Philtranco Always Tried Horizontal Integration

Horizontal integration is the setting up or the acquisition of a company at the same level of the value chain and that is meant to help the company compete. It can be a competitive strategy where economies of scale, more efficiency and increase of market power are the objectives. Companies engage in horizontal integration to benefit from possible synergies. But sometimes the resolution of a problem or a bottleneck prods a company into horizontal integration.

Philtranco Service Enterprises, Inc. (PSEI), the leading bus company in the Philippines then tried this strategy over a generation ago. From running a big fleet of buses from Manila to the southern part of the Philippines up to Davao City, they established their own RORO companies in the San Bernardino Strait crossing that linked Sorsogon and Samar. However, the results were certainly very mixed, to say the least, and controversial.

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The Cardinal Ferry 1. Research by Gorio Belen of PSSS in the National Library.

Since 1979, Philtranco buses (they were still known as Pantranco South then) have been rolling across already to Eastern Visayas via the San Bernardino Strait using the newly-fielded RORO Cardinal Ferry 1 of Cardinal Shipping. Newport Shipping which had ferries and cargo ships from Manila to Samar then followed with their Northern Star and Laoang Bay.

This reaction of Newport Shipping was very understandable as Newport Shipping was not really doing well with their Manila to Samar route and maybe they felt they have to defend their home turf as the owner of Newport Shipping is from Laoang, Northern Samar. They might have also felt that this new intermodal route might kill them in the long term and so they have to join the fun.

"Maharllika 1" Ferry unloading Bus

MV Northern Samar. Formerly the MV Northern Star before she was refitted. Photo by Lindsay Bridge of PSSS.

Before the ROROs arrived it was the motor boats of Bicolandia Shipping Lines (this company has legal-fiction companies like E. Tabinas) which dominated the route across San Bernardino Strait. But with the buses now rolling the passengers no longer have to cut their bus trip to Matnog and they do not take a local bus to Allen, Northern Samar to take the lancha (motor boat). Convenience is what the intermodal system offered. Cargo of the passengers that was once a hassle became less with the bus for it afforded less handling and haggling.

Immediately, there was a surplus of bottoms in San Bernardino Strait as the government-owned Maharlika II (later replaced by Maharlika I whom it replaced earlier) was also plying the official Matnog to San Isidro, N. Samar route. Moreover, the passengers to Eastern Visayas did not immediately shift to the buses especially the passengers to Leyte. They were still content with the liners of Sulpicio Lines and William Lines which had calls in Calbayog, Catbalogan, Tacloban and other ports in Leyte and Southern Leyte. In terms of comfort the bus is actually inferior to the liners which has its own toilets and baths, are equipped with bunks with mattresses and even linen (called “beddings”) plus the meals are free and the rice servings are generous. However, they only call in ports unlike buses which roll through the various towns.

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The Maharlika I. Photo from Edison Sy of PSSS.

In the aftermath of that surplus of bottoms, Cardinal Shipping and Newport Shipping teetered especially when Eugenia Tabinas got into the RORO act starting when she was able to acquire the Northern Star in 1981 which she then renamed into the Northern Samar. Eugenia Tabinas was in a strong position as she dominated the intra-Bicol routes with her motor boats and so she can compete in one of her routes at just break-even.

However, with many buses crossing San Bernardino Strait, Philtranco thought they could save money if they operated their own ROROs where they will always have priority. And so they also got caught in the RORO act (they were still strong then and they have just re-fleeted into Hino) and they thereby acquired the Laoang Bay of Newport Shipping which was renamed into the Black Double. In 1984, this became the Philtranco Ferry 1 of Philtranco Services.

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The Philtranco Ferry I. Research of Gorio Belen of PSSS in the National Library.

It is here that things began to get interesting and lively. Eugenia Tabinas or Bicolandia Shipping smelled that Philtranco was operating without a Certificate of Public Conveyance (CPC) and complained to MARINA, the Maritime Industry Authority which is the country’s maritime regulatory agency and which has quasi-judicial powers. Philtranco countered that since they were only loading their own buses then there is no need for them to get a CPC. Now, if MARINA agrees with that then Philtranco will be the only sea carrier without a CPC and that has great implications.

Along the way, Black Double got unreliable as she was built in 1962 and diesel engines were not yet as reliable (with changes in design and technology that changed in the mid-1960s especially when Daihatsu marine engines became dominant). She was sold to Badjao Navigation and she became the Badjao and she plied a route from Cebu island to Leyte.

While the case was pending (as it reached the higher courts as MARINA quasi-judicial decisions can be appealed in the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court), Philtranco acquired the salvaged Mindoro Express from Prince Valiant Navigation which then became the Christ The Saviour and Christ The King. The RORO became the Luzvimin Primo because she was now under the Luzvimin Ferry Services, the new ferry company of Philtranco.

Mindoro Express ( now Maharlika Cinco )

The Mindoro Express just before she became the Christ The King and Luzvimin Primo . Photo by Edison Sy of PSSS.

In due time (which means a long time), the Supreme Court sustained the ruling of MARINA that a shipping company cannot carry passengers without a CPC and the ferry service of Philtranco stopped. By that time Philtranco was already toppling and it was fast losing its Hino buses.

