My Shipspotting Trips in Camarines Sur

I only had two shipspotting trips in Camarines Sur covering two ports. Overall, there are not that much shipspotting opportunities in Camarines Sur compared to the Albay or Sorsogon as the province is basically not an entrepot to big islands like the island-provinces of Catanduanes and Masbate. The only significant island offshore it has is the Burias island and half of this elongated island is not connected to Camarines Sur but to Pio Duran, Albay

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Pasacao National Port

I first went to Pasacao on the southwest of Naga along the province’s southern coast. Pasacao is the main port of entry by sea in Camarines Sur and also the connection to the western half of Burias island. There are four ports in this small municipality — the municipal port, the national port, the port of the old Bicol Oil Mill which has another name now (but people still refer to its old name anyway) and the tanker jetty of Shell Philippines.

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Pasacao Municipal Port

The first two ports are near and parallel to each other. The Bicol Oil Mill port is visible from the two government-owned ports but is located some two kilometers away. No need to go there because if there is a ship docked there it will be visible from the main ports anyway. The Shell jetty is not visible from that and I don’t go there anymore as most times no tankers will be docked there and going there will mean hiring a tricycle which is few in Pasacao.

I was lucky when I visited the Pasacao national port. It was the first time I saw that port full in all my visits there. And there was even no fishing vessels crowding the port (some of the fishing boats are in Pasacao municipal port instead). It was amihan (northeast monsoon) and so it is the peak of the fishing season in the southern seas of Bicol.

I was surprised a Medallion Transport ship was docked there, the Lady of Faith, an old reliable of the company. First time I saw a Medallion ship in Pasacao. Well, this shipping company has many freighters now and maybe that should not have been a surprise to me. After all they are Masbate port regulars.

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Freighters in Pasacao National Port

The Eduardo Juan of Jones Carrier Inc. was also there. I sometimes see this ship in Tayud and Surigao. The company reminds me that once they tried ROROs and they were among the early ones and that they pioneered the Dumaguete-Dapitan route but they did not last. Their ROROs were too small and it was the time of tight competition when Cebu Ferries was ruling the Vismin waves and were sinking smaller shipping companies in their wash.

The biggest ship in Pasacao national port was the Vietnam ship Thai Binh 16. Normally when I see a Vietnam ship its cargo would almost always be rice as we are a rice-deficient country and that includes the Bicol region. But this time the cargo it was unloading was corn. a surprise to me. Is Vietnam exporting corn to us already?

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There was a local ship there, the Princess Damaris of Candano Shipping Lines which is a shipping line from Bicol, in Tabaco. Their owners also own the only big shipyard in Bicol, the Mayon Docks in Tabaco. Princess Damaris was unloading flour in bags to a truck of Partido Marketing Corporation whose owners are major stockholders in Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, the dominant ferry operators in Bicol. Docked beside Princess Damaris because there was no more docking area was the Princess Sapphire.

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There was also an LCT anchored offshore waiting for a berth, the Seamine 9 which was loaded with cement. Also anchored offshore was the Claudia Alexis of Avega Brothers and this was also a surprise to me that they also serve Bicol now. Maybe like Medallion Transport they have so many ships now and their expansion was even faster. Claudia Alexis I usually only noticed in Cebu before.

While shipspotting in the Pasacao national port, the big motor bancas from Burias began arriving. I was there before lunchtime, the time they begin to arrive. Also there in the port were the smaller motor bancas to the coastal barrios of Pasacao and Libmanan. Bancas are a fixture of the southern coast of Bicol because unlike in the northern coast of Bicol there is no southern coastal road except in the road maps (no, they do not exist actually).

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I decided that to save on time and to prevent exhaustion that I should just cover the Pasacao municipal port from the Pasacao national port. Everything is within the range of my lens anyway and it is only motor bancas that are there anyway plus bancas of the subsistence fishermen. There are still other things and places in Bicol that I have to cover. I have not been to my place for a long time.

The next port of Camarines Sur that I covered was the fishport of Camaligan which is just adjacent Naga City and which looks like a suburb of it (actually, Naga has many small towns around it). I was determined to go the the fishport itself and see what it has to offer. This determination is actually an offshoot of a frustration that there is no other worthwhile Camarines Sur port to go to. Cabusao port I know will be a disappointment and I will be crazy if I go to Tandoc port in Siruma. With regards to Guijalo port in Caramoan I was thinking of something different (more on this later).

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The Camaligan fishport is actually some distance away from Naga and not so near like in my imagination. But I was interested in it because it is the principal fishport of Camarines Sur although it is located along the banks of Bicol River and it is still some distance from the sea. Well, this is so because the Bicol River is a navigable river and Naga City which is even beyond Camaligan is reachable by steel-hulled trawlers from San Miguel Bay and beyond (once upon a time there were ferries from Naga to Mercedes, Camarines Norte, the port town besides Daet).

