The Unique Nasipit Port and Bay

Nasipit is the main port of Agusan after the Butuan ports (Butuan and Lumbocon) lost that status because the ships no longer came. That was because of the siltation of Agusan River and the general increase in the size and depths of the ships. Nasipit port is unique in topographic sense. It is located in a nearly enclosed bay which looks like a pond. Two enclosing spits of land nearly closes the outlet of the bay. As such Nasipit port is probably the most protected port in the Philippines. But it is deep enough that 160-meter ferries used to dock before in Nasipit. Those were great liners Princess of Paradise of Sulpicio Lines Inc. and the Our Lady of Akita of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. which later became the SuperFerry 6 of WG&A.

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Photo by Janjan Salas

The very small Nasipit Bay was once the home of the famed Nasipit Lumber Inc. which used to produce veneer, plywood and other types of processed wood products. The plant of the company was once the original user of that bay and the bay also served as the stocking pond of their logs and their wharf inside the bay was where the cargo ships loading their products once docked. Nasipit port was built adjacent to Nasipit Lumber with the latter nearer the entrance of the bay. Nasipit Lumber has closed long ago when logs and lumber became scarce and new rules protecting the ancestral domain were drawn. Now that plant is even gone now including the buildings. What remained are some the concrete floors and just parts of their old wharf.

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The former location of Nasipit Lumber

Now the permanent resident of the bay is the power barge of Therma Marine Inc., an Aboitiz Power Corporation subsidiary and this is located in the inner part of the nearly-enclosed bay. Also in Nasipit Bay, inside the port is the Port Maritime Office (PMO) of the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) which is in charge of all the ports in the Caraga Region. The manager of it and the employees wants it transferred to Butuan, however, because it is there that where most of them live. I don’t know if that will push through. Nasipit Bay is also home to swirling rains I have not observed anywhere else and maybe that is due to the peculiar topography of the Nasipit inlet which are surrounded by high hills in a particular way.

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The power barge of Therma South

Nasipit port is a straight quay where the middle it was broken by a slanted RORO ramp which is just a recent alteration. In the inner end smaller ships like tugs and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) patrol boats are docked. There is a transit shed for cargo and a passenger waiting area in the port terminal building. Docking for big ships is a precise maneuver inside the Nasipit inlet as the bay is very small and there are shallow portions and it is especially dangerous when it is low tide. However, there are not s to contend unlike in the exposed ports.

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Nasipit port has been the port of passenger ships for a long time now not because it is convenient or near the city (it is actually out of the way and relatively far from the town and highway). The change happened in the 1970’s when the ports of Butuan became shallower because of siltation and there was lack of dredging (the results of which are often just undone by raging annual floods of the great Agusan River). By the 1980’s, Nasipit port has already supplanted the Butuan ports especially since the shallow-draft ex-”FS” ships were already dying from old age and the replacements of that type were already bigger. However, even though the ports have changed many passenger shipping companies still used the name “Butuan Port” when actually they were already docking and using Nasipit port and this entailed confusion to the uninitiated including land-bound researchers doing shipping studies.

There were passenger vessels which did both the Butuan and Nasipit ports. They just gave up on Butuan port when docking there became much dependent on high tide (and risk waiting until noon at times when this would already jeopardize departure time because loading and unloading using booms and porters is slow). One example of this were the former “FS” ships of the Bisaya Land Transport Company of the Cuencos of Cebu (no typo there, that is the actual name of a shipping company which is a division of their land transport). When they find it impossible to dock in Butuan, they then proceed to Nasipit port (to the complain of many passengers).

