The Graceful Stars

The Graceful Stars is one of the most recent ships of Roble Shipping Incorporated, a major regional shipping line serving the ports of western Leyte (which I wonder why it is not a separate province as it is economically viable on its own, it has a ready capital in Ormoc and it speaks a different language from eastern Leyte) which sailed just in 2015 although she came to the Philippines earlier (as she stayed long in the Roble wharf in Pier 7 of Mandaue). As refitted, the Graceful Stars is an overnight ferry-RORO which means she is fitted with bunks, the main distinction of overnight ferries from the short-distance ferries (well, aside from the size, of course).

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I look at Graceful Stars from the evolutionary point of view of Roble Shipping. This company started from the Marao, a converted cargo ship and then from that humble beginning they were true with a humble path to greatness by first taking in the discards of the other shipping companies of Cebu and by concentrating on their strong route, the Cebu-Hilongos route which is now already a major route and a gateway to the province of Southern Leyte. Actually eight discards from other shipping companies passed through the fleet of Roble shipping (the Don Bonifacio, the first Guady Cristy, the second Guada Cristy, the Hilongos Diamond, the Hilongos Diamond – II, the Queen Belinda, the Leyte Diamond, and the Cebu Diamond) and that list does not even include the May Josephine, the former Surigao Transport which was more of a cargo ship too like the Marao. A lot of discards but those established what Roble Shipping is today. And there is nothing wrong with the path of Roble Shipping, they should be proud of it because what is important is where they ended up with and where they are now. Actually Roble Shipping in its early days even acted as the conservator of old ferries that might have ended up earlier in the breakers if they have not shown interest in them especially since those were already the obsolete cruiser ferries then (more difficult to load and unload but Roble started in arrastre anyway).

From that simple and humble beginning, Roble Shipping suddenly landed the Heaven Stars which was a former cruiseferry in Japan (cruiseferries are the ferries in Japan that had good amenities and accommodations compare to ferries that were more inclined to the taking in of rolling cargo). Heaven Stars was big for an overnight ferry and she had the amenities of a multi-day liner (I thought then Roble would use her for their approved route to Nasipit). Roble Shipping also snared the Wonderful Star, a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO which unfortunately was lost early (Note: that ferry is different from the current Wonderful Stars). The two ushered the entry of Roble Shipping into the age of ROROs, the successor type to the obsolete cruisers.

But still Roble Shipping was operating a mixed fleet as shown by their acquisition of the Ormoc Star, a cruiser ferry that became a loved ship in her namesake port and city. Then the Wonderful Stars arrived for the company and save for the Heaven Stars she was the most beautiful ship in the fleet of Roble Shipping, and an embodiment of what a moderately sized overnight ferry should be.

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Next to come for Roble Shipping was the Beautiful Stars which was just a little bigger than the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO before a slew of another discards from other shipping companies came which became the Joyful Stars, the Theresian Stars, the Blessed Stars and the Sacred Stars in their fleet. These discards needed practically needed no more refitting from Roble Shipping except maybe in the engine department. In modern shipping companies it is Roble Shipping which is the master in making discarded ships work.

The Wonderful Stars, Theresian Stars and Joyful Stars were significant for Roble Shipping because that firmly established the shipping company in the 70-meter class of ROROs (okay, the Theresian Stars is 0.3 meters short of 70 meters). Let it be noted that the Heaven Stars was 89 meters long and that will show the jump then made in size by Roble Shipping when they acquired her. These overnight ferry-ROROs might have been smaller than what Cebu Ferries, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines or Cokaliong Shipping Lines have or had (and to a certain extent George & Peter Lines too) but let it be noted that Roble Shipping is only operating routes to Leyte (until recently) and not to Mindanao unlike the other mentioned ones. And so Roble Shipping actually was leading then what can be called the second pack of Cebu ferries except that Lite Ferries’ fleet exploded later in size courtesy of the wand of a patron saint.

The Graceful Stars is in the 70-meter class thereby consolidating the hold of Roble Shipping in that class. And more importantly, the Graceful Stars was the attempt of Roble Shipping into the type of converting vehicle carriers into ROPAXes like what was done before by Cebu Ferries Corporation with their Cebu Ferry line of ships (Cebu Ferry 1, 2 and 3) and what was to be done later by Roble Shipping in their Oroquieta Stars. Is this the new mode of the company aside from acquiring Cargo RORO LCTs and CHA-ROs?

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The TKB Emerald by James Gabriel Verallo

The Graceful Stars is the former ship of Toyama Kaigai Boeki Shipping named the TKB Emerald and was classified as a Vehicle Carrier in Japan or which is that used in ferrying vehicles in relatively short distances. This is different from the Pure Car Carriers which ferry new vehicles between countries or the Cargo ROROs or RORO Cargo ships which are bigger, have a bigger capacity and go longer distances and even to another adjacent country. A Vehicle Carrier has a limited accommodation for passengers which are usually the crew or drivers of the vehicles and that is their difference over the ROPAXes.

