Recent Developments in Bicol Passenger Shipping

A Backgrounder

A few years ago, Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) of Batangas entered the Matnog-San Isidro route using the government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal in San Isidro, Samar. Before that the company already plied before the Masbate City-Lucena route but got suspended when their MV Maria Carmela burned just before reaching Lucena and there were protests in Masbate backed up by their politicians. But aside from that route, Montenegro Shipping Lines had a route from Masbate City to Pilar using basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and hybrid LCTs (Pilar port can’t accommodate anything bigger because of its shallowness) and fastcrafts. In that route they were able to outlast the fastcrafts of Lobrigo Lines and the route became their staple and stronghold after they were driven out of the Batangas-Calapan route because the SuperCats there were simply superior than them.

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San Isidro Ferry Terminal

They then entered the Matnog-San Isidro route across San Bernardino Strait using the government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal. I knew it was a creeping move on their part and entry to the San Isidro route is easy since no ferry is using that route ever since Archipelago Philippine Ferries and Philharbor Ferries and Port Services left that port when they built their own port in Dapdap which is much nearer to Matnog than San Isidro. I knew MARINA, the maritime authority will easily grant a franchise since there is no ferry using that terminal and the 50-kilometer restriction has already been lifted by MARINA per Pres. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s instruction. Before, on parallel routes no franchise will be issued if the competing port is less than 50 kilometers away (but it seems that did not apply to the likes of western Leyte ports and the ports of near Dumaguete).

I was not worried for Bicol ferry companies as long as Montenegro Lines is in San Isidro because that route carries a significant penalty in distance as BALWHARTECO port which is being used by the Bicol ferry companies is just 11 nautical miles in distance while the San Isidro port is 15 nautical miles in distance from Matnog Ferry Terminal. I knew Montenegro Lines had to give near parity in rates if they want patronage. And they will have to field a faster ferry which they did and they suffered the fuel penalty. It was obvious that in using San Isidro Ferry Terminal that they are handicapped in competing with the Bicol ferry companies (Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, 168 Shipping Lines and Regina Shipping Lines).

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Dapdap port

But then it happened that the Archipelago/Philharbor operation which operated the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries was tottering they opened up Dapdap port for Montenegro Lines. And that is where I began to worry for the Bicol ferry companies as Montenegro Lines is a big shipping company (they even tout they have the most number of ferries which is actually true) and if transfer pricing was used by the big oil companies and by the bus group Vallacar Transportation Inc. locally then they can engage in price wars and the smaller Bicol ferry companies will suffer. With the move to Dapdap port and with the lessening of Archipelago and Philharbor ferries it is as if those twin companies are giving Montenegro Lines free business. Dapdap port is a little farther than BALWHARTECO port which the Bicol ferry companies are using but the difference in distance is minimal at about 11 nautical miles to 11.5 to 12 nautical miles. Of course, the shipping companies have their regular and locked patrons but there are a lot of non-committed vehicles especially the private vehicles (as differentiated from company vehicles) which pay the full, published rates unlike the regular and locked patrons.

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Jubasan port

A little later when the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) built its own port in Jubasan, also in Allen, for their and their sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation’s use, BALWHARTECO then opened its gates to Montenegro Lines and so the company finally had access to the most advantageous port in Samar (this port is in direct line to the vehicles from Catarman and Rawis). It seems the creeping strategy of Montenegro was finally working. In shipping it is not necessary that a company will get the most advantageous port or route at the start. With patience and resources, better arrangements and opportunities soon open.

Developments and the Current Situation

I was watching what will be the fate of the Bicol ferry companies especially since the long bond and partnership between BALWHARTECO and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the biggest Bicol ferry company was broken with the building of the Jubasan port against the wishes and objection of the owners of BALWHARTECO (this episode almost reached the courts since the owner tried to stop the construction as he was the Mayor of Allen where the ports are located and bitterness was really high). Well, none sank, most even grew and that was a surprise for me.

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Denica ferries in Masbate port

In Masbate, Denica Lines, which was basically only in motor bancas and cargo motor boats before fought back magnificently with the acquisition of the MV Odyssey to be followed by the MV Marina Empress which were just poor discards of other shipping companies. Both suffered engine troubles at the start and Denica Lines had to spend money for the two. Then this year Denica Lines was able to purchase a third basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the MV Regina Calixta II of Regina Shipping Lines of Catanduanes which was already buying bigger ferries. The MV Regina Calixta II is unrenamed as of this moment as changing names is actually not peanuts with regards to MARINA.

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Denica fastcrafts refitting in Pilar port

And last year Denica Lines got two rundown fastcrafts which they are slowly refitting right in Pilar port. So right now or soon, it seems Denica Lines is already ready to slug it out with Montenegro Lines toe-to-toe in the Masbate City-Pilar route. Meanwhile, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and twin company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation is doing roaring business in the parallel Masbate City-Pio Duran route especially since Medallion Transport was driven away from that route after their MV Lady of Carmel sank. The truck loading in that route is so good that Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation bought the LCT Ongpin, lengthened it and fielded it in the route as the LCT Aldain Dowey. And that is aside from two 60-meter ROPAXes they maintain in the route. So if the ferries of Denica Lines and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation in the route from Masbate City to the Bicol mainland is totaled then Montenegro Lines is outmatched already except in the High Speed Crafts segment which competes with the big motor bancas of different companies.

In the Matnog-Samar routes, the Bicol ferry companies are more than holding its own although both has not grown except in frequency. If there was growth it was taken by Archipelago Ferries Corporation which fielded a brand-new FastCat in the Matnog-San Isidro route which is also doing good business. But in terms of net, Archipelago Ferries is not ahead as the business they gained with the fielding of FastCat might not be greater than the business they lost with the disposal of the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries (and they are paying docking fees in San Isidro Ferry Terminal while their own Dapdap port is unused). In my comparisons, I still consider Archipelago and Philharbor as Bicol ferries since they started as such although with the good FastCats now they are trying to erase their connection to the lousy Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries because obviously they are ashamed of their record there.

