The Matnog Ferry Terminal

The government ports that were built in the 1980’s to connect Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao through the eastern seaboard of the country were not called “ports” but instead were called “ferry terminals”. And so it became Matnog Ferry Terminal, San Isidro Ferry Terminal, Liloan Ferry Terminal and Lipata Ferry Terminal. The four actually had a common design in their port terminal buildings and general lay-outs. The paint schemes are also the same.

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Matnog town had been the connection of Sorsogon and Luzon to Samar even before World War II and it might even been before the Americans came. That situation and importance was simply dictated by location and distance as in Matnog is the closest point of Luzon to Samar. In the old past, that connection to Samar crossing the San Bernardino Strait was done by wooden motor boats or what is called as lancha in the locality.

These lanchas existed until the early 1980’s. Their fate and phase-out was forced by the arrival of the pioneering Cardinal Shipping RORO in 1979, the Cardinal Ferry 1. With the arrival of other ROROs and especially the government-owned and promoted Maharlika I, the fate of the lanchas were slowly sealed until they were completely gone. By this time the new Matnog Ferry Terminal which was a replacement for the old wooden wharf was already completed.

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The Matnog Ferry Terminal is a RORO port with a back-up area for vehicles waiting to be loaded. At the start when there were few vehicles yet crossing and there were only a few ROROs in San Bernardino Strait that back-up area was sufficient. But over time it became insufficient and so additional back-up areas were built twice. Before that the queue of vehicles sometimes went beyond the gate and even up to the Matnog bus terminal/public market. Worst was when there were trip suspensions and vehicles especially trucks snaked through the main streets of of the small town of Matnog.

The Matnog Ferry Terminal is one of the more successful ports of the government. Actually most ports owned by the government do not have enough revenue to pay for the operational expenses like salaries, security, electricity, transportation and communication and for maintenance. The performance and success of Matnog Ferry Terminal is dictated not by the quality of port management but simply by the growth of the intermodal system. From Luzon there is no other way to Eastern Visayas except via Matnog. The intermodal system began to assert itself in the 1980’s until it became the dominant mode of connection to most of the islands in the country.

The Matnog Ferry Terminal has a total of four corresponding ports in Samar, amazingly. These are the BALWHARTECO port, the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the Dapdap port of Philharbor Ferries, all in Allen town and the San Isidro Ferry Terminal. The first three are privately-owned ports. The government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal lost out early to the privately-owned ports because it has the longest distance at 15 nautical miles while BALWHARTECO port is only 11 nautical miles from Matnog. A shipping company using San Isidro Ferry Terminal will simply consume more fuel and it cannot easily pass on the difference to the vehicles and passengers.

The existence of those many ports in Samar showed the increase over the years of the number of ROROs crossing San Bernardino Strait and also the number of vessel arrivals and departures. Currently, on the average, a dozen ferries and Cargo RORO LCTs serve the routes here with the companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation/Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated, 168 Shipping Lines, Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation, SulitFerry and NN+ATS involved. The last two mentioned are operations of the liner company 2GO.

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In Samar, all those ferries can be docked simultaneously thereby showing enough docking capacity. In Matnog Ferry Terminal only about five ferries can be docked simultaneously especially since the two new RORO ramps there seems not to be in use. When they built that it was by means of bulldozing rocks into the sea to build a back-up area and those rocks seem to be dangerous to the ferries and their propellers and rudders which means a possible wrong design or construction.

When the government built a back-up area near the Matnog terminal/market, I assumed a true expansion of Matnog Ferry Terminal there. A causeway-type wharf could have been developed there and the docking ferries could have been separated there so there would be less mix-up of the departing and arriving vehicles. Causeway-type wharves like what was successfully deployed by the BALWHARTECO and Dapdap ports. This type of wharf is very efficient in using limited wharf space and it is very good in handling ROROs and LCTs.

Until now the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) insists on using pile-type wharves which is more costly but less efficient. A pile-type wharf is good if freighters and container ships are using the port but freighters do not dock in Matnog but in nearby Bulan port and there are no container ships hereabouts. If there are container vans passing here it is those that are aboard truck-trailers. But many know that if there are “percentages”, the less efficient pile-type wharves will guarantee more pie than can be “shared” by many. And I am not talking of the pie that comes from bakeshops.

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In a causeway-type of wharf the ferries can dock adjacent each other

Matnog Ferry Terminal by its evolution is actually a little bit different now from its sister ports because its wharf has an extention through a short “bridge” like what was done in Cataingan port although this is less obvious in the case of Matnog. The three other Ferry Terminals have no such extensions which is done if the water is shallow and there is enough money like in Ubay port which has an extension that is long and wide enough to land a private plane already (and yet it handles far less traffic than the Ferry Terminals). Almost always the priorities of government in disbursing funds is questionable at best. The budget used in Ubay port would have been more worthwhile if it was used in the shallow Pilar port which has far more traffic and is of much greater importance.

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With lack of RORO ramps it is normal that ferries in Matnog will dock offshore. It is also usual that a ferry will wait a little for a ferry loading to depart before they can dock especially at peak hours. Again, the docking of ferries askew to the port in high tide where there is no RORO ramp still goes on. Matnog Ferry Terminal and the Philippine Ports Authority is really very poor in planning that one will question what kind of data do they input in planning. I even doubt if the idea of a breakwater ever crossed their minds. Matnog is one place where swells are strong especially both in habagat and amihan (it has that rare distinction) or if there are storm signals (and Bicol is so famous for that) or when there is what is called as “gale” warning by the anachronistic weather agency PAGASA (they issue a “gale warning” even if there is no gale; they could have just issued a “strong swell “ warning because it is actually what they are warning about).

