New Developments in Masbate Port

I had been to Masbate port twice in recent days in this month of July of 2017. The first one was when my ship Super Shuttle RORO 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) was on the way to Batangas and dropped anchor in Masbate first. The second was when I took the route via Pilar and Masbate ports on the way back to Cebu. Those two visits afforded me a chance to compare and weigh developments in Masbate port since last January of 2017 when I was also able to visit the port.

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Masbate port

The first notable thing is all works in expanding Masbate port has already been completed. The lineal distance of the port is a little longer now. On the other hand, talking of infrastructure, the Masbate port terminal building deteriorated in the same span of time as it is no longer air-conditioned and yet the dear terminal fee which is more expensive than the much better Cebu and Batangas ports remained the same when Masbate port does not even have shuttle buses and does not really have the capacity to take in all the passengers of the buses. And so it copied the Batangas port model which means bus passengers have to go down when the bus enters the port in order for them to pay the terminal fee and then board the bus again or walk to the ferry. The former is the preferred mode now.

Another new thing is Masbate port has an X-ray machine now for the baggage but it is not operational yet. Another useless piece of equipment just to justify the terminal fee and to have another reason for “cattle-herding” the passengers. It seems what is good enough for the buses is not good enough for PPA (Philippine Ports Authority), security-wise, because buses don’t bother checking the baggage of the passengers because they know the chance of them being victims of terrorist attacks is next to nil, at least in Bicol. And I think if one asks the ferries they will say they are not bothered if there is no X-ray machine. The buses and the ferries do not have the ISPS thinking that all passengers are possible terrorists. Actually that is simply ridiculous and is just the product of “praning” minds.

One more notable thing is that the passenger motor bancas are now practically gone from Masbate port and they have already transferred to the municipal port of Masbate near the public market and the bus/van terminal because of the high passenger terminal fee being charged by the port when passengers have no actual need for the terminal as they go direct to their vessels. Actually, last January I saw a terminal building (it was named as a community fish landing center) being built in Masbate municipal port and I saw that it is already finished when I went to the bus and van terminal.

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The problem now in Masbate municipal port is congestion, I was told, especially in the rush hours of the morning and the early afternoon. The boat landing areas there are actually the facility being used by the so-many small passenger motor bancas and motor launches headed to the different barrios across Masbate Bay. Add to that that that is also the docking area of the passenger motor bancas to barrios just outside Masbate Bay and up to Baleno town. Now the bigger motor bancas to Ticao island, Pilar port and Burias island are also lumped there now. That also includes a few cargo motor boats that were once passenger motor boats.

Actually, some small motor launch operators also built docking areas just beyond the northern end of Masbate port. I was told these transfers were the reaction to the terminal fee that costs P30. A terminal fee of that amount for a P10 boat fare? So right now just a very few motor bancas use Masbate port. One effect is congestion of the port was gone in one stroke. So I wonder now if there was any need to lengthen the port after all. Maybe they could have just donated the construction materials to the boat landing areas at the end of the port. The surface there is still dried muck which is obviously undulating and slippery. Well, if the funds were really meant to benefit the public.

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A makeshift boat landing area adjacent Masbate port

Regarding steel-hulled ferries, the competition in Masbate port is heating up and truck volume was obviously bigger than last January. Not in the buses though as July is already part of the lean months. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation fielded their Cargo RORO LCT there, the LCT Aldain Dowey which was identified in PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) as the former LCT Ongpin. So now they have a total of three ferries in Masbate and I was told in summer Sta. Clara Shipping even fielded a fourth ferry. Their LCT is of the same length as their Jack Daniel and Anthon Raphael, their two ROPAXes there which are the best in the fleets of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (this is before the fielding of the former Tamataka Maru ships from Japan).

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Their LCT is the first to leave at noon and in the afternoon they are the only ferry departures from Masbate at 2pm and 4pm. Their three ferries are the biggest in Masbate because what their competitors have are only basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs because they use the shallow Pilar port whose depth cannot handle bigger ferries. By the way in terms of rolling cargo traffic the Pio Duran route now of Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping is the favorite now since Pio Duran in Albay is nearer to Manila than Pilar of Sorsogon while the rolling cargo rate is just about the same.

