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.

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The FastCats That Could Be Paradigm-Changing

When the FastCats first arrived I did not know how to assess them properly. It was brand-new but truckers and buses which are charged disproportionately higher (because they say of the weight) decide on the price point and not on the newness and amenities of the ship. Actually, rebates in the form of complimentary passenger tickets (which is then sold), outright discounts and cash bonuses are stronger inducements to them. The superior speed of the FastCats might not also be decisive because that can be trumped by longer waiting hours in the ports if the departure gaps are significant. And by large on many buses and trucks it is not the decision of the drivers where to board as that is a company decision if there are company-to-company arrangements and accounts. It might only be in private cars and SUVs where the FastCats might have a better pull but then most drivers will not wait if the departure time is still two or more hours away.

The amortization weight of the FastCats also played into my mind. These medium-speed ships were all loaned from the DBP (Development Bank of the Philippines) from a JICA loan window meant to modernize our shipping. I do not know the loan terms and that part not on the top of the table but it could be in the vicinity of P3 million a month, a rough guesstimate. That would translate to about P80,000 a day (it could be less if the amortization terms are longer and it could be higher if shorter or if the if it is not a soft loan) on top of operational costs and other costs incremental to operating a ship (think fuel and parts) and a shipping company (think offices and office staff) plus the mandatory taxes, insurance and registration. Add to that the expenses and downtime of drydocking which will also be in the millions of pesos.

A Moderator of Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS), our Math Professor induced me to Calapan to have a firsthand look. After observation and calculation, I immediately conceded that if the route is Batangas-Calapan with its high traffic the FastCats will be profitable since ferries sail there 24/7 except on rough weather and storms. But I had my doubts then on other routes where the traffic is not so strong. Weaning away patronage from competitors is not that easy because it is not really a free market since many trucks and buses are already locked in in contracts with some shipping companies especially those which are good in the rebate, discounting and hospitality (like free meals) game. These shipping companies generally have their ships fully or nearly-fully amortized hence their break-even point could be lower even if their fuel cost is higher .

The FastCats are catamaran ROROs but unlike what they say they were not the first to field this type of craft since the Starlite Ferry and Lite Ferry 23 came ahead of them. The FastCat are not High Speed Crafts (HSCs) because they only sail at 17 knots. Hence, their classification will fall to Medium Speed Craft or MSCs. It seems the choice of their name was meant to fool those who are not very knowledgeable of sea crafts.

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The FastCats originated from a design of Sea Transport Solutions of Australia but all were built in China by different yards. These vessels feature aluminum alloy hulls for less weight which help in boost speed, lower fuel consumption and in resisting corrosion. A catamaran design means less drag but it can also be wicked in cross-swells. The FastCats do not carry their own ramp thus saving more weight and instead there is a hydraulically-activated ramp in the port which connects to the ship. The disadvantage however is they need a dedicated docking area because the ramp-in-the-port precludes the use of others of that space and so applying for a port are sometimes complicated by this requirement. The ramp can also be damaged by storm waves as shown by what happened in Calapan port.

The dimensions of the FastCat are 50.6 meters in length over-all, 47.2 meters in length between perpendiculars, 17.8 meters in breadth and 4.2 meters in depth. Originally the ship has 683 to 704 gross tons when these left China but with the added passenger deck for the Economy class on the bridge level (they call the bridge the “wheelhouse”) the gross tonnage rose and in the case of FastCat M6 it Is already 967 gross tons. The gross tonnage of the others would then not be far from that. The original net tonnage was 207 to 212 but definitely it is now far higher than that because of the additional Economy section. Generally, the declared DWT is 300 tons.

The passenger capacity of the vessel is between 275 to 290 divided into Tourist and Economy. The Tourist has cool airconditioning and airline-type seats with enough leg space and it is located on the deck below the Economy. The ship’s canteen which reminds one of a convenience store is also located there and its offerings are much better than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs around. The passenger service is much better too in all aspects. It seems the service personnel were recruited from Hotel and Restaurant Management course grads instead of the plain able-bodied seamen of competitions’. The passenger accommodations are located in only one side of the ship making for an unbalanced look. The bridge is located at the middle of the ship above the car deck.