In Bicol, Matnog Ferry Terminal has the most number of vessel departures per day if motor bancas are excluded. Matnog’s vessel departures can reach up to 20 daily in peak season with a corresponding equal number in arrivals. In this regard, Matnog Ferry Terminal is even ahead of the likes of Legazpi, Tabaco and Masbate ports and such it is Number 1 in the whole of Bicol. That will just show how dominant is the intermodal system now. And how strategic is the location of Matnog.

A few years ago there was a change in Matnog Ferry Terminal that I was bothered about. Matnog is one port that has a very strong traffic and traffic is what drives income up. But before her term was up Gloria gave the operation of Matnog Ferry Terminal passenger building to Philharbor Ferries. This was also about the same time she wanted to privatize the regional ports of the country with strong traffics like Davao, Gensan and Zamboanga.

Now what is the point of giving the control of a passenger terminal building of a very strong port to a private entity? That port terminal building is actually a cash machine. Imagine about 2,000-3,000 passengers passing there daily in just one direction. Of course Gloria has some debt to the true owner of Philharbor in terms of executive jet services during her term and for providing escape to Garci. Was the deal a payback?

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No covered passenger walkway in Matnog

After years of private operation I have seen no improvement in Matnog Ferry Terminal. From what I know the construction of the two new back-up areas were funded by government. So what was the transfer of control of the passenger terminal building all about? They cannot even build a covered walkway from the passenger terminal to the ferries when BALWHARTECO port was able to do that (and both have long walks to the ferry). Does it mean that BALWHARTECO port cares more about its passengers?

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BALWHARTECO covered walk for passengers

Matnog Ferry Terminal could have been a greater port if properly managed and it should have been properly managed and programmed because it is one of the critical ports of the country. It is actually the strongest of the four Ferry Terminals and by a wide margin at that. Now, if only they will plow some of the profits of the port back into improvements of the port. Or shell out money like what they did to Ubay and Pulupandan ports which severely lacks traffic until now even after spending three-quarters of a billion pesos each. Again one will wonder what kind of data PPA used. Did the “figures” come from whispers of powerful politicians? And did they twist the moustache of NEDA Director-General Neri?

Quo vadis, Matnog Ferry Terminal? You should have been greater than your current state.

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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)

The Bogo Connection to Masbate

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Photo credits: Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

In the old days, the Cebu connection to Masbate went from Cebu port. And among those that provided that connection were liner companies whose ships pass by Masbate first before heading to Cebu and northern Mindanao and from there their liners will retrace back the route. That is gone now and the last Manila liner that provided such connection was the Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines which stopped sailing in the aftermath of the Princess of the Stars‘ sinking in a typhoon in 2008. However, until a few months ago there were a ROPAX Cargo ship, the Super Shuttle RORO 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation that was running a route from Batangas to Cebu (Mandaue actually) and Cagayan de Oro via Masbate.

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Photo Credit: Wakanatsu

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Trans-Asia Shipping Lines also had an overnight ferry route from Cebu to Masbate since almost 40 years ago. That is gone now too, a victim of the decline of their fleet and now it is only Cokaliong Shipping Lines that has a Cebu-Masbate passenger service but it only runs once a week. Also long gone was the Palacio Lines’ route from Cebu to Placer, Masbate. But still around is the Lapu-lapu Shipping Lines’ route from Cebu to Cataingan, Masbate which is usually run by their Lapu-lapu Ferry 1, a cruiser ship.

In the past, wooden motor boats also did routes from various ports in Masbate to northern Cebu using the ports of Hagnaya, Maya and Polambato. The three are in San Remigio, Daanbantayan and Bogo towns, respectively. However, from the 1980’s, MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency, consistently pressured the wooden motor boats (the lancha) to retire citing them as “obsolete” and “unsafe”. Some had their franchises revoked and that practically ended the lives of the shipping companies owning them (many operate wooden motor boats because they can’t afford to buy steel-hulled ferries).

MARINA was so successful in that campaign that no motor boats still do a Cebu-Masbate route. What remained were the big passenger-cargo motor bancas which run until now (maybe these are “modern” and “safer” than the phased-out motor boats?). These motor bancas originate from Cawayan, Placer, Esperanza and Pio V. Corpus towns in Masbate. The eastern portion of Masbate island, by the way, is actually Cebuano-speaking and their economic tether is to Cebu. Their motor boats connect their people and their goods to Cebu. Some of their scions actually study in Cebu, too, and work there later on.

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Polambato port (Photo credit: James Gabriel Verallo)

This was the state of things when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pushed her Central Nautical Highway which pushed for ROROs. Since the nearest Maya port was in disrepair and there are issues of depth, the port of Polambato was designated as the connecting RORO port to Masbate. That was a two-birds-in-one-stone move as Polambato was already the connecting port to nothern Leyte via the Palompon port (it still is until now). So only one RORO port had two be developed for two routes. Neat but a route from Polambato is longer than a route from Maya port.

On the side of Masbate, two ports were offered as connection, the port of Cawayan on the southern side of Masbate island and the port of Cataingan on the southeastern end on the island in the protected Cataingan Bay. Cataingan port is the logical choice since it is actually the best port in eastern Masbate as it is considered the district port and it lies in a protected bay. In the past, it was a home of motor boats going to Cebu. It also has a shorter road distance to Masbate City, the main economic center of Masbate province and the take-off port of Masbate to the Bicol mainland. There was also an attempt for a two-birds-in-one-stone move there as Cataingan was also declared to be the Masbate port that will connect to Naval, Biliran and Leyte island.