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The MV Samar of Compania Maritima (Credits to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen)

Compania Maritima, the leading shipping company after the Pacific War was one of the earliest to use Nasipit port. Their passenger-cargo ship Samar which is the bigger type of US war-surplus ship used to dock in Nasipit port. That was also true for their passenger-cargo ship Mactan which was in the 80-meter class and whose depth is two meters over the depth of an ex-”FS” ship, the last type of passenger ship that can be shoehorned in the shallow Butuan ports. Their Mindoro and Romblon, both converted ex-”FS” ship docked at both Butuan and Nasipit ports (and maybe that is to increase the passengers and cargo). Their Panay, a bigger ship docked at Nasipit when it can’t in Butuan. Later, even their ex-”FS” ship Leyte was calling exclusively in Nasipit port. Compania Maritima was the first to dominate Nasipit port when the Chinoy shipping companies were just on their way up and not calling on Nasipit port. In the main they came to Nasipit port when Compania Maritima was already gone.

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The MV Panay of Compania Maritima (Credits to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen)

Some actually just gave up on the Agusan trade when their ships can no longer dock in Butuan and they did not really try to earnestly use Nasipit port like Escano Lines which used to be strong in Butuan. Well, it must have been frustrating for them when the ship can’t dock after a few hours of waiting and then would have to go to Nasipit port anyway to load and unload. Moreover, the floods of Agusan River that happen many months of the year with its floating logs and other debris which can damage the ship propellers and rudders also added to the vagaries in docking in Butuan.

By the 1980’s the passenger ship calls on Nasipit, Butuan and Surigao which are all connected ports went down considerably. There was a big, general downturn in the economy because of economic crisis and container ships began supplanting the passenger-cargo ships in carrying cargo (where before this type carried a lot of the express cargo that are not in bulk or liquid). These new container ships cannot fit in the Butuan ports. However, few of them are coming in Butuan anyway. Another thing, the cargo ace of Nasipit before which were the forest products began slumping as the forest cover was fast going down and it raised a howl and therefore restrictions on logging were placed by the new Aquino administration.

Surigao Princess

The pocket liner Surigao Princess (Photo by Edison Sy)

At the tail end of the Compania Maritima dominance a new liner was calling in Nasipit, the Surigao Princess of Sulpicio Lines which was a pocket liner. In the post-martial law period the Our Lady of Guadalupe of Carlos A. Gothong Lines, Inc. (CAGLI) came. And so these two liners succeeded Compania Maritima were gone as the company went out of business at the height of the political and economic crisis of the mid-1980’s. Soon, the better Our Lady of Lourdes of CAGLI replaced the Our Lady of Guadalupe in that route. In 1988, the big Nasipit Princess of Sulpicio Lines began calling in Nasipit port. But her route was mainly Cebu only as it was still Surigao Princess that was the liner there of Sulpicio Lines Inc. And, the Dona Lili of Gothong was also sailing from Nasipit to Cebu.

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The Nasipit Princess by Suro Yan

William Lines, Lorenzo Shipping Corporation and Negros Navigation Company, among the great survivors of the crisis of the 1980’s did not have Nasipit among their ports of call when the 1990’s started. Escano Lines will soon be leaving passenger shipping as well as Bisaya Land Transport. Aboitiz Shipping Corporation is also much-weakened in passenger shipping then as they did not buy liners for 15 long years (however, the will be back with a flash with their SuperFerry series and the were strong in container shipping)

It was Carlos A. Gothong Lines and Sulpicio Lines which were competing in Nasipit port in the 1990’s both in the liner route to Manila and the overnight route to Cebu. Although Nasipit was no longer as grand a destination like when Butuan still had a lot of ships calling, the two companies brought some great liners in Nasipit port like the Our Lady of Akita and the Princess of Paradise and what a show of confidence it was for Nasipit port. That was the heyday of competition when there was much optimism in business and the shipping liberalization and modernization policies of the administration of Fidel V. Ramos (FVR) took effect. A little before the “Great Merger” William Lines will also enter Nasipit port with their liner Mabuhay 2.

