Some People With Vested Interest Always Raise the Issue of the Age of Our Ferries

For the past five years or so, I often notice that some people with vested interest in shipping always raise the issue of the age of our ferries imputing that our old ferries are not safe. That include their friends who parrot their line but actually have no knowledge whatsoever of local shipping. One thing they have in common is their lack of objectivity and empirical knowledge of our shipping. They are the type of bashers of our shipping who will pass on lies to “justify” their position. The bad thing is they have access to media which will simply broadcast what they say or worse simply reprints “praise releases”. And the baddest is millions of people who have no knowledge of shipping are fooled by them.

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The Maharlika II which capsized and sank after losing engine power and no help came

MARINA (the regulatory agency Maritime Industry Authority) itself in a very recent consultation with shipping company and shipyard owners admitted they have no study linking maritime accidents to the age of ships. I am not surprised here because I know MARINA has no database of our shipping losses and accidents. I guess even if they study the findings of Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI) proceedings on maritime accidents, they will be hard put to correlate the accidents to the age of ships because the BMI generally proceeds with facts on records and most conclusions point to human or navigation error.

Major accidents that resulted in hull losses, the type that generally provoke ignorant public outcry, generally can be classified into three:

Capsizing/foundering/sinking

Fire and explosion

Beaching/grounding that resulted in complete total loss or CTL

For the last 30 years from 1986 when radar was already generally available and weather forecasting was already better, capsizing/foundering/sinking composed about 45% of the cases of ship losses while fire and explosion composed 40% of the cases and the remaining 15% were due to beaching/grounding that resulted in CTL. In the sample, the motor bancas and small motor boats were excluded but batels and Moro boats are included. But if they are included it can be easily seen that most of them were lost in bad weather and few of them are over 20 years old (wooden-hulled crafts don’t last long anyway) and so it is hard to connect their loss to age.

In capsizing/foundering/sinking, most of them can be connected to the prevalent bad weather or storm. Such cases of losses are also hard to connect to the age of the ship especially since with hull scanners replacing the hammer in testing the hull integrity of the ships few sink now because the ship developed a hole while sailing. Well, capsizing/foundering/sinking is even easier to connect to the hardheadedness of their captains and owners. Their only connection to age is captains and shipping owners are generally old, pun intended.

In fire and explosion, the age of the ships can be suspected to be a factor. But so do simple lack of maintenance and lack of firefighting capabilities. A relatively new ship with poor maintenance will be mechanically old especially if parts are not replaced. An old ship with replacement engines and bridge equipment is mechanically newer like Mabuhay 3 that although built in 1977 was modernized in Singapore when she was lengthened. Understand too that some of the fires happened in the shipyard or while undergoing afloat ship repair (ASR). Fire is a risk while doing hot works like welding in a shipyard and many times this was what caused the fire and not the age of the ship.

In beaching and grounding, this is almost the province of bad weather and bad seamanship and navigation. The only connection to age here is when the navigator used old and obsolete nautical charts, pun intended again. The age of the ship practically has no connection to this unless some machinery broke like in Baleno 168 when the shaft broke free. By the way, the total number of ship losses here I consider as ship losses is over 75 ferries. Not included are other types of ships like freighters, tankers, container ships, barges and tugs.

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The Starlite Atlantic floundered while maneuvering in a strong typhoon

But these people with vested interests and that even includes MARINA would not dwell on the actual causes of ship losses. What they just is just an administrative fiat where ships will be phased out after a certain age (30 or 35 years) irregardless of the actual condition of the ship. They cite “safety”. But what they actually want is to have the whole field for themselves because they are the ones which have new ships. They do not want fair competition. What they want is to simply banish the competition.

For me, because I believe in laissez-faire competition, it should be “Let the market decide”. If they think their ferries are better then let them charge higher or with a premium (as anyway they need to amortize their ships). And see how the market reacts. That is how it is in the deregulated areas for buses. The better buses charge higher, of course, and why not? The market then decides which they want or which they can afford. Like my friend in Naga. When business is good he might take a premium Lazy Boy bus. But when business is slow, he will settle for the very common aircon bus. It should be that way in shipping too. Please no administrative fiats. It is simply not fair. If you want to argue about the age of the ships then put forward a worthy scholarly study that have gone through a panel of knowledgeable shipping persons (and please no landlubber Ph.D’s).