Philtranco then fell into the hands of transportation mogul Pepito Alvarez who then equipped Philtranco with his new MAN and Nissan buses. Soon, he was able to reach a deal with the administration of President Fidel V. Ramos to operate the already-weak Maharlika ferries which in that time consisted only of Maharlika I and Maharlika II (this one was not in San Bernardino Strait but in Surigao Strait).

After settling in, Pepito Alvarez added the Maharlika Tres, Maharlika Cuatro and Lakbayan Uno (this was later sold to Millennium Shipping). And then the Luzvimin Primo became the Maharlika Cinco. Later, the Maharlika Seiz and Maharlika Siete were also also added to be followed by the Grand Star RORO 1 and Grand Star RORO 3 which came from Phil-Nippon Kyoei. This time Philtranco was already careful about the CPC. In these moves, Pepito Alvarez worked through his protégé Cristopher Pastrana.

Liloan ships

Maharlika Cinco and Maharlika Seiz. Photo from the PPA.

The horizontal integration of Philtranco was not necessarily beneficial for the passengers unless maybe in its early years when the dominant Bicolandia Shipping Lines engaged in what is locally-known as “alas-puno” system of departures when a ferry will only leave if it was already full of rolling cargo (and that was the cause of their downfall later). With that system, the buses and its passengers lose time and it could be in the hours.

But when ROROs bloomed in San Bernardino Strait, horizontal integration became a negative because Philtranco buses have to wait for the ferries (Maharlika ferries were not so reliable and it tried many routes in the country including in Catanduanes, Masbate, Marinduque, Batangas and Panay and so its presence in San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait was actually diluted and trips were few) as Philtranco buses have no freedom to sail in competing ferries.

I was once a passenger aboard a Philtranco bus from Davao. Our driver was driving fast so we can board the morning RORO of Maharlika in their Dapdap port (owned by sister company Philharbor). We arrived at 8:30am only to see the ferry has just left. There was only one Maharlika RORO then there and we waited for its return. Finally, we left Dapdap port at 1:30pm and everybody was so pissed up including the drivers as we saw several ferries leaving the competing BALWHARTECO port ahead of us. If our Philtranco bus had freedom, we would have been aboard the first of those that left BALWHARTECO port and saved several hours of waiting time.

Dapdap port

Grand Star RORO I and Maharlika Tres in Dapdap port. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

The Philtranco driver/conductors also didn’t like that they have no freedom to load the buses in competing ROROs. The reason is they can’t avail of the “rebates” offered by the competing shipping companies. This comes in the form of free ferry tickets that can be sold by the driver/conductors to their passengers. Even if only half the tickets are free that can come up to an average of P1,500 for the driver/conductors in additional income.

When Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the name of the shipping company established by Pepito Alvarez) weakened and they just had a limited number of ROROs running, Philtranco finally allowed its buses to ride the competing ferries as passengers began to shun them. However, when the FastCat ROROs came for Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the Philtranco buses were no longer allowed that again. There was also the experiment where the Philtranco buses were no longer boarded aboard the FastCat ROROs and only the passengers and their cargo were loaded. In that system, a Philtranco bus will be waiting at the opposite port.

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Philtranco buses that disembarked from a FastCat. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

Now, Philtranco’s fleet is whittled and it is already far from its number in the 1980s after they re-fleeted from Leyland to Hino. And the tables turned already. It is so-many FastCats that needs them now and not the other way around.

Now, did you know that founder A.L. Ammen tried horizontal integration too?

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The Masbate-Pio Duran Route and How It Grew

The last time I was in Masbate City and that was last year, I have already observed that this new competing route is already dominating the old connection by RORO to the Bicol mainland or peninsula and that is the Masbate to Pilar, Sorsogon route although it is a longer route and people of Masbate except for Burias island have no normal connection with Albay.

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Masbate Port by Mike Baylon of PSSS

The leading shipping company in the route, the combined Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, can already field three ROROs there and mind you those are not basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs but the size of small overnight ferries. Plus they also have a Cargo RORO LCT for the trucks because in the ROROs the priority are the buses because they carry passengers. Besides there is also a new competitor in the route, the CAVS Transport Services whose second RORO has just arrived.

In terms of capacity, that of the Masbate-Pio Duran route is already well ahead of the Masbate-Pilar, Sorsogon route because only basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs or Korean hybrid LCTs can be accommodated there because of the shallow depth of the port although there are also High Speed Crafts (HSCs) in that particular route plus many big motor bancas which is in decline already although they are very friendly and accommodating (and it seems they are no longer reinvesting for fear of phase-out).

When the route first opened a few years ago, I did not expect such growth of the intermodal can happen. I had my doubts as the Masbate-Pio Duran route is longer than the Masbate-Pilar route and I know that if the rates of the new route are far off that the old route then it would just die as the vehicle owners and crews will stick to the old but cheaper one which is already familiar to them although the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs  of the old are less comfortable. Now, using faster ROROs meant that the transit time of the new route is just the same that of the old route.

