Recent Developments in Bicol Passenger Shipping

A Backgrounder

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

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San Isidro Ferry Terminal

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

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

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Dapdap port

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

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Jubasan port

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

Developments and the Current Situation

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

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Denica ferries in Masbate port

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

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Denica fastcrafts refitting in Pilar port

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

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

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FastCat in San Isidro Ferry Terminal

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

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The Poseidon 26 of Concrete Solutions and SulitFerry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The City of Angeles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Batangas Grand Central Terminal before dawn

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

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

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Arias junction in Lucena

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

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

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Atimonan port and ships

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

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

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Fishing vessels visible from Mabolo bridge

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

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

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Bicol Commuter Train to Sipocot

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

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

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

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Tabaco port

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

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

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Denica Lines fastcrafts in Pilar port

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

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

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Regina Calixta-II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LCT Aldain Dowey

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

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Anthon Raphael

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

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

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

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

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The Kulafu of Rufo Presado from Bulan in Masbate heavy rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Porter’s Marina

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

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Maica 2

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

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

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

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

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

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End of my journey

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

Hope I can do it again!

Denica Lines

This small shipping company probably won’t be much heard outside Bicol and they might be small but they also carry some weight and they won’t topple easily. Alternately, the vessels of Denica Lines are also listed under the owner Carolyn Cua Sy-Reyes. The home port of Denica Lines is Pilar, Sorsogon and they are among the shipping companies connecting that town to Masbate island.

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The Lady Regina

Denica Lines started as a shipping company by operating big motor bancas. When I say “big” it is because its passenger capacity will run upward to 100 persons. Alternately, if loaded with just cargo it can take in the load of a mini-truck or cargo jeep (well, it cannot be all cement or rice because the weight of that might exceed the DWT of the banca thus sinking it).

The owners of Denica Lines actually started as sub-regional distributors and traders and like in many places elsewhere the possession of own motor bancas is a needed horizontal expansion as it gives flexibility to trading and also generate savings. Usually a shipping operator with its own trading business is much more stable than its competitors. One part might not earn much but then the other part will carry it through. And there will also be no problem with what is called in shipping as “shut-outs” which is the failure to have a cargo loaded. For perishables that could be disaster.

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Denica Lines has many big motor bancas. These are fast because those are powered by surplus truck engines and usually it is twin-engined. The total of the horsepower will be over 400 and that will guarantee the motor banca will travel at at least 13 knots which are even faster than the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO which usually travels at only 10 knots. I have seen in Ticao Pass and Masbate Pass that they are really faster. [Well, if used for heavy cargo then all that horsepower will be needed.] Of course, their weakness is the choppy waters and cross-swells. The motor bancas have to time the crests and throughs of the waves and look out for the cross-swells which can damage the outriggers which is called katig locally.

As of now the motor banca fleet of Denica Lines consist of the Lady Regina, Gloria Express, Gloria 7, Gloria 8, Gloria 9, Gloria 10, Phoenix Express I, Phoenix Express II, Hammity and Hammity 2 plus the motor boat Golden Blossom. I would assume that the missing in the series Gloria 1 to Gloria 6 were their earlier motor bancas that are no longer around. The first two, the Gloria Express and Lady Regina are supposedly the fastest in the fleet of Denica Lines including their steel-hulled ships. The two can do at least 14 knots in calm waters.

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In motor bancas, the biggest competitor of Denica Lines is the Lobrigo Lines which have a fleet as big as theirs and which operated buses before (which lost when the intermodal buses came as they didn’t have ROROs). Aside from Lobrigo Lines there are many other operators of motor bancas as Pilar is a motor banca haven after all. Aside from motor bancas there are also motor boats going to Aroroy, Masbate. This town also have many motor bancas from Pilar.

In 2002, Denica Lines ventured into steel-hulled ferries when the purchased the laid-up cruiser Elizabeth Lilly of the defunct Western Samar Shipping Lines. They refurbished the engines of the ship and it was again reliable. They renamed the ship as the Bikol Express but she was not really fast as she had only a single 550-hp Yanmar Marine engine and her design speed was only 11 knots. The size of the ship was just the equivalent of a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO at 29.3 meters by 6.0 meters and 189 in gross tons.

As a ferry, Bikol Express was not much. She didn’t even have bolted seats, just plastic benches that can be moved. The reason is like some of the motor bancas of Denica Lines is she doubles as a cargo ship with passengers. What cannot be carried by the motor bancas like a truckload or two of rice or cement, she will carry. Her DWT of 100 tons comes in handy for such loads.

