The Trip Back to Tacloban From Surigao del Sur

Me and Joe did not stay long in Cortes, Surigao del Sur. It was just an overnight stay, a short visit to a shipmate and his family. The next day we prepared early because it will be a long drive back to where we came from. We wanted to find what ports were there in the five towns we just whizzed by the previous day. Me and Joe also planned to shipspot Taganito again and see if there are accessible ports there. We intended a make-up since the previous day all my batteries gave up while we were there and we were a little rushed up already lest nightfall overtakes us while we were still on the road.

Joe again mounted his a-little-balky GPS map as we will use it again in searching for ports (I realized already then that my plain refusal to use the capabilities of my smartphone is already a negative as I can’t assist Joe). We passed by Lanuza, Carmen and Madrid towns without any signs of a port. It was actually Madrid which interested as more as the owner of the “Voyagers” restaurant which we patronized on the way to Surigao del Sur hailed from that town and the shipmate of Joe was familiar with the surname (he said one of the most prominent families of that town).

We knew there will be a port that we will be visiting in the next town of Cantilan because the previous day we already saw its sign by the highway. Cantilan sticks to my mind because the controversial Prospero Pichay hails from that town and he claimed it was the mother town of that area and I was looking for signs of that. A presence of a port I will not be surprised because that is one of the givens at times if a powerful congressman hails from the place.

We found the road sign alright and it was indicated there the distance is 6 kilometers. Not near, we thought, but we were determined to see what it has because we wanted to see what Prospero Pichay has given his place. We were lucky that the road is already cemented in many places and those not were not muddy. We noticed signs of a fiefdom and we just continued on as the seaview is good. We found the Port of Cantilan which is in Barangay Consuelo.

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It was not a disappointing visit. The view was good with islets near the port and there were vessels but almost all were fishing vessels of the basnig type. I was surprised that one of those was the Clemiluza which I used to see in Cebu before. There were two fish carriers in the port and the total number of basnigs was nearly 10. The port had concrete buildings. I don’t know but the impression I got of the Port of Cantilan was that of a fishport.

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In the next town of Carrascal, the last town of Surigao del Sur going north, there were views of the sea and mines and it was a warning to us that Taganito is not too far anymore. Me and Joe tried a small road that goes to the sea. There was no port. What is noticed is the water by the beach. It is not the normal blue. It is brownish with some relation to muck including the smell. I wondered if there was fish still to be caught there.

We then reached the part which I remembered will show us the mining communities below which is part of the boundary of the two Surigao provinces. There was really no good vegetation and the terrain seemed to be really harsh before. I can sense there was really no good serviceable road here before the mines came. I remembered what the shipmate of Joe said to us the previous night that at his age he has not been yet to Butuan City or Surigao City because he said there was no road then. He said that if they needed something that is not available in Tandag, their capital and next town, they go to Davao (he studied college in Davao City by the way). Now I understand why before the Caraga Region was established, Surigao del Sur was part of Region XI that included the Davao provinces.

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We descended and reached sea level which is an indication the mining community centered in Taganito is already upon us. The bulk of the harsh and mountainous terrain is already behind us. It was the actually the physical boundary of Surigao del Norte and Surigao del Norte (and it confirmed to me what I noticed before that the actual boundaries of the provinces of Mindanao are actually physical boundaries too).

We knew from the day before that there was an indication of an open port in the area and we found it. It is the Port of Hayanggabon, a PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) port and it is still being constructed but it is already usable. It is obvious it is meant to be a RORO port. To where, I can surmise that it would an alternative port for the islands of Surigao del Norte. Bucas Grande island, the third major island off the Surigao coast with the town of Socorro is just offshore and Claver can be its link to the mainland. The Port of Hayanggabon can also be the dock of ships with supplies from Cebu and Manila.

