The China-built LCTs

It seems that just like in buses, in due time China-made LCTs might rule our waves just like China-made buses are now beginning to rule the Luzon highways. The process will not be that sudden though because ships last longer than buses and it is much more costlier to acquire ships. We too have that attachment to our old ships and we don’t suddenly just let them go. But then who knows if some crazy people try to cull our old ferries? I am sure many of the replacements of them will be Cargo RORO LCTs and ROPAX LCTs from China. They are simply that cheap and the terms are good. One thing sure though is the replacements will not be local-built ships. Local-builds generally cost much more than China-builds and the price of the ship is a key decision point.

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A Meiling LCT a.k.a. deck loading ship

A decade ago, China-built LCTs were practically unknown in the country as we were building our own LCTs in many shipyards around the country. Then the first palpable show of LCTs happened early this decade was when a lot of brand-new LCTs suddenly appeared and anchored for long in North Mactan Channel waiting for business. Some of these were rumored to be destined for the mines of Surigao which was then booming. That area already had China-owned and -built LCTs to carry ores to China just like some other provinces which allowed black sand mining had China-owned LCTs docking. But then here, I am talking of China-built LCTs that are locally-operated or owned. However, the Surigao mining boom when world metal prices spiked a decade ago because of China demand was one of our key introduction to China-built LCTs.

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Row of LCTs in North Mactan Channel

Then the demand for ore of China suddenly weakened and so those brand-new China-built LCTs that showed in Mactan Channel owned by Cebu Sea Charterers (of the renowned Premship group), Broadway One Shipping and Concrete Solutions Incorporated went into regular cargo moving. Later, the two companies plus others like Primary Trident Solutions (owner of the Poseidon series of LCTs), and Adnama Mining Resources which also acquired China-made LCTs went into Cargo RORO LCT operations like the Cebu Sea Charterers which meant conveying rolling cargo or vehicles between islands. The Cebu to Leyte routes was the first staple of the Cargo RORO LCTs. Cargo RORO LCTs were also fielded in the key Matnog-Allen and Liloan-Lipata routes to ease backlogs of trucks waiting to be loaded. They became the augmentations to short-distance ferry-ROROs in heavily crowded routes during peak season or when there are disruptions after typhoons.

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Cargo RORO LCTs in Carmen port

The old overnight passenger-shipping companies of Cebu more than noticed the emergence of the Cargo RORO LCTs and felt its threat to their trade and so they also joined the bandwagon in acquiring China-built LCTs. Roble Shipping first chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation before buying their own and those were China-made LCTs. However, it was Lite Ferries that made a bet in acquiring new China LCTs to be converted into passenger-cargo LCTs after some modifications. Outside of Cebu the shipping company 2GO, under the name NN+ATS and brand “Sulit Ferries” chartered China-built LCTs from Concrete Solutions Incorporated, which are the Poseidon LCTs for use in their Matnog-Allen route.

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A ROPAX LCT operated by Sulit Ferries (LCT Poseidon 26)

Meanwhile, LCTs were also tried by Ocean Transport & Key West Shipping as container ships. When they started they also chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation like Roble Shipping. They were successful in using LCTs as container ships and they were always full (and maybe to the chagrin of the CHA-RO messiah Enrico Basilio). This mode might be a no-frills way of moving goods through container vans but it is actually the cheaper way as LCTs are cheap to operate. Later, Ocean Transport & Key West Shipping also acquired their own LCTs with the blessings of Asian Shipping Corporation. Ocean Transport & Key West Shipping might have been successful in showing a new mode of transport but the self-proclaimed “shipping experts” never took notice of them nor studied their craft and mode.

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Brizu, a container carrier LCT by Ocean Transport

Asian Shipping Corporation (ASC) which really has a lot of LCTs for charter and probably with the most number in the country started by building their own LCTs right in their yards in Navotas just like some other smaller shipping had their LCTs built in Metro Manila wharves. Asian Shipping Corporation have not completely turned their back of own-built LCTs but more and more they are acquiring China-built LCTs which come out cheaper than local-builds. Shipbuilding on the lower technology level like LCT-building is at times can also be viewed too as selling of steel and China is the cheapest seller of steel in the whole world. Their engines and marine equipment are also on cheap end.

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ASC Ashley of Asian Shipping Corporation

Another big operator of China-built LCTs that must be noted is the Royal Dragon Ocean Transport which owns the Meiling series of LCTs. Many of their LCTs can be found in Surigao serving the mines there. Right now, China-built LCTs are already mushrooming in Central and Eastern Visayas but in other parts of the country they are still practically unknown except in Manila or when passing by or calling. Ironically, it might actually be a typhoon, the super-typhoon “Yolanda” which devastated Leyte that might have given the China LCTs a big break because they were used in Leyte and in the eastern seaboard routes (in San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait) when there a big need for sea transport after the typhoon and their potential was exposed. The super-typhoon also showed the need for Cargo RORO LCTs separate from short-distance ferry-ROROs.

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Owned LCTs by Roble Shipping

Ocean Transport of Cebu, as stated earlier, now also have their own China LCTs to haul container vans from Manila after initially chartering from Asian Shipping Corporation. The same is true for Roble Shipping which initially chartered Cargo RORO LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation for Cebu-Leyte use. Now other Cebu passenger shipping companies are also beginning to acquire their China LCTs. And that even includes Medallion Transport. Actually there are so many LCTs now from China that don’t have a name but just sports a number (i.e. LCT 308, etc.). But among Cebu overnight ferry companies, it is actually Lite Ferries who is betting the biggest on China LCTs that carries passengers too after some modifications.

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PMI-3, a Cargo RORO LCT of Premium Megastructures Inc.

In the following years I still see a lot of China-built LCTs coming and that will include LCTs that have provisions for passenger accommodations. If the government cull the old (but still good) ferries, I bet that type will suddenly mushroom especially in the short-distance routes. But of course it will not have the speed nor the comfort of the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROS. But who knows if that is actually the wish of some decision-making foggy old bureaucrats who don’t ride ships anyway? They will just be giving China yards and engine makers a big break. And a final note – LCTs from China are also called as “deck loading ships”. So don’t get confused.

Now let us just see how these China imports grow in size and importance.

The First “Great” Merger: The Failed Saga of WG&A and CFC

When WG&A was formed it was ostensibly to combat the entry of foreign shipping companies on local inter-island routes. That was the time of many so-called “deregulation” initiatives of Fidel V. Ramos. But even then I had doubts about this as an cabotage law was in effect in the Philippines. Cabotage effectively prevents foreign shipping companies from plying local routes. And to repeal it an act of Congress is needed and I heavily doubted then that the Philippine Congress will go along with that.

It is generally accepted that it was Aboitiz Shipping that proposed this big merger. Rumors had it that the biggest shipping company, Sulpicio Lines, which was also Cebu-based was also invited but it refused and preferred to go it all alone.

The merger brought together the second, third and fourth-biggest shipping companies in the Philippines reckoned by passenger and cargo operations out of a total of five long-distance liner companies (but may I note which is in fourth place might be disputed by Negros Navigation). It had the effect of lowering the number of long-distance passenger shipping companies from five to three.

The merged company and its subsidiaries were the biggest shipping combine that ever existed in the Philippines in terms of fleet and in terms of route network. It significantly brought to that Visayas-Mindanao and intra-Visayas routes and High Speed Craft(HSC) operations. For the former, the Cebu Ferries Corp. (CFC) was formed and for the latter SuperCat was retained.

Brought into the merger were the following ferries (including their former routes):

WILLIAM LINES INC.
Mabuhay 1 (Manila-Cebu and Manila-Iloilo)
Mabuhay 2 ((Mnl-Surigao-Butuan-Tagbilaran-Mnl and Mnl-Tagbilaran-CDO)
Mabuhay 3 (Manila-Davao-Dadiangas-Manila and Manila-CDO-Iloilo-Manila)
Mabuhay 5 [after a few voyages permanent fielding overtaken by merger]
Dona Virginia (Manila-Dumaguete-Ozamis-Iligan v.v.)
Maynilad (Manila-Zamboanga-Davao)
Masbate I (Manila-Masbate-Catbalogan-Tacloban)
Zamboanga City (Manila-Puerto Princesa v.v.)
Tacloban City (Manila-Batan-Dumaguit-Dipolog v.v.)
Iligan City (Cebu-Iligan v.v.)
Misamis Occidental (Cebu-Ozamis v.v.)
Mabuhay 6 [unfinished]

CARLOS A. GOTHONG LINES INC.
Our Lady of Akita (Manila-CDO-Butuan v.v. and Manila-Cebu v.v.)
Our Lady of Medjugorje (Manila-Dumaguete-Ozamis-Iligan-Cebu v.v.)
Our Lady of Sacred Heart (Manila-Roxas-Palompon-Isabel-Cebu v.v.)
Our Lady of Lourdes (Manila-Dumaguit-Palompon-Cebu v.v.)
Our Lady of the Rule (CDO-Cebu v.v. and CDO-Jagna v.v.)
Our Lady of Naju (Cebu-Ozamis v.v.)
Our Lady of Fatima (Nasipit-Cebu v.v. and Nasipit-Jagna v.v.)
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (Iligan-Cebu v.v. and Iligan-Dumaguete v.v.)
Our Lady of Guadalupe [reserve/unreliable; formerly Cebu-Surigao v.v.]
Our Lady of Lipa (Cebu-CDO v.v.)
Dona Cristina (Cebu-Tacloban v.v. and Cebu-Palompon v.v.)
Dona Lili (Cebu-Surigao v.v. and Cebu-Maasin v.v.)
Don Calvino [reserve/unreliable; formerly Cebu-Iligan v.v.]
Our Lady of Akita 2 [unfinished]

ABOITIZ SHIPPING CORP.
SuperFerry 1 (Manila-Iloilo-GSC-Davao v.v. and Manila-Iloilo v.v.)
SuperFerry 2 (Manila-Cebu-CDO v.v.)
SuperFerry 3 (Mnl-Zamboanga-Cotabato v.v. w/ Boracay (summer) and Mnl-Dumaguit-Roxas v.v.)
SuperFerry 5 (Mnl-Cebu-Iligan-Dumaguete-Mnl) and Mnl-Dumaguete-CDO-Cebu-Mnl)
Elcano (was not used; obsolete/unreliable; supposedly not brought by ASC to the merger)
Allowing for database inaccuracies, the following cargo ships were brought to the merger:

CARLOS A. GOTHONG LINES INC.
Our Lady of Peace (112.9m x 18.0m, 17kts, b. 1974)
Our Lady of Hope (99.0m x17.3m, 17kts, b.1979)

ABOITIZ SHIPPING CORP.
Aboitiz Concarrier V (69.0m x 10.9m, b. 1968)
Aboitiz Concarrier XIV (71.0m x 10.9m, 13kts, b. 1965)
Aboitiz Superconcarrier I (115.1m x17.3m, 14kts, b. 1970)
Aboitiz Superconcarrier II (102.0m x 16.3m, 12.5kts, b. 1970)
Aboitiz Superconcarrier III (105.5m x16.3m, 12.5kts, b. 1976)
Aboitiz Megacarrier 1 (139.7m x 19.3m, 14kts, b. 1975)
Aboitiz SuperRORO 100 (108.2m x20.0m, 16kts, b. 1983)

WILLIAM LINES INC.
Wilcon II
Wilcon 4
Wilcon 5
Wilcon VI
Wilcon VII
Wilcon 8
Wilcon 11
ROCON I

Excluding HSCs which were just beginning to arrive in the Philippines, the combined fleet of WG&A was nearly 50 vessels, slightly more than double the fleet of Sulpicio Lines, previously the biggest shipping company in the country.

