The Northern Mindanao Tour of the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS)

This tour was the first by PSSS in Northern Mindanao (aside from the inauguration of the Trans-Asia 19 which the PSSS attended and we were able to board other ships). This was planned a few months ago and it was designed to coincide with the vacation of PSSS Admin Capt. Josel-Nino Bado from his duty aboard a foreign ship. He was supposed to be the chief organizer of the tour as he has the ideas and connections on how to search for Captains and contacts that can help the PSSS. With regards to entry to the ships in the Port of Cagayan de Oro, it will be a collaboration between Admins who already have connections with the Captains on board. The tour was supposedly a long-distance one because of the many ports existing in Northern Mindanao. Eight Admins and members committed to the tour and four will be bringing vehicles from nearby to afar.

On the evening of October 25, 2019, me and Allen Amasol boarded the 10pm Philtranco bus in the Ecoland bus terminal of Davao City for Pasay to meet Janjan Salas in Sanfranz, Agusan del Sur who was bringing his Hilux to be our vehicle up to the Mukas port in Lanao del Norte. Our route is via Butuan City and this distance is nearly 500 kilometers. However, we had a bad start as we had a bus who should have been an express bus (the reason we chose it) but was acting like a local bus picking up a lot of short-distance passengers for the kita-kita (own profits) of the drivers (even we two had no tickets). The bus was just chugging along at low speed even though I politely said we will be meeting someone in Sanfranz. Worse, the bus was almost battered up already making it expensive for the fare it is charging. Actually, the local buses were way better than our bus.

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Medina port by Janjan Salas of PSSS.

However, our lateness allowed Janjan some sleep while waiting for us. We left Sanfranz at past 3am (to my worry of being late for the tour) but by daybreak we were already in Medina to visit its old port which was well-known in the copra heyday. The San Luis port of Gingoog City was also visible from Medina port and before 7am we were already in Balingoan port which is the jump-off point to Camiguin. We did not try to enter port because we do not want to be late for the PHIVIDEC rendezvous. Meanwhile, Admin Mark Ocul was riding the first bus from Ozamis to Cagayan de Oro at 4am and was hoping to arrive in Cagayan de Oro at 8am. It was actually his arrival that was the basis of the 9am start of the Northern Mindanao tour in PHIVIDEC Industrial Estate. However, Mark’s bus was late and it set back the start of the PSSS tour.

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Balingoan port. Photo by Allen Amasol of PSSS.

We began our tour of the PHIVIDEC Industrial Estate which had its own port in Tagoloan, Misamis Oriental on the morning of October 26. This was arranged through its Administrator and CEO Atty. Franklin Quijano who was the former Mayor of Iligan City and Badz’s (Josel-Nino Bado) townmate. He designated Harbour Master Capt. Gerry Guiuo as the point manand host of the tour and he happened to be from Iligan City also (I also lived there for six years) and he was very cooperative. When initial arrangements with PICMW (Philippine Iron Construction and Marine Works, Inc.) fell through, Capt. Guiuo promised to take care of the arrangements. And he even volunteered to be a member of PSSS!

As constituted, our tour group consisted of Capt. Josel-Nino Bado from Cagayan de Oro and Iligan Cities, Mark Edelson Ocul from Ozamis and Cebu Cities , John Carlos Cabanillas from Opol, Misamis Oriental and Liloan, Cebu, Tristan Fil Lirasan from Digos and Cebu Cities, Janjan Salas from Bislig City, Allen Amasol from Davao and Samal Cities, Dr. Neal Rana, M.D. from Gingoog and Cagayan de Oro Cities and yours truly, Mike Baylon from Bicol and Davao City. The ninth and new member of the group was Harbour Master and Capt. Gerry Guiuo of Iligan City, a new PSSS member and the tenth was Maia Lee Jabines Bado, the wife of Badz who showed very great patience and understanding of the passion and hobby of her husband and she took many of the shots of the members of the group. Now, if only all wives of PSSS members are like her.

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PHIVIDEC Industrial Estate by John Carlos Cabanillas of PSSS.

In PHIVIDEC Industrial Estate there were restrictions as their port is an ISPS port. There is even a separate of operator of the port which is the Mindanao International Container Terminal Inc.(MICT),  a subsidiary of the great ICTSI (International Container and Terminal Services Inc. that is owned by the taipan Enrique Razon. When we visited there was only one ship, the Lorcon Iloilo and the port is not really big but it has a view of a nearby port. The new name of MICT is Mindanao Container Terminal (MCT).

