Montenegro Lines is Challenging in the Zamboanga-Jolo Route

A few months ago, I got the incredulous (at least for me) update that Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) will be fielding their ship Maria Rebecca in the Zamboanga-Jolo route which is the next foray of the shipping in an exclusive Mindanao route after their Surigao-Dapa, Siargao route in northeast Mindanao (and so the logical next step is a southwestern Mindanao route?).

MV Maria Rebecca

Photo by Arnel Hutalla

A lot of questions come into my mind with their move. First is the question of security. This part of the country has bombings and extortion, of course. Western Mindanao is also known for another kind of taxation, one that does not have receipts. I was wondering, did Montenegro Lines already paid what is “due” them? If not their move is a hazardous proposition especially since they are newcomers and strangers to the place.

The alternative taxation “due” there from businesses probably does not give discounts or grace periods. However, I know the “patron saint” of the company is really strong and influential. Now, how that translates into more lenient or secure terms in that area, that I don’t know. Whatever, their move there is certainly brave. But if something bad happens, I will say it is stupid.

In shipping terms, the more important angle here is that of shipping competition and again I wonder deep about the move of Montenegro Lines. The Zamboanga-Jolo route is actually a crowded route. It is not an underserved route. It might even be an overcrowded route and bringing in a RORO is no advantage either.

The biggest competitor of Montenegro Lines in the Zamboanga-Jolo route is the dominant shipping company of Western Mindanao which is Aleson Shipping Lines, a homegrown shipping company which is even bigger than any Cebu-based overnight ferry company. Practically every night and at least six nights a week, Aleson Shipping Lines will have a ship from Zamboanga to Jolo and vice-versa and six of those will be dedicated ships in the route.

Aside from those, two other competitors of Aleson Shipping Lines with ROROs have up to four voyages to Jolo on the way to Siasi and Sitangkai in Tawi-tawi. These two are the Magnolia Shipping Company and Ever Lines. Actually these two don’t care that much for passengers to Jolo as their bread and butter is cargo. It is the Tawi-tawi route that they care about and they just pass by Jolo for the passengers going further from there.

Like Aleson Shipping Lines, they have ROROs but their rolling cargo is sparse. Cargo to Jolo is basically loose cargo. Trucks and cars are seldom loaded because after Jolo there is not much to go to because of the security situation and because of the ridos. Without proper security those vehicles might just be mincemeat for the extremists that teem in Jolo island. If those can kidnap foreigners that are not even in their land then imagine what they can do to a vehicle chugging along their un-maintained roads.

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Maria Rebecca and an Aleson ferry (Photo by Britz Salih)

Aside from Aleson, Magnolia and Ever with ROROs, the Zamboanga-Jolo route is also home to the Zamboanga cruiser ferries. The shipping companies that operate these are Sing Shipping, Ibnerizam Shipping and Evenesser Shipping and between the three they operate a total of four active cruiser ferries, the Mama Mia, KC Beatrice, Prince Glory and Bounty Cruiser. So on a given night two of the four will be headed to Jolo and two will be headed back to Zamboanga.

Zamboanga is also home to what I call the “Moro boats”, wooden motor boats (before they were wrongly renamed as “motor launches”) that are unique to the area and almost proprietary to the Muslim Filipinos. Several shipping companies operate this kind of vessel between Zamboanga and Jolo and among these the two with the most boats are Katrafar Shipping Lines which operate the Katrina boats and L5 Shipping/Maing Dimdi which operate the Sea Dayang/Sea Sayang boats. Malik Manajil also operates the Karmina boat.

These three operators sail some 8 Moro boats between them although not that regularly because their main load is copra and passengers come as secondary. Most of the time though they will have a boat docked in Zamboanga and at times three or even four of them will be there.

There are also a few unregistered Moro boats that run between Zamboanga and Jolo that use Zamboanga port. Unregistered Moro boats are not novelties in Zamboanga because in truth most of those are actually unregistered with MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the local maritime regulatory agency. And in Baliwasan there are also be a few Moro boats running irregularly plus some that sail to the other towns in Jolo island and the other islands of Sulu province. 

Aside from all those mentioned, SRN Fastcrafts, the operator of the Weesam Express fastcrafts also runs the Zamboanga-Jolo route with a day trip of their Weesam Express 1.