We took photos of the ships in Hayanggabon port and also the vessels offshore (this is one of the characteristics of the Taganito area, the presence of a lot of ships offshore). We roamed the general area. There is a barangay hall that can pass off as a municipal hall in some remote areas of the country. There are also restaurants that is already more modern-looking than the usual roadside stand. One thing noticeable is a lot of mining trucks that were on the move aside from other mining vehicles.

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With the developments we saw, it seems the mining companies are doing CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) work. It can be seen in the schools, the school buses, the ambulance and the community lighting. Well, they should. They are earning a lot of money after all. Strip mining near the shore with no tailings ponds with just causeway ports means lower initial capital, lower operational costs over-all and hence more profits.

We did not try entering a mining port. We are almost sure they won’t allow us (they can easily cite the risks and company policy). We contented ourselves with shots from the road. However, I realized that with a vehicle and enough time one can look for vantage places but one needs really long lenses for Taganito as half of the ships are offshore. My 10x zoom was just barely capable for the ships that are docked.

We also took photos of the mining yards, the motor pools, the cuts in the mountain (the strip mines) and almost any other thing connected to their activities that are visible outside. It is seldom that one is near a mining community after all with its activities visible and palpable. Even their equipment is interesting enough. There is even a conveyor belt overhead. But I just wonder with all the heavy loads how long will the road hold before cracking.

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From Claver we sped up already. No more looking for ports and we intended to bypass Surigao City and head direct to Lipata Ferry Terminal. We knew it will be a really late lunch after all the sightseeing and shipspotting. Our target was “Voyagers” restaurant again. We loved the sights, the ambience, the newness and cleanliness plus I can recharge batteries there again, a crucial need in any long-distance shipspotting.

Before going to “Voyagers” we went first to the Lipata Ferry Terminal to know what were our ferry options and to arrange our ride. Of course when one goes canvassing we become an attractive target for the shipping company employees and their runners. There will of course be all the offers and blandishments plus the lies. I was used to that. I actually tried to be the front man instead of Joe because I know I can exude the mien of a veteran.

Actually, our first preference was the FastCat M7 so we can experience a good, new catamaran RORO on that route. Besides our preferred docking port is Liloan as we have been in Benit already on the way to Surigao (so taking a Montenegro Lines ferry again is already out of the options). We also want to shipspot that port from the inside.

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The first ferry leaving for Liloan was the Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping, an old and slow ferry. They lied about a 3-hour running time and said it will arrive in Liloan ahead of the FastCat M7, two obvious lies. Whatever, it will be the FastCat M7 for us. We do not want an old, slow and uncomfortable ferry that has no airconditioning. Joe after a continuous trip from Catarman to Tacloban, back to Catarman then back again to Tacloban and then Surigao del Sur needed an accommodation more than a basic one.

And so it has to be FastCat M7, our original choice. However, it will still be more than two hours from departure. Oh, well, we decided we will just while our time in “Voyagers” and charge my batteries. The Archipelago Ferries man did all the paperworks and we appreciated that (uhm, what a nice rolling cargo service, we thought). He returned with the change and I asked what was paid for. We learned that included already in the total charges was a “Barangay Fee” of 50 pesos.

Me and Joe had a hearty laugh with that. They were able to put one over us. We just explained to the Archipelago guy it is illegal per two Supreme Court final decisions. We let it at that. Me and Joe just wanted to fill in our stomachs, have some rest and enjoy the coziness of “Voyagers”. We already deserve it after over 1,100 kilometers of travel and 3 sea crossings over 4 days (Joe already had 1,400 kilometers over 5 days) and we still have 1 sea crossing and 400 kilometers to go).

We again went to “Voyagers” and they were surprised we were back. We told them they are the best around in Lipata and we like the ambience. Maybe because of that they gave us free halaya. It was delicious. We ordered one as baon but it turned out it was not for sale. “Voyagers” is one restaurant we can really recommend. Very hospitable. It like its settee that is like a sala plus its elevated location which is airy and nice for looking around.