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The Our Lady of Akita (Credits to Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen)

When the Great Merger that produced the giant shipping company WG&A came there was a plethora of ever-changing ships that got assigned to Nasipit port unlike in the past when a ferry will hold a route for a decade or even longer. In WG&A, routes and route assignments happen at least once a year and so tracking of ships that served a port became difficult. However, Nasipit was a regular route of the company. That liberalization of FVR also brought the expanding Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) to Nasipit where they used their beautiful St. Francis of Assisi. Unfortunately, that liner burned right in Nasipit quay not long after in 1999 which resulted in the destruction of the ship. The revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) also tried the Manila to Nasipit liner route before it just became a Cargo RORO route when they got suspended from passenger shipping. Nasipit still has lots of load, no longer forest products but bananas.

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The Our Lady of Lourdes by Chief Ray Smith

With the “Great Merger” and the creation of Visayas-Mindanao subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC), that company also paraded a succession of ships in Nasipit port that is bound to Cebu on an overnight route. It began from the old Our Lady of Lourdes and it ended with Cebu Ferry 2 when CFC was already under the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS), the successor company of WG&A. Sulpicio Lines, their only competitor in the overnight route brought the Cagayan Princess in Nasipit when the Nasipit Princess can no longer sail. This was later followed by the much-better Princess of the Earth. And for a while, the Gothong Southern Shipping Lines Inc. (GSSLI) brought their Dona Rita Sr. to Nasipit port after they acquired the Our Lady of Good Voyage of Cebu Ferries.

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Filipinas Butuan in Nasipit port

The port has also a link to Jagna port in Bohol as service to the Bol-anons residing in Mindanao. Usually the Cebu-Nasipit ship of a company will do a once a week call to Jagna on their seventh day and the ship will go back to Nasipit within that seventh day and then resume their route to Cebu.

This decade saw a great downturn for Nasipit in sailing ships. There was only one liner left doing a once a week voyage to Manila and this was usually the St. Leo The Great of 2GO. Sulpicio Lines quit passenger sailing and Gothong Southern also gave up that segment. Even Cebu Ferries quit the Nasipit overnight route to Cebu when they transferred their ships to Batangas.

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The St. Leo The Great

Now, a completely new cast is in Nasipit port headed by Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) which use either their Filipinas Butuan or Filipinas Iligan in the Cebu to Nasipit overnight route with an off day diversion to Jagna. Lite Ferries also has a Nasipit to Jagna ship on the stronger months for sailing but there is no permanently assigned ship. 2GO still has that once a week liner from Manila. Nasipit is not a favorite of container ships except for Carlos A. Gothong Lines.

Passenger shipping which is down already ia affected by the intermodal buses and the budget airlines, both of which offer competitive fares compared to ships and with the advantage of daily departures. Nasipit is also not helped by it being out of the way from the city and the municipality’s policy of barring the buses and commuter vans from the port doesn’t help the case of Nasipit port either in attracting passengers who are turned off the expensive and very cramped tricycle ride which is also vulnerable from the rains driven by the swirling winds of Nasipit inlet.

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The legendary white-out of Nasipit port

I wonder when and how Nasipit port will have a renaissance. Somehow, some day, I just hope that it will come.

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The 130-meter Liner

From the start, I always had respect for the 130-meter liner class and maybe my close observation of the SuperFerry 5 which I sailed with many times influenced me. Of course, I have respect for ships of all classes and that is why I don’t gush for a particular class or even type. I always had the tendency to gauge the suitability and to what route the ship is being used. For me, being the biggest or the fastest is not the ultimate consideration. Those things are maybe just for the young anyway.

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SuperFerry 5 by Ramiro Aranda Jr.

A handful of liners that came to our seas exceeded 150 meters in length and some were even over 185 meters in length, the biggest that plied the Philippine seas. Those liners all had gross tonnages of over 10,000 except for the sister ships St. Joseph The Worker and St. Peter The Apostle of Negros Navigation whose gross tonnages were grossly under-declared. The liners over 10,000 gross tons are what were called “great liners” by Frank Heine and Frank Lose in their book, “The Great Liners of the World” and our liners officially over 10,000 tons were listed in that book.