Leaving PHIVIDEC, we proceeded to NAMSSA (National Maritime Safety and Security Agency), a maritime safety institute which was just nearby. We were given a briefing of what they do. NAMSSA is a recognized security organization (RSO) that can do Maritime Intelligence Risk Suite (MIRS), something that probably the PPA and MARINA can’t do  The notable thing in our visit was the discovery of old and new contacts which will be of help to the PSSS in the future. The PSSS was also introduced to them.

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Group photo in Atecle’s Grill. Photo by Capt. Josel-Nino Bado of PSSS.

From NAMSSA, we had our lunch in Atecle’s Grill in Cagayan de Oro which I was told has a reputation for delicious food. Now I can say their reputation is well-deserved. Dr. Neal Rana took care of the lunch although he does not normally partake lunch (!). He didn’t, actually.

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In PICMW shipyard. Photo by Mark Ocul of PSSS.

After lunch, we made our way to the PICMW to tour its shipyard and we were given a briefing by their Vice-President Roberto Quicio of what his company does. PICMW has new-builds but its work is mainly ship repair. They also have contracts for fabrication abroad. What surprised me is their yard is very big and they are far from exhausting their capacity. They use a ship lift and rails to haul ships for repair. It was Naval Architects Wayne Benedict Espejon and Julius Anthony Siarez of PICMW who lead the tour of their shipyard.

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The Bandanaira 2 of Gov. Pepito Alvarez of Palawan. Photo By Mike Baylon of PSSS.

The notable discoveries in PICMW were the two new ships for Daima Shipping, the Royal Dolphin 3 and the Royal Seal 3 and which the PSSS was already aware of but has not seen. The Royal Dolphin, long a habitue of Mukas port and the Royal Dolphin 2 which is in hibernation was also in the shipyard. The surprise was a modern LCT that is almost finished for Gov. Pepito Alvarez of Palawan, the Bandanaira 2 I won’t dwell much on the ships being repaired there as they change anyway except that there were two Aleson ships there, the Trisha Kerstin 1 and the Ciara Joie 2. But it was bittersweet to see the Super Shuttle Ferry 15 of the Asian Marine Transport Corp. (AMTC). It seems she never sailed again after the grounding off Camiguin a few years ago and she is now for sale. But I wonder who will take interest in her given her history and condition (she was once half-submerged in Palawan and it was repeated in Camiguin). This could be the end of her as a ship as her owner is not known for having the perseverance in repairing old and damaged ships.

We also found the Ever Sweet there which was built by Varadero de Recodo in 1963 and was the first ship of Ever Lines Inc. She is supposedly for sale but again I wonder who will take her given that it is only in Zamboanga, her base where cruiser ships are still successful although this is beginning to be doubtful as time pass. The Magnolia Liliflora was also there and like Super Shuttle Ferry 15 and Ever Sweet there were no repair works going on and she is also for sale. She is the former Rizma of A. Sakaluran Shipping and built in Zamboanga in 1989. She was acquired by Magnolia Shipping in 2012 and refitted in Varadero de Recodo. Now I don’t know if again she will hibernate for long like what happened to her as the Rizma. But I do hope she sails again.

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Ship spotters atop a ship they “conquered”. Together with two naval architects of PICMW. Photo by Dr. Neal Rana of PSSS.

My tour mates took time to board and tour the new ferries of Daima Shipping and get a view of the new ferry of AMTC, the Super Shuttle Ferry 27. I can understand that as those are newly-arrived ships and rare double-ended ferries at that. I was not able to join as I was conserving strength and instead me and Harbour Master Capt. Gerry Guiuo talked about ships and databases. With that I think we had better rapport although I lost photo opportunities. Sometimes one in the group should sacrifice touring to talk to a biggie.

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PSSS members inside an engine room. Photo by Janjan Salas of PSSS.

It was already late when we left PICMW and it was getting dark early because of rain clouds and we made haste to Cagayan de Oro port to try to gain entry. It was the port which was our problem and not the ship or the shipping company as the PSSS has contacts for that. We tried even though it was getting dark already. In the haste and since my cellphone lost power Jhayz Abao of Cagayan de Oro and PSSS was not able to contact me. He should have been part of the group in Cagayan de Oro port. Our entry was facilitated by Lite Ferries (thanks to them!) and we were able to board and tour their new Lite Ferry 18 which could be the best and biggest ship in their fleet now together with its sister ship Lite Ferry 19. It seems their passenger accommodations are at par now with the best their competition can offer in Northern Mindanao.