SHIP TRANSFORMATIONS AFTER THE MERGER
Mabuhay 1 became SuperFerry10
Mabuhay 2 became SuperFerry 7
Mabuhay 3 became SuperFerry 8
Mabuhay 5 became SuperFerry 9
Mabuhay 6 became Our Lady of Good Voyage
Our Lady Akita became SuperFerry 6
Our Lady of Akita 2 became SuperFerry 11 (and later the Our Lady of Banneux)
Masbate I became Our Lady of Manaoag (in 1998)
Misamis Occidental became Our Lady of Montserrat (in 1997)

VESSELS TRANSFERRED TO CEBU FERRIES CORP.
Our Lady of Lipa (later transferred to WG&A)
Our Lady of the Rule
Our Lady of Lourdes
Our Lady of Fatima
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel
Our Lady of Guadalupe
Dona Cristina
Dona Lili
Don Calvino
Misamis Occidental
Our Lady of Good Voyage (later)
Maynilad (later and also renamed Our Lady of Akita 2)
Our Lady of Banneux (later)
Our Lady of Manaoag (later)

Like all mergers and acquisitions (M&A), the terms “synergy”, “rationalization” and “streamlining” was bandied about as if these terms are positive terms in business. But soon these words brought chills to the rank and file because the sum of the 3 words is actually only one — “chopping block”. This is the field of bean counters where shipping passion is simply thrown out of the window.

Immediately, the Aboitiz Jebsens system was adopted. That means relying on bigger, faster ROROs and short in-port hours which equates to high utilization of ships. That called for good ship engines, a field of expertise of the now-renamed WG&A Jebsens. That system, however, also meant the death knell for the cruiser liners as their cargo booms meant long in-port hours and their having no car decks means low capacity for container vans.

The new style was to put all cargo in container vans and all container vans are mounted in trailers. For fast handling, tractor heads from trucks were no longer good enough. Only dedicated, automatic prime movers with the capability to raise the trailers were used. Calls on in-between ports generally were only 2-3 hours and ships don’t stay overnight at the farthest port of call of a voyage.

With so many ROROs sailing high hours per week (with some ships sailing 145.5 hours out of a 168-hour week), WG&A was confident it could sell less-efficient and slower ropax and container ships without affecting capacity and frequency. Soon some of the vessels were already for sale.

VESSELS SOLD SOON AFTER THE MERGER
Tacloban City (cruiser)
Iligan City (cruiser)
Dona Cristina (slow, small RORO)
Don Calvino (slow, small, unreliable RORO)
Dona Lili (slow, small RORO)
Wilcon 6 (old cargo ship)
Aboitiz Concarrier V (old cargo ship)
Aboitiz Megacarrier 1 (big, modern container ship)
Aboitiz SuperRORO 100 (big, modern container ship)
RoCon I (big, modern container ship, the biggest in the country)

VESSELS OFFERED FOR SALE BUT NOT SOLD THEN
Dona Virginia (cruiser liner)
Maynilad (big but slow RORO liner)
Zamboanga City (ROLO liner)
Our Lady of Naju (cruiser)
Masbate I (slow, small RORO)
Our Lady of Montserrat (cruiser)
SuperRORO 300 (former Our Lady of Hope, container ship)

With WG&A Jebsens managing the fleet, the merger upgraded the amenities, cleanliness and passenger service of the ferries. But initially all meals were for sale; vehement protests from patrons thereafter forced WG&A to backtrack. It was also claimed that safety standards improved as the whole fleet is now internationally-certificated. However this was not reflected in lower hull-loss rates. Ironically, it was the lesser Our Ladies (and not the SuperFerries) which proved to be unsinkable.

WG&A and CFC practiced branding. Branding is good in the sense that it promises consistent quality and service. On the other hand branding also utilizes ads and promotions. If that results in better market share then it should be good. Otherwise it only means higher level of costs. And higher costs are a threat to marginal routes and to less-efficient ships.

Initially, even with a fifth of their fleet sold (and with only one additional ship coming, the SF12 and while losing the SF7 to fire), WG&A was able to offer more frequencies because of the higher utilization of ships. But almost no new ports of call were added except for Bacolod. And probably the only significant new routes were the Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Davao (which passes through the eastern seaboard of Mindanao), Manila-Ormoc-Nasipit, Manila-Dumaguete-Cotabato and Manila-Cebu-Zamboanga-General Santos/Davao routes.

It was Cebu Ferries that added more new ports of call and routes (like Cebu to Dumaguit, Roxas City, Bacolod, Dumaguete, Larena, Jagna and Camiguin and Cagayan de Oro to Dumaguete) which in turn put a lot of pressure on the other Cebu shipping companies. CFC ships were faster than the competition and as former liners they simply outclassed the rest in terms of amenities and service.

Sulpicio Lines and Negros Navigation responded by adding ships. Sulpicio Lines basically kept to their old routes (except for the new Manila-Cebu-Davao-Dadiangas route) but Negros Navigation which previously concentrated only in Western Visayas has to venture in a lot of new routes and ports of call because their fleet more than doubled in a span of a few years. But then by sailing to Cebu, Nenaco also opened their former exclusive port of Bacolod to competition and they lost more than they gained.

This period right after the merger, the late 90s, was probably one of the best in Philippine passenger shipping. Competition was fierce, choices were many and there were a lot of newly-fielded ships. There were more shipping companies in the past but the ships of the 90s were far better than the ships of the earlier periods. In major ports there were nearly daily departures from all the liner companies combined.

But they say good times never really last. But I didn’t expect that the decline will be that soon, that fast, that continuous and what will be left is just the rump of the biggest-ever shipping company in the Philippines.

The first hint of trouble that I detected was when I noticed that WG&A was not properly assessing the threat, challenge and development of the intermodal system in Eastern Visayas which was then growing by leaps and bounds.

If Fidel V. Ramos had a deregulation program in shipping he also had a deregulation program in the bus and truck sectors. As deregulated area, bus companies can now ply Eastern Visayas routes with just a temporary operator’s permit. Soon a lot of buses were plying the Samar-Leyte-Biliran routes. Then the dominant short-distance RORO company in the Matnog-Allen route lost the case to protect their missionary status and new players entered that route ensuring that the ROROs needed will always be there. Long-distance trucking also developed with the loosening of the restrictions in the importation of surplus trucks. And with the advent of radial truck tires long-distance trucking became easy.

WG&A’s response was to withdraw from the Samar-Leyte routes except for the adjacent ports of Ormoc, Palompon and Isabel which actually comprises just one route. But soon under pressure from the buses these were lost too including the port of Masbate City which was also part of this route. Soon the islands of Masbate, Samar, Leyte and Biliran were lost to the intermodal trucks and buses.

Eastern Visayas was a signal victory for the intermodal system which was based on long-distance truck/bus plus the short-distance RORO ship. Wins by the challengers tend to have a multiplier effect. They become stronger, bolder and more confident. If the ship can be beaten in one area then nobody can pooh-pooh anymore that they will not be beaten in the next area of confrontation. And the next challenge probably happened before the WG&A has fully internalized their loss and it happened when they were in relative disarray.

A related development at this time was that WG&A’s new routes failed to stick and only the Bacolod route was able to survive. The new CFC routes also failed to pan out and were being abandoned one by one. One contributory factor for CFC’s retreat is fuel cost. The amenities and service of their ships might have been higher as those were former liners but as former liners it is also the reason why their engines are bigger and consume more fuel. Soon WG&A/CFC were selling ships. This was the second set of disposals and it happened at about the turn of the millennium. Also disposed in this period were at least six catamarans including vessels that came from mergers in the High Speed Craft (HSC) sector (the mergers with the Sea Angels of Negros Navigation and Waterjet).

At the same proximate time, it was already the strategy of WG&A to sell old and inefficient cargo ships and just let the ROROs liners carry the container vans. They then went for bigger ROROs later with twin cargo decks, the reason for the purchases of the SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18.

The next challenge did not come from the intermodal. Rather it was the withdrawal of the Gothong family from the merger except for one scion. Soon the Gothong family re-entered the shipping business and re-established Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (but they were not particular successful). Not long after this development the Chiongbian family (of William Lines) also withdrew from the merged company. But they did not re-enter the shipping business. Let it be noted, because it is important, that all the merged shipping companies independently retained their cargo forwarding businesess. For the Chiongbian family it was the Fast Cargo Transport Corp.(FCTC) and Gothong Cargo Forwarding Corp.(GCFC) for the Gothong family.

One can speculate that the sale of 10 vessels in 2000-02 (including those withdrawn from routes and old container ships) might somehow be connected to these withdrawals. When the company also took out a big loan in this period ($18.6 million) it might also have a relation to this state of affairs. Before the end of 2002, Aboitiz had already bought out its former partners. But it will still be later that the company will be renamed Aboitiz Transport System (ATS).

The next challenge came from the intermodal again. In 2003, the Western Nautical Highway opened and buses, trucks and jeeps were able to roll down to Panay island via Mindoro and Batangas. Soon the shipping routes and shipping companies serving Panay were under great pressure. Again, WG&A chose to withdraw (from Dumaguit and Roxas) and just tried to hold on to Iloilo port.

The opening of the Western Nautical Highway and the consequent withdrawal from routes, the withdrawal of the Chiongbian family and the need for new ROROs provoked a massacre of ships in this period as about 15 ships were disposed in the years 2003-06, both from WG&A and CFC, both ROPAX and container ships. It must also be noted that six catamarans were also sold in this period. WG&A was lucky that at this time world metal prices were peaking. If it hastened the disposal of ships I can say it is probable. Let me state that in the late 1990’s when all three families were still in WG&A, the company did not sell to the breakers, in general. In the first half of the first decade of the new millennium WG&A sold heavily to the breakers especially when world metal prices were peaking.

Attracted by the doubling of world metal price in 2007, WG&A then sold their prized ferries Superferry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 to foreign liner companies.In the process they earned a windfall. But this is not without cost as they suddenly lacked the ships needed to carry the container vans. As a stopgap measure WG&A chartered 3 container ships, the “Myriad”, “Markella” and “Eponyma”. They then also converted SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 9 and SuperFerry 12 into twin-cargo-deck ROPAX ships. Later the subsidiary cargo company 2GO was formed and the chartered ships were returned one by one.

At about the same time, in 2007, a very ominous development took place. Aboitiz partnered with MCC Transport of Singapore, the Asia subsidiary of the A.P. Moller – Maersk Group, the biggest container shipping company in the world and formed the MCC Transport Philippines (MCCTP). Since it met nationality rules, it was able to ply local routes and the ships invested by Maersk were given special permits by MARINA.

If the chartered ships of ATS and the ships of 2GO were a step up over local competition, the ships that came from MCC Transport were still another further step ahead in terms of size, speed and efficiency. MCCTP acted as feeder to MCC Transport which now dominates the Asia container routes. Together with the coming of more regional container ships (after APL) with direct foreign routes (like MELL, PIL, RCL and others), this completely undermined one important bread and butter of local container shipping which is the transshipment of foreign container vans. ATS and subsidiary 2GO cargo operations might have been affected by this but as a group Aboitiz is safe because they are also on the side of the winners through MCCTP.

After the sales of the four of the biggest and most modern SuperFerry ships in 2007, the fleet of ATS/CFC no longer grew. New ships have come like SuperFerry 20, SuperFerry 21, Cebu Ferry 1, Cebu Ferry 2 and Cebu Ferry 3. But ships have also been sold, lost or laid-up like SuperFerry 9, Our Lady of Medjugorje, Our Lady of Good Voyage, Our Lady of the Rule, Our Lady of Mount Carmel and SuperFerry 19.

With only six ships sailing, ATS ports of call were already down to half compared to its peak and in half of these ports the frequencies were down to once a week. CFC ports of call were also down to half and its fleet is less than a third of what it had before. CFC changed its website and no longer claimed it was the biggest Visayan shipping company (which is just a reflection of the truth). The Sulpicio Lines fleet was already bigger than the combined ATS and CFC fleets. If cargo ships are counted, Sulpicio’s fleet was almost double the combined ATS, CFC and 2GO fleets.