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Cawayan port (Photo credit: Noel de Mesa)

Cawayan port, meanwhile, is a bit more distant from Masbate City and when the RORO route was opened its roads were in a worse state compared to the Cataingan-Masbate road which was at least asphalted though beginning to crack (now, however the roads of the two towns to Masbate are already improved). And in the Cataingan-Masbate road there are more towns and hence more commerce, more sources of produce and of course, passengers. But how come they still built the Cawayan RORO port? Well, maybe there was politics (I don’t know just where) and Gloria was actually too fond then of duplicate ports. It brings more income to you-know-where. So it was actually a one-bird-with-two-stones maneuver.

I also just wonder about the fate of Placer port on the southern side of Masbate island. In the past, Placer was the connecting port of the southern side of Masbate island to Cebu City. It is even closer to Bogo than Cawayan (or even Cataingan) and the RORO will be less broadsided by the habagat and amihan waves in that route. They said there is an issue with the port with regards to depth but it was never clear to me (again was there politics?). Whatever, Cawayan won out over Placer and that was that. One’s fate and progress can really just be decided in an instant in Manila and NEDA, the validator of projects is actually just a stamp pad.

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Cataingan port

Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) pioneered the Polambato (Bogo) to Cataingan route. Among its early clients were its own ROROBus intermodal buses doing a Manila-Cebu route via Masbate. Meanwhile, it was the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) that pioneered the Polambato (Bogo) to Cawayan route with their Super Shuttle Ferry 19, a double-ended ferry. Montenegro Lines used a rotation of ferries in the Bogo-Cataingan route while Super Shuttle Ferry 19 is sometimes not in the route and none is running at times as AMTC lacked ships as the years went by because they lose ships (as in hull losses) and also because of ship unreliability.

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The ferry next bigger to the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO in Polambato (Photo credit: John Carlos Cabanillas)

Both routes are still running now and Montenegro Lines even tried a twice a day sailing but settled with a once a day sailing with a ship next bigger in size to the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the starting ship of both routes (or a modernized LCT at times). Lately, however, Asian Marine Transport Corporation sold out both its ships and its route to Cawayan and Super Shuttle Ferry 19 became the Cawayan Ferry 1 of the new company D. Olmilla Shipping Corporation. The Bogo-Cawayan route, as a note, still has no intermodal bus and it is the weaker of the two. I heavily doubt if it can overtake Cataingan.

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Cawayan Ferry 1 (Photo credit: James Gabriel Verallo)

Even with these two routes running, the motor bancas of Masbate still sail regularly to Bogo and Maya. These motor bancas sometimes carry hogs (in a deck below the passenger deck) and that is a commodity not acceptable to MSLI or AMTC unless it is loaded in trucks and even then it will only be loaded with reluctance (as their passengers might complain of the smell in the 6-hour voyage). And besides, the passengers and the cargo of the motor bancas enjoy a point-to-point direct sailing with no land transfer (the ROROs doesn’t go to Placer or Esperanza). It might even stop offshore near a remote barrio and the passenger and cargo will be transferred to his own motor banca. Bookings can also be done informally (and even by cellphone). A passenger from Placer can be picked up by the Cawayan boat at sea if they receive a validated text message and if there is no motor banca from Placer.

Though affected by the development of the Bogo-Cataingan route, the Cataingan-Cebu ship of Lapu-lapu Shipping is still running. Its service of loading frozen fish in styrofoam boxes without using trucks can’t still be equaled by the Cataingan-Bogo RORO as a truck would be needed from Bogo. They send it out by Lapu-lapu Ferry 1 and it will just be picked up by the customer in Cebu Pier 3 and the empty boxes will be loaded by the customer in the return trip. Sometimes, the advantage of a RORO is overstated by the government which is always pushing it. How can shipping 2 or 3 styrofoam boxes be sulit using a truck or a Multicab?

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Lapu-lapu Ferry 1 in Cataingan port

The route from Cebu via Masbate to Manila is not cheaper compared to the Cebu to Manila route via Leyte and Samar although looks shorter on the map. That was found out by a Swiss member of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member who did both routes in the same month. The RORO rates via Masbate is high because there is lack of competition and maybe the sea crossing is longer if the Bogo-Palompon route is taken as the comparison. Meanwhile the rates via Leyte and Samar are cheaper and sometimes there are discounting plus there is the cheap Cargo RORO LCTs. However, the land route through it is some 225 kilometers longer compared to a Pilar, Sorsogon route and 265 kilometers via a Pio Duran, Masbate that both uses Masbate.

Whatever, the Bogo routes will definitely stick. That is what was shown by the last decade. Well, unless it is supersed by the Maya port which is under construction now. It might not necessarily be cheap but there are people and goods that has Masbate as a destination (and newbies who will think it is cheaper through there since it looks nearer on the map). And there are those who will still prefer the shorter route and just save on time. And also save on wear on the vehicles and the driver. And arrive earlier and for truck owners save on wages and have their trucks be available for an extra day.

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Maya port (Photo credit: bUs sPoTTeRs

If only their rates are more competitive then maybe the Bogo connection will be flying now.

A Look at George & Peter Lines

George & Peter Lines started in 1964 practically as an offspring and derivative of William Lines Inc. The company came into being because the offsprings of William Chiongbian, founder of William Lines was coming into age and soon will be taking over the company helms that was once occupied by the siblings of William. To make the exit soft, another shipping line was created and that became the George & Peter Lines. It was named after two siblings of William Chiongbian.

