It’s An Uphill Fight Now For The Pilar-Masbate Big Motor Bancas

Once upon a time, some 50 years ago and earlier, the main connection of Masbate island through its main port of Masbate to the Bicol mainland was the progressive town of Bulan in the southernmost tip of Sorsogon. Masbate then had good and links to Manila through passenger-cargo liners. All of those that drop anchor in Masbate port were still proceeding to Sorsogon and the northern ports of Bicol, Samar, Leyte, Cebu and with some still going to northern Mindanao ports.

These links had been around right after the war and even before the war. The trade driving it was copra and the port ’round Samar Sea and environs and the northern Bicol ports were great funnels of copra. Copra then was a powerful commodity such that there was even a “Coconut Alliance” in the same manner that there was a “Sugar Alliance” in the Philippine Congress and at the apex of that early on was presidentiable Jose Avelino of Samar which later passed on to Emmanuel Pelaez of Misamis Oriental with Emilio Espinosa of Masbate the local linchpin in the area. These “alliances” were pressure groups and plays a key role in selecting and supporting the national candidates.

Masbate port was a hub where goods can be exchanged with other ports in that area. This also involved goods to and from the national capital center and that was one of the reasons of the strong Masbate-Bulan connection. However, at the tail end of the 1970’s these nexus of links where Masbate was a major player began to go downhill. There were plenty of interconnected reasons for that and that will require a long discussion and hence will be left out of this article but two of those were the development of the highways and the rise of the intermodal transport system.

In the next phase when Masbate port just became a sideshow in the national liner network, the Masbate-Bulan link just became more of a purveyor of local goods. Masbate will no longer supply goods from Manila since Bulan has already a good road connection to Manila (courtesy of the buses Pantranco South and JB Lines). Motor boats and big motor bancas made the link between the two ports. However, in the same period emerged a new challenger to Bulan which was the port and town of Pilar in Sorsogon and in due time the Pilar-Masbate connection superseded in importance the Bulan-Masbate connection.

What tilted the balance was Pilar is much nearer than Bulan to the regional trade center of Legazpi-Daraga and to Manila. The bus factor got into the picture too. Where before JB Line and Pantranco South bus waited for passenger in Bulan terminal right beside the port, slowly “colorum” buses and Pantranco South buses began waiting for passengers in Pilar terminal right beside the port too. Pilar is significantly nearer to Manila than Bulan and so the fare is cheaper and the travel time shorter. Really, when roads get good, some paradigm changes are induced. Through the sea, Pilar and Bulan are nearly equidistant to Masbate port.

Big motor bancas and small motor boats connected Pilar and Masbate with the former much more in abundance. Both are powered by surplus truck engines (some are twin V-8s!) but the big motor boat being lighter is nimbler and faster. Another change that tilted the balance for Pilar was the reawakening of the Aroroy gold mines which was started by the small miners. This mine like the Larap mine shuttered in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s due to the drop of the world prices of copper and iron. Now such reawakening fueled people movement and the bus in Pilar and Pilar-Aroroy big motor bancas and small motor boats were there to serve it. Bulan cannot be the port of departure because it is simply too far from Aroroy. And so the start of the 1980’s saw the beginning of the heyday of the Pilar-Masbate big motor bancas.

The traffic in the route is heavy both ways in the early morning and approaching mid-afternoon. The reason for latter is these big motor bancas do not run at night and not because of MARINA or Coast Guard edicts. The trips last 3.5 to 4 hours and they hightail it before dusk settles. The reason, as anyone who is familiar with the coastal sea is the winds begin to get active and so do the swells when night is approaching. And the seas here, the Ticao Pass, the Masbate Pass and the Black Rock Pass have a high level of notoriety in showing no mercy to small crafts. These waters are graveyards of many motor bancas especially the fishing bancas. These three bodies of water are considered the most dangerous waters of Bicol, bar none.