In 2008, KGLI-NM, the holding company owning Negros Navigation made an offer for Aboitiz Transport System. When the bank financing the take-over bid asked for more collateral the bid collapsed. This take-over bid was news for a long time because of the significance and it dragged. It was here that ATS propagated the canard that shipping is losing to the budget airlines and it obscured the fact that cargo is the lifeblood of shipping. Ironically it is this same year that regional container ships in Philippine ports multiplied. And not once did I notice Aboitiz discussing its shares in MCC Transport Philippines. But at least the Aboitiz group was frank enough to admit that the business of power generation attracts them more and that they are already heavily investing in it and if ATS is sold it will be one of their primary investment areas.

In 2010, with the assistance of the ASEAN-China Fund, Negros Navigation Company was finally able to secure the deal to buy Aboitiz Transport System and its subsidiaries especially Cebu Ferries Corporation, SuperCat and 2GO, the forwarding company. At its end as an Aboitiz company, ATS, CFC and 2GO had only 9 ROPAX ships and 2 cargo ships sailing which is not any bigger in gross tons than the company it merged in WG&A even if the SuperCats are counted. So in effect that means the bigger William Lines and Gothong sank without any replacement.

Aboitiz always says around that it has already gotten out of shipping and the maritime industry. But they completely obscure the fact that they are still in MCC Transport Philippines (MCCTP) and they completely own now the former Aboitiz Jebsens (renamed back when the Gothong and Chiongbian families withdrew from WG&A). The former Abojeb is in crewing and manning and that is one of the five recognized sectors of the Philippine maritime industry as defined by the government. MCCTP is already in expansion after Aboitiz sold Aboitiz Transport System. [Recently, Aboitiz clarified that some of their family members are engaged in MCCTP.]

Now, Negros Navigation Company owns Aboitiz Transport System and NENACO even retained the name and the brands. It will be a matter of time before it will be evident how big a bag they are holding.

The “great” merger of 1996 started out with a bang, lofty words and promises. It exited with just a whimper. But along the way it sank two great liner companies (William Lines and Gothong) and took down with it the liner industry.

The Sinulog Fluvial Procession, the Ouano House, Piers 8 and 7

One morning I went to the foot of the SRP Road in Cebu to cover the remnant of the Sinulog fluvial procession. I just make do in that area because I will still see most of the participants and besides it is great effort to fight for a good view in the earlier parts of the fluvial procession. Anyway, it is in the vessels that I am more interested in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I was just in time. It was still early morning and there was a constant drizzle. But the position of the sun, the early morning and the drizzle made visibility and shots terrible. I have to make do with what is presented by nature. It seems more small crafts participated compared to the last time I covered the fluvial procession but less ferries going to Cebu port were forced to wait near the SRP. The Filipinas Iligan and the Oceanjet 6 were the only prominent ships waiting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There were motor bancas which stopped and disgorged the participants in the rocks by the SRP approach and I also covered those. The viewers did not stay long as the drizzle was continuous and there was no sight anymore in that areaexcept for the Coast Guard patrol ships, the Filipinas Butuan plus participant boats which were just idling.

I then decided to make my way to Ouano-House. I called it such because it is there that the E. Ouano house is located. Actually it is more like an office (I have already entered it). And I doubt if it is the ancestral house of the Ouanos because from what I can gather it is also located on reclaimed land like the other facilities in the area.

The jeep driver I rode was kind as he insisted on driving me to the wharf area. I appreciated it since there was a slight precipitation and I did not have to pay for a pedicab. The entry is easy as the guards didn’t mind. I thought it would be like that if the Lite Ferry LCTs to Tubigon have already transferred there. I might look like just one of its passengers.

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After the gate, however, it was a different matter. With the never-ending rains and the constant movement of trucks, the surface of the wharf area was already muddy though firm that one’s shoe will not get stuck. I was not surprised. If Ouano can’t maintain the road in the Ouano near the Mercado then they won’t maintain this one either. I thought FastCat would not have to worry for passenger competition to Tubigon. The muck here is already an advertiser for them. Ditto for the rolling cargo or vehicle loading trade.

It was a maze to get inside because the only firm ground with no mud was occupied by the new Litexpress CHA-ROs parked and blocking the pathways. I would go in one direction and pull back because I can’t go on. Finally I had to cross the muddy road where the trucks roll. I ended up in the Star Crafts area but this time it was already too crowded because the future Lite Ferry 17 and Lite Ferry 18 were being refitted there and steel sheets, acetylene tanks, generators and other equipment were occupying the spaces. The only open area is the road going to Star Crafts and it is also muddy.

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The Lite Ferry 17 and Lite Ferry 18 are ROPAX LCTs that came from China. Those were former HNSS vessels already phased out. HNSS means Hainan Strait Shipping and that tells where it formerly plied routes. One of them arrived earlier and is already sailing here, the Lite Ferry 16 which looked like a sister ship of them. It looked derelict then like the two now docked in Ouano-House but as always Filipino ship repairers will make them look good again.

Besides them was the new Lite Tug 1. It seems tugs are the vogue now of these competing overnight ferry companies. Roble have theirs already, Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) also got one, Cokaliong Shipping Lines followed suit and now Lite Shipping also have one too.

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Also there were Lite Ferry 26 and Lite Ferry 23. It seems those two were the ones doing the Mandaue-Tubigon route last December altho the latter is not the normal LCT but a catamaran-RORO (a slow one tho). Also there near the SMC Shipping and Lighterage facility was the brand-new Lite Ferry 30. It seems like what they did in the earlier Lite Ferry 27 they were building additional passenger accommodations. It looks like they are sister ships together with the Lite Ferry 29.

I did not stay that long in that wharf. Sometimes it is the rain that makes you decide that. I left after my functional shipspotting and I have to go through the maze again but that was easier than navigating the mud in various parts of that wharf. I really wonder how the passengers make do with such situation. Is the cheapness enough to make them stick? I was able to see the tail end of their way out when one LCT just arrived. I saw no shuttle and here the walk to the jeepney terminus is even longer with less shade.

Sometimes I cannot imagine in this era that such hardship can still be thrown to the passengers. Those LCTs, the wharf and the road were just really designed for trucks. Not passenger-friendly in any way. Maybe the FastCat and Star Crafts are a little more expensive but there is still the Lite Ferry 1 which also does a route to Tubigon. I also wonder. Why don’t the Super Island Express II just come back and maybe hold some off-hour schedule versus the Lite Ferry 1. Pier 1 might even have less expensive connections to the buses and jeeps of Cebu. Sorry not jeeps because that type is so few in Cebu. What I mean are the AUVs, Multicabs and converted Elfs and Canters of Cebu.

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From the wharf I made my way to the old Villa Shipping wharf which was just rented from Ouano. I was glad the K-9 guard of Ouano was not there. Their compound was closed and it seems no one is around. Good. I can approach their Elvira-1 and take shots. I wonder why they were too jealous of this old, derelict and bad-looking now former hydrofoil converted into a fastcraft which did not last in service. They should even be glad someone is taking interest. It seems they have a different psychology from us.

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There were no more Villa ships there and it seems they have already left as I can see no more ships and facility of them there. What was docked there was the West Ocean 1 of Ocean Transport. I can’t make of the the jumble there. It seems different entities are using that area and not all are connected to shipping.

It was at the far end where I was interested because I want to go near the Lady of Love of Medallion Transport which has not been sailing for some time already. Got some shots but it was not easy as the rain got heavier. Beyond Lady of Love the LCT Poseidon 19 was also docked. Last December this ship was still running the Matnog-Allen route for NN+ATS as a Cargo RORO LCT. Primary Transport Solutions owns this vessel and NN+ATS only charters it.

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Again I did not stay long. On the way out I took shots of the old derelict F/C Magallanes, a fastcraft for private use. I was told before it was a Durano gift to Ouano. I did not know enough of Cebu politics and shipping of before to work out how that happened. All I heard was before Durano has shipbuilding and was a Cebu shipping player. In fact one of their derelicts is there in Labogon by the Goldenbridge wharf.

I thought Ernesto Ouano was lucky (except he died prematurely). Well, just to have a big reclaimed area near Cebu, how much is that in legacy worth? Plus their wharves. It is practically a Lite Ferries wharf now but Lite pays them. They are rich just because of the payments for the use of the wharves. But later it seems F.F. Cruz and Lua stole their thunder in Cebu reclamation. And I don’t think they are players in the future Cordova reclamation. But still they are very lucky.

I no longer pushed my ship spotting that day. Too much rain and I am not a farmer. Rain would have been nice in April but the programmer is a little awry. But the next day I came back to the same area but this time my targets were Pier 8 and Pier 7. It was a Sunday and there was no activity there past CDU. I first asked the guard of Ravago/Asian Shipping Corporation. A little canine too but I didn’t mind, didn’t press. Can’t call their GM as all mobile lines of Metro Cebu were down to prevent bombing. I was really more interested to see what was the denouement in the AMTC (Asian Marine Transport Corporation) eviction case nearby.

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The AMTC yard was deserted now along with the Dakay Construction yard which was also part of the AMTC lot that was in dispute with F.F. Cruz through the MARRECO entity. MARRECO sought the eviction of AMTC for non-payment and they won in the court. MARRECO then blockaded the facility to prevent AMTC from using it. And AMTC left and transferred to Ouano after a failed bid for the Talisay fishport.

The guards by MARRECO there were suspicious but they told the reason why the Super Shuttle RORO 8 was docked there last December was to take in all AMTC materials left that can still be loaded. But I don’t really know why Super Shuttle RORO 3 and Super Shuttle RORO 2 were also there last December. The two had long been just anchored and not sailing for the best part of 2016.

From there I made my way to the Roble wharf. The left side of that if facing to the sea actually belongs to F.F. Cruz and it is where aggregates carrier LCTs and barges dock. The right side belongs to Roble Shipping. There were three newly-arrived freighters there and I was told two belongs to the scions already. There was also the many docked ships of Roble including the non-running ones. The Ormoc Star was there. She is really ready now for the breakers. On the far end was the fire-hit Wonderful Stars where no work is going on.

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It was lonely in that area on a Sunday Sinulog. Almost no people and movement. I caught a jeep going to Mactan and then I walked again the old Mactan bridge. From there I took a Multicab to Muelle Osmena and took the Metro Ferry. The light was dying when I reached Pier 3 and that ended my ship spotting for that day.

The Developments in the San Bernardino Strait Routes When the PSSS Visited in December of 2016

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Photo of Jubasan port by James Gabriel Verallo

I was able to visit the area twice, actually, the first one with the official PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) tour-meet and the second one in my private tour with Joe Cardenas, the PSSS member from Catarman (so he was a native of the area). I stayed longer the second time because I wanted to do some interviews in the ports of Allen and in the ships there (which I was able to do).

My first visit to the San Bernardino Strait area happened with the big group of the PSSS (the Philippine Ship Spotters Society). Joe Cardenas provided the car, a very good one and James Verallo provided the gas money. We were eight in the group including an American guest of Chimmy Ramos. He was Tim Alentiev, a retired B747 pilot from Seattle. Others in the group were Raymond Lapus from Los Banos, Nowell Alcancia from Manila. Mark Ocul from Ozamis and yours truly.

On the first day on the way to Allen, the first port of Northern Samar we visited was the San Isidro Ferry Terminal. It was already getting late in the afternoon when we reached the port as we came all the way from Tacloban and have visited already the ports of Catbalogan, Calbayog and Manguino-o. We were not able to start early because me and Mark’s ship from Cebu, the Oroquieta Stars of Roble Shipping departed four hours late because of the company’s Christmas party.