The company started with ferries that were ex-”FS” and ex-”F” ships. Nothing terrible and shameful in that as most regional companies had those types as the backbones of their fleets. And to think most regionals were even using wooden motor boats or lancha in the Visayan term. Some others were of US minesweeper or PT boat origin.

George & Peter Lines "Clover" ad

In due time, from the late 1970’s, George & Peter Lines dominated the route going southwest of Cebu. That was the route going to Siquijor, Dumaguete, Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte (like Liloy), Zamboanga City, Misamis Occidental and Lanao del Norte. That was the time when cruisers were still dominant and ROROs were just beginning to come. George & Peter Lines had some great cruiser ships like the Geopeter, Jhufel and the still-existing Georich. Aside from those three they had former “FS” and former “F” ships which were vintage World War II ships then in the twilight of their careers. Among those were Don Joaquin, Dona Rosario and the Don Victoriano I.

The peak of George & Peter Lines probably occurred during the 1980’s. They were even active in advertising and in promoting their ships and routes. During this time the seas where she was sailing, the conjunction of Zamboanga, Negros, Siquijor and Lanao was already being vacated by the ships from Manila because their once-ubiquitous and many ex-”FS” and lengthened ex-”FS” ships were already beginning to die. Also, the old paradigm of small liners from Manila calling on many ports before heading back was also on the wane because since the 1970’s fast cruisers calling in less ports was already the new paradigm. Passengers want to arrive to their destination in one day or just a little more, not the two or three days of the past even though they are fed well. So liners calling on Masbate or Calbayog or Catbalogan before heading to Cebu and northern Mindanao were beginning to fall out of favor with the passengers. And so sometimes it is the likes of George & Peter Lines which acted as feeder lines to the fast cruisers.

George & Peter Lines schedules

But then that decade also saw the rise of a new paradigm, the new RORO (Roll On, Roll Off) ships. George & Peter Lines was not really late in adopting the new shipping paradigm. They were just not as fast to it as Trans Asia Shipping Lines, Sweet Lines and K&T Shipping Lines but they were just at the same time to it with the likes of Cokaliong Shipping Lines, E.B. Aznar Shipping and Danilo Shipping Lines. They were even ahead to it compared to Roble Shipping, Palacio Lines, Island Shipping , Roly Shipping and VG Shipping. Some never even reached the RORO stage like the Rose Shipping/V.Atilano, Gabisan Shipping Lines and Lapu-lapu Shipping. I purposely left out in the comparison the shipping companies which were founded later or which were too small to be in the comparison.

And that is the reason I was wondering why in an interview with the Liner Shipping Route Study (LSRS) done by Nathan & Associates in 1993-1994 aS commissioned by the USAID they expressed apprehension and disapproval of the liberalization program on shipping being pushed by then President Fidel V. Ramos which resulted in the opening of the shipping routes. The one that entered their primary route, the Dumaguete and Dapitan route in 1993 was just a small ship, the Filipinas Dumaguete . Cokaliong Shipping Lines, its owner and operator was no bigger than them and were not really ahead of them in conversion to ROROs. In fact, Filipinas Dumaguete was just the first RORO ship of Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. and G & P’s Dumaguete Ferry which was acquired in 1990 was even ahead of that though a little smaller. Was it the fear that Mr. Chester Cokaliong was close to President Ramos? But they still had a big brother then in William Lines. Or was it the accidents that befell Geopeter and Jhufel that resulted in hull losses and which shrank their fleet along with the retirement of the war-surplus vessels that later forcing them to withdraw Georich from the Cebu-Maasin-Surigao route that were haunting them?

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In 1993, George & Peter Lines acquired the relatively big Zamboanga Ferry and this practically became their flagship and meant to hold the Zamboanga route. However, I would say this was not enough to offset the loss of Geopeter to fire and Jhufel to foundering and the subsequent loss too of Dumaguete Ferry to fire too and Pulauan Ferry to sinking. These consecutive losses of ferries to accidents was a great blow to a medium-sized ferry company especially since about that time they also began losing the very old ex-”FS” and ex-”F” ships to old age. They even sold their aging Dona Magna, a small locally-built ferry to Island Shipping Corp.

With the loss of Pulauan Ferry to sinking just south of Mactan island, the George & Peter Lines fleet shrunk to only 2 ferries, the Zamboanga Ferry and the elderly Georich plus a cargo ship, the GP Tramper. To stem the retreat, they acquired the Sta. Maria, a former liner of Negros Navigation that was just being used in the Bacolod-Iloilo route and being overwhelmed by the Bacolod-Dumangas ferries. In their fleet this became the GP Ferry and the biggest ever of George & Peter Lines. But after just two years of service, they also sold this also. Maybe the 4,800 horsepower of the ship was too big for their route, cargo and patronage.

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A few years after that selling they made an advanced arrangement in 2010 with Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) regarding the coming retirement of the ferry Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, a Cebu-Iligan ferry of the ATS subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation. Upon retirement, the ferry went direct to George & Peter Lines with nary a modification and the ship became the GP Ferry 2 thereby bringing the George & Peter Lines fleet to 3. It is this 3 that still shouldering on for GP for its diminished route system. They have already left many port in their old route system and all they have now are the ports of Dumaguete, Dapitan and Zamboanga with their main route the Cebu-Dumaguete-Dapitan route. But even here they are pressured by the newer ships of Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. which might have even toned down the pressure by reassigning an older ship , the Filipinas Iloilo to the main route of George & Peter Lines.

How long does it last? George & Peter Lines won’t easily quit their last two remaining routes. But their ferries are in advancing ages now. If they don’t acquire ferries anymore, time will come when they will simply have to give up and fade away.

An album on George & Peter Lines:

Georich

Press to open the album.