Liners over 150 meters have engines whose horsepower total over 20,000 and for that it is capable of thrusting the ship to 20 knots or over but not much more. It’s design speed might have been slightly over 20 knots in Japan but here they generally just run at 20 knots (well, even a little less now). Very few ships sailed here at 21 knots and over and probably only two did regularly which were the Filipina Princess and the Princess of Paradise, both liners of of the famed and infamous Sulpicio Lines.

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A 157-meter liner (SuperFerry 19 by Aris Refugio)

I can understand 150-meter liners with 20-knot speed if:

  1. it is used in the strongest routes,

  2. it was still the height of passenger demand and that was the situation before the budget airlines and intermodal buses came in force.

The 150-meter liners of old (not the current liners of 2GO) normally had passenger capacities averaging 2,500 persons (with the liners 165 meters and over averaging nearly 3,000 passengers if the putative liners of Carlos A. Gothong Lines are excluded).

However, on a contrary note in passenger capacity, SuperFerry 5 and its sister ship SuperFerry 2 of Aboitiz Shipping had passenger capacities of nearly 2,400 persons average and even the comparable Princess of the Pacific of Sulpicio Lines had a passenger capacity of nearly 2,300. Yes, in maximization especially with four passenger decks the 130-meter liner can nearly match the 150-meter liners. However, they will not run at 20 knots but 17.5 to 18.5 knots is respectable and comparable to the fast cruiser liners that preceded them. In a Manila to Iloilo or a Manila to Cebu leg the difference in travel time is just two hours or less and it is only one hour if the liner can pass under the two Mactan bridges. And one or two hours is not much detectable by passengers especially if the liner departs late anyway.

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Princess of the Pacific by Britz Salih

In combined Manila to Visayas and Manila to Northern Mindanao routes with an intermediate port, both the 150-meter, 20-knot ship and the 130-meter, 18-knot liner can do two complete voyages in a week so there is no difference in their utilization. What the faster liner only adds is only in the number of port hours not sailing or the inter-port hours.. Well, the crew appreciate more port hours if they have a family or a girlfriend there. But then they might not be able to go down the ship earlier because the area they have to clean first is bigger.

But in fuel consumption the bigger and faster liner will consume significantly more fuel. Normally the 130-meter ship is equipped with engines of just 15,000 horsepower or a little more. Now, compare the thriftiness of those engines in fuel consumption compared to a liner with 20,000 or more horsepower.

Of course, in cargo the bigger liner will carry more while the 130-meter liner will just carry some 100 TEUs in container vans. But then I observed that even then the ship’s cargo will only be full one way or even not (not much load back to Manila because the provinces do not produce much and grains, copra and sugar are no longer carried by the liners of today unlike before). And the rise of intermodal shipping using the combinations of trucks and basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs chopped up the liner cargo even more. Now the liners of 2GO normally sails with less than a full cargo load and it even has to delay departures for a few hours so more cargo can be loaded.

In passengers the ships even two decades ago when demand was still at its peak only gets full at peak season anyway. In normal months the ship will then be carrying about 2/3 of its capacity. Now they are lucky to have half of their capacity full.

Was the 150 meter liner a mistake? Well, if it was the matter of bragging rights then it might not be. No one wanted to be left behind in size and in speed. And besides Sulpicio Lines and William Lines had their own one-on-one-battle. But the era of 150 meter liners was just short with a window of only about a decade (while ship’s lives here is generally more than double of that). And when it was used on more minor routes I thought it was already a mistake because there is not enough cargo and passengers to sustain them there. And so as it grew older the 150-meter liners slowly became dinosaurs especially when liner passenger demand weakened. Of course now that was masked by withdrawals from routes (and lessening of frequencies) which means these liners are already too big for the average port of call.

That was what happened decades ago when the small ex-”FS” ships  and lengthened ex-“F” ships were no longer around. Many ports and towns lost their connection to Manila because the bigger liners that succeeded them were already too big for those ports plus the depths of the ship and the ports no longer matched.

