The Ship That Might Have Eluded the Grasp of TASLI But Helped Medallion Transport Move in Rank

In this decade, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) has been buying the discards of the other shipping companies. They acquired the Trans-Asia 5 from Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) which was the former Butuan Bay 1. From Gothong Southern Shipping Lines they acquired in a package deal the Trans-Asia 8 and the Trans-Asia 9 which were the former Dona Rita Sr. and Dona Conchita Sr., respectively. And from Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp. (PSACC), they acquired the Trans-Asia 10 which was the former Princess of the Earth.

In those acquisitions, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines batted only two out of four as the Trans-Asia 5 and the Trans-Asia 9 did not perform according to expectations. After publicized episodes of her single engine conking out, MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the maritime regulatory agency, more than gently suggested something radical be done about the Trans-Asia 5 (actually it was the threat of the cancellation of her Certificate of Public Conveyance). Now she is just a RORO Cargo ship albeit a successful one and her superstructure has already been modified and the passenger accommodations had already been taken out.

Trans-Asia 9 now has episodes of late arrivals and word of it has began to seep out. Even as Dona Conchita Sr., it was already known that her engines were no longer than strong and that was even admitted by her Captain then. For the two ships it is a big sayang as Trans-Asia Shipping Lines really poured money into the two vessels so that they will be good overnight ships (the Trans-Asia 5‘s interiors were superb). However, it was the old engines that failed them.

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Photo by James Gabriel Verallo

These gambles of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines backfired on them. After forgetting what brought them to the top before which was buying good ships from abroad, both cruisers and ROROs, it seems they have lost their leadership of the Visayas-Mindanao routes to Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) which made it a habit to buy ships from abroad every two years. Now their fleet looks modern by local standards while TASLI’s increasingly looks old.

There is actually nothing wrong with buying cast-offs of other shipping companies. It actually depends on the ship one is buying. The Trans-Asia 8 was predicted to be good for them as this ship had a good record in Gothong Southern and it is not yet that old. The Princess of the Earth was also a reliable ship (except recently) for PSACC although she is also getting on in years now.

There was actually a good cast-off that eluded the grasp of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. This was the Love-1 of Moreta Shipping Lines of Manila. When I first saw her docked in Ouano for refitting, I thought she was destined for TASLI. Her length, her size and her speed all screamed she was perfect for the routes of TASLI. This ship was not too old and in Moreta Shipping Lines she was not used heavily because she came when the routes of Moreta was already winding down because of the assault of the intermodal system. Late in her career in Moreta, she was sailing just once a week.

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Photo by Edison Sy

The Love-1 was the former Ferry Okiji in Japan of the Oki Kisen. She measures 93.1 meters (88.3 meters in LBP) by 15.3 meters by 6.0 meters. The length is perfect for TASLI although the breadth is maybe less than what they might desire but then that breadth is better than the 15.0 meters of Trans-Asia 2 and that ship has just an LOA of 88.0 meters. So that means Love-1 is a little bigger than Trans-Asia 2, a ship that TASLI loves.

The design speed of Love-1, the maximum speed that can be sustained when new was 18.5 knots while the design speed of Trans-Asia 2 was only 16 knots. Love-1‘s Daihatsu engines are bigger than the Daihatsu engines of Trans-Asia 2. It is 8,400hp vs 6,000hp. Trans-Asia 2‘s passenger capacity is 655 while the passenger capacity of Love-1 was 790.

Actually, Love-1, though originating from Manila was not a true multi-day liner. She was actually an overnight ship as the length of the voyages of her routes takes less than a day (an overnight run plus a few more hours which was similar to the former WG&A ferries that did the Dumaguit and Roxas City routes). In accommodations, though TASLI is known for top class she is not that far behind. In Ouano, it seemed most of the work done in Love-1 so she will fit the needs of buyer Medallion Transport was the construction of wing passenger ramps which is de rigeaur for Cebu ships and the closing of the side ramps.

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Photo by homepage2.nifty

The Ferry Okiji was built by Kanda Shipbuilding Company in Kure, Japan in 1979 (the same year Trans-Asia 10 was built). In Japan she had 2,584gt which rose to 3,184gt here because of the additional metal for the Economy class. Her net tonnage is 964 which looks to be understated. Since she was doing the Okinawa route in Japan which is in the open sea, her sides are high. Her permanent ID is IMO 7927099.

This ferry was sold to Moreta Lines in 2004, a few months after the Roxas-Caticlan route that connected Mindoro and Panay islands was opened. She mainly did the Dumaguit and Roxas City route for Moreta Shipping Lines although she was also used for the San Jose, Occidental Mindoro route of the company. In the middle of the 2000’s, WG&A along with Negros Navigation was already vacating Dumaguit and Roxas City routes due to the onslaught of the intermodal trucks and buses.

Moreta Shipping Lines still tried though but even before the end of the last decade it was obvious the ship from Manila won’t last against the buses and the trucks which were multiplying in the route year after year. Love-1 found herself increasingly not being used and at times she was just tied up in North Harbor along with the other ships of the company which were Nikki and Conchita.

Soon, Moreta Shipping Lines offered for sale her three ferries to just concentrate on container shipping. In 2011, Conchita went to Besta Shipping Lines and became the Baleno 168. In 2013, in a package deal, Love-1 and Nikki went to Medallion Transport which was a surprise since before this all the Medallion Shipping had were ships the size of basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs which they try to fit on overnight routes. The only bigger ship they had was the double-ended RORO Lady of Miraculous Medal which is 46.0 meters in length.

