Recent Developments in Bicol Passenger Shipping

A Backgrounder

A few years ago, Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) of Batangas entered the Matnog-San Isidro route using the government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal in San Isidro, Samar. Before that the company already plied before the Masbate City-Lucena route but got suspended when their MV Maria Carmela burned just before reaching Lucena and there were protests in Masbate backed up by their politicians. But aside from that route, Montenegro Shipping Lines had a route from Masbate City to Pilar using basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and hybrid LCTs (Pilar port can’t accommodate anything bigger because of its shallowness) and fastcrafts. In that route they were able to outlast the fastcrafts of Lobrigo Lines and the route became their staple and stronghold after they were driven out of the Batangas-Calapan route because the SuperCats there were simply superior than them.

14640067004_258bd3f774_b

San Isidro Ferry Terminal

They then entered the Matnog-San Isidro route across San Bernardino Strait using the government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal. I knew it was a creeping move on their part and entry to the San Isidro route is easy since no ferry is using that route ever since Archipelago Philippine Ferries and Philharbor Ferries and Port Services left that port when they built their own port in Dapdap which is much nearer to Matnog than San Isidro. I knew MARINA, the maritime authority will easily grant a franchise since there is no ferry using that terminal and the 50-kilometer restriction has already been lifted by MARINA per Pres. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s instruction. Before, on parallel routes no franchise will be issued if the competing port is less than 50 kilometers away (but it seems that did not apply to the likes of western Leyte ports and the ports of near Dumaguete).

I was not worried for Bicol ferry companies as long as Montenegro Lines is in San Isidro because that route carries a significant penalty in distance as BALWHARTECO port which is being used by the Bicol ferry companies is just 11 nautical miles in distance while the San Isidro port is 15 nautical miles in distance from Matnog Ferry Terminal. I knew Montenegro Lines had to give near parity in rates if they want patronage. And they will have to field a faster ferry which they did and they suffered the fuel penalty. It was obvious that in using San Isidro Ferry Terminal that they are handicapped in competing with the Bicol ferry companies (Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, 168 Shipping Lines and Regina Shipping Lines).

5400438414_6f40cc8d0b_z

Dapdap port

But then it happened that the Archipelago/Philharbor operation which operated the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries was tottering they opened up Dapdap port for Montenegro Lines. And that is where I began to worry for the Bicol ferry companies as Montenegro Lines is a big shipping company (they even tout they have the most number of ferries which is actually true) and if transfer pricing was used by the big oil companies and by the bus group Vallacar Transportation Inc. locally then they can engage in price wars and the smaller Bicol ferry companies will suffer. With the move to Dapdap port and with the lessening of Archipelago and Philharbor ferries it is as if those twin companies are giving Montenegro Lines free business. Dapdap port is a little farther than BALWHARTECO port which the Bicol ferry companies are using but the difference in distance is minimal at about 11 nautical miles to 11.5 to 12 nautical miles. Of course, the shipping companies have their regular and locked patrons but there are a lot of non-committed vehicles especially the private vehicles (as differentiated from company vehicles) which pay the full, published rates unlike the regular and locked patrons.

32697120411_83e06a9c23_z

Jubasan port

A little later when the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) built its own port in Jubasan, also in Allen, for their and their sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation’s use, BALWHARTECO then opened its gates to Montenegro Lines and so the company finally had access to the most advantageous port in Samar (this port is in direct line to the vehicles from Catarman and Rawis). It seems the creeping strategy of Montenegro was finally working. In shipping it is not necessary that a company will get the most advantageous port or route at the start. With patience and resources, better arrangements and opportunities soon open.

Developments and the Current Situation

I was watching what will be the fate of the Bicol ferry companies especially since the long bond and partnership between BALWHARTECO and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the biggest Bicol ferry company was broken with the building of the Jubasan port against the wishes and objection of the owners of BALWHARTECO (this episode almost reached the courts since the owner tried to stop the construction as he was the Mayor of Allen where the ports are located and bitterness was really high). Well, none sank, most even grew and that was a surprise for me.