As such converting a Vehicle Carrier to a ROPAX or RORO-Passenger ship means a lot of steel still has to be added into the ship in the form of additional decks and passenger amenities and accommodations. And that is the difference in the conversion if the original ship is a RORO Cargo ship for in that type of ship not much steel is still needed and in some cases steel has to be cut to pave way for windows.

The TKB Emerald took long in conversion and much longer than the Cebu Ferry line of ships (about four years from 2011). With a surplus of ships Roble Shipping didn’t need to rush and the refitting of Joyful Stars and Theresian Stars took precedence (otherwise the two would have rotted). The conversion won’t also be that straighforward as the TKB Emerald has a sloping ramp which slid down to the car deck and two passenger decks had to be fitted (single passenger decks are just for the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs). And I have heard then too and confirmed it with the databases that the engine of the TKB Emerald was on the small side at just 1,370 horsepower and a single engine at that when ferries of this size normally have two engines with 2,000 horsepower as the very minimum (many even pack 4,000 horsepower or more). Adding lots of steel also slows down the ferry because of the added weight. With this and even with the aid of turbocharging one cannot expect TKB Emerald to run fast. However, one of the strengths of the TKB Emerald is a long and good three-piece ramp which is excellent for loading and unloading vehicles including container vans mounted on truck-trailers

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TKB Emerald magically converted into Graceful Stars (Photo by James Gabriel Verallo)

The Graceful Stars is 73.7 meters in length over-all with a breadth of 13.6 meters and a depth of 7.6 meters (which is on the deep side which means greater stability) and an original Gross Tonnage (GT) of 1,953 tons and an original design speed of 11.5 knots (which was not bad then but then a lot of steel has to be added to her in her conversion). She was built by Shin Kochi Jyuko Company Limited in Kochi, Japan in 1984 with the IMO Number 8314312. The ship is of steel construction and had a stern ramp leading to the car deck.

As rebuilt she already has two passenger decks with a little squat appearance (but not looking bad) as the bridge determined the height of the superstructure unlike the Cebu Ferry 1 of Cebu Ferries Corporation. This is not really unusual as Cokaliong Shipping has low-looking ferries too. The bridge was lengthened up to the sides as the original bridge is the small type.

In the lower passenger deck at the front are the highest class which are the Suites and the Cabins. These have a Chinese and wooden motif. Before reaching that from the stern where the passengers board is the Tourist section of the ship. The upper passenger deck of the ship contains the Economy Class which is open-air, as normal. Two gangways serve as the entry and exit for the passengers.

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Cabins and Suites of Graceful Stars (does it still look like a Vehicle Carrier?)

As rebuilt the Gross Tonnage (GT) of the ship went down to 970 which is an under-declaration with a Net Tonnage (NT) of 660. The ratio of the NT to the GT is suspicious. I have yet to learn of the passenger capacity of the ship.

When I rode with her to Baybay, her usual route, our ride was comfortable and it did not disappoint. The ship was clean and the aircon was cool. Our trip to Baybay took eight hours and for a distance of a little under 60 nautical miles that means our cruising speed was some 8 knots or so. I heard the maximum she can do is 10 knots although when first fielded I heard tales of late arrivals as in a breakfast docking already from a 9pm departure in Cebu. I heard most of the passengers did not complain as that is still a good arrival and they appreciated the superior amenities and accommodations compared to the earlier ships that served the Baybay route. Meanwhile, her competitor Rosalia 3 of Lapu-lapu Shipping with 3 engines and speedy for a small overnight ferry sped up her passage as that is all she can improve from being an old ferry of fishing vessel origins. To passengers still going far her 3am arrival will matter (her number matches well with that and so renaming her to Rosalia 3am to highlight her strength might be in order, pun intended).

But right now the Graceful Stars lords over the Baybay route and the funny thing is she is even better than the ships fielded in the premier Ormoc route which costs significantly more. And it is doubly funny because for nearly the same distance the Ormoc ships cost much more than the Baybay ships which turn out to be a bargain. For the P510 Tourist fare of Ormoc one can have a more luxurious and fresher-smelling ride in Graceful Stars for P380 and the difference will be enough for a Jollibee breakfast just outside the port gates of Baybay and the change will still be enough for a bus ride to Ormoc. Baybay by the way is a good alternate point of entry if one is headed to Tacloban or to any Samar town. It is good that she is in Baybay because if she is in Hilongos because if she is in the latter her lack of speed will show because the port is gateway to the Southern Leyte towns and so a pre-dawn arrival is preferred there so the passengers will arrive at their homes at breakfast time.

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Rosalia 3 and Graceful Stars in Baybay

It seems Roble Shipping made a correct bet in acquiring and refurbishing the Graceful Stars. In the Baybay route her lack of speed does not easily show as passengers don’t normally grumble unless the arrival is already past breakfast time already. Many actually don’t want to be bothered from sleep of the anchor dropping and the shrilly announcements in the public address system and the bustle of passengers moving and the porters coming. And her superior accommodations means she will lord over Baybay for a long time that I fear that if other older ships of Roble are rotated to Baybay (like the Joyful Stars and the Theresian Stars) the passengers there might grumble with the change.

It seems the former TKB Emerald has already found a home in Baybay and it seems she will be in there for a long time and dominate that route.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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