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The FastCat M9

Though late, it was just perfect as the FastCat M9 of Archipelago Ferries has just docked and was beginning to disembark passengers and vehicles. This catamaran RORO is the only regular user of the government-owned port and without it it would have been an empty visit save for the lone regular beer carrier which happened to be also docked and unloading that day. For some in the group it was a first experience to see short-distance ferry-ROROs in action.

We did not stay long and we hied off fast to the next port which was the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping. This port is a new development of the company and was built against the opposition of the Mayor then of Allen, Northern Samar which happened to be the owner of BALWHARTECO, the old dominant port in the area. It is a modern port, very clean and orderly, spacious and with lots of eateries that is more decent than the usual carinderia. There is not that mell of vendors and the hubbub one usually associates with ports that are not ISPS (International System of Port Security).

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From Jubasan, we passed by the Dapdap port of Philharbor. We did not enter the port any more and just viewed it from outside as we knew there were no more operations there as related company Archipelago Ferries was using San Isidro Ferry Terminal instead of their own port and the Montenegro Lines vessels transferred to BALWHARTECO when Sta. Clara Shipping and sister company Penafrancia Shipping left it for their own port.

We next visited BALWHARTECO port when dusk was setting in. We did not tour the port any longer as we decided it will be more worthwhile the next day when there is light. In the original plan, we should have stayed for the night in the lodge of BALWHARTECO (and do some night shipspotting for those still interested) but Chimmy suggested that it might be better to stay in Catarman where there might be better accommodations and food. The group agreed as anyway Joe and Nowell are headed for Catarman as the latter has an early morning flight back to Manila.

The bonus of the Catarman sleep-over was we were able to see Catarman, the town, and see off Nowell to the airport. Maybe except for me and Joe, nobody in the group has been to Catarman before and visiting it was an added treat. On the way back there a bonus shipspotting too because we made short tours of Caraingan and Lavezares ports. The first is the main inter-island port of Northern Samar and the second is the gateway to the destination being slowly discovered which is Biri, an archipelago offshore Northern Samar.

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Star Ferry II

Because of these extra tours and the need to secure first in Catarman a good bus ride for the members heading back to Manila, we were not able to cross early to Matnog. Even our tour of BALWHARTECO was peremptory and it was mainly just part of the effort to cross to Matnog. Still, it was enough as a ferry not yet leaving is a very good vantage point for shipspotting and the Reina Olimpia of Montenegro Lines proved to be that. The encounters with other ships in San Bernardino Strait added to the shipspotting prize.

We were not able to cross ahead of the bus and so the Manila-bound members have to board the bus immediately in Matnog. That in itself already shortened the Luzon part of the tour. When the bus rolled off, a member shouted to me (seems it was James) that the ramp of the Don Benito Ambrosio II of Penafrancia Shipping was already being raised. I looked at the bridge and I saw Capt. Sacayan, a friend of PSSS and I don’t know what reflex pushed me that I blurted out, “Capt, pasakay” and Capt. Sacayan immediately ordered the lowering of the ramp to the surprise of his deck hands. The Sta. Clara “Angels” (the three beautiful ladies in charge of arranging the passages of company-account trucks and buses) asked if we have a ticket and I pointed to Capt. Sacayan and from lip reading I think Capt. Sacayan said, “Oo, sa akin.”

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The Don Benito Ambrosio II by James Gabriel Verallo

I told my remaining tour mates not to wait for the ramp to land as I don’t think it would lest the ship incur the penalty of another docking and so we hopped on the ramp that was still a foot above the wharf. And from there we went straight to the bridge where Capt. Sacayan warmly welcomed us and turned on the airconditioners to full. We were sailing “Bridge Class” like in the Reina Olimpia on the crossing to Matnog. But the letdown was Mark failed to taste the “Bicol Express”. However, the free ride on the bridge with its unmatched viewpoint more than made up for that.

We disembarked in the new Jubasan port where we took our dinner and whiled some time trying to soak the atmosphere of the port. Funny, but our car was parked in BALWHARTECO, our point of departure earlier where our group had an incident with the LGU collectors of “illegal exactions” as we call it in PSSS for it is actually against Supreme Court decisions and DILG memorandum circulars. I wondered if Joe was worrying then for his car.

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The Nathan Matthew in Jubasan port (by James Gabriel Verallo)

After getting the car in BALWHARTECO we tracked back to Tacloban. It was uneventful as it was already night and it was just me and Joe keeping on the conversation.

I visited again the San Bernardino Strait area after the trip to Surigao del Sur where I accompanied Joe. This time my focus was BALWHARTECO and it is there where me and Joe separated, he headed back to Catarman and me on the way to Bicol but with an Allen stop-over. Night has set in when we parted ways and I stayed in the lodge of BALWHARTECO as I planned to do interviews the next day.

If there was still sunlight on our first visit to Allen, my second one was all rain and it was heavy with winds and so the swells were up, of course. But as Joe noted it was just the usual amihan (northeast monsoon) weather (with regards to this kind of weather, Joe and me are pretty much in agreement and so with typhoons). Good the Coast Guard in the area were not as praning (kneejerkish) as their counterparts in Cebu so they were not as trigger-happy in voyage suspensions. And to think the ferries that time in BALWHARTECO were barely able to hold position while docked even while ropes were already doubled. Some even anchor offshore to avoid damage to their hull.

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The Star Ferry 7 in the rain

In the next morning when the rain was still light I managed to find the oldest living porter of Allen who was in his 80’s and who had been a porter since 1943. He is the father of the caretaker of the lodge and from him I was able to get the history of the private port of Allen owned by the Suan family which owns the present BALWHARTECO. I was also able to get the ships of the past in the area from the time of the motor boats (lancha) including the motor bancas which then connected Allen and Calbayog for then there was no road connecting the two localities.

It was a funny interview as the old man was speaking in Allen Waray which I found I can understand 95% by using my knowledge of the different dialects of Bicol including what was then known as Bicol Gubat and Bicol Costa which are now no longer classified as part of the Bicol language. The Bicolanos and the Pintados share the same seafaring history in the past and maybe this was the reason of the close association of the languages of Bicol, Masbate and Samar including the Balicuatro area of Samar where Allen is located.

From the father and son pair, I was able to get referrals to old mariners in the area and I visited one in his home and the other one in his ship. Both came from Virac and first became crewmen of the Trans-Bicol Shipping Lines, the predecessor of Bicolandia Shipping Lines in operating motor boats (lancha) which connected the Bicol island-provinces and Samar to the Bicol mainland. The latter is actually the Chief Engineer of the Star Ferry II of 168 Shipping and this provided a bonus because we were able to have a discussion about the oldest RORO sailing in Philippine waters that is not a Navy ship and is not an LCT.

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I stayed a day more in BALWHARTECO because peak season caught me suddenly on a Friday afternoon and it was very difficult to get a ride with the sustained strong rains which produced landslides in Victoria town thus throwing the bus schedules into disarray (few were really coming). It was a nice courtesy stay which afforded me more opportunities to shipspot (and also do bus spotting) and to observe in general.

I absorb things fast even on limited time and even without asking too many questions. I just retrieve files in my head and add what I saw new, what changed and other observations. And from that I have a new mental picture of the port and area I visited. A two-day stay in Allen is a boon for observation and absorption of the movements and patterns in the area.

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After two nights, I tried to wangle a trip to Matnog where I planned to take a local bus to Naga. There was no hope in hitching a ride with the buses from the south because of the landslides and anyway all that arrive in Allen were full and it was sellers’ market and even the colorum vans to Manila were having a field day (they were charging fares from Catarman while waiting for passengers in Allen).

It wasn’t easy booking a crossing as the combination of rough swells and high tide plus the strong wind delayed dockings. Even with tickets, we passengers feared cancellation of voyages by the Coast Guard anytime given the wind and seas prevailing. After a long wait onboard, we finally all heaved a sigh of relief when we were given clearance to sail.

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The LCT Poseidon 26 of might have been the first to sail after the lull of sailings from Allen but she takes 2 hours for the 11-nautical mile route since her cruising speed is only 5-6 knots. She is a new ROPAX Cargo LCT and although her accommodations are all-Economy it is good, spacious and the seats are individualized with a row of industrial fans at the sides. Passengers are also allowed to visit the bridge which is a boon. She is sailing for NN+ATS or 2GO under the name SulitFerry.

We landed in Matnog at past mid-afternoon and the port was crawling with passengers and vehicles when normally such hour was already dead hour for the Matnog to Allen sailing. That is what usually results from voyage suspensions even though it is only for a few hours because everything piles up. I did not tarry at the port because I feared that I will be left  by local buses leaving Matnog if I did not hurry up. Being left by the last trip would probably mean staying the night in Matnog. But like Mark, I ended up not being able to tour Matnog port. I tried to make up for this by touring the market and terminal area of Matnog and trying to take shots of the port from there.

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What did I learn new in the San Bernardino Strait routes? Well, maybe the biggest development was the opening of the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping. That meant the break of Sta. Clara Shipping (and its sister company Penafrancia Shipping) and BALWHARTECO, a long partnership that benefited both greatly. Well, maybe some things really have to end but I feared the parting of ways weakened both but only time can tell that.

With the break, BALWHARTECO which was crowded and very busy in the past suddenly had a slack and maybe that is the reason why they invited Montenegro Lines to concentrate all their ships there thereby emptying the Dapdap port of Philharbor. Meanwhile, Jubasan port is just serving Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping. One advantage of that is they have full control and so everything is orderly.

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A Cargo RORO LCT

The second biggest development in the strait crossing might be the emergence of Cargo RORO LCTs that takes on only trucks. One or two of them sail depending on the season plus there is a ROPAX Cargo LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26. These are operated by NN+ATS or 2GO and the LCTs are chartered from Primary Trident Solutions. The ferry is being billed as SulitFerry. Though brand-new and nice, it is cheaper than the rest. The drawback is its cruising speed is slow. Their ticketing office hands, however, are nicer than the rest and are better trained. It showed.

With the fielding of the Cargo RORO LCT and the ROPAX Cargo LCT, the long queues of trucks which were legend in the past seemed to have disappeared. These trucks are actually the “non-priority” ones which means they are not priority because they has no prior arrangements with the shipping companies. Trucks were singled out because buses which have passengers and fixed schedules always had the higher priority and so these trucks get shunted out.

The LCTs of NN+ATS definitely took rolling cargo from the other companies. Some seem to overstate it but hard figures will show there are usually ten short-distance ferry-ROROs by Sta. Clara Shipping, Penafrancia Shipping, Montenegro Lines, 168 Shipping, Regina Shipping Lines in the strait plus the catamaran RORO of Archipelago Ferries. Two or three LCTs were added in the route so it was a significant increase but not by much.

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Dapdap port

Another notable development in the strait was the closing of the Dapdap port of Philharbor. It seems it was not able to weather the rearrangements brought about by the opening of Jubasan port. It is ironic that its sister company Archipelago Ferries is instead using the San Isidro Ferry Terminal (but maybe that is what their franchise demanded). Maybe if the Grand Star ROROs were not disposed off it might still be operating. However, the motor bancas to the island off it are still there.

Meanwhile, Matnog Ferry Terminal has added two ramps plus an expansion of the back-up area but one of its ramps is now just for the use of FastCat which need a specific mechanism wherein to attach their catamaran ROROs. With four ramps available (and I doubt if all are usable) plus a docking area without ramp (which is only good if the tide is not low), one would wonder how it can possibly cope with the twelve vessels or so operating in the strait especially in the hours that the buses and trucks are concentrated in Matnog.

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Reina Emperatriz and BALWHARTECO port by James Gabriel Verallo

Me, I always have questions and doubts about the ability of the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) regarding port planning and design. BALWHARTECO and Jubasan ports are clearly better than Matnog Ferry Terminal in its capacity to absorb ships. Imagine there are four ports on Samar side while there is only one in Sorsogon side. Maybe the town of Matnog should just develop their own port so capacity will be increased and they will have revenues at the same time.