34113452955_246b3d8555_z

Denica ferries in Masbate port

In Masbate, Denica Lines, which was basically only in motor bancas and cargo motor boats before fought back magnificently with the acquisition of the MV Odyssey to be followed by the MV Marina Empress which were just poor discards of other shipping companies. Both suffered engine troubles at the start and Denica Lines had to spend money for the two. Then this year Denica Lines was able to purchase a third basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the MV Regina Calixta II of Regina Shipping Lines of Catanduanes which was already buying bigger ferries. The MV Regina Calixta II is unrenamed as of this moment as changing names is actually not peanuts with regards to MARINA.

24071828998_7cd5cd8426_z

Denica fastcrafts refitting in Pilar port

And last year Denica Lines got two rundown fastcrafts which they are slowly refitting right in Pilar port. So right now or soon, it seems Denica Lines is already ready to slug it out with Montenegro Lines toe-to-toe in the Masbate City-Pilar route. Meanwhile, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and twin company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation is doing roaring business in the parallel Masbate City-Pio Duran route especially since Medallion Transport was driven away from that route after their MV Lady of Carmel sank. The truck loading in that route is so good that Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation bought the LCT Ongpin, lengthened it and fielded it in the route as the LCT Aldain Dowey. And that is aside from two 60-meter ROPAXes they maintain in the route. So if the ferries of Denica Lines and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation in the route from Masbate City to the Bicol mainland is totaled then Montenegro Lines is outmatched already except in the High Speed Crafts segment which competes with the big motor bancas of different companies.

In the Matnog-Samar routes, the Bicol ferry companies are more than holding its own although both has not grown except in frequency. If there was growth it was taken by Archipelago Ferries Corporation which fielded a brand-new FastCat in the Matnog-San Isidro route which is also doing good business. But in terms of net, Archipelago Ferries is not ahead as the business they gained with the fielding of FastCat might not be greater than the business they lost with the disposal of the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries (and they are paying docking fees in San Isidro Ferry Terminal while their own Dapdap port is unused). In my comparisons, I still consider Archipelago and Philharbor as Bicol ferries since they started as such although with the good FastCats now they are trying to erase their connection to the lousy Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries because obviously they are ashamed of their record there.

33763098613_dbc2fe5c1c_z

FastCat in San Isidro Ferry Terminal

And Montenegro Lines did not gain either in the Matnog-Allen route as the Bicol ferry companies was able to hold their own relative to them. If there was growth it was taken by the subsidiary of 2GO, the SulitFerry which operates a brand-new ROPAX LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26 and another one or two Cargo RORO LCTs depending on the season. Finally, 2GO discovered what was eating up their container shipping and passenger liner business and decided to compete (“if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”). Lacking enough resources, they started conservatively by just chartering new LCTs from Concrete Solutions Incorporated (CSI), owner of the Poseidon LCTs, whose fleet seems to be ever growing.

36636260331_f4c80c8a6c_z

The Poseidon 26 of Concrete Solutions and SulitFerry

In the routes to Catanduanes, there was obvious growth and changes. Initially, the most striking perhaps is the appearance of the two High Speed Crafts (although technically one is already a Medium Speed Craft) of the Cardinal Shipping Lines Incorporated, the MV Silangan Express 1 and the MV Silangan Express 3. I had my doubts early on about the viability of the two but it turned out they were doing okay. One reason maybe is their reasonable fares which is just about one will expect from a Tourist accommodation in a regular ferry and not double the Economy fare like what is charged in other parts of the country. The two HSCs of Cardinal Shipping also run in the hours not served by the regular ROPAX whose schedules are dictated by the arrivals of the buses (which means a morning departure from Tabaco and a noon departure from Catanduanes).

23643927218_5e72c032b2_z

The Regina Calixta VII (ex-Maharlika Cuatro). Photo by Dominic San Juan

One Catanduanes ferry company and a native of Catanduanes which made a great stride recently was Regina Shipping Lines or RSL. This company has already disposed their basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and instead bought bigger ferries. Part of their new acquisitions were the former MV Maharlika Tres, acquired from Atienza Shipping Lines and the former MV Maharlika Cuatro from Gabisan Shipping Lines. The two double-ended ferries became the MV Regina Calixta VI and and MV Regina Calixta VII in their fleet. The company was also able to acquire the former MV Grand Star RORO 3 which became the MV Regina Calixta VIII in their fleet. Rounding off the fleet is the MV Regina Calixta V which they acquired from China.