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Lite Ferry 18 bridge. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

We were planning to board the Trans-Asia 18 nearby but we had difficulty in finding the Captain. Suddenly, a heavy rain which lasted long fell and we had to take shelter in the passenger terminal building full of passengers for the St. Therese of Child Jesus of 2GO. By this time the Trans-Asia 19 has already left. We were really short of time. With the big rain we decided to call it a day and look for dinner and a bed. Badz and Mark went separately to look for a lodge and they had difficulty as most were fully-booked. They finally found a cheap but a good value lodge on the road to the old airport. With an extra bed four of us were accommodated in a room. We fell asleep immediately as we were tired. It was only Mark that had enough strength as he came from a nearer place unlike us three – me, Janjan and Allen which practically had no sleep the night before.

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Group photo aboard Lite Ferry 18 with the Purser. Photo by Dr. Neal Rana of PSSS.

We took our breakfast in the hotel and Jhayz joined us. However, there was one member who committed on the second day that did not show up. Jhayz wasn’t joining the tour on the second but a short meet with Dr. Neal was arranged as they are both from Cagayan de Oro and were both in the health field. And so our tour group would remain the same up to Iligan City (Badz and wife would drop out from there and won’t come with us to Ozamis City).

To make up for the past day, we first went to the Coastal Road of Cagayan de Oro City on the morning of October 27 to take photos of ships in Cagayan de Oro port and in Macalajar Bay. We didn’t stay long there and we then went to the MacArthur Memorial Marker near the Port of Cagayan de Oro. We found two vantage points there including a sundowner and a night place above the water. They were friendly but I found out that I already lost my old ability to walk across wooden bridges for people that have no handrail. I can already fall if there is no assistance.

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Port of Cagayan de Oro ships. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

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MacArthur Memorial Marker from a sundowner. Photo by Tristan Fil Lirasan.

I rested outside while they went to the MacArthur Memorial Marker and then I noticed they were taking long. It turned out they were waiting for the departure of the Lite Ferry 8 for Jagna, Bohol. That is one of the oldest ROROs in the Philippines that is not an LCT and it might have the most years sailing now in the country. We noticed part of her uppermost deck (which is the bridge deck) was chopped off. Maybe she no longer needs that high passenger capacity and shaving off weight will help the ship. This ship first served as the Sta. Maria of Negros Navigation way back in 1980 before going to G&P Lines as the GP Ferry 1.

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A view of Iligan port from the second Iligan public market. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

We made our way to Iligan City and met Badz in the Iligan Centennial Park which features a tall flag. Forthwith, we proceeded to the motor pool of the Super Five bus company but we were denied entry. We then proceeded to find lunch. Two members took care of it and from the new Robinsons in Iligan we drove west when it was already mid-afternoon with Ozamis as the target. Before that we went to the old Kolambugan port which was the former connection of Lanao del Norte to Ozamiz City. It has been some time already since my last visit there and it is already a port to nowhere now. It is sad to think that it was once a busy port and the base of the old Tamula Shipping Lines which lost to Daima Shipping when they did not convert to ROROs.

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Kolambugan port by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

From Kolambugan we went to Tubod port which was once a connection too to Misamis Occidental via the Silanga port on the other side. The port is now refurbished but it also does not have ships now when Maypalad Shipping gave up and Roble Shipping did not last. There is a sign that it was an ISPS port but then we had easy entry and the guard even offered us to maneuver our vehicle inside the port. Now, if only all ISPS ports are like this. At least there and in Zamboanga port they can detect those who have no ill intent.

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Tubod port by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

It was past 5pm when we able to board the Daima ferry Swallow 2 in Mukas port. We noticed that again there were ferries tied-up and unused in Mukas port. We did not load our vehicle in the ferry and just left it in the gas station outside Mukas port as we won’t really be in need of it in Ozamiz. It was beginning to get dark when we alighted from the ship and so we had no more good shots of the ships docked in Ozamiz port and those we met that were bound for Mukas port. Again, we were late as maybe we were not hurrying enough.

