The Passenger-Cruiser Shipping Company That Won’t Sink

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It is really true that nowadays a cruiser ship really can’t compete with a RORO ship. Since cargo is the main source of revenue and loading vehicles is the biggest source of revenue, it cannot be overemphasized that the loose cargo loaded on cruiser ships will seem paltry compared to what can be loaded by a RORO ship. The cargo holds of cruiser ships are actually even smaller than that of the car/cargo decks of RORO ships. Plus, a RORO ship can load and unload faster as they can use forklifts while in cruisers it is still mano-mano. I am talking here mainly of overnight ships.

In Cebu, I noticed there are only three ferry companies still operating an all-cruiser fleet – Lapu-Lapu Shipping Lines, Gabisan Lines (and Gabisan has already acquired ROROs which are not sailing yet as of the time of the writing of this article) and South Pacific Transport Company. In Zamboanga, the ratio of cruiser ships to the whole ferry fleet is better as Zamboanga is still a cruiser ship stronghold if Moro boats are included in the count. In all other places of the country, the cruiser ships are a dying breed. They are just following the wakes of the motor boats (the lanchas and batels) into obsolescence and death.

Outside of Zamboanga, there are no more cruiser ships that arrived in the recent years. In Cebu, the last time one was launched was when the former cruiser ship Honey was remodeled to become the Lapu-lapu Ferry 8. Meanwhile, LCTs just keep on multiplying in Cebu and LCTs whether it is just pure cargo or ROPAX are also ROROs.

The three mentioned cruiser shipping companies in Cebu won’t probably sink anytime soon. They are after all the survivors now and all are resilient. But one, the last-mentioned, the South Pacific Transport is the one that will not sink in any event. The reason? The owner of South Pacific Transport is an established shipyard in Tayud, the Fortune ShipWorks which also owns a cargo shipping company, the Fortune Sea Carrier, Inc.

South Pacific Transport has only two ships, the South Pacific and the Fiji – II and both are small cruiser ships. Fortune ShipWorks, the main company, were the builders of the two. The ships have only one route, the Cebu-Bato (Leyte) route and the two ships alternate to maintain a daily voyage. A few years ago, South Pacific Transport tried a route to Cabalian (Southern Leyte) but it did not last long. The van and bus extensions to Cabalian and beyond of the competing ferries to Hilongos can no longer be beaten.

South Pacific was the first one to be built, in 1975. This ferry measures 38.5 meters by 7.3 meters by 2.2 meters with a gross tonnage of 230. Her net tonnage is 115 and the DWT is 300 tons. The passenger capacity is 302 spread over two passenger decks. This ship is an overnight ferry with bunks in just a single Economy class. The amenities are basic but the fare is cheap.

The ship has a raked stem and a cruiser stern with just one mast and a single funnel. The South Pacific is powered by a single Isuzu marine engine of 500 horsepower and the ship has a top speed of 13 knots. The permanent ID of the ship is IMO 8428002 and her Call Sign is DYFQ. She has no MMSI Number.

Meanwhile, Fiji – II came in 1982. She measures 37.9 meters by 6.7 meters by 2.9 meters and her gross tonnage is just 180. The ship has a net tonnage of 111. Her passenger capacity is 300 which is almost the same as that of South Pacific and that is also spread over two decks. The ship as an overnight ferry is also equipped with bunks in a single, no-frills Economy class.

The two ships have similarities in the superstructures and like the South Pacific the Fiji – II has a raked stem, a cruiser stern and a single mast and funnel. However, this ship is equipped by a single 500-hp Cummins engine which gives the same top speed of 13 knots. The permanent ID of Fiji – II is IMO 8426221 and her Call Sign is DUH2039. Like the South Pacific she has no MMSI Number.

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The two ships are still very reliable and still has enough patronage although they are under pressure now by the bigger ship of competitor Medallion Transport, the Lady of All Nations. Two shipping companies can be accommodated by the small town and port of Bato because many of the passengers there are still going to the many other towns of Southern Leyte.

Although Maasin is officially the gateway port of the province, in actuality it is Bato and a port north of Bato, the Hilongos port which are the actual gateways of Southern Leyte. The reason is the shorter distance to Cebu plus the presence of the shortcut mountain road from Bato to Tomas Oppus town of Southern Leyte which brings the passengers faster by vans and buses to the towns along Sogod Bay and beyond. This combination of ferry and van actually sunk the ports of Sogod, Liloan and Cabalian which once had direct connections by ferry to Cebu, their main commercial and educational center.

Maybe such characteristic of Bato helps preserve the viability of South Pacific Transport to Bato when the like of Maypalad Shipping which had routes to Sogod and Liloan had already given up a few years ago. The ship to Cabalian has been gone much earlier.

Will South Pacific Transport last? An officer of theirs told me their ships will sail as long as the owners want them to for they have no problem in maintenance as they have their own shipyard. And also implied maybe is the owners have other sources of revenues like the other shipping company.

Will South Pacific Transport junk their cruisers and get ROROs in place of them? Now only the owners of the company can answer that, of course. Whatever, there is no question that they can afford to buy ROROs because as shown in their cargo ships, they can continuously buy additional ones.

I just hope Southern Pacific Transport don’t give up their cruisers and continue to maintain them sailing even for the memories and for history’s sake.

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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.