34003858141_d425abde12_z

The Regina Calixta VIII (ex-Grand Star RORO III)

The former ferries from Archipelago Ferries and Philharbor Ferries are no longer the sad ferries of Christopher Pastrana, the boastful. All feature Tourist accommodations now (there was none before) with a disco motif and sounds where good videos are played during the trip and all feature good, brand-new seats in Tourist (Regina Shipping Lines was in buses before and they know these things). Even the engines were refitted that the former MV Maharlika Tres is already running faster than her design speed (the maximum speed when new). The owner of Regina Shipping Lines simply opened his checkbook unlike Christopher Pastrana (who opened the checkbook of DBP instead) and the Mayon Docks of Tabaco City forthwith did the make-overs of the former lousy Archipelago and Philharbor ferries derided in the eastern seaboard. Now those ferries are already the favorites by the passengers.

There was also another change in the Masbate ferries. This was when Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) sold their MV Super Shuttle Ferry 19, a double-ended ferry that was off-and-on doing the Bogo-Cawayan route. She was bought by the D. Olmilla Shipping Corporation, refitted also in Mayon Docks and she became the MV Cawayan Ferry 1. She still plies the same route and schedule.

Meanwhile, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation was able to acquire last summer two former Tamataka Maru ships from Japan, the MV Tamataka Maru No. 85 and the MV Tamataka Maru No. 87 in a buy one, take one deal and the two ferries were refitted in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu (Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is a stockholder in the said yard). The MV Tamataka Maru No.85 is now running the new route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the Liloan-Lipata route across Surigao Strait, an expansion route outside Bicol acquired by the company some two or three years ago. The ship is now renamed as the MV Adrian Jude and she is meant to compete with the MV SWM Stella del Mar of the Southwest Premier Ferries, a new operator in that route using a brand-new ferry similar to and the sister ship of the new vessels of Starlite Ferries of Batangas.

36783499863_79842bd913_z

The Adrian Jude. Photo by Capt. John Andrew R. Lape

The former MV Tamataka Maru No.87 is also ready now, she is already in Bicol and waiting but unrenamed yet according to the last information I received a day ago. She is meant to ply the new route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation from Masbate to Cebu, another new expansion route of the company but the exact route is still being applied for. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is one Bicol company aside from Denica Lines which has shown aggressive growth in the past years.

Meanwhile, it seems Montenegro Lines has lost its aggressiveness. Their fleet size in Bicol is practically the same although they rotate ships especially in the Matnog-Samar route (except for the MV Reina Emperatriz there and the MV Maria Angela in Masbate). Their only addition in Bicol is their new catamaran MV City of Angeles, a High Speed Craft in the Masbate-Pilar route.

37293288352_e5643fb6c8_z

The City of Angeles

I was trying to analyze the lack of zest and the lack of pep of Montenegro Lines in the recent years especially in the context of Bicol shipping. It seems that when their “patron saint” went out of power and was made an enforced guest, Montenegro Lines’ drive faltered. It also seems that the blessings usually going to Montenegro Lines already went to another shipping company and so Montenegro Lines had to scrounge for additional ferries whereas before, they were buying ferries as if the supply of it won’t last (now it is the new favorite which is precisely doing that). Now, i don’t really know how come their blessings went away.

I do not know. Things can always change and it seems Montenegro Lines is no longer that great a threat to the Bicol ferry companies which showed spunk in the recent years except for 168 Shipping Lines, the owner of the local Star Ferry ships which seems to be languishing with no ship additions.

One loss, however, is something that cannot be averted and has long been expected. This is the discontinuance of the LCT to Cagraray island from the Albay mainland across the very narrow Sula Channel which has been a ship shelter for centuries now. A new bridge has been built connecting the fabled island which hosts the well-promoted Misibis Resort, the best resort in Albay province.

But as a whole Bicol ferry shipping was on the rise in the recent years and that is surely a good thing for the region.