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Marina Empress by Irvine Kinea

But then ROROs of Montenegro Shipping Lines came and so Denica Lines has to adjust as the trucks instead of unloading their cargo in Pilar just board the RORO now and goes direct to Masbate. They sold the Bikol Express to Batanes Multi-purpose Cooperative (BMPC) and went hunting for a RORO. Again, true to form they settled on a RORO that was not sailing, the Torrijos or Vanessa P2 of the Sta. Cruz Shipping of Marinduque which was already then in the process of winding up their shipping operations having been on the receiving end of the pressure from stronger shipping companies like Montenegro Lines.

The ship was taken from a Navotas yard and she was renamed as the Marina Empress. The Marina Empress is a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO of just 700 horsepower from her single Daihatsu marine engine and with the external measurement of 32.3 meters by 7.8 meters and a gross tonnage of 195. However, like the earlier rumor, her engine was no longer strong.

With Alabat Shipping Corporation of Alabat island going out of operations too, Denica Lines purchased its only ferry, the Odyssey which was the former Starlite Odyssey of Starlite Ferries. This is another basic, short-distance ferry-RORO with a not-so-strong engine anymore. She is powered by a 550-hp Kubota marine engine and her external measurements are 30.5 meters by 7.0 meters with a gross tonnage of 176 which means she is slightly smaller than the Marina Empress. Denica Lines did not bother to rename the Odyssey.

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Denica Lines rarely sails the two ferries simultaneously as both are not really that reliable. Their ferries are in direct competition with the basic, short-distance ferries of Montenegro Lines which also do the Pilar-Masbate route. Their ferries might not be spic-and-span (it will remind one of the E.B. Aznar Shipping basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs) but most times their competition from Montenegro Lines are also basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs of the same age (which means old). Unless Montenegro Lines bring in the Reina Banderada which is a bit better.

If one considers that Denica Lines has a lot of motor bancas that carry not only people but also cargo it will not look that Montenegro Lines dominates them in the Pilar-Masbate route. The two might have some rough equality since Montenegro Lines has fastcrafts in the route. In glitz and glamour, of course, Montenegro Lines exceeds them.

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Pilar port and market

The owners of Denica Lines are also “well-positioned”, as they say. The husband was the Mayor of Pilar until 2016. In the May elections of this year Carolyn Cua-Sy Reyes was elected the Mayor and whitewashing her five opponents with 84% of the votes going to her. Well, it seems they are really respected in Pilar (in 2013 the husband also whitewashed his opponents). I do not know Pilar that much but from what I know it does not have the bokong of Leyte nor the use of muscles and influence in gaining an advantage for ship operations or in locking out the opponent.

Such is Denica Lines.

It’s An Uphill Fight Now For The Pilar-Masbate Big Motor Bancas

Once upon a time, some 50 years ago and earlier, the main connection of Masbate island through its main port of Masbate to the Bicol mainland was the progressive town of Bulan in the southernmost tip of Sorsogon. Masbate then had good and links to Manila through passenger-cargo liners. All of those that drop anchor in Masbate port were still proceeding to Sorsogon and the northern ports of Bicol, Samar, Leyte, Cebu and with some still going to northern Mindanao ports.

These links had been around right after the war and even before the war. The trade driving it was copra and the port ’round Samar Sea and environs and the northern Bicol ports were great funnels of copra. Copra then was a powerful commodity such that there was even a “Coconut Alliance” in the same manner that there was a “Sugar Alliance” in the Philippine Congress and at the apex of that early on was presidentiable Jose Avelino of Samar which later passed on to Emmanuel Pelaez of Misamis Oriental with Emilio Espinosa of Masbate the local linchpin in the area. These “alliances” were pressure groups and plays a key role in selecting and supporting the national candidates.

Masbate port was a hub where goods can be exchanged with other ports in that area. This also involved goods to and from the national capital center and that was one of the reasons of the strong Masbate-Bulan connection. However, at the tail end of the 1970’s these nexus of links where Masbate was a major player began to go downhill. There were plenty of interconnected reasons for that and that will require a long discussion and hence will be left out of this article but two of those were the development of the highways and the rise of the intermodal transport system.

In the next phase when Masbate port just became a sideshow in the national liner network, the Masbate-Bulan link just became more of a purveyor of local goods. Masbate will no longer supply goods from Manila since Bulan has already a good road connection to Manila (courtesy of the buses Pantranco South and JB Lines). Motor boats and big motor bancas made the link between the two ports. However, in the same period emerged a new challenger to Bulan which was the port and town of Pilar in Sorsogon and in due time the Pilar-Masbate connection superseded in importance the Bulan-Masbate connection.