There are many operators of big motor bancas in the Pilar-Masbate route but two entities dominated, the Denica Lines and the Lobrigo Lines and their rivalry is intense but not destructive. The two then raced with bigger and faster motor boats but their rivalry did not end in that sphere. Lobrigo Lines went into the bus business as vertical integration. So you ride their motor banca and you are assured of a bus seat (that was not sure in the past when there were not so many buses yet). In the reverse route, their bus passenger goes to their motor bancas. Of course all assistance and courtesy is extended and it was not simply like hauling cattle as this route is an epitome of free market competition. So aside from plenty of choices in bus and motor banca, the fares are fair game to haggle and courtesies are on full display. Pilar and Masbate are ports where there is no talk of porterage for motor banca passenger cargo. One does not queue for tickets also. They ask you inside the boat if you are already ready to pay and there is just a minimal charge for cargo.

Meanwhile, Denica Lines ventured into passenger ferries first with the cruiser ferry Bikol Express which was the former Elizabeth Lilly of Western Samar Shipping Lines. When they sold that Batanes Multipurpose Cooperative, they then acquire the Odyssey of Alabat Shipping Corporation which is a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO. Later, they also acquired the Vanessa P2 (ex-Torrijos) of Sta. Cruz Shipping which served the Lucena-Marinduque route and they renamed this the Marina Empress. This ship is another basic, short-distance ferry-RORO.

Lobrigo Lines took a different approach. They bought two fastcrafts from Japan which became the Maria Natasha and Maria Querubin. Not long after they sold the fastcrafts to Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. of Batangas which became the point of entry for that company in Bicol waters. The buses of Lobrigo Lines did not last that much long either. After less a decade only a few were still running until operations were nearly shut. It came back but other operators are merely riding on their permits. Maybe being good in seacrafts do not guarantee one will be good in land transport.

Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. whose inferior fastcrafts was trounced in the Batangas-Calapan route then was able to find a profitable haven in Pilar-Masbate. They actually invested in a jetty so their fastcrafts can safely use Pilar port which has notorious shallow waters because it lies in an estuary. They also invested in wharf improvement so they can also operate safely the basic-short distance ferry-ROROs they brought to the route. Then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo never saw fit to improve Pilar port because that happened to be under the district of a political opponent which was Francis Escudero. She would rather waste money in dozens of “ports to nowhere” than invest in one opposition port which has a true and growing traffic.

With the success of the fastcrafts and the basic-short distance ferry ROROs and with it the buses now crossing to and now rolling in Masbate island in its entirely, the Pilar-Masbate big motor bancas felt severe pressure. In most instances now, they are just the carriers of local passengers and cargo since Manila passengers and small cargo is now borne by the buses. Intermodal trucks has also invaded Masbate island and that further lessened the load of the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas.

Still the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas are still plying the route bravely and with elan. In the early morning from Masbate they rule the route since the buses and trucks are still not yet around and so the earliest RORO leaves around 10am. In the early morning hours from Masbate their competition are the fastcrafts. But the fare of those are double compared to them and so it is generally the middle and upper classes including the government workers who are patrons of that. The hoi polloi and the early cargo belongs to them because the fastcrafts don’t carry cargo.

In Pilar many leave too in the early morning hours especially if the ROROs are gone. The ROROs depart before morning since the buses and trucks are already there and those are early because most will still roll the length of Masbate island and it is their target to finish the route before lunch is well past. In the midmorning there will be no more ROROs in Pilar that will be crossing to Masbate and in Masbate there are no more ROROs after 1 pm. When there are no more ROROs that is the opening for the motor bancas. But it does not mean they will not leave if there are ROROs running. They will and they will try to overtake the RORO since they are faster (what are twin V-8s for anyway?).

However, a new development ratcheted up the pressure on the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas. A new route was developed, the Masbate-Pio Duran, Albay route. Pio Duran is nearer to Manila than Pilar and it has deeper waters and so there are no low tide restrictions. This route further took away traffic from the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas and since they are not running that route they cannot compete directly.

The Pilar-Masbate motor banca is not laying over and die. They are fighting hard especially on local cargo and passengers. They really try to lasso passengers and cargo. They will even take in cargo even without accompanying passengers and deliver it within the town through tricycles. They will treat the passengers well. Well they have to since they are no longer as full as before. There is no more way to take back the bus passengers although the knowing and especially those just from Masbate City or nearby know they can still take the motor banca which is cheap and they can haggle with the fare in the buses waiting in Pilar. Or be even to leave earlier if they will choose to proceed to Legazpi which has day morning bus trips which are faster (the buses from Pilar will still look for passengers along the way).