Advertisements

The King Frederick and Nelvin Jules

The King Frederick and Nelvin Jules of Santa Clara Shipping Corporation are actually sister ships which look like each other save for some minor differences. When trying to identify them I try to look for the name lest I might be mistaken in the identification (anyway, one of the two has a longer name).

22196907979_dd29ef1015_z

Both of these ships arrived in the country in 1999 and they were the opening salvo in the challenge of the newly-established Santa Clara Shipping Corporation in the Matnog-Allen route long dominated but badly served by Bicolandia Shipping Lines and its legal-fiction companies like E. Tabinas and Eugenia Tabinas. When the sister ships arrived they were not larger than the bigger ships in the route. However, they were the newest and the fastest and even newer than the government-owned Maharlika I which was built in 1982.

32933136415_27e6703f7b_k

With such an advantage the reigning Bicolandia Shipping Lines immediately cried foul and tried all the legal means to drive out King Frederick and Nelvin Jules because their old ships which were mainly acquired from other local shipping companies and were built in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were clearly inferior already in all respects. And Bicolandia Shipping Lines has the dead weight of a bad reputation originating from their ships having the wont of not sticking to departure times and trying to get full as much as possible before departure. Plus, of course, clients always want the new.

Bicolandia Shipping Lines failed in their opposition at the level of MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the maritime regulatory agency and which has quasi-judicial function and all the way to the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. And so the King Frederick and Nelvin Jules were not driven out from route and began to beat their opposition (there were other players in the route aside from Bicolandia Shipping and Maharlika I) until the day came when Bicolandia Shipping Lines surrendered and sold itself to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and became the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation.

The King Frederick,  the newer of the two sister ships was supposedly named after the top gun of the combine owning Santa Clara Shipping Corporation, Frederick Uy. She and the Nelvin Jules are ROPAX (RORO-Passenger) ferries built by Kanda Shipbuilding Co. in their Kawajiri yard in Japan. The two ferries both measured at 58.6 meters in Length Over-all (LOA), 55.5 meters in Length Between Perpendiculars (LPP or LBP) with a Beam or Breadth of 14.0 meters. Originally, the sister ships had a similar Gross Tonnage (GT) of 699 with a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 308 tons. By the way, the King Frederick was the last ever ship built by Kanda Shipbuilding in their Kawajiri yard.

The King Frederick‘s original name was Sagishima and she was built in 1987 and the Nelvin Jules’ original name was Kurushima and she was built in 1985 making her the elder ship of the two. When the two arrived in 1999 they were still both relatively young at 12 years and 14 years old, respectively. King Frederick has the IMO Number 8704315 while Nelvin Jules has the IMO Number 8504404 which both reflects the year when their keels were laid up. The sister ships have a steel hull, a box-like housing at the bow which protects against the rain when loading and unloading and also keeps the car deck less wet and muddy when it is raining. They both have a transom stern and ramps at the bow and at the stern. The ships both have two masts and two funnels at the top of the ship.

The sister ships are powered by two Daihatsu marine engines with a total of 2,400 horsepower and these gave them a sustained top speed of 13.5 knots when still new. In their 11-nautical mile Matnog-BALWHARTECO (Allen) route, the sister ships were capable of crossing the San Bernardino Strait in just under one hour when newly-fielded if the notorious waves of San Bernardino are not acting up. BALWHARTECO port was the choice of Santa Clara Shipping in Allen as it was a shorter route than the official Matnog-San Isidro route of the government. The San Isidro Ferry Terminal is the official government RORO port while the BALWHARTECO port is a private port and along time Santa Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) had a hand-and-glove relationship with the management of BALWHARTECO (Balicuatro Wharfage and Terminal Corporation).

6823289382_a00f13e083_k

BALWHARTECO Port, the original home of King Frederick and Nelvin Jules

Before fielding here a new passenger deck was built on the bridge level of both ships. However, the Gross Tonnages (GT) of the sister ships dropped to 694 which is more likely an under-declaration. The declared Net Tonnages (NT) of the two ships is 357 (a clarification, both the GT and the NT have no units). The passenger capacities of both ships are 750 persons reflecting their almost similar internal arrangements. The Depths of the two ferries are both 3.8 meters which is about average for ships their size.