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Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS

But Sta. Clara Shipping, the primary company really knows its salt as shown by their history. The mantra really is how to encourage the buses to cross. Buses are a different breed because they have passengers and that is a multiplier of revenues whether there rebates or there is none. And Sta. Clara Shipping knows how to encourage that by many kinds of incentives (and that even having to provide the bus crew with a good meal) and the buses just came and came. Soon, the intermodal trucks found that the route through Masbate is a good alternative to Luzon from Cebu rather than using the longer route via Samar and Leyte islands.

The development  was a resounding slap to the pioneering Archipelago Philippine Ferries (better know as the Maharlika ferries) which did not last in the Masbate to Bicol route via Bulan in Sorsogon although they are horizontally integrated as in one person owns the bus and the ship. Who says Economics books are always right? With incentives the RORO is full and that is the critical thing. What is the use of a RORO without incentives if it is not even half-full?

Early on, a new shipping company in the route, the Medallion Transport Inc. of Cebu and Leyte had a misstep as fate played games. Not long after they opened the route, their Lady of Carmel sank at night while on the way to Masbate from Pio Duran. That happened near Burias island in 2013. At its peak Medallion Transport had two basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs in the route and they even named the ship that sank as “Barko Masbateno”.

Medallion Transport then lost their foothold in the route as the policy of the Masbate provincial government is they won’t let a shipping company continue sailing until and unless the shipping company settle first its obligations to the victims of the tragedy. That was actually the reason too why Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) lost its Masbate to Lucena, Quezon route when their Maria Carmela caught fire in Pagbilao Bay near the end of its route.

Meanwhile, the original route of Sta. Clara Shipping/Penafrancia Shipping was actually Pasacao, Camarines Sur to Masbate City, a far longer route and they started it in the habagat (Southwest monsoon) and early on they had a scare there and with that and the unfeasibility of the route they decided to transfer to the Pio Duran to Masbate City route. With no competition and the right strategy they soon flourished. The buses flourished too and the Manila bus passengers benefited also. What lost were the local buses and jeeps (since the passengers are already aboard the intermodal buses) and the big motor bancas were impacted too. But then that is how the world goes. Some gain, some lose but change will always be there.

The Pio Duran port which was a very basic port before in an out-of-the-way place is now improved and expanded. The port back-up area was expanded and there is now a passenger terminal building. However, like before the berths will not be enough for the ferries in the route because in the dawn and early morning all the ROROs will be there in Pio Duran port. Masbate port has no such problem as it has been continuously expanded over the years.

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Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS

In this route, the ROROs leave Pio Duran port from dawn till breakfast time. It is the buses that dictate that as the buses leave Manila from noon till late afternoon and the travel time from Manila is up to 12 hours. In Masbate port the ROROs depart starting 10am until 2pm because they have to wait for the buses from its starting points in the far Masbate towns. These buses have contracts already with the shipping companies in Masbate and so the ferry waits for them even if they are delayed. The policy is no bus will be left behind either way because they have passengers. Clearly, trucks are second priority but there is now a Cargo RORO LCT to cater to them although it is a slow ride because it is an LCT.

What is the future of this route? If the past is any indication and the progress is linear then I expect more traffic in the route in the future and both Masbate and Pio Duran ports will further gain in importance and improve. Maybe more companies will be sailing and that can lessen the rates in the route like what is now happening in the Cebu to Leyte routes.

Whatever, I see a rosy future for this route. By the way, this is not the route that was promoted in the SRNH of Gloria. Well, sometimes the best of plans is not what turns out to be. Pio Duran port graduated from being just a port to Burias island to being a busy port and that is good. And being a port under the PPA, the national government will back its expansion unlike the competing Pilar port which is a municipal port ran by the LGU (and so they collect its expensive passenger fees but the onus for its development is supposedly borne by the municipality).

Whatever, let’s be glad that this route came into being and it flourished.

 

 

The Ferry That Won’t Die

A few months ago, out of a sudden, a PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member espied a ship docked in Hilongos port. Even though it was dark he was able to recognize the silhouette since he has already sailed with it in crossing Surigao Strait. It was a surprise to the PSSS community since many thought she was already dead since it has been three years since she disappeared from the Liloan-Lipata route. The last that was heard of her was that she was in a General Santos City shipyard. That time the new FastCats of Archipelago Philippines Ferries were also due to arrive (and it did) and so they have no more need for their old and unreliable Maharlika ferries. In fact, they were also disposing off already their Grandstar RORO ferries which was even a later acquisition of theirs from Phil-Nippon Kyoei.

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Photo credit: Joel Bado

The ferry was the Maharlika Cinco which has long held the Liloan-Lipata ferry route for Archipelago Philippine Ferries. She was actually their most reliable ferry in the route, she was always there as if she had never heard of the two-year rule for mandatory drydocking. Maharlika Dos might be in and out of service like Millennium Uno but Maharlika Cinco will always be there.

If one who doesn’t know her will think she is just another bland ferry then maybe he will be surprised if he will know that this ferry has a colorful history. Maharlika Cinco had actually bounced between routes and owners, has had a trip to the seabed, had her superstructure ripped, etc. Her bounces were actually too fast that international maritime databases has a hard time catching up with her thus it has lots of errors.