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Lady of Love in Cebu for conversion to Lady of Love (Photo by James Gabriel Verallo)

The Love-1 became the Lady of Love. I had a laugh when I heard the name from her guard in Ouano. At first I am not sure if he was pulling my leg. But the name became true and she became a Medallion Transport ferry doing the Cebu-Palompon route which was a new route for the company. This route was overlooked by the other shipping companies doing the Cebu-Leyte routes. Few realized it then that it was a good alternative to the Cebu-Ormoc route like the Cebu-Baybay route.

Cokaliong Shipping Lines was the one doing the Cebu-Palompon route after the smaller shipping companies on that route sunk. But they had no ship permanently fielded there and were just using the 7th day of their ships. Lady of Love has an easy entry because she can match the ships of Cokaliong toe-to-toe and she was even better than the lesser ships of CSLI. With rolling rates more competitive than those offered in Cebu-Ormoc route, soon her car deck was full of trucks and other vehicles.

Passengers also began to notice she was superior than the ships of Roble Shipping and Lite Ferries that were doing the Cebu-Ormoc route. Even her passenger fares were competitive. And she is fast. I once saw her docking in Cebu at 1:30 in the morning. I thought those passengers still going to the northern and southern tip of Cebu have the chance to arrive there by breakfast time should they decide to disembark and go to CNBT or CST.

Now the route of Roble Shipping to Naval, Biliran is already kaput. For rolling cargo, the Palompon route to Biliran is a good alternative especially if the rates are cheaper. Besides, Palompon is also a good and nearer entry to the towns of the northwest corner of Leyte island which has lost their ships from Cebu. Palompon is also a good entry to the towns of Isabel and Matag-ob.

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The Lady of Love proved to be an ace for Medallion Transport which now has a roaring route to Palompon. She also elevated Medallion Transport to the first rank of Cebu-Leyte shipping companies from a second-run position. I even wonder now if Roble Shipping or Lite Ferries can claim that they have a ship better or equal than Lady of Love. The Lady of Love became the queen of the Cebu-Leyte ships and ironically she is not even doing the premier Cebu-Ormoc route.

I just wonder why TASLI did not make a bid for Love-1. Was the package for Nikki a deterrent? But that can be sold if they do not want it (it is too small for TASLI maybe except for their Tagbilaran-Cagayan de Oro route).

Now TASLI obviously looks that they lack passenger ships. I just wonder had the two ships instead went to them. Without the two Medallion Transport can’t claim parity with Roble and Lite in the Cebu-Leyte routes. And TASLI would not have been wanting for passenger ships and they might have had a ship to match the Filipinas Cebu of Cokaliong in the Cebu-Iloilo route.

Maybe it was not in the cards that Love-1 would go to TASLI. Maybe what was in the cards is Medallion Transport would reach first rank in the Cebu-Leyte routes through the Lady of Love and Lady of All Nations (the name of the Nikki in their fleet).

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The Lady of Love certainly helped Medallion Transport establish itself. But then good things certainly does not last and last year engine problems disabled the ferry and she was laid up for half a year and the Lady of All Nations had to carry the load for two routes, the Palompon and the Bato routes. That was certainly a heavy load for an old ferry which was also laid up for half a year after her own share of engine troubles.

The PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) was told the Lady of Love was waiting for parts from Japan. Well, if re-manufacturing of parts are needed the waiting time is certainly months long. I was told only Japan and Singapore do this kind of job with the former supposedly having better quality. So, for the last few months, the Lady of Love was laid up in Ouano north of the E. Ouano House. She was monitored to do sea trials where she did 15 knots until she “hibernated” again.

Then suddenly a news exploded! The Lady of Love will be doing a Cebu-Surigao route and enter Mindanao and that was just a few days ago. That route was the base of the weakest ferries of Cokaliong Shipping Lines as they have a monopoly of this route after their competitor Cebu Ferries quit the Vismin routes to go elsewhere supposedly for greener pastures.

But not to be outdone and become the butt of jokes, Cokaliong suddenly diverted a good ferry of theirs, the Filipinas Cebu which was formerly doing a Cebu-Iloilo route to run head-on with the Lady of Love (therefore the match happened in another route). So the languid Cebu-Surigao route suddenly had a marquee match-up. The Lady of Love is thought to be the flagship of Medallion Transport, she being their best ship. Meanwhile, many also think the Filipinas Cebu is the flagship of Cokaliong Shipping given her name and route assignment.

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In terms of speed like what was shown in their first night match-up, the Lady of Love will have a slight edge having a higher design speed although she is the older ship. In amenities, the Lady of Love will probably not cede anything being formerly a Manila ship and the best ship of Moreta Shipping. A member of PSSS, James Verallo said in terms of restaurant and food, the Lady of Love has the edge. In passenger service and cleanliness, Cokaliong Shipping is known for that and I wonder if the Lady of Love will be a match.

All in all, the two ferries might be able to slug it out toe-to-toe and so the decisive thing that another member of PSSS Badz Bado weighed in might be the fares. I myself might add the cargo rates can also be decisive. Medallion Transport has the record that when it entered Palompon she suddenly offered the cheapest rolling rates and it was Cokaliong which she challenged there. So this new match of them is like a rubber match. It seems Medallion Transport does not fear challenging Cokaliong in its home route.

I commend Medallion Transport for having the guts to enter the Vismin route, stirring the pot and making it lively again after years of stagnation because of the tailspin of Cebu Ferries and the obvious lack of gusto shown by Trans-Asia Shipping in the last few years. I also criticize two Cebu shipping companies that were ahead of Medallion Transport but which pussyfooted a lot. The two are Roble Shipping and Lite Shipping.