Once this fishport supported a sardines packing plant and it was the first in Bicol. Unfortunately it did not last very long and the cited reason was the lack of fish (well, even the legendary canneries of Zamboanga import fish). I was interested what the fishport still had to offer, the activities it has left and what kind of vessels are present there.

Unlike most government-owned ports, the Camaligan fishport is not under the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority). It is the Philippine Fish Development Authority (PFDA) which owns it. The atmosphere there was relaxed. If fact there seems to be not much activity and there were just a few vehicles.

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There was one basnig there and four trawlers which seems to be Dragon Marus. It is hard to gauge their activity especially as water lilies clog the port (and this indicates lack of activity; well, it was amihan and fishing north of Bicol is not good). There was also a yacht, the Artist Ryuma and two patrol boats of BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources), one of which is on dry land. The bigger patrol boat seems to be ensnared by the water lilies.

There was also the sad sight there of the cruise boat of Camaligan. The town tried to develop their waterfront and offer cruises along the Bicol River, an effort to generate tourism. Sadly it did not take off. The boat seems not be in sailing condition anymore.

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I decided that Camaligan fishport does not have much to offer anymore. If there is fish it seems it is just trucked direct to the market or to Manila. The small quantity of fish in the fishport might have just been trucked by refrigerated trucks. There are no signs of active fish trading unlike what I saw in the Port of Cantilan or Port of Placer when me and Joe visited Surigao.

I did not stay long. No need to. On the way back, I dropped by the Camaligan waterfront and see what’s there, try to gauge the ambience and offerings. I thought it would not sell really. Not much sight or experience to offer and it will be better if a cruise boat is actually based in Naga for easier access and with probably more experiences to offer.

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I thought of a Naga-Guijalo-Codon (San Andres, Catanduanes)-Tabaco-Naga tour, a long and daring one because I will try to complete it in one day. The impetus was the 24/7 trip now of the Naga-Caramoan bus. I was planning to leave early so I will reach the buses that will be loaded in San Andres for Tabaco and Manila (and go via Virac if there is still time). I had my doubts of course if I will reach it on time because I will be dependent on the schedule of the Guijalo-Codon motor banca.

But Typhoon “Nina”, the strongest to visit Camarines Sur in more than a decade threw my plans awry. It is hard to bet on a trip like that with all the disruptions and damages caused the typhoon. Plus it was rush season as it was Christmas and rides could be full especially after the suspensions and cancellations. I decided not to push through but reserve it on another time after more research and better preparation.

On a note, when I reached Tabaco port on another shipspotting trip I espied the glitch in this plan. I realized that the better plan is to go the other way, the counterclockwise way which means I should go to Tabaco first. There are dawn trips from Naga to Tabaco like there are dawn trips to Caramoan but the advantage of the counterclockwise way is that there are trips in Caramoan back to Naga even late and that is not so in the Catanduanes to Tabaco crossing.

When I realized this I had run out of time and budget in Bicol and resolved I will just do it next time.

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The Dumaguete-Dapitan RORO Connection – A Connection That Took Too Long in Coming

Dumaguete and Dapitan have been blessed with relatively good ports (by Philippine standards) since decades ago because they have Manila connections. True liners and Manila passenger-cargo ships like the former “FS” ships called on them regularly in the past. But what puzzled me is the short-distance RORO connection between them took too long to materialize. Looking at the map, this is the obvious connection point between Mindanao and Negros (and Cebu by extension through the Negros-Cebu connections) because of the relatively short distance (the second shortest after Leyte-Surigao but that is too far away). Compared to the Sorsogon-Samar, Leyte-Surigao and Batangas-Mindoro short-distance ferry connections, the Dumaguete-Dapitan short-distance RORO connection came many, many years too late.

If there was ever a RORO connection before between the two ports, it was the ROROs of the overnight ferries serving the Cebu-Dumaguete-Dapitan route. However, the peculiarity of the Cebu overnight ferry companies is that they stress break-bulk cargo (like those in sacks and cartons) and loose cargo (those not in containers like pieces of GI sheets or rolls of wire) and not rolling cargo (which means vehicles) or containerized cargo. So these Cebu overnight ferry companies like Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, Cokaliong Shipping Lines or George & Peter Lines, to name a few that called on Dumaguete and Dapitan ports didn’t see the need for short-distance ferry-ROROs loading trucks. Maybe that was the reason they did not acquire that type of ferry. But actually it is that type that was really fit for the Dumaguete-Dapitan route and just shuttling between the two ports like what is the practice now.