This ferry was first known as the Sata Maru No. 3 of Kinkowan Ferry KK and home ported in Kagoshima, Japan. She was supposed to be built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Kobe, Japan but instead she was subcontracted to a shipbuilder that was not well-known, the Tokushima Sangyo in Komatsushima, Japan. Her keel was laid in November 1971 and she was launched in April 1972. She possessed the permanent ID IMO 7205221.

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Photo credit: To the lady in the photo

The ship is a RORO with ramps at the bow and at the stern. She measures 70.9 meters in length over-all (LOA) with a beam of 12.5 meters and a load capacity of 500 deadweight tons. Her original gross register tonnage (GRT) was 997 tons. She has a raked stem, a transom stern with two masts and two side funnels. Sata Maru No. 3 was equipped with two Niigata diesels with a total of 2,600 horsepower giving her a top speed of 14 knots when new.

In 1981, when Kinkowan Ferry quit operation she went to Nankai Yusen KK. A few years later she was sold to Badjao Navigation in the Philippines and she became the Christ The Saviour. Badjao Navigation had a route from Cebu to Samar among others but it was not really successful. Maybe like Newport Shipping that had a route from Manila to Samar she thought that it would be better if they will do a Matnog-Allen route which was growing then. By this time she was already known as the Christ The King. However, ROROs in the route multiplied fast.

Maharlika Cinco

Photo credits: Philtranco Heritage Museum and Dennis Obsuna

In time, Badjao Navigation quit the shipping business and she passed on to Luzvimin Ferry Services of the Philtranco Service Enterprises Inc. (PSEI), an intermodal bus operator with routes from Manila to Visayas and up to Mindanao where she became the Luzvimin Primo. Maybe when Badjao Navigation was still doing the Matnog-Allen route she was just under Provisional Authority (PA) because soon after Luzvimin Ferry Services started operations the ruling shipping company of San Bernardino Strait protested, the Bicolandia Shipping Lines, and pointed out that her competitor has no Certificate of Public Conveyance (CPC) or franchise.

Luzvimin Ferry Services defended itself by saying that their ferries were just meant to carry their buses. The case was first heard in MARINA, the local maritime regulatory body which has quasi-judicial powers but eventually it reached the courts (the higher court even) which held that any ship transporting vehicles must secure a franchise from MARINA. And that was the end of Luzvimin Ferry Services and the career of the former Badjao Navigation ferries in San Bernardino Strait.

In about 1990, Christ The King next found itself in Batangas under a new company, the Prince Valiant Navigation where she was known as the Mindoro Express. When she went to that new area there was also a ruling shipping company there which was even tougher in challenging newcomers and sometimes the challenge is even outside the legal plane. I don’t know exactly why but soon she was doing a route to Palawan. There she sank in Honda Bay near Puerto Princesa port.

Mindoro Express ( now Maharlika Cinco )

Photo credit: Edison Sy

It turned out she was eventually refloated and brought to Keppel Batangas shipyard where a shipping owner who later became a PSSS member caught her in cam. This was in late 1991. From his analysis, he thinks the sooty exterior in the starboard side indicated the ship had a fire. He says firefighting water on just one side of a ship can capsize a ship. The ship bore other damages too like a missing port funnel and deformations in the structure.

Mindoro Express ( now Maharlika Cinco )

Photo credit: Edison Sy

Much later, sometime about 2002, a ferry for Archipelago Philippine Ferries turned up in the Liloan-Lipata route to double their unreliable 18-year old Maharlika II. The name of the ship was Maharlika V. To almost everyone including me they thought this was just another ferry that just arrived from Japan. It seems even Philtranco bus drivers did not recognize her (or they were playing poker?). One thing though is she seems a little rusty but I think nobody thought much of it since being a bit rusty was an Archipelago Philippine Ferries trademark. And maybe nobody gave a damn as long as the ship was reliable. After all, the Liloan-Lipata route was home to unreliable ferries until Super Shuttle Ferry 5 appeared on the route.

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Photo credit: PDO-Visayas of PPA

Fast forward to December 2008, the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) was born. With its growing photostream from the members’ contribution, it afforded members (and the world) a view of the different ships from all over the Philippines from ferries to freighters to tankers and tugs and everything in between. A member then contributed a photo of Maharlika Cinco when their family had a vacation in Southern Leyte and they crossed Surigao Strait. That was 2009.

It was here that the PSSS member who caught a photo of Mindoro Express in Keppel Batangas in 1991 realized that if the superstructure of Mindoro Express is cropped then it would look almost exactly the same as Maharlika Cinco and he alerted me. When a collage of the two was posted in PSSS the riddle of Maharlika Cinco‘s origin was solved. The two were exactly the same ship. Later, upon researching, the two ships had identical IMO Numbers and that was the final confirmation since IMO Numbers are unique numbers and only one hull can possess a particular number.

Comparison

Photo credits: Edison Sy and Joel Bado

Maharlika Cinco continued sailing but in this decade her engines were already beginning to get less reliable. Not soon after she disappeared from the route with the last news saying she was in a General Santos shipyard with an uncertain return. With Maharlika Cuatro and a rejuvenated Maharlika Dos (she was regenerated when her sister ship Maharlika Uno went to the breakers), it looked like Archipelago had no more use for her. To me, I no longer expected to see her again. Her metal before she disappeared also seemed to be on the soft side already. Soft metal plus unreliable engines plus no more use to me looked like equal to goodbye.