The new passenger deck became an all-Economy accommodation with fiberglass seats. On the lower deck, at the front portion was the old accommodation in Japan which became the Tourist section as it was air-conditioned and had better foamed seats. That section is also where the canteen was located. All passengers have access to that canteen.

10434459006_4eb1ef24d5_z

The canteen inside the Tourist section of the King Frederick

When the gusts are up in San Bernardino Strait along with its wind-driven rains and this can be often in the peak of the habagat (the southwest monsoon) and amihan (the northeast monsoon) that section is a welcome cover especially for the more vulnerable passengers like the small children, the pregnant and the old. The habagat and amihan are both fierce in San Bernardino Strait, it affects the area more than half of the year and ships crossing the strait sometimes have to take a dogleg route lengthening the transit time and producing seasickness in many passengers.

Behind this Tourist section is another Economy section with fiberglass seats also that were built in a former promenade deck of the ship when it was still in Japan. Many prefer this in inclement weather as it does not rock as hard as the deck above and it seems the winds can be less fierce here. Of course there is one less deck to climb or descend and that matters maybe in a short route when some passengers like me don’t bother to sit at all (too many views to enjoy from the ships to the seascape to the mountains and of course the ports and its activities). Maybe the reason they put the karaoke in the upper deck is to enjoin passengers to climb there.

Below this passenger accommodation is the car deck of the RORO ships. One advantage of the two sisters is the wide beam of 14.0 meters which allows four lanes of trucks or buses on either side of the “island” in the middle of the car deck which actually houses ladders going up and down and below the car deck are crew accommodations and the crew mess which are all air-conditioned.

33611635712_da40c4c00a_z

A crowded Nelvin Jules. See the “island” in the middle of the car deck

With 55.5 meters in LPP up to five rows of trucks and buses can be accommodated. Of course, though trucks and buses dominate the load in their routes, still smaller vehicles like cars and utility vehicles will normally be in the rolling cargo mix. These ships will normally be full because Santa Clara Shipping mastered the art of giving discounts and pay-later schemes, the reason a lot of trucks and buses are tied up to them. Tied-up buses which carry passengers that cannot be delayed even have priority in loading in them. The sisters have ramps front and bow but normally it is only the bow ramps that are deployed and employed, the reason vehicles have to board the ship backwards. One thing I cannot understand with the sister ships’ bow ramp is they are off-center. I do not know what is the advantage of it. Actually in cargo loading it only tends to affect the balance of the ship.

6322034520_16e66c1b1a_z

King Frederick in Masbate. See the off-center ramp.

Along time especially with the arrival of other ROPAXes for Santa Clara Shipping Corporation, King Frederick and Nelvin Jules were also assigned to other routes of the company especially their new Masbate-Pio Duran route. There is no permanent fielding for them and the sister ships generally rotate between the two routes. Another route where King Frederick has been fielded is to their newest route, the Lipata-Liloan route which became a Lipata-Surigao route when a quake damaged the Lipata port (however, they are back now recently to Lipata Ferry Terminal).

Over-all, the sister ships proved very successful and became proven moneymakers for Santa Clara Shipping. Although 18 years sailing now locally, the two are still very sturdy and very reliable and almost no breakdown can be heard from them. What I only wish is Santa Clara Shipping make some sprucing in the ships so they will come back to like when they were still new here.

Even when the two sister ships are in San Bernardino Strait, they are no longer docking now in BALWHARTECO port as their company has a new, owned port now in Jubasan in the same town of Allen, Northern Samar. However, when this article was written none of them were there as Nelvin Jules was in the Masbate-Pio Duran route pairing with the ship Jack Daniel of the same company and they with their cargo RORO LCT Aldain Dowey are dominating the Masbate route.

33882061353_b30ca593e9_z

Nelvin Jules leaving Masbate port

I see many, many more years of sailing and service for the two sisters if the gauge is how sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation is taking care of the older ferries acquired from Bicolandia Shipping Lines. Both are equipped with tough and lost-lasting Daihatsu marine engines and simply put their company has the revenues and moolah to take care of them well. It has even a stake in Nagasaka Shipyard in the Tayud row of shipyards in Cebu where they are given priority.

