Do the Sinkings of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and MS Estonia Have Any Bearing On Us?

The two named incidents are among the most famous in the maritime world when RORO or ROPAX accidents are mentioned and discussed. The two cases have been used in many times to highlight the weakness of ROROs compared to conventional freighters which feature watertight compartments which the ROROs are sorely lacking (watertight compartments prevent ingress of water in case of a hull breach). Moreover, the two incidents have been used as rationales for RORO design changes and reforms in safety policies.

From “The Express” of UK

The MS Herald of Free Enterprise was a 131.9-meter ferry built in 1980 then sailing from Belgium to England. She sailed on a night of March 6, 1987 but the deck crew forgot to close the bow door and this door was not visible from the bridge and there was no CCTV to check that. When the ship reached cruising speed the sea entered the deck in great quantity which produced what is called the “free surface effect” which in this particular case was sea water sloshing within the hull that destroyed her stability causing her to capsize. That happened just minutes after leaving the port of Zeebrugge.

The MS Estonia was a 157.0-meter ferry built in 1979 then sailing from Estonia to Sweden. She sailed one night on September 28, 1994 on stormy seas of winds of 55 to 75 kilometers per hour which was considered normal in the part of the Baltic Sea in that part of the year. The significant wave height of the sea was estimated to be from 13 to 20 feet. On that particular night the visor bow door of the failed and it dragged the bow ramp of the ship. The visor door was not visible from the bridge. Water then entered the ship in great quantity and flooded the vehicle deck of the RORO and the free surface effect caused her to capsize much like what happened to the MS Herald of Free Enterprise.

From “The Local” of Sweden

These two grievious sinkings upset the ROPAX world causing changes in RORO designs like the recommendation that instead of having a bow ramp it is better for the ROROs to just have front quarter ramps where the blow from the waves will not be in great force. There was also the suggestion that front ramp mechanisms be done away completely and it seems this might already been adopted at least in principle. One effect is the sealing of bow ramps on some ships that have this feature. And the visor bow door was almost completely gone in RORO designs because of the MS Estonia incident as the thinking that it was an unsafe design (the hinges bear the whole weight of the visor door which are heavy).

But do these twin sinkings have any bearing on us, the Philippines, where a lot of ROROs especially the small ones have active bow ramps? All our basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs just have one ramp and this is located at the bow of the ship. Even the next size of ferries to the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs, those that are over 40 meters in length and have a passenger deck of more than one also commonly feature an active bow ramp (I am comparing this to ROROs that have bow and stern ramps but the bow ramp is not actively used or is permanently closed). And then all our LCTs and many of these are in passenger-cargo application also have just one ramp and the specific feature of LCTs is all of those just have one ramp and it is at the bow.

Superferry 18

The quarter-front ramp of the SuperFerry 18 (Photo by Jonathan Boonzaier)

But did any of our ferries with just one active ramp and at the bow at that ever sink like the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia? The answer is a big NO. We had sinkings of our ROROs with active bow ramps but not in the same circumstances as the sinking of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia. 

The MS Herald of Free Enterprise sank because of crew negligence and/or mistake. How would you call a ship sailing with its bow ramp and door open? Anywhere else that is plain idiocy. But here it happens commonly (LOL!). A lot of our small ROROs do not really close their ramps fully when sailing when the weather is good so that the hot car deck will have more ventilation (o ha!). That is against MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) rules of course but there are no MARINA people roaming the ports anyway. And if the bow ramps need to be completely closed that is easily checked and it is also very visible from the bridge as small RORO just have one car deck and so the bow ramp is almost line of sight with the bridge (actually if there is a problem it is that the bow ramp hampers the view of the navigation crew). Our ROROs also have a lot of crewmen and apprentices that failing to check the bow ramp is almost an impossibility and besides the Chief Mate will always be there (that high a position ha!) because he is in charge of the loading and unloading. So I say the MS Herald of Free Enterprise incident has no bearing here.

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The basic, short-distance ferry-RORO that only has a bow ramp

Our small ROROs also don’t have bow visor door like the MS Estonia. How can it be when their mechanisms are very simple? They don’t even have hydraulic three-piece ramps and winches are all that are needed to raise the ramps to close or lower it to open the ramps. So how can one thing fail when it isn’t there? Now, if there are cracks or rust-throughs in the ramp mechanism that will be visible to all including the passengers, the drivers of the cars, the truck crews, the arrastre people and the hangers-on in the port. And Coast Guard people check on the safety of the ship before departures and supposedly they are very good on that and so what is then the problem? If there is already weakening of the ramp mechanism that will easily show when a heavy truck is loaded or unloaded and all would notice that. After all we are very good in noticing things unlike the Europeans (we notice what one wears and what are the latest rumors in town).

And besides all our ships here don’t sail in gale-force seas like the MS Estonia. Here when there is what is called a tropical depression (which means winds of 45 kilometers per hour), trips are already suspended. Even if there is no storm but the wind is high and the seas are choppy the local weather agency PAGASA that does not follow international conventions will already issue a “gale warning” even if there is no gale. So how can an MS Estonia incident happen here? That is impossible already when Malacanang and MARINA got too strict in sailings in bad weather.

Morever, our small ROROs were mainly built by the Japanese and Japan-built ships were never involved in failures and sinkings like what happened to the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia. We might have salty seas that produce rust but not the frigid waters and weather that accelerate the cracks in the metal like what befell the MS Estonia. Besides if there are ramp weakenings that is repaired early (who wants to earn the ire of vehicle owners when their rig can’t get out of the RORO and the RORO can’t sail and not earn revenues?). Our shipyards are experts in that type of repair/replacement (due to the high weights of some trucks and trailers the ramps normally buckle in loading and if it is already bent enough it is sent to the shipyard for ramp replacement).

Additionally, our local crew are really good and we are even known internationally for supplying hundreds of thousands of crew in international ships. There are small ROROs whose ramps fell our while in use but no sinkings ever happened because of that. But of course nobody would report such incidents to MARINA but I vow such things actually happened. Doesn’t that speak of the quality of our crews unlike the European crews (har har!). And our code of omerta?

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An LCT (Photo by Aris Refugio)

If we had capsizings of our small ROROs with bow ramps it was not because of “free surface effect” but of unbalanced loading maybe like what happened to Baleno Nine in Verde Island Passage and the Lady of Mt. Carmel in the Burias Gap. But I thought the Philippine Ports Author (PPA) had already installed weighing stations at the entrance of the important ports and so what is the problem? Our cargo masters are also very good in estimating the weight of a truck by just looking at its wheels, if there is no weighbridge available.

If sea water entered the car deck of our small ROROs it seemed the point of entry was at the stern like what happened to the Emerald 1 which seemed to fail in a sea surge off Matuco Pt. in Batangas and the Ocean King II which seemed to be a victim of a rogue wave in Surigao Strait (both of these ships also sank in the dark like the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and MS Estonia; it seems the dark is additional danger as checking of things are more difficult). This is also what happened to British RORO Princess Victoria in 1953 when her crew can’t handle water from storm surge in the English Channel entering the car deck through the stern door and ramp. So, empirically, shouldn’t we be closing stern ramps and not the bow ramp? I mean let us be consistent and logical? We should not just copying some rules because some dumb European ships experienced failures. Let us proceed from evidence.

We also have a RORO, a half-RORO at that because she looks like a conventional cargo ship but she has a stern ramp and she had a passenger deck built atop what should be cargo deck. This was the Kalibo Star which sank in daytime on a rainy day with choppy seas in 1997. Water seeped into a hatch that the crew failed to close and “free surface effect” capsized the ship. So from evidence it seems what we really should we be closing are the stern ramps and not ROROs (well, even the capsized Princess of the Orient and Princess of the Stars were stern loading ROROs). I mean shouldn’t we proceeding from empirical evidence instead of being copycats? (Disclosure: I have a private database of over 300 Philippine ships that was lost since the end of the war which I have consulted.)

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The Samar Star, a ship similar to the lost Kalibo Star (Photo by JC Cabanillas)

Hindi tayo dapat uto-uto (we should not be like marionettes). If there is a marionette in our maritime world it might our MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency who is wont to sign all the protocols handed down by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) so as the claim “we” are “IMO-compliant” and brag as if that is an achievement. Why, we don’t even use IMO Numbers as MARINA insists on its own numbers that are not searchable anywhere else. And when former Senator Miriam asked that those protocols be submitted to the Senate for ratification the government of Noynoy flatly refused. Now it seems these signed protocols are being bandied about as if they are official, as if those have the force of law like what they do with the ISPS protocol. From what I know only our Congress can pass national laws and that was why the late Miriam was pointedly challenging MARINA then. These protocols we signed are not part of our laws, they do not have the effect of a law and if one searches there are no penal provisions attached unlike in a law.

Besides we should not be bandying some rare failures in a different land (or sea) as if they general application. In engineering, the lessons derived from a cause of failure is specific in use and is not generalized. If a bridge or a building collapsed it does not mean that all the bridges and buildings with similar designs have to be torn down or closed. If a plane of sweptback wing design crashes not all sweptback planes are banned. Is the maritime world not an engineering world too (it was not when hulls were still wooden and we have not graduated from that?). So the maritime world is not an empirical world but a world of knee jerk artists?