What tilted the balance was Pilar is much nearer than Bulan to the regional trade center of Legazpi-Daraga and to Manila. The bus factor got into the picture too. Where before JB Line and Pantranco South bus waited for passenger in Bulan terminal right beside the port, slowly “colorum” buses and Pantranco South buses began waiting for passengers in Pilar terminal right beside the port too. Pilar is significantly nearer to Manila than Bulan and so the fare is cheaper and the travel time shorter. Really, when roads get good, some paradigm changes are induced. Through the sea, Pilar and Bulan are nearly equidistant to Masbate port.

Big motor bancas and small motor boats connected Pilar and Masbate with the former much more in abundance. Both are powered by surplus truck engines (some are twin V-8s!) but the big motor boat being lighter is nimbler and faster. Another change that tilted the balance for Pilar was the reawakening of the Aroroy gold mines which was started by the small miners. This mine like the Larap mine shuttered in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s due to the drop of the world prices of copper and iron. Now such reawakening fueled people movement and the bus in Pilar and Pilar-Aroroy big motor bancas and small motor boats were there to serve it. Bulan cannot be the port of departure because it is simply too far from Aroroy. And so the start of the 1980’s saw the beginning of the heyday of the Pilar-Masbate big motor bancas.

The traffic in the route is heavy both ways in the early morning and approaching mid-afternoon. The reason for latter is these big motor bancas do not run at night and not because of MARINA or Coast Guard edicts. The trips last 3.5 to 4 hours and they hightail it before dusk settles. The reason, as anyone who is familiar with the coastal sea is the winds begin to get active and so do the swells when night is approaching. And the seas here, the Ticao Pass, the Masbate Pass and the Black Rock Pass have a high level of notoriety in showing no mercy to small crafts. These waters are graveyards of many motor bancas especially the fishing bancas. These three bodies of water are considered the most dangerous waters of Bicol, bar none.

There are many operators of big motor bancas in the Pilar-Masbate route but two entities dominated, the Denica Lines and the Lobrigo Lines and their rivalry is intense but not destructive. The two then raced with bigger and faster motor boats but their rivalry did not end in that sphere. Lobrigo Lines went into the bus business as vertical integration. So you ride their motor banca and you are assured of a bus seat (that was not sure in the past when there were not so many buses yet). In the reverse route, their bus passenger goes to their motor bancas. Of course all assistance and courtesy is extended and it was not simply like hauling cattle as this route is an epitome of free market competition. So aside from plenty of choices in bus and motor banca, the fares are fair game to haggle and courtesies are on full display. Pilar and Masbate are ports where there is no talk of porterage for motor banca passenger cargo. One does not queue for tickets also. They ask you inside the boat if you are already ready to pay and there is just a minimal charge for cargo.

Meanwhile, Denica Lines ventured into passenger ferries first with the cruiser ferry Bikol Express which was the former Elizabeth Lilly of Western Samar Shipping Lines. When they sold that Batanes Multipurpose Cooperative, they then acquire the Odyssey of Alabat Shipping Corporation which is a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO. Later, they also acquired the Vanessa P2 (ex-Torrijos) of Sta. Cruz Shipping which served the Lucena-Marinduque route and they renamed this the Marina Empress. This ship is another basic, short-distance ferry-RORO.

Lobrigo Lines took a different approach. They bought two fastcrafts from Japan which became the Maria Natasha and Maria Querubin. Not long after they sold the fastcrafts to Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. of Batangas which became the point of entry for that company in Bicol waters. The buses of Lobrigo Lines did not last that much long either. After less a decade only a few were still running until operations were nearly shut. It came back but other operators are merely riding on their permits. Maybe being good in seacrafts do not guarantee one will be good in land transport.

Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. whose inferior fastcrafts was trounced in the Batangas-Calapan route then was able to find a profitable haven in Pilar-Masbate. They actually invested in a jetty so their fastcrafts can safely use Pilar port which has notorious shallow waters because it lies in an estuary. They also invested in wharf improvement so they can also operate safely the basic-short distance ferry-ROROs they brought to the route. Then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo never saw fit to improve Pilar port because that happened to be under the district of a political opponent which was Francis Escudero. She would rather waste money in dozens of “ports to nowhere” than invest in one opposition port which has a true and growing traffic.