But still it is clear that the heyday of the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas is now over and it is already an uphill fight for them. I just hope it does not degenerate to a struggle for survival.

The MV Mac Bryan

The latter half of the 1990’s was a decade of ferment in Zamboanga shipping like in Cebu shipping, Manila shipping and Batangas shipping. The liberalization and modernization policy of President Fidel V. Ramos was already in full swing and all were optimistic that the bad decade of the 1980’s was really over. The mood then everywhere and in every sector was to invest and to expand. Shipping was not excluded in that and ships of all kinds were coming fast from freighters to containers ships to conventional ferries up to the High Speed Crafts. But the bears soon follow the bulls and in the early 2000’s shipping actually has an overcapacity then. But this was not captured by the paper of Myrna S. Austria which still held that many routes have no or no significant competition. Wrongly because she only looked at competitions within a route and completely failed to see that parallel routes actually compete.

In the hoopla decade for shipping that was the 1990’s the Ever Lines Inc. of Zamboanga had a rather calculated response only. They only brought in two ferry-ROROs that was the next bigger size to the small, basic, short-distance ferry. This kind of ferry usually have a passenger deck and a bridge deck (which can be converted to an additional passenger deck), two ramps front and rear and two engines (and of course, two funnels and two propellers). The two ships that they brought in were the former MV Amagi and the former MV Shiraito of the Surugawan Car Ferry of Japan. The former became the MV Ever Queen of the Pacific in the fleet of Ever Lines while the latter became the MV Ever Queen of Asia. The two were true sister ships and they arrived in Zamboanga in 1998. In 2007, after nine years of sailing, Ever Lines decided to sell the MV Ever Queen of the Pacific when they were able to buy a fishing vessel, the former MV Coral White which was then converted into a passenger-cargo ship in Zamboanga. This ship is not a RORO (Roll On, Roll Off) and is a bit smaller but Ever Lines deemed her fit for their Tawi-tawi routes and so the MV Ever Queen of the Pacific was sold to the Sta. Clara Shipping Company of Bicol where she became the short-distance RORO named the MV Mac Bryan.

The MV Amagi which became the MV Ever Queen of the Pacific and later the MV Mac Bryan was built by the Shimoda Dockyard Co., Limited in Shimoda yard in Japan in 1970. The ship measured 54.0 meters in length over-all, 50.9 meters in length between perpendiculars with and an extreme breadth of 12.0 meters (which means she is a “thin” ship) and a depth of 3.8 meters. Her Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) was 491 and her Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) was 102. She was powered by two Niigata marine diesel engines with a total output of 1,800 horsepower which propelled the ship to a sustained top speed of 14 knots when still new. She plied a route in Suruga Bay much like other ferries that later came to the Philippines. Her passenger capacity in Japan was 203 in seats in a cabin with a few more seats in the open deck. Her permanent ID is IMO 7034452.

A steel-hulled RORO she has a bow ramp and a stern ramp with a car deck of four lanes with a total of approximately 50 meters length. Her approximate rolling cargo capacity is about 550 lane-meters. She has a rectangular box at the bow where the ramp fits and this serves as rain deterrent so that the car deck won’t be as wet and slippery in rainy weather. The bow of the ship has a raked look and with the rectangular box she looks muscular. She only has one passenger deck and the bridge deck was reserved for the crew. The ship has two masts with the aft mast looking tall. The stem of the ship is raked and the stern is transom.

After being sold to Ever Lines and arriving in Zamboanga in 1998 she underwent refitting to become an overnight ferry fitted with bunks. Together with the sister ship the MV Ever Queen of Asia, they were used in the Zamboanga-Jolo-Siasi-Bongao-Sitangkai route of the company. This is actually not an overnight route but a multiday route with the ships sailing between route legs are mainly at night and it takes five days for the ship to come back. However, though the routes and schedules are fixed the MV Ever Queen of the Pacific was not a true liner as the amenities do not fulfill that of a modern liner although she was a two-class ship with an open-air Economy class and an airconditioned Tourist class. Her sailing was more of a multi-overnight ferry with few basic amenities. She can also be called a passenger-cargo ship as the stress in that route is cargo and they take in lots of it but it is not rolling cargo although she is a RORO. The ramps actually just makes the loading and unloading of the porters easier. Most of the cargo in their route is loose cargo.