It was like waking to a stupor when somebody called me from Hilongos to report that discovery of an apparition of a ship in the night. The PSSS member then proceeded to investigate. She would be the Gloria V of Gabisan Shipping which has a Hilongos-Cebu route. Yes, it was a buy one, take one deal. They also acquired the Maharlika Cuatro which stopped operation in the aftermath of the Maharlika Dos sinking. He asked what was the former name of the ship. “Mindoro Express”, they said, as if they can fool the PSSS ship spotter (and our ship spotter laughed). Maybe they were ashamed to admit it was the Maharlika Cinco because Liloan is too near and the ship does not really have a sterling reputation there.

Decrepit Maharlika Cinco

Photo credit: Rex Nerves

They latter admitted a difficult sailing from General Santos City via Zamboanga (they were afraid of the rough waters in the eastern seaboard of Mindanao). The engines failed several times and they had to seek shelter and assistance. The trip took long but finally they made it to Hilongos in one piece. No, sorry, they would not honor a ship tour. It’s understandable.

After some preliminary work, Maharlika Cinco disappeared from Hilongos. From checking, PSSS members said she was not in Tayud, the great shipyard row of Cebu (she is too big not to be noticed from offshore). Then she was discovered in Liloan municipal port. They would finish the refitting there. They brought it over there since in Hilongos she would often be forced to undock if a ship is coming.

Maharlika Cinco

Photo credit: Rex Nerves

Gabisan Shipping intends to sail her in the Cebu-Hilongos route. They say one of the Gloria cruisers will be sold and the Maharlika Cuatro which is in Tayud is for sale. It seems even Gabisan Shipping, a staunch believer in cruisers is also getting aboard now in the RORO bandwagon to Leyte. After all the Cargo RORO and the other ROROs are making a killing. Speculation says she will be spruced up to be able to compete with the Graceful Stars of Roble Shipping.

This is simply a ferry that wouldn’t die and I don’t know if she has a charm embedded in her hull. If she will survive now, I just hope the MARINA plan which is fanned by some politicians and columnists that 35-old ferries will be retired will not snuff out her life. Finally.

My Samar-Leyte Ship Spotting With Jun Marquez

(Sequel to “On The Way To Leyte To Meet Jun Marquez”)

https://psssonline.wordpress.com/2016/05/14/on-my-way-to-leyte-to-meet-jun-marquez/

After leaving the town of Pintuyan, Leyte and the hospitality of Mayor Rusty Estrella, me and Jun settled down for a ride which was actually touring. It was a thrill for me as we were only two and it would be a tete-a-tete between friends in a locale we both know. It will be an intersection of parts he knows well with the parts that I know well. Leyte and Samar in all my years of travel there feels to me like I know the place or at least the highways. The two islands were my connection to my birth place of Bicol and I came to appreciate her well in my nearly two decades of passing through her. Now, I have a front seat ride with a ride pace I can control and view things or places I was not able to see well inside a bus.

The first order of business was the ascent and descent through was is called “The Saddle”, a peak dividing Pintuyan and the next town of San Francisco which indeed looks like a horse saddle from the sea. This road is a mountain pass feared especially by the truckers. I told Jun it does not even begin to compare with the “Tatlong Eme” in Quezon. My analysis is with the disuse of that legendary mountain pass the drivers of today have no good idea how to handle their horses in challenging ascents and descents (when to think their mounts are overpowered now and has power steering). Moreover, I have observed they no longer know the rules of the roads in the mountain passes, i.e., the one going up will always have the right of way, trucks can use the other side of the lane in the hairpins and tight curves and the descending trucks should not stop on that side but on the other side as they will block the truck or trailer going up and horns should always be used as query and reply. Me and Jun began to connect. We were two oldtimers talking.

Next in the order was to look for the old, abandoned San Francisco port which even became a topic in our talk with Mayor Rusty Estrella and which he confirms still exists and to which he answered some of my questions. I was surprised to know the Go Thong ship then there was passenger-cargo. I thought she just carried copra during the heyday of copra and of course Lu Do & Lu Ym and Go Thong (the first was the biggest copra dealer then before Enrile, Cojuangco and company muscled their way in and the latter was the biggest carrier of copra). Yes, it was still there. The wharf was still intact but lonely and the surf was really strong.

I was also getting a kick seeing the buses of Panaon island (they have their own uniqueness) and soon the next order was the Panaon bridge (or is it Liloan bridge?), the short bridge connecting Panaon island and Leyte island as if it is just crossing a river. Approaching this I sensed there is a sense of hurry in Jun as we did not take the opportunity to pass by Liloan town and its port or visit Liloan Ferry Terminal. I thought there should have been enough time if we were just going straight to Baybay City (his hometown) via Mahaplag junction (it’s actually not a “crossing” but most wrongly call it as such). In the past I always enjoyed the ride through the mountains to Mahaplag and passing by Agas-agas where water flowed naturally (and wrecks the road). Now a bridge has been built instead of repairing the road again and again (it was built according to Japanese design). There was a sign of hurry in Jun and we did not stop by the bridge that is now becoming a tourist site.