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FastCat in San Isidro Ferry Terminal

And Montenegro Lines did not gain either in the Matnog-Allen route as the Bicol ferry companies was able to hold their own relative to them. If there was growth it was taken by the subsidiary of 2GO, the SulitFerry which operates a brand-new ROPAX LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26 and another one or two Cargo RORO LCTs depending on the season. Finally, 2GO discovered what was eating up their container shipping and passenger liner business and decided to compete (“if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”). Lacking enough resources, they started conservatively by just chartering new LCTs from Concrete Solutions Incorporated (CSI), owner of the Poseidon LCTs, whose fleet seems to be ever growing.

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The Poseidon 26 of Concrete Solutions and SulitFerry

In the routes to Catanduanes, there was obvious growth and changes. Initially, the most striking perhaps is the appearance of the two High Speed Crafts (although technically one is already a Medium Speed Craft) of the Cardinal Shipping Lines Incorporated, the MV Silangan Express 1 and the MV Silangan Express 3. I had my doubts early on about the viability of the two but it turned out they were doing okay. One reason maybe is their reasonable fares which is just about one will expect from a Tourist accommodation in a regular ferry and not double the Economy fare like what is charged in other parts of the country. The two HSCs of Cardinal Shipping also run in the hours not served by the regular ROPAX whose schedules are dictated by the arrivals of the buses (which means a morning departure from Tabaco and a noon departure from Catanduanes).

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The Regina Calixta VII (ex-Maharlika Cuatro). Photo by Dominic San Juan

One Catanduanes ferry company and a native of Catanduanes which made a great stride recently was Regina Shipping Lines or RSL. This company has already disposed their basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and instead bought bigger ferries. Part of their new acquisitions were the former MV Maharlika Tres, acquired from Atienza Shipping Lines and the former MV Maharlika Cuatro from Gabisan Shipping Lines. The two double-ended ferries became the MV Regina Calixta VI and and MV Regina Calixta VII in their fleet. The company was also able to acquire the former MV Grand Star RORO 3 which became the MV Regina Calixta VIII in their fleet. Rounding off the fleet is the MV Regina Calixta V which they acquired from China.

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The Regina Calixta VIII (ex-Grand Star RORO III)

The former ferries from Archipelago Ferries and Philharbor Ferries are no longer the sad ferries of Christopher Pastrana, the boastful. All feature Tourist accommodations now (there was none before) with a disco motif and sounds where good videos are played during the trip and all feature good, brand-new seats in Tourist (Regina Shipping Lines was in buses before and they know these things). Even the engines were refitted that the former MV Maharlika Tres is already running faster than her design speed (the maximum speed when new). The owner of Regina Shipping Lines simply opened his checkbook unlike Christopher Pastrana (who opened the checkbook of DBP instead) and the Mayon Docks of Tabaco City forthwith did the make-overs of the former lousy Archipelago and Philharbor ferries derided in the eastern seaboard. Now those ferries are already the favorites by the passengers.

There was also another change in the Masbate ferries. This was when Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) sold their MV Super Shuttle Ferry 19, a double-ended ferry that was off-and-on doing the Bogo-Cawayan route. She was bought by the D. Olmilla Shipping Corporation, refitted also in Mayon Docks and she became the MV Cawayan Ferry 1. She still plies the same route and schedule.

Meanwhile, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation was able to acquire last summer two former Tamataka Maru ships from Japan, the MV Tamataka Maru No. 85 and the MV Tamataka Maru No. 87 in a buy one, take one deal and the two ferries were refitted in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu (Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is a stockholder in the said yard). The MV Tamataka Maru No.85 is now running the new route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the Liloan-Lipata route across Surigao Strait, an expansion route outside Bicol acquired by the company some two or three years ago. The ship is now renamed as the MV Adrian Jude and she is meant to compete with the MV SWM Stella del Mar of the Southwest Premier Ferries, a new operator in that route using a brand-new ferry similar to and the sister ship of the new vessels of Starlite Ferries of Batangas.

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The Adrian Jude. Photo by Capt. John Andrew R. Lape

The former MV Tamataka Maru No.87 is also ready now, she is already in Bicol and waiting but unrenamed yet according to the last information I received a day ago. She is meant to ply the new route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation from Masbate to Cebu, another new expansion route of the company but the exact route is still being applied for. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is one Bicol company aside from Denica Lines which has shown aggressive growth in the past years.

Meanwhile, it seems Montenegro Lines has lost its aggressiveness. Their fleet size in Bicol is practically the same although they rotate ships especially in the Matnog-Samar route (except for the MV Reina Emperatriz there and the MV Maria Angela in Masbate). Their only addition in Bicol is their new catamaran MV City of Angeles, a High Speed Craft in the Masbate-Pilar route.

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The City of Angeles

I was trying to analyze the lack of zest and the lack of pep of Montenegro Lines in the recent years especially in the context of Bicol shipping. It seems that when their “patron saint” went out of power and was made an enforced guest, Montenegro Lines’ drive faltered. It also seems that the blessings usually going to Montenegro Lines already went to another shipping company and so Montenegro Lines had to scrounge for additional ferries whereas before, they were buying ferries as if the supply of it won’t last (now it is the new favorite which is precisely doing that). Now, i don’t really know how come their blessings went away.

I do not know. Things can always change and it seems Montenegro Lines is no longer that great a threat to the Bicol ferry companies which showed spunk in the recent years except for 168 Shipping Lines, the owner of the local Star Ferry ships which seems to be languishing with no ship additions.

One loss, however, is something that cannot be averted and has long been expected. This is the discontinuance of the LCT to Cagraray island from the Albay mainland across the very narrow Sula Channel which has been a ship shelter for centuries now. A new bridge has been built connecting the fabled island which hosts the well-promoted Misibis Resort, the best resort in Albay province.

