The Trip From Tacloban to Surigao del Sur (Part 1)

The smaller tour group of the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) reached Tacloban on the midnight of the second night of the tour. Waiting for Mark to get a ride, we finally parted at about 3:30am of December 13 with Mark on the way to Bato, Leyte for a shipspotting of Bohol and James on the way back to Cebu via Palompon. Me and Joe’s destination was unmentioned but we were actually on the way to Cortes, Surigao del Sur, near the capital of Tandag to visit a shipmate of Joe and shipspot along the way.

There are really not many ports on the Tacloban-Panaon island axis if one follows the road to Mahaplag. From Tacloban, Joe and me had to take the Mahaplag route mainly because it was still dark and Joe also wanted to see the Agas-agas bridge. Besides, a trip via Silago will take longer and I want us to be on the 8am ferry in Benit because that will afford us the greatest chance of visits to the unexplored ports of Surigao without nightfall overtaking us. We had the thought of passing it on the way back, halfheartedly, because our tentative route on the way back now was via Isabel, Leyte to pick up a puppy.

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Liloan Ferry Terminal and Liloan bridge

We reached Liloan at about 6am and Joe tried entering the Liloan Ferry Terminal. I dissuaded him because I feared we will get in trouble with the LGU collectors of illegal exactions and we will lose more time if a scene erupts and anyway I don’t want to take the ferry there because I thought it will reach Lipata Ferry Terminal not sooner but later. I told Joe we can cover Lipata Ferry Terminal from the Liloan municipal port which is located just a kilometer from the other end of the Liloan bay.

I was not mistaken and we were lucky because as tipped by member Mervin Go Soon of Baybay (whom we met on the Oroquieta Stars on the way to the PSSS tour-meet assembly in Tacloban), the former Maharlika Cinco of Archipelago Ferries was there. The other tip of Mervin that the Grand Star RORO 3 was doing a Liloan Municipal Port to Surigao route also proved true because she was there besides the former Maharlika Cinco. We noticed no work was being done on the former Maharlika Cinco which would become the Gloria Five of Gabisan Shipping. I was wondering then who is operating the Grand Star RORO 3. I thought it was “M Shipping” whose AUV we encountered on the road (I was mistaken on that assumption as Mervin very recently told me that Grand Star RORO 3 was also bought by Gabisan Shipping and I wonder now if she is the Gloria One advertised by the company in Liloan port).

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Across the bay, we saw that it was only the Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping which was docked in Liloan Ferry Terminal. With its slow speed and the triple distance of Liloan compared to Benit port, it would have been disaster to our schedule had we taken it (so our bet not to enter Liloan Ferry Terminal was right after all). There was also anchored in the bay the Cargo RORO LCT GT Express 1 of GT Shipping which was doing a route to Surigao so that trucks wouldn’t queue long like in the past. I noticed the old Liloan municipal port terminal was already converted into an office by the municipality. But the old arrastre office was still there.

At the end of our short, alloted time in Liloan we made a run for Benit in San Ricardo town at the tip of Panaon island. I did not want a photofinish and I told Joe we need to put in some allowance on time lest we were shut out of the ferry (“shut out” in maritime use here means one’s vehicle or cargo fails to be loaded to a ship) and probably have to backtrack to Liloan and so we did not look for a place to eat anymore (anyway there was probably none that is inviting as Liloan is just a small town). Along the way we saw the abandoned port of San Francisco which once docked the copra ships of great shipping line Go Thong in the past.

We next came to “The Saddle”, a renowned mountain pass that Joe wants to conquer (it was called by that name because it resembles a horse saddle if viewed from the sea). It was not shipspotting but there were views of the sea from there and we knew right after that will come the town of San Ricardo but Benit port will still be some distance from it.

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Leaving behind Benit, its collectors of illegal exactions and “The Saddle”

Approaching Benit port, before the turn inside, I told Joe that if the San Ricardo LGU collectors of the illegal exactions flag him down that he continues driving as if he did not see anything. The ruse worked and upon entering the people of Montenegro Lines and the arrastre rushed us saying we will be the last vehicle that will be loaded. There were already shortcuts in the processing of papers and we were already on the ramp before all the papers were even processed. The ship left even before 8am and I saw two vehicles that arrived minutes after us were no longer accommodated (and there was actually still some space for at least one of them). So it was still a photofinish alright and a lucky accommodation. Sometimes that is one gets from being disciplined in the travel approach. I told Joe before that many said I am lucky with trips and it seems it was holding. Actually, it held during the 1,000 kilometers me and Joe ran with two ferry crossings and with many ports visited.

Our ship was the Maria Vanessa of Montenegro Lines, sister of the Maria Felisa (actually no other shipping company serves the Benit-Lipata route). Since we both lacked sleep, me and Joe barely toured the ship. Instead we immediately looked for a cool, comfortable and quiet place and soon we were asleep although the voyage usually takes only 1 hour and 15 or 20 minutes. We two really needed that rest even if it was so short. We did not even care for food as all we wanted is sleep.