16611852613_80ba8e3a23_z

Nelvin Jules in Nagasaka Shiyard

If 50 years is the gauge now of longevity of ships, they will still be around in 2035, knock on wood.

A Report on the Recent Situation of Bicol Passenger Shipping

When I talk of Bicol passenger shipping that includes those that have routes to Samar for in the main Bicol ships do those route with the notable exception of Montenegro Shipping Lines which are dayo (foreigner) to Bicol but have a base in Masbate port. In the main, I don’t refer to the Cebu-Masbate steel-hulled ferries because those routes are just one of the operations of Cebu shipping companies with the notable exception too of Montenegro Lines which has a national operation of short-distance ferry-ROROs.

The biggest shipping companies in Bicol are the sister companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which are legal-fiction companies of each other. They have combined operations, single crewing and maintenance and their ships rotate within their common routes. The only difference is the ships bought out from the defunct Bicolandia Shipping are all in Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (PSC) and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) is what made Bicolandia Shipping cry, “Uncle!” (which means give up na).

31871418223_421bbbc17e_z

The twin shipping companies have a total of 10 ROPAX ships plus a Cargo RORO LCT which is a recent acquisition to match that of NN+ATS (more on this later). Their best ship, the beautiful Jack Daniel (no, there isn’t free tasting of the famous drink) was acquired not so long ago and it is almost a fixture in the Masbate-Pio Duran route where her beautiful and luxurious lounge can be fully used and appreciated by the passengers since it is a three-and-a-half-hour route.

SCSC and PSC ply all the Bicol routes except for some parallel routes like the Tabaco-San Andres and Masbate-Pilar routes (more on this later). Which means they ply the Tabaco-Virac, Matnog-Allen (now through their own Jubasan port) and Masbate-Pio Duran routes. They don’t ply the Masbate-Pilar route as their ships are too big for the shallow Pilar port which lies in an estuary. In Catanduanes, it seems they now have a modus vivendi with Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) which now is doing the Tabaco-San Andres route exclusively through Codon port (but that route is not necessarily weaker than the Tabaco-Virac route as buses and trucks going to northern Catanduanes prefer that route because the remaining distance is shorter). Additionally, SCSC and PSC also operate the Liloan-Lipata route (however, after the Surigao quake RORO operations were transferred from Lipata Ferry Terminal to the Verano port of Surigao).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The new development in Catanduanes shipping is the arrival of a new player, Cardinal Shipping which fielded the High Speed Craft (HSC) Silangan Express 1 which has good schedules and a very interesting fare which is even less than one might expect for a Tourist accommodation in a ROPAX (P320 fare in airconditioned accommodation versus the P230 Economy fare of a ROPAX ship). That is very cheap compared to the fastcrafts of Montenegro Lines in Masbate that charges double of the Economy fare of the ROPAX. The route of Cardinal Shipping is also Tabaco-Codon like that of Regina Shipping Lines or RSL.

32771830416_e4fe8a7d7c_b

Another ferry was also added to the fleet of Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) when they acquired the former Maharlika Cuatro from Gabisan Shipping which purchased it from Archipelago Ferries. It was in Mayon Docks of Tabaco City last January but as of this writing she is already running as the Regina Calixta VI. RSL now also has an operation in the Batangas-Abra de Ilog route through Aqua Real Shipping and Calixta-III.

Tabaco port is also building an extension again and this is probably the third already. I am thinking, what for? In all my visits there I never saw Tabaco port full and I don’t think port visit is increasing there. There is also not that need for a big back-up area. There are no container vans unloaded there and ships that visit are generally small. To compare now, Masbate port is even busier than Tabaco port and Legazpi port is even their rival in port calls (as they both serve the province of Albay).

I thought before that the refurbishment of Legazpi port was not needed but it seems I was mistaken. There are more ships docking there now and those are bigger than the ones which dock in Tabaco port. For one, when Cebu freighters visit Albay, they use Legazpi port and not Tabaco port because it is nearer from Cebu. And most freighters that use Tabaco are just Bicol ships which are smaller than Cebu ships. I was even surprised by the big, Malaysian coal barge I saw in Legazpi port.