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St. Therese of Child Jesus by Jonathan Gultiano

And that is why I wondered about the last liner purchases in the country. The ports got bigger than decades ago but there are less passengers now and so Aboitiz Transport System and 2GO just cut off the routes (and it was obvious they were not intent on going back to the more minor routes) because there is not enough cargo and passengers anymore for their 150-meter liners. That is why they left ports and cities like Surigao, Tagbilaran, Dapitan. Cotabato and many others. Well, on another note, they learned that they just needed 90- to 100-meter liners in their Palawan, Romblon and Capiz routes so they just dissolved Cebu Ferries and took its overnight ships and converted them.

I think the 130-meter liner was best for us in most of the main routes. Like what SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 5 and Princess of the Pacific have shown (and by Mabuhay 2 and Mabuhay 5, too, of William Lines, the latter SuperFerry 7 and SuperFerry 9, respectively) they can be modified to up four decks that will have a total of about 2,300 passengers average when demand was still strong. And when it weakened another cargo deck can be created. Or if it came when passenger demand was already falling the number of decks can be limited into three with the passenger capacity no longer in the 2,000 range. Well, later liners fielded in the 2000’s had the sense not to really pack it in.

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Two passenger decks converted into cargo deck (Photo by Mike Baylon)

Now, if only bragging rights did not come into the picture maybe the liner choices might have been more sane.

Adjusted for the weakening of liner shipping in this millennium, I think the biggest liners should just be in the 130 to 140-meter range with just 15,000 to 16000 horsepower and a cruising speed of 18 knots (well, the 150-meter, 22,000-horsepower liners of 2GO just average 19 knots now anyway). There is no more need for passenger capacities reaching 2,000 persons. If there is a mezzanine for cars it should just be retained instead of being converted into passenger accommodations as new cars or passenger vans destined for dealers south are important sources of revenue now for the liners. On more minor routes maybe we should even go back to the 100- to 110-meter liners of the past as augmentation for the 130- to 140-meter liners.

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San Lorenzo Ruiz with 1,426 pax capacity by Rodney Orca

Now that would be more sane.

The Misfortune of the Surigao Liner Route

Of all the many ports of Northern Mindanao, the geographical area and not the political-administrative region, it is Surigao that I did not see losing its liner connection to Manila given its history and not its demographic and economic profile. In the old days, Surigao had six passenger-cargo ships from Manila calling and dropping anchor every week whereas the likes of more known and bigger Iligan and Zamboanga did not have that frequency. So for me the loss of Manila connection by Surigao is almost unbelievable when the likes of Nasipit, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan and Ozamis still have their liner connection to Manila.

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Surigao Port by Aris Refugio

After the war, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the likes of Escano Lines, Philippine Steam Navigation Company (PSNC), General Shipping Company (GSC), the great Compania Maritima (CM) provided Surigao with connection to Manila. Before the war, Surigao had ferry connection even in early American times and so the loss of connection was as shocking to me as the loss of Davao of its liner connection to Manila. I mean, the connections are historical and it was an epoch in local shipping.

In 1954, when the country has basically recovered from the war and there were enough ships already, the Romblon and Basilan of Compania Maritima and the Davao and Vizcaya of Philippine Steam Navigation Company (PSNC) sailed to Surigao. These were augmented by the Fernando Escano of Escano Lines and the General Mojica of General Shipping Company. All of these passenger-cargo ships were former war-surplus “FS” ships used by the US Army in their Pacific campaign during the war. Ex-“FS” ships were the backbone of our passenger shipping fleet in the early Republic years.

In 1955 the Occidental of Carlos A. Go Thong & Company and the Don Manuel of Royal Lines appeared in Surigao. Surigao then was usually paired with Butuan port (the true Butuan and not Nasipit) in voyages to increase the passenger and cargo volume. Combining the two ports was not difficult since the distance of the two is not far and just in the same direction and the additional passengers and cargo is much more than the additional fuel that is consumed.