San Bernardino Strait is one of the most important crossings in the country as it is the main connection between Luzon and the Visayas on the eastern side. It is used by a lot of buses and trucks plus private vehicles 24/7 and a lot of people move through it. In that way alone it is already fascinating to me.

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The Nathan Matthew and ship spotters of PSSS (by James Gabriel Verallo)

The Ferry That Won’t Die

A few months ago, out of a sudden, a PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member espied a ship docked in Hilongos port. Even though it was dark he was able to recognize the silhouette since he has already sailed with it in crossing Surigao Strait. It was a surprise to the PSSS community since many thought she was already dead since it has been three years since she disappeared from the Liloan-Lipata route. The last that was heard of her was that she was in a General Santos City shipyard. That time the new FastCats of Archipelago Philippines Ferries were also due to arrive (and it did) and so they have no more need for their old and unreliable Maharlika ferries. In fact, they were also disposing off already their Grandstar RORO ferries which was even a later acquisition of theirs from Phil-Nippon Kyoei.

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Photo credit: Joel Bado

The ferry was the Maharlika Cinco which has long held the Liloan-Lipata ferry route for Archipelago Philippine Ferries. She was actually their most reliable ferry in the route, she was always there as if she had never heard of the two-year rule for mandatory drydocking. Maharlika Dos might be in and out of service like Millennium Uno but Maharlika Cinco will always be there.

If one who doesn’t know her will think she is just another bland ferry then maybe he will be surprised if he will know that this ferry has a colorful history. Maharlika Cinco had actually bounced between routes and owners, has had a trip to the seabed, had her superstructure ripped, etc. Her bounces were actually too fast that international maritime databases has a hard time catching up with her thus it has lots of errors.

This ferry was first known as the Sata Maru No. 3 of Kinkowan Ferry KK and home ported in Kagoshima, Japan. She was supposed to be built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Kobe, Japan but instead she was subcontracted to a shipbuilder that was not well-known, the Tokushima Sangyo in Komatsushima, Japan. Her keel was laid in November 1971 and she was launched in April 1972. She possessed the permanent ID IMO 7205221.

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Photo credit: To the lady in the photo

The ship is a RORO with ramps at the bow and at the stern. She measures 70.9 meters in length over-all (LOA) with a beam of 12.5 meters and a load capacity of 500 deadweight tons. Her original gross register tonnage (GRT) was 997 tons. She has a raked stem, a transom stern with two masts and two side funnels. Sata Maru No. 3 was equipped with two Niigata diesels with a total of 2,600 horsepower giving her a top speed of 14 knots when new.

In 1981, when Kinkowan Ferry quit operation she went to Nankai Yusen KK. A few years later she was sold to Badjao Navigation in the Philippines and she became the Christ The Saviour. Badjao Navigation had a route from Cebu to Samar among others but it was not really successful. Maybe like Newport Shipping that had a route from Manila to Samar she thought that it would be better if they will do a Matnog-Allen route which was growing then. By this time she was already known as the Christ The King. However, ROROs in the route multiplied fast.

Maharlika Cinco

Photo credits: Philtranco Heritage Museum and Dennis Obsuna

In time, Badjao Navigation quit the shipping business and she passed on to Luzvimin Ferry Services of the Philtranco Service Enterprises Inc. (PSEI), an intermodal bus operator with routes from Manila to Visayas and up to Mindanao where she became the Luzvimin Primo. Maybe when Badjao Navigation was still doing the Matnog-Allen route she was just under Provisional Authority (PA) because soon after Luzvimin Ferry Services started operations the ruling shipping company of San Bernardino Strait protested, the Bicolandia Shipping Lines, and pointed out that her competitor has no Certificate of Public Conveyance (CPC) or franchise.

Luzvimin Ferry Services defended itself by saying that their ferries were just meant to carry their buses. The case was first heard in MARINA, the local maritime regulatory body which has quasi-judicial powers but eventually it reached the courts (the higher court even) which held that any ship transporting vehicles must secure a franchise from MARINA. And that was the end of Luzvimin Ferry Services and the career of the former Badjao Navigation ferries in San Bernardino Strait.

In about 1990, Christ The King next found itself in Batangas under a new company, the Prince Valiant Navigation where she was known as the Mindoro Express. When she went to that new area there was also a ruling shipping company there which was even tougher in challenging newcomers and sometimes the challenge is even outside the legal plane. I don’t know exactly why but soon she was doing a route to Palawan. There she sank in Honda Bay near Puerto Princesa port.

Mindoro Express ( now Maharlika Cinco )

Photo credit: Edison Sy

It turned out she was eventually refloated and brought to Keppel Batangas shipyard where a shipping owner who later became a PSSS member caught her in cam. This was in late 1991. From his analysis, he thinks the sooty exterior in the starboard side indicated the ship had a fire. He says firefighting water on just one side of a ship can capsize a ship. The ship bore other damages too like a missing port funnel and deformations in the structure.

Mindoro Express ( now Maharlika Cinco )

Photo credit: Edison Sy

Much later, sometime about 2002, a ferry for Archipelago Philippine Ferries turned up in the Liloan-Lipata route to double their unreliable 18-year old Maharlika II. The name of the ship was Maharlika V. To almost everyone including me they thought this was just another ferry that just arrived from Japan. It seems even Philtranco bus drivers did not recognize her (or they were playing poker?). One thing though is she seems a little rusty but I think nobody thought much of it since being a bit rusty was an Archipelago Philippine Ferries trademark. And maybe nobody gave a damn as long as the ship was reliable. After all, the Liloan-Lipata route was home to unreliable ferries until Super Shuttle Ferry 5 appeared on the route.

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Photo credit: PDO-Visayas of PPA

Fast forward to December 2008, the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) was born. With its growing photostream from the members’ contribution, it afforded members (and the world) a view of the different ships from all over the Philippines from ferries to freighters to tankers and tugs and everything in between. A member then contributed a photo of Maharlika Cinco when their family had a vacation in Southern Leyte and they crossed Surigao Strait. That was 2009.

It was here that the PSSS member who caught a photo of Mindoro Express in Keppel Batangas in 1991 realized that if the superstructure of Mindoro Express is cropped then it would look almost exactly the same as Maharlika Cinco and he alerted me. When a collage of the two was posted in PSSS the riddle of Maharlika Cinco‘s origin was solved. The two were exactly the same ship. Later, upon researching, the two ships had identical IMO Numbers and that was the final confirmation since IMO Numbers are unique numbers and only one hull can possess a particular number.

Comparison

Photo credits: Edison Sy and Joel Bado

Maharlika Cinco continued sailing but in this decade her engines were already beginning to get less reliable. Not soon after she disappeared from the route with the last news saying she was in a General Santos shipyard with an uncertain return. With Maharlika Cuatro and a rejuvenated Maharlika Dos (she was regenerated when her sister ship Maharlika Uno went to the breakers), it looked like Archipelago had no more use for her. To me, I no longer expected to see her again. Her metal before she disappeared also seemed to be on the soft side already. Soft metal plus unreliable engines plus no more use to me looked like equal to goodbye.

It was like waking to a stupor when somebody called me from Hilongos to report that discovery of an apparition of a ship in the night. The PSSS member then proceeded to investigate. She would be the Gloria V of Gabisan Shipping which has a Hilongos-Cebu route. Yes, it was a buy one, take one deal. They also acquired the Maharlika Cuatro which stopped operation in the aftermath of the Maharlika Dos sinking. He asked what was the former name of the ship. “Mindoro Express”, they said, as if they can fool the PSSS ship spotter (and our ship spotter laughed). Maybe they were ashamed to admit it was the Maharlika Cinco because Liloan is too near and the ship does not really have a sterling reputation there.

Decrepit Maharlika Cinco

Photo credit: Rex Nerves

They latter admitted a difficult sailing from General Santos City via Zamboanga (they were afraid of the rough waters in the eastern seaboard of Mindanao). The engines failed several times and they had to seek shelter and assistance. The trip took long but finally they made it to Hilongos in one piece. No, sorry, they would not honor a ship tour. It’s understandable.

After some preliminary work, Maharlika Cinco disappeared from Hilongos. From checking, PSSS members said she was not in Tayud, the great shipyard row of Cebu (she is too big not to be noticed from offshore). Then she was discovered in Liloan municipal port. They would finish the refitting there. They brought it over there since in Hilongos she would often be forced to undock if a ship is coming.

Maharlika Cinco

Photo credit: Rex Nerves

Gabisan Shipping intends to sail her in the Cebu-Hilongos route. They say one of the Gloria cruisers will be sold and the Maharlika Cuatro which is in Tayud is for sale. It seems even Gabisan Shipping, a staunch believer in cruisers is also getting aboard now in the RORO bandwagon to Leyte. After all the Cargo RORO and the other ROROs are making a killing. Speculation says she will be spruced up to be able to compete with the Graceful Stars of Roble Shipping.

This is simply a ferry that wouldn’t die and I don’t know if she has a charm embedded in her hull. If she will survive now, I just hope the MARINA plan which is fanned by some politicians and columnists that 35-old ferries will be retired will not snuff out her life. Finally.

The Biggest Shipping Combine in Bicolandia

The Bicol Region has a handful of shipping companies of significant size and that includes the Candano Shipping Lines that is probably the most well-known before and it has clout because they also own the only significant shipyard in the Bicol region, the Mayon Docks in Tabaco, Albay. But among this handful, the biggest is the shipping combine of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which have practically the same group of partner-owners. This handful does not include the Archipelago Ferries Philippines Corp. which no longer acts as a Bicol shipping company and is in fact willing to forget and shut the doors on their Bicol roots because they know it is not something they cannot be proud of.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, like Penafrancia Shipping Corporation is into RORO ferries and not cargo ships. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation antedates Penafrancia Shipping Corporation because of the peculiar circumstances wherein they were born. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation was formed in 1999 in order to challenge the then-dominant (dominant as in a near-monopoly) Bicol ferry company, the Bicolandia Shipping Lines which was known by other names like Eugenia Tabinas, E. Tabinas or Eugenia Tabinas-San Pablo (well, using legal-fiction companies is not uncommon in inter-island shipping). When Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation came into the Bicol shipping picture with its superior ships, Bicolandia Shipping Lines argued they are entitled to “protection” using what was known as the “prior operator rule”. That was interpreted by shipping companies being challenged as an equal to a near- and legalized monopoly — they argued that nobody else can enter their routes (ahem! ahem! and wow!). If there is a need to increase ships, they argued that they should be the ones that should add ships (hey, aren’t the saying they “bought” the route already?).nm-dominic-san-juan

In this fight, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation had the backing of the Eastern Visayas mayors especially those from Leyte because their populace had already enough of the lousy service of Bicolandia Shipping Lines which practiced the “alas-puno” system wherein ships depart when it is already full or near-full, in contravention of the published times of departures. However, the Bicolandia Shipping Lines lost in the sala of the maritime regulatory agency, the Maritime Regulatory Agency or MARINA which actually has quasi-judicial powers and can become the court of first instance in maritime cases. That was the turn of the decision because that time the liberalization policy of Fidel V. Ramos on shipping was already the new norm.

Bicolandia Shipping Lines then appealed to the higher court, the Court of Appeals and upon losing again there they brought the case to the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court which also ruled against them. The Supreme Court held any incentive given by government does not mean a company gaining monopoly rights (obviously, I say). Having lost in the courts and being also losing in the seas of Bicol not only to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation but also to other newcomers like Regina Shipping Lines (which also has deep pockets, heavy political clout and a bus company) and 168 Shipping Lines, Bicolandia Shipping Lines offered to sell themselves lock, stock and barrel. Maybe it was a good move instead of finding themselves depreciated or worse bankrupt in the long run. Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. was losing because its ships were already older than competitions’ and besides having tried the patience of the customers with their always-delayed departures they had already lost the goodwill of the public.