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Lipata Ferry Terminal

That short sleep reinvigorated the two of us and there was no hassle in the disembarkation process nor in getting out of the Lipata Ferry Terminal. We did not try anymore to tour the port since we will be exiting Mindanao through that port anyway. What we wanted was food as our stomachs were grumbling already. It was already mid-morning and we only had hamburger the previous night in Tacloban terminal and no breakfast at all.

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“Voyagers” (Photo by Joe Cardenas)

Going out of the port, I espied a new place which looked like a diner to me although it looks more of a lodging place. I was able to convince Joe to backtrack and what a discovery! Well, they really serve meals and snacks and it turned out that the owner is a master mariner abroad and so the place was themed by maritime things. The was not the usual rush of people, it was quiet and clean and it does not look or smell like the usual roadside stands. The name of the place is “Voyagers” and we recommend it. Me and Joe took a little time to unwind and relax there before we proceeded to the city (i.e. Surigao City). 

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In the city, we first went to what is called the “Boulevard”. It is a boulevard indeed, a seaside one. It is adjacent to the main port of Surigao and it is there where the so-many big motor bancas of Surigao to Dinagat, Siargao and other islands dock. We were lucky since we were early they were still all there and since the sea was calm so many came. I walked the entire length of the Boulevard getting shots of all the bigger boats. Offshore, a few LCTs were moored, as always. LCTs are a fixture of Surigao now because the mines employ them.

From there me and Joe proceeded to the main port of Surigao which is called Verano port. Joe wanted to enter but I told him there is almost no chance of a free pass as it is an ISPS port which means visitors are not welcome. To buy a ticket for Siargao so we can enter means a bit heavy “entrance fee”. Might have been affordable for our pockets but I was always mindful of the time and I do not want the quest for the unexplored ports of Surigao be compromised (why is it that long-distance shipspotting is always balancing of compromises?). Besides I was more interested in the old docking area of boats nestled on the side of Verano which was not obvious or visible from outside it. So I just contented myself with some shots of Verano ships from the gate. There are not many of them at a given time anyway and two i even caught while departing.

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A view of Verano Port from the nearly-enclosed marina beside it

I then nestled myself into the narrow opening that leads to what I found to be a dirty marina where many bancas and motor boats were anchored (there were more than 15 of them). This looked like to be the old port as can be deduced from the road on the other side of where I was. It is now almost encircled by Verano port but I knew from observation inside Verano that passenger-cargo motor bancas emanate from it which I found to be bound to the smaller islands that belong to Surigao City.

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The MARINA nestled by Verano Port

Many of the vessels in that nearly-enclosed marina were actually fishing bancas. But it seems nobody cares anymore for that port and marina. It is dirty and it looks as if there is no order there and even the roads and pathways leading to it look unmaintained. I did not dare exploring anymore as the walkways looked dangerous to me.

From there me and Joe exited Surigao City not through the main road but through some shortcuts which Joe saw on the GPS map. We did not try anymore the Surigao-Lipata coastal road whose turn we missed earlier. The unexplored municipal ports and the mining ports of Surigao were the ones that were already pulling us. Their magnetites seem to be strong….

(More on the next installment.)

The Sister Ships “Maria Felisa” and “Maria Vanessa”

The Maria Felisa and the Maria Vanessa are true sister ships which means both came from one, single hull design. Additionally, the superstructures of the two look very similar and this is not always the case for sister ships (like the cases of the Our Lady of Banneux and Dona Virginia, the SuperFerry 2/5 and Cagayan Bay 1, the Surigao Princess and St. Kristopher of Viva Shipping Lines and many other cases). Incidentally, the two were built by different shipyards and three years apart and yet they look almost identical.

The Maria Felisa was built in 1983 by the Nakamura Shipbuilding and Engineering Works in Yanai yard as the Ferry Sumoto. Meanwhile, Maria Vanessa was built in 1986 by Naikai Zosen Corporation in Onomichi yard in as the Ferry Shinawaji. Both had identical external dimensions at 57.4 meters length over-all (LOA), 53.3 meters length between perpendiculars (LBP), a breadth of 13.0 meters and a depth of 4.1 meters. The gross tonnages (GT) of the sister ships are nearly identical too with the Maria Felisa at 1,018 and the Maria Vanessa at 1,019. Their gross register tonnages (GRT) in Japan were not identical with the Maria Felisa at 955 tons and the Maria Vanessa at 960. Locally, the net tonnages (NT) stood at 609 for Maria Felisa and 610 for Maria Vanessa. The deadweight tonnages (DWT) of the two in Japan were not close at 394 tons for Maria Vanessa and 349 tons for Maria Felisa. Locally, it was disparate too especially since Maria Vanessa‘s rose to 482 tons.

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However, though nearly identical, the passenger capacities of the two sisters are not close. Maria Felisa’s is 398 and Maria Vanessa‘s is 440. Maybe the difference came from the benches built in the superstructure side of the outside passageways of Maria Vanessa which are vulnerable to rain coming from the bridge deck. The sister ships have identical powerplants with twin Yanmar Marine diesels with a total of 3,600 horsepower which gave an identical top speed of 15.5 knots when new. And maybe this identical powerplants were part of the reason why the two were paired in the same route. They can share spares, the engine hands can share knowledge in maintenance and trouble-shooting and the ships can benefit with the many advantages that commonality can bestow.