Long ago, the former has a franchise to Nasipit but didn’t serve it. Lately, they had a ship named after Oroquieta in Misamis Occidental, the Oroquieta Stars but they were just using it in a Leyte route. So until now that company has no route to Mindanao when to think the gates to the Vismin route had long been left open by Cebu Ferries.

Meanwhile, Lite Shipping has been able to open two Vismin routes. One of this is their route to Plaridel in Misamis Occidental which seemed to form part of the reason of the demise of Palacio Lines. But in the over-all scheme of Mindanao, Plaridel is just a minor route. It only becomes greater because it also connects to Siquijor and Bohol and becomes the connection of the migrants of the two provinces to Mindanao.

More than a year ago, Lite Shipping used their old Lite Ferry 8 to open a route to Cagayan de Oro. I applaud them for their efforts to extend the life of that old ferry which they even re-engined but for that route that ship is outgunned and maybe that was the reason they have to offer half off the fares. For the size of Lite Shipping which is in a race to match the number of ferries of Montenegro Shipping Lines, they should already be able to afford a ferry worth the premier route to Mindanao from Cebu.

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Photo by John Carlos Cabanillas

I just hope that with this move of Medallion Transport those two mentioned companies will feel challenged. It is certainly time for them to enter new routes and ports. And if they need some “brave pills”, they can maybe ask who is the supplier of that to Montenegro Lines which suddenly entered the dangerous and overcrowded Zamboanga-Jolo route. Well, Roble also tried to enter that route via the Theresian Stars shipping company but then they have a powerful politician of Sulu as partner to that venture.

Who will be the winner then? It will be the riding public and the shippers, of course, as usual.

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And So Medallion Transport Will Challenge Cokaliong in the Surigao Route

I received a second update saying Medallion Transport will enter the Cebu-Surigao route starting tonight. In prior days, only Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) was serving this route which was for long a bread and butter route for them after Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) and Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) abandoned this route.

James Verallo told me it will be the Lady of Love which will be doing the Cebu-Surigao route for Medallion Transport. The Lady of Love is the biggest and best ship of the company and its size at 88 meters is really of the size of the Cebu to Northern Mindanao ships. Besides the size, this overnight ferry has good amenities because she had been a Manila to San Jose, Occidental Mindoro and a Manila to Roxas City ship of Moreta Shipping Lines in the past. She also has the speed because she is still capable of 15 knots cruising speed if fuel economy is not a consideration.

Verano port in Surigao

In entering the Surigao route, I am enthralled by the boldness of Medallion Transport. Its Cebu predecessors in expansion which are Roble Shipping Incorporated and Lite Shipping Corporation or Lite Ferries have been tiptoeing for so long now in trying to reach the Northern Mindanao ports. Lite Ferries was able to reach Plaridel in Misamis Occidental but I don’t consider it a major Mindanao port while Roble Shipping still are not able to reach Oroquieta in Misamis Occidental after all their announcements and the naming of a ship after the place and this is their Oroquieta Stars. Lite Ferries was able to get to Cagayan de Oro with the old Lite Ferry 8 which is a little outgunned by the overnight ferries of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, Inc. (TASLI). Meanwhile, Roble Shipping can’t seem to reach Nasipit although they have a CPC (Certificate of Public Conveyance) or franchise there for many years already.

Now here comes Medallion Transport without tiptoeing (and prior announcement) and even though it seems they lack true overnight ferries. Oh, well, they were able to reach Masbate before and operate in Bicol waters while Lite Ferries and Roble Shipping seem to have difficulty in going out of the confines of the rather tame Camotes Sea. Maybe Medallion Transport have some supply of “braveness pills” which the others don’t have.

Certainly, I welcome the move of Medallion Transport. It is time that the two shipping companies to Northern Mindanao ports (Cokaliong and Trans-Asia) have added competition to keep them on their toes (especially since Cebu Ferries has become the “Batangas Ferries”). I will even welcome if they go as far as Western Mindanao like to Zamboanga. Our country needs boldness from the shipping companies. It is one characteristic I have long found wanting in them since “The Great Merger” (the creation of the late WG&A and Cebu Ferries) bullied them in the late ’90’s and that was two decades ago already. I do not say they are not good but it is time to expand beyond Camotes Sea or in routes that are just in the 60-nautical mile range.

Will Medallion Transport succeed? That remains to be seen but I certainly hope so. However, with this move Palompon will lose a very good ship and James Verallo is certainly unhappy with that. Well, the Lady of Love is the best overnight ship to Leyte and also the biggest and that was a puzzle to me since Palompon is not even in the Top 3 in Leyte ports. Maybe she was really too good for that route.

Lady of Love

I think the former HNSS ferry acquired by Medallion Transport will replace the Lady of Love in the Palompon route. Its size will be more in character with the route. Meanwhile, the Lady of Love might be more fit in a Vismin route. Actually it was not only me which thought that the size and speed of Lady of Love would have been better utilized if Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was able to acquire her but maybe Medallion Transport is really bolder than the said company.

The Lady of Love has not been sailing for several months already waiting for engine parts from Japan. Maybe the parts and repairs have already been done and they are confident that the ship is already capable of the 111-nautical mile route to Surigao which double of her previous route to Palompon (double the route is the equivalent of a back-and-forth sailing to Palompon).

What will be now the implication of her entry to Surigao? Before, Cokaliong Shipping Lines used their weakest ships in the route including their smallest, the Filipinas Dumaguete since they have no competition. Certainly, the company has some very good ships especially their newer ones. Now I don’t know if the Medallion Transport entry will trigger a reshuffle of their ship assignments.

Whatever is the denouement, the Medallion Transport move is an intriguing one. I certainly hope it energizes the Vismin routes. The Lady of Love might have an impact bigger than the entry of Lite Ferry 8 in Cagayan de Oro which needed some discounting to get going.