It was Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation that had the pockets deep enough to buy Bicolandia Shipping Lines lock, stock and barrel. They might be new but their stockholders were already established in other businesses and that even included shipping. But instead of buying Bicolandia Shipping Lines and integrating its fleet with theirs, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation decided to form the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation for said acquisition. Penafrancia Shipping Corporation has almost the same ownership group as Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. When the acquisition was complete Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation acted just like one company much like one or the other is a legal-fiction company. Their scheduling are united and their ticketing, berthing, crewing and supplies are unified too. That also goes through for their customer relations, the corralling of vehicles to contracts, negotiations and arrangements with the different ports and LGUs (local government units) and the maintenance of friendly relations with MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency. Drydocking and repairs are also unified.dh

Sta. Clara Shipping Corpo and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation operates four routes which are all short-distance ferry routes using ROROs. Their primary one is the Matnog-Allen route and the other routes are the Tabaco-Virac route, the Masbate-Pio Duran route and the Liloan-Lipata route, their recent expansion. In serving these routes, Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. has six ROROs and Penafrancia Shipping Corp. has four ROROs. The two companies do not operate cruisers and practically all their load are rolling cargoes which means trucks, buses, panel trucks, jeeps, cars and SUVs and even long vehicles and heavy equipment (though they don’t prefer the last two).

The six ROROs of the Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. are the following:

King Frederick: IMO 8704315. Built in 1987 by Kanda Shipbuilding Co. in Kawajiri yard, Japan. 58.6m x 14.0m x 3.8m. 694gt, 357nt, 304dwt, 750 pax. 2 x 1,200hp Daihatsu, 13.5kts when new.

Nelvin Jules: IMO 8504404. Built in 1985 by Kanda Shipbuilding Co. in Kawajiri yard, Japan. 58.6m x 14.0m x 3.8m. 694gt, 357nt, 304dwt, 750 pax. 2 x 1,000hp Daihatsu, 13.5kts when new.

Hansel Jobett: IMO 7927075. Built in 1979 by Kanda Shipbuilding Co. in Kawajiri yard, Japan. 51.1m x 14.0m x 3.4m. 610gt, 288nt, 208dwt, 580 pax. 2 x 1,000hp Daihatsu, 13.5kts when new.

Mac Bryan (ex-Ever Queen of Pacific): IMO 7034452. Built in 1970 by Shimoda Dockyard Co. in Shimoda yard, Japan. 54.0m x 12.0m x 3.8m. 499gt, 239nt, 2 x 900hp Niigata, 14kts when new.

Nathan Matthew (ex-Asia Japan): IMO 7326582. Built in 1973 by Naikai Zosen Corp. in Taguma yard, Japan. 64.0m x 13.1m x 3.3m. 1,030gt, 359nt, 443dwt. 2 x 2,000hp Daihatsu, 16kts when new.

Jack Daniel: IMO 8848604. Built in 1990 by Fujiwara Zosensho Co. in Omishima yard, Japan. 65.0m x 14.0m. 965Gt, 252dwt. 2 x 2,150 Niigata, 17kts when new.

The four ROROs of Penafrancia Shipping Corp. are the following:

Don Benito Ambrosio II (ex-Princess of Mayon): IMO 7629520. Built in 1967 by Hashihama Zosen in Imabari yard, Japan. 64.0m x 11.3m x 3.6m. 1,010gt, 686nt, 175dwt, 494 pax. 2,000hp Daihatsu + a Yanmar replacement engine, 13kts when new.

Don Herculano (ex-Princess of Bicolandia): unknown IMO Number. Built in 1970 by Shin Nihon(?) in Japan. 46.4m x 12.0m x 2.8m. 1,029gt, 454nt, 855pax. 2 x 1,000hp Daihatsu, 13.5kts when new.

Eugene Elson (ex-Eugenia): IMO 6601517. Built in 1965 by ImabariShipbuilding Co. in Imabari yard, Japan. 41.7m x 14.6m x 3.0m. 488gt, 118nt, 138dwt, 484 pax. 2 x 550hp Daihatsu, 11.5kts when new.

Anthon Raphael: IMO 8921781. Built by Naikai Zosen Corp. in Setoda yard, Japan. 61.4m x 14.0m x 3.2m. 1,093gt, 688nt, 270dwt, 400pax. 2 x 1,700hp Daihatsu, 15.5kts when new.

Note: Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and Penafrancia Shipping Corp. do not use single-engined, single-screw ships because of its weakness in handling the strong swells of Bicol especially during the habagat (southwest monsoon) season.

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Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation are very good in locking in the buses. That means the buses are contracted to be loaded in them in contracts. That also means these buses are paying what is called in the trade as “special rates” or even “super special rates” or even better. In this trade, the charge on buses are way lower than the published rates because the fares of the passengers makes additional revenue. With these contracts, the buses have guaranteed loading even in peak season and the ships will even wait for them if they are a little late. The driver/conductors need not even go to the windows to transact. The “Super Angels” of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation will then just go to them inside the car deck of the ship and if it is a company account then all they have to do is just sign and it will be settled company-to-company.

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Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation also gives the driver/conductors what is called in the trade as “rebates”. That consists of complimentary tickets that can then be sold to the passengers and the equivalent money will go to the driver/conductors as extra income for their kabuhayan (meals and many other things for their upkeep and pleasure). This practice is recognized and tolerated by the bus companies as incentives to their their driver/conductors but the general riding public does not know that (that, however, is open knowledge in the ports). So even without a contract the driver/conductors themselves will herd their buses to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation except for Philtranco driver/conductors who are locked in to Maharlika ships without the discount their counterparts in other companies enjoy. In this world, the greatest advertisement is actually cold cash.

And I give respect to Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. for developing this practice of rebates to the bus companies and drivers/conductors. With it, development of routes is easier because the bus company need not shoulder all the expenses of bringing the bus across the strait since by rules and previous decisions they cannot charge that to the passengers. Oh, well, only slyly in case, in such a way that passengers won’t notice. But how can the passengers there in Bicol notice when fares are discounted almost whole year round? Well, with this practice the ships of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation are almost always full of vehicles. This duo really knows their business.

The duo are also very good in locking in the trucks. The system works the same as in buses but the discounts are not that steep because there are no passengers as additional revenue. And in terms of priority in loading they come second to the buses because unlike the buses they don’t have that tight schedule to meet and there are no passengers that will complain when a ferry is missed. There are also company accounts where only the signature of the driver is needed (no payments are made) and it is settled company-to-company. There are discounts for the suki (regular customers) which can be enjoyed by the truck crew especially by the driver. As suki these trucks get priority boarding over other trucks and private vehicles.hj

This then brings us to the complaints of the driver-owners of private vehicles which only cross during vacations. When they arrive in the port they think the system is on a first-come, first-served basis and they grit their teeth and vent their frustration even over the media when they see buses and trucks that came later than them board first. Their charge is “favoritism” but they do not understand that like in many other things reservations trump their case and these suki or company accounts are just like reservations. Actually, dozens of kilometers away these priority boardings already confirm their coming arrival and in case of buses or panel trucks the reservations can be year-round and if it will not be availed they cancel the reservations over the cellphone so their space can be given to others. Reservations works in the airlines, the shipping industry, in theaters or concerts, in restaurants and in many other industries. It is otherwise called as “bookings”.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation are very good in cultivating the drivers. Aside from rebates, they can arrange a lot of personal services aboard the ships be it massage, manicure, services that are more personal, a good sleeping place and that also include free meals that are good. When I had access to their hospitality area inside Hansel Jobett I saw three viands for lunch including sugpo (tiger prawns) and those were free and the mess was airconditioned. That area was beneath the car deck on the engine level and I was surprised it existed. If Hansel Jobett has that then King Frederick and Nelvin Jules also have that since the three ships are related in design. It is not accessible to ordinary passengers but I was a VIP then (ehem! ehem!) and they gave me use of one the cabins. It was the equivalent of a first-class cabin of a liner although smaller.

hj-hospitality

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation are also very good in cultivating relationships with owners. Aside from hefty discounts and priority boardings with their trucks (and no hours lost waiting in ports means extra available trucks, satisfied customers and less labor cost) there are other benefits too like company-to-company singilan (reconciliation of accounts) which in effect means a loan. I heard settling takes months and that is extra working capital for forwardersand truckers while that might just be empty space for the ship otherwise. Even if the truck crew has no more money to board the ship they will not be denied boarding. Now that is one big utang na loob.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. had a long, beneficial and mutually supportive relationship with BALWHARTECO, the operator of the premier port in Allen, Northern Samar which is a private port. They grew together and had a relation like brothers. Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation brought in traffic to BALWHARTECO not only because they had the most number of ships but with the support of the duo to buses and trucks the traffic volume increased and BALWHARTECO earns with wharfage and other port fees.

With their cooperation together, the duo and BALWHARTECO were able to trump the other ports in Northern Samar that link to Matnog. First to be defeated was the official government port, the San Isidro Ferry Terminal. Though vehicles see San Isidro first it had an Achilles heel — it was by far the most distant port from Matnog at 15 nautical miles compared to the 11 nautical miles of BALWHARTECO and the 12 nautical miles of the Dapdap port of Philharbor which was the second to be defeated and not by distance alone since the distance difference is not significant.dba-nj-edsel

In port and ferry patronage, one that wins is the one with the most number of ships because that means there will be no long waits before departures. And it is reassuring to drivers if there are always ships in port and with multiple ones (which means a choice). That became the weakness of San Isidro port and Dapdap port even though they come into view earlier as the vehicles won’t come to them if it sees that there are no ships in port. The driver soon had the mentality to go straight to BALWHARTECO since there are always ships there.

With the acquisition of Bicolandia Shipping Lines plus other ship acquisitions, Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. became the dominant shipping company in Bicol engaged in RORO operations. They defeated the Archipelago Ferries+Philharbor Ferry combine which were more known as the Maharlika ships. That duo had no focus, were lousy in maintaining ships and were also lousy in competing, all the diseases prevalent in former crony companies. That combine supported another lousy sister company, the Philtranco Service Enterprises Inc. but their pairing actually doomed them both. Philtranco buses would wait in the port even though there are no Maharlika ships in port thus losing hours, And with a captive bus company, Archipelago Ferries+Philharbor Ferry did not learn how to play well the rebate-vehicle locking game (in fact they never seemed to learn it).

The stockholders of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation+Penafrancia Shipping Corporation might not really need to take profit, so to speak. They are very good in their other businesses and their owners are established businessmen with some dominant in their regional sphere. Some are even engaged in shipping too. In shipping, I glimpse the method they use in their other businesses especially the locking game.

jd-aris

Soon, the duo’s owners engaged in horizontal expansion. They were able to establish a partnership with the Villono Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu. With the creation of that partnership, they withdrew patronage of the Mayon Docks in Tabaco City, Albay and brought their ships for drydocking and maintenance in the far-off Tayud. Maybe one of the benefits of this partnership is they then had a reputation of taking care well of of their old ships. Well, with a profitable operation and well-heeled owners that might not be a surprising thing.

The duo has also shown they can defend and hold turf and can also expand. The stronger Montenegro Lines (Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. of Batangas) came but they did not buckle. At the same time they were also able to expand like when they tried the Pasacao-Masbate route being promoted by MARINA (they soon withdraw from this route). The also tried the Bulan-Masbate route which made no sense for bus passengers and for the trucks as it is farther from Manila (they can’t operate in the Pilar-Masbate route because they have no basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and the Pilar port is shallow). However, they struck gold in the Masbate-Pio Duran, Albay route. With rebate support the buses were able to roll into Masbate even though the land kilometerage within Masbate island is short to be able to recoup the rolling cargo rate (this was the failure of the Maharlika ferries + PSEI attempt a decade before them). Recently they also went to Liloan-Lipata route.