Maria Felisa has the permanent ID IMO 8300676 while Maria Vanessa‘s is IMO 8608963. The Call Sign of Maria Felisa is DUE2171 and that of Maria Vanessa is DUE2170. The closeness of the call signs also indicate the closeness of their arrival and registration and it could have even be on the very same day in 1984. Now that suggests only one agent brokered their sale to Montenegro Lines. The two ships have no MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) Codes which means they are not trackable by AIS (Automatic Identification System).

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The sister ships are RORO (Roll On, Roll Off) ships with two ramps (at the bow and at the stern) leading to a single car deck. The bow is protected as it has a rectangular box with the docking equipment mounted on its roof. In the stern, the scantling is not full and so the car deck is not protected against rain and strong waves. There are three car lanes with small vehicles shoehorned in tight spaces in the car deck outside the three main car lanes. The sister ships might have a true total of 170 actual lane-meters of rolling cargo space because of that.

Maria Felisa and Maria Vanessa have only one solitary passenger deck and a bridge deck accessible to passengers but there are no seats or scantling there for passengers and so it just functions as a viewing deck. Both ships have two masts and two funnels at each side. The original Japan passenger accommodation which is airconditioned serves as the Tourist section and benches were built at the stern and sides and these are the Economy sections. The spaces for the Economy is actually too little. The small canteen is located inside the Tourist section but it has only a few quickie offerings.

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The two sister ships are very much connected with Surigao and Southern Leyte as they were the primary ferries used by Montenegro Shipping Lines, Inc. (MSLI) to open the Benit (San Ricardo, Leyte) to Lipata (Surigao City) route which was a new route connecting the two provinces and two island groups (Visayas and Mindanao). This route is about 65% shorter than the old route of Liloan-Lipata and so it immediately became a success as the transit time is shorter and the rates cheaper (but much more expensive per nautical mile than the competing Liloan-Lipata route and so Montenegro Lines profits more and that calls the question again when did MARINA ever learned how to compute rates).

With a size bigger than a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the sister ships proved just fit for the requirements of the route. And with a speed faster than a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO that became an added boon as at full trot they can cover the entire 13-nautical mile distance in one hour if the time spent for docking maneuver is subtracted (the docking maneuver add minutes as the Surigao Strait has strong current and the sisters always have to turn as they always do stern docking). Compare that to the 3 to 4 hours of the ferries in the rival Liloan-Lipata route, the additional land distance of 41 kilometers no longer matters much as that can just be covered in one hour.

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The two ships have 4 hours between sailing on the average but that schedule can quicken if there is more load and on the other hand, cancel or shall we shall “retreat” a schedule is the load is not enough. That usually happens on lean months and during the dead of the night. Actually, these 24-hour sailing which Montenegro Lines is too accustomed to especially in Batangas-Calapan is too tiring to the crew and even the cleanliness suffers at times especially when loading starts as soon as unloading is complete (and that is a common occurrence especially during peak seasons).

One thing that helped Montenegro Lines and the sisters ships be immediate successes in the Benit-Lipata route was the 5-year exclusivity enjoyed by Montenegro Lines because they were also the operator of Benit port. That has recently lapsed and it remains to be seen what will be the further development. One thing that bars newcomers is the small docking space of Benit which is only good for only one ship at a time. However, the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) is expanding the port including its back-up area. There is also a talk of a new port in San Ricardo. One weakness of Benit port is it is too much exposed to habagat (southwest monsoon) waves and winds.

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Whatever, the size and speed of Maria Felisa and Maria Vanessa are just fit for the route and even if competitors come, there might be enough load for everybody as the load in this route is continually expanding with more trucks crossing as the intermodal is already fast shortcircuiting the traditional container shipping. Buses crossing are also increasing but it is the traffic of the private cars which is growing faster as Filipinos have already discovered the benefit of using their own vehicles in going home for a visit or vacation. Or even true touring. But as newcomers they don’t understand that it is not a “first come, first served” system as the regulars have already booked loadings that have already been arranged before.

One weakness of the sister ships, like the weakness of many Montenegro Lines ships is the lack of passenger accommodations. Montenegro Lines is always loath to add scantlings and passenger seats and since they load many buses (hence, many passengers), sometimes it becomes overloaded and passengers just seat themselves wherever they can and that includes the floor, the stairs and the air vents. Additionally, many just stand or mill around during the entire trip. This is true during the peak season when people attend fiestas in their hometowns and become ship passengers without being passengers of the buses to Manila, Tacloban or Ormoc. Analytically, the sister ships should better have another passenger deck or else extend the current passenger deck but I bet Montenegro Lines will not go that route being on the cheapskate side compared to other shipping lines of their size.

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The sister ships are still very reliable and I think that will remain so because the owner Montenegro Lines is very good in maintaining old ships. They might be transferred to another route or rotated but I guess one or both will again come back to the Surigao Strait route.

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Photo Credits: Mike Baylon