Rather than blindly following IMO protocols we should have our own empirical study of our ship losses so more concrete lessons can be gained.

But then I doubt if MARINA and the Philippine Coast Guard even have a complete database of our ship losses (it seems they can’t provide a list of more than 50 sinkings).

As they say, let us proceed from evidence. Let us not assume we are as dumb like some Europeans.

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The Uneven and Controversial Record of Breaking of Passenger Ships in the Philippines

In the recent decades it is only in the 1980’s where I saw a relatively massive ship-breaking of Philippine ferries. Two big factors worked in confluence in that. One, the backbone of Philippine ferries of the postwar years, the former “FS” ships were already breaking down on its own because they were already 40 years old on the average which was already far beyond their estimated design life. Moreover, there was already a shortage of parts and to keep other “FS” ships running some others have to be cannibalized. And these ships were actually badly outgunned already by the newer ferries and as cargo carriers (some were used in that role when they were no longer competitive), they were already overtaken already by the newly-fielded container ships and by cargo ships with fixed schedules like the ships of Sea Transport.

1956 0917 MV Grace I

An example of a former “FS” ship (Credits to Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen)

The other big factor was the great economic crisis of the 1980’s, the greatest since World War II when there was a contraction of the economy, inflation and the exchange rate were runaway and there was simply no loans available then and interest rates were sky high. Such situation will simply contract the need for ships. This was exacerbated by companies falling by the wayside, bankrupt and shuttered. That even included our auto manufacturing plants. In shipping, a significant percentage of our shipping companies folded and with it went their ships because the remaining shipping companies were just in survival mode and in no mood to take over their ships. That was the second main reason why many of our former “FS” were broken up in the 1980’s. Most of them were scrapped locally specifically in Navotas. The passenger ships of the shipping companies that went belly up in the 1980’s like Compania Maritima also ended up in the breakers and they were not limited to ex-”FS” ships. The 1980’s was really a cruel decade for shipping.

Earlier, in the 1970’s, the former Type “C1” ships were also lost as a class because their engines were no longer good. That also was true of the former Type “N” ships. These ships simply surrendered because they were no longer reliable and parts were hard to come by. And that is one truth in shipping. If a ship is no longer good especially the engines and it cannot be re-engined anymore then it goes to the breakers and no government order to cull is needed for that.

1960 0625 MV Mindanao

An example of a former Type “C1” ship (Credits to Phil. Herald and Gorio Belen)

After the 1980’s, ship-breaking followed three main trends. One is the trend set by William, Gothong and Aboitiz (WG&A) and later by its successor Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). WG&A has the penchant to dispose of ship they think are already superfluous. That is actually what happens in mergers and acquisitions (M&A’s). There will always an excess in assets including ships and personnel and the new entity will try to dispose of them to junk “non-performing assets” (NPA’s). That is the reason why still-good liners and overnight ships were disposed to the breakers. There was really no good technical reason to send them there and die.

On the other hand, WG&A and its subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC) had some ships that were nearly ready for the breakers because their engines were already beginning to get unreliable. WG&A tried to sell them as still “good” ships and a few shipping companies got conned buying ROROs with problematic engines and obsolete cruisers. The stinged companies like Sampaguita Shipping had to dispose later these ships.

Our Lady of Banneux (Mis-identified as SF10)

Our Lady of Naju (Mis-identified as OLO Banneux)

Probably the OLO Banneux but Identified as OLO Naju

Sold to raise cash (From http://www.greenshipbreaking.com)

When the two partners in WG&A divested, the Aboitiz family had to dispose of ships to pay them off. This was the reason why Aboitiz Transport System (ATS), the successor company to WG&A had to sell a series of still-good ships, passenger and container, to China breakers early this millennium. In effect, the Gothong and Chiongbian families were paid with cash from scrap metal and their old ships were gone forever.

Aboitiz Transport System also had to sell other ships to the breakers (their liners are too big to be overnight ferries) in order to acquire newer ferries. That was done in the middle of the 2000’s.This is called renewal of the fleet and this is done all the time in other countries. Of course, a company will try to sell their weaker ferries in order to acquire new ones. This pattern also carried over into the successor company of ATS, the shipping company 2GO.

But again the reason to sell was not always based on technical reasons (as in the ship is no longer reliable) but on other considerations. I have observed that the creation of WG&A and its subsequent dissolution created a lot of crooked reasons for selling ships that were not based on the condition of the ship. Some of those were simply connected to cutting of routes and frequencies and the need to come up with cash.

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Sold before its time for crooked reasons (Photo by Vinz Sanchez)

Meanwhile, competitor Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) was hit with illiquidity after their massive expansion fueled by bank loans backfired and they had to seek court protection from garnishment proceedings. However, these resulted in ships being laid up and offered for sale. These ships ended up in the hands of foreign breakers because liners were in excess then (and ATS does not buy ferries from competitors) as budget airlines and intermodal buses cut into their revenue..

But the next chopping of ships en masse was even more cruel. This was as a consequence of Sulpicio Lines getting suspended from sailing after the Princess of the Stars capsized in 2008. Stringent conditions were placed by MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency on Sulpicio Lines’ return to passenger operations. Meanwhile, the bulk of their fleet rotted in their Mandaue wharf and in the middle of Mactan Channel. Along with strong public backlash, Sulpicio Lines lost heart and sold off their entire fleet to foreign breakers and a great passenger fleet that took five decades to build was lost in just one stroke. Those who knew shipping knew this great passenger fleet won’t ever be replaced again. Ironically, it is the government bureaucrats regulating them which did not know that.

Princesses laid up

None of these survived the suspension

As a general rule, companies that do not run into trouble do not send ships to the breakers. WG&A (divestment of partners), Negros Navigation (illiquidity) and Sulpicio Lines (suspension) all ran trouble (and MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency tasked with the country’s maritime development was of no help to them whatsoever). Non-liners frequently do not run into trouble and if ever they fold, many of their ships are taken over by other shipping companies (as their ships are easier to sell). That is what happened to the likes of Bicolandia Shipping Lines, San Juan Ferry, Western Samar Shipping Lines, Kinswell Shipping Lines, Shipsafe/Safeship, Mt. Samat Ferry Express, Moreta Shipping Lines, etc. But this did not happen to most of the big fleet of Viva Shipping Lines and its legal-fiction companies, to Sampaguita Shipping and SKT Shipping/Kong San Teo Shipping, both of Zamboanga, Tamula Shipping and many others..

Again, another rule, it is easier taking over a failed small company and small ferries because the sums involved are not astronomic. If it is a big liner company that gets into trouble, it is only the foreign ship-breakers that have the money to buy their ships.

Princess of Negros when she was for sale

A photo when this ship was for sale; ended in the breakers

I just hope our government understands more our ferry companies, their travails and the difficulty of keeping ferry companies afloat. From my observation with government it seems many of them think ferry companies are raking in money. It is not the lure of money which keeps them in shipping but simply their passion for shipping.

Our shipping sector is actually in distress but I still have to hear or read a government pronouncement acknowledging that. They push the shipping companies to modernize in a tone that as if buying ships is just as easy as acquiring buses. But the inescapable truth is our ferries are actually graying now. And so I fear for them, not because they will sink but we all know nothing lasts forever. I wonder if there will be a mass extinction of ferries in the future, say a decade from now like what happened to the “ex-FS” and ex-”C1” ships. If that happens maybe we will more LCTs and maybe surplus ferries from China.

RORO Developments in Northern Cebu

In northern Cebu, easily the most busy is Hagnaya port which is so known that it even eclipses its town of San Remigio in name recall in many people. This is so because tourism to Bantayan island has really boomed as it became one of the getaways of Cebuanos. And besides the island is also known for dried fish especially danggit and table eggs which they send to their capital Cebu City.

Super Shuttle Ferry 26, Super Shuttle Ferry 3 and LCT Island II

Hagnaya port

Two shipping companies duke it out in the route to Bantayan — Island Shipping Corporation and the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (Super Shuttle Ferry). The two uses short-distance ferry-ROROs and LCTs to connect to the island. Recently, the bus company Ceres Liner started their run to the island with it loading the buses aboard the ROROs.

A new development in Hagnaya port was the recent start of the Hagnaya to Cawayan, Masbate RORO route of Island Shipping Corporation using an LCT. This is like reopening of the old route to Masbate of the motor boats of yore that also originated from Hagnaya. This new route is meant to compete with the ROROs emanating from the Polambato port of Bogo, Cebu which connect to Cawayan and Cataingan, Masbate. Whether this route will last remains to be seen because of other developments.

New Maya port

New Maya port

And this development I am talking about is the nearing completion of the new Maya port at the northernmost tip of Cebu island which is part of Daanbantayan town. This a RORO port and it will have the advantage of being nearer to Masbate and hence a shorter distance will have to be traveled by the RORO. If the new route offers cheaper RORO rates then Polambato and Hagnaya ports will lose. If not, then the only advantage then of the new route might be a little bit of a shorter transit time and in experience that doesn’t matter much as a decision point for patrons. To remain in contention, maybe the competing ROROs in Polambato and Hagnaya might have to match rates with compensation for the less kilometers traveled by land from Metro Cebu, the main point of origin of the trucks.