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Our ferry to Ozamis, the Swallow 2, a bombing survivor as Our Lady of Mediatrix. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

In the port, a Chevy Suburban owned by the couple-doctors JM and Dianne Feliciano who owns the Faith General Hospital in Ozamiz City picked us up and it was nice as it was raining already. The couple is friends of our tour companion Dr. Neal Rana. They served us dinner in their big house together with some other doctors that are friends and medical school classmates of Dr. Neal.

It was already the second to the last trip of the Daima ferry which we were able to board in crossing back to Mukas and our ship was the Royal Seal. It was no longer full both In passengers and cargo. Maybe the night crossing is really slow and that is why the Daima trips stop at 9pm and just resumes at 4am. From Mukas port we took a tricycle back to where our vehicle was parked as there was a drizzle and it is a little far too.

It was a cold night on the trip back with wet roads making it difficult to calculate the asphalted roads that have not been repainted making it hard for Janjan Salas. In Cagayan de Oro we dropped off Dr. Neal at his place and so we were again down to three aboard the Hilux – me, Janjan and Allen. We were the three that started off in Sanfranz two nights before. The only difference was our driver was already tired now.

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Our Ozamis-Mukas ship, the Royal Seal. Weather not kind on our way back. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

We made good progress without speeding up. We left Mukas at 9pm and by 12 midnight we were already in Cagayan de Oro. We reached Sanfranz between 4:30am and 5am. Janjan said he will take a one-hour break as he was too sleepy already. Meanwhile, me and Allen was fortunate a Philtranco bus arrived in the Sanfranz bus terminal. It was of the same series of our Philtranco bus we took two nights before but the driver was taking his driving seriously and there were few stops. And so in less than four hours me and Allen were already in Davao City. We took breakfast before going our own ways.

Over-all, it was a very good tour despite some glitches which centers on overrunning of the time. Aside from the camaraderie built and the memories that will remain with the participants for a long time, we had breakthroughs in new ship spotting places and in new contacts or contacts that were renewed. That will be of help to the PSSS in the coming days and in the future.

A Good Ship That Was Not Able To Outrun A Typhoon

The FS-220, when she came to the Philippines in 1960 was among the last “FS” ships that arrived in the country. She was among the batch used by the US Navy after the war for resupply missions and released from service starting in 1959. For reasons that are not yet clear to me I do not know how the newly-established Philippine President Lines (PPL) was able to corner a big chunk of these last-released “FS” ships. And that batch was the envy of many and even abroad because the US Navy knows how to maintain its ships (and it has the budget) and compared to ex-”FS” ships already in the country which just sails and sails that last batch does not have worn engines yet.

The FS-220 was a ship built by Higgins Industries in New Orleans, USA which was the designer and builder of the famous Higgins boats. She measured 54.9 meters by 9.8 meters by 3.2 meters and originally had 573 tons in gross register tonnage. Like most other “FS” ships she was powered by two GM Cleveland engines with a total of 1,000 horsepower and her maximum speed was 12 knots.

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Photo credits: Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen

FS” ships transferred from the US Army (the operator in World War II) to the US Navy for postwar duty usually have alterations already to suit their mission. Many still undergo further conversions here to suit the local shipping needs and situation and that mainly consists of increasing the passenger capacity.

In the Philippine President Lines fleet, the FS-220 became known as the President Roxas. She was the first ship to carry this name in the fleet. She was also known now by the ID IMO 6117958. Upon conversion, she already had three passenger decks including the lowermost where cargo is also stowed. The first route of the President Roxas was Manila-Cebu-Iligan.

The Philippine President Lines did not last long in the inter-island route and when it concentrated on overseas shipping they established the subsidiary Philippine Pioneer Lines in 1963 to take over the inter-island operations and so the President Roxas went to Philippine Pioneer Lines. Her first route for this new company was the quaint Manila-Masbate-Bulan-Allen-Legaspi-Tabaco route. As such she became a Bicol specialist with a slight diversion to Samar. This was the period when sending a ship to Bicol still made sense.

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Photo credits: The Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

After two major accidents in 1966 which were the floundering of the Pioneer Cebu in a typhoon and the collision involving Pioneer Leyte which lead to her breaking up, Philippine Pioneer Lines ceased operation. In 1967, Galaxy Lines replaced her and the fleet of Philippine Pioneer Lines was transferred into the Galaxy fleet. The President Roxas became the Venus in the fleet of Galaxy Lines where ships were named after constellations.