With the exception of the ROROBus which is related to Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. practically all the other buses to Masbate are handled by Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and Penafrancia Shipping Corp. as the third operator Denica Lines, a Pilar native does not load buses. Loading buses from Luzon meant extending discounts, rebates, free tickets and free meals and Denica Lines does not play that game because they say they have their share of rolling cargo too. And I saw that when we left left Pilar port aboard their Marina Empress at 3am and the car deck was full. From Masbate port their three ROROs Odyssey, Regina Calixta-II and Marina Empress all left full. Denica Lines has already bought the Regina CalixtaII of Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) of Catanduanes and so they have three ROROs also now while Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) is down to two ROROs from three. Maybe because it is lean months now and maybe they have one undergoing refitting in a shipyard.

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If we assume that Montenegro Lines has a third RORO in Masbate then a total of 8 ROROs make a daily crossing now to Luzon plus there is a Cargo RORO LCT for a total capacity of about 100 truck/bus units (of course, since there are smaller vehicles mixed in, the actual total is higher). Many of these come from as far as Cebu island. Buses will be at least a fourth of that total. One will wonder why there is such a large number of people on the move when within Masbate island there are not that many number of buses although there is a significant number of commuter vans.

Montenegro Lines have three fastcrafts and a catamaran in Masbate including their newest and fastest, the City of Angeles which is a catamaran. They also have there one of their biggest fastcrafts, the City of Masbate. Their future rival, the two fastcrafts of Denica Lines are still not ready and are still being refitted in Pilar port. Meanwhile, I wonder if the Masbate-Pilar motor bancas are already in terminal decline. There are just so many ROROs and High Speed Crafts. Although the motor bancas are faster than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs, they are noisier. They might be noisy, however, but still they are better than the “Stairs Class” of Montenegro Lines.

But in trucks and buses Sta. Clara and Penafrancia are already beating Montenegro Lines by about 3:1. Denica Lines could also be level now with Montenegro Lines in trucks and buses. By the way, sedans, SUVs, AUVs are not that many in the Masbate crossing to Pilar and Pio Duran and jeeps are practically unknown.

However, there is a rumor in Masbate port that a new player will come and serve the Masbate-Pio Duran route and it seems it is not Medallion Transport which was gone from the route after their Lady of Carmel sank in 2013 off Burias island. It remains to be seen if this rumor will come true.

The Super Shuttle RORO 3 of AMTC is also back in Masbate port and it connects to Batangas and Cebu plus Cagayan de Oro but their schedule is irregular as in there are no definite day for arrivals and departures as it is more of a container carrier now. There are also still a few motor bancas to Bulan when where before that was the dominant route to Bicol from Masbate.

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There are also off-hours docking now in Masbate port as Denica Lines has an early evening departure from Pilar. To the credit of Masbate port they let the passengers stay in the port terminal as the arrival of that is midnight and there is still no transportation to the towns outside Masbate City (and that gave me an idea). And Sta. Clara Shipping sends back its ship from Pio Duran if there are a lot of shut-outs (vehicles left unloaded in port) and that becomes another off-hours docking. That was the reason why they fielded their LCT because shut-out were already happening frequently (I saw that last January when one Mega Bus cannot be accommodated and they asked passengers of that to get down the ship and it was an event not good to look at — I pitied the passengers).

Masbate port is changing. Traffic is obviously up and I think the port will only get more important in the future when more traffic will shift to it from San Bernardino Strait if the rates become lower. Maybe then competition will further heat up and we will see the full blooming of Masbate port.

But they have to get that passenger terminal fee down. It is much higher than Zamboanga port when that port is better than Masbate port and the passenger terminal is not really needed by most of the ship passengers. A sore point really and that must change.

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My Trip From Bicol to Cebu Via Masbate (Part 1)

When I go from Bicol to Cebu I usually pass through Masbate. Going via Eastern Visayas is farther, longer and costs more. The route via Masbate also affords me the chance to cover a southern port of Bicol and the nascent port of Masbate. However, whatever route I take I usually end up tired and lacking sleep. The reason is I start my trip on a midnight and this is dictated by the the hours that the bus pass by Naga on the way to Pio Duran or Pilar, the jump-off points to Masbate. Well, even if I take the Eastern Visayas route still the buses pass Naga at night and at midnight I will be there awake in Matnog port. I don’t sleep well on buses and that is more so when there are frequent stops and shuffling of people and baggages.

On this particular trip, I had no firm decision whether to take the Pio Duran or Pilar route to Masbate. It was peak season, the buses were full, the weather was not very cooperative and so I decided I will just ride the first bus that will stop for me. Luckily,I was rewarded with a 4-day old bus, a brand-new unit recently fielded. It was SRO but I didn’t mind because as just a Pilar bus I know there will be passengers that will be going down in the next town or two and I was not mistaken. My bet to stay at the front paid off again and I was rewarded with a front seat (thanks again to the lady who pulled my arm so I can have her seat). I had opportunities to use my cam for bus pics although it was limited because it was night and dark. Besides the rain started again when the bus started rolling.