The Cebu overnight ferry companies which were established later than the three were the ones which saw the need for short-distance ferry-ROROs. The prime example of that is Lite Ferries which had a passenger-cargo LCT at the start and later acquired ROROs in the 40-meter and 50-meter class for dual short-distance and overnight ferry operations. And maybe that is the reason why Lite Ferries is flying high now because they were able to tap a business and a paradigm overlooked by their overnight ferry competitors. Probably this is the reason too for the fast success of a late entrant, the Medallion Transport which started with basic short-distance ferry-ROROs and doing a lone short-distance route. Later they branched into overnight routes using small ROROs. Now they already have true overnight ferry-ROROs.

In comparison, in the Sorsogon-Samar, Leyte-Surigao and Batangas-Mindoro short-distance ferry connections, the shipping companies there started as short-distance ferry companies. They were then able to specialize in this kind of service and type of market which means they carry vehicles almost exclusively including the intermodal buses. Their passengers are mostly passengers of the buses loaded on them. The intermodal trucks they load especially the wing van trucks are long-distance carriers and those eventually developed into the competitors of container shipping with the support of this short-distance ferry-ROROs which became the “bridges” between the islands.

If these short-distance ferry companies have a near-contemporary that tried in that Dumaguete-Dapitan route it was the obscure shipping company Jones Carrier Inc. But that company did not last long as it had too many diverse routes, its ships were too small and old and maybe they were undercapitalized and not strong enough for the long run needed to establish and hold and a new shipping connection. And most likely the presence of the three overnight ferry companies from Cebu also impacted them. On the other hand, I also wonder why the “locals” Maayo Shipping, DIMC Shipping or Tanjuan Shipping which all have routes to or near Dumaguete did not try that route. Or maybe even the nearby Millennium Shipping which just sold its LCTs to Maayo Shipping rather than compete. At the start of a company or route in those earlier times an LCT is enough like what Lite Shipping did in the Argao-Loon route connecting south Cebu and mid-Bohol. But maybe except for the Millennium Shipping of the Floirendos, maybe it is capitalization and lack of vision that was the problem of these Dumaguete ferry companies.

Looking back, maybe it was overnight shipping company Palacio Lines which could have taken advantage of the opportunity offered by the short-distance RORO shipping in this route. They were not unfamiliar with Dumaguete as they had a ship then going to Dumaguete from Tagbilaran and Cebu but it was a cruiser ferry. They were then using their first ROROs on overnight routes much like what the Cebu overnight ferry companies as in concentrating on breakbulk and loose cargo. Maybe if they only looked north and south of them, they might have gotten the idea that short-distance ferry-RORO service is the wave of the future. After all they were a shipping company from Calbayog City in Samar and a little north of that was the Sorsogon-Samar short-distance ferries and down south to them were the Leyte-Surigao short-distance ferries that were both making good. But then they seemed to have been also be too protective of their route to Oroquieta which is not far from Dapitan.

Actually, if one analyzes, it might not only be the overnight ferry companies which might be at fault in the late RORO connection between Dumaguete and Dapitan. For after all, as a general principle, if there is a demand then a supplier responds. But then maybe the shippers were also not aware that there is a better mode than the one they were used to. Actually, the goods from Mindanao sent over that connection eventually find their way to Cebu, the biggest market after Manila. But for too long I noticed the shippers tend to rely on Zamboanga and Ozamis ports. Of course, the bad roads then in the Zamboanga provinces was a hindrance along with the presence of some banditry. So before, Dapitan might have looked too far and unsafe for those from Zamboanga City. And those from Baganian Peninsula, Pagadian and Panguil Bay were too used, too dependent on Ozamis port, their old port of departure (well, with Ozamis, they have a Manila and Dumaguete connection, too).

It took a push from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for the Dumaguete-Dapitan connection to come true and hold. Half of the push needed was actually the cementing of the roads of Zamboanga Peninsula. The roads should have been completed much earlier since AusAid (Australian Agency for International Development) is funding the road construction but that stalled for many years because AusAid only wanted to employ Korean construction companies, for quality reasons. However, the local politicians wanted local contractors (for “percentage” reasons, of course). A compromise was worked out and the roads were finally completed (though the Filipino-built sections were obviously substandard). Moreover, the military took control of the mountain pass near Vitali and security was improved after that. After those, travel at night was already possible and that was key to using Dapitan port especially from Zamboanga City. Soon, Dapitan port no longer look too distant. Passengers, instead of waiting for the ship that was not daily even then were soon taking the bus to Dipolog to connect to Dapitan. The trucks followed suit soon, too.