She did not last long in Galaxy Lines, however, and was sold immediately sold to N&S Lines, Inc. Galaxy Lines no longer had Bicol routes while N&S Lines had Bicol and Samar routes and maybe the reason for the sale was to avoid taking out a ship in those routes. In N&S Lines, she did the Manila-Allen-Carangian (now known as San Jose)-Legaspi (now spelled as Legazpi)-Laoang route. Only the route to Tabaco port was the one practically dropped.

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Photo credits: Manila Times and Gorio Belen

Venus would hold for long that route and leaving Manila every Tuesday at 9pm. Slowly, she became a fixture in this route. In 1976, a new ship, the Queen of Samar of Newport Shipping Lines issued a challenge to her. There were other passenger-cargo ships to her route from Manila with slightly different ports of call but the ships of the New Shipping Lines were the most dangerous as the Queen of Samar was not the only ship that entered the Northern Samar and nearby routes. In fact, it totaled six. I really can’t understand what was the attraction of Northern Samar and the nearby ports to Newport Shipping Lines.

And then from that in just three years the bottom fell out for these routes because suddenly the San Bernardino Strait was connected by the RORO ship Cardinal I of Cardinal Shipping and suddenly buses and trucks from Manila started running to Samar directly. There was no longer any need to bring the cargo to North Harbor. Ditto for the passengers. Suddenly, the viability of the Samar routes began to evaporate and what was just propping it up was the intermediate route to Masbate.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

Though the Manila ships began to evaporate too in the routes passing through San Bernardino Strait especially those that had concentration to Bicol, the Venus was one of the most resilient and she outlasted practically every other passenger-cargo ship in the Northern Samar routes when to think buses and trucks were already arriving daily there. Maybe there were passengers which still prefer the ship or might have been too attached to them.

Nearing her 40th year of life, Venus was sailing from Samar to Manila. There was a Category 5 super-typhoon then approaching the Philippines from the east and its central pressure was 880 millibars which is even lower than Typhoon “Yolanda”’s 890 millibars (the lower the number the stronger is the typhoon). There was also a typhoon that was developing in South China See at the same time. Maybe Venus thought that by sailing she will be putting distance from the stronger typhoon and might have underestimated or failed to notice the storm in South China Sea which was just a tropical depression when she sailed. It seems Venus also failed to understand well the effects on the sea of a Sibuyan Sea. The two typhoons were actually interacting and in fact the stronger typhoon was sucking the weaker one. Venus might have failed to understand well the risks when she embarked on her final voyage.

It was in Sibuyan Sea when Venus finally discovered the sea was roiling and the winds were unforgiving. The ex-”FS” ships were particularly vulnerable to typhoons and that was why her old captains here were masters of finding the coves and inlets where they can hide or shelter the ship when the weather acts up.

It seems Venus tried to hightail it to a port or was desperately trying to find shelter (as she already diverted from her route if gauged from where she perished). However, in Tayabas Bay it seems Venus was not able to weather the wind and the waves and floundered on October 28, 1984 (in Tayabas Bay the winds then will be hitting her broadside at port). There was no trace of the ship after the typhoon and 36 people perished with her, unfortunately.

On a note, the Lorenzo Container VIII of Lorenzo Shipping Corporation was another ship that floundered in that twin interacting storm. This even bigger ship sank on the same day as Venus north of Abra de Ilog, Occidental Mindoro, in a sea which is even farther than the stronger typhoon (which was incidentally named also as Typhoon “Reming” like the deadliest storm to visit Bicol in the recent decades).

The sinking of Venus even had repercussions in our place. When about to ride a ship, my earthbound relatives would remind me of her fate (you know the oldies then!). The floundering in another typhoon of the Dona Marilyn in a nearby sea, the Samar Sea, four years later in 1988 did not help either.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

The Venus served the same route for 17 years. That was long by any local measure. It took two typhoons to end her memorable career. Small shipping companies really take hard a sinking and coupled with weakening routes and the general crisis of that era, the Ninoy post-assassination years, N&S Lines, her company also went under.

After the sinking of Venus, the routes to Northern Samar from Manila also died. In the 1990’s MBRS Lines from Romblon tried to revive it. But there was really no way to defeat the new paradigm, the intermodal system. And so it died again. Finally.