In 2007 when she was sold to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation to do short-distance Bicol routes she was reconverted to a short-distance ferry not with bunks but with seats and this time she is already known as the MV Mac Bryan. At the front an airconditioned section with bus seats (yes, bus seats!) were fitted. This was the old passenger section in Japan. Since the original seats were no longer around this was the most available seats already that were a little comfortable and ordering them was not difficult as in the Bicol routes the ships of Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and its sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation loads a lot of buses. At the rear of the airconditioned Tourist section is the open-air Economy class with fiberglass bucket seats which is not comfortable for long sailings. The ship also has a small kiosk between the two accommodation classes where drinks, snacks and knickknacks are available. There is no restaurant but there is a simple galley for the crew.

This time around as the MV Mac Bryan under Sta. Clara Shipping Corp., she is already used as a true RORO and almost all her loads are vehicles, practically 98% of it, and most of it are trucks and buses. These intermodal trucks and buses are in the main already contracted by the company. So in peak seasons it actually operates not in First Come, First Served basis as most ignorant motorists suppose and which they do not understand. The ship will even wait for a “suki” vehicle if it is a little delayed to the scratching of the heads who do not know or understand the contractual system.

Equipped with seats the passenger capacity of MV Mac Bryan is about 500. As fitted now her Net Tonnage (NT) is 239 and her Gross Tonnage (GT) marginally rose to 499. Her local Call Sign is DUJ 2136 but she has no MMSI Number.

I have visited the bridge of MV Mac Bryan like I have visited the bridge of her sister ship MV Ever Queen of Asia. The bridge equipment of MV Mac Bryan is more complete and it is much cleaner and tidy. It even has a mini-library for the necessary files and references.

In Sta Clara Shipping Corporation she plies all routes of the company in rotation. The three routes of her company are Matnog-Allen, Tabaco-Virac and Masbate-Pio Duran. In her last assignment after her drydock in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, she was brought to the last-named route because they want their second ship there to have a smaller engine since their second schedule for the route is not that full. She did not stay full-time there because Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation always rotate their ship and route assignments.

I have heard the Niigata engines of MV Mac Bryan are no longer that strong. But over-all, she is still a reliable ship. Maybe she just need to have her engine revolutions lessened a bit. Well, her company and its sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corp. are actually good in extending the life of old ships and with its special relationship with Nagasaka Shipyard it is sure that their ships will be maintained well. And if need be she can just specialize in the short Matnog-Allen route which can be kinder to the engines although her rolling capacity might be a little small for the route when peak seasons come.

I expect a long more time of her sailing the Bicol routes successfully, knock on wood.

The Well-Travelled MV Asia Japan, the Third

The MV Asia Japan, the third to carry such name in the Trans-Asia Shipping Line, Incorporated (TASLI) fleet is the Asia Japan most would likely remember. But she was already the third to carry such name in the Trans-Asia fleet as two previous cruiser ships named Asia Japan came before her in the Trans-Asia fleet Shipping Line. The third Asia Japan I am describing here is a RORO (Roll-on, Roll-off) ship and not a cruiser ship like the first two to carry that name. Her company, the Trans-Asia Shipping Line, Incorporated is a regional shipping company based in Cebu that is sailing Visayas-Mindanao routes.

The first Asia Japan was the former Ishu Maru from Kyushu Yusen of Japan with the IMO Number 5164459. She was built in 1957 and she came to the Trans-Asia Shipping fleet in 1975. This ship was later sold to Roble Shipping Incorporated where she became the second Guada Cristy of that company. The second Asia Japan, meanwhile, was the former Nankai Maru from Nankai Kisen of Japan with the IMO Number 7130191. She was built in 1956 and she came to the Trans-Asia Shipping fleet in 1974 where she was first known as the Solar before she became the second Asia Japan (Trans-Asia Shipping Line Incorporated was first known as Solar Shipping Line Incorporated). This ship was later sold also to Roble Shipping Incorporated where she became the first Guada Cristy. She was wrecked in 1990, the reason why there became a second Guada Cristy.

The second Asia Japan was sold by Trans-Asia Shipping Line Incorporated in 1988 when the third Asia Japan was purchased by the company from Ise Bay Ferry or Ise-wan Ferry. This Japanese company sold this ship, their Atsumi Maru because their brand-new Atsumi Maru was already delivered to them. Incidentally, this successor Atsumi Maru also came to the Philippines in 2007 to the fleet of Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated (MSLI) where she is known as the Maria Oliva.

