Denica Lines

This small shipping company probably won’t be much heard outside Bicol and they might be small but they also carry some weight and they won’t topple easily. Alternately, the vessels of Denica Lines are also listed under the owner Carolyn Cua Sy-Reyes. The home port of Denica Lines is Pilar, Sorsogon and they are among the shipping companies connecting that town to Masbate island.

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The Lady Regina

Denica Lines started as a shipping company by operating big motor bancas. When I say “big” it is because its passenger capacity will run upward to 100 persons. Alternately, if loaded with just cargo it can take in the load of a mini-truck or cargo jeep (well, it cannot be all cement or rice because the weight of that might exceed the DWT of the banca thus sinking it).

The owners of Denica Lines actually started as sub-regional distributors and traders and like in many places elsewhere the possession of own motor bancas is a needed horizontal expansion as it gives flexibility to trading and also generate savings. Usually a shipping operator with its own trading business is much more stable than its competitors. One part might not earn much but then the other part will carry it through. And there will also be no problem with what is called in shipping as “shut-outs” which is the failure to have a cargo loaded. For perishables that could be disaster.

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Denica Lines has many big motor bancas. These are fast because those are powered by surplus truck engines and usually it is twin-engined. The total of the horsepower will be over 400 and that will guarantee the motor banca will travel at at least 13 knots which are even faster than the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO which usually travels at only 10 knots. I have seen in Ticao Pass and Masbate Pass that they are really faster. [Well, if used for heavy cargo then all that horsepower will be needed.] Of course, their weakness is the choppy waters and cross-swells. The motor bancas have to time the crests and throughs of the waves and look out for the cross-swells which can damage the outriggers which is called katig locally.

As of now the motor banca fleet of Denica Lines consist of the Lady Regina, Gloria Express, Gloria 7, Gloria 8, Gloria 9, Gloria 10, Phoenix Express I, Phoenix Express II, Hammity and Hammity 2 plus the motor boat Golden Blossom. I would assume that the missing in the series Gloria 1 to Gloria 6 were their earlier motor bancas that are no longer around. The first two, the Gloria Express and Lady Regina are supposedly the fastest in the fleet of Denica Lines including their steel-hulled ships. The two can do at least 14 knots in calm waters.

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In motor bancas, the biggest competitor of Denica Lines is the Lobrigo Lines which have a fleet as big as theirs and which operated buses before (which lost when the intermodal buses came as they didn’t have ROROs). Aside from Lobrigo Lines there are many other operators of motor bancas as Pilar is a motor banca haven after all. Aside from motor bancas there are also motor boats going to Aroroy, Masbate. This town also have many motor bancas from Pilar.

In 2002, Denica Lines ventured into steel-hulled ferries when the purchased the laid-up cruiser Elizabeth Lilly of the defunct Western Samar Shipping Lines. They refurbished the engines of the ship and it was again reliable. They renamed the ship as the Bikol Express but she was not really fast as she had only a single 550-hp Yanmar Marine engine and her design speed was only 11 knots. The size of the ship was just the equivalent of a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO at 29.3 meters by 6.0 meters and 189 in gross tons.

As a ferry, Bikol Express was not much. She didn’t even have bolted seats, just plastic benches that can be moved. The reason is like some of the motor bancas of Denica Lines is she doubles as a cargo ship with passengers. What cannot be carried by the motor bancas like a truckload or two of rice or cement, she will carry. Her DWT of 100 tons comes in handy for such loads.

M/V Marina Empress

Marina Empress by Irvine Kinea

But then ROROs of Montenegro Shipping Lines came and so Denica Lines has to adjust as the trucks instead of unloading their cargo in Pilar just board the RORO now and goes direct to Masbate. They sold the Bikol Express to Batanes Multi-purpose Cooperative (BMPC) and went hunting for a RORO. Again, true to form they settled on a RORO that was not sailing, the Torrijos or Vanessa P2 of the Sta. Cruz Shipping of Marinduque which was already then in the process of winding up their shipping operations having been on the receiving end of the pressure from stronger shipping companies like Montenegro Lines.

The ship was taken from a Navotas yard and she was renamed as the Marina Empress. The Marina Empress is a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO of just 700 horsepower from her single Daihatsu marine engine and with the external measurement of 32.3 meters by 7.8 meters and a gross tonnage of 195. However, like the earlier rumor, her engine was no longer strong.

With Alabat Shipping Corporation of Alabat island going out of operations too, Denica Lines purchased its only ferry, the Odyssey which was the former Starlite Odyssey of Starlite Ferries. This is another basic, short-distance ferry-RORO with a not-so-strong engine anymore. She is powered by a 550-hp Kubota marine engine and her external measurements are 30.5 meters by 7.0 meters with a gross tonnage of 176 which means she is slightly smaller than the Marina Empress. Denica Lines did not bother to rename the Odyssey.