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Pilar Bus Terminal and my ride

This was the trip that fully exposed me to the damage of Typhoon “Nina” to the electrical lines (I had been exposed before to the physical damage when I made my shipspotting trip to Legazpi and Tabaco). All the towns we passed had no lights and the first one I noticed that had widespread lights was already the known junction in Kimantong, Daraga, Albay. But after passing that part of the poblacion of Daraga it was all dark again (and there was not even a moonlight) until we were already on the descent nearing the port town of Pilar (and Pilar is already some 130 kilometers from where I came from). After such a long drive the lights of Pilar felt welcome as we were no longer peering in the dark. And being just past the Yuletide season, the Christmas lights and decors were still on the streets and homes and those added to the welcoming feeling.

We stopped at the bus terminal of Pilar and I made small talk to the bus crew. This small talk enables me to update on some things I should need to know with regards to trips. The terminal is walking distance from the port of Pilar and we entered through a portion of the market that was converted as a port terminal. The ticket sellers (and the painitans) were there as well as their agents and runners. They were selling us the competing advantages of Denica Lines and Montenegro Lines (the RORO because just past midnight there were no fastcrafts yet). Showing my veteran side I passed by the terminal without deciding yet. I just asked what their fares and skeds were. The ferries are not yet leaving so I have time to get more info, assess the options and make the better decision. And who knows if a motor banca makes a very good offer?

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Motor banca to Mandaon

The row of motor bancas that were leaving comes before the ROROs. Uhm, there were more offerings now. Aside from the usual motor bancas to Masbate and Aroroy there was now a motor banca to Mandaon which on the southwest of Masbate island facing Romblon (and is a gateway to Sibuyan island by motor banca). And those were pre-dawn departures as in 3am to 4am. That was new to me. So they allow it now. In amihan? The waters of Ticao Pass, the Burias Gap and the Masbate Pass are not exactly known for gentleness. Cross-swells that need to be read well, you bet.

Made small talk with the motor banca people. Well, not only they know more of their trade but also to cross-check the info about the ROROs. They are better sources of info, not that partial and without the rah-rah. I noticed something that was not there before. They are quieter now. The quietness of the beaten? It seem i can’t see anymore the elan I used to see in them before. Was it all just a mirage before or they were simply sleepy? There seems to be attitude of “Thanks, there are still passengers”. Maybe they are not used to the likes of me. Maybe they are just used to the passengers they know that are “theirs”. Or probably they thought I will not ride their craft anyway? Well, I was not inclined to ride them on that situation because their engines are simply too noisy for sleeping.

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Motor banca to Aroroy

I was mulling on an Aroroy motor banca. But thinking ahead, I realized I might not reach Masbate port before the first ROROs leave (and the fastcraft and the motor bancas leave even earlier) so I decided in favor of Denica Lines. It was supposed to leave earlier at 3am compared to the 4am of the Montenegro RORO and an earlier arrival in Masbate is better. But the decisive thing was while I already knew the Maria Angela of Montenegro Lines, I have not yet ridden the Marina Empress of Denica Lines. A 3am departure is perfect as the arrival in Masbate is before breakfast, a good time to catch the early birds. I did not know yet then that the Marina Empress had other advantages compared to the Montenegro RORO.

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Marina Empress

To relieve myself of my baggage which was a burden to me, I boarded the Marina Empress after buying my ticket. I then made a tour of the small ship (I thought that in Masbate I might not have the chance anymore if I am pulled by other immediate attractions like ship departures and arrivals there). I noticed that the crew were still all asleep and no one was really minding the ship. I thought that was a show of small port behavior. They know their clientele and there is really no threat to the ship (contrary to the over-active imagination of the believers in ISPS or International System of Port Security).

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Pilar port

I went down and made my first round of the port and the vessels docked there. It was a little difficult to survey the port as it was dark from end to end. Pilar is a substandard port as there is really no overhead port lighting like what is usual in other ports. I thought Pilar still has the characteristic of a municipal port. I realized it was actually a little dangerous to shipspot. One to watch his steps.

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Hammity and Denica fastcraft

With the dark enveloping the port, it was hard to gauge the lay-out of the port and the vessels docked there. But aside from the two ROROs which are prominent because of the height and size and the many motor bancas (which is difficult to count in the dark), there were two fastcrafts on an unlit portion of the port beyond and ahead of the cargo motor boat Hammity of Denica Lines (that was the first time I saw this boat which I first became familiar with in the MARINA database). Hammity was being used as an “LPG carrier”.