31720440794_22fb324380_z

Like before there are no ROPAXes in Legazpi (as I argued before a population of 100,000 in an island is needed to keep a RORO afloat if there is no strong tourism and Rapu-rapu island does not meet that criteria). Instead it has lots of big passenger motor bancas to Rapu-rapu and Batan islands plus Cagraray island too. The new passenger terminal building of Legazpi looks beautiful and modern. Like in Tabaco, the port and port terminal building (PTB) is open to the public and there is no cloud of suspicion that hovers unlike in ISPS ports. It was just like in the past when ports are just like part of public domain. That openness was the thing changed by this damned ISPS.

With the completion of the bridge from Albay mainland to Cagraray island through the Sula Channel, the old small Michael Ellis LCT to Misibis is now gone. A connecting bridge to an island is always better than a connection by an LCT. Maybe with that Cagraray island will develop faster.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation now have their new Jubasan port completed in Allen, Samar and so they already withdrew from using the BALWHARTECO port, their old port of entry to Samar, to the great disappointment and anger of the owner which nearly resulted into a court battle. I wonder if the judge-son-in-law of the owner was able to make clear to the patriarch that if it is all straight law then they would lose eventually and they might even be vulnerable to counter-suits they being the LGU holders (like a graft counter-charge).

32697120411_83e06a9c23_z

With the withdrawal of SCSC and PSC from their port, BALWHARTECO invited Montenegro Lines to just use their port exclusively. Before, Montenegro Lines used both BALWHARTECO and the Dapdap port of Philharbor, the sister company of Archipelago Ferries which once operated the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries. With the withdrawal of Montenegro Lines from Dapdap port now that port no longer has ferry operations. What is left there are the passenger motor bancas to the island off it which is Dalupiri island.

Before this, Philharbor invited Montenegro Lines to use Dapdap port since Archipelago have sold already their Maharlika ships and was already in the process of disposing their Grand Star RORO ships. If there is no other ferry company that will use the port it will fall vacant since the route allowed by MARINA to the new FastCats of Archipelago Ferries was the Matnog-San Isidro route. Before their withdrawal only Montenegro ferries were still using Dapdap port.

32495162910_39d1c91915_z

It seems BALWHARTECO made a good offer to Montenegro Lines. They are known to be flexible and accommodating as their record of the past decades will show. Meanwhile, the Alvarez group which controls Archipelago Ferries, Philharbor and Philtranco is not known for that. They are instead known for quick retreats when subjected to the pressure of competition.

So I was not surprised by the result. Here is the queer situation of a port owner and operator with no ships of their sister companies docking because it is using a different port and a route that is significantly longer (which is the Matnog-San Isidro route). As a change, instead of being a ‘port to nowhere’ the San Isidro Ferry Terminal is now active again (she was active before Montenegro Lines left her for Dapdap and BALWHARTECO ports).

1135

It seems Montenegro Lines was the winner of the BALWHARTECO-Sta. Clara turmoil. Previously they were using four ferries in the Matnog-Allen route, two in Dapdap and two in BALWHARTECO. Recently they are now just using three ferries. It seems that was enough to have a ferry always on standby in the port which has more traffic (in the day that will be Allen and in the night that will be Matnog).

Another winner in the route is the NN+ATS outfit which is now openly admitted as an operation of 2GO. They are using chartered Cargo RORO LCTs from Primary Trident Solutions, owner of the Poseidon LCTs and now they even fielded a ROPAX LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26. They are operating that LCT under the banner of SulitFerry and the acronym is also “SF”, a reminder of their SuperFerry past before those liners were promoted into saints.

32369583991_5a8a32f01c_z

With the Cargo RORO LCTs, the queue endured by the non-regular trucks in the Matnog-Allen route has come to an end as they are the priority of the Cargo RORO LCTs. These ships does not take in buses with its passengers and so no passenger accommodations are needed. The truck crews are just expected to stay with their vehicles for the duration of the voyage. MARINA is actually too suspicious of Cargo RORO LCTs having areas that can take in passengers on the sly.

The arrival of the Cargo RORO LCTs has affected the dynamics in the Matnog-Allen route. It has definitely taken traffic from the ROPAXes and the weight is significant because the non-regular trucks pay the highest rates. Actually, the rates paid by the regular trucks