The Danica Joy 2

The Danica Joy 2 is unique among local ferries because it is the only one with a foreign route, that is, to the port of Sandakan in Sabah, Malaysia. No other ferry has that distinction. Glan port in Sarangani province might have a connection to Indonesia but it is Indonesian ferries which sail the route. However, soon maybe with the establishment of the Kudat-Bataraza route linking Sabah and Palawan Danica Joy 2 might lose that distinction as a local ferry is slated to do that route. Malaysian ferries are not interested to do a route to the Philippines because the near islands to them are underdeveloped and it is us who needs products as their goods are much cheaper than ours except for “sin” products which is illegal in their land like alcoholic drinks and we have plenty of that. Besides, we are also very well known for piracy and kidnapping, or at least the Abu Sayyaf is.

The Danica Joy 2 is not really a big ship. She is actually much smaller than the Lady Mary Joy which pioneered the route to Sabah at least in the legal realm. What I mean is from Zamboanga, Jolo, Bongao and other islands there are wooden cargo-passenger motor boats called Moro boats in PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) and junko or lancha in the place which makes run to Sabah. Most of these are unregistered and in all cases they have no ferry franchises from MARINA, the local maritime authority. But it is known by all that they run otherwise how could we have such an big “illegal” population in Sabah and how could be there so many “barter” goods in southwest Mindanao that reach even Cebu and Davao. Many of our islands near Sabah are almost completely dependent on fuel from that Malaysian territory and that dependence even extends to cooking oil, rice, cigarettes and many other grocery products and it is these junko or lanchas that carry them.

Danica Joy 2 also carries back “barter” goods but in limited amounts per passenger otherwise it will already be considered as “smuggling”. Just what constitutes the “legal” amount, well, there is no hard and fast rule in the area but if you ask the Customs and especially the Department of Finance all those should be levied import duties (well, it is their duty to suck as much amount from the citizenry). But Danica Joy 2 is the more “legal” means to buy from Sabah compared to the junko or lancha which suffers seizures of goods now and then (of course the authorities would show “they are doing their job”). I don’t know exactly why but the Sandakan fare of Danica Joy 2 is almost triple compared to Bongao when the difference in distance between them from Zamboanga is not great. Maybe some of the fare is for “protection” and not only from authorities but also from the pirates.

Danica Joy 2 is more like an overnight ship but with her Zamboanga-Jolo-Sandakan route she functions like a multi-day liner. However, her capacity to feed her passengers is limited if compared to the true Manila liners. In southwestern Philippines that is the weakness of the ferries and even their dining areas is limited. That is why passengers bring their own food and the role of food vendors inside the pier becomes important. However, in Zamboanga because it is an ISPS (International System of Port Security) port, the vendors are often harassed and their goods thrown to the sea. They know the faces of the vendors, they can even require IDs but it seems they would rather follow foreign impositions than understand the welfare of the passengers and the vendors (as if they have no social value). These vendors are actually the cheaper offerer of food and drinks to the passengers. Every passenger knows passenger needs are much more expensive aboard the ship.

People in the Visayas will probably understand more the limited size of Danica Joy 2 if I say that she is the sister ship of the Asia Philippines of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Incorporated (TASLI). However, they have different builders but just the same they really resemble each other. Danica Joy 2 was built by Nakamura Shipbuilding & Engine Works in Yanai yard in Japan as the Orange Hope of the shipping company Shikoku Ferry in Japan in 1982 and she carried the ID IMO 8135253. She is only 62.7 meters in length over-all, 12.0 meters in breadth and 4.5 meters in depth. Her original gross register tonnage was 974 tons. She is actually smaller than almost all of the overnight ferries of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. and Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. For more comparison let it be said that she only matches the Filipinas Dapitan and Filipinas Dinagat in size.dj2-port

After 16 years of sailing in Japan, Orange Hope came to the Philippines when she was acquired by the Aleson Shipping Lines of Zamboanga in 1998. This was amid the great expansion not only of the company but also by competitors in Zamboanga which left some bankrupt later. She was refitted in Varadero de Recodo, the favorite shipyard of Aleson Shipping Lines. In refitting, additional scantling were built and she became a two-passenger-deck ferry and she became an overnight ship featuring an all-bunks accommodation. Her original route was Zamboanga-Jolo which is an overnight route.

With refitting, her gross tonnage only increased minimally from 974 to 998 which is below that of her sister ship Asia Philippines and her net tonnage was declared to be 491. Danica Joy 2 is a medium speed ferry capable of 16 knots when new. This comes from a pair of Daihatsu marine engines with a total of 4,000 horsepower. Now she often sails at 13 knots only. However, there was a time, a few years ago, when Danica Joy 2 was unreliable and sometimes tugs have to be sent out to her rescue. She was then known for announcing her arrival with thick smoke on the horizon (people on the docks can identify her on the horizon with that). But the more aggressive Aleson Shipping scions opened their checkbooks, major repairs were done to the engines and she is now a reliable ship once more with less smoke.

The Danica Joy 2 accommodates 636 passengers in 3 classes – Cabin, Tourist and Economy. The cabins are built locally indicating she was not used for long distances in Japan and the doors were in fact too plain-looking. The Tourist class and the Economy class are the usual Economy that can be found in other overnight ferries with the Economy at the stern also and in two decks which is normal pattern. In Economy there is no bunk number associated with the ticket purchased. Since it does not get full or overfull it is more of a “first come, choose first basis”. The early birds choose the breezier portions, of course.