In Youtube, there is a Captain who said most of the accidents are caused by human error. I agree fully (and please invite him to the panel which will check the scholarly study). It is just like in a car, a truck or a bus. It is not the age of the vehicle which will be cause of the collision or it falling in a ditch or running over a pedestrian. It will most likely be human error on the part of the driver (unless there was a mechanical failure which can also be attributed to poor maintenance).

In 2011, I had a friendly discussion with a Japanese ship spotter who is very knowledgeable about Philippine shipping. I was dismissive of these ships having these expensive P&I (Protection and Indemnity) insurance and being classed by classification societies affiliated with IACS (International Association of Classification Societies). I asked him a conondrum to please explain to me why ferries in the eastern seaboard of the country never sank while sailing (that was true before the Maharlika Dos sank in 2014). The ferries there are old, some even have problems with their painting, none have MMSI or INMARSAT, nobody has heard of P&I and IACS and yet they do not sink since steel ferries arrived there in 1979 (a total of 22 years) while the proud SuperFerry lost the SuperFerry 3, SuperFerry 6, SuperFerry 7 and SuperFerry 14 in just a span of a few years. I was needling the guy a little since he was a big SuperFerry fan. He was speechless and can’t provide an answer. So I told him P&I and IACS might look good in Japan but here evidently it does not translate to greater safety, empirically and arguably. So then why are these people with vested insterests pushing for IACS classification when it actually means nothing here? Hell, no ship sank in the Dumaguete-Dapitan route, the Bacolod-Dumangas route, the San Bernardino routes, the routes to Catanduanes, etc. There is no IACS-classificated ships there except for the recently arrived FastCat. There is also no lost ship in Roxas-Caticlan and probably the only IACS-classed ships there are the new Starlite Ferries and FastCat. So that means an IACS classification is not really necessary. If we proceed empirically then higher classification should only be required by route and by shipping company. If a route or a shipping company has no major accident then just require them the usual local classification because it proved it was enough, isn’t it? Then require IACS or even higher classification for the likes of 2GO, Archipelago Philippine Ferries and Starlite Ferries because it had major accidents already in the past. Now isn’t that simple? Why should the curse be suffered by shipping companies which had no major accidents? Is that fair? And the irony is that those who prate safety and which called for the throw-out of old ships are those which had history of sunk ships already.

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Report says she grounded, was declared CTL and broken up (Pic by M. Homma)

The eastern seaboard with more ships than the fleet of Starlite Ferries or Archipelago Ferries only lost two ships until today and one of that was when a ferry was moored during a typhoon and therefore not sailing (the Northern Samar) and the other one was the Maharlika Dos of Archipelago Philippine Ferries. Now the fleet of one of these guys has already lost two, the Starlite Voyager and the Starlite Atlantic when his company started operations just in 1996 as they claimed. Eastern seaboard ferries have been in operation since 1979, much earlier than his. The only eastern shipboard ferry lost while sailing belongs to another loud guy with vested interest and his ship was the Maharlika Dos which sank because it wallowed for many hours without power when his Maharlika Cuatro was just nearby and failed to help until Maharlika Dos sank with loss of lives.

Actually safety and seamanship are not the result of paid certificates. Just like there is no presumption one is a capable and safe driver after getting a driver’s license or a car is safe because it was registered in the Land Transportation Office or a bus is safe because it was registered in the LTFRB. Just like the Supreme Court said in a recent decision a ship is “seaworthy” (because it has seaworthiness certificates) until the moment the hull the develops a hole and sinks. Certificates actually confer nothing in the true world of Philippine shipping.

In Typhoon “Ruping”, the strongest typhoon to visit Cebu in history in 1990 a lot of ships sank, capsized or were beached. The typhoon did not ask the ships their age. Ditto when Typhoon “Yolanda” struck in 2014 with the loss of many ships too all over the country. Typhoons are not selective with regards to age. Unless one will argue the anchor broke because of age.

But these people with vested interest peddle lies that in Japan ships after reaching twenty years of age are retired. That is simply not true. Even the Japanese ship spotter said that. I once thought the 35-year limit proposal was a European Union standard. Not true also. They do it by actual inspection or classification of ships. If the ship has too many violations it is detained until corrections are made. It stops sailing when corrections can no longer be made or it is already too expensive to be economical and when that happens the ship is sold to the breakers or a Third World country. The process there is objective unlike the proposed arbitrary rule here to base it on age.