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After two hours of rest we began the embarkation process. It was smooth. FastCat was more professional. I had small talk with some of the hands on the deck. That is where I learned that the Philtranco buses are no longer loaded (one of the reasons for the slack in rolling cargo). It is just the passengers and cargo of the bus and the process is the same in Liloan so in effect the passengers from opposite directions just swap buses. Looks neat but they said the passengers don’t like it.

The FastCat M7 is nice and relaxing. The passenger service and the canteen are good along with the rest of the ship which is new. Our trip is two-and-a-half hours and I was glad it was longer than the Lipata-Benit route as Joe can have more rest. I didn’t have much rest because as usual I was just milling around the ship until it got too dark for taking shots. Before that Benit port was visible and we had a freighter as a companion. By the way, we overtook Millennium Uno just after the midway of the route even though it departed an hour ahead of us.

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It was dark when we disembarked in Liloan Ferry Terminal. Joe parked the car first because I was making a round of the port taking shots and taking stock. There are more controls now but I was still able to get around. It did not change much anyway. However, because of the dark my shots were limited.

We then proceeded and not long after Joe asked where we can eat. I told him the nearest town with decent eateries is Sogod, the biggest town in the area. So instead of proceeding direct to Mahaplag we turned west in Sogod junction to the town. Nearing the town I was puzzled that past dinnertime there were still a lot of vehicles on the road and there was more near the town and inside the town there was traffic. Turned out it was the fiesta of the town but unfortunately we knew no one there. Sayang. We saw the barbecue plaza of the town and we had dinner there. It was satisfying.

After that was the drive again by the river of Sogod. Each and every time I pass it there seems to be changes because there is erosion andthe river change. We then turned to the left in Sogod junction and I warned Joe that from there it will be all uphill. The rain began coming. I don’t know but I associate that place with rain. Maybe it is because the vegatation is still heavy with a lot of trees and it is watershed area.

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Me and Joe will be running through Mahaplag again because the puppy we were supposed to pick up in Isabel was not available. Sayang. We could have stayed the night in Sogod, had more fun there and ran the picturesque seaside road to Maasin the next day and visit the many ports of Southern Leyte and western Leyte up to even Palompon. It would have been a hell of a shipspotting day.

We reached Mahaplag junction again and it was another disappointment as it was already night and there were no hawkers of kakanin and suman anymore. Me and Joe really wanted to test the rumored “poisoners” of the area, a thing we both laugh at because we knew it is not true. Never had a stomach ache in almost two decades I bought from that place and I am still alive.

Heavy rains pelted us after Mahaplag all the way to Tacloban. Joe was already showing signs of tiredness and the weather was not cooperative. In some sections there were already inches of water on the highway demanding more attention from a tired driver. We finally reached Tacloban near midnight.

We were unlucky because the hotels we went to were all full. Maybe because of the hour? We were wondering. We thought Tacloban was disaster area. We then found one across the Sto. Nino Shrine. It was not cheap but the accommodation was good. We have to settle for it. Joe was already clearly tired. Who would not be after 1,300 kilometers on the road spread over 5 consecutive days?

We retired immediately for the next day we will be looking for the unexplored old ports of Samar. Our main targets were Basey and Victoria ports. Guiuan we deemed was too far already.

[That part I already wrote in a previous article:,,,,]

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Ports Served By Liners That Lost To The Intermodal Buses

Once, there were ports that were served by the liners of the national shipping companies in the postwar years. Liners from Manila sailed to these ports and the length of their calls or service already exceeded a century. Now, there are no more liners to these ports and instead intermodal buses are the ones now moving their passengers.

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Among the ports I am referring to are San Jose in Occidental Mindoro (called Mangarin in the past), Culasi port in Roxas City (called Capiz in the past); Dumaguit (or New Washington), Batan, Malay (more popularly known as Caticlan now), all in Aklan; Lipata port in Culasi, Antique, San Jose de Buenavista in Antique. The list also includes Masbate; Laoang, Carangian (or San Jose) and Allen in Northern Samar; Calbayog and Catbalogan in Western Samar; Tacloban, Calubian, Palompon, Isabel, Ormoc and Baybay in Leyte; Maasin, Sogod and Cabalian in Southern Leyte. The list would also Tagbilaran in Bohol and Surigao City. Yes, the list is really long. And that is not even 100% complete.