The first FastCats are powered by 4 Cummins engines with a total of 2,600 horsepower while the latter ones are powered by Cummins clones built in China with the same power output. From a report I got the FastCats have 4 screws which means they are not using synchronizers. That means less weight, less complication, less power lost and there is no possibility of an unbalanced and difficult run if ever one engine loses power (as they will just shut down another engine on the opposite bank). The bridge of the FastCats are also modern like that of a High Speed Craft (not the ones from Malaysia) and for me the most notable feature is it produces its own power and is not dependent on the power supplied by the engine room (and that is a lot of safety margin).

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The FastCats were built by different companies in different yards in China. They total ten but the owner of Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation recently announced they will order more and will apply for routes in our neighboring countries and on additional routes in the country. The ship series was originally intended to be named “FastCat M1” to “FastCat M10” but heeding the Chinese aversion to the number “4” there is no “FastCat M4” and instead there is a “FastCat M11”. The first one in the series of sister ships arrived in 2013 and the last one arrived in 2016.

Analyzing the FastCats and comparing it to other ROROs of the same length what I noticed is the 17.8 meters breadth of the FastCats means an extra RORO lane. At 2,600 horsepower the FastCats do not use a bigger engine than many ROROs of the same length. That means the extra speed comes not in overpowering these catamaran ROROs. It was instead coming from the less weight due to the aluminum alloy hull, the less drag of the catamaran design and the minimalist superstructure. The last one might be the key along with the use of aluminum. The old-style ROROs really have a lot of steel being carried around. That will tell on fuel consumption and it will weigh down the speed. That is the reason why most ROROs in the 50-meter class with about the same or a slightly higher power output runs at only 13-14 knots. And for sure with the higher vessel weight and conventional hull design plus the age they consume much more fuel than the FastCats.

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And that is the reason why the FastCats can, at the start, match the fares and rolling rates of the competing ROROs although they are carrying a much higher amortization rate. Anyway they cannot charge significantly higher because the better amenities and passenger service will only primarily attract the private vehicle owners driving sedans and SUVs.

However, total revenues of any transport will primarily depend on the kilometers or nautical miles run. That is true for airplanes, that is true for the buses and that is also true for ships. That is one of the reasons why budget airplanes are successful now because they practically fly round-the clock with just a few hours of lay-over and to be able to do that they use double crewing. That is also the reason why Philtranco loves the Manila-Davao run because night and day the bus runs and the more kilometers and hours it run the more is its revenues.

And that brings to the tactic that Archipelago Philippine Ferries is and will be using to have enough revenue in routes not as strong as Batangas-Calapan — they will run the opposition to the ground by running the FastCats with as many trips as possible in a day like in the 44-nautical mile Dumaguete-Dapitan route where they now have 3 round trips in a day (there is no guarantee, however, that this will not change). Somehow, something has to give way and since they are running they will be able to gain load and passengers. There is really no reason for them to wait for the next ferry unless they are contracted to it as they are not faster. Everybody loves time saved as long as the rates are about the same.

FastCats can do that many trips a day because they are faster. That is the same line of reasoning why regional container ships normally sail now at 20 knots, the same speed as our SuperFerries that became saints of 2GO. With such speed they can make more voyages in a year and that means more revenues. Or put it another way the shipping operator can make the same revenue with less number of ships. Neat, huh?

Faster time is also a come-on on ferries that have close time departures. If there is a FastCat that is promising a 2.5hr sailing time in a route then dumb is the passenger of private car owner which will opt for a 4-hour sailing. Well maybe if he is related to the owner or the Captain then it is forgivable. That is the reason why then I do not take the slow Maharlika II in the Liloan-Lipata route since Super Shuttle Ferry 18 will overtake it even if it left later and I have the benefit of a ship with better accommodations. But in shorter routes the sailing time difference will be not that much great and the come-on of greater speed will be less. The time consumed waiting in the port will be the more decisive factor then.

That is why the FastCat is dangerous for the old-style ferries and even to new Starlite Ferries. Speed is their ace. I have heard that even in the Batangas-Calapan route some now opt for the FastCat rather than the SuperCat because at 17 knots versus 22 knots the travel time difference in the 24nm route is not that great and yet there is a significant difference in fare as in almost double while their facilities are just about the same. So even the High Speed Crafts which gulp a lot of fuel and do not carry any significant volume of cargo is threatened by them.