In recent years, the duo tried another horizontal expansion, the building and operating of a port in Allen, Samar too where BALWHARTECO is also located.

This led to the split of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation+Penafrancia Shipping Corporation and BALWHARTECO. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation said they resented the coming of 168 Shipping in BALWHARTECO (or was it the entry of Montenegro Lines that broke the camel’s back actually?) which supposedly was against an agreement (sorry, I cannot verify this). Or maybe they also saw how profitable is a port operation and the formula they already saw in the operation of BALWHARTECO. And so they built their own port in Jubasanbut this was stopped by the Mayor of Allen who happened to be the owner of BALWHARTECO. Construction continued even though the gates were shuttered and the knowledgeable knew the Mayor will lose since a Mayor’s permit can be demanded thru a court mandamus (or even ask the Department of Interior and Local Government for his suspension). The Mayor actually has no legal leg to stand on and jurisprudence said they always lost. And so Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation was able to finish the port and it is now operating.

However, I have doubts if that is a good move in the long term. They no longer have the backing of BALWHARTECO and the Mayor of Allen town and it might just lead to a war between them. After all they both know the formula and bad blood exists now. Admittedly, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation might have the edge as they have the ships and can do transfer pricing, that is, charge low in the rolling cargo to attract the vehicles and they can “correct” in port charges. Both of them know how to make a port attractive – loading even if the truck has no budget (but here Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation can do it both ways not only in port charges but also in shipping charges), diesel fuel loan, other rebates, the presence of shops along with eateries, lodging and a blaring disco along with many personal services to the drivers.

The problem of the two is they are not competing in a vacuum. They actually have a threat in the Fastcats, the big Montenegro Lines and the new Cargo RORO LCTs. Montenegro Lines will always be around as it has a big fleet and a deep bucket and probably supported by a heavyweight (literally and figuratively) former powerful figure, a “patron saint”. Recently, it was able to get a franchise for the Masbate-Pio Duran route and that can cut into the income of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation. Montenegro Lines can also apply for the Tabaco-Virac route especially since Regina Shipping Lines abandoned this in favor of the Tabaco-San Andres route (hence, there is an apperance of a “monopoly”). After all this is the era of liberalization. And Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation can find itself in the shoes of Bicolandia Shipping Lines before, that is defending turf via the “legal” way. Actually they are already doing the denial game with their blocking of the entry of FastCats in Allen.

The FastCats could be the more serious threat in the long run as it has new ships, a new paradigm that could be dangerous if it is able to run many trips a day which they will certainly do. What they are showing is they will not play the old game of running just a few trips a day. It seems they will try to run to the ground the opposition because that is the only way they can win because they are carrying a lot of amortization weight.

ar-mb-nj-aris

Actually it seems duo lacks the ships now especially since they have to respond to the moves of Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation with its FastCats which is a different animal than they competed with in the past. Montenegro Shipping Lines presence in Bicol is also increasing as Archipelago Ferries collaborated with them and recently they even were able to get a franchise in the Masbate-Pio Duran route. In Liloan-Lipata route they had to bring a better RORO to be able to compete with the speed and newness of FastCats. The will have to respond in Masbate-Pio Duran by maybe with also plying a route to Pilar port which is improved now. They will need three ships in Masbate, one in Liloan, two in Tabaco and that will leave them with just four ships in Samar and not all might be running because of drydock requirements and the sometimes trouble like what happened to the Nathan Matthew recently which is docked in San Isidro port for repairs. Remember one of the most important factor to attract drivers is the always-presence of ships waiting in the port. They might be stretched too thin now unless they acquire new ships (they have the financial capability for that).

Another new threat also and a possible paradigm change is the new Cargo RORO LCTs that are plying routes in Matnog-Allen and in Liloan-Lipata. NN+ATS (euphemistically called “2GO” but that is near the truth) operates them by chartering big China-made LCTs. Cargo RORO LCTs is the recent bane of short-distance ferry-ROROs and overnight ferry-ROROs because these can offer rates as much as half off the current rates because they have no investment in passenger comfort and service, they are fuel misers albeit slow and they have to discount to gain rolling cargo.

What I see is a lot of labu-labo (free-for-all) in Bicol in the coming years. Many will be bruised and I don’t know which will fall to the ground. Well, I just wish it will not turn out that Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation bit more than what it can chew.

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Photo Credits: Dominic San Juan, Edsel Benavides, Aris Refugio, Mike Baylon, PSSS

The Pioneering But Hard-Luck Cardinal Shipping

This article could be considered a tribute to Cardinal Shipping Corporation because among all shipping companies I consider them the true pioneers of island connections using short-distance ferry-ROROs (to distinguish it to the earlier LCTs). This is also an attempt to set the record straight because some government functionaries who have no knowledge in shipping repeat and repeat that the government-owned Maharlika ships first connected Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao through short-distance ferry-ROROs when that is simply not true and factually incorrect. Personally, I hate historical revisionism in any form and that is actually what these dumb government functionaries are actually doing and then some clueless young members of media take after what they say. If this is not checked, we will see a kind of Goebbels syndrome in shipping.

As they say, research and documentation are the most important things in making claims or in debunking claims and the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) was fortunate a co-founder, Gorio Belen, took time to research in the National Library and found the proofs needed to back up what we oldtimers knew that there were ferries that antedated the government-owned Maharlika ships and sometimes one good proof are newspaper advertisements and photos of their ship docked in Allen port. Well, maybe another good proof would come from some retired bus drivers that loaded their ships aboard Cardinal Ferry 1 and those were mainly Pantranco South bus drivers. I myself is a secondhand source because some of these drivers bought merchandise from us to be sold in Calbayog and Catarman. Of course, another good source will be the Allen and Matnog LGUs (local government units). They will know, definitely, especially some of their retired local politicians and local government employees. Add to that also some retired or still active porters.

Cardinal Shipping Corporation actually started in cargo shipping with the Cardinal V. This is a small cargo ship built in 1968 that was formerly the Ryusho Maru in Japan and that ship engaged in tramper shipping. In 1979, Cardinal Shipping branched out into RORO shipping when they brought out the Cardinal Ferry 1 to do a Matnog-Allen RORO route to the consternation of the wooden motor boats doing the route like the MB Samar and MB Sorsogon of Eugenia Tabinas (later of Bicolandia Shipping Lines). The ports they were using were not yet the modern Matnog Ferry Terminal but the old municipal port of Matnog and in Allen, they used the old BALWHARTECO wharf. Both are no longer existing. The two ports were just near the Matnog Ferry Terminal and the present port of BALWHARTECO.

Cardinal Ferry 1 was one of the many Tamataka Marus that came to the Philippines and one of the earliest. She was Tamataka Maru No. 21 and she was acquired from Shikoku Ferry of Japan. The other Tamataka Marus in the Philippines are the Reina Emperatriz (Tamataka Maru No. 71), Reina Genoveva (Tamataka Maru No. 75), Reina Hosanna (Tamataka Maru No.78), all of Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. and Marina Ferries, Queen Helen of Arrel Traders (Tamataka Maru No. 31), Golden Arrow of Arrow Shipping (Tamataka Maru No. 51), Viva Penafrancia of Viva Shipping Lines (Tamataka Maru No. 52) and the Dona Isabel of SKT Shipping (Tamataka Maru No. 32).

Cardinal Ferry 1 was a RORO ship built by Sanuki Shipbuilding & Iron Works in Sanuki yard, Japan in 1964. She was just a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO at 39.2 meters by 9.1 meters with a gross register tonnage (GRT) of 355 tons. Cardinal Ferry 1 had a passenger capacity of 400 persons in sitting accommodations and she was powered by a single Niigata diesel engine that gave her a top speed of 10 knots when new. She possessed the ID IMO 7743118.

In 1980, Cardinal Shipping fielded the Cardinal Ferry 2 to sail the Surigao-Liloan-Maasin route. There was no Lipata Ferry Terminal then yet and they used what is known now as the Verano port now in Surigao City. In Liloan, they used the Liloan municipal port as there was no Liloan Ferry Terminal yet. Liloan, Surigao and Maasin were better ports than Allen and Matnog infra-wise as both hosted overnight ships to Cebu. With the fielding of Cardinal Ferry 2, for the first time ever Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao were connected and a vehicle can roll from any part of Luzon to Mindanao and vice-versa. This was the fulfillment of the dreams of many including the late President Diosdado Macapagal in whose administration the JICA-backed Pan-Philippine Highway project (later renamed as Philippine-Japan Friendship Highway because Japan will partly fund the mega-project and war reparations to be paid by Japan will be used in it) first took shape. During Martial Law, this morphed into the Maharlika Highway. However, the government’s version of connection happened only in 1984 with the coming of Maharlika II and that was 4 years after Cardinal Shipping did it.

Cardinal Ferry 2 was the former Shikishima Maru No. 1 in Japan and she was built by Imabari Shipbuilding Company Ltd. in Imabari shipyard, Japan in 1960 (therefore she was older than Cardinal Ferry I) and she possessed the ID IMO 5322867. She was bigger than Cardinal Ferry 1 at 50.1 meters length by 7.8 meters breadth by 3.9 meters depth. The ship has 491 tons in Gross Register Tonnage (GRT), 302 tons in Net Register Tonnage (NRT) and 800 tons in Deadweight Tonnage (DWT). This ferry was powered by a single Makita engine of 640 horsepower and the top speed was 9.5 knots.

The next year, in 1981, Cardinal Shipping laid out the Cardinal Ferry III which was the former Sanyomarugame Maru No.1 of Sanyo Kisen in Japan. She was fielded in the pioneering RORO route of San Jose de Buenavista, Antique to Puerto Princesa, Palawan! [I really wonder until now what sense this made. Maybe a Cebu-Bohol or a Cebu-Leyte connection would have more sense.] This ferry was built by Kanda Shipbuilding Company in Kure yard, Japan in 1965. Her dimensions are 44.5 meters length by 10.0 meters breadth by 2.9 meters depth. Her original Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) was 495 tons with a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 190 tons. The passenger capacity was 350 and she had twin Niigata engines of a total 1,700 horsepower. The ship’s top speed was 13.5 knots which is fast for a small RORO then. The ship’s ID is IMO 6607848.

In the same year of 1981, Cardinal Shipping acquired the former Taysan of Seaways Shipping Corporation which was an old cargo ship built way back in 1956 by Sanoyas Shipbuilding Corporation in Osaka yard, Japan. This became the Cardinal VI in the Cardinal Shipping fleet and like the Cardinal V she engaged in tramper shipping.

The last ferry and ship acquisition of Cardinal Shipping was the Cardinal Ferry Seven in 1982. She was the former Azuki Maru in Japan of Kansai Kyuko. This RORO ship was built in 1964 by Hashihama Zosen in Hashihama yard, Japan. She measured 41.7 meters length by 12.6 meters breadth by 3.6 meters depth. The original Gross Register Tonnage was 473 tons with a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 165 tons . Her passenger capacity was 650 persons (that is a little big!). The ship was powered by two Daihatsu engines of 1,100 horsepower and the top speed was 12.5 knots. The ship’s ID was IMO 6502191.

Although pioneering, Cardinal Shipping was not successful for long. Even before the  Maharlika I arrived in Matnog-San Isidro route in 1982 and the Maharlika II in Lipata-Liloan route in 1984, she was already under pressure. There were already other competitors that came in the two routes especially in Matnog-Allen route like the Northern Star and Laoang Bay of Newport Shipping (before this Newport Shipping has already been sailing a route from Manila to Samar). Eugenia Tabinas also got into ROROs when she was able to acquire the Eugenia from Esteban Lul of the Visayas. Later, she was able to acquire the Northern Star from Newport Shipping which became the Northern Samar after conversion in Cebu.