We better watch out for further developments.

Our Visits to the Other Ports of Samar on December of 2016

The Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) tour group, after assembling in Tacloban first stopped in San Juanico bridge to take photos and enjoy the views and the experience especially of walking part of the bridge. Well, just being there is experience for most of those in the tour group. If it could be considered shipspotting it is maybe because of the seascapes and Tacloban port is also visible but at a great distance. I was wishing a ship will navigate the narrow strait separating Leyte and Samar but I know that is almost impossible with the new uncharted depths of the strait, a result that historical storm surge that came with Typhoon “Yolanda”. Actually, deeper container ships coming to Leyte now take the southern approach round Southern Leyte.

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The group then took a long road ride because the next port Catbalogan was some 100 kilometers away from Tacloban and we did not try to visit the many municipal ports along the way which were not along the main road. These old municipal ports were once the lifelines of the coastal towns of Samar to Tacloban when the road was not yet developed some fifty or so years ago. It would have been nice to visit them but it would take time and we were tight on time as our leg to Allen is some 250 kilometers and we have more important ports to visit along the way. And we were not even able to start early and that was the reason why I didn’t mention to the group the former important port of Basey.

We arrived in Catbalogan past lunchtime and we headed straight to the Catbalogan bus terminal which is located astride the port (in fact it was sitting on borrowed port grounds). From there we walked towards the port and it was a lucky day for us. I have not seen such number of vessels in Catbalogan since I first visited the port many, many years ago. We were doubly lucky that the motor bancas to the island-towns off Catbalogan in Samar Sea have still not left. Plus there were the usual cargo ships and an aggregates carrier LCT, the LCT Poseidon 10. I wondered if that number of ships meant progress for Catbalogan. I would really like to know. The only dampener in our visit was the knowledge that recently Roble Shipping has dropped their Cebu-Catbalogan route and it has already sold to Jolo their ship serving that route.

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Catbalogan Port

Since our lunch took time I knew we can’t spend much time on the next ports or even visit some that are near the road like Victoria port. In Calbayog, our next port, we obviated all walking shipspotting and instead opted for shippotting by car the length of the quay road parallel the Calbayog River wharf and fish landing area. There were still many fishing bancas the time we arrived but most of the passenger-cargo motor bancas to the island-towns towns in Samar were already gone as the last of those leave just after lunchtime. We also did not enter Calbayog port and instead just viewed it from afar as we were already pressured for time since we did not want nightfall to come while we were still on the road.

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Calbayog Port

From Calbayog we made a short detour to Manguino-o port just a few kilometers north of Calbayog port. This is now the only port with ferry connection to Cebu and we were unlucky that day because the Cokaliong ship was not there when we dropped by. Basically, aside from that ship only fishing vessels use Manguino-o port. However, from Manguino-o the private port of Samar Coco Products just a few miles south was also visible. Funny, but instead of ships our talk leaving the port was about the Samar bulalo because of my good experience with it in Manguino-o (one should try it on a Samar visit).

It was a long run again in the sun threatening to set over roads that I knew once did not exist. Once upon a time, there was no road directly connecting Allen and Calbayog save for a logging road which was not always passable and only passable to the sturdiest of jeeps (or was it a weapon carrier?). But soon the San Isidro Ferry Terminal came into view and I knew Allen is just a short distance away now and so there is still time to shipspot this government port that is the official connection to Matnog. We did but as the sun sets earlier in December and there was precipitation I knew it will be a photofinish to BALWHARTECO as I expected. This part I have already told in another article:

https://psssonline.wordpress.com/2017/01/29/the-developments-in-the-san-bernardino-strait-routes-when-the-psss-visited-in-december-of-2016/

From a sleep-over in Catarman, on the way back, we made a short visit to the Caraingan port which is located in the town now renamed as San Jose. I told the group this town is more known for the claim of Asi Taulava, the basketball player. Though the main inter-island port of Northern Samar and improved by the government, this port never really took off. It was never able to shake off its reputation for thievery and the new enterprises like coco processing now have their own ports. The damage of the 175kph typhoon that visited Northern Samar just a few years ago was still visible in the port. We did not walk the port to save on time, we just let the car do the walking for us.

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Caraingan Port

We next visited Lavezares port which had a long history. It’s significant lies in that it is the connection to the Biri islands offshore which is now being promoted as a tourist place if one wants to escape civilization. Biri and Lavezares have a reputation in history. For the former, it is the rocks and waves that can threaten ships. For the latter it was a launching port of long-range motor bancas that went beyond Biri in the past like Catanduanes and the Bicol eastern and northern shores. To me Lavezares, like Allen, its mother town is a remnant of the old seafaring tradition of the Pintados which can reach Formosa in the past before the Spaniards forbid local boatbuilding so they can press (as in force) our boatbuiders in building their exploitative galleons. Again, we just made a tour by car of Lavezares port.

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Lavezares Port

[The portion where we made an Allen to Matnog crossing and back is already in the article I attached earlier.]

On our way back to Tacloban there was no more chance of shipspotting as night had already set in contrary to my hope that we can cross early to Matnog and then be back in Allen just past lunch (that would then have afforded us another chance at the ports we just made a cursory visit of). But no regrets. It just meant a realignment of targets (for me).

Reaching Tacloban at midnight, I made Joe Cardenas (the car owner and our driver) sleep while looking for our companion Mark Ocul’s ride back to Cebu (James Verallo eventually convinced him to take a Bohol detour to max his shipspotting experience). Meanwhile at the back of my mind I had a 3:30am cut-off from Tacloban for I will then convince Joe to make a dash to be able to board the 8am ferry in Benit which will afford us enough time to look for and visit the many unexplored ports of Surigao on the way to his friend in Claver, Surigao del Sur without hitting dusk. When we parted, little did our two companions suspect me and Joe were still embarking on a long trip. With 850 kilometers now under his belt who would then suspect Joe is still up for another thousand kilometers of continuous driving?