But as a whole Bicol ferry shipping was on the rise in the recent years and that is surely a good thing for the region.

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The King Frederick and Nelvin Jules

The King Frederick and Nelvin Jules of Santa Clara Shipping Corporation are actually sister ships which look like each other save for some minor differences. When trying to identify them I try to look for the name lest I might be mistaken in the identification (anyway, one of the two has a longer name).

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Both of these ships arrived in the country in 1999 and they were the opening salvo in the challenge of the newly-established Santa Clara Shipping Corporation in the Matnog-Allen route long dominated but badly served by Bicolandia Shipping Lines and its legal-fiction companies like E. Tabinas and Eugenia Tabinas. When the sister ships arrived they were not larger than the bigger ships in the route. However, they were the newest and the fastest and even newer than the government-owned Maharlika I which was built in 1982.

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With such an advantage the reigning Bicolandia Shipping Lines immediately cried foul and tried all the legal means to drive out King Frederick and Nelvin Jules because their old ships which were mainly acquired from other local shipping companies and were built in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were clearly inferior already in all respects. And Bicolandia Shipping Lines has the dead weight of a bad reputation originating from their ships having the wont of not sticking to departure times and trying to get full as much as possible before departure. Plus, of course, clients always want the new.

Bicolandia Shipping Lines failed in their opposition at the level of MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the maritime regulatory agency and which has quasi-judicial function and all the way to the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. And so the King Frederick and Nelvin Jules were not driven out from route and began to beat their opposition (there were other players in the route aside from Bicolandia Shipping and Maharlika I) until the day came when Bicolandia Shipping Lines surrendered and sold itself to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and became the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation.

The King Frederick,  the newer of the two sister ships was supposedly named after the top gun of the combine owning Santa Clara Shipping Corporation, Frederick Uy. She and the Nelvin Jules are ROPAX (RORO-Passenger) ferries built by Kanda Shipbuilding Co. in their Kawajiri yard in Japan. The two ferries both measured at 58.6 meters in Length Over-all (LOA), 55.5 meters in Length Between Perpendiculars (LPP or LBP) with a Beam or Breadth of 14.0 meters. Originally, the sister ships had a similar Gross Tonnage (GT) of 699 with a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 308 tons. By the way, the King Frederick was the last ever ship built by Kanda Shipbuilding in their Kawajiri yard.

The King Frederick‘s original name was Sagishima and she was built in 1987 and the Nelvin Jules’ original name was Kurushima and she was built in 1985 making her the elder ship of the two. When the two arrived in 1999 they were still both relatively young at 12 years and 14 years old, respectively. King Frederick has the IMO Number 8704315 while Nelvin Jules has the IMO Number 8504404 which both reflects the year when their keels were laid up. The sister ships have a steel hull, a box-like housing at the bow which protects against the rain when loading and unloading and also keeps the car deck less wet and muddy when it is raining. They both have a transom stern and ramps at the bow and at the stern. The ships both have two masts and two funnels at the top of the ship.

The sister ships are powered by two Daihatsu marine engines with a total of 2,400 horsepower and these gave them a sustained top speed of 13.5 knots when still new. In their 11-nautical mile Matnog-BALWHARTECO (Allen) route, the sister ships were capable of crossing the San Bernardino Strait in just under one hour when newly-fielded if the notorious waves of San Bernardino are not acting up. BALWHARTECO port was the choice of Santa Clara Shipping in Allen as it was a shorter route than the official Matnog-San Isidro route of the government. The San Isidro Ferry Terminal is the official government RORO port while the BALWHARTECO port is a private port and along time Santa Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) had a hand-and-glove relationship with the management of BALWHARTECO (Balicuatro Wharfage and Terminal Corporation).

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BALWHARTECO Port, the original home of King Frederick and Nelvin Jules

Before fielding here a new passenger deck was built on the bridge level of both ships. However, the Gross Tonnages (GT) of the sister ships dropped to 694 which is more likely an under-declaration. The declared Net Tonnages (NT) of the two ships is 357 (a clarification, both the GT and the NT have no units). The passenger capacities of both ships are 750 persons reflecting their almost similar internal arrangements. The Depths of the two ferries are both 3.8 meters which is about average for ships their size.

The new passenger deck became an all-Economy accommodation with fiberglass seats. On the lower deck, at the front portion was the old accommodation in Japan which became the Tourist section as it was air-conditioned and had better foamed seats. That section is also where the canteen was located. All passengers have access to that canteen.

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The canteen inside the Tourist section of the King Frederick

When the gusts are up in San Bernardino Strait along with its wind-driven rains and this can be often in the peak of the habagat (the southwest monsoon) and amihan (the northeast monsoon) that section is a welcome cover especially for the more vulnerable passengers like the small children, the pregnant and the old. The habagat and amihan are both fierce in San Bernardino Strait, it affects the area more than half of the year and ships crossing the strait sometimes have to take a dogleg route lengthening the transit time and producing seasickness in many passengers.

Behind this Tourist section is another Economy section with fiberglass seats also that were built in a former promenade deck of the ship when it was still in Japan. Many prefer this in inclement weather as it does not rock as hard as the deck above and it seems the winds can be less fierce here. Of course there is one less deck to climb or descend and that matters maybe in a short route when some passengers like me don’t bother to sit at all (too many views to enjoy from the ships to the seascape to the mountains and of course the ports and its activities). Maybe the reason they put the karaoke in the upper deck is to enjoin passengers to climb there.

Below this passenger accommodation is the car deck of the RORO ships. One advantage of the two sisters is the wide beam of 14.0 meters which allows four lanes of trucks or buses on either side of the “island” in the middle of the car deck which actually houses ladders going up and down and below the car deck are crew accommodations and the crew mess which are all air-conditioned.