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Tacloban port

How come our good liners with true passenger service and free food lost to the simple bus where there is no service and food is not free? When many of our liners were hotel-like. The simple reason is simply frequency and ubiquity. Buses leave daily while liners don’t. Buses have several trips in a day, both at night and day and in a wide span of schedules and so people have a choice. They also have a choice from several bus lines.

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I first had a glimpse of their magic of the nearly 15 years ago. I was aboard a bus from Maasin to Manila. The first trip then of the bus was 2am. I noticed that whenever and wherever the bus will see bags in the road without people around, our bus will stop, blow its horn and the passenger/s will appear from the house. Yes, there was no need to wait in the dark suffering from the cold and mosquito bites. The bus will simply stop for you. In Eastern Samar 18 years ago, a relative of the passenger rode the bus in Borongan and stopped the bus in a house in a barrio. Turned out the lady passenger has not yet finished her bath. Well, our bus driver simply turned off the engine to the laughter of all and we all waited and when the lady boarded there were cheers and more laughter. Are those ease and leaning backward possible in a ship? Simply no.

So whenever and wherever a bus begin crossing the straits I noticed they will simply kick out the liners from Manila. This first happened in Samar in the 1980’s. This was followed by Mindoro and Panay in the 2000’s. Masbate, Leyte, Bohol and Surigao soon followed suit. Practically it is only Negros and Cebu islands and northern  and western Mindanao that are immune from the buses from Manila.

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Intermodal buses in Masbate port

In the examples I gave I made sure it was the buses that torpedoed the liners and not the budget airlines. In those examples I am pretty sure most of the passengers transferred to the intermodal buses because if one checks the frequency of the airlines when there were still liners and today one will notice that the frequency increases of the airlines were modest while the intermodal buses grew by leaps and bounds. That is very clear in Panay. That is very clear in Eastern Visayas and Masbate. That is also true in Surigao, Bohol and Mindoro (maybe in Bohol many make a transfer to a Cebu plane).

I think the liners never knew what hit them. Probably they can not believe that they passengers will move from bunks to seats that taxes the butt and hurts the back. Their liners have toilets and baths and buses don’t have that. They have free food, good service (they have stewards and attendants), functioning restaurants, lounges and areas where passengers can mill around. There are even spas, discos and chapels. Yet the passengers exchanged them for seats where once can barely move. Sounds improbable, isn’t it? But that happened and not only in one place.

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And to think the bus fares are not even significantly cheaper, if it is. And there are ancillary costs like food, terminal fees, payment for using the comfort rooms of the terminals and eating places. And the perilous and embarrassing case of a sometime traveler’s diarrhea.

I once asked a lady seatmate in a bus (they are more inconvenienced as unlike males they need a true CR) from Surigao why. She said she likes the views when the bus runs, that she likes reaching places she had never been to before. Yes, on a liner you only see the sea, the seascape and some ports.

The bus passengers don’t even need to go to the ports and there be charged unfairly by the porters. And on the return trip they can stop the bus right by their gate (is there a convenience greater than that?). No need for porters again and relatives will be waiting by the gate since there is SMS now. And also in many cases the trip of the bus is shorter than the voyage of the ship. Many also think there is more risk in traveling in a ship. Courtesy of the highly-publicized sinkings like the Dona Paz and the Princess of the Stars.

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Even in places like Davao the intermodal bus was also a factor. That was also true in Iloilo and maybe Gensan also.

Those are the things that torpedoed the liners. Maybe the shipping companies never knew what hit them. Their belief is the budget airlines tripped them. That cannot be proven empirically in a lot of places. Maybe their pride is simply too high they cannot admit a lowly bus beat them.