With the success of the fastcrafts and the basic-short distance ferry ROROs and with it the buses now crossing to and now rolling in Masbate island in its entirely, the Pilar-Masbate big motor bancas felt severe pressure. In most instances now, they are just the carriers of local passengers and cargo since Manila passengers and small cargo is now borne by the buses. Intermodal trucks has also invaded Masbate island and that further lessened the load of the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas.

Still the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas are still plying the route bravely and with elan. In the early morning from Masbate they rule the route since the buses and trucks are still not yet around and so the earliest RORO leaves around 10am. In the early morning hours from Masbate their competition are the fastcrafts. But the fare of those are double compared to them and so it is generally the middle and upper classes including the government workers who are patrons of that. The hoi polloi and the early cargo belongs to them because the fastcrafts don’t carry cargo.

In Pilar many leave too in the early morning hours especially if the ROROs are gone. The ROROs depart before morning since the buses and trucks are already there and those are early because most will still roll the length of Masbate island and it is their target to finish the route before lunch is well past. In the midmorning there will be no more ROROs in Pilar that will be crossing to Masbate and in Masbate there are no more ROROs after 1 pm. When there are no more ROROs that is the opening for the motor bancas. But it does not mean they will not leave if there are ROROs running. They will and they will try to overtake the RORO since they are faster (what are twin V-8s for anyway?).

However, a new development ratcheted up the pressure on the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas. A new route was developed, the Masbate-Pio Duran, Albay route. Pio Duran is nearer to Manila than Pilar and it has deeper waters and so there are no low tide restrictions. This route further took away traffic from the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas and since they are not running that route they cannot compete directly.

The Pilar-Masbate motor banca is not laying over and die. They are fighting hard especially on local cargo and passengers. They really try to lasso passengers and cargo. They will even take in cargo even without accompanying passengers and deliver it within the town through tricycles. They will treat the passengers well. Well they have to since they are no longer as full as before. There is no more way to take back the bus passengers although the knowing and especially those just from Masbate City or nearby know they can still take the motor banca which is cheap and they can haggle with the fare in the buses waiting in Pilar. Or be even to leave earlier if they will choose to proceed to Legazpi which has day morning bus trips which are faster (the buses from Pilar will still look for passengers along the way).

But still it is clear that the heyday of the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas is now over and it is already an uphill fight for them. I just hope it does not degenerate to a struggle for survival.

The Emergent Port of Masbate

Twenty years ago, the port of Masbate was mainly known for the so-many motor bancas (and a few motor boats) that ply routes to Pilar, Sorsogon, to Ticao Island and to the western portion of Masbate Bay up to the town of Baleno, Masbate. The only liners from Manila that call then in the port were the MV Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines and a liner of WG&A Philippines. Surprisingly, they were not the RORO connection of Masbate Island and neither is the overnight ferry from Cebu of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. Actually, the RORO connection of the Masbate then was the unlikely ferry of Viva Shipping Lines that originates from Batangas Port.

Pilar then was the main connecting port to Masbate. Buses from the semi-regional trade center of Daraga, Albay roll to Pilar. Then, there are many buses from Manila whose end point is Pilar. The motor bancas that ply the Pilar-Masbate route usually have already an arrangement with the buses. Motor banca tickets can even be issued aboard the buses in many cases. In the reverse route from Masbate, aboard the motor bancas, bus tickets can also be issued. But for those who are experienced enough, they won’t buy those tickets and instead look for discounts in the buses to Manila waiting in Pilar. They know that the buses with only a few passengers are vulnerable to these discounting tactics.

Pilar-Masbate motor bancas also take in a lot of cargo either way when there were no ROROs yet (actually, they still do today but on a comparatively smaller scale). One advantage offered by these motor bancas is there is no porterage. The crew takes care of the cargo and one just goes direct aboard and the purser will take care of charging the fare so there is no need to queue for tickets. Two motor boat companies dominated this trade here, the Denica Lines and the Lobrigo Lines. Though not comfortable, their motor bancas are fast.

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M/B Gloria Express at Masbate Port. © Mike Baylon

 

There were also a few cargo ships that called on Masbate Port aside from a few cargo motor boats. One regular incoming bulk cargo is cement and one regular outgoing bulk cargo is copra.

Archipelago Ferries (actually it could be another of their legal fiction companies) attempted the first short-distance ferry connection to Masbate through the MV Maharlika Tres. They used the Bulan Port since at the time the Pilar Port was not RORO-capable. With it also came the Philtranco buses rolling to Masbate. However these ferry and bus services did not last long. One problem is without RORO company support, the buses won’t last long because it was upheld by the maritime regulators that they cannot charge the RORO rate to the passengers (although some try to charge that on the passengers part of that, slyly). And without a good number of vehicles regularly boarding, the ferry companies would be hard put to give discounts.