[However, that portion will be the subject of another article and I will henceforth jump to when we were able to get back to Tacloban to make another run back to Allen.]

From a Tacloban sleep-over after Surigao, me and Joe crossed again the San Juanico bridge but there was no more walking of the bridge this time for we were dead serious in finding the unexplored ports of Samar (or at least those where our daytime will be able to cover). We were elated by our success in Surigao in using maps based on GPS in finding the obscure ports without much turning around (why, it was even more accurate than the locals). Instead of turning left to Sta. Rita, Samar we turned right after the bridge on the way to Basey, the old connection of Samar to Leyte when San Juanico bridge was not yet existing. I was excited what it will show us.

The drive to Basey took longer that I expected. I had a premonition of things we will see because we passed by the cemetery of Basey and it was big and it had Chinese names on it. I have an inkling it was not a small town in the past and there was probably a Chinese quarters which equates to trade.

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Basey Port

We found Basey town alright and it was not the normal small town that I see in Samar. It was obvious it had a great past and the main street was densely packed, proof it had trade before. We found the port road and near it was the remnants of a Chinese quarters. There were concrete structures in the pier but obviously it was already a long-forgotten pier. Only passenger-cargo motor bancas were just using it. These were still active as it affords a shortcut and cheaper ride compared to the jeep (which seemed not to be thriving). I saw students going to Tacloban. It was a proof of links.

From Basey port, the port of Tacloban can be made out along with the San Juanico bridge. I mused – the bridge killed Basey and its progress. Like what I see when new roads bypassed towns. The sea was shallow. I was thinking what if the bridge had been built via Basey? What would have been the result?

We did not stay long in Basey. On the way back, me and Joe kept peering in our GPS map about that abutment which indicates another port which we disregarded on the way to Basey because the road signs contraindicated it. We then came to the junction leading to it and Joe decided we should check even though the road was not so inviting (well, that is one advantage of an SUV over a sedan). Not long after we saw a parish church. It was just before the port. A parish church in a barrio always indicated something more than an ordinary barrio. We learned that we are in San, Antonio, a barrio of Basey. So Basey has two ports not one!

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San Antonio Port

San Antonio port is much closer to Tacloban than Basey port. It seems they are just separated by a wide river and I can almost make out some of the buildings in Tacloban. San Antonio port, though smaller, is busier with more passenger-cargo motor bancas going to Tacloban. It was there that I learned the many motor bancas docked near the market of Tacloban were actually going to San Antonio. The ones docked there were the same motor bancas I saw in Tacloban two hours earlier when me and Joe made short tours of the Tacloban ports. It seems San Antonio is more connected to Tacloban than to its own town of Basey. Again I wondered what if San Juanico bridge was built not on its present site but on a site in San Antonio?

Me and Joe bypassed the Sta. Rita port which was still near Tacloban so as to save time. As always the 250-kilometers stretch of Tacloban to Allen is a challenge to shipspotters to cover before nightfall sets in. I thought maybe one has really to start early like in first daylight if one wants to visit more ports. In the same regard we also bypassed the port of Pinabacdao although there is a clear road sign indicating it. Anyway we wondered if that port and similar ports are already ‘ports to nowhere’ since vans and buses are already their connection to Tacloban.

Joe and me also bypassed the ports of Catbalogan and Calbayog. We reasoned we had been there before and we were more interested in the old port of Victoria and others near there. We just contented our eyes watching the seascape, the occasional ship offshore and with the passenger-cargo motor bancas in the navigable rivers of Samar that connects to the inland municipalities. We also had a dash of adrenaline against a Toyota Grandia (but it was not ship spotting).

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Manguino-0 Port

However, me and Joe made a short detour to Manguino-o port because our first one there was “empty”. The Filipinas Dapitan of Cokaliong Shipping Lines was there. We were able to enter briefly but the guards this time were not accommodating. Maybe the field of Psychology should do a research of how the completion of gates and fences affect the mentality of the guards. It seems with those completed it is now their duty to “protect their fortress”. Manguino-o was hospitable before.

We also bypassed another port with a link to an island-municipality although it is not far from the highway. Alas, me and Joe’s tour was full of ‘bypasses’ that I thought maybe Tacloban, Basey and nearby ports can be covered by tour in one day and maybe one just have to stop for the day in Catbalogan or Calbayog and the next day cover the ports of Northern Samar. There is really no way to cover all the ports in the Tacloban-Allen axis in one day. One will “waste” 100 kilometers from Tacloban to Catbalogan in land travel and next “waste” some 65 kilometers from Manguino-o to San Isidro. And to think the distance of Catbalogan to Calbayog is another 60 “empty” kilometers (as in there are no ports along the way).

The only worthwhile port Joe and me was able to visit after leaving Western Samar was the old port of Victoria which once upon a time had a connection to Manila. We did not use the GPS this time as Joe knows the junction. Like what I expected its poblacion was more packed than a town of its size and the remnants of an old trading quarter was still visible. We reached the port and it is located inside a river mouth where the waters are clear and beautiful spans of Victoria bridge was visible (actually the river might be named Bangon River). There were just a few bancas using the disused concrete port now and most were fishing bancas. There was a wharf for passenger-cargo motor bancas a hundred meters downstream and it was more busy.