Polambato port not only serves Masbate. Actually, it was first built as a RORO connection to Leyte island. A new development there is the recent entry of E.B. Aznar Shipping in the Bogo-Palompon route, a route badly served by Asian Marine Transport Corporation since they have long stoppages when their ferry is not capable of sailing due to mechanical troubles. With that the Ceres Liner bus to Leyte stops and truckers to northwestern Leyte and Biliran will need to find an alternative. This irregularity of service was actually alleviated when Medallion Transport started a Cebu-Palompon service using a RORO and unlike Cokaliong Shipping Lines Incorporated which anteceded them in the route, their RORO is perfectly capable of rolling cargo since it does not have chopped ramps.

Port of Polambato

Polambato port (Photo by jaedee021)

I always wondered how come RORO shipping from northern Cebu to Leyte did not develop like the ROROs to Bantayan when the northwestern district of Leyte has five towns to the three of Bantayan island. Maybe one of the reasons is there might not be enough tourism. Regarding their agricultural produce, maybe it is supplied more to the rest of Leyte and Biliran. Bringing them across the sea to Cebu is additional expense and unless the price differential is high then there is no point in bringing it to Cebu.

There is a resort off Leyte that is slowly being famous now, the Kalanggaman island. But in development as a resort, it seems it is still a long way off that of the very well-known Malapascua island off the northernmost tip of Cebu. Speaking of this island, there are only motor bancas going there which use the old Maya port which is not a RORO port. I do not know if bigger vessels will be used to Malapascua when the new Maya port is finished but probably not since that will require an equally-capable port in the resort island.

Old Maya port

Old Maya port

In the old Maya port there is also a regular motor banca to Esperanza, Masbate. There are also motor boats from Bogo to Cawayan and Placer in Masbate. I just do not know how much those will be impacted when the new Maya port opens. Viewing it from the time the ROROs arrived, a lot of business has already been taken by the ROROs from the motor bancas especially since there is not much need now of point-to-point services to Masbate towns since the roads in Masbate have already improved a lot and so there are already more vehicles rolling.

One thing sure, the ports, the ROROs and the routes in northern Cebu are still evolving. I was anticipating before that it will serve as an alternative to Manila of the people of that part of Cebu rather than backtracking to Cebu City. However, I noticed that the connecting rides still do not mesh very well and it is obvious it is not geared to that. Moreover, there is still not that visible savings in fare. Additionally, the people there are not used to long bus rides whereas one can recline in the liner from Cebu for all they want and have free meals too and good toilets and baths.

Will there be route in the future from northern Cebu direct to the Bicol mainland via Bulan port? Once this port had a Palacio ferry from Cebu City. Or even a route to Calbayog in Samar? This route will be nearer than the one from Cebu City. Now these remain to be seen but I won’t be surprised if those materialize in the future.

The Bill Rider To Kill 35-Year Old Ships

Maybe they are golfing buddies but one thing sure is both of them are in the Cabinet of President Rodrigo Duterte. And maybe Secretary Arthur Tugade offered to carry the cudgels (or golf bags) for Secretary Alfonso Cusi for the latter’s new ships cannot win over the competition in a level playing field because it has no definite technical advantage unlike the FastCats which definitely have low fuel consumption relative to their rolling cargo capacity. The new Starlite ferries might be new and are thrifty compared to the old ferries but they still have to amortize their ships whereas their competitors’ ships are already basically paid for already and that really matters a lot.

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A very good ferry that is 35 years old

There was a bill to give President Rodrigo Duterte new Starlite ferries to solve our traffic problems. And it seems a rider was inserted that will cull ferries that are already 35 years old which meant ferries built in 1982 or earlier. There was even a rumor that new ferries will be given exclusive routes. This is what I was saying in another article of mine that there seems to be moves to target and retire old ship via legislative or administrative fiat. It seems that without that kind of assistance the new Starlite ferries or the new SWM ferry would have a hard time competing. Knowing short-distance ferries have fixed schedules and two-hour gaps are in the rules then that just simply negates the advantage of new ferries as passengers, drivers and car owners normally take the next available RORO. And besides they don’t perceive the old ferries have a definitely disadvantage in safety.

The fact is in many routes no steel-hulled ferry has ever sunk and that includes many heavily-traveled routes like the Matnog-Allen/San Isidro route, the routes from Tabaco to Catanduanes, the Pilar-Masbate route, the routes from Bogo to Cawayan, Cataingan and Palompon, the routes connecting Leyte and Bohol, the Roxas-Caticlan route, the routes from Lucena to Marinduque, the Bacolod-Dumangas route, the Iloilo-Bacolod route, the routes from southwest Cebu to southeastern Negros Oriental, the Dumaguete-Siquijor routes, the Dumaguete-Dapitan route, the Ozamis-Mukas route, the routes from Balingoan to Camiguin, the Zamboanga-Basilan routes and many, many other routes too numerous to list. And old ferries basically plied these routes.

In a conference called by MARINA earlier this year (2017), they admitted that they have no study that says old age is the cause of the loss of ships (well, they can’t even if they make a study because actually one big cause of the mishaps is navigational errors and some ships were lost while not sailing like a force majeure caused by a typhoon and accidents in shipyards or while doing afloat ship repair or ASR). Now after a stalemate where MARINA can’t force its way it seems they simply passed the (golf )ball to Secretary Tugade’s club who I suspect can be influenced but does not know shipping. I don’t think he is even aware that culling 35-year old ship will mean cutting up approximately half of our short-distance and overnight ferry-RORO fleets which are very essential in bridging our islands by moving cargo, people and vehicles. These sectors are actually more important than the liners and the container ships as they connect ports that are beyond the reach of their Manila-based counterparts.

If half of our RORO fleet outside the liners and container ship is suddenly discarded there would definitely be a shipping crisis of major proportion. Some shipping firms like George & Peter Lines, VG Shipping, J&N Shipping, Southern Pacific Transport, Denica Lines, JVS Shipping, Aurelio Shipping, CSGA Ferry, Millennium Shipping, Milagrosa J Shipping and the Camiguin ferry companies will suddenly end up defunct for they will lose all their ferries. And some shipping companies will only retain one ferry out of a former fleet. Actually ferry companies in Cebu province will lose more than half of their ferries and there is no need to emphasize the importance and weight of Cebu shipping to the country. The would be like that of 1986 (or even worse) when we severely lacked ferries because so many shipping companies collapsed in the crisis spawned by the Aquino assassination and the former “FS” ships also gave out because of old age (but unlike now the old ships are not expiring yet because of advances in metallurgy and technology and the availability of replacement engines). I thought the current administration is seeking growth. Is killing ships the way to do that? Replacing nearly 200 ferries is never easy. Can anybody guess how much will that cost?

I have always wondered why in our government the decision-makers in transport are the ones who do not ride them. Like in shipping I wonder if Secretary Tugade ever rode a scheduled ferry for I know he is a certified landlubber from Cagayan province. That is also true in buses and jeeps; the decision-makers also don’t ride those. These decision-makers do not really know their fields inside-out and yet they decide its fates and maybe it is only the whispers to their ears that count. I thought when I was still studying that it should be the experts that should decide and not the political hacks. It has been a long time already when our Cabinet was dominated by technocrats or those who really studied their fields. In the US most of the men in Cabinet are there because of political connections. But at least they know when to bring in and to consult the experts. Not here because for a long time already those who feel and act like they are the “experts” are the politicians, the media people and the bishops when actually they practically know nothing and true experts are just used as decoration.

We only have just over 300 ferry-ROROs (there are also a few cruisers and true motor launches but our liners is just over a dozen). So that means we are practically just talking about overnight ferries and short-distance ferries in this issue. Add to that a little over 40 HSCs (High Speed Crafts) too. The others are Moro boats, motor boats and motor bancas which are too numerous to count (they are much more than in numbers than our steel-hulled crafts) and should not be included here (anyway practically none of them are over 35 years old, amazingly). In the ROROs, the LCTs are included.

If 35-year old ferries are to lose licenses the following will have to be sent to the breakers (or be converted into cargo ships if cargo ships over 35 years old will not be culled but the freighter Fortuner breaking into two recently after loading with steel bars will not help their case):

Montenegro Lines/Marina Ferries: Maria Angela, Maria Beatriz, Maria Diana, Maria Erlinda, Maria Gloria, Maria Helena, Maria Isabel, Maria Josefa, Marie Kristina, Maria Matilde, Maria Rebecca, Maria Sofia, Marie Teresa, Maria Xenia, Maria Yasmina, Maria Zenaida, City of Sorsogon, City of Masbate, City of Tabaco, City of Calapan, Maria Timotea, Reina del Rosario, Reina Genoveva, Reina Hosanna, Reina Neptuna and Reina Quelita. A total of 26 ferries and fastcrafts. The four whose names start with “City” are fastcrafts. Hernan Montenegro will cry a bucket of tears and expect Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to fight like hell against the bill in Congress.

Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC): Super Shuttle Ferry 1, Super Shuttle Ferry 2, Super Shuttle Ferry 3, Super Shuttle Ferry 5, Super Shuttle Ferry 6, Super Shuttle Ferry 9, Super Shuttle Ferry 15 and Super Shuttle Ferry 23. A total of 8 ferries.

Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI): The new Trans-Asia that is not yet finished, Trans-Asia 2, Trans-Asia 9, Trans-Asia 10 and Asia Philippines. A total of 5 ferries.

Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI): Filipinas Iligan, Filipinas Butuan, Filipinas Iloilo, Filipinas Maasin, Filipinas Dapitan, Filipinas Dinagat and Filipinas Dumaguete. A total of 7 ferries.

Roble Shipping: Wonderful Stars, Joyful Stars, Theresian Stars, Beautiful Stars and Ormoc Star. A total of 5 ferries. Add to this the Asian Star and Asian Star II which were the former Blessed Star and Sacred Stars sent to Theresian Stars shipping company.

Lite Ferries: Lite Ferry 1, Lite Ferry 2, Lite Ferry 3, Lite Ferry 6, Lite Ferry 7, Lite Ferry 8, Lite Ferry 15, Lite Ferry 20 and Lite Ferry 21. A total of 9 ferries.

Island Shipping: Island RORO I, Super Island Express I, Super Island Express II, Super Island Express III, Island Express II, Island Express III and Island Express V. A total of 7 ferries although I doubt the existence of some now.

Medallion Transport: Lady of Love, Lady of All Nations, Lady of Miraculous Medal, Lady of Sacred Heart, Lady of Charity, Lady of Guadalupe-Cebu and Lady of Angels. A total of 7 ferries and I am not even sure the Lady of Good Voyage will survive.

Aznar Shipping: Melrivic 1, Melrivic Two, Melrivic Three, Melrivic Seven, Melrivic Nine and their fastcrafts.

George & Peter Lines: GP Ferry-2, Zamboanga Ferry and Georich

Gabisan Shipping: Gloria Two, Gloria Three, Gloria V

Jomalia Shipping: Mika Mari, Mika Mari III, Mika Mari V, Mika Mari VI

Maayo Shipping: LCT Giok Chong, LCT Martin, LCT Wilcox

Cuadro Alas Navigation: Santander Express, Santander Express II, Santander Express IV

GL Shipping: GL Express and probably GL Express 2

J&N Shipping: J&N Carrier and J&N Ferry. Ubay will suddenly lose its connection to Cebu.

Southern Pacific Transport: South Pacific and Fiji-II

VG Shipping: VG RORO II and VG 1.

Rose Shipping: Yellow Rose

Maypalad Shipping: Samar Star

Lapu-lapu Shipping: Lapu-lapu Ferry 1

Golden Star: Anluis

Metro Ferry: Princesa (but not Carmen Uno)

PAR Transport: Leonor 3 and probably Leonor 5

R&D: Lady Star (this is laid up)

Orlines Sea-Land Transport: Siquijor Island 1

Sta. Clara Shipping/Penafrancia Shipping: Hansel Jobett, Mac Bryan, Nathan Matthew, Don Benito Ambrosio II, Don Herculano and Eugene Elson. A total of 6 ferries.

Regina Shipping Lines: Regina Calixta IV

168 Shipping: Star Ferry-II

Denica Lines: Marina Express and Odyssey

Province of Camarines Sur: Princess Elaine (a fastcraft)

Kalayaan Shipping: Kalayaan VII

Rolly Fruelda: Elreen 2

Tour-cruise ships of Manila: Pacific Explorer, Eco Explorer, Discovery Palawan, 7017 Islands, Oceana Maria Scuba

Atienza Shipping Lines: April Rose

JVS Shipping: D’ASEAN Journey, D’Sea Journey

Aurelio Shipping: San Carlo Uno

Quincela Shipping: Q-Carrelyn VII

Starlite Shipping: Starlite Annapolis, Starlite Ferry, Starlite Navigator and Starlite Polaris. A total of 5 ferries.

Besta Shipping Lines: Baleno VII

Navios Shipping Lines: Grand Unity and Grand Venture 1

CSGA Ferry: Princess Annavell

Tri-Star Megalink: LCT Tabuelan Navistar

Millennium Shipping: Lakbayan Uno and Millennium Uno

Milagrosa J Shipping: Milagrosa J-3 and Milagrosa J-5

Aleson Shipping: Estrella del Mar, Stephanie Marie, Neveen, Danica Joy, Ciara Joie, Ciara Joie 2. A total of 6 ships.

Ever Lines: Ever Queen of Asia, Ever Queen Emilia, Ever Transport, Ever Sweet, Ever Queen of Pacific. A total of 5 ships.

Magnolia Shipping: Magnolia, Magnolia Grandiflora, Magnolia Fragrance

Evenesser Shipping/Ibnerizam Shipping/Sing Shipping: Bounty Cruiser, Jadestar Legacy, KC Beatrice

Province of Tawi-tawi: Tawi-tawi Pearl 1, LCT Tanah Tawi-tawi

ZDS-ATOM FSA: LCT Mabuhay

Sarangani Transport: Song of Dolly-3

Mae Wess/CW Cole: The Venue, LCT Nicole II Starferry

KSJ Shipping: Fortune Angels

Philstone Shipping: Yuhum, Kalinaw, Royal Princess

Davemyr Shipping: Dona Pepita

Hijos de Juan Corrales: Hijos-1

Daima Shipping: Swallow I and Swallow II

Ocean Fast Ferries: Oceanjet 7

A total of about 187 steel-hulled ferries to be culled including a few fastcrafts. Again, Moro boats (whose number is about 130 plus), motor boats, motor launches (like most of the crafts of Metro Ferry) and passenger-cargo motor bancas, big and small are not included. Anyway almost all of them will survive as the local-built, wooden-hulled crafts are generally below 35 years old in age (few wooden-hulled crafts reach 35 years of age).

In my database about 250 steel-hulled ferries will survive including over a dozen liners and more than 3 dozen HSC plus a sprinkling of Medium Speed Crafts (MSCs) like the two Anika Gayle ships (this count does not include the FastCats). If liners, HSCs and MSCs are not included (but the FastCats are included) so the comparison will be basically ferry-ROROs (that are not liners) then about 180 will be culled and about a little less 200 will survive (very few of the 180 and 200 are cruisers like the Georich and Yellow Rose). So that means killing nearly half of our ROPAXes.

If the plan to cull 35-year old ships is immediately implemented one sure response will the be multiplying of LCTs from China (not the local LCTs as basically those are not people carriers although some can and will be converted and the bulk of them are less than 35 years old). Will they call the transition from ferry-ROROs to passenger-cargo LCTs as “progress”?

If ships that are not ferries will not be culled then many of the ferries that will be culled might be converted into Cargo RORO ships that will not carry passengers like what happened to Trans-Asia 5 (but she is too beautiful as a comparison). People then will have to find alternate means of transport. Maybe the intermodal buses will mushroom. Or probably the Camotes motor boats like the Junmar ships will multiply. Otherwise there is our trusty motor banca to take. But I thought they want to phase that out too including the motor boats? Again, will they call that as “progress”?

I imagine for the remaining ferries, passenger loads of 100% will be a daily common occurrence, peak season or not. Maybe the ticket scalpers will return too to make a living. And it will matter a lot if one knows a crewman of a ship. Or better yet one of the owners. But if I talk of shipping of the 1980’s, will Secretary Tugade understand? I am sure he has no understanding of the shipping difficulties of that period.

Do MARINA and Secretary Tugade think that passengers are that important to the shipping companies? Those in the know knows that is not so and shipping companies can live by cargo and rolling cargo alone and that is the reason why the Cargo RORO LCTs are thriving. If the bill is passed I imagine the likes of Roble Shipping will just be doing cargo and rolling cargo basically plus maybe two ROPAXes to Ormoc and Hilongos, their prized ports and that will also include their freighters and Cargo RORO LCTs. I don’t think Secretary Tugade knows that the bulk of the sailing ships of Roble Shipping is not into passengers (and that includes their freighters). So in the end it will be the passengers that will really suffer. 

I wonder if Secretary Tugade knows some of the ships he wants to cull are actually re-engined now and some do not have any history of trouble and are still very good condition like the sister ships Filipinas Iligan and Filipinas Butuan. In other countries they base renewal of ship papers on technical inspection and not in some kind of arbitrary cut-off in age. As pointed out by the ship owners and PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society), there is no mandatory retirement of ships in other countries and the IMO (International Maritime Organization) has no protocol on that (gusto yata mas magaling pa tayo sa kanila; mahilig din naman ang Philippine bureaucrats sa hambog). For the haters of old ships to say there is such a thing is just a bald lie and they resort to that because they have their own vested interest. Now what they want is a legislative fiat which is clearly anti-competition.

Give exclusive routes to the new ships? To where? To Sabah and Indonesia? Does Secretary Tugade think he can simply dissolve the franchises held by the shipping companies? It seems that Secretary Tugade is also applying into the Impunity Club a.k.a “What Are We In Power For” Club. It can smash a ship owner’s head like a golf ball.

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A very good ship that is over 35 years old (Photo by Jonathan Bordon)

The current dispensation is saying that former Secretaries Roxas and Abaya left a lot of mess in transport. Do they want their own mess too?