The shipping companies which pioneered the RORO connection between Dumaguete and Dapitan were actually “foreigners”, which mean they were not natives of the area. The first two in the route were the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC), a Cebu shipping company and Aleson Shipping Lines, a Zamboanga City shipping company. Later, Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) also came and they are a shipping company from Batangas. The common characteristic of the three is they have a good understanding of short-distance ferry shipping, an understanding which was clearly lacking in the earlier Cebu overnight ferry companies. And all three have the type of ROROs needed here, the basic, short-distance ferry RORO which the old Cebu overnight ferry companies simply didn’t have.

Today, all these three shipping companies are still in the Dumaguete-Dapitan route and thriving, adding ships and frequencies. Now, Montenegro Lines and Aleson Shipping have even invaded the Siquijor route using ROROs from Dumaguete and so maximizing their ships and personnel stationed there. Meanwhile, DIMC Shipping, Maayo Shipping and Tanjuan Shipping all seem to have steam and two of them are obviously floundering while another, the Maayo Shipping company was selling off excess ships (the coming of a competitor in their route is the primary reason for that). Palacio Shipping is even gone now as in they are already defunct and their ships have been sold already. Well, talk of a wrong bet, lack of vision and maybe even too much conservatism.

Why would the Dapitan-Dumaguete route hold? Actually, there is plenty of cargo emanating from that portion of Mindanao and going to Central Visayas. After all Cebu is the second biggest market after Manila and it has sea connections to many islands for further distribution of goods. One of the biggest and most valuable produce being sent from way back by Zamboanga Peninsula to Cebu is fish, the frozen and the canned varieties. Most of the frozen fish emanate from the many “pulo”. This is what they call there Basilan, the Pangutaran group, Jolo, the Tawi-tawi group and the many other islands off Zamboanga. The Sangali Fishport, the regional fishport is also located in Zamboanga City and it is there where many basnigs, trawlers and purse seiners fishing in the Moro Gulf unload their catch. Zamboanga City meanwhile is host to seven canneries. Dapitan is now the ports of choice in bringing the frozen fish through fish carrier trucks. However, a ship is still preferred for canned fish as it is heavy. Meanwhile, Spanish sardines in bottles also became a hit produce in the Dipolog area and they use Dapitan port in bringing their goods to the Visayas.

There is also plenty of freshwater and brackish fish from the fishponds of Zamboanga Sibugay especially those located in the marshes of Sibuguey Bay. Meanwhile, fishing vessels catching off Zamboanga del Sur, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao unload in Pagadian and Tukuran ports and fish carriers pick them up these catches. Practically all of them now use Dapitan port to bring the fish destined for Negros island and Cebu province instead of Ozamis port. This portion of Mindanao has finally discovered the superiority of the intermodal truck (including the intermodal fish carriers) which can deliver goods along the way and not be dependent on distributors or wholesalers. That flexibility and ubiquity was also discovered by the company and distributor trucks from Cebu. Instead of just relying on distributors based in Ozamis City like before, their trucks now normally roll to up to Ipil, the capital and trade center of Zamboanga Sibugay and along the way they deliver their products to the markets, stores and groceries. Now, there are even intermodal buses with routes from the Visayas to Zamboanga City. First to roll was the Bacolod-Zamboanga Ceres Lines bus and recently they also have a Cebu-Zamboanga bus service too.

In recent years, it is obvious that the Dapitan-Dumaguete route has impacted the Cebu-Zamboanga and Cebu-Sindangan routes heavily. There is now just one regional passenger ship left sailing the Zamboanga-Cebu route, the Zamboanga Ferry of George & Peter Lines where before Trans Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) and George & Peter Lines put emphasis in that route. There is also one liner of 2GO from Dumaguete and Manila, a liner route that was previously abandoned. Meanwhile, Cokaliong Shipping Lines has already abandoned the Cebu-Sindangan route.

Intermodal trucks rolling long distances to other parts of Mindanao and Negros island also use this connection and some even go as far as Panay island. This is especially true after the liner service to Southern Mindanao was halted by Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). With that halt, the shippers of Southern Mindanao also began rolling their trucks. Private vehicles running to or from Cebu to Mindanao also use this connection since the rolling rate from Cebu to Ozamis, Iligan and Cagayan de Oro is very high (rolling sea rates by kilometer is far, far higher than rolling a vehicle in the highway). And again, rolling cargo is not the specialization or priority of the overnight ferries. For many, this western route is preferred over the eastern route that passes through Leyte and Surigao unless the destination or origin is eastern Mindanao or southern Mindanao.

Unless threatened by the direct Samboan-Dapitan route (or a possible Samboan-Dipolog route), the Dumaguete-Dapitan route will continue to grow.

That we will have to see in the future.