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The ports of Victoria

The road to Victoria town and port is just by the bridge of Victoria. It seems Victoria was born around the river that traverses its entire narrow territory and with a wide navigable river it seems that river also serves as an artery. With such a lay-out, Victoria is also a ship shelter during storms. With the sun preparing to set, the slight rains and the silhouttes it produces we left Victoria with me feeling sad. There was no way to be upbeat about what we just saw which was a faded town left by its ship.

I wanted to find the other ship shelter in Victoria town which was Buenos Aires. Joe vetoed it and so we continued north. With the rains sometimes pelting us, explorations become limited. We did not go inside San Isidro Ferry Terminal any more and i just took some shots from the outside. We also bypassed Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping and and just took shots from outside of Dapdap port. Time just flew and when me and Joe entered BALWHARTECO port the light remaining or the lack of it was just about the same when the big group of PSSS first reached it. Me and Joe tarried a little more making a long goodbye with some small talk. I will be staying in BALWHARTECO lodge while he will still be proceeding to Catarman.

I had a pleasant stay in the lodge and it was a great platform for viewing the activities in the port. I spent the next two day exploring BALWHARTECO and the ships there and making interviews. I also looked for my old opponents there, the collectors of the illegal exactions but they were gone. I thought it was not me they feared but the American in our big group who was Tim Alentiev. Well, with his demeanor, attire and shades he might have looked like a CIA operative. Seriously!

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Star Ferry II

In BALWHARTECO I was able to visit the Star Ferry II twice. I was not that much interested in the other ships because I have already boarded them. I became more interested in Star Ferry II when PSSS was able to establish it was now the oldest passenger RORO sailing that is not an LCT (built in 1961!) and there were rumors she might be headed for scrapping (once when she was not running I saw her precisely moored in Victoria port). I wanted simply to know more about her and her current condition.

My second visit came because I was looking for Roger Chape, one of the oldest mariners in Bicol waters who started his career in motor boats (lancha). He happened to be the Chief Engineer of Star Ferry II but I did not know him the first time I boarded the ferry. We had a good talk although the ship was bucking heavily in the night swells and wind (it that was Cebu the praning Coast Guard there would have suspended voyages already). From him I got a better understanding of the state of the ship, a little of its history and how it is managed.

It was really so hard shipspotting in my two days in Allen. The rains were heavy and it simply would not relent. If not for an old umbrella given to me I would have scarcely been able to get around. And there was not even an LPA (Low Pressure Area) but just the usual heavy amihan weather of the area (amihan winds there could even be stronger than LPA winds).

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A ship in San Bernardino Strait amihan

My last chance of shipspotting in Allen was when I left for Matnog. It was long before they sold tickets because dockings can’t be done because of the strong swells and high tide (have one heard of that in Cebu?) I mean it was hours of wait. Then we were able to board but the Coast Guard won’t give clearance to sail because of the weather. It was just a temporary halt and not full suspension. We passengers were worried of a full suspension of voyages and we will become statistics for the evening news on TV (i.e. stranded in the port). While waiting I turned it into an opportunity for shipspotting. But then again the rain messes up the visibility and quality of shots.

I immensely enjoyed my Samar shipspotting despite of the rains which made it difficult to move around. It was a continuation of my summer of 2014 shipspotting with Jun Marquez (summer shipspotting that had plenty of rain too). It was nice and good by any means. I actually love Samar.

The Developments in the San Bernardino Strait Routes When the PSSS Visited in December of 2016

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Photo of Jubasan port by James Gabriel Verallo

I was able to visit the area twice, actually, the first one with the official PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) tour-meet and the second one in my private tour with Joe Cardenas, the PSSS member from Catarman (so he was a native of the area). I stayed longer the second time because I wanted to do some interviews in the ports of Allen and in the ships there (which I was able to do).

My first visit to the San Bernardino Strait area happened with the big group of the PSSS (the Philippine Ship Spotters Society). Joe Cardenas provided the car, a very good one and James Verallo provided the gas money. We were eight in the group including an American guest of Chimmy Ramos. He was Tim Alentiev, a retired B747 pilot from Seattle. Others in the group were Raymond Lapus from Los Banos, Nowell Alcancia from Manila. Mark Ocul from Ozamis and yours truly.

On the first day on the way to Allen, the first port of Northern Samar we visited was the San Isidro Ferry Terminal. It was already getting late in the afternoon when we reached the port as we came all the way from Tacloban and have visited already the ports of Catbalogan, Calbayog and Manguino-o. We were not able to start early because me and Mark’s ship from Cebu, the Oroquieta Stars of Roble Shipping departed four hours late because of the company’s Christmas party.

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The FastCat M9

Though late, it was just perfect as the FastCat M9 of Archipelago Ferries has just docked and was beginning to disembark passengers and vehicles. This catamaran RORO is the only regular user of the government-owned port and without it it would have been an empty visit save for the lone regular beer carrier which happened to be also docked and unloading that day. For some in the group it was a first experience to see short-distance ferry-ROROs in action.

We did not stay long and we hied off fast to the next port which was the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping. This port is a new development of the company and was built against the opposition of the Mayor then of Allen, Northern Samar which happened to be the owner of BALWHARTECO, the old dominant port in the area. It is a modern port, very clean and orderly, spacious and with lots of eateries that is more decent than the usual carinderia. There is not that mell of vendors and the hubbub one usually associates with ports that are not ISPS (International System of Port Security).

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From Jubasan, we passed by the Dapdap port of Philharbor. We did not enter the port any more and just viewed it from outside as we knew there were no more operations there as related company Archipelago Ferries was using San Isidro Ferry Terminal instead of their own port and the Montenegro Lines vessels transferred to BALWHARTECO when Sta. Clara Shipping and sister company Penafrancia Shipping left it for their own port.