A view of some of the old-style ferries of the competition or possible competition, same size class and engine size:

King Frederick 56.8 m x 14.0m, 2400hp, 13.5 knots when new

Nelvin Jules 56.8 m x 14.0m, 2400hp, 13.5 knots when new

Maria Zenaida 54.0m x 11.4m, 2400hp, 12.5 knots when new

Reina Genoveva 59.9m x 11.0m, 2600hp, 14 knots when new

Reina Hosanna 59.9m x 11.0m, 2600hp, 14 knots when new

Super Shuttle Ferry 12 53.0m x 10.4m, 2700hp, 14 knots when new

Lite Ferry 15 60.3m x 11.4m, 2600hp, 14 knots when new

Starlite Navigator 57.3m x 13.5m, 2400hp, 14 knots when new

Lite Ferry 1 48.7m x 11.0m, 2000hp, 13.5 knots when new

Lite Ferry 7 50.8m x 10.8m, 2000hp, 14 knots when new

Maria Helena 49.0m x 12.2m, 2000hp, 14 knots when new

Maria Rebecca 49.9m x 13.2m, 2000hp, 13.5 knots when new

Hansel Jobett 51.1m x 14.0m, 2000hp, 13.5 knots when new

Star Ferry III 46.4m x 11.5m, 2000hp, 13.5 knots when new

Those ferries are already 1.5 knots down, on the average, from their speed when new. And those 2,000hp ferries will be using more fuel now per nautical mile than the 2600-horsepower FastCats. Even when new it is not sure they were consuming less fuel because of their higher weight and drag. Those 2,600-horsepower ferries will be definitely consuming much more fuel now than the FastCats.

Note also the difference in the breadth which translates to lane-meters of rolling cargo. Those ferry sampling have on the average a greater passenger capacity than the FastCats especially since all except one have two passenger decks. But on ROROs the rolling cargo earn a disproportionate share of the revenues compared to passengers and FastCats have one or two more lanes for vehicles compared to that sampling. And if the passenger capacity of the FastCats will prove lacking then another passenger compartment can be added to the vacant side of the vessel. So sometimes it is said that the FastCats are not full but their rolling cargo load might already “full” if compared to the load of that sampling which has a narrower and smaller vehicle deck than the FastCats.

There are short-distance ferry-ROROs that are in the 60-meter class that can run at 14-14.5 knots true speed if they want but on the average these feature engines that are on the average are bigger as in nearly 1,000 horsepower more. The fuel consumption difference compared to the FastCats will even be greater and actually they might be one truck longer than the FastCats but still the rolling cargo capacity of the FastCats are bigger. A sampling:

Maria Felisa 57.4m x 13.0m, 3600hp, 15.5 knots when new

Maria Vanessa 57.4m x 13.0m, 3600hp, 15.5 knots when new

Maria Oliva 64.3m x 13.5m, 3200hp, 16 knots when new

Maria Ursula 61.4m x 14.0m, 3400hp, 16 knots when new

Reina de los Angeles 60.9m x 12.8m, 3600hp, 16 knots when new

Anthon Raphael 61.4m x 14.0m, 3400hp, 15.5 knots when new

For sure this set consumes a lot more fuel than the FastCats and there is still a 2.5-3-knot disadvantage.

The only one in this size which will not be too a laggard compared to the FastCats is the Jack Daniel of the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. She is 65.0m x 14.0m and sailed at 17 knots when new but her engine has 4,300 horsepower already, well over the 2,600 horsepower of the FastCats. Maybe the aluminum hull and the catamaran design did a lot of magic to keep the FastCats separated from the pack.

Which brings us to the new Starlite ferries. These are 66.8-67m x 15.3m ferries and that means a car deck capacity nearly equal to the FastCats. These definitely has more passenger capacity at 750 persons but as I have said if a new passenger compartment will be built on the other side of the FastCats the current passenger capacity of 300 of the FastCats will nearly double to 600 which will not be much behind than the new Starlite ferries. These new Starlite ferries have a speed of 14.5 knots and 3,650 horsepower are needed to produce that speed. So for a possible equality in passenger and rolling cargo capacity the new Starlite ferries are using more fuel for even less speed. Now I begin to understand why there are a lot of catamaran ROROs in other countries with aluminum hulls. They are simply more efficient. And these are the aces of the FastCats.