So all in all, maybe in a day some eight vessels are due to depart in Zamboanga for Jolo (if none is drydocked) and the Maria Rebecca of Montenegro Lines will be the ninth every other day. Now, is that 49.9-meter ferry already converted into an overnight ferry? By the way, her size is about average of the steel-hulled ferries that sail in the Zamboanga-Jolo route.

So what gives? Sulu only has a population of a little over 800,000 and some of the islands and towns in that archipelago have direct links to Zamboanga. It does not have tourism but it has lots of copra and rubber, crops that can be left behind when there is fighting. Plus, it has cottage industries producing additional millions and those are not the normal kind.

But nine vessels going there in a day? Come on!

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The Magnolia Grandiflora

The cruiser-type long-route ferry Magnolia Grandiflora is the biggest ship in the fleet of Magnolia Shipping Company of Zamboanga City although it is not the tallest (that distinction belongs to Magnolia Liliflora). What is notable in this ship is not her looks but her age and what is unique with her is she started out as a fishing vessel and then she was converted locally into a passenger-cargo ship. There are only a few converted ships like that here and that includes the Lady Mary Joy 1 of Aleson Shipping Lines which has good lines and does not look like a former fishing vessel and the Gloria Two and Gloria Three of Gabisan Shipping Lines which looks like Magnolia Grandiflora as in low, squat and wide, no offense meant (however, she is slightly bigger than the two Gabisan ships, a comparison that is needed so some can imagine her size). The endearing quality of the three is they may be old but they still very reliable and it seems they are not ready to go anytime soon (especially since surplus and replacement engines are now readily available).

Magnolia Grandiflora started as the Shinnan Maru No. 18 of Izumi Gyogyo KK of Muroto, Japan. She was a trawler built by Kanasashi Heavy Industries (builder too of St. Gregory The Great, St. Leo The Great, among others) in Shimizu shipyard in Japan in 1969 with the permanent ID IMO 7003348. She has a steel hull, a raked stem and a cruiser stern. She was a big trawler at 52.5 meters length over-all, 45.5 meters in length between perpendiculars with a maximum breadth of 8.7 meters. She was originally 344 tons in gross register tons (GRT) with a deadweight tonnage (DWT) of 241 tons. This ship has a single Hanshin marine diesel engine of 1,300 horsepower which was enough for a speed of 12 knots originally.

In 1977, Shinnan Maru No. 18 was sold to Ricsan Development Corporation of Manila and she was used as a fishing vessel. In that fishing company, the Shinnan Maru No. 18 was known as the Ricsan 3. However, Ricsan Development Corporation was also one of the companies that was not able to ride out the deadly decade for shipping that was the 1980’s. In 1989, she was sold to Magnolia Shipping Corporation and she was brought to Varadero de Recodo (“varadero” is the Spanish word for shipyard and Zamboanga’s lengua franca is Chavacano which is a Spanish creole language). Varadero de Recodo is the premier shipyard of Zamboanga City and aside from repairs they are builders of ships, the Zamboanga-style of cruiser passenger ships aside from general cargo ships. Varadero de Recodo then converted Ricsan 3 into a passenger ship, one of the conversions made by that famous shipyard in Zamboanga. From then on the ship was known as the Magnolia Grandiflora. Her name was derived from a large evergreen tree in the US which can grow up to 30 meters tall.

As a passenger-cargo ship, the design of this ferry features two-and-a-half passenger decks of the basic, spartan kind with bunks and mattresses. Below that is a cargo/passenger deck and below that still is the engine deck and the cargo holds. This ship has a prominent high prow as well as a prominent, wide, rounded stern.

The design of this passenger-cargo ship is of the spartan kind similar to the ships of the old days. This kind of ship is the workhorse of the theroutes from Zamboanga to Bongao in Tawi-tawi, Jolo, the “3S” (Sibuco, Sirawai, Siocon) and Cagayan de Sulu before, Olutanga, Ipil, Kabasalan, Margosatubig and Pagadian before and many other destinations. This kind of ship is distinguished by the presence of large cargo holds in the engine deck. Above that is a deck that was both for the passenger and cargo but primarily for the latter (so as not to obstruct cargo loading and unloading this deck features folding cots or tejeras in the native languages. In Zamboanga, large cargo carrying capacity is prized as these ships are more like the cargo-passenger ships like the liners of the old days before containerization. These ships are loaded by sliding the cargo through wooden planks that are already shiny by years of use and thrown to porters waiting inside the hot cargo holds (now, some have industrial fans already to moderate the heat inside and to prevent the copra from combusting spontaneously). Unloading, the process is reversed. Loaded sacks of copra are arranged inside the hold to act as stairs and the cargo is handed to porters on the deck above and it is ported through a wooden ramp (a catwalk) connected to the wharf. Arriving at dawn unloading can sometime last until noon especially if the ship has a full load of copra and after a few hours of rest the porters should already be ready before mid-afternoon with loading (some too tired in unloading already beg off and would prefer to vend). By the way, with cargo that cannot be slid a ramp for porters like a catwalk.