Then I learned he wants me to view the Typhoon “Yolanda” devastation (so that means turning right in Mahaplag junction instead of turning left) but leaving Pintuyan at 3pm means we didn’t have much time really as the drive is at least 3 hours (the late departure from Pintuyan also precluded a ride through the new Silago road and the sea landscapes of Cabalian Bay). One might want to speed up but that also defeats viewing the scenes and besides lack of familiarity with the road means more use of the brakes too. In the straights after Abuyog town I commented that it seems the devastation was worse in the news compared to the actuality (seems when media takes photos they take the worst scenes and people react correspondingly). Having been born and raised in Bicol, a typhoon area, I knew a thing or two about typhoon damage.

Nearing Palo, Leyte it was beginning to get dark. The “curfew” of my cam was fast approaching and it was beginning to get difficult to take bus shots, one of my targets when I travel. Then it began to unravel that Jun is actually targeting a place much farther than Tacloban, an idea I have no inkling before. Jun, they Leyteno wants to go to Allen, Northern Samar! How could I have anticipated that?

I do not know if I sounded dissuasive to Jun but I told him that Allen is 250 kilometers from Tacloban. He told he is used to driving long distances in Australia. I told him it would take 5-6 hours at the rate he was driving (and our mount, a Ford Ranger is no longer the fast type). His response was, “Is is still open in BALWHARTECO at 12 midnight?”. I told him at that hour the disco there will still be furiously blasting and that sleeping (we planned to take a room) might actually be the problem (haha!). Now when did one hear of a disco inside a port? Well, there’s one in Polambato, Bogo but I can’t think yet of any other example.

Jun knew before that I was going to Allen after Leyte to take ship pics and here he was offering a free ride to me! I was flabbergasted. How can I refuse that? But I knew there should be a deeper reason. It turned out that when he was still a student during Martial Law days he had an experience riding a Manila-Baybay bus. He wants to relive that especially he wasn’t able to really know Samar then, his home region. And of course things and places change after 25 years. And so “two birds in one stone”, he was going with me since he knows I know Samar, I won’t lost my way and I can answer his questions! How could I have anticipated that? A Dabawenyo and a Bicolano at the same time will be the tourist guide in Samar! And we will take shot of ships! And well, ship spotting is always more enjoyable if there is a companion.

Since he told me it is there is traffic inside Tacloban especially at that hour and anyway it is already getting dark and Tacloban was dark after dark (no electricity in the lamp posts), I suggested to Jun that we bypass Tacloban, we use the diversion road and just visit Tacloban on our return trip. Anyway, we were still full after that hearty meal in Mayor Estrella’s house and I said we can eat in the Jollibee in Catbalogan or Calbayog at about 9pm when it will still be open as looking for decent food in Allen could be a little problematic at midnight. I estimated our arrival in BALWHARTECO or Balicuatro port will be 12 midnight.

It was already nearly dark when we reached San Juanico bridge so no shots were possible at that picturesque bridge. I warned Jun that Samar is dark at night, there are no street lights and it will be seldom that we will encounter another vehicle and I also told him repairs or looking for a vulcanizing shop is a problem while running in the Samar night. But like me Jun is not the frightful type. Soon our speed dropped as there was mist and there was fog on the road (this is not unusual in Samar). Then our companion and pace-setter vehicle also dropped out and we were all alone. I told Jun the buses for Manila were already well ahead of us and there is no more local bus and there will just be two or three buses that will be leaving Tacloban that night and two will probably do a night lay-over in Calbayog and we will reach Allen without encountering any Manila bus yet. Yes, night runs in Samar are lonely and difficult (I will not say dangerous) once you run into mechanical trouble.

From San Juanico bridge the road is mostly straights and well-paved and we had no incidents. Then we came to Buray, the old junction to Eastern Samar. I told Jun once I spent a few dawn hours there waiting for a bus and I didn’t knew then there was a rumor about poisoners there and I was happily eating (seems it’s not true as I am still alive; didn’t also know before Mahaplag junction also has that “reputation” and I also buy there and usually). I also told Jun my funny experience one morning aboard a local jeep in Wright town (now known as Paranas). When they told me they will be picking up passengers I easily assented to that. After all, is there a jeep that does not pick up passengers? Then they entered Wright town (it is not on the highway) and by golly, it was “free tourism”. Seems they have their clientele by the pattern they blow their horn. Then we stopped by a house to pick up “Ma’am” Well, she has just finished bathing and so we waited for her and the driver turned off the engine. Then came out a beautiful, young teacher and the conductor asked me if she can seat with me at the front (at the back there were some fish). Yes, my drive with Jun evoked some memories. That was 18 years ago!

Then the fishponds of Jiabong came into view in the soft moonlight and I always take pleasure when I pass through that place. I always remember the fries from tahong that they sell. It seems there is no product like that anywhere in the Philippines. Their area is known for tahong and they sell it far and wide up to Iligan, Bukidnon and Davao in Mindanao (yep, I came to know the trader and well, that is intermodal talk again). I am also attracted by the estuaries and navigable rivers not only in Samar but anywhere else (my eyes are actually easily attracted by waters and what navigates there).