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If all can run 100 to 150 nautical miles average in a day (that is about the back-and-forth run of the Cebu ferries to Ormoc) then they might be able to amortize their fleet, my guess. In Batangas-Calapan they have no problem with that quota. In Cebu-Ormoc, the Oceanjets and SuperCats do over 200 nautical miles in a day, to think and they are profitable (with maybe a 2/3 load) even though they guzzle a lot of fuel. That will take a lot of wrestling customers away from other shipping companies. Well things do not happen in a vacuum. With amortized ships the others could choose to lower the fares and the rates (now that will be good for the the riding public and shippers; after all rolling and cargo rates in the Philippines is really high).

But then I don’t place too much emphasis on that now. If the amortization is only P80,000 a day, if a FastCat runs 8 trips in a day that will be only P10,000 per trip and if that is Batangas-Calapan that will just mean taking out the revenues from two trucks! And it might just be one truck in longer routes! Above and beyond the operational costs like fuel, labor, etc. Dangerous, dangerous! For the competition, that is. That also shows how high our rolling rates are (as I always asked since when did MARINA learn how to properly compute rolling and container rates?)

However, in the Liloan-Lipata route I heard a disquieting report. One FastCat has left and the remaining one also cheats now on the schedule as in they compact the schedules if there is not enough load (well, useless to run and run if the load cannot justify it). The reason is the Cargo RORO LCTs there are suctioning the trucks like vacuum. That is also a phenomenon noted in the various Cebu-Leyte routes and even in the various Cebu-Bohol routes. Cargo RORO LCTs can offer rates as low as half of the conventional ROROs and for trucks that is a decisive come-on. And that is the reason why and Cargo RORO LCTs seem to be also a new paradigm change.

And besides many commercial vehicles (trucks, buses and panel trucks like those of LBC, etc.) are already locked in through company-to-company arrangements and through the use of super special rates and special rates plus other inducements. As I said it it not really a free market and the only ones that actually pay the published rates are the newcomers and the seldom travelers. The published rates are actually artificially high so as to cover all the discounts that the RORO ferry companies are giving to their regulars. This is actually a sucker’s world but the newbies do not realize that.

Which of the two paradigm changes will prevail? And will the old RORO ferry companies hold on through the locking game? Well, only the future can tell (how can we guess all their moves, counter-moves, guts and instincts?). But I love paradigm changes. With those things begin to get interesting.

fastcat-docked

Photo Credits: Carl Jakosalem, Nowell Alcancia, Mike Baylo, PSSS

The Original RORO Ferry Terminals

It has long been the dream of our country, the Philippines, to connect the main islands of Luzon, the Visayas group and Mindanao to unite the country physically. The only way to do this is through an intermodal system that will use both land and sea transport. This is because the sea crossings are simply too long for the bridges based on the technology of decades before. And, even if the technology is already available, the needed budget for such bridges might simply be too great for a poor country like the Philippines (only fools believe we are the “13th-largest” economy in the world).

The foundation for such Luzon-Visayas-Mindanao connection was actually the study and plan made in the early 1960’s during the administration of President Diosdado Macapagal for a “Philippine-Japan Friendship Highway”. Such grand project will depend on Japan reparations money, soft loans and technical assistance and that was why that project was retitled to such from “Pan-Philippine Highway”.

Aside from a concrete highway stretching from Aparri, Cagayan to Zamboanga City, it also had provisions for a Sorsogon-Samar connection through a ferry, a Samar-Leyte connection through a bridge (which later became the San Juanico bridge), a Leyte-Panaon island connection by a short bridge and a Panaon-Surigao connection through a ferry. That route was the one chosen because it will involve the least number and shortest ferry crossings plus it will mean the most regions that will benefit from a concrete highway. Included in the project was the purchase of two RORO ships for the sea connections and four RORO ferry terminals.

This project was actually not finished during the term of President Diosdado Macapagal. It was actually not even started during his term. The project was really grand, the highways to be paved were really long and a very large number of bridges have to be built. The project was started in 1967 and it was finished about 18 years later. Along the way, the new administration of President Ferdinand Marcos renamed the project into the “Maharlika Highway”. The ROROs in the two sea crossings were also named as Maharlika I and Maharlika II.