The earlier Atsumi Maru was built by Naikai Zosen Taguma Works in Taguma, Innoshima, Japan in 1973. She is steel-hulled ship with a raked stem and a transom stern, two masts and a single passenger deck. A RORO ship, she has a bow ramp and a stern ramp and a single car deck. She has an over-all length of 64.0 meters, a length between perpendiculars of 60.3 meters and a maximum breadth of 13.1 meters. Her original Gross Register Tons (GRT) was 990 and her Deadweight Tonnage (DWT)was 403 tons. She is equipped with 2 x 2,000hp Daihatsu engines which propelled her to 16 knots on two screws. In the Philippines, her probable sister ships are the late Starlite Voyager of Starlite Ferries Incorporated (though their bows are different) and the Reina Timotea of Marina Ferries, the legal-fiction sister company of Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated.

When Atsumi Maru arrived in the Philippines in 1988 to become the third Asia Japan, another deck was added to her to increase the passenger capacity. She was also converted into an overnight ferry with bunks. With that, her Gross Tonnage rose to 1,302 with a Net Tonnage of 359 and her Deadweight Tonnage also increased to 443 tons. Her new passenger capacity was 454 persons in a three-class configuration – Cabin, Tourist and open-air Economy. She had a good restaurant, a bar-lounge, a lobby and a front desk. This Asia Japan already had a Hotel Department aside from the Deck Department and Engine Department, one of the first regional ships to have such distinction. Maybe that has a connection to its first route Zamboanga which I will discuss later. For easier docking this ship is also already equipped with side thrusters at the bow. She also had a cargo ramp at the port side and two passenger ramps at the stern and another ramp at the port side.

Her first route was the Cebu-Dumaguete-Dipolog-Zamboanga route. This was still the time when big Cebu regional shipping companies Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, George & Peter Lines and the Zamboanga-based Aleson Shipping Lines were still giving much importance to the Cebu-Zamboanga connection via Dumaguete (this was later downgraded by the opening of the Dapitan-Dumaguete RORO connection). It was amazing then that a new ship like the third Asia Japan will be fielded to this route when Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was still using their older overnight ferry-cruisers in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route which was the premier Visayas-Mindanao route.

Later, the third Asia Japan was also fielded in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route when Trans-Asia Shipping Lines began selling their old overnight cruisers in the early 1990’s. But with the arrival of the new and bigger RORO series of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines – the Trans-Asia (1) in 1993, the Asia Philippines in 1994 and the Asia China in 1995, Asia Japan was relegated to the secondary routes of the company like Cebu-Iloilo. Very soon the Visayas-Mindanao overnight ferry wars which was started with the creation of the big Cebu Ferries Company started and Trans-Asia Shipping Lines had to reserve her best and biggest ferries to the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro premier route. This was also marked by the withdrawal of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines in the Cebu-Zamboanga route and just sticking to cargo there with the Asia Pacific. The coming of the more superior Lady Mary Joy (1) of Aleson Shipping Lines practically closed the door to them in Zamboanga (this Aleson ship is different from the current Lady Mary Joy 1 of the company). Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was immediately under siege by the much bigger Cebu Ferries Corporation as they bore the brunt of the offensive of that subsidiary of the giant William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) shipping line.

The third Asia Japan sailed many secondary routes for Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. Before the end of the old millennium the assignments of the fleet got quaky with the losses of the Asia South Korea (grounding and sinking) and Asia Thailand (fire) with no clear replacement. Not long after, this the RORO Asia Singapore, the Second, was also sold to F.J. Palacio Lines. Later, the third Asia Japan was assigned to the Cebu-Masbate route of the company. She was a big success there as that route of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was practically a monopoly. And Masbatenos were not disappointed at her appointments especially since she was a former Cebu-Zamboanga ferry, a route which takes about a day with its two stop-overs. In routes such as this, the passengers’ comfort and sustenance needs are greater than that of a simple overnight ferry.