Time Will Come The LCTs Will Take Away The Business Of The Container Ships

It was a friend of mine who worked as trusted man of someone high up in shipping who told me that MARINA has set it just to 30 or 35% load for a container ship to be profitable. I was aghast by that because that will mean terrible inefficiency and high rates for the shippers. That was twenty years ago and in that same time span our local shipping industry has been under attack for very high rates and it has been pointed out that from Davao it is much cheaper to send a container van to Hongkong or Singapore which are much farther than Manila. But even after two decades there has been no change in the situation of the industry. If there was, it is the rates went up geometrically higher. And of course that was unacceptable but our bureaucrazy only acts to change things if there is already an imminent revolt.

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Intermodal trucks for loading in BALWHARTECO Port in Allen, Samar

As they say water seeks its own path and one cannot hold or bottle it forever. One big response by shippers that I saw was in the widespread deployment of intermodal trucks that use our highways and then boards short-distance ROROs at the end of the road and then continue on to the next island. The intermodal truck might then still board another short-distance RORO to another island. I found out there are even trucks whose origin is Mactan island which are bound to Manila and will traverse Cebu island, Negros island, Panay island and Mindoro island before landing in Batangas port. And of course intermodal trucks from Manila or CALABARZON find its way to Davao regularly and there are some that reach as far as Zamboanga.

Consolidation” of the local cargo shipping industry especially the container sector has long been proposed by experts both local and foreign. But it has fallen into deaf ears and the national government will not wield the proverbial stick to make this come true and so it lays until now where it started, that is as proposals. “Consolidation” would have led to greater efficiency and thus lower rates. But locally, businesses and not only shipping wants to see efficiency not to lower rates (of course, they will pay lip service to that) but to higher profits. And so greed rules and trumps everything and the higher national interest and greater good do not matter in the end.

Our different shipping companies are republics of their own and historically they have never been into cooperation, consolidation or merger (except the “Great Merger” which produced WG&A and which had been a disaster to local shipping) even though some are related by blood. If there has been a CISO (Conference of Inter-island Ship Owners) in the past, it is only because they want to present a common front vis-a-vis the government and also to make sure that the agreed rates are being observed by all (however, in other countries that will ruled as “cartelization” and subject to penalties or even jail terms; but not here as that term is practically unknown and even Economics teachers here do not know that). Oh, well, actually the cartel master locally is MARINA which sets the rates. Historically, they set the maximum rates but like what happened to LTFRB they treat the maximum rate as also the minimum and MARINA in the end serves just the needs of the shipping companies and not the general public. But before it be misconstrued that they are servile to shipping companies, the truth is shipping companies fear MARINA as their livelihood and fortune is dependent on the decisions of MARINA. If the rates are drastically brought down then they might all go down.

That is the reason why the shipping companies will fight toe and nail for the retention of the Anti-Cabotage Law which bars foreign shipping companies from sailing local or inter-island routes. If the Congress (which has the power to repeal the Anti-Cabotage Law) allows the entry of the much more efficient and capable foreign ships then local cargo rates will drastically go down but our local shipping companies will drown. Regarding the Philippine Competition Commission (PCC), that entity will not amount to anything in shipping because that only checks mergers and mergers are a near-impossibility in shipping.

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LCT Raenell of Asian Shipping Corporation in Mandaue

And so shippers and other related interests will find new ways to bring down rates some other way. One of these is the employment of the cheap and cheap-to-operate LCTs which has only 1,000 horsepower on the average which is just about a third of the power of the container ships. True, they will probably only run at about 7 to 8 knots compared to the 11 to 12 knots of the container ships. So they will take three days to Cebu where a container van will only take two days. But, hey, the bulk of cargo is not express anyway and a difference of one day will not really matter, in the main. Nowadays if one really wants it fast one takes to the plane and use air cargo which is P20/kilo at the lowest now.

It is through the use of chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation that Ocean Transport had their start. Using big LCTs (by local standards), 94 TEUs can be fitted with the container vans stacked like Lego and handled by big forklifts. The LCTs cost P70,000 a day, fuel and crew included and so the transport cost one way is just over P200,000 not including cargo handling in Manila and possible cargo handling in Cebu. Plus of course other labor, office, yard and anciliary costs and maybe insurance. Under the table money, I have only the vaguest of ideas. But in this calculation one can see the movement of a TEU to Cebu via chartered LCTs is just P4,000, starting. That will not be the actual rate but one can see how low it is via LCT when the normal commercial rate for a TEU to Cebu is probably 5 times of that. The LCT might have just a capacity of 94 TEUs and the container van has 300 TEU but if they are only a third full on the average then the actual load of the two is just about equal and the LCT has probably only has a third of the horsepower of the container ship. The LCT usually has about 100% load. So it is very easy to see which is more efficient and why an LCT can give much, much cheaper rates.

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Roble Shipping was the next to follow the shipping model of Ocean Transport and like the first they were also very quiet about it. Maybe the two fear that if it becomes known widespread that the LCT mode is successful some shipping companies will lobby MARINA and MARINA will institute a crackdown and maybe cite “safety” again which is the usual bogey of MARINA. It has been a long time that the LCTs, being flat-bottomed and not that resilient against capsizing has been tagged with safety issues. It does not help either that being open-decked and having a low freeboard some issues were also attached by some to those. [Note: Ocean Transport and Roble Shipping now operates their own LCTs regularly carrying container vans from Manila to Cebu.]

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LCT Akira of Ocean Transport by John Carlos Cabanillas

The longest route I have seen LCTs bring container vans regularly is from Manila to Cagayan de Oro. And so locally it is proven now that LCTs can be container carriers for 500 nautical miles. I do not know if they are capable of Southern Mindanao routes which is up to 800 nautical miles but I think they can do it if needed. Of course, LCTs are normally earlier to seek shelter than container ships when there are storms. But if MARINA and the Coast Guard suspends voyages at 45kph wind speed then the container ships might not have an advantage anymore.

The LCTs are looked down upon by many but they should know that China which is already the biggest shipbuilding country in the world and is already a shipping power widely uses LCTs to move their cargo internally and on shorter distances. Actually most of our new LCTs now are from China and many came here brand-new. In terms of age, our LCTs might be younger than our container ships now. And LCTs are the backbone of our Cargo RORO LCT fleet which not only move trucks but also trucks and trailers bearing container vans especially to islands that are not served well by container ships like Bohol, Leyte and Samar.

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LCT PMI-3 from Leyte

If MARINA won’t crack down, I see intermodal trucks and LCTs further taking away the business of the container ships which is still growing in number but I know their cargo volume is not increasing. Consolidation would have been easy for them if they will just open their eyes and be open-minded and it does not mean that they would have to merge, an anathema to many executives as that might mean losing their positions and careers that they have built over the years. Actually the simplest consolidation is the swapping of container vans. There is no container company that has daily departures even from Manila and the simplest is they should load their containers to their partner shipping companies which has the nearest departure. That will mean ships being fuller and at the end of the month they can reconcile their figures and charges would have to be paid for the difference but of course it should be on friendship or partner rates.

With that, less ships might have to be employed, there would be less sailings and that would have to mean savings that should be passed on to consumers if they have any integrity. With consolidation too there might be enough containers vans to ports and islands that they have already abandoned or bypassed and so the container ships can come back there and sailing level might be maintained (now isn’t that neat?). Internationally, this system I mentioned is already being used and not only in shipping. I don’t see any valid reason why the local shipping companies can’t do it. It will only be impossible if their distrust of each other is too much and their owners and executives are too obtuse. The national government should also wield the stick after incentives are laid out. They can even set the rules and the system. It is high time already as for the past two decades after constant criticisms I have not seen our local container companies try to bring down container rates to acceptable world standards. They are just being kept afloat by the blood of the shippers. And that is why forwarder companies are making great strides and container shipping is just where they were two decades before. That is also the true reason they won’t venture out to foreign waters because they simply cannot compete. Regarding their charge that our ports are too shallow that is baloney because much bigger foreign ships use the same major ports that they do.

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LCT Poseidon 15 in Verde Island Passage

I wish the LCTs well for maybe it is them that will be able to bring down container rates even though they might not look modern or beautiful. If they drown the container ships then it is the fault of the container shipping companies themselves.

The Trip from Tacloban to Surigao del Sur [Part 2]

When the smaller group of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) members split and said goodbyes in Tacloban bus terminal, I was aware it was already December 13 and it was the PSSS’ 8th anniversary. I dunno if anyone mentioned it but I didn’t coz I do not want to spook anybody since many associate the 13th with bad luck and we were still all traveling. In our drive to Surigao del Sur, I never mentioned to Joe the anniversary because active members remember the PSSS was founded on December 13. Well, the luck of PSSS is still holding, fingers crossed.

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From Surigao City, me and Joe followed the road to going to Butuan. In our short drive in the city I think Joe already had an idea of the lay-out of it since we took the main road going in and another road going out. Along the way we saw some prominent landmarks like the St. Paul College, the Lipata junction, the bus terminal and the airport plus the shuttered Pacific Cement company. If I remember right, what Joe told me this was his first time in Mindanao and I felt pangs of remorse we were not able to invite our two companions we left in Tacloban for I know they haven’t been to this place yet too. But our host in Surigao del Sur knows only two are coming and Joe didn’t want to abuse the hospitality.

It was a serene drive from the city punctuated by some curves and by some sea views. No meaningful ports really in the area until we arrived in the junction to Surigao del Sur by the progressive barrio of Bad-as which belongs to Placer town. I was surprised there was already a Prince hypermarket there, a Cebu chain. In a barrio no less, when the towns there don’t even have one. I thought the mines might be giving prosperity in the area and the chain bet that junction will soon boom (well, it already looks like a small town to me).