The routes combined with Surigao got more complex over the years. In some routes Surigao is combined with Masbate, the Samar ports and Tacloban. There was even a ship, the Vizcaya of PSNC that had the route Manila-Romblon-Cebu-Maasin-Cabalian-Surigao-Bislig-Mati-Davao (now how’s that for complexity?). If ever there is again a liner with such route again it will be offer good, free tourism. Never mind if the voyage takes one week as long as the accommodations, passenger service and food are good. By the way that was the time when a dozen passenger ships depart North Harbor every day on the way south. Who said smaller ships of the past were not good? With smaller ships comes more voyages and more voyages means more choices. Smaller ships also mean shorter legs and so it has to call on more ports. More ports means more free tourism. Never mind if the voyage takes long. If one wants shorter travel time there is always the airline.

Some other routes to Surigao pass thru Cebu and/or ports on the western and southern side of Leyte island like Ormoc and Maasin. When I see the Palawan Princess or the Surigao Princess of Sulpicio Lines in the 1990’s and 2000’s, I tend to think they were the remnants of this route when they call in Masbate, Calubian, Baybay, Maasin and Surigao from Manila (and it even extended to Butuan earlier). It was just too bad that the suspension of Sulpicio Lines in 2008 put an end to that long route.

Until 1959 there were six ships from Manila sailing to Surigao and these were the FS-167, Fernando Escano, General Segundo, General Roxas, Rizal and Romblon. All were ex-FS ships except for the Rizal which might have been a lengthened “F” ship. In 1964, Escano Lines increased its ship call to Surigao with the Tacloban and Kolambugan. Later when Sweet Lines became a national liner company they also called in Surigao with their Sweet Peace. Then in 1970 when Aboitiz Shipping Corporation fielded a dedicated ship to their origin, the West Leyte, this ship held a Manila-Romblon-Palompon-Ormoc-Baybay-Cabalian-Surigao-Sogod route. What a way to blanket western Leyte and Surigao! Later this route was taken over by their more modern ship Cagayan de Oro.

In the same year, Go Thong had their Dona Gloria and Gothong  (their flagship) do a Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Mati-Davao-Iloilo-Manila route which goes round Mindanao island. The two alternating ships of Go Thong were no longer ex-“FS” ships but were refitted former cargo-passenger ships with refrigeration from Europe which had air-conditioning already. When I think of the ship routes of the past, I see they were much more exciting that the dry, short routes of today where free tourism (touring the city while the ship is docked) is almost minimal.

When Sweet Lines instituted their eastern Mindanao shortcutter route to Davao via Surigao their ships like the alternating Sweet Bliss and Sweet Dream were also former refrigerated cargo ships from Europe. Later, it was the Sweet Love and Sweet Lord which were alternating in this route. These ships were almost like in size as the Type “C1-M-AV1” war-surplus big ships used right after World War II but the difference is they were faster and had refrigeration which afforded air-conditioned first class accommodations and lounges to be built and hence were more comfortable than the big war-surplus ships that were converted to passenger-cargo use.

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Verano Port of Surigao City by Mike Baylon

With ships getting bigger, it is not surprising that routes and frequencies went down. If some thought that getting bigger is all a plus (like maybe in safety) then there is also a downside to that (and there might be a lesson there too). The ships getting bigger were probably the first that affected the frequency to Surigao. The factor came next maybe after that was the appearance of the fast cruiser liners in the second half of the 1970’s. Fast cruiser liners usually have just one intermediate call so that it can maintain a weekly voyage to a route as far as Southern Mindanao like Davao. With their appearance, other companies tried to speed up their voyages by also cutting down on intermediate calls and I think Surigao got affected by that like when Sweet Lines dropped Surigao on their eastern Mindanao seaboard shortcutter route.

In 1979, when container services was just starting, the frequency to Surigao was down to 3 ships a week with two of that provided by Escano Lines with their Kolambugan and Surigao. The Don Manuel of Sulpicio Lines was the other ship to Surigao. The three were old ships, as in ex-”FS” type and the other probably a lengthened ex-“F” ship. I am not that sure of the reason for the drop except that I know ships on the way to Davao by the eastern seaboard no longer calls in Surigao port. I was thinking of the cargo. Were there a lot of logs, lumber and plywood loaded before? During that time the logging and timber industry was already on the way down. And the Catbalogan and Tacloban ships no longer go to Surigao. Not enough load maybe to extend the route there. Anyway, this time even the Catbalogan and Tacloban routes are already being threatened by the emerging intermodal system when the buses and trucks started rolling up to Leyte from Luzon.