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A crowded Nelvin Jules. See the “island” in the middle of the car deck

With 55.5 meters in LPP up to five rows of trucks and buses can be accommodated. Of course, though trucks and buses dominate the load in their routes, still smaller vehicles like cars and utility vehicles will normally be in the rolling cargo mix. These ships will normally be full because Santa Clara Shipping mastered the art of giving discounts and pay-later schemes, the reason a lot of trucks and buses are tied up to them. Tied-up buses which carry passengers that cannot be delayed even have priority in loading in them. The sisters have ramps front and bow but normally it is only the bow ramps that are deployed and employed, the reason vehicles have to board the ship backwards. One thing I cannot understand with the sister ships’ bow ramp is they are off-center. I do not know what is the advantage of it. Actually in cargo loading it only tends to affect the balance of the ship.

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King Frederick in Masbate. See the off-center ramp.

Along time especially with the arrival of other ROPAXes for Santa Clara Shipping Corporation, King Frederick and Nelvin Jules were also assigned to other routes of the company especially their new Masbate-Pio Duran route. There is no permanent fielding for them and the sister ships generally rotate between the two routes. Another route where King Frederick has been fielded is to their newest route, the Lipata-Liloan route which became a Lipata-Surigao route when a quake damaged the Lipata port (however, they are back now recently to Lipata Ferry Terminal).

Over-all, the sister ships proved very successful and became proven moneymakers for Santa Clara Shipping. Although 18 years sailing now locally, the two are still very sturdy and very reliable and almost no breakdown can be heard from them. What I only wish is Santa Clara Shipping make some sprucing in the ships so they will come back to like when they were still new here.

Even when the two sister ships are in San Bernardino Strait, they are no longer docking now in BALWHARTECO port as their company has a new, owned port now in Jubasan in the same town of Allen, Northern Samar. However, when this article was written none of them were there as Nelvin Jules was in the Masbate-Pio Duran route pairing with the ship Jack Daniel of the same company and they with their cargo RORO LCT Aldain Dowey are dominating the Masbate route.

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Nelvin Jules leaving Masbate port

I see many, many more years of sailing and service for the two sisters if the gauge is how sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation is taking care of the older ferries acquired from Bicolandia Shipping Lines. Both are equipped with tough and lost-lasting Daihatsu marine engines and simply put their company has the revenues and moolah to take care of them well. It has even a stake in Nagasaka Shipyard in the Tayud row of shipyards in Cebu where they are given priority.

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Nelvin Jules in Nagasaka Shiyard

If 50 years is the gauge now of longevity of ships, they will still be around in 2035, knock on wood.

New Developments in Masbate Port

I had been to Masbate port twice in recent days in this month of July of 2017. The first one was when my ship Super Shuttle RORO 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) was on the way to Batangas and dropped anchor in Masbate first. The second was when I took the route via Pilar and Masbate ports on the way back to Cebu. Those two visits afforded me a chance to compare and weigh developments in Masbate port since last January of 2017 when I was also able to visit the port.

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Masbate port

The first notable thing is all works in expanding Masbate port has already been completed. The lineal distance of the port is a little longer now. On the other hand, talking of infrastructure, the Masbate port terminal building deteriorated in the same span of time as it is no longer air-conditioned and yet the dear terminal fee which is more expensive than the much better Cebu and Batangas ports remained the same when Masbate port does not even have shuttle buses and does not really have the capacity to take in all the passengers of the buses. And so it copied the Batangas port model which means bus passengers have to go down when the bus enters the port in order for them to pay the terminal fee and then board the bus again or walk to the ferry. The former is the preferred mode now.

Another new thing is Masbate port has an X-ray machine now for the baggage but it is not operational yet. Another useless piece of equipment just to justify the terminal fee and to have another reason for “cattle-herding” the passengers. It seems what is good enough for the buses is not good enough for PPA (Philippine Ports Authority), security-wise, because buses don’t bother checking the baggage of the passengers because they know the chance of them being victims of terrorist attacks is next to nil, at least in Bicol. And I think if one asks the ferries they will say they are not bothered if there is no X-ray machine. The buses and the ferries do not have the ISPS thinking that all passengers are possible terrorists. Actually that is simply ridiculous and is just the product of “praning” minds.

One more notable thing is that the passenger motor bancas are now practically gone from Masbate port and they have already transferred to the municipal port of Masbate near the public market and the bus/van terminal because of the high passenger terminal fee being charged by the port when passengers have no actual need for the terminal as they go direct to their vessels. Actually, last January I saw a terminal building (it was named as a community fish landing center) being built in Masbate municipal port and I saw that it is already finished when I went to the bus and van terminal.

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The problem now in Masbate municipal port is congestion, I was told, especially in the rush hours of the morning and the early afternoon. The boat landing areas there are actually the facility being used by the so-many small passenger motor bancas and motor launches headed to the different barrios across Masbate Bay. Add to that that that is also the docking area of the passenger motor bancas to barrios just outside Masbate Bay and up to Baleno town. Now the bigger motor bancas to Ticao island, Pilar port and Burias island are also lumped there now. That also includes a few cargo motor boats that were once passenger motor boats.

Actually, some small motor launch operators also built docking areas just beyond the northern end of Masbate port. I was told these transfers were the reaction to the terminal fee that costs P30. A terminal fee of that amount for a P10 boat fare? So right now just a very few motor bancas use Masbate port. One effect is congestion of the port was gone in one stroke. So I wonder now if there was any need to lengthen the port after all. Maybe they could have just donated the construction materials to the boat landing areas at the end of the port. The surface there is still dried muck which is obviously undulating and slippery. Well, if the funds were really meant to benefit the public.

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A makeshift boat landing area adjacent Masbate port

Regarding steel-hulled ferries, the competition in Masbate port is heating up and truck volume was obviously bigger than last January. Not in the buses though as July is already part of the lean months. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation fielded their Cargo RORO LCT there, the LCT Aldain Dowey which was identified in PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) as the former LCT Ongpin. So now they have a total of three ferries in Masbate and I was told in summer Sta. Clara Shipping even fielded a fourth ferry. Their LCT is of the same length as their Jack Daniel and Anthon Raphael, their two ROPAXes there which are the best in the fleets of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (this is before the fielding of the former Tamataka Maru ships from Japan).