We next visited BALWHARTECO port when dusk was setting in. We did not tour the port any longer as we decided it will be more worthwhile the next day when there is light. In the original plan, we should have stayed for the night in the lodge of BALWHARTECO (and do some night shipspotting for those still interested) but Chimmy suggested that it might be better to stay in Catarman where there might be better accommodations and food. The group agreed as anyway Joe and Nowell are headed for Catarman as the latter has an early morning flight back to Manila.

The bonus of the Catarman sleep-over was we were able to see Catarman, the town, and see off Nowell to the airport. Maybe except for me and Joe, nobody in the group has been to Catarman before and visiting it was an added treat. On the way back there a bonus shipspotting too because we made short tours of Caraingan and Lavezares ports. The first is the main inter-island port of Northern Samar and the second is the gateway to the destination being slowly discovered which is Biri, an archipelago offshore Northern Samar.

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Star Ferry II

Because of these extra tours and the need to secure first in Catarman a good bus ride for the members heading back to Manila, we were not able to cross early to Matnog. Even our tour of BALWHARTECO was peremptory and it was mainly just part of the effort to cross to Matnog. Still, it was enough as a ferry not yet leaving is a very good vantage point for shipspotting and the Reina Olimpia of Montenegro Lines proved to be that. The encounters with other ships in San Bernardino Strait added to the shipspotting prize.

We were not able to cross ahead of the bus and so the Manila-bound members have to board the bus immediately in Matnog. That in itself already shortened the Luzon part of the tour. When the bus rolled off, a member shouted to me (seems it was James) that the ramp of the Don Benito Ambrosio II of Penafrancia Shipping was already being raised. I looked at the bridge and I saw Capt. Sacayan, a friend of PSSS and I don’t know what reflex pushed me that I blurted out, “Capt, pasakay” and Capt. Sacayan immediately ordered the lowering of the ramp to the surprise of his deck hands. The Sta. Clara “Angels” (the three beautiful ladies in charge of arranging the passages of company-account trucks and buses) asked if we have a ticket and I pointed to Capt. Sacayan and from lip reading I think Capt. Sacayan said, “Oo, sa akin.”

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The Don Benito Ambrosio II by James Gabriel Verallo

I told my remaining tour mates not to wait for the ramp to land as I don’t think it would lest the ship incur the penalty of another docking and so we hopped on the ramp that was still a foot above the wharf. And from there we went straight to the bridge where Capt. Sacayan warmly welcomed us and turned on the airconditioners to full. We were sailing “Bridge Class” like in the Reina Olimpia on the crossing to Matnog. But the letdown was Mark failed to taste the “Bicol Express”. However, the free ride on the bridge with its unmatched viewpoint more than made up for that.

We disembarked in the new Jubasan port where we took our dinner and whiled some time trying to soak the atmosphere of the port. Funny, but our car was parked in BALWHARTECO, our point of departure earlier where our group had an incident with the LGU collectors of “illegal exactions” as we call it in PSSS for it is actually against Supreme Court decisions and DILG memorandum circulars. I wondered if Joe was worrying then for his car.

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The Nathan Matthew in Jubasan port (by James Gabriel Verallo)

After getting the car in BALWHARTECO we tracked back to Tacloban. It was uneventful as it was already night and it was just me and Joe keeping on the conversation.

I visited again the San Bernardino Strait area after the trip to Surigao del Sur where I accompanied Joe. This time my focus was BALWHARTECO and it is there where me and Joe separated, he headed back to Catarman and me on the way to Bicol but with an Allen stop-over. Night has set in when we parted ways and I stayed in the lodge of BALWHARTECO as I planned to do interviews the next day.

If there was still sunlight on our first visit to Allen, my second one was all rain and it was heavy with winds and so the swells were up, of course. But as Joe noted it was just the usual amihan (northeast monsoon) weather (with regards to this kind of weather, Joe and me are pretty much in agreement and so with typhoons). Good the Coast Guard in the area were not as praning (kneejerkish) as their counterparts in Cebu so they were not as trigger-happy in voyage suspensions. And to think the ferries that time in BALWHARTECO were barely able to hold position while docked even while ropes were already doubled. Some even anchor offshore to avoid damage to their hull.

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The Star Ferry 7 in the rain

In the next morning when the rain was still light I managed to find the oldest living porter of Allen who was in his 80’s and who had been a porter since 1943. He is the father of the caretaker of the lodge and from him I was able to get the history of the private port of Allen owned by the Suan family which owns the present BALWHARTECO. I was also able to get the ships of the past in the area from the time of the motor boats (lancha) including the motor bancas which then connected Allen and Calbayog for then there was no road connecting the two localities.

It was a funny interview as the old man was speaking in Allen Waray which I found I can understand 95% by using my knowledge of the different dialects of Bicol including what was then known as Bicol Gubat and Bicol Costa which are now no longer classified as part of the Bicol language. The Bicolanos and the Pintados share the same seafaring history in the past and maybe this was the reason of the close association of the languages of Bicol, Masbate and Samar including the Balicuatro area of Samar where Allen is located.

From the father and son pair, I was able to get referrals to old mariners in the area and I visited one in his home and the other one in his ship. Both came from Virac and first became crewmen of the Trans-Bicol Shipping Lines, the predecessor of Bicolandia Shipping Lines in operating motor boats (lancha) which connected the Bicol island-provinces and Samar to the Bicol mainland. The latter is actually the Chief Engineer of the Star Ferry II of 168 Shipping and this provided a bonus because we were able to have a discussion about the oldest RORO sailing in Philippine waters that is not a Navy ship and is not an LCT.