Soon from the a cliff, the lights and city of Catbalogan appeared. The outlines of the bay were also apparent and it is actually a majestic view at night (well, even in the day). We then began the narrow descent to Catbalogan. It was a respite after a little over two hours of running in the dark highway of Samar. We were soon on the narrow roads of Catbalogan and we decided to find Jollibee Catbalogan. The city proper is a little of a maze and we had a little bit of hard time finding the fast-food restaurant. The people we asked didn’t seem to understand that we non-locals don’t have an idea of what they take to be commonly-understood references . It was not helped that the streets of Catbalogan are narrow and it was mostly dark as most enterprises have already closed. Anyway, we found Jollibee Catbalogan and we took our dinner.

We then proceeded on our way after our meal and we passed the new Catbalogan bridge. The road after Catbalogan is narrow with houses occupying what should have been the shoulders of the road. Then the roads became more challenging. What I mean is it is no longer as straight but it does not really climb. Anyway, I assured Jun we will veer off the wrong road as I know it very well (that is always the fear of a driver on a night drive in an unfamiliar road). I was trying to feel if Jun was already tired but he was keeping pace and since there is no traffic there was a big leeway for mistakes, if any. Actually I was the one more tired because except for the three hours we spent at Mayor Estrella’s house I had no rest since my trip started from Davao and it was already my second night on the road (and my bus ride from Davao was tiring as it was an ordinary bus).

We passed Calbayog City, the only other mecca of light on our trip (the towns of Samar are all small). It was bigger than Catbalogan and more lighted. After passing the city, I told Jun the dark won’t come for several kilometers as we will still pass through the municipal districts absorbed into Calbayog so it will meet the criteria of the late 1940’s. Then we passed the junction of the road leading to Lope de Vega and Catarman which was the old Samar road when the direct road to Allen does not yet exist. The road then began to have more curves and climbs and unfortunately some portions of the road were cracked and this ran for kilometers and so our mount have to “dance” trying to evade this. It would have been easier if it was light. After nearly two hours of dark and lonely driving we were already in Allen and we passed by Dapdap port before we turned round the town to go to Balicuatro port.

At 12:30am we entered the gates of BALWHARTECO (Balicuatro Wharfage and Terminal Corp.), the biggest and most progressive port in Allen. Allen is the Visayas connection to Luzon and its counterpart port there is Matnog. The guards thought we will board the RORO but we told them we are just touring. We also told them we are just looking to sleep in the lodging house of BALWHARTECO and in the morning we will take ship pics. BALWHARTECO is a private port, they have never heard of ISPS (International System of Port Security) there, the port is geared for hospitality and service and so one will never hear of the word “Bawal” (which means “It’s prohibited”) there whereas in government ports whose first guiding motto is “Be ‘praning’” one’s ears will be saturated by that word. In Balicuatro you can roam the port for all you want and take pictures and nobody will mind you.

After finding a good parking area (that means a slot away from the trucks to avoid damage) we went to the hotel or more properly the lodge. The hotel was a little full and there were no more airconditioned rooms. We also had another request which seemed a little odd to the front desk – we wanted the room to be farthest from the disco. It was a good decision as I found out in the next morning the disco stopped at 4am. We soon feel asleep. We were tired especially me.

I woke up at 6am and headed straight to the wharf. But the 6am ferry was no longer there. I was told it got full early. Soon Jun was around and I tried calling the Captain of the Don Benito Ambrosio II as I had a PSSS shirt for him. We were soon able to board the ship. In Balicuatro if one has the time and energy he can board all the ships that dock. There is really no hint of suspiciousness and I like that because that was the situation in the old past when they were even happy you are taking interest in their ship (nowadays if you take interest in a ship you are a potential terrorist). In Manila, Cebu or Davao, if you enter the port they will think you will take out of the port a container van all by your bare hands.

We talked to the Captain who was apologetic he was not able to answer immediately because he had the flu. We took some time to talk to the Captain of the Don Benito Ambrosio II and waited for the arrival of Star Ferry III. Then we had to disembark because the ferry was already leaving. And there went away my chance because of a conflict. In my plan, with my connections developed with Sta. Clara Shipping and sister company Penafrancia Shipping I planned to joyride their ships (and pay if needed) and take as much ship photos as I can and elicit as much data and history (with my base the BALWHARTECO hotel). Depending on my health I planned to go to Masbate and Cebu via Bulan or if my body was not strong enough then I will rest first in Naga.

Even before boarding Don Benito Ambrosio II, I was already able to locate and talk to the Allen LGU man who tracks the vehicles coming out of the ROROs for the purpose of their taxation. For the first time I had somebody who can tell me where located was the first Allen ports (that are no longer existing now) and he knew all the old ships from Cardinal Ferry I and the old Matnog-Allen motor boats (since those are things that happened in the 1970’s, it is hard now to find a first-hand, knowledgeable source). If I were able to stay, I would have squeezed him for all his knowledge.

But then Jun’s main reason for his vacation was to attend the 80th birthday of his father and he wants me to attend it! He in fact has already promised I will be present. And that birthday was that day we were in Allen. He promised we will be there that dinner. I immediately knew it was tough as were some 370 kilometers from Baybay City and we still have to do ship spotting along the way. We agreed a Balicuatro departure of 9am (later I realized we should have left earlier). My Allen-Matnog joy trips were gone. I just promised myself I will cover it on my Manila trip the same month (however, this no longer happened as along the way I developed a medical condition).