Viva Shipping Lines and then its new competitor Montenegro Shipping Lines also tried a RORO connection from Lucena to Masbate. Parallel with this, the twin company of Viva, the DR Shipping Lines tried a fast ferry service from Lucena to Masbate using their own-designed and built ships, the MV Penafrancia 10 and MV Penafrancia 11. These services stopped after a few short years for different reasons. For Montenegro Lines, their RORO MV Maria Carmela burned in 2002 just before reaching Lucena, with casualties. Its local government authorization was canceled and they were embroiled in lawsuits. For Viva Shipping and DR Shipping, it was already the beginning of the tailspin of the Don Domingo Reyes shipping companies which ended with them defunct and their ferries sold or broken up.

Montenegro Lines then built their own ramp in Pilar and they were able to operate a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO from it. They have to do it themselves because the administration then of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo wouldn’t provide funds for the construction of a RORO port because the Representative then of the congressional district encompassing Pilar was a bitter political opponent (he is now a vice-presidential candidate).

Lobrigo Lines tried to operate two fastcrafts between Pilar and Masbate. Montenegro Lines also did so. Lobrigo Lines later quit and their fastcrafts ended up with Montenegro Lines. Later, this route became the niche of Montenegro fastcrafts driven out by superior competition in the Batangas-Calapan route (until now they are the only operator of High Speed Crafts in the route).

Sta. Clara Shipping with twin company Penafrancia Shipping tried to enter Masbate through different routes. They tried a Bulan-Masbate route (their ships are not fit for the shallow Pilar Port which is located in a river estuary) but the bus passengers from Manila were not willing to pay extra for the longer Manila-Bulan land route. They also tried a Pasacao-Masbate route but they found out early that the strong habagat swells were dangerous for their ship. Finally, they found the Pio Duran, Albay Port with its new RORO ramp as the Masbate connection and they stuck here along with newcomer Medallion Transport.

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M/V King Frederick of Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. © Mike Baylon

From Cebu, another player also entered the Masbate route, the MV Super Shuttle Ferry 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation and this ship continues its voyage to Batangas. Trans-Asia Shipping Lines continued plying its route until recently. However, a shortage of ferries forced them to stop but they replaced the service with a former ferry that was converted into a cargo ship, the MV Trans-Asia 5. The cargo was simply too big and too important for them to lose to competition. Cokaliong Shipping Lines is the new entrant from Cebu lately using a ferry. The Sulpicio and WG&A liners are gone now for different reasons but they have been more than replaced. Actually, they might not even be missed in Masbate.

Nowadays, Masbate is already a busy port and growing in importance because it is already the fulcrum of a growing intermodal route between Cebu and Luzon (that includes the National Capital Region, Bicol and CALABARZON). Many of the trucks loaded in Polambato Port in Bogo, Cebu that are unloaded in Cataingan and Cawayan ports still connect to Luzon (and they have to use Masbate Port on the way to that). Meanwhile, distribution trucks from Manila and CALABARZON now roll direct to Masbate along with the trucks of the Bicol traders (incidentally, some of them used motor boats and motor bancas in the past).

Today, fewer and fewer Masbate passengers still take the motor bancas. They now prefer the intermodal buses that come from Manila that roll to the various destinations in Masbate Island like Masbate City, Aroroy, Milagros, Esperanza, Cataingan and Placer. Because of the needs of the buses and trucks, Montenegro Lines now operates several ROROs and so do the twin company Sta. Clara/Penafrancia Shipping (and with even bigger ships) and Medallion Transport. Another new operator from Pilar is Denica Lines which bought their own small ROROs.

 

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Ferries at Masbate Port © zheek / Flickr

The fastcrafts are still operating between Pilar and Masbate and the motor bancas did not seem to lessen in number. More cargo ships are also now calling in Masbate Port. The port was expanded a decade ago and now a second phase of expansion is near completion. In Region 5, the Bicol Region, it is clear that Masbate Port is now the busiest port. Good thing it is not yet an ISPS (International System of Port Security) port and so it also functions as a people’s park (and a jogging area in the morning) and anyone can go in and go out.

As said by old timers, shipping activity is a accident of geography that cannot be dictated by the maritime authorities nor by legislation. In this sense, Masbate is fortunate because she lies between Luzon and Cebu, the commercial center of Central Visayas, part of Eastern Visayas and of northern Mindanao. As such, her growth as a port will surely continue in the coming years and probably she will be more well-known by then.