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From there it was a more serene drive. Fewer vehicles, fewer people. We were no longer in the main road, i.e. the Maharlika Highway or AH26 but the road is just as good with even less damage and bumps. We were some distance yet from the sea and small rice fields and low hills dominated the sight. We had a relaxed drive.

Soon, Joe rolled out his GPS map. We were now in an area where I was not familiar with the ports and roads so I can’t give him directions. I told him our first target is the Port of Placer that I have heard before which is named after the town that is still a part of Surigao del Norte (it always enters my mind that there is a port in Placer, Masbate and also in Placer in Surigao del Sur).

Not long after, the sea and then the town came into view. I have the impression of an old town but the progress we saw in Bad-as was not evident here. We made a tour of the town while looking for the protrusion in the GPS map that indicates a finger port. Soon we were running on a road by the sea that is also a docking wharf for the small fishing bancas. That road then led to the actual port which was walled with a gate.

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We paused, a natural reaction but when we entered slowly there was no challenge, just curious looks (maybe they were trying to figure who the big shots were entering the port). That’s the beauty of a port that is not ISPS. In an ISPS (International System of Port Security) port, the guards are generally hostile and visitors are not welcome (they only want people who have official business there).

The Port of Placer surprised me. Offshore there was a tanker (not the Pandacan-type, mind you) but in the port itself there were two Petron truck tankers transferring fuel to plastic drums aboard a motor boat and a big passenger-cargo motor banca (I thought this was illegal but, oh well, we have to be practical). We learned it is destined for a generating plant of an island. The fishing boats inside were bigger and mostly of the basnig type. There were also two motor boats one of which is discharging scrap metal to a truck and the other has drums for fuel also.

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Offshore were islands and islets. Not a surprise since looking at the map this portion of Surigao has many offshore islands. Fishing abounds here and it seems the Port of Placer is one of the recipients. There were fish trucks in the port along with fish brokers. Placer port, though out of the way did not disappoint me. The visit was worth it.

We next passed the small towns of Bacuag and Gigaquit. We had no target ports here. We next rolled into Claver town which was the last town of Surigao del Norte (and soon we understood how it came to be). It was more progressive and I half-expected it having heard of it in the past. The GPS indicated to us a finger port and so we came looking for it. It was small with just a motor boat which seems not to be too active. There was no open sight of the sea. Only mangroves. It was a disappointment. I only took long-distance shots because if we enter the only way out is by backing the car. Not good.

From sea level, the road began to climb and offshore at a long distance we can see LCTs and barges. I forced getting pics but the quality was not good as it was too far for my lens. It turned out I was over-eager. Later, we found out that the mining ports were still ahead of us and I already began to exhaust my supply of batteries (after visiting nine ports already it should have been no surprise). But i rued my over-eagerness.

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As we proceeded, we noticed more and more ships were coming into view and most of those were LCTs and barges with loads that look like brown earth. We can also already see the mining wharves which are mainly causeways built by rocks and earth just bulldozed into the sea (but the biggest in the area, that of Taganito Mining is a pile-type port and it docks bulkers and tankers). The seawater of the area already has a tinge of brown when it was supposed to be blue. We were coming into the mining pollution we have read and seen from the news.

Soon, it was obvious we were nearing a mining community. The mud in the road tells it and what we are meeting now in the road were mostly mining trucks and vehicles. There were also truck depots of the mines along the road and there were also heavy equipment. China brands were almost universally the makes of the rolling stock here, some of which I just seen for the first time in my life.

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Before descending to sea level, it was becoming obvious the mining community we supposed was not just composed of one company but of several distinct companies with it own compounds, gates and wharves. The community was several kilometers long and it already has the feel and flavor of an emerging town. I remembered our member ‘kensurcity’ mentioned to me in a shipspotting meet that Jollibee can open a store in Claver and he said it will thrive. Maybe, this place Taganito was what he was referring to. Well, mining boom towns have magic in terms of glittering metal.

At the center of this community is the legendary Taganito Mining Corporation of the sometimes-controversial Nickel Asia which hit jackpot with the rise of China’s metal needs. There are other mining companies in the area and all are just adjacent one another. One is Adnama Mining Resources and the PSSS is familiar with some of its LCTs that are normally caught by our cameras in Cebu waters.

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When i check the AIS sites, I often see MMSI vessels near Surigao that has Taganito port as the intended destination. It is not a government-owned port, by the way and there are actually many mining wharves in the area each hosting ships with many other ships anchored offshore. We saw about 20 ships in all in the Taganito area (it is actually several barrios) but one needs really long lenses to cover them all well.

Even in the descent to Taganito community (the mining companies are centered in the barrio of Taganito), one is already aware of the exposed rocks at the side of the road which really looked like ores. Slowly, one can also see the stripped mountains and the water run-offs that are brown in color. Ascending after Taganito, it was even more visible and the mining communities also come into view already along with the bays that hosts the wharves. Brown, stripped mountains up high, brown-colored water run-offs and a sea that is turning brown.

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There is no surprise in that because what is being done is plain strip mining (not open pit as there is no pit; the mining companies were just stripping the mountains) just several kilometers from the sea and there are no holding or containment pools. No wonder the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources is now threatening the closure of some of them. It was great shipspotting in that area, there are magnificent views but at the same time one would begin to understand the controversy surrounding the mining in that area.

Leaving the mining area, I began to understand why there was no proper road there before and why Surigao del Sur is cut then from Surigao del Norte then. The area is mainly rocks and it does not have good vegetation and so how much more agriculture? No agriculture, no people. No people, no roads. Then it turned out those rocks are valuable. And so the road connecting the two provinces was built (i was told it was mush before). It looks like a good mining road anyway because most of the vehicles that pass are connected to the mines.

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I exhausted my batteries after that place and me and Joe began to hasten because our target Cortes town is still a fair distance away and it was already past mid-afternoon. We just whizzed by the towns of Carrascal, Cantilan, Madrid, Carmen and Lanuza. We vowed just to cover them and whatever ports are there on our way back to Leyte and Samar. Then, we finally reached the house of Joe’s shipmate at 5pm which we found to be in a progressive but woody barrio off the main road. Good decision to just whiz by the five towns (and anyway I don’t have batteries anymore). Otherwise, we would be searching a woody, unfamiliar and probably dark place after nightfall.

A seafood fete awaited us and all were fresh catch (we learned the fishermen themselves hawk it house-to-house there). Joe immediately posted a shot of the feast in Instagram with a hashtag of the place. A companion we left in Tacloban immediately noticed it (chismoso talaga ang social media). Maybe he was wondering how Joe, in an area he hasn’t ever run was able to cover a lot of distance in just such a short span of time with a ferry crossing to boot and almost no sleep. I didn’t know why James immediately suspected I was with Joe. Was I missing something;)?

Ah, anyway our luck held. And it seemed we did very fine on the day of the PSSS’ anniversary and Joe was able to prove he was a superb driver. Imagine that distance (350 land kilometers plus the Surigao Strait crossing) and pace (13 1/2 hours) with nine ports and one port complex (Taganito) covered including a meal stop. Who will believe that was possible? I bet James was thinking i was holding the wheel.

[Part 3 will be in the next installment.]

The Trip From Tacloban to Surigao del Sur (Part 1)

The smaller tour group of the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) reached Tacloban on the midnight of the second night of the tour. Waiting for Mark to get a ride, we finally parted at about 3:30am of December 13 with Mark on the way to Bato, Leyte for a shipspotting of Bohol and James on the way back to Cebu via Palompon. Me and Joe’s destination was unmentioned but we were actually on the way to Cortes, Surigao del Sur, near the capital of Tandag to visit a shipmate of Joe and shipspot along the way.

There are really not many ports on the Tacloban-Panaon island axis if one follows the road to Mahaplag. From Tacloban, Joe and me had to take the Mahaplag route mainly because it was still dark and Joe also wanted to see the Agas-agas bridge. Besides, a trip via Silago will take longer and I want us to be on the 8am ferry in Benit because that will afford us the greatest chance of visits to the unexplored ports of Surigao without nightfall overtaking us. We had the thought of passing it on the way back, halfheartedly, because our tentative route on the way back now was via Isabel, Leyte to pick up a puppy.

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Liloan Ferry Terminal and Liloan bridge

We reached Liloan at about 6am and Joe tried entering the Liloan Ferry Terminal. I dissuaded him because I feared we will get in trouble with the LGU collectors of illegal exactions and we will lose more time if a scene erupts and anyway I don’t want to take the ferry there because I thought it will reach Lipata Ferry Terminal not sooner but later. I told Joe we can cover Lipata Ferry Terminal from the Liloan municipal port which is located just a kilometer from the other end of the Liloan bay.