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Denica Lines rarely sails the two ferries simultaneously as both are not really that reliable. Their ferries are in direct competition with the basic, short-distance ferries of Montenegro Lines which also do the Pilar-Masbate route. Their ferries might not be spic-and-span (it will remind one of the E.B. Aznar Shipping basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs) but most times their competition from Montenegro Lines are also basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs of the same age (which means old). Unless Montenegro Lines bring in the Reina Banderada which is a bit better.

If one considers that Denica Lines has a lot of motor bancas that carry not only people but also cargo it will not look that Montenegro Lines dominates them in the Pilar-Masbate route. The two might have some rough equality since Montenegro Lines has fastcrafts in the route. In glitz and glamour, of course, Montenegro Lines exceeds them.

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Pilar port and market

The owners of Denica Lines are also “well-positioned”, as they say. The husband was the Mayor of Pilar until 2016. In the May elections of this year Carolyn Cua-Sy Reyes was elected the Mayor and whitewashing her five opponents with 84% of the votes going to her. Well, it seems they are really respected in Pilar (in 2013 the husband also whitewashed his opponents). I do not know Pilar that much but from what I know it does not have the bokong of Leyte nor the use of muscles and influence in gaining an advantage for ship operations or in locking out the opponent.

Such is Denica Lines.

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The Bogo Connection to Masbate

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Photo credits: Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

In the old days, the Cebu connection to Masbate went from Cebu port. And among those that provided that connection were liner companies whose ships pass by Masbate first before heading to Cebu and northern Mindanao and from there their liners will retrace back the route. That is gone now and the last Manila liner that provided such connection was the Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines which stopped sailing in the aftermath of the Princess of the Stars‘ sinking in a typhoon in 2008. However, until a few months ago there were a ROPAX Cargo ship, the Super Shuttle RORO 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation that was running a route from Batangas to Cebu (Mandaue actually) and Cagayan de Oro via Masbate.

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Photo Credit: Wakanatsu

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Trans-Asia Shipping Lines also had an overnight ferry route from Cebu to Masbate since almost 40 years ago. That is gone now too, a victim of the decline of their fleet and now it is only Cokaliong Shipping Lines that has a Cebu-Masbate passenger service but it only runs once a week. Also long gone was the Palacio Lines’ route from Cebu to Placer, Masbate. But still around is the Lapu-lapu Shipping Lines’ route from Cebu to Cataingan, Masbate which is usually run by their Lapu-lapu Ferry 1, a cruiser ship.

In the past, wooden motor boats also did routes from various ports in Masbate to northern Cebu using the ports of Hagnaya, Maya and Polambato. The three are in San Remigio, Daanbantayan and Bogo towns, respectively. However, from the 1980’s, MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency, consistently pressured the wooden motor boats (the lancha) to retire citing them as “obsolete” and “unsafe”. Some had their franchises revoked and that practically ended the lives of the shipping companies owning them (many operate wooden motor boats because they can’t afford to buy steel-hulled ferries).

MARINA was so successful in that campaign that no motor boats still do a Cebu-Masbate route. What remained were the big passenger-cargo motor bancas which run until now (maybe these are “modern” and “safer” than the phased-out motor boats?). These motor bancas originate from Cawayan, Placer, Esperanza and Pio V. Corpus towns in Masbate. The eastern portion of Masbate island, by the way, is actually Cebuano-speaking and their economic tether is to Cebu. Their motor boats connect their people and their goods to Cebu. Some of their scions actually study in Cebu, too, and work there later on.

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Polambato port (Photo credit: James Gabriel Verallo)

This was the state of things when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pushed her Central Nautical Highway which pushed for ROROs. Since the nearest Maya port was in disrepair and there are issues of depth, the port of Polambato was designated as the connecting RORO port to Masbate. That was a two-birds-in-one-stone move as Polambato was already the connecting port to nothern Leyte via the Palompon port (it still is until now). So only one RORO port had two be developed for two routes. Neat but a route from Polambato is longer than a route from Maya port.

On the side of Masbate, two ports were offered as connection, the port of Cawayan on the southern side of Masbate island and the port of Cataingan on the southeastern end on the island in the protected Cataingan Bay. Cataingan port is the logical choice since it is actually the best port in eastern Masbate as it is considered the district port and it lies in a protected bay. In the past, it was a home of motor boats going to Cebu. It also has a shorter road distance to Masbate City, the main economic center of Masbate province and the take-off port of Masbate to the Bicol mainland. There was also an attempt for a two-birds-in-one-stone move there as Cataingan was also declared to be the Masbate port that will connect to Naval, Biliran and Leyte island.