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Their LCT is the first to leave at noon and in the afternoon they are the only ferry departures from Masbate at 2pm and 4pm. Their three ferries are the biggest in Masbate because what their competitors have are only basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs because they use the shallow Pilar port whose depth cannot handle bigger ferries. By the way in terms of rolling cargo traffic the Pio Duran route now of Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping is the favorite now since Pio Duran in Albay is nearer to Manila than Pilar of Sorsogon while the rolling cargo rate is just about the same.

With the exception of the ROROBus which is related to Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. practically all the other buses to Masbate are handled by Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and Penafrancia Shipping Corp. as the third operator Denica Lines, a Pilar native does not load buses. Loading buses from Luzon meant extending discounts, rebates, free tickets and free meals and Denica Lines does not play that game because they say they have their share of rolling cargo too. And I saw that when we left left Pilar port aboard their Marina Empress at 3am and the car deck was full. From Masbate port their three ROROs Odyssey, Regina Calixta-II and Marina Empress all left full. Denica Lines has already bought the Regina CalixtaII of Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) of Catanduanes and so they have three ROROs also now while Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) is down to two ROROs from three. Maybe because it is lean months now and maybe they have one undergoing refitting in a shipyard.

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If we assume that Montenegro Lines has a third RORO in Masbate then a total of 8 ROROs make a daily crossing now to Luzon plus there is a Cargo RORO LCT for a total capacity of about 100 truck/bus units (of course, since there are smaller vehicles mixed in, the actual total is higher). Many of these come from as far as Cebu island. Buses will be at least a fourth of that total. One will wonder why there is such a large number of people on the move when within Masbate island there are not that many number of buses although there is a significant number of commuter vans.

Montenegro Lines have three fastcrafts and a catamaran in Masbate including their newest and fastest, the City of Angeles which is a catamaran. They also have there one of their biggest fastcrafts, the City of Masbate. Their future rival, the two fastcrafts of Denica Lines are still not ready and are still being refitted in Pilar port. Meanwhile, I wonder if the Masbate-Pilar motor bancas are already in terminal decline. There are just so many ROROs and High Speed Crafts. Although the motor bancas are faster than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs, they are noisier. They might be noisy, however, but still they are better than the “Stairs Class” of Montenegro Lines.

But in trucks and buses Sta. Clara and Penafrancia are already beating Montenegro Lines by about 3:1. Denica Lines could also be level now with Montenegro Lines in trucks and buses. By the way, sedans, SUVs, AUVs are not that many in the Masbate crossing to Pilar and Pio Duran and jeeps are practically unknown.

However, there is a rumor in Masbate port that a new player will come and serve the Masbate-Pio Duran route and it seems it is not Medallion Transport which was gone from the route after their Lady of Carmel sank in 2013 off Burias island. It remains to be seen if this rumor will come true.

The Super Shuttle RORO 3 of AMTC is also back in Masbate port and it connects to Batangas and Cebu plus Cagayan de Oro but their schedule is irregular as in there are no definite day for arrivals and departures as it is more of a container carrier now. There are also still a few motor bancas to Bulan when where before that was the dominant route to Bicol from Masbate.

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There are also off-hours docking now in Masbate port as Denica Lines has an early evening departure from Pilar. To the credit of Masbate port they let the passengers stay in the port terminal as the arrival of that is midnight and there is still no transportation to the towns outside Masbate City (and that gave me an idea). And Sta. Clara Shipping sends back its ship from Pio Duran if there are a lot of shut-outs (vehicles left unloaded in port) and that becomes another off-hours docking. That was the reason why they fielded their LCT because shut-out were already happening frequently (I saw that last January when one Mega Bus cannot be accommodated and they asked passengers of that to get down the ship and it was an event not good to look at — I pitied the passengers).

Masbate port is changing. Traffic is obviously up and I think the port will only get more important in the future when more traffic will shift to it from San Bernardino Strait if the rates become lower. Maybe then competition will further heat up and we will see the full blooming of Masbate port.

But they have to get that passenger terminal fee down. It is much higher than Zamboanga port when that port is better than Masbate port and the passenger terminal is not really needed by most of the ship passengers. A sore point really and that must change.

On The Way Back To Cebu (Part 2 of my trip to Batangas and Calapan)

When I realized I’m not gonna make the St. Francis Xavier of 2GO in North Harbor and that I wouldn’t wait anymore for the Super Shuttle RORO 3, I decided I will just go back to Cebu via Bicol, Pilar and Masbate because that route will give me more photos including bus and train photos plus the views along the way. When fellow passengers knew of my plight and plan they suggested to me the Turbina bus stop in Calamba. Well, I could go as far as Cubao if I wanted Manila bus photos but I decided against it because I wanted to take photos of the Bicol Commuter Train in Naga and for that I must arrive early afternoon there as I was just planning an overnight in Naga because I was not really prepared for a long stay (I should have been sailing with the Super Shuttle RORO 3 back and forth and my preparation was for such). In my mind I want to take the Cokaliong ship in Masbate and I wanted a whole day bus and ship spot in Masbate and also to make some interviews.

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View of a recently arrived ferry in Batangas port while waiting for a bus

I asked about the Supreme bus from Batangas to Lucena and funny none of the passengers, van drivers and guards have an idea of the first trip nor of the fare. It seems none of them have taken that ride. I was interested in that ride because I might have been to Ibaan before but I have not also taken it. Its distance will be shorter compared to Turbina and I assume the fare will be lower also. You see I was on a short budget and tours drain money fast.