Passenger ship sinks off Calapan City

The Baleno 168’s propeller shaft broke loose and water rushed inside making her capsize (Photo by Edison Sy)

I just cannot understand these people resorting to lies just to promote their product. I thought in the past these were subject to boycott. The problem with the Philippines is there is no Fact Check like in the USA. Here things are reduced to “batuhan ng lies”. I am just glad in our society, the PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) that has never been the rule or custom because we always stick to the facts and TO the truth.

And that is the raison d’etre for this article. I do not like liars nor do I like people who wants to pull a fast one or those who try fool people or hood their eyes.

When the RORO Liners Came to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao

The ROROs (Roll-on, Roll-off ships) first came to the Philippines at the end of the 1970’s and in the 1980’s it began to multiply in Luzon and the Visayas. From the moment the ROROs arrived it was already obvious that they were superior to the cruiser ships and that a new paradigm has arrived and the cruiser ships were already headed to obsolescence. However, the ROROs did not multiply fast in general in the 1980’s because it was a decade of great economic and political crises when the value of the peso plunged and inflation was unchecked. At the height of the crisis of the 1980’s almost no loans were available, few foreign currency was available (that it even lead to the creation of the “Binondo central bank) and the interest rates were skyhigh that it was almost suicide to take a loan especially at foreign-denominated one.

That difficulty was reflected in that the first RORO liners and overnight ferries in the country acquired at the peak of this crisis up to 1986 were small and were generally just in the 60 to 70-meter length class only and barely over 1,000 gross tons. Among the examples of those were the Surigao Princess, Cagayan Princess, Boholana Princess, Sta. Maria (of Nenaco and not Viva Shipping Lines), the Viva Sta. Maria and Marian Queen of Viva Shipping Lines and the many ROROs acquired by Carlos A. Gothong Lines like the Dona Lili, Don Calvino, Dona Josefina, Don Benjamin, Dona Casandra, Dona Cristina and the third Sweet Home of Sweet Lines. The notable exceptions in this period were the Sweet RORO and Sweet RORO 2 of Sweet Lines and the Sta. Florentina of Negros Navigation but the three were not really that big (as in 110 to 120 meters LOA). Many liners shipping companies did not bother to purchase a RORO ship in this period like William Lines, Aboitiz Shipping, Lorenzo Shipping, Escano Lines and the moribund Compania Maritima, the erstwhile biggest passenger shipping company.

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Cotabato Princess c. 1988 by Britz Salih

However, if Luzon, the Visayas and Northern Mindanao already had RORO ships in this period described, Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao did not see a RORO liner until 1988 when Sulpicio Lines fielded the Cotabato Princess in the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route and Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. fielded the Asia Korea (the latter Asia Hongkong and the Reina del Rosario of Montenegro Shipping Lines) on the Cebu-Iloilo-Zamboanga-General Santos City route and that RORO ship is actually 82.8 meters in length which is about the size of small liners then like the Our Lady of Guadalupe which arrived in 1986 for Carlos A. Gothong Lines and was 89.7 meters in length. With the overthrow of the dictatorship in 1986 and the general bettering of the economic conditions starting in 1987 the RORO ships being purchased were beginning to get bigger and more many as the difficulty of lending from banks and the interest rates eased and there was new economic optimism.

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Asia Korea (TASLI photo)

The fielding of RORO liners in Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao was not fast at first. In 1989, the Zamboanga City of William Lines came when it did the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga route before replacing their burned (in the shipyard) Manila City in the Manila-Zamboanga-Davao route. In 1992, the big but slow Maynilad of the William Lines came and replaced the Zamboanga City in that route and the Zamboanga City was given the Manila-Iloilo-Cotabato-General Santos City route instead to battle the Cotabato Princess (with she bypassing Zamboanga port her travel time to Cotabato was shorter).

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Maynilad (Photo credits: William Lines and Britz Salih)

Sulpicio Lines only fielded their second RORO liner in Southern Mindanao when the Manila Princess came in 1992 to replace their cruiser Davao Princess in the Manila-Cebu-Davao route. Actually during that time the only shipping companies with passenger service still remaining to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao were Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines. Such was the effect of the political and economic crises of the 1980’s and the coming of the container ships. Among those who quit Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao then in passenger shipping were Compania Maritima, Aboitiz Shipping and Lorenzo Shipping.