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Cawayan port (Photo credit: Noel de Mesa)

Cawayan port, meanwhile, is a bit more distant from Masbate City and when the RORO route was opened its roads were in a worse state compared to the Cataingan-Masbate road which was at least asphalted though beginning to crack (now, however the roads of the two towns to Masbate are already improved). And in the Cataingan-Masbate road there are more towns and hence more commerce, more sources of produce and of course, passengers. But how come they still built the Cawayan RORO port? Well, maybe there was politics (I don’t know just where) and Gloria was actually too fond then of duplicate ports. It brings more income to you-know-where. So it was actually a one-bird-with-two-stones maneuver.

I also just wonder about the fate of Placer port on the southern side of Masbate island. In the past, Placer was the connecting port of the southern side of Masbate island to Cebu City. It is even closer to Bogo than Cawayan (or even Cataingan) and the RORO will be less broadsided by the habagat and amihan waves in that route. They said there is an issue with the port with regards to depth but it was never clear to me (again was there politics?). Whatever, Cawayan won out over Placer and that was that. One’s fate and progress can really just be decided in an instant in Manila and NEDA, the validator of projects is actually just a stamp pad.

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Cataingan port

Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) pioneered the Polambato (Bogo) to Cataingan route. Among its early clients were its own ROROBus intermodal buses doing a Manila-Cebu route via Masbate. Meanwhile, it was the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) that pioneered the Polambato (Bogo) to Cawayan route with their Super Shuttle Ferry 19, a double-ended ferry. Montenegro Lines used a rotation of ferries in the Bogo-Cataingan route while Super Shuttle Ferry 19 is sometimes not in the route and none is running at times as AMTC lacked ships as the years went by because they lose ships (as in hull losses) and also because of ship unreliability.

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The ferry next bigger to the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO in Polambato (Photo credit: John Carlos Cabanillas)

Both routes are still running now and Montenegro Lines even tried a twice a day sailing but settled with a once a day sailing with a ship next bigger in size to the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the starting ship of both routes (or a modernized LCT at times). Lately, however, Asian Marine Transport Corporation sold out both its ships and its route to Cawayan and Super Shuttle Ferry 19 became the Cawayan Ferry 1 of the new company D. Olmilla Shipping Corporation. The Bogo-Cawayan route, as a note, still has no intermodal bus and it is the weaker of the two. I heavily doubt if it can overtake Cataingan.

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Cawayan Ferry 1 (Photo credit: James Gabriel Verallo)

Even with these two routes running, the motor bancas of Masbate still sail regularly to Bogo and Maya. These motor bancas sometimes carry hogs (in a deck below the passenger deck) and that is a commodity not acceptable to MSLI or AMTC unless it is loaded in trucks and even then it will only be loaded with reluctance (as their passengers might complain of the smell in the 6-hour voyage). And besides, the passengers and the cargo of the motor bancas enjoy a point-to-point direct sailing with no land transfer (the ROROs doesn’t go to Placer or Esperanza). It might even stop offshore near a remote barrio and the passenger and cargo will be transferred to his own motor banca. Bookings can also be done informally (and even by cellphone). A passenger from Placer can be picked up by the Cawayan boat at sea if they receive a validated text message and if there is no motor banca from Placer.

Though affected by the development of the Bogo-Cataingan route, the Cataingan-Cebu ship of Lapu-lapu Shipping is still running. Its service of loading frozen fish in styrofoam boxes without using trucks can’t still be equaled by the Cataingan-Bogo RORO as a truck would be needed from Bogo. They send it out by Lapu-lapu Ferry 1 and it will just be picked up by the customer in Cebu Pier 3 and the empty boxes will be loaded by the customer in the return trip. Sometimes, the advantage of a RORO is overstated by the government which is always pushing it. How can shipping 2 or 3 styrofoam boxes be sulit using a truck or a Multicab?

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Lapu-lapu Ferry 1 in Cataingan port

The route from Cebu via Masbate to Manila is not cheaper compared to the Cebu to Manila route via Leyte and Samar although looks shorter on the map. That was found out by a Swiss member of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member who did both routes in the same month. The RORO rates via Masbate is high because there is lack of competition and maybe the sea crossing is longer if the Bogo-Palompon route is taken as the comparison. Meanwhile the rates via Leyte and Samar are cheaper and sometimes there are discounting plus there is the cheap Cargo RORO LCTs. However, the land route through it is some 225 kilometers longer compared to a Pilar, Sorsogon route and 265 kilometers via a Pio Duran, Masbate that both uses Masbate.

Whatever, the Bogo routes will definitely stick. That is what was shown by the last decade. Well, unless it is supersed by the Maya port which is under construction now. It might not necessarily be cheap but there are people and goods that has Masbate as a destination (and newbies who will think it is cheaper through there since it looks nearer on the map). And there are those who will still prefer the shorter route and just save on time. And also save on wear on the vehicles and the driver. And arrive earlier and for truck owners save on wages and have their trucks be available for an extra day.

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Maya port (Photo credit: bUs sPoTTeRs

If only their rates are more competitive then maybe the Bogo connection will be flying now.