My next problem was how to go to Batangas Grand Central Terminal. The guard resolved the first part. He pointed to me the ATI shuttle to the outside of the port gate (no one walks around in Batangas port as all are potential terrorists and saboteurs, that is the assumption in ISPS and their restriction is even greater than that of a military camp). I was warned how high is the charge of the tricycle drivers. But I was able to haggle down the P200 that they normally charge to P100). The Grand Terminal was really far. I found out that there was no seamless connection to there unlike when one’s destination is as far as Manila.

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Batangas Grand Central Terminal before dawn

Entering the terminal at 3:02am per the LCD clock of the terminal, I saw the Supreme aircon bus already on the way out. What a timing! I have to take it and forego bus pics as I was not prepared for another hour of a wait. I was charged P94, senior fare, that proved to be lower than my tricycle fare. With a very low volume of passengers I wondered how Supreme could be making money on their early trips which are not few in number. It seems they are among the bus companies that still understand that bus transport is public service. Their buses was the ride of people that needs to move early like vendors and those that have to go to the market early. A lot of the fares charged was only P10, the minimum fare. And to think they have no competition in the route.

I have some regrets being very early because in the dark one cannot see the landscape well. We arrived just past 5am in Arias, the junction of the road leading to Lucena proper and the diversion road. The unlucky thing was a Superlines bus overtook us and it was bound for Daet. I wanted to take the longer route rather than the Quirino Highway route for I have not passed that road for a long time now as buses no longer pass through it.

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Arias junction in Lucena

The jeepney dispatcher in Arias was friendly and helpful and he told me the next bus will be an RMB ordinary bus and he told me the approximate time of arrival. I was mulling a Dalahican port diversion but the dispatcher was not encouraging. He said going out of the port is difficult at that time because there are no arrivals yet from Marinduque and the tricycle fare is very high. Sometimes the fewness of ships in a port convinces me against visiting if I lack the time and I am not really prepared. I just then contented myself with taking of bus shots which I prize because I lack Southern Tagalog bus photos. I also have to manage my Bicol ride because day trips to Bicol comes just one or at best two in an hour.

The RMB bus came and it was taking in short-distance passengers that normally are the passengers of the Raymond bus. I tried to get bus and places pictures although it was difficult as I was not at the front of the bus nor at the side. Then the text of Aris, a PSSS Moderator came in and asked me if I was at the North Harbor. I asked him to check the 2GO schedules earlier. I told him in a few minutes I will be in Atimonan port. I was expecting my answer will discombobulate him, a joke in itself as he did not know I was on the way to Bicol.

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Atimonan port and ships

I was able to get shots of Atimonan port and ships but I missed Siain port because of the trees. Then I saw that LCT at the end of the long coastal road straight before the road turns into the railroad tracks. I failed to get off a shot but I saw there was a makeship yard there and I wondered what they were doing there as it was far from what can be connected to shipping. Afloat ship repair? There were not much vessels in Lamon Bay except for the occasional fishing boats the largest of which is a basnig.

The bus then left Calauag into the hills and there were no more views of ships and of the sea. It was all buses and land views until we reached Mabolo of Naga where there were two fishing vessels. We took a little over 7 hours to reach Naga and that included two meal stops. I just paid P250 for the bus fare for a distance of about 250 kilometers.

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Fishing vessels visible from Mabolo bridge

Upon reaching Bicol Central Station, the Naga bus terminal that has many eateries I ordered kinalas, a kind of mami that is synonimous with Naga. With no rice I ordered Bicol Express and again I remembered Mark, a PSSS Moderator who failed to taste one in Matnog because we immediately boarded the Don Benito Ambrosio II of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation which was then leaving already. From a short meal, I immediately made my way to the PNR (Philippine National Railways) Naga station to take rail and train photos and to ride the Bicol Commuter Train (BCT) to Sipocot. I did that not only to satisfy myself but also the Aussie rail engineers who once worked with the PNR as AusAid technicians and who are PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) members too.

I did not move much in the station and in the train. I was tired. I just want the experience of a DMU (Diesel Multiple Unit) train being hauled by a locomotive. The DMU’s power is no longer enough for tractive power and it was only used to power the automatic doors, the fans and the lights. With our rundown railways, such weird contraptions happen. There was an announcement that the BCT will serve Legazpi last February. It did not happen as there were no locomotives available (yes their Board of Directors is that detached from reality). It is VP Robredo who is pushing for that but I think the lady does not understand rails and our rail situation. Internally, the PNR do not want to run the BCT to Legazpi as each run loses. Ever since 55 years ago it has already been proven that the trains cannot compete with the bus on parallel routes much like ferries can’t compete with them too on parallel routes.

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Bicol Commuter Train to Sipocot

From Sipocot I did not transfer to the bus anymore like what I usually do because I was tired and I had just come from a long bus ride and has already passed Sipocot hours before. We arrived in Naga in a heavy thunderstorm that flooded the city and we were marooned in the station. Good I already roamed the station and took shots before my BCT ride. In that thunderstorm before just before dusk there was no way to roam the station nor take any decent shot.

I spent the night in Naga and the next day I was back at the bus terminal to take more shots and to eat pilinut candies. The previous day I was not able to take many as I gave priority to railfanning. With my stay in Naga I was able to top all my batteries again. I resolved I will already leave that night so I will be in time for the Masbate-Cebu Cokaliong ship and my way will be through Pilar and not Pio Duran as I want to see the developments in the Denica Lines fastcrafts there and simply there are more ships in Pilar than in Pio Duran and that includes passenger-cargo motor bancas. In preparation for that I slept from late 5pm to 9pm as the bus to Pilar I was aiming at should be in the 11pm to 12mn range, ideally, as I was targeting the Denica Lines ferry at 3am which I knew will afford me a lying position and sleep as the passengers are not many because they don’t take in buses unlike the Montenegro Lines ship.