This ferry has no stern passenger ramps nor of flying passenger ramps on the sides. What it has are side ramps that fold to the side, Zamboanga-style. But it is well-organized since from that ramp one will find a catwalk on the side above the car deck. If a passenger is bound for the Economy section he or she then turns to the stern. If the passenger is bound for Tourist or Cabin he or she heads to the bow. From the catwalk there are stairs to the decks above. For the upper classes upon entering one sees the front desk or information counter (that is rare in a Zamboanga ship). The Tourist section is on the lower passenger deck and the Cabin is on the upper passenger deck.

What is another unusual lay-out for Danica Joy 2 is right after the information counter comes the ship’s restaurant and besides that is the store (it is not a kiosk). Actually it is a clever lay-out because Economy passengers can access those without going through the Tourist section. The ship’s restaurant is a combination of modern and old. Aside from curvaceous plastic chairs there are also the old iron, holed chairs which is an Aleson Shipping trademark. Meals are not part of the ticket and what is served are very basic and instant meals. In Zamboanga, in multi-day ships passengers are advised to bring their own food or seek food from the vendors in the intermediate ports or outside.dj2-rest

I have been to the bridge of this ship. It is a decent bridge with the lay-out and instrumentation of the medium-size ferries of her era and nothing fancy. Behind the bridge, as usual are the cabins of the top deck and engine officers of the ships and on the stern of the uppermost deck is another restaurant, the mess hall for the crew. It is pretty decent and it is called the “McBobords” complete with the arches of McDonald’s.dj2-bridge

The car/cargo deck of this ship is interesting to watch. Unlike all other Zamboanga ships the load is mainly containers as in XEUs (ten-foot container vans) and it is moved by forklifts carried aboard by the ship. The use of container vans is for the security of the merchandise and not for ease of loading and unloading. And maybe to also hide the (barter) goods from prying eyes, greedy hands and smoochers in uniform. Probably the transaction of “grease” is also per container basis and bahala na kung ano ang nasa loob (no more pricing of what’s inside the containers). Everybody knows the cargo from Sandakan is primarily “barter” goods. Semi-finished furniture of good wood is also one of the “imports” from Sabah.dj2-car-deck

Danica Joy 2 became a Sandakan ship only when Lady Mary Joy 2, a much better and bigger ship was sold to the breakers because it was not making making money and it was too big for the overnight Zamboanga routes. But the original route of that starts from Cebu. It failed because Aleson Shipping Lines didn’t realize Visayans are too fearful of Zamboanga and didn’t know the economic possibilities of Sandakan or Sabah. That was the time when the Ramos administration was pitching the BIMP-EAGA integration which simply failed to get off the ground. Besides, the local producers’ lobbies are simply too strong and opposing (well, even now). And our consumers are simply too clueless to realize the potential benefits for them in lower prices and more choices.

Once a week, on her off-Sandakan route, Danica Joy 2 will also sail the Zamboanga-Jolo route, her original route.

Danica Joy 2 will still sail a long time because she is needed in the route. Trade realities might change (as in Zamboanga barter weakened because Manila importers are now permitted to import direct from Singapore) because there are simply too many Muslim Filipinos in Sabah and they need a transport to Zamboanga for that.

For me the social function is the more important function of Danica Joy 2, not the trade function.

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The Hijos-1

The motor launch Hijos-1 is one of the country’s smallest steel-hulled ferries, if not the outright smallest (the Anrans of Golden Star Manning and Management is smaller but it might not be steel-hulled). The comparison does not include what the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) call as Moro boats which are concentrated in Zamboanga (anyway, the bulk of them are bigger than Hijos-1). Generally, the batels (wooden motor boats) of Luzon and Visayas (also called lancha here) which were once called as “motor boats”, officially, are also bigger than Hijos-1, in the main. That is how small Hijos-1 of Hijos de Juan Corrales, the shipping company owning and operating the passenger motor launch.

Hijos-1 was built in Mambajao, Camiguin by local shipbuilders. The hull design was very simple – it was an outright motor launch design but only bigger than what can be found in most US marinas. There is only a single passenger deck with benches in an open-air Economy class. The pilot house is above the passenger deck and it has a little extension to accommodate additional passengers. The roof of the passenger deck can also be used for stowing things including life rafts. There is a single mast and two funnels. The passenger accommodation is also used for loose cargo.

The external measurements of Hijos-1 are only 19.5 meters registered length. At that length the big motor bancas are longer than her by 10 meters! Her breadth is 4.5 meters which is narrower than the batels and Moro boats. The ship’s depth is 2.8 meters and I would say this is a little deep for her size. Her dimensional weights are 47 in gross tonnage and 35 in net tonnage. She has a passenger capacity of just 90 persons which is even less than the big motor bancas.

The Hijos-1 is also one of our oldest ferries around being built way back in 1966 so that means she is on her golden anniversary. Good she is steel-hulled because if she was wooden-hulled MARINA would have long ago pressured her out of passenger service for being “unsafe”. Well, unless it hit a rock a wooden motor boat or batel/lancha hulls do not leak and I don’t see how a steel-hulled motor launch which has practically the same hull design as our motor boats is any safer.

Like when the steel-hulled Pilar II floundered when hit by heavy swells between Linapacan and Busuanga islands. Of minesweeper origin, her steel hull did not save her from the heavy seas she encountered. Just like motor boats flounder there later also.

But Hijos-1 is lucky all these years as her Balingoan-Benoni route might be short but that narrow strait between the Mindanao mainland and Camiguin island also produces heavy swells that hit the sea crafts there broadside (a member of PSSS hit by that can attest to it). Or maybe there is also good seamanship and familiarity with the seas in her route which is a definite plus for survivability. Whatever, she has a good reputation for being stable if rough seas visit her route.