The end due to old age of the ex-”FS “ships definitely affected Surigao. Those type served the smaller ports and weaker routes in the 1970s. With just 1,000-horsepower engines they were certainly thrifty to run and their size fits the weaker and smaller ports especially with their shallow drafts. However, they can’t last forever and entering the 1980’s it was obvious they were already in their last legs as they were already in their fourth decade. By the middle of that decade only a few of those type were still running reliably and they were kept running by just cannibalizing parts from other similar ships, one of the reasons why their number kept steadily falling.

Sulpicio Lines fielded the small but comfortable liner Surigao Princess in the route in 1983 which I said seemed to be a relic of earlier days. The Surigao Princess had air-conditioning and First Class accommodations including Suite. Aboitiz Shipping also resuscitated their complex route with their cruiser liner Legaspi which also had air-conditioning. This ship was acquired from Escano Lines, as the former Katipunan and different from their old Legazpi and sometimes she sports the name Legaspi 1 to differentiate it as the old Legazpi was still sailing. Maybe the ex-”FS” ships were now too old and slow to maintain such route. I am talking here of the late 1980’s. Escano Lines, the old faithful in the route and a “home team” of the area was already fading and what they had left were cargo ships and the Virgen de la Paz maintained their Surigao route for them. However, before Escano Lines was completely gone, Madrigal Shipping entered the Surigao route with their Madrigal Surigao, a comfortable and modern cruiser liner in an era when RORO liners were already beginning to dominate but then Madrigal Shipping lasted only a few years before quitting and selling their ships.

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Port of Surigao (from a framed PPA photo)

I do not know if the regional ships also contributed to the decline of the Surigao liner route. They got better so much so that connecting to Cebu where great RORO liners were beginning to mushroom is already easy. One only has to check their schedules in Cebu and it is really nice to ride them and with their size they won’t be coming to Surigao and so connecting to Cebu might have become attractive so one can ride those great RORO liners. I am talking from experience but from a different city which is Iligan when it became an option to me to connect to Cebu to be able to ride a great liner. I also did that on the way home because I know that if I arrive before dark in Cebu there will be seamless connecting rides to Iligan and/or Cagayan de Oro.

There was a big change in 1993 when the great Filipina Princess of Sulpicio Lines upon being shunted to Davao called in Surigao. Aboitiz Shipping also for a time tried the Surigao route with their SuperFerry 2. In 1994, William Lines entered Surigao for the very first time with their luxury liner Mabuhay 2. So for the first time the competitors in Surigao were all new and good liners, a development I have not ever seen before. Maybe the deregulation and support extended by the Ramos government was the reason when there was optimism and dynamism in shipping again. But let it be noted that the Surigao Princess which is beginning to be unreliable and the Palawan Princess were still alternating in their complex route to Surigao and so there were 4 voyages a week to Surigao then from Manila.

In 1996, the SuperFerry 6 of WG&A, the former Our Lady of Akita tried to challenge the Filipina Princess in the Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Davao route. SuperFerry 2 also did a Manila-Surigao-Nasipit-Tagbilaran route after the merger. When WG&A started pairing ships in a route one pair that did the Manila-Surigao-Nasipit-Surigao-Manila route was the SuperFerry 3 and Our Lady of Medjugorje pair. When SuperFerry 6 was withdrawn from the eastern seaboard route and WG&A stopped that route and SF6 was paired with SuperFerry 10, the SuperFerry 1 and SuperFerry 8 was paired to do a Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Nasipit route and that was really a fast combination as both ships can do 20 knots. Later, when three-ship pairing was used by WG&A, the SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 5 and SuperFerry 9 sailed the Manila-Surigao-Nasipit, v.v. route.