The four so-called RORO ferry terminals (they were not called as ports even though they really are) were located in Matnog (Sorsogon), San Isidro (Northern Samar), Liloan (Southern Leyte) and Lipata (Surigao City). For Luzon, the logical choice is really Matnog as it is the closest to the island of Samar. In Samar, it should have been logically located in Allen, Northern Samar. However, it was located instead in San Isidro of the same province because at that time the Calbayog-Allen road was not yet finished. The vehicles then still pass through the mountain town of Lope de Vega to Catarman.

In Panaon island, the logical location of the ferry terminal should have been in the southernmost town of San Ricardo. The problem again was the uncompleted road. The first plan was to put it in San Francisco town. However, the final decision was to locate it in Liloan. One reason forwarded was it was more sheltered which is true. That reason also factored in the choice of San Isidro as it has an islet off it. In Surigao, the ferry terminal was located in the barrio of Lipata. It is nearer to Panaon island than Surigao City poblacion.

Looking at the lines of the ferry terminals it is obvious that all were constructed from just one architectural plan. The only one that is a little different is the Liloan Ferry Terminal. All are modern-looking and even now, more than thirty year after they were constructed, they still do not look dated. It is obvious from the design that effort was made to control the heat from the sun. They were also all well-built and all sat low and maybe that was done to minimize damage from strong winds. Typhoons and earthquakes have come over the decades but all are still spic and span. They all seem to blend with the terrain, too.

The ferry terminals themselves are surrounded by access roads. The design was that the vehicles to be loaded have a separate access from the vehicles being unloaded. There is also back-up area for the vehicles to be loaded. Inside the terminals aside from the usual waiting areas, there are shops and a restaurant. That is aside from the office of the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) and booths for the shipping companies and the useless arrastre firm.

One difference of the ferry terminals from the ports of the past is the presence from the start of RORO ramps in the wharf. It signified that the ferry terminals were really meant for RORO operations right from the very start. Originally, there were only two RORO ramps per ferry terminal. This provision grew short when the number of RORO ships using the ferry terminal multiplied. So, alterations and expansions were done along the way in the quays of the ferry terminals.

When the sea ferry terminals were opened in 1982 in Matnog and in San Isidro with the arrival of the RORO Maharlika I, San Bernardino Strait, the sea separating the two was already connected by privately-owned ROROs for three years. However, they were using the shorter Matnog to Allen connection. Allen, in Northern Samar, had a port even in the past but a private operator developed their own port. Actually, San Isidro port is not well-placed for the vehicles headed just for Northern Samar as they need to backtrack.

Also, when the ferry terminals were opened in 1984 in Liloan and Lipata, Surigao Strait, the sea separating the two was already connected by privately-owned ROROs for five years already. The original connection here was between Surigao port and Liloan municipal port (plus Maasin port). Incidentally, in both connections it was Cardinal Shipping which was the pioneer using the ROROs Cardinal I and Cardinal II. This is to correct the wrong impression by many who thinks it was the government and the Maharlika ships which were the pioneers in this routes. This erroneous impression is the product of government propaganda. May I add also that even before the ROROs came these two straits were already connected by wooden motor boats (called the lancha locally) and big motor bancas.

Trucks, private cars and government vehicles made the first Luzon-Visayas-Mindanao connection and it was not many at the start. The signal connection that everybody was waiting for was the bus connection since that will mean that all and everybody can make the LuzViMinda run. It finally came in 1986 when the Philtranco bus made its first Mindanao run. The run took longer than expected because of mechanical problems but finally it came about. Now, private vehicles and trucks and everybody is taking it now through many buses and even by commuter van at times.

And the Philippines is physically connected now.

When RORO Reigned Supreme

Retrieved from the Old PSSS Website
written by: Mike Baylon

RORO means Roll-on, Roll-off. As distinguished to LOLO (Load-on, Load-off or Lift-on, Lift-off), RORO has cargo ramps and car decks and cargo is not lifted but loaded through vehicles that have wheels. Unlike cruisers that have cruiser sterns ROROs generally have transom sterns.