I was not mistaken and we were lucky because as tipped by member Mervin Go Soon of Baybay (whom we met on the Oroquieta Stars on the way to the PSSS tour-meet assembly in Tacloban), the former Maharlika Cinco of Archipelago Ferries was there. The other tip of Mervin that the Grand Star RORO 3 was doing a Liloan Municipal Port to Surigao route also proved true because she was there besides the former Maharlika Cinco. We noticed no work was being done on the former Maharlika Cinco which would become the Gloria Five of Gabisan Shipping. I was wondering then who is operating the Grand Star RORO 3. I thought it was “M Shipping” whose AUV we encountered on the road (I was mistaken on that assumption as Mervin very recently told me that Grand Star RORO 3 was also bought by Gabisan Shipping and I wonder now if she is the Gloria One advertised by the company in Liloan port).

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Across the bay, we saw that it was only the Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping which was docked in Liloan Ferry Terminal. With its slow speed and the triple distance of Liloan compared to Benit port, it would have been disaster to our schedule had we taken it (so our bet not to enter Liloan Ferry Terminal was right after all). There was also anchored in the bay the Cargo RORO LCT GT Express 1 of GT Shipping which was doing a route to Surigao so that trucks wouldn’t queue long like in the past. I noticed the old Liloan municipal port terminal was already converted into an office by the municipality. But the old arrastre office was still there.

At the end of our short, alloted time in Liloan we made a run for Benit in San Ricardo town at the tip of Panaon island. I did not want a photofinish and I told Joe we need to put in some allowance on time lest we were shut out of the ferry (“shut out” in maritime use here means one’s vehicle or cargo fails to be loaded to a ship) and probably have to backtrack to Liloan and so we did not look for a place to eat anymore (anyway there was probably none that is inviting as Liloan is just a small town). Along the way we saw the abandoned port of San Francisco which once docked the copra ships of great shipping line Go Thong in the past.

We next came to “The Saddle”, a renowned mountain pass that Joe wants to conquer (it was called by that name because it resembles a horse saddle if viewed from the sea). It was not shipspotting but there were views of the sea from there and we knew right after that will come the town of San Ricardo but Benit port will still be some distance from it.

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Leaving behind Benit, its collectors of illegal exactions and “The Saddle”

Approaching Benit port, before the turn inside, I told Joe that if the San Ricardo LGU collectors of the illegal exactions flag him down that he continues driving as if he did not see anything. The ruse worked and upon entering the people of Montenegro Lines and the arrastre rushed us saying we will be the last vehicle that will be loaded. There were already shortcuts in the processing of papers and we were already on the ramp before all the papers were even processed. The ship left even before 8am and I saw two vehicles that arrived minutes after us were no longer accommodated (and there was actually still some space for at least one of them). So it was still a photofinish alright and a lucky accommodation. Sometimes that is one gets from being disciplined in the travel approach. I told Joe before that many said I am lucky with trips and it seems it was holding. Actually, it held during the 1,000 kilometers me and Joe ran with two ferry crossings and with many ports visited.

Our ship was the Maria Vanessa of Montenegro Lines, sister of the Maria Felisa (actually no other shipping company serves the Benit-Lipata route). Since we both lacked sleep, me and Joe barely toured the ship. Instead we immediately looked for a cool, comfortable and quiet place and soon we were asleep although the voyage usually takes only 1 hour and 15 or 20 minutes. We two really needed that rest even if it was so short. We did not even care for food as all we wanted is sleep.

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Lipata Ferry Terminal

That short sleep reinvigorated the two of us and there was no hassle in the disembarkation process nor in getting out of the Lipata Ferry Terminal. We did not try anymore to tour the port since we will be exiting Mindanao through that port anyway. What we wanted was food as our stomachs were grumbling already. It was already mid-morning and we only had hamburger the previous night in Tacloban terminal and no breakfast at all.

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“Voyagers” (Photo by Joe Cardenas)

Going out of the port, I espied a new place which looked like a diner to me although it looks more of a lodging place. I was able to convince Joe to backtrack and what a discovery! Well, they really serve meals and snacks and it turned out that the owner is a master mariner abroad and so the place was themed by maritime things. The was not the usual rush of people, it was quiet and clean and it does not look or smell like the usual roadside stands. The name of the place is “Voyagers” and we recommend it. Me and Joe took a little time to unwind and relax there before we proceeded to the city (i.e. Surigao City). 

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In the city, we first went to what is called the “Boulevard”. It is a boulevard indeed, a seaside one. It is adjacent to the main port of Surigao and it is there where the so-many big motor bancas of Surigao to Dinagat, Siargao and other islands dock. We were lucky since we were early they were still all there and since the sea was calm so many came. I walked the entire length of the Boulevard getting shots of all the bigger boats. Offshore, a few LCTs were moored, as always. LCTs are a fixture of Surigao now because the mines employ them.

From there me and Joe proceeded to the main port of Surigao which is called Verano port. Joe wanted to enter but I told him there is almost no chance of a free pass as it is an ISPS port which means visitors are not welcome. To buy a ticket for Siargao so we can enter means a bit heavy “entrance fee”. Might have been affordable for our pockets but I was always mindful of the time and I do not want the quest for the unexplored ports of Surigao be compromised (why is it that long-distance shipspotting is always balancing of compromises?). Besides I was more interested in the old docking area of boats nestled on the side of Verano which was not obvious or visible from outside it. So I just contented myself with some shots of Verano ships from the gate. There are not many of them at a given time anyway and two i even caught while departing.

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A view of Verano Port from the nearly-enclosed marina beside it

I then nestled myself into the narrow opening that leads to what I found to be a dirty marina where many bancas and motor boats were anchored (there were more than 15 of them). This looked like to be the old port as can be deduced from the road on the other side of where I was. It is now almost encircled by Verano port but I knew from observation inside Verano that passenger-cargo motor bancas emanate from it which I found to be bound to the smaller islands that belong to Surigao City.

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The MARINA nestled by Verano Port

Many of the vessels in that nearly-enclosed marina were actually fishing bancas. But it seems nobody cares anymore for that port and marina. It is dirty and it looks as if there is no order there and even the roads and pathways leading to it look unmaintained. I did not dare exploring anymore as the walkways looked dangerous to me.

From there me and Joe exited Surigao City not through the main road but through some shortcuts which Joe saw on the GPS map. We did not try anymore the Surigao-Lipata coastal road whose turn we missed earlier. The unexplored municipal ports and the mining ports of Surigao were the ones that were already pulling us. Their magnetites seem to be strong….

(More on the next installment.)

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.

The Remaining Cruiser Ferries of Cebu Port

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The cruiser era is near to drawing to a close in the Philippines, maybe. Cruisers might hold on to Zamboanga but I don’t know anywhere else. In the Port of Cebu they might have been gone now except for three hold-outs, the Lapu-lapu Shipping, Gabisan Shipping and South Pacific Transport which don’t operate ROROs. But recent rumor say Gabisan will sell one of its cruisers, either the Gloria Two or Gloria Three and in its place will come the former Maharlika Cinco of Archipelago Philippine Ferries which supposedly will become the Gloria V in their fleet. This ferry is now undergoing renovation and refitting in Leyte and she is a big one. Seems Gabisan Shipping also wants a slice of the growing rolling cargo traffic to Leyte using Hilongos port.

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The cruiser ferries of Lapu-lapu Shipping, the Lapu-lapu Ferry 1, Lapu-lapu Ferry 8 and Rosalia 3 are really fighting very hard. From simple tejeras they now have bunks and even a Tourist section. They have been pressured by the coming of Montenegro Shipping Lines to Cataingan, Masbate, their old staple but they did not budge. They are even pressured more in Baybay City by Roble Shipping. They have already withdrawn from the Villaba, Leyte route. As cruisers they have nowhere to go; they have to dig in their heels and try to survive all the onslaughts.

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The five cruiser ships of Lapu-lapu Shipping and Gabisan Shipping are all bunched up between Pier 2 and Pier 3 of Cebu port and many times they dock diagonally to save up on limited wharf space. Sometimes they are joined by a Gemini ship of Isla de Bantayan Shipping. But these Geminis are not really passenger-cargo ships.

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Also still present in Cebu port are the two cruiser ferries of South Pacific Transport, the South Pacific and Fiji-II which have a route to Bato, Leyte. These ships are known that will never give up because they are owned by Fortune ShipWorks, a shipyard in Tayud which has also a freighter company and will live as long as the owners want them.

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Docking not far from the seven is the VG 1 (and the former Andy Two) of VG Shipping which has a route to Talibon, Bohol. This lady is an old survivor from being the Princess of Samar of the defunct Western Samar Shipping Lines and as the Princess Joan of the defunct Georgia Shipping Lines. I don’t know right now if she was the former Joan Glory of the defunct Glory Shipping Lines. She is re-engined with Weichai from Dynamic Power now so it means she will still be around for a while.

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I am not sure if the Super Island Express II of Island Shipping has already quit or was replaced. She is also a cruiser ferry and has a route to Tubigon, Bohol. Once upon a time Island Shipping has a big presence in the Tubigon route until slowly they were pushed by the ROROs of Lite Ferries and the cruisers of Jadestar Shipping which are gone now, which surrendered the fight when they realized their cruisers cannot match the ROROs of Lite Ferries and the fastcrafts of Star Crafts.

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I don’t know if Island Shipping will attempt a comeback. They have enough ROPAX LCTs now. They even sold their Island RORO II which they should have used to hold their Tubigon route, in my view. This became the VG RORO II of VG Shipping.