Once, I booked a ticket from Cebu to Cagayan de Oro hoping to catch either the Trans-Asia (1) or Asia China. Lo and behold, when I reached the waterfront what I saw waiting for us was the Asia Japan. I actually grumbled and said we are entitled to a discount as our fare was supposedly on that superior-than-her sister ships. I can accept the third Asia Japan as a Cebu-Masbate ferry as there was none better than her in that route (her reliever Asia Brunei was just as good) but the Cebu-Cagayan route is littered with superior overnight ferries that was at or near the level of Manila liners like the Princess of the Ocean, the Our Lady of Good Voyage, the Our Lady of the Rule and the Dona Rita Sr.

I was disappointed. The aircon was not strong and the restaurant was no longer as good as before. Maybe her best Hotel Department crewmen were already assigned to the better overnight ferries of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. And then I was furious that when I woke up we were still just at the entrance of Macalajar Bay and still distant from Cagayan de Oro. Other passengers were already impatient and I even saw one flash the pumping arm sign to the bridge which is a universal sign of “Hurry up!”. Passengers in this route were used to daybreak or even dawn arrivals which were needed by passengers still travelling 300 land kilometers or over by buses or commuter vans like me.

Soon, some were groaning they were already hungry. I was, too. I know that by MARINA rules they should have fed us breakfast but there was no decent breakfast to speak of even if one was willing to pay. It was a personal disaster to me as I was a diabetic. We finally reached Cagayan de Oro port and to a man I know all were disappointed. They should never have substituted Asia Japan in that route because it will just be a disaster for the goodwill and reputation of the company like what happened. I asked of the speed and a crewman grimly admitted she can just do 10 knots then, best. Use that in a 134-nautical mile route with a departure of 8PM and no breakfast; it does not need coconuts to foresee the consequences. I thought they should just better stick Asia Japan to the 110-nautical mile Cebu-Masbate route where the expectations of the passengers is not so high. In an afterthought, yes, I also realized she has been sailing for nearly nearly twenty years already and it seems time has not been very kind to her engines.

Not very long after that Asia Japan was seen by members of the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) to be just laid up in the Ouano wharf in Mandaue, tied up. It was intriguing the members especially since the fleet of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was very thin for its routes. Already gone were the Asia Brunei, Asia Hongkong which were both sold and soon Asia Malaysia was gone, too (she capsized and sank off Iloilo). And there was the third Asia Japan just lying around there. That time, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines cannot even serve her Nasipit route and just a single ship from two was serving her Iloilo route.

Once, on a visit to Ouano wharf, we were able to ask the in-charge of the ship her state. He told us third Asia Japan was sold by Trans-Asia Shipping Line to Key West Shipping Line Corporation which were operators of tugboats and partner then in the West Ocean Lines & Transport Incorporated operating container ships. We saw some works being done and the in-charge told us the ship will be used for a Cebu-Zamboanga run. That was intriguing as she was a former Cebu-Zamboanga ship and neither Key West Shipping Line Corporation nor West Ocean Lines & Transport Incorporated have operated ferries before. I am not even sure if they were holders of a franchise (CPC) in that route but in case it will be a welcome development since there was just one ferry left in the Cebu-Zamboanga route, the Zamboanga Ferry of George & Peter Lines and she was already very slow then.

Soon the little works we observed in Ouano wharf stopped and the next thing we knew was she was already in Nagasaka Shipyard in the shipyard row of Cebu in Tayud by the Cansaga Bay and bridge. We thought then further works will done there especially since the in-charge in Ouano admitted to us that the third Asia Japan doesn’t have strong engines anymore. Then me and a fellow ship spotter were able to board the ship and meet her new officer-in-charge, Engr. Rey Bobiles, the naval architect of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, a Bicol shipping company. It was a surprise and a further intrigue!

Yes, the third Asia Japan was renamed into Strong Heart 1, a show she was really transferred to the Key West Shipping Line Corporation as all the names of the vessels of the company starts with “Strong” like Strong Will, Strong Devotion, Strong Desire, Strong Dignity, Strong Bliss, etc. No, she will no longer be sailing for Zamboanga as she has already been sold to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and will become a Bicol ferry. It turned out that Trans-Asia Shipping Line sold her to Key West Shipping Line Corporation to settle fuel debts dacion en pago. I suddenly realized the connection. Trans-Asia Shipping Line was also intending to sell Trans-Asia 3 because “she consumes too much fuel”. It seemed believable at first glance because she has 2 x 4,500 horsepower engines. Then an investigation with the proper authorities commenced and it turned out Trans-Asia Shipping Line was simply a victim of a fuel scam as in fuel pilferage, a scourge of our local transport fleet. It happens even in the tankers, in the fishing fleets, in land tankers and in trucks.