A Pilar bus entered the terminal at 10:30pm, the first one to do so. It had the quizzical signboard Pilar/Tabaco/Legazpi. I asked if it was for Pilar and they said “Yes”. I decided to take it. No harm in being 30 minutes early. A good insurance in case of an unlikely flat tire or a need to transfer buses. The bus almost immediately pulled out and I noticed the driver was serious in his driving which is not normally the case once a bus reaches Bicol. Upon reaching Tuburan junction in Ligao I knew the reason for the fast clip. We turned left. So we are on the way to Tabaco first. I checked the time. It was just 11:40pm. I was not worried. There was enough time. I thought better just enjoy the unintended excursion. A way to see Tabaco and Legazpi again.

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Tabaco port

As I expected we entered not the far Tabaco terminal but Tabaco port. I knew there will be passengers for Catanduanes for sure in the bus. Took shots but it was dark and there was rain. I knew the bus will not linger and it did not and after a stop in the city center we were on the way to Legazpi and we reached it at 12:50am.

By 1:40am we were already in Pilar port. We took 3 hours for a 165-kilometer run. I thought if only buses in Mindanao were that fast. I also thought the 80kph limiter devices based on GPS should be thrown to the sea. What is the use of that on a night run where there are few vehicles on the road when time should be gained? How could the Department of Transportation assume that sedan drivers who spend their whole day in the office are better drivers than real professional drivers?

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Denica Lines fastcrafts in Pilar port

The 3am Denica Lines ferry, the Marina Empress, which I like was there alright. With our arrival I still have time to roam the dark port and field questions. I found the Denica fastcrafts were still not ready and are still tied to Pilar port but the refitting of one has already advanced. The motor bancas to various destinations like Monreal and Aroroy were also there plus a Montenegro Lines RORO and fastcrafts. The Hammity cargo motor boat of Denica Lines was also there.

The fares were still the same but I found out that the Regina Calixta-II of Regina Shipping Lines already belongs to Denica Lines and so they have 3 basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs now and so when their fastcrafts are ready they will have a battle royale with Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated looming and probably the motor bancas will give them an advantage.

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Regina Calixta-II

I decided against an Aroroy entry to Masbate because the departure of the motor banca was still 5:30am and arriving in Aroroy at 8:30am will mean a 10:30am arrival for me in Masbate which means I will be missing a lot of action compared to a 7am arrival with Marina Empress when most ferries to Masbate has not yet arrived including the slow Filipinas Maasin from Cebu which was expected at 9:30am. I long wanted to reach Aroroy but the negatives are big.

Having arrived ahead of most of the buses which are now mainly carried by Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, I was able to observe a lot about the patterns. I realized that if I will not shipspot Masbate port then if I take one of the buses from Manila to Cawayan then I will still reach the Island Shipping LCT in Cawayan for Hagnaya in Cebu island.

In going back to Cebu via Masbate I ruled out taking the ROROBus because it leaves Masbate port at 8:30am to take the 12nn Cataingan-Polambato, Bogo ferry of Montenegro Lines. Leaving at that time means I will miss a lot of action in Masbate and I will just spend five hours staring into the sea when there is still a lot of happenings in Masbate port.

If I take the thrice a week Lapu-lapu Shipping night ferry in Cataingan to Cebu City that leaves at 6pm then it means I should already be in Masbate bus/van terminal at about 2pm. By that time 75-80% of the actions in Masbate port will have happened already. Maybe next time I should take that so I can check new developments in the road to there and in the port.

There is also a ferry equivalent to the MSLI ferry in Cawayan but I want to check if it is 100% in the route. But then one has to leave Masbate early also as in about 8am and maybe hitching a ride with an early bus from Manila is the trick but I am not sure if they are faster than the vans. It is not as cheap as the Island Shipping LCT which still has promotional rates.

When I entered the Masbate port terminal building after disembarking from the Marina Empress the beautiful lady guard immediately recognized me. I thought I was in luck because I can roam fully without worrying about my things and I will have full chance to charge my batteries as I drain them. Anyway this time around there were not that many passengers in Masbate port terminal building as they have already learned the Batangas way of sending the passengers to their buses after paying the passenger terminal fee (so what is the purpose of the passenger terminal fee which is actually more expensive than Batangas port and Cebu port)?

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LCT Aldain Dowey

A new addition I saw in Masbate is the Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. LCT, the LCT Aldain Dowey which just takes in trucks. With the fielding of that Sta. Clara Shipping and sister company Penafrancia Shipping has further outstripped Montenegro Lines in the Masbate route in terms of rolling cargo. By the way, I was astounded with their Anthon Raphael when she arrived as she had a dozen buses aboard when she arrived. MSLI has already lost to Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping in buses as she only carries ROROBuses now save for a lone Elavil bus. Compared to last January, Sta. Clara and Penafrancia have already far outstripped MSLI in rolling cargo.

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Anthon Raphael

The Cokaliong ship Filipinas Maasin showed herself in Masbate Bay at 10am. There were snickers of course because even Asia Indonesia and Asia Japan of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. did not take that long in reaching Masbate. I thought to myself Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. should change the ship assigned there as obviously she does not have enough speed for the route. Maybe she should just stick to the Surigao route which is shorter. The Filipinas Maasin car/cargo deck was full of cargo when she arrived.

This time around I did not go anymore to the Masbate bus/van terminal. I was already tired by 2pm when only one ferry has not left port aside from Filipinas Maasin. That was the last ferry to Bicol, the Jack Daniel. The Regina Calixta-II, the Odyssey and the Marina Empress of Denica Lines has already left and in that order. The Maria Angela and the Maria Sophia of Montenegro Lines have also departed along with their fastcraft and catamarans and two have already returned from Pilar, the City of Angeles and the City of Masbate.

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It also rained hard, another reason I lost taste for the bus/van terminal. I also thought I will be seeing the same buses there I saw days before when I was on the way to Batangas and regarding the motor bancas from there I caught them practically all and if I missed some it will be just a few fishing bancas. I just spent the mid-afternoon looking for a decent meal as I prioritized ship and bus spotting over meals. In January in going for meals I missed some of the actions and I did not want that to happen again. I also want to cover fully the loading and unloading of the buses. There were fewer buses this July compared to January.