If liners want to make a comeback they should do a real study why the passengers walked away. But I still doubt if they can really beat the intermodal bus. They are simply too ubiquitous.

What Could Be The First True Test Of The New Starlite Ferries

Since last year, 2015, the new Starlite ferries began arriving in Batangas, the home port of Starlite Ferries Incorporated. So far as of this writing (September 2016) four has arrived in the country, the Starlite Pioneer, the Starlite Reliance, the Starlite Eagle and the Starlite Saturn. These are brand-new ferries ordered from Japan from a loan extended by the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP). More are actually on the pipeline and coming soon.

These new ferries were built by the Kegoya Dockyard in Kure yard, Japan and by Fukushima Zosen in Matsue yard, Japan (another report said Shimane yard). The common measurements are 67.0 meters length overall (LOA) by 15.3 meters breadth by 9.4 meters depth with a Gross Tonnage (GT) of about 2,700. The DWT is about 915 and the passenger capacity is about 750 which indicates an all-seating arrangement. The top sustained speed of these ferries are 14.5 knots.

The owner of Starlite Ferries, Alfonso Cusi is too proud and expansive about his ferries. As advanced features he cites the bulbous stem but then most ferries of this size since 30 years ago already featured bulbous stems. This feature lessens drag which then increases the speed by a little. Cusi also cites its motion dampening system. Admittedly this is a plus on rough seas as added passenger comfort. The owner also cited the deep draft of his new ships. That will add to the stability of the vessel because it lowers the center of gravity.

I was hoping Cusi will mention other features like ECDIS but he did not mention it or even INMARSAT (it might have NAVTEX though). I hope the ship has an autopilot and automatic docking system. I also would want to see if she already has the joystick instead of the traditional steering wheel. Plus a collision avoidance system. And a depth finder that is mated to ship’s autopilot to immediately stop the ship if grounding or hitting an underwater object is imminent. If the ship has these features then all the expansiveness of Cusi will be justified. When he talks he makes it sound as if all the other ferries of his competition are already obsolete.

Externally, the new Starlite Ferries don’t look much. It is as if she borrowed the lines of a 1960’s ship, to be honest. Actually, the newer ship of Cokaliong Shipping Lines look better aesthetically. Also the Jack Daniel of Sta. Clara Shipping or even the Trans-Asia 3 of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. If her external lines looked impressive the more that there will have been be “Oh’s and Ah’s”.

The ships have high sides. That is a plus on rough seas and also a plus when listing. However, that feature might not be tested as the government is already nervous about any kind of rough seas and will suspend voyages when storm winds several hundred kilometers away reach 60 kilometers per hour which is even less than a full gale in England. But for Cusi to say all ferries here were designed for the calm seas of the Inland Sea of Japan is too much. Some of our ferries from Japan had routes to the Ryukyus or some shimas outside the Japan main islands. To also say that his new ships are the only IACS-classified ship is also out of the line. China belongs to IACS and they have ships here along with the FastCats of Australian design and which are ABS-certified. Many ships from Japan when they came here were also Class NK.

I just wonder about the 9.4 meters depth of these new Starlite Ferries. That is double the normal depth of ferries her size. Does she have a second car deck below her main car deck? If that is the case then she will be carrying an impressive rolling cargo capacity. Whatever, her 15.4 meters breadth also caught my attention. ROROs her size normally don’t exceed 14 meters in breadth and many are even less than that. Maybe that is the reason why instead of being sleek they look a little bloated to me.

That 15.4 meters might be a plus as that might mean 4 full lanes. It might not accommodate 4 buses or trucks across but definitely it will accommodate two trucks and two sedans or SUVs across while the ferries of this size might have difficulty doing that over the entire length of her car deck. But the caveat is if she can attract that many vehicles.