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I stayed a day more in BALWHARTECO because peak season caught me suddenly on a Friday afternoon and it was very difficult to get a ride with the sustained strong rains which produced landslides in Victoria town thus throwing the bus schedules into disarray (few were really coming). It was a nice courtesy stay which afforded me more opportunities to shipspot (and also do bus spotting) and to observe in general.

I absorb things fast even on limited time and even without asking too many questions. I just retrieve files in my head and add what I saw new, what changed and other observations. And from that I have a new mental picture of the port and area I visited. A two-day stay in Allen is a boon for observation and absorption of the movements and patterns in the area.

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After two nights, I tried to wangle a trip to Matnog where I planned to take a local bus to Naga. There was no hope in hitching a ride with the buses from the south because of the landslides and anyway all that arrive in Allen were full and it was sellers’ market and even the colorum vans to Manila were having a field day (they were charging fares from Catarman while waiting for passengers in Allen).

It wasn’t easy booking a crossing as the combination of rough swells and high tide plus the strong wind delayed dockings. Even with tickets, we passengers feared cancellation of voyages by the Coast Guard anytime given the wind and seas prevailing. After a long wait onboard, we finally all heaved a sigh of relief when we were given clearance to sail.

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The LCT Poseidon 26 of might have been the first to sail after the lull of sailings from Allen but she takes 2 hours for the 11-nautical mile route since her cruising speed is only 5-6 knots. She is a new ROPAX Cargo LCT and although her accommodations are all-Economy it is good, spacious and the seats are individualized with a row of industrial fans at the sides. Passengers are also allowed to visit the bridge which is a boon. She is sailing for NN+ATS or 2GO under the name SulitFerry.

We landed in Matnog at past mid-afternoon and the port was crawling with passengers and vehicles when normally such hour was already dead hour for the Matnog to Allen sailing. That is what usually results from voyage suspensions even though it is only for a few hours because everything piles up. I did not tarry at the port because I feared that I will be left  by local buses leaving Matnog if I did not hurry up. Being left by the last trip would probably mean staying the night in Matnog. But like Mark, I ended up not being able to tour Matnog port. I tried to make up for this by touring the market and terminal area of Matnog and trying to take shots of the port from there.

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What did I learn new in the San Bernardino Strait routes? Well, maybe the biggest development was the opening of the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping. That meant the break of Sta. Clara Shipping (and its sister company Penafrancia Shipping) and BALWHARTECO, a long partnership that benefited both greatly. Well, maybe some things really have to end but I feared the parting of ways weakened both but only time can tell that.

With the break, BALWHARTECO which was crowded and very busy in the past suddenly had a slack and maybe that is the reason why they invited Montenegro Lines to concentrate all their ships there thereby emptying the Dapdap port of Philharbor. Meanwhile, Jubasan port is just serving Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping. One advantage of that is they have full control and so everything is orderly.

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A Cargo RORO LCT

The second biggest development in the strait crossing might be the emergence of Cargo RORO LCTs that takes on only trucks. One or two of them sail depending on the season plus there is a ROPAX Cargo LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26. These are operated by NN+ATS or 2GO and the LCTs are chartered from Primary Trident Solutions. The ferry is being billed as SulitFerry. Though brand-new and nice, it is cheaper than the rest. The drawback is its cruising speed is slow. Their ticketing office hands, however, are nicer than the rest and are better trained. It showed.

With the fielding of the Cargo RORO LCT and the ROPAX Cargo LCT, the long queues of trucks which were legend in the past seemed to have disappeared. These trucks are actually the “non-priority” ones which means they are not priority because they has no prior arrangements with the shipping companies. Trucks were singled out because buses which have passengers and fixed schedules always had the higher priority and so these trucks get shunted out.

The LCTs of NN+ATS definitely took rolling cargo from the other companies. Some seem to overstate it but hard figures will show there are usually ten short-distance ferry-ROROs by Sta. Clara Shipping, Penafrancia Shipping, Montenegro Lines, 168 Shipping, Regina Shipping Lines in the strait plus the catamaran RORO of Archipelago Ferries. Two or three LCTs were added in the route so it was a significant increase but not by much.

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Dapdap port

Another notable development in the strait was the closing of the Dapdap port of Philharbor. It seems it was not able to weather the rearrangements brought about by the opening of Jubasan port. It is ironic that its sister company Archipelago Ferries is instead using the San Isidro Ferry Terminal (but maybe that is what their franchise demanded). Maybe if the Grand Star ROROs were not disposed off it might still be operating. However, the motor bancas to the island off it are still there.

Meanwhile, Matnog Ferry Terminal has added two ramps plus an expansion of the back-up area but one of its ramps is now just for the use of FastCat which need a specific mechanism wherein to attach their catamaran ROROs. With four ramps available (and I doubt if all are usable) plus a docking area without ramp (which is only good if the tide is not low), one would wonder how it can possibly cope with the twelve vessels or so operating in the strait especially in the hours that the buses and trucks are concentrated in Matnog.

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Reina Emperatriz and BALWHARTECO port by James Gabriel Verallo

Me, I always have questions and doubts about the ability of the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) regarding port planning and design. BALWHARTECO and Jubasan ports are clearly better than Matnog Ferry Terminal in its capacity to absorb ships. Imagine there are four ports on Samar side while there is only one in Sorsogon side. Maybe the town of Matnog should just develop their own port so capacity will be increased and they will have revenues at the same time.

San Bernardino Strait is one of the most important crossings in the country as it is the main connection between Luzon and the Visayas on the eastern side. It is used by a lot of buses and trucks plus private vehicles 24/7 and a lot of people move through it. In that way alone it is already fascinating to me.

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The Nathan Matthew and ship spotters of PSSS (by James Gabriel Verallo)