True ROROs started arriving in the Philippines in the 70’s. This does not include the LCTs which are also ROROs in their own right. The very first RORO could have been the “Millennium Uno” of Millennium Shipping. Japan database shows she arrived in the country in 1973. She is still sailing the Liloan-Lipata route.

Millennium Uno ©Mike Baylon

After some lull the next true ROROs arrived starting in 1978 with the “Northern Samar” of Eugenia Tabinas Shipping Lines of Tabaco, Albay which was fielded in the Sorsogon-Samar route. The next to arrive could be the “Laoang Bay” of Newport Shipping in 1979. This ferry was also later known as “Badjao”, “Philtranco Ferry 1” and “Black Double”. MARINA database also shows “Viva Penafrancia – 9” of Viva Shipping, a steel RORO was built locally in Quezon in 1979.

Starting in 1980, arrivals of RORO in the Philippines stepped up and many even arrived that year while cruiser arrivals began to dry up. In 1980, the “Dona Lili”, “Dona Josefina”, “Don Calvino”, all of Gothong Shipping and the “Sta. Maria” of Negros Navigation arrived. The “Eugenia” of Eugenia Tabinas Shipping seems to have arrived this year also. In 1981 the Melrivic 7 of Aznar Shipping in Cebu came.

The first RORO built by the Philippine government to connect the Maharlika Highway, the “Maharlika I” came in 1982 and she was fielded in the Matnog-San Isidro route connecting Sorsogon and Samar. The second of the series, a sister ship, the “Maharlika II” came in 1984 and was fielded in the Liloan-Lipata route connecting Leyte and Surigao thus completing the Maharlika Highway connection. [Nothing is implied here that in was only in this year that Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao were connected as claimed by some.]

Maharlika I ©Edison Sy

Many of the first ROROs were small. The liner companies did not dominate the first arrivals. It seems it is the provincial short-distance island connectors that first truly appreciated the RORO.

After a very short lull the next batch of ROROs arrived and they appeared in Batangas in the mid-80s. This was spurred by the arrival of “Tokishiho” (later “Emerald I”) of Manila International Shipping Lines to which the dominant Viva Shipping Lines of Batangas immediately countered with the “Viva Penafrancia” in 1985.

The first big RORO liners to arrive that rival the size of the big, fast cruisers were the “Sweet RORO” (1982), “Sweet RORO II” (1983) of Sweet Lines and the “Sta. Florentina” of Negros Navigation in 1983.

Sweet RORO ©lindsaybridge

Sulpicio’s entry to the RORO mode started in 1983 with two modest-sized ROROs, the “Surigao Princess” and the “Butuan Princess” which later became the “Cebu Princess”. William Lines’ foray in RORO started only in 1987 with the “Masbate I”. This was followed by the “Zamboanga” in 1989. WLI’s entry in this field was relatively late and they paid with this by relinquishing the number 1 spot in the local shipping pecking order.

Before the 80s ended Sweet Lines has further added “Sweet Home” (1984), “Sweet Faith” (1987), “Sweet Baby” (1987) and “Sweet Pearl” (1989). Sulpicio Lines has also added “Boholana Princess” (1986). Meanwhile, Gothong Shipping already added the “Dona Cristina” (1985), “Our Lady of Guadalupe” (1986) and the sisters “Our Lady of Fatima” and “Our Lady of Lourdes” both in 1987. Aboitiz Shipping meanwhile also entered the RORO race in 1989 with the “SuperFerry 1”.

For a short time it was Gothong Shipping and Sweet Lines that was battling for superiority in the RORO field. However, in 1988 Sulpicio Lines added 3 big RORO liners that dwarfed all previous examples starting with the “Filipina Princess”, then one of the biggest and fastest ROROs in the world, the “Nasipit Princess” and the “Tacloban Princess”. They also added in that year the “Cagayan Princess”. With these additions Sulpicio Lines guaranteed they can never be headed in the RORO field and that stood true until WG&A came along.