Rose Shipping/V. Atilano with its cruiser ferries is now gone too. And to think in its heyday they have been involved in wars across the Camotes Sea versus the Aboitiz Shipping Corporation which is also gone now. What a sad end and it seems it is only their April Rose and Yellow Rose which has survived in other hands. However, only Yellow Rose is remaining in Cebu but not sailing. Her last duty was as restaurant-tour ship with the name Lady of the Gate of JJA Transport.

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Aside from Jadestar Shipping, another recent casualty which quit was the Roly Shipping/Godspeed Shipping/Ernesto Alvarado combine. I thought they will survive somehow as they have a more diversified route system (Leyte and Bohol) but I heard there were internal difficulties and one day they were just gone like Jadestar. Their Roly-1 capsized in a shipyard and their Tagbilaran Ferry and Mega Asiana were cannibalized in Star Marine Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu and are technically dead ships.

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Maypalad Shipping meanwhile had a very slow death. Their tied-up ships in Mactan Channel disappeared slowly over several years but as of last count two freighters are still there and their Samar Star is still in Star Marine Shipyard but this is an early generation RORO. Their Guiuan, however was a cruiser ferry. It is now gone.

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Another solitary cruiser that is still tied up is the Ormoc Star of Roble Shipping which is still in Pier 7 but it seems it is no longer in sailing condition. A few years ago, the Melrivic Ten which has a route to Poro, Camotes also quit and was sold to shipping company that has a Cuyo route from Manila. Melrivic Nine has quit the Toledo-San Carlos route and is laid up in Dunggo-an, Danao City. I wonder if owner Aznar Shipping will want to use her revive their Cebu-Poro route.

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So Cebu Port has just some ten cruiser ferries surviving now but not all are in sailing condition and some might be technically dead ships now (intact but no longer capable of sailing). There are however cruiser ferries on the western side of Cebu island under the hands of Island Shipping and PAR Transport. Those are still sailing.

Take your views and pictures of them now. Who knows if they will still be around in a decade’s time. For sure, when they go, there will no longer be cruiser replacements. The replacements, if ever there will be any, will for sure be ROROs. If not, LCTs which are booming now.

This is a tribute to them. I cannot say “Long live” because I know they will be gone in a few years time. For sure.

It Seems They Are Beginning To Fear The Cargo RORO LCTs Now

Once upon a time, in the early days of connecting islands, LCTs had a place as exemplified by Millennium Shipping in the 1970’s and the LCTs connecting Mactan island and the islands of Samar and Leyte. But as it moved into the 1980’s and the 1990’s, it was the short-distance ferry-ROROs that began connecting the islands like in San Bernardino Strait, in Surigao Strait, in Verde Island Passage, in Guimaras Strait, in Tanon Strait, in Bohol Strait, across Camotes Sea, in Basilan Strait and in Panguil Bay. LCTs began losing favor then and some of the reason might be psychological. There was a belief then that LCTs were “less safe”.

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It was actually only Maayo Shipping and Tri-Star Megalink which bucked the trend in those decades before the change of the millennium by still using LCTs as passenger-cargo carriers. To some extent, Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) can also be counted here before the start of the new millennium. Among the the most notable operator of passenger-cargo LCTS in this millennium are Lite Ferries and Starhorse Shipping Lines. Of course, LCTs also connected Samal island, Guimaras and Olutanga islands but I would rather exclude it here as they were very short connections like the connection across Sula Channel of Albay to Cagraray island.

LCTs as means of transport are slow and slower than short-distance ferry-ROROs. Their passenger accommodations are also very basic and small and can be uncomfortable. They were never really meant to be people carrier unless one is talking of the hybrid Korean LCTs (like the Ma. Angelica Grace, Reina Banderada, Reina Justisya and Star San Carlos among others) which have more comfortable passenger accommodations and even airconditioning plus bigger engines which afford speeds higher than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs.

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I do not know which started the trend of using LCTs for vehicles mainly with not much intent to carry passengers. The most significant I noticed that had an operation like this was Golden Bridge Shipping of the Lua family (owner of a tramper company and Oceanjet) which has its base in Cansaga Bay and had a route to Hindang, Leyte. Early on they were known as Socor Shipping. Of course, Mandaue Transport also had a route from Mandaue to Tagbilaran and Simpoi Shipping had a route from Carmen to Ormoc.

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There were also LCTs that were used not for rolling cargo but as container van carriers. Ocean Transport chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation for this purpose which was copied by others until they were able to acquire their own LCTs. But of course, transit time from Manila to Cebu can take up to 4 days but container vans won’t protest unlike passengers. Some Asian Shipping Corporation LCTs were also chartered to load container vans from Manila to Cagayan de Oro.

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These operations are of course Cargo RORO operations. The only difference is instead of using Cargo RORO or RORO Cargo ships, LCTs are used. That is why I termed these LCTs as “Cargo RORO LCTs”.

Starting in 2012, LCTs from China began appearing in great number in Mactan Channel and the biggest owners were Cebu Sea Charterers, Broadway One Shipping, Concrete Solutions/Primary Trident Marine Solutions and Royal Dragon Ocean Transport. The first two simply had numbers as names of the LCTs. The third one was the owner of the Poseidon LCTs and the last one was the owner of the Meiling LCTs. Asian Shipping Corporation also bulked up their LCT fleet. Supposedly, these LCTs which were called “deck loading ships” in China will be used to transport ores from Surigao to China.

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However, two major happenings intervened. One, the need of China for ores declined and in November of 2013, Typhoon “Yolanda” wreaked havoc in Eastern Visayas. In the aftermath, in the need for relief and rehabilitation of the region, trucks and trailers have to cross. This happened during a time that the long-distance trucks were already running via Eastern Visayas as substitute for the ship-borne container vans and many of these are still destined for Mindanao.

Immediately, mile-long queues of trucks formed in the ports of Matnog, Allen, Liloan, Benit and Lipata leading to loud protests. MARINA then allowed the temporary use of LCTs which became de facto permanent until today. Meanwhile, there was also a great demand for bottoms to be used by trucks across Camotes Bay. Suddenly, the moored “deck loading ships” in Cansaga Bay was crossing Camotes Bay, San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait. Cebu Sea Charterers and the Poseidon LCTs slowly begans Cargo RORO LCT operations together with the Adnama LCTs (many more were used in Surigao and elsewhere). Roble Shipping meanwhile chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation which they replaced when they were able to acquire their own LCTs.

There was also an upsurge in LCT demand to Bohol and some old LCT began plying routes. Feeling their grip threatened, Lite Ferries bought them all lock, stock and barrel aside from buying additional LCTs. Meanwhile, Cebu Sea Charterers invaded other routes like the Carmen-Ormoc, the Dumangas-Banago and the Tuburan-Escalante routes. Suddenly, the lowly LCTs which became Cargo RORO LCTs looked menacing. Even the pioneer Golden Bridge Shipping which had queues even before “Yolanda” feels threatened now.

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How did this come to be? One reason is at the start, the overnight ferry companies crossing Camotes Sea did not give due regard to the rolling cargo or vehicles. They were too content in their successful palletized and loose cargo operations and they underestimated the need of the rolling cargo. At the start only Golden Bridge Shipping, Simpoi Shipping and Asian Marine Transport Corporation were servicing them. It seems Lite Ferries saw the need earlier than their fellow overnight ferry companies. Well, they are strong in rolling cargo operation in Bohol and is even dominating it.

Secondly, in terms of rates none can beat the Cargo RORO LCTs. They might be slow but in terms of rates they are far cheaper than the overnight ferry companies as in they can give rates that are cheaper by 40%. Well, they don’t need to invest in passenger services and accommodations and they have small engines compared to overnight ROROs. Now they even carry container vans not in trailers to Leyte from Cebu superseding the container ships that used to call in Leyte ports from Manila.

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That is always the danger brought by Cargo RORO LCTs, the low rates. Now feeling they can’t beat it, the overnight ferry companies are beginning to acquire their own LCTs. Lite Ferries is so well ahead in this game but Roble Shipping is already following suit. Medallion Transport seems not to be that worried yet because compared to other they saw immediately the need for rolling cargo operations and were not too dependent on palletized and loose cargo operations. After all they started in short-distance ferry-RORO operations and so they might have had a better understanding of rolling cargo from the start.

The old ROROs better adjust now. From what I heard even the big Asian Shipping Corporation which has the most number of ships in the Philippines is joining the fray. It seems they might have already tired of just chartering LCTs.

In the eastern seaboard, I heard the Cargo RORO LCTs are already the favorites of the truckers. As they say money talks. Price point as decision point is simply too easy not to miss. Everybody wants savings.

To me, it is no longer a question if the Cargo RORO LCT sector will take a slice of the pie. The question is how much. From container ships to liners to overnight ships to short-distance ferries, all are threatened. They will not be overwhelmed but they must be prepared to share the pie with the Cargo RORO LCTs. By how much, now that is the guessing game. All I know is the Cargo RORO LCT rates are simply unbeatable. And that might be sending shivers now down the spine of the competition.

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And I dare say this development is good. Rolling rates are simply too high in the Philippines because the regulatory agency MARINA never learned how to compute rates. It is as if fuel and distance are never really factored in.

Rolling cargo rates of the LCTs across Camotes Sea is now lower than RORO rate across Surigao Strait. How did that happen?