Hijos-1 is not a RORO and rolling cargo is the great source of revenue these days (or even way back). But she continues to survive financially. I have been told the reason – with only a few crew and a thrifty 440-horsepower Yanmar engine (is this still correct? someone said it is a Cummins but officially in MARINA that’s that) that keeps her above water (and may I add, loyal passengers maybe who are willing to make do with an old sea craft but which perhaps they have grown to love).

Well maybe at even hall-full that will already mean P5000 plus in revenue including from a little of  loose cargo. For sure she will not consume P3000 worth of diesel fuel and motor oil on the route. I think her break-even point might just be a third of the passenger load. The Yanmar engine doesn’t need to push a lot of weight also. There is also a tale that she can carry a small vehicle. I will not be surprised. In some far-off areas they shoehorn that even today in wooden motor boats or on a pair of motor bancas.

The hull of a vessel is easy to maintain (unlike what most landlubbers think otherwise). All it needs is re-plating when it gets thin. Unless there is major damage from having a romance with rocks (true rocks) when beams buckle. Old sea crafts of still-good hulls surrender if their engine finally quit for good. But Yanmar engines are very long-lasting, spare parts are easy to secure and so I hope her engine is still trusty. Well, at the worst there are surplus 420hp truck engines in the market. It might be demeaning but truck engines work in motor boats, big motor bancas and even the Metro Ferry boats in Cebu (though steel-hulled too I did not compare them to Hijos-1 in size because their hull looks more like that of motor bancas to me without the outriggers).

Such a cute little craft. I hope she continues to sail on past her 50 years.

Photo Credit: Janjan Salas

A Slew of Hand-Me-Down Cruiser Ferries and Then a Grand Overnight RORO Ferry (The Start of Roble Shipping Inc.)

Jose Roble, the founder of Roble Shipping Incorporated originally was from Danao City. That city is the bastion of the Durano clan and and made to what it is by Ramon M. Durano Sr., one the Grand Old Men of Cebu politics. This was after he was lured by Philippine Presidents to move up north so political tension in Cebu will be de-escalated. They did it with industrial incentives, the reason why Ramon M. Durano Sr. was able to establish factories, plants and processing facilities and even a stake in shipping.

The late Durano patriarch was good in building up people and that included people who made good elsewhere. That included the former Senator Alejandro Almendras (who first made good as Davao Governor), the former Davao Governor Vicente Duterte, father of the recently-elected President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte and Jose Roble. Jose Roble was first into cargo handling or arrastre (Roble Arrastre Inc.) until he ventured into shipping under the company Roble Shipping Incorporated.

Roble Shipping is into cargo but what is more known by the public is their passenger operation. They started in 1985 with the cargo vessel Marao, a ship built in 1965. They converted the ship so it can also take in a few passenger and sailed it from Cebu to Hilongos. The year 1985 was the tailend of the Marcos dictatorship and it was a period of great political and economic crisis. It was actually a propitious time to start, but simply, as the shipping lines then of all kinds were under heavy stress and some were collapsing outright and some were also tottering.

For the next twelve years Roble Shipping made passenger ship acquisitions that were very simple and very conservative (but they also bought a few cargo ships). Always, the mark of their acquisitions in this period were the ships they bought were hand-me-downs, old and about ready for the breakers. Early on, tt just seemed to me that they were just one step ahead of Ting Guan, the biggest and legendary scrap metal dealer in Cebu which also buys ships as scrap (the good thing about Ting Guan is they just buy ships that have no more place to go unlike the China and South Asian breakers).

Those were wise moves. If the acquisition failed it can just be sold for scrap with almost no loss compared to the purchase value. Meanwhile, it might even earn and gain recognition for Roble Shipping. That period of the late 1980’s was actually also good for starting in shipping because many shipping companies has already gone under and the former workhorses of our fleet, the ex-”FS” and ex-”F” ships were already in its last breadth and MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency was cracking down heavily on the wooden motor boats (locally called as lancha or batel).

In 1986, Roble Shipping purchased the Don Bonifacio from Carlos A. Gothong Lines. This ship was the former Scorpius of the bankrupt NORCAMCO Lines which had routes to Romblon, Bicol and Northern Samar. Roble Shipping also acquired the former Surigao Transport of the tottering Sea Transport Company. Roble Shipping did the Marao treatment to her and added a small passenger accommodation and renamed her as the May Josephine. She tried the Cebu-Zamboanga route. Roble Shipping also purchased the Waka Maru from Manila Inter Ocean Liners. She became the first Hilongos Diamond. Her name already betrays her route.

All of these ships were built in Japan in the 1950’s, a time when metallurgy was not yet advanced hence engine lives were not that long. The four along with Marao did not serve for any long time for Roble Shipping as they were already beaten up but the company was adept in buying a replacement when a ship of theirs was already in its last gasps. Roble Shipping was good in beating the last life out of a ship and in a sense that was good because in the earlier days one only sends a machinery to the scrap yard when it is already unrepairable. I think the penchant of Roble Shipping in keeping many ships in Mandaue Pier 7 might have started from this – just send in the ships that can sail from a fleet with many old reserves.

In the years 1988, 1989 and 1990, Roble Shipping bought the overnight cruiser ferries being retired by Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) which by then was already shifting to overnight RORO ferries. These became the Guada Cristy [1], Guada Cristy [2] and Queen Belinda in their fleet. These ships lasted longer than their earlier ships as they were not really that beaten up. However, Guada Cristy [1] was caught by the strongest typhoon to visit Cebu City in 1990, the Typhoon “Ruping” and was wrecked. Later the Queen Belinda also took the name of Hilongos Diamond. For a time these ferries from Trans-Asia Shipping Lines formed the backbone of Roble Shipping.