When it rained hard and the wind blew I noticed the digital read-out of the time and temperature in Masbate port showed just 27 degrees Centigrade. It was just like having an air conditioner for the whole port. I pitied some of the passengers because the port management lacks care and imagination. They should have let the buses pick up the passengers by the driveway. It’s hard to make one’s way to the ferry in driving rain. Good in that situation the Maria Sophia went back to port when informed that there were bus passengers not yet boarded when their bus was already inside the ship.

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The Kulafu of Rufo Presado from Bulan in Masbate heavy rain

In all these happenings I never saw a port official appear and much more intervene. Oh, maybe, their job is just to sign papers, make memoranda and prepare reports, the typical bureaucratic dance. The porters were even more concerned for the passengers (but of course they will never become port managers).

After nearly completing my charging in the terminal building I hunted for a porter to interview about some history of Masbate port and its ships. By this time the passengers have already boarded Filipinas Maasin and Jack Daniel has already departed and so they’ve go no more thing to do as cargo loading is also finishing and the last passengers will be Masbate City locals and they are usually dropped by the ship’s ramp especially since only P6 is charged for an entering vehicle (while the passenger terminal fee is 5 times of that). In that situation there is practically no more action that I have to cover.

I found one and he has been a porter for over 20 years and his father was also a porter but now retired and is just fishing. He still remembers the liners of the early 1990’s and how Masbate ships evolved from motor bancas and motor boats to ROROs. They earned much more then when cargo handling was basically done manually and the liners still had lots of passengers. I just let him tell the stories that he recall. The only things I interjected were the history of the High Speed Crafts in Masbate and how the Bulan route lost to Pilar.

I realized as he was telling the story that maybe next time I should lessen the picture-taking and listen to stories more. I barely touched on the shipping owners like Rufo Presado and the owner of Lobrigo Lines, both of whom tried fastcrafts also. Aside from Denica Lines they are the biggest motor banca operators in Masbate. And I have not even explored well the complexity of the Masbate motor bancas or even its accidents. Anyway I got a number now. I also gave my source a tip for his time. The interview that took nearly an hour seems to just flew by. I was not able to judge well if my source is worth a PSSS cam. Maybe next time I have to ask my lady guard-friend.

After getting some light baon I boarded the Filipinas Maasin when dark was already threatening. I did not have enough time and interest to take a meal outside. I thought with my tiredness I will just sleep straightaway. But then I got hungry and I patronized the restaurant of the ferry. I found their prices a bit better than other ferries I have ridden.

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I made a light tour of the Filipinas Maasin to see how much changed when I rode her more than a decade ago. The lay-out was still the same. But what I noticed is the flooring. It is similar to what is used in buses and it needs no painting. But basically it is still the same ship. My complaint was they set 4 packaged type air conditioners at 16 degrees Centigrade when the ship was already sailing. They should have set it full blast when the passengers were just boarding. So I tried to tinker with the air conditioners. Otherwise we will all be suffering the whole night.

As usual sleeping did not come easy for me because of my neck condition. In each new sleeping place I have to discover what will suit it. I resolved my more complete tour of the ship will be in the morning when I can assess the ship better and my shots will be better. It is not scheduled to reach Cebu early anyway.

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Porter’s Marina

When I woke up I think we were just astride Catmon, Cebu and so I went back to sleep. The problem is when I woke up again I have already missed Danao City and its port and ships. I saw we were already nearing Liloan and Porter’s Marina. There was light rain and no good sun and I thought Tayud and Cansaga Bay shots will be problematic. It proved true even if the rain abated a little and the chance of having a good shot of ships in the Tayud yards was gone. I have to content myself with the anchored ships off it.

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Maica 2

Then I have to scramble for the ships in the Cebu Yacht Club. While taking shots of it a fastcraft overtook us and made a 180-degree turn into a dock in Mactan Island that I have not noticed much before. It was a little south of the Cebu Yacht Club. What I discovered was the new Maica 2 of Jomalia Shipping. It resembles the Oceanjet 15 of the Ocean Fast Ferries. I was able to take a lot of photos of her.

I have to hie off next to starboard as the Ouano ships including the new Trans-Asia 1 and the former Bao Dao ships will be coming into view. After that it was more or less a ride already like with Metro Ferry up to Pier 3. After that comes Pier 1 and its ships that cannot be covered from Metro Ferry. I saw a fastcraft coming on our port side and didn’t think much of it. Then it rounded our stern going into Pier 1 and then I realized she was the Oceanjet 288 of which PSSS has no photo yet of. Watta luck!

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Because it was a Sunday there were few ships in Cokaliong wharf. We arrived earlier than expected because the ship sped up because supposedly she will still be going to Palompon at noon and they still have to unload and load cargo. I was wondering how they can do it in 3 hours. Well, there are a lot of Cokaliong forklifts in the port.

My decision to take the Cokaliong ship from Masbate proved to be correct although that meant just one day of stay in Bicol. I had a full day in Masbate which was not possible if I took the Super Shuttle RORO 3 again which arrived on the previous night that I was already in Pilar. That means like what the crew said they usually stay 3 days in Batangas. And arriving at night in Masbate means no Masbate ship spotting which defeats one of my purpose. And they probably left Batangas at midnight so that was also next to useless in ship spotting.

With the Cokaliong ship I had good ship spotting from Porters Marina up to Pier 1. That was not possible with the Super Shuttle RORO 3 as it goes Around Mactan island and not under the Mactan bridges. And definitely Filipinas Maasin is a real passenger ship and notches ahead of Super Shuttle RORO 3 in comfort and amenities.

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End of my journey

Of course going via Bicol means my expenses were way higher than what I expected. But I hope more photos of ships, buses and train is enough compensation. Spotting long-distance is not really cheap. I have now more photos for PSSS, Shippax, Fleetmon and Lindsay Bridge.

Hope I can do it again!