Fifteen new ferries are arriving for Starlite Ferries. That means that where before they can just stick to Mindoro island routes, their home ground , this time around they have to expand to other routes. In media, it was stated that Starlite Ferries will enter the Cebu-Ormoc route. The Cebu to Leyte routes especially on the vehicle side is crowded especially with the entry of the Cargo RORO LCTs and even the well-established overnight shipping companies are cringing at the onslaught of that new paradigm as these offer rates as low as half of the rates they used to charge. Trucks are the biggest source of revenue across Camotes Sea not the sedans or AUVs, at least in rolling cargo. There are no buses in these routes.

Can Starlite Ferries compete against them? In trucks the rolling rate is the decision point. In Mindoro, Starlite Ferries has proven they are good in locking in buses as they have in their bag the biggest bus company to Panay, the Dimple Star. But there are no buses here. I wonder how Starlite Ferries will win the trucks which now make a beeline to the Cargo RORO LCTs for they are the cheapest in the route by a big margin. These can afford to do that since they have no investment in passenger comfort and amenities and they can sail slow with their less powered engines and the longer transit times are understood part of the low charge.

Compete in passengers? Somehow being new is a plus in the decision of the passengers – as long as the departure times are proximate. I wonder if Starlite Ferries will sail at night because if they will do that then they have to provide bunks and not only that but several classes of accommodations are well. The competition even has Suite Class. Meals and a dining area are also expected. The burned Wonderful Stars of Roble Shipping was the benchmark in that.

I wonder if the superior speed of the new Starlite can come into play. In the Cebu-Leyte route if the voyage is at night a superior speed might mean nothing at all because that will only result in an ungodly arrival which does not mean anything to most passengers. If Starlite leaves at 11pm like the competition what is the advantage of a 3am arrival over a 4am arrival? One thing sure if Starlite Ferries come into Ormoc with only benches or seats they will already be losing a lot of passengers. Unless it is a jetseater type of seat in an airconditioned accommodation that is priced low.

If it is a day trip the superior speed might factor in a bit. They can depart as late as 1pm and arrive at 5pm which is still acceptable and passengers will have the option of having lunch at shore that is not very early. Or leave at 8am and still arrive at noon. However, at sheer speediness they can’t make much out of it since those who want it real fast will opt for the fastcrafts of Oceanjet, SuperCat or Weesam Express. Or even the plane being sold now by Cebu Pacific.

The Starlite Ferries are also carrying a lot of amortization weight in every ship whereas their competitors do not have such burden. Some even have their ships debt-free and some are carrying the low interest and easy terms of the ships from China and that is common in the Cargo RORO LCTs. A rough guesstimate is about P3 million per month of principal and interest payments for each new Starlite Ferries. That could be some P100,000 a day. And that is above any operational cost, depreciation, mandatory fees and insurance charges.

Cebu-Ormoc will be the first real test of the new Starlite Ferries. They will be starting from scratch and will not have the advantages and favors of having operating for long in Mindoro where they have already locked-in customers. If in Mindoro they only have a handful of competition but in Cebu-Leyte since all parallel routes are actually competing then they are arrayed at dozen plus competitors which have ships of all kinds.

Their main opponent might not be even in Ormoc as it might be the better ships of Palompon, a parallel route where Cokaliong Shipping and Medallion Transport have ferries better than what can be found in Ormoc and are even cheaper. The tough opposition can also be found in the many nondescript ports in Leyte being used by the Cargo RORO LCTs like the GGC Port and the IDHI port along with the the Hindang Port used by Goldenbridge Shipping. A report to me said there is even a new unidentified port 27 kilometers south of Ormoc being used by the Cargo RORO LCTs. And of course Bato, Hilongos and Pingag, Isabel have more than a fair amount of rolling cargoes and passengers. Cebu-Ormoc is also a bread and butter route of the High Speed Crafts which are known to adjust fares to boost ridership.

I am really interested to watch how this will play out. They might see a dogfight soon.

Photo Credits:

Jefferson Provido [Starlite Pioneer]

Ralph Russell Abesamis [Starlite Eagle and Starlite Saturn]

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