It was really hard to compete against the new Maharlika ships which did not need to show a profit as it was government-owned (that is how government always worked and the usual hackneyed reasoning is it is “public service”. However, there was no denying that the Maharlika ships were better as it was much newer. Cardinal Shipping also had ships that were not only old but built in the 1960’s when engines were still not that long-lasting as microfinishing was not yet in great use and metallurgical research was not yet that advanced. Their route to Palawan also did not make sense in that period. In San Bernardino Strait, they soon had a dogfight in their hands with many entrants. Not long after, the ships of Cardinal Shipping began losing to competition.

Cardinal Shipping did not completely go away however and it had a rebirth in the form of Cardinal Philippine Carrier which was based in Iloilo City. They were able to retain the former Cardinal Ferry 3 which was now known as Palawan Traders. Before this she was known as the Kanlaon Ferry, a name maybe given so she will stick in her revised route. They then added a pioneering ferry, a catamaran High Speed Craft, the Bacolod Express in 1989 to do the Bacolod-Iloilo route. This was very notable because before her only Manila had High Speed Crafts in the early 1970s. Some of those were even hydrofoils and they were used in a route to Corregidor which was being heavily promoted then as a tourist destination. 

The Bacolod Express was the former Quicksilver I and she was built by NQEA Australia in Cairns, Australia in 1986. She arrived in the country in 1989 and she was formerly known as the Princess of Boracay and in 1990, she became the Bacolod Express. This aluminum-hulled catamaran measured 29.0 meters length by 11.0 meters breadth by 3.2 meters depth and with a gross tonnage of 318 and a net tonnage of 105. She had a passenger capacity of 356 and she was powered by two MWM engines of 2,700 horsepower which gave the High Speed Craft a top speed of 27 knots. This ferry was one beautiful catamaran.

Bacolod Express was successful in her route for a few years. The first sign of trouble came when BREDCO, the incomplete reclamation area then but her port in Bacolod suddenly began refusing her docking. She cannot dock in Banago port because that was controlled then by Negros Navigation Company, a competitor of theirs which operated conventional ferries between Iloilo and Bacolod, the Don Vicente and the Princess of Panay. Definitely, Bacolod Express was taking traffic away from NENACO which had no equivalent at the start to Bacolod Express (they later fielded the St. Michael). Everybody knows NENACO’s board were powers magnificent then in Western Visayas and could make things happen (or not happen).

Not long after, Bacolod Express also began experiencing engine troubles (in less than 10 years of operational life?) thus unreliability plagued her. That was deadly when new competitors came into her route. With Bacolod Express no longer able to carry the flag, Cardinal Philippine Carrier soon quit the business. They sold the Palawan Traders to E.B. Aznar Shipping where she became the Melrivic Seven. Today this ship still sails the Tanon Strait crossing between Escalante and Tabuelan where she once sailed before. She is the only remnant left and living reminder that once there was Cardinal Shipping but many people do not know that. Maybe not even her crew.

That was the sad tale of Cardinal Shipping which was pioneering in very many ways but which lost in the end. I doubt if many still remember them.

cardinal-shipping

Photo Credits: Gorio Belen, Times Journal and Philippine Daily Express

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 Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation

The Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation is prominent in the shipping news lately because of the hype they are giving to their new series of ships, the catamaran-RORO FastCats which are actually MSCs (Medium Speed Crafts). The acknowledged owner of Archipelago is Christopher S. Pastrana who claims he is from Matnog, Sorsogon.

In his hype of the FastCats, Mr. Pastrana often mentions he is appalled by the state of our local ferries which he described as “old and unsafe”. Reading this, I nearly fell out of my chair because from my wide knowledge of Philippine shipping it is actually Archipelago Philippine Ferries and its Maharlika series of ships which are the prime examples of old and unsafe ferries. I know this from my frequent travels from Mindanao to Bicol starting in 1998 (because I hail from Bicol) and that is where most of Mr. Pastrana’s ships were located then.

Mr. Pastrana seems to have started his interests in shipping with the CAPP Industries. Among the businesses of the that company was operating tugs and barges. Mr. Pastrana admits his first ferry acquisitions were the Maharlika I and Maharlika II from the government and this happened about 1998. It looks now that those ferries were just chartered as the listed owner in MARINA then was still the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

These Maharlika ships have a close working relationship with the buses of the Philtranco Service Enterprises, Inc. (PSEI). For the most of its existence, Philtranco buses cannot ride any other ferries in the San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait routes even though there are no Maharlika ferries waiting and there are available ferries of the competition. Even at the very start, there have been rumors about the true relationship of Mr. Pastrana to the owner of PSEI, Mr. Pepito Alvarez. And that might have started even with CAPP and its servicing of Philpos and PASAR in Leyte which are Alvarez companies.

Not long after the acquisition mentioned, Mr. Pastrana bought a lot in Dapdap, Allen, Northern Samar and a port was developed. They transferred operation here from the San Isidro Port in Samar which is significantly farther than Allen, Northern Samar from Matnog Port in Sorsogon (San Isidro is less competitive because of the additional distance). The Dapdap port was registered under the Philharbor Ferries and Ports Services, a sister company. Among the declared objectives of the company were the development of ports (but nothing else followed after Dapdap).

In the year 2000, came the series of ships acquisitions by Archipelago Ferries. In this year, the sister ships MV Maharlika Tres and MV Maharlika Cuatro were purchased from Aki Kisen in Japan. When they arrived, they were still relatively new by Philippine standards. The next year, the MV Lakbayan I arrived but it was relatively old and slow. Maybe the lack of speed was the reason they gave it up and the ship ended with Millennium Shipping, another company with reputed links with a former President like Archipelago Ferries, Philharbor Ferries and Philtranco and not to mention PASAR and Philphos.

In 2002, Archipelago Ferries acquired the MV Maharlika V. It was a queer purchase because Philtranco once owned that through the Luzvimin Ferry Service. It did not sail long for that company because operations was stopped when they lost in the courts. It held that a bus company still needs a franchise to operate a ferry even though it will carry only their own buses (it was a reiteration of a Supreme Court decision from American times). And Luzvimin Ferry Service do not have a franchise.

The ferry was then subsequently known as MV Christ The King before it tried its luck in Batangas. She capsized just off the port of Puerto Princesa when she was already known as the MV Mindoro Express. She was salvaged, brought to Keppel shipyard in Batangas where her superstructure was lessened. She was then renamed as the MV Maharlika V and brought to the Liloan-Lipata route which was far from where she met the accident (truth is she was not recognized there as MV Mindoro Express and nor as MV Christ The King – it was Philippine Ship Spotters Society which recognized and trace her).

The year thereafter, in 2003, Archipelago Ferries bought the MV Maharlika Seiz from Norway which was followed by MV Maharlika Siete from the same country. They were already old ships but their hulls were still strong. Their weakness is the use of CPP (Constant Pitch Propellers) which can be demanding in maintenance when it gets old but it is kind on the engines.

They used the MV Maharlika III to open new RORO routes in Bicol. They were the first short-distance ROROs from the Bicol mainland to Masbate and Catanduanes. It was even used to open the Marinduque route from Lucena (with Philtranco buses in tow). But when competition arrives, they cannot stand the heat and they pull out much like the track record of “sister company” Philtranco (well, they even go hand in hand).

MV Maharlika IV was mainly used in the Liloan-Lipata route spanning Surigao Strait. Maybe the reason was the then-sickly MV Maharlika II needed a companion in the route (before the arrival of MV Maharlika V). MV Maharlika IV was also used to relieve MV Maharlika Tres.

With the purchase of MV Maharlika VI and MV Maharlika VII, Archipelago Ferries tried the Batangas-Calapan and Roxas-Caticlan routes in Southern Tagalog (and later MIMAROPA), an expansion area for them in a new region to take advantage of the newly-opened Batangas-Mindoro-Panay intermodal connection.

Archipelago Ferries did not stop with the Maharlika series. When Phil-Nippon Kyoei closed operations and offered to sell their three ferries, Archipelago Ferries bought the MV Grand Star RORO 1 and the MV Grand Star RORO 3. They did not bother renaming these ferries. They were used to shore up their presence in San Bernardino Strait when MV Maharlika Uno can no longer sail well.

Not all the ships by Archipelago Ferries can sail in a given day because all became unreliable except for the newly-purchased Grand Star ROROs. Their custom is they sail ships even with just one of the two engines functioning. Some stop sailing and gets moored because no engine was still running like when the MV Maharlika II gathered moss in Lipata Port and clogged the wharf.

A few years ago, and even with such a sorry record, Archipelago Ferries was able to secure a big loan from the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP), the conduit for JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) soft loans for our shipping modernization. This was used to order the FastCats from several shipyards in China. While waiting, Archipelago started disposing their old ferries to other shipping companies and to the breakers.

The fates of their old ships were the following: The rickety MV Maharlika Uno was sold to the breakers (after clearing with the government); the MV Maharlika II sank off Panaon Island in 2014; the MV Maharlika Tres was sold to Atienza Shipping; the MV Maharlika Cuatro was sold to Gabisan Shipping; the MV Maharlika Cinco ended up with Gabisan Shipping too after a long lay-up in General Santos City; the MV Maharlika Seiz is laid up and is for sale; the MV Maharlika Siete was sold to a Navotas yard specializing in breaking; the MV Grand Star RORO 1 was sold to Regina Shipping Lines and MV Grand Star RORO 3 was disposed off to another company.

By the time the FastCats arrived they were no longer running the Batangas-Calapan and Roxas-Caticlan routes. At that time they were just running the Matnog-Allen and Liloan-Lipata routes where the Philtranco buses roll (before 2010 Philtranco already quit their Panay routes even though they were pioneers there; same story too with their Marinduque, Catanduanes and Masbate routes which they all abandoned much earlier).

In 2014, their FastCats started arriving. Its first route was Batangas-Calapan. Today, their ten ordered FastCats have all arrived and they are active in the Batangas-Calapan, Bulalacao-Caticlan, Matnog-San Isidro, Liloan-Lipata and Bacolod-Iloilo routes (although some waited for months in Batangas Bay waiting for their own-use docking spaces in applied ports). They are also applying for other routes at the moment and they have one approved but unserved route, the Dumaguete-Dapitan route. Meanwhile, they announced they will acquire more FastCats and expand to Southeast Asia.

Recently, they also applied with MARINA that Archipelago Philippine Ferries be recognized as a “new” company. Maybe they want to bury their sordid past when their ferries were one of the rustiest, one of the dirtier (and even smelly), one of the most unreliable and one with no passenger service to speak of. But to be fair to them, their ferries then don’t sink until they got caught in Surigao Strait in 2014.

Today, their fleet is all brand-new, it is spic and span, and the crew are well-trained and prim. I asked one of the crewmen about their old ferries and he seems to have amnesia. Feigned or not, I do not know. I am sure they would like to bury their past which they can never be proud of. And that is fair game. Many companies abroad did that. I just wonder why not just use a new name? Maybe they can’t because it was the name used for the loans.

Will they be successful? P240 million for each FastCat is a big amount to recoup. For a route like Batangas-Calapan where ferries sail 24 hours and with plenty of rolling cargo that is no problem. But for routes where they can only do two short round-trips a day that raise questions especially if the route is seasonal (which means strong only in summer, the semestral break and in December).

FastCats might be new and attractive but trucks and buses (not the sedans and SUVs) dominate the short-distance intermodal rolling cargo and for these the price point is the main point of decision (the bus passengers don’t decide the RORO their bus will take). Many of the regulars are actually already tied up in “special rate” deals with short-distance ferry-RORO companies which means it is not really an open market.

For them to survive they should not only forget the old Archipelago name but also forget the old ways of doing things. They have already resolved their problem with cleanliness, in passenger service and in reliability. Can they stand the heat of competition that have basically recouped their ships’ capital? That we have to see.