure while the fourth was marginal. It was in the shorter routes where the “Seven Sisters” found success.

Along with the SuperCat 6 and SuperCat 10 which were of different designs, these SuperCats were so successful in a very crowded High Speed Craft field that included competitors like the fastcrafts of the Viva Shipping Lines combine, the fastcrafts of Bullet Express, the two High Speed Crafts of Oceanjet, the SeaCats of ACG Express Liner, etc. that their very direct competitors, the Sea Angels of Negros Navigation Company and the catamarans of Water Jet Shipping Company folded and merged with them to form the Philippine Fast Ferry Corporation (PFFC).

Their fielding, however, nearly coincided with the 9/11 attack in the New York City towers and the subsequent launching of the US with retaliatory wars and interventions in the Middle East which slowly but consistently rose the price of oil. With nearly 17 horsepower per person, the highest ratio in local waters, the local “Seven Sisters” soon found their fuel consumption was simply too high. Incidentally, all merged Sea Angels and Waterjets also had the same powerplants as the “Seven Sisters”, the 5,200-horsepower MTUs. Moreover, the waterjets proved a little troublesome for the unclean waters of our ports when trash sometimes get sucked by the waterjets which threw schedules awry (they can’t run well with the waterjets clogged thus voyages were cancelled because maintenance has to be made first).

The Philippine Fast Ferry Corporation then had a policy decision to shift away from waterjets and the thirsty MTU engines. One by one, the merged Sea Angels, Waterjets and the Seven Sisters were sold and all to foreign buyers. By the mid-2000s none of them were left. SuperCat 3, 5, 7, 8 and 9 were sold to Jadrolinija of Croatia while SuperCat-I was sold to Tahiti and SuperCat 2 was sold to South Korea. SuperCat 3 became the Karolina, SuperCat 5 became the Judita, SuperCat 7 became the Novalja, SuperCat 8 became the Dubravka and SuperCat 9 became the Bisovo. Meanwhile, SuperCat-I became the Normandie Express (later as Moorea Express) and SuperCat 2 became the Korea Express. What replaced them in the SuperCat fleet were smaller High Speed Crafts of less power and speed, none were waterjets and some were fastcrafts. Except to that were the trimarans Tricat 50 and Tricat 2.

Later on, there were still some changes of ownership among the “Seven Sisters”. But rest assured all seven are still alive although they are elderly now (they are nearing 30 years of age) and might be nearing their end.

Still, they were fun when they were here. Even to just watch them make their run.

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Photo Credits: Masahiro Homma, Marlon Griego, Vinz Sanchez, Nowell Alcancia, PSSS