Filipina Princess ©Vincent Paul Sanchez

Before the end of the 80’s, a Visayan-Mindanao shipping company also bet big on RORO and this earned the company number 1 in pecking order in that area. Trans-Asia Shipping Lines bought 5 RORO – the “Asia Korea” (1987), the “Asia Thailand” (1987), the “Asia Japan” (1988), the “Asia Brunei” (1989) and the “Asia Taiwan” (1989). They disposed some ROROs later (but always with replacements) until their progress was impeded with the creation of Cebu Ferries Corporation.

Meanwhile, smaller ROROs also sprouted in the same period in the provincial routes starting with the “Princess of Antique” (1985). Among the others are “Danilo 1” (1987) and “Danilo 2” (1988), now the “Lite Ferry 1” and “Lite Ferry 2”, respectively, the “Dona Isabel II” (1988) which was later known as “Bantayan” and now “Siquijor Island 2”, the “Princess Mika” (1988), the “Luzviminda” (1988), the ‘Stephanie Marie” (1989) of Aleson Shipping in Zamboanga, etc. In Batangas the likes of “Sto. Domingo” (1988) and “Viva Penafrancia 3 (1989) came and this was followed by a slew of Domingo Reyes ROROs in the next years until they dominated that port.

Lite Ferry 2 ©James Gabriel Verallo

With that big statement of Sulpicio in 1988 the other long-distance liner companies have to respond and bigger and faster RORO liners came in the 90’s. William Lines created their “Mabuhay” line of luxury RORO liners and aided with their “Maynilad’. Aboitiz Shipping created their “SuperFerry” line. Gothong Shipping converted two RORO cargo ships and out came the “Our Lady of Sacred Heart” and “Our Lady of Medjugorje” augmented by the their big “Our Lady of Akita”. Negros Navigation continued their “Saints” series and out came the “Sta. Ana” (1988), the “Princess of Negros”, the “San Paolo” and the beautiful “St. Francis of Assisi” to be followed by the sisters “St. Peter the Apostle and “St. Joseph the Worker”. Meanwhile, Sweet Lines was not able to keep pace and soon dropped out of shipping in 1994. Also dropping out of passenger shipping were the lesser long-distance ferry companies which were not able to refleet to RORO. These were the Escano Lines and Madrigal Shipping.

Our Lady of Medjugorje folio ©John Michael Aringay

Sulpicio meanwhile did not rest on their laurels in the first half of the 90’s. They topped their “Filipina Princess” with the “Princess of the Orient” (1993) and they also rolled out the formidable “Princess of Paradise”, the speed queen of the era. Also added to their fleet was the “Princess of the Pacific” and the lesser “Manila Princess” and “Tacloban Princess”. At the middle of the 90’s there was no question then which was biggest shipping company in the Philippines.

There was also no question that the previous decade ended with ROROs already beginning to dominate long-distance passenger shipping. However in other provincial ports, save for Batangas maybe, the RORO is not yet dominant.

The Sulpicio Lines hegemony of the early 90s suddenly changed with the merger of 3 major shipping companies to form the “William, Gothong and Aboitiz” or WGA which suddenly topped the fleet of Sulpicio even though it remanded lesser and older ships to subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corp. CFC then became the scourge of the Visayas-Mindanao shipping companies, most of which except for Trans-Asia Shipping were just in the very beginning of the RORO era like their Zamboanga counterparts.

Among those absorbed by the merger were the ships then underway or under refitting like “SuperFerry 12”, “Our Lady of Akita” which became “SuperFerry 11” and later “Our Lady of Banneux”, “Our Lady of Lipa”, “Mabuhay 5” and “Mabuhay 6” which later became the “SuperFerry 9” and “Our Lady of Good Voyage”, respectively. In the year of that merger, Sulpicio Lines responded with the “Princess of the Universe” and “Princess of the World” and Nenaco responded with the “San Lorenzo Ruiz” and the “St. Ezekiel Moreno”.

The gap between WG&A and Sulpicio Lines and Nenaco was actually narrowing before the end of the millennium as WG&A was intent of selling their “excess” and old ships and it not add any ship to their fleet until 2000. Meanwhile, Sulpicio Lines rolled out the “Princess of the Ocean” and “Princess of the Caribbean”, both in 1997 and the grand “Princess of New Unity” in 1999. Nenaco also added what turned out to be their flagship, the “Mary, Queen of Peace” in 1997.