I always thought WG&A will maintain a twice a week schedule to Surigao and pair it with Nasipit and Sulpicio Lines will always have two schedules a week with its unchanging routes and schedules. But of course with the sales of ships that transformed WG&A into Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) there will be uncertainties and the greatest change was when ats sold four of their newest liners to take advantage of good prices and earn a handsome profit. Coming at the heels of sales of older liners and container ships to pay off their former partners which withdrew from the merger, ATS suddenly lacked ships and the Surigao schedules became infirm.

But the greatest blow was when Sulpicio Lines was suspended after the capsizing of their Princess of the Stars in 2008. Suddenly, their two schedules to Surigao were cut and those never came back. I thought ATS would be reliable but actually except for the return of SuperFerry 19 from Papua New Guinea, ATS found themselves lacking ships especially since their SuperFerry 14 was lost to firebombing off Bataan in 2004. When they acquired their SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21, I thought that somehow their routes might stabilize. But like their withdrawal from Davao and General Santos City, I did not see that they will be doing just a Manila-Tagbilaran-Nasipit route and leave Surigao. This was the period when they had the system to use the buses i.e. give the passengers bus tickets to connect to their ships like what they did in southern Mindanao (so passengers can ride their liners in Cagayan de Oro). For Surigao, howeverm it seems they were offering their other makeshift system, the use of connecting ships to Cebu by using their Cebu Ferries. Neat but for whom?

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SuperFerry 19 arriving in Surigao Port by Michael Denne

But then their subsidiary Cebu Ferries suddenly left to become the “Batangas Ferries”. What I saw was the ATS world collapsing and not out of financial trouble. They were just no longer that interested in shipping and they admitted as much. The passion was gone and they were already more interested in power generation. Well, their bet and support of Gloria Arroyo paid off handsomely and they were able to earn in Tiwi Geothermal and Mak-Ban in Laguna what they cannot possibly ever earn in shipping.

They sold their shipping to an entity that was less capable than them and which had to get a big loan for the acquisition and was a big burden, so heavy that initially the new company was on the red for the next three years until fuel prices eased and they were back in the black. But that was not any benefit to Surigao as they never came back there for long except for a short period like when St. Joseph The Worker was refurbished and was assigned there and which I was lucky to ride. But after her sale and her sister it was downhill all the way for Surigao. With bean counters ruling, smaller ports had no chance in 2GO, the entity after ATS. And to think there were no longer any other liner company competing. 2GO was just content on routes that will easily make them money. Did they call that “serving the public”? I am not sure.

Now Surigao no longer has a liner, not even one that is paired with Nasipit. But 2GO still call in Nasipit from Cebu and so the extra distance pays. But maybe not when paired with Surigao? Maybe if the hours and the fuel of the ship are measured the metric of Surigao is too low and the 2GO ship is better used elsewhere. That is the quintessential bean counter method. They are not into traditional shipping. They are into business.

I was also wondering about the off and on service of the company to Dapitan until its total withdrawal. Dapitan and nearby Dipolog a combined population of over 200,000. But its commercial level is low and so maybe a population of 200,000 is not enough to sustain a liner per 2GO standard. And so maybe Surigao City with just 150,000 people has no chance even if some incrementals from Siargao tourism is added. In Ormoc with over a population over 150,000, 2GO was not able to maintain a route. Somehow these metrics points to the standards and parameters of 2GO.

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Surigao Port by Lota Hilton

If that is correct then maybe Surigao has no chance really unless a new liner company with true shipping emerges. But then with the situation of the liner industry that is like asking for the moon. I don’t know if the change at the helm of 2GO with the entry of Chelsea Shipping and the SM Group if the metrics and priorities will change. If ATS and 2GO said they were “passionate” in shipping (of course their dictionary is not Webster), I don’t know what will be the adjective of the 2GO/NN-Chelsea-SM combine that will make it better.

I don’t want to be too hopeful and so I will just await developments.

Note: Thanks a lot to the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library.