Above the passenger/cargo deck is a pure passenger deck and above that is another half-deck for passengers. This ship is a one-class ship as is it is an all-Economy affair. There is actually no bunk assignment. One just chooses the bunk he fancies and get a mattress from a stack, clean it and it is ready for occupancy. One can board anytime, really. Actually one can board even if not a passenger and the crew won’t mind you. Magnolia Grandiflora is also used as a resting place by the porters and a vending place of the vendors (who plays a hide-and-seek game with the Philippine Ports Authority guards – at least in the ship it is the Captain who has the jurisdiction). Magnolia Grandiflora is also a favorite resting place of mine in ship spotting and in resting. What I like about her is when she loads blocks of ice near the galley at the stern – that cools down that portion of the ship. Those blocks of ice are meant for the fishes she will carry back from ports of Tawi-tawi and Siasi. So in arriving in Zamboanga that portion of the ship will be full of fishes in wooden boxes. That portion of the ship is actually always wet and cool most of the time.

Magnolia Grandiflora has two masts which looks like those were fabricated locally. She has a short center funnel and also not of the fancy kind. As a passenger ship, her declared passenger capacity is 400. It is now all bunks in the upper two passenger decks but in the old days tejeras (folding cots) was the order of the day (until it was banned by MARINA). Her declared gross tonnage (GT) went down to 247 which is an impossibility. Again the MARINA “magic meter” was at work here. If her Net Tonnage of 150 is taken as a guide and with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) rule is used that the NT should be at least a third of the GT we can assume that her true GT is 450 or more. This ship has a very prominent rounded cruiser stern.

The route of this ship is Zamboanga-Jolo-Siasi-Bongao-Sitangkai, a route that will guarantee a lot of fishes back. She leaves Zamboanga, her base port every Friday at 7pm. She only does this route once a week as she leaves her ports of call only at night with a day lay-over. Leaving Zamboanga, she if full of manufactured goods including groceries. Going back to Zamboanga, the ship is full of marine products including frozen fish in boxes and copra. She is actually more reliant on cargo than on passengers. The passenger fares on this part of the Philippines is actually very low (and there are many passes; and that is customary to shippers). But then on the obverse side don’t expect too much in creature comforts. In Magnolia Grandiflora a TV set is practically the only amenity available. And if one is travelling be sure to buy food at every port because although Magnolia Grandiflora and the other in the route are multi-day ships (it is too much to call them “liners”) there is no restaurant to speak of (some passengers will sell though). The passenger ships in this route are really spartan. No frills really. By the way, it is Magnolia Fragrance of the same company which also does her same route. Her competitor companies in her route are Ever Lines (the ships Ever Queen of Asia and Ever Queen of Pacific 1) and Aleson Shipping (the ship Lady Mary Joy 1 which has airconditioned accommodations).

Although Magnolia Grandiflora is already over 45 years old, she is still a very sturdy ship. Her Hanshin engine is still reliable and if need be it can be replaced. The shipyards of Zamboanga are very good in that and over-all they are very good in prolonging the life of old ships. Ships almost never die in Zamboanga unless the shipping company itself got bankrupt or else quit shipping and there are no buyers.

Ten years from now, we might still see Magnolia Grandiflora sailing (maybe she will still be the carrier of the goods to that section of the Philippines). After all, the Bounty Cruiser of Evenesser Shipping which was built in 1956 is sailing up to now (60 years old!). Hanshin engines are actually easy to replace (that is a favorite engine of the small cargo ships). And that is also true for the hull plates and bridge equipment.

Well, unless Dick Gordon gets crazy and makes some legislative fiat approved by dumb legislators.