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I rounded the Hammity to get a better gauge of where the fastcrafts were tied up and where is the possible vantage point. It was difficult as it was unlighted and Pilar port had changes since the last time as was there (it was finally refurbished by the government but I was not impressed; it deserved something better given its traffic – now why does ‘ports to nowhere’ deserve more funds here in our country?). It seems the main change was only the addition of RORO ramps.

I realized that the best vantage point for the fastcrafts is the motor banca leaving for Aroroy. I made my way to its outboard gangplank. They did not mind. It is really the humble local crafts that are the most hospitable. But the problem was there was some distance. My flash can’t cover the whole lengths of the fastcrafts which are now perpendicular to me. Their lengths are probably over 20 meters.

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The two fastcrafts are already old and probably was bought as junk given the state I saw it. But of course Japan junk when refurbished here looks good again. I asked around. They have no names yet and no work has been done yet. The loan from the bank is taking time? Well, our commercial banking system is known for not being appreciative of the shipping sector. They would rather fund chattel mortgages of new cars. Well maybe because that has greater “value” (is “value” like beauty that it depends on the eye of the beholder?).

It was also difficult to photograph the motor bancas. They are tied perpendicular to the wharf and so my flash can’t reach the sterns of the bancas. I thought had this been daytime I would have had a field day. Well, I can’t even have a good shot of the motor banca and small fastcraft docked parallel to and near the Marina Empress. Worse, I can’t even make out their names. That will show how dark it was (I realized what I actually needed was a good flashlight).

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Maria Angela

I boarded Maria Angela. Since she was filling up with passengers and rolling cargo, it was easy to get onboard. I look like one their passengers. The ferry was well lit unlike the Marina Empress. I thought maybe Dynamic Power of Mandaue made a sale of an auxiliary engine to them, seriously. I then went next to the fastcraft jetty of Montenegro Lines which I tried to use as a vantage point. It was still deficient – it was really too dark. I did not go anymore to the bigger fastcraft tied up in the jetty. I reasoned I will catch her in Masbate anyway in better light too.

Made more roamings of the port and port terminal to catch stories, size up things. When I noticed it was just less than an hour to departure time and there was no activity yet in the ferry I then went inside. The crew was still fast asleep including the Chief Mate. The Chief Mate is usually the one in charge of loading in the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. And horrors! The Maria Angela is undocking already and leaving before its ETD. Its vehicle deck was not even full.

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The small Montenegro fastcraft

I went down to their ticketing office to register a note. I was worried about a late departure especially if they try to take advantage of the absence of a Montenegro RORO. They said not to worry as loading is easy and fast as only three trucks are to be loaded and no bus. They said the Marina Empress normally doesn’t load a bus. They note it is an advantage to us because the accommodations do not get full. I understood it also that if true it will mean less noise, less people moving around.

In this talk with them, I also learned that their other RORO, the Odyssey left before 9pm and it was its usual schedule. That was new. Pilar has no night RORO to Masbate before. Maybe the competition with Pio Duran port which is on a parallel route to the Pilar-Masbate route is working wonders for options. The PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) knows parallel routes compete but a PhD holder in La Salle that did a thesis in shipping does not know that.

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Loading operation

About 20 minutes from departure time, the crew awakened and began loading the three trucks nonchalantly and right after that our vessel undocked. We were almost on time. And the ticketing office was right. There were just a few passengers since we have no bus on board. The former Tourist section where I was in was still half-lit. With the good seats that was more fit for sleeping than the usual Economy seat, we few passengers all had good benches for sleeping and in semi-darkness too. I opened the door near my head and there was freeze breeze and soon I was fast asleep.

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Nice to sleep in

It was the first ever that I had a good sleep on a ferry to Masbate that I woke a little late. I usually wake up when I feel a little commotion and when I opened my eyes it was already light. My thought that we were already in Masbate was correct. We already passed by the Masbate lighthouse and we were already inside Masbate Bay and the ship was already entering final docking maneuvers. It was not too late really but it was better had I woken up 15 minutes earlier. Now everything is already rush.

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Nearing Masbate Port

I tried to take as many photos of the ships and the port of Masbate before we docked. But as I said I was a little late and soon I have to disembark too. I cannot stay long because I have no ticket yet for Cebu and I have a worry because the entering week was Sinulog Festival week in Cebu and I fear a delegation or two might already have tickets aside from the Masbate tourists going to the festival.

(To be continued…)