We took some time to prowl Balicuatro port, its eateries, the stalls and merchandise offered. I was actually looking for pilinut candies and not the dried fish and dried pusit (these are the common pasalubong items hawked in Balicuatro). Of course we did not forget to take bus photos. There at least Jun got a good idea what is the kind of movements in a short-distance RORO port where most of the load are trucks, buses and bus passengers (this was certainly different from his experience in the western Leyte ports). He then had an idea how many buses and bus passengers passes through there and I pointed out to him how much the Allen municipal LGU earns daily (and yet there is no infrastructure or development to show for it). The illegal exactions of the vehicles had actually long been deemed by the Supreme Court as illegal but of course illegal practices are very hard to stop in the Philippines because of the weak rule of law and even judges and lawyers will not stand up to what is patently illegal (of course, they all know that permanent checkpoints have long been declared illegal by the Supreme Court and yet they will not raise even a whimper).

We then took leave of BALWHARTECO after a late breakfast. Now came the tough part – how to ship spot along the way, visit the Tacloban devastation wrought by Typhoon “Yolanda” and still be able to reach Baybay at dinner time. But we were not the ones to worry about such conflict. Sometimes the Pinoy bahala na attitude comes in good stead too. What was more important was to maximize the situation, forget the pressure, take pleasure in what was there before you and enjoy what is a trip that might not be duplicated again.

From BALWHARTECO we first visited the Dapdap port of Philharbor Ports and Ferries Services. This is the other private port of Allen but less stronger in patronage than BALWHARTECO although most vehicles first reach it in Allen. The reason is it has less ferries and so departures are fewer and that might mean a longer waiting time for the vehicles. Philharbor is the sister company of Archipelago Ferries which is synonymous to the Maharlika ferries whose reputation is much less than stellar. The Grand Star RORO 3, a ship they have acquired to replace broken Maharlika Uno had just left and all we can take were long-distance shots (now if only we left BALWHARTECO earlier!). But the express jeeps that meet the passengers that disembarked from Matnog (they call that “door-to-door” because those will really deliver you by your gate; of course the fare is higher but what convenience especially if you have lots of pasalubong – rides are difficult in Samar because public utility vehicles are few and these jeeps specialize in the barrio route) were still there as well as the motor bancas for the island-municipalities off the western coast of Northern Samar (specifically Dalupiri, Capul [which speaks a Tausug language, the Inabaknon] and the Naranjo group of islands).

We next stopped at the private port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. that was then undergoing construction (it is operational now). We can’t enter as the gates were locked and there was a crude notice, “Closed by LGU”. Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and its sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corp. were the biggest clients of BALWHARTECO and if they leave a lot of things will change and so the Mayor of Allen who owns that wanted it stopped by using the powers of his office (not issuing a Mayor’s permit). Talk about a self-serving action! I told Jun Sta. Clara Shipping will win as they are not lightweights and they have won before a maritime suit big time and the resistance by the Mayor can easily be challenged in the court by a plea for a mandamus order (Philippine jurisprudence is very clear on that).

The island of Samar, Southern Leyte and Agusan del Sur are among the places I noticed that sudden, heavy downpours will happen even in the peak of summer. It was raining cats and dogs when we reached San Isidro Ferry Terminal and we had difficulty getting out the car. This port is a government-owned and is the official connection to Matnog but lost since it is farther. They were surprised there were visitors since their port no longer has ROROs docking. But we were even in luck as there was a beer carrier from San Miguel Brewery in Mandaue, Cebu and so it was not so desolate. We were entertained at the office and we were surprised to learn that the Philippine Ports Authority office in San Isidro Ferry Terminal controls all the ports in that area of Samar. So that was one reason they still have not closed. (Note: The FastCats of Archipelago Ferries are now using San Isidro Ferry Terminal now.). This port has an islet just off it which acts as a protection for the port against big waves.

Driving south we spotted a port I did not notice before from the bus. It was a private port with copra ships. But all we can do is to take long-distance shots from two vantage points but then we can’t stay any longer as the rains pelted us again and we have to run to the car as there is no other shelter (it was a road cliff on our left and a sea cliff on our right and there are no houses). But the rain had a cooling effect, it made vegetation greener and fresher and it felt fine on a summer day. However, it was a bane in my taking photos of the buses. It should have been heaven for a bus spotter as I had a front seat and it was peak time of buses leaving Samar for Manila but so many of my shots were of poor quality because the windshield has drops of rains and smudges.

We entered the town of San Isidro in the hope we can get a better shot of the port we saw and maybe ask around around to flesh more data. But there were no openings as it is all barred by GI sheets. Jun reminded me to hurry as we were still far from Baybay. But I least we saw the municipal hall and poblacion of San Isidro. This was not visible from the buses as they don’t enter the town proper. That is actually the weakness of bus touring. There are so many poblacions that the bus don’t enter and so views and insights are lost and one can’t judge how big is the town or what is the activity. In Pintuyan, I commented to Mayor Estrella that I thought his town was very small. It turned out his town center is not by the main road….

[There will be a continuation in a future article.]