Strong Heart 1 stayed very long in Nagasaka Shipyard with few works being done. She simply became the office of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and clearing house for the new crew recruits of the company and dormitory at the same time. She can stay in the shipyard long because Sta. Clara Shipping Company and her sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation are stockholders in Nagasaka Shipyard. Actually, vessels of the companies were withdrawn from the servicing of Mayon Docks Incorporated in Tabaco City in Albay and transferred to the care of Nagasaka Shipyard. Bicol ships also owned by the related stockholders of the two companies were also being transferred to the care of Nagasaka Shipyard. Nagasaka Shipyard was the former Villono Shipyard before the change in the ownership structure (Engr. David Villono, the founder is still the head of this shipyard).

While in the shipyard engine parts were ordered fabricated in Japan. When that arrived in 2014, serious restoration work was done on Strong Heart 1 which was already renamed to Nathan Matthew. Since she has lain untended in sea water for several years she was already rusty and when walking around one has to be careful not to fall in the weak deck plates and stairs. It was even raining at times inside some portions of her already. So, she was stripped to metal by sandblasting, her weak hull and deck plates were replaced and her engines were repaired.

A portion of her superstructure in the aft of the second deck was removed too since it was thought her space for passengers as a short-distance ferry will be enough since she will simply be fitted with sitting accommodations. With this, her gross tonnage was reduced to 1,030 nominal tons and her net tonnage was also reduced to 357 nominal tons. Her passenger capacity increased to about 800, however. So the rumor and the wish that she will still be an overnight ferry in the Liloan-Lipata route never materialized. Drivers and passengers in that route wished there will be a replacement of the Ocean King I in that route since when they arrive from Manila or Luzon they are already badly in need of an accommodation where they can lie down and sleep.

Upon finishing works in Nagasaka, the Nathan Matthew was first fielded in the Masbate-Pio Duran, Albay route. I don’t know if they want to tickle the Masbatenos but for sure many there will be many there who will recognize her even if she was already converted to a short-distance ferry, even though the bow ramp has changed and even though they chopped off part of the second passenger deck and even though the name has changed. Even with alterations, I noticed passengers really familiar with a ship still recognize them even after a long absence. Nathan Matthew won’t be an exemption.

She did not stay long there in that route, however. In not a long time she was transferred to the new Liloan, Southern Leyte to Lipata, Surigao route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. The company has long been a holder of a franchise (formally Certificate of Public Convenience) in that route but it is only now that they had a ship that can serve there. Right now, Nathan Matthew is the biggest ship in that route especially since the Archipelago Ferries Philippines Corporation ships (the Maharlika Dos, Maharlika Cuatro and Maharlika Cinco) are already gone in that route.

There, Nathan Matthew is directly competing with the newly-fielded FastCats of Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the obsolescent Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping and the Cargo RORO LCTs chartered by NN+ATS which is aimed against the truck congestion in that route (also for really heavy load like earth movers and trailers capable of carrying that). However, that route is slowly being squeezed by the shorter Benit, San Ricardo to Lipata route held by Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated (MSLI). Now it seems a new port will be built in San Ricardo, S. Leyte and if that will materialize that might be the end of the Liloan-Lipata route.

In won’t mean the end of Nathan Matthew, however, as she might simply be transferred to the new San Ricardo route. Otherwise, she can also be fielded in the other routes of owner Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (making her more well-travelled). It won’t be much of a burden for them because her owners are known also for having deep pockets, relative by Bicol standards. They are even operating their own port now in Allen, Northern Samar.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is known for taking care well of old ships. They are actually allergic to breakers, to put it in another way. And with the support of Nagasaka Shipyard, this refurbished ship looks like it still has a long way to go. With the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation officers and crew steeped and trained in the dangerous swells of San Bernardino Strait I don’t see her suffering the fate of the capsized and sank Maharlika Dos in Surigao Strait, knock on wood.

Long live then this well-travelled ship!