The slowness of the coming of the RORO liners in Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao can be counted this way. In 1992, four years after the first coming of the RORO liners, the southernmost portion of the country only had 4 RORO liners, the Manila Princess and Cotabato Princess of Sulpicio Lines and the Maynilad and Zamboanga City of William Lines (Sweet Lines only had the cruiser Sweet Glory in the route). Well, actually there were not that many liners here compared to the Visayas and Northern Mindanao as most cargo in the region was actually carried by the container ships which outnumber the RORO liners. However, Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao RORO liners were generally bigger than the Visayas and Northern Mindanao RORO liners, on the average.

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Princess of the Pacific (Photo credits: Sulpicio Lines and Britz Salih)

It was starting in 1993 that fielding of RORO liners to the southernmost part of the country accelerated. More RORO liners were actually coming in the country because of the incentives laid by President Fidel V. Ramos. The Princess of the Pacific of Sulpicio Lines came and did the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas route. Aboitiz Shipping came back to Southern Mindanao when they fielded the SuperFerry 1 in the Manila-Iloilo-General Santos-Davao route and their SuperFerry 3 did the Manila-Zamboanga-Cotabato route to the protest of William Lines in the latter which when not resolved resulted in the withdrawal of the liner Zamboanga City and subsequent reassignment of that ship to the Puerto Princesa route. Meanwhile, the super-big former flagship of Sulpicio Lines, the Filipina Princess replaced the Manila Princess in its route and this ship was subsequently assigned to the Manila-Zamboanga-Davao route to compete with the slow but bigger Maynilad.

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Photo credits: Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen

In 1994, the lengthened and rebuilt Sugbu which became the Mabuhay 3 of William Lines did the Manila-Davao-Dadiangas route. In 1995, just before the merger that produced WG&A no more further RORO liners came but Manila Princess was plagued by unreliability and was just being used as a reserve ship.

When WG&A started sailing in 1996 there were heavy changes to the schedules and routes. Early in the merger, the Maynilad was doing the Manila-Dumaguete-Cotabato route and SuperFerry 3 was assigned her old Manila-Zamboanga-Cotabato route. The Dona Virginia was fielded to the Manila-Zamboanga-General Santos City route and competing head-on with the Princess of the Pacific but she was only a half-RORO, half-cruiser. The SuperFerry 6 was doing the Manila-Surigao-Davao route in contest with the Filipina Princess. And the SuperFerry 1 was doing her old Manila-Iloilo-General Santos City-Davao route. There were more RORO liners now and RORO liners that have not been previously assigned to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao reached ports here like the Our Lady of Akita of Gothong Lines which became SuperFerry 6 and the old flagship Dona Virginia of William Lines. It was exciting because new ships coming are exciting and because it is a new experience for the passengers.

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SuperFerry 3 by Chief Ray Smith

Along the years there were constant adjustments in the routes and fielding of ships of WG&A as more RORO liners came to their fleet and some liners were disposed off or were lost. Later, WG&A also turned into pairing of ships to do the same route. But it would be hard to mention here all the WG&A routes and schedules as it often changed and I will just risk accusations of inaccuracies and listing many by month will be too tedious.

There was one more change in the area when Negros Navigation invaded Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao in their desire to become a national liner company and compete toe-to-toe with WG&A and Sulpicio Lines. The San Ezekiel Moreno was assigned the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-General Santos route and competing against the Princess of the Pacific. And the San Lorenzo Ruiz (theirs and not the Viva Shipping Lines ship) was fielded to the Manila-Iloilo-General Santos-Davao route in competition then with the SuperFerry 1/SuperFerry 8/SuperFerry 10 pairing.

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San Lorenzo Ruiz by Britz Salih

In the new millennium the RORO liners slowly disappeared from Southern Mindanao and almost too in Zamboanga. Passenger shipping slowly but continuously weakened with the onslaught of the budget airlines (and the intermodal bus too from Davao) whose fares were already in parity with the liners. Soon, even the hoi polloi were also taking the planes and a new generation of passengers deemed the liners as too slow and wouldn’t want to spend two-and-a-half days of their lives cocooned in a liner although they are fed free. The RORO liners soon became for the ship lovers only and for those who feared taking a plane.

In the second decade of the new millennium the Aboitiz Transport System RORO liners to Southern Mindanao disappeared. That was preceded years earlier by the withdrawal of Negros Navigation. Now there are no more liners in Southern Mindanao and in Zamboanga only one liner is left.

Soon RORO liners will just be distant memories in Southern Mindanao.