Princess of New Unity ©britz444
Mary, Queen of Peace ©Rodney Orca

In the provincial routes and ports the millennium ended with the RORO becoming dominant already. On its heels came the long-distance buses and trucks and the delivery trucks of the trade distributors. It can also be said that the requirements of these buses and truckers fuelled the growth of the short-distance ROROs connecting the nearer islands.

RORO liners primary carried container vans in trailer beds. Short-distance ROROs meanwhile primarily carried trucks, buses, jeeps and private vehicles. Overnight ROROs however primarily carried cargo LCL (loose cargo loading) or in pallets. Forklifts were the primary means of loading the cargo. Others call this system break bulk.

If the 90’s were marked by vibrancy and rapid expansion in the long-distance, liner section of shipping the past decade was marked by a long steady retreat of local long-distance shipping and with it the ROROs. This retreat was marked by 2 major spasms — the illiquidity of Nenaco and the suspension of Sulpicio Lines in 2008 after the capsizing of the Princess of the Stars. ROROs were sold and for varying reasons.

Nenaco can’t sustain its expanded route system and their ROROs were laid up and threatened with seizure by creditors. WG&A just wanted to get out of routes they deem were not earning enough. Moreover, Aboitiz has to pay off the divestment of William (the Chiongbian family) and Gothong from the merged company. Then world metal prices peaked and they cashed in on the bonanza. Sulpicio Lines meanwhile decided to sell their ships laid-up by the suspension.

Aside from external problems the long-distance shipping industry was also beset last decade by external threats. Early in 2000’s, the long-distance buses and trucks began to challenge the liners. This began in Samar-Leyte-Biliran. The leading shipping company, WG&A immediately retreated and left the three islands. Soon Masbate and Bohol was also under siege by the buses and lost.

A major factor in that development was the deregulation of the bus sector in the Bicol region and Eastern Visayas. The effect is bus companies sprouted like mushrooms, each seeking more routes, giving wider coverage. As a result passengers need not go to the major centers anymore and it offered the convenience of getting off right by their gates. Moreover, it has also the convenience of a daily departure and a wide choice of buses. As deregulated areas the bus companies were to free to offer low fares and freebies like free ferry fare.

In 2003, the overland route to Panay via Mindoro opened. In a short time came the influx of the buses, trucks and jeeps. The shipping routes to that island were soon under siege. If Nenaco’s withdrawal can be excused by their illiquidity, the leading shipping company, WG&A again simply withdrew without much struggle and just held on to Iloilo port where they are under siege again now. Like in Samar-Leyte-Biliran-Masbate-Bohol this Panay withdrawal of WG&A resulted in selling to the breakers of good ROROs for scrap.

Dangay Port, Roxas, Oriental Mindoro ©Mike Baylon

The second major threat that emerged in the last decade was the emergence of regional container lines to major provincial ports. This provided direct access to foreign markets. And once a direct route is established loaded and empty container vans no longer have to be transshipped via Manila. Before this, the transshipment business was a big source of revenue for long- distance shipping.

Now an even more ominous development is the start of the chartering of banana growers of their own container ships. With their own ships they are no longer dependent on the routes of the container lines. Whereas now if a container line has no route to a certain market country of theirs then they still have to transship via Manila and use the local long-distance liners.

Sasa Port, Davao City ©Aristotle Refugio

A minor threat as of now to long-distance ROROs is the emergence of LCTs as carriers of container vans. But a bigger threat is the inroads of long-distance trucking in the Visayas and Mindanao. The root of the problem is the high cost of charges via long-distance shipping and so they lose out.

Budget airlines will also take out some revenues from long-distance shipping. This is not critical because the bread and butter of long-distance shipping is cargo operations.

One beneficiary of these developments is the short-distance RORO sector which makes possible the island-hopping of the trucks, buses, jeeps and private vehicles. This sector is growing consistently while the long-distance sector is shrinking.

Mukas Port ©Raymond Lapus

For the present, the sector of RORO liners is in crisis. Only ten long-distance RORO liners are left sailing in the country as of now.

The overnight RORO ferry sector is yet unaffected. The only affected portion of this is the companies with routes to Mindoro and Romblon.

The ROROs have eclipsed the cruisers. But the growth sectors now are the short-distance and overnight ferry sectors of the ROROs.