Later, in the mid-1990’s Roble Shipping Incorporated acquired the cruiser ferries being retired by Cokaliong Shipping Lines Incorporated (CSLI) in favor of RORO ferries. This is the second time Roble Shipping became the recipient of cruiser ferries being retired. Cruiser ferries have nowhere else to go at that time with the possible exception of Zamboanga so such moves by Roble Shipping extended their lives. These ships became the Leyte Diamond and Cebu Diamond in their fleet and being not beaten up served Roble Shipping well.

In the late 1990’s, Roble Shipping also acquired the Ormoc Star and this ship became very associated with the company. At this decade Roble Shipping was undoubtedly the cruiser ferry specialist of Central Visayas. However, in the midst of all these cruiser ferry purchases, one grand ferry, a RORO big and good enough to be a liner came into the fleet of Roble Shipping Incorporated. This was their first RORO ship and she was called the Southern Queen. She arrived for the company in 1997.

The Southern Queen was no ordinary overnight ferry. From her size, her origin as a Kansai Kisen ship with a classification as cruiseferry and her appointments she can match the best of the overnight ferries in the premier Visayas-Mindanao route, the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route. She was so good I was even wondering what was she doing in the Roble fleet, no offense meant. I thought she was to be used in the Cebu-Nasipit route, for which Roble Shipping Incorporated is a holder of a Certificate of Public Convenience (CPC) which is otherwise known as a franchise.

The Southern Queen was first known as the Maya Maru in Japan. She was ordered by Kansai Kisen KK from Hashihama Zosen and she was delivered in June 1971. She was built in the Hashihama yard and she measured 89.3 meters by 14.6 meters with a gross register tonnage (GRT) of 3,228 and a deadweight tonnage (DWT) of 508 tons. Maya Maru was a steel-hulled ship with a raked stem and a retrouvaille stern which looks like a transom stern slanted forward. She had a forward mast and a center funnel that was also the stern mast. The ship also had a false funnel at the center which was also an observation and functions deck. The original passenger capacity of Maya Maru was 1,000 passengers in three passenger decks.

The ship had a stern ramp for vehicles and a car deck. Her superstructure encompassed the whole ship so there is no side passageways. Almost the entire passenger area of the ship was airconditioned. She was equipped with two Pielstick engines built by Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Company which is more popularly known then as IHI. This pair of engines produced a total of 8,400 horsepower and that was shafted to two screws. This gave the ship a top speed of 21 knots originally.

In 1979, Maya Maru was transferred to Sogo Lease KK and she became a cruiseferry with no change of name. She was paired with three other cruiseferries. One was the Sunflower 1, a sister ship of Mabuhay 1 and Princess of New Unity and two other cruiseferries which became known here as the St. Francis of Assisi and Our Lady of Lipa (now, those three is regal company). In 1997, the ship was transferred to Roble Shipping Incorporated where she became the Southern Queen. Under this company the interior was renovated so that she will become an overnight ferry. Bunks were fitted along with a big cabin for the Tourist Class. Since the ship originally had a nearly fully-enclosed superstructure there was not much space where to build an open-air Economy Class except to modify the top deck somehow. The original cabins of the ship were more or less retained as Cabin and Suite Class. The wide functions areas and restaurants of the ship were practically removed but a front desk and a lounge was retained.

In refitting her, although no part of the superstructure was removed, the gross tonnage of the ship went down to 1,598 nominal tons which was an impossibility. Again the MARINA “magic meter” was at work. Her declared net tonnage or NT was 978 nominal tons and the deadweight tonnage (DWT) went down to 478. Her route was Cebu-Ormoc and she was the biggest, most beautiful, most luxurious ship and speediest in that route. Her deployment was a big factor in the establishment of Roble Shipping as a force in Visayas shipping. No longer was she a simple receptor of hand-me-downs. In fact from this time on, they no longer bought a ferry from other companies except when the Cagayan Princess and Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines were offered to them under exceptional circumstances and price. And the two was laid up for long in Mandaue Pier 7 as the wont of Roble Shipping before and even now.

In 2002, Southern Queen was renamed as the Heaven Star. Southern Queen/Heaven Star sailed for Roble Shipping for about a decade until her engines became balky and unreliable. With that development she began spending more time moored in their wharf in Mandaue. Initially, Ormoc Star substituted for her but when the Wonderful Stars arrived in 2007 and took her route I smelled the beginning of her end. She might have been fast but speed is really not a big asset in the Cebu to western Leyte routes which average less than 60 nautical miles in distance. Wonderful Stars might not have been as big as her but she has more than enough passenger and cargo capacity and speed good enough for dawn arrivals. However, with an engine horsepower of exactly half of Heaven Star, she is more of a winner. Heaven Star‘s engines actually has a reputation for being thirsty.

After a few years of not sailing Heaven Star was slowly broken up in Roble wharf in Pier 7 in Mandaue starting in 2010. The process took until 2011 when only her hulk remained. We heard the sale of her steel was used to fund the rehabilitation of the two ferries from Sulpicio Lines which became the Theresian Stars and Joyful Stars in their fleet.

Heaven Star might have been completely gone now but her donee Theresian Stars and Joyful Stars are still sailing for Roble Shipping. Now Roble Shipping is one of the Visayan overnight ferry majors.

Really, it doesn’t matter where or how one started, as they say.

[Image Credit: Hans Jason]                                                                                                                             [Database Support: Mervin Go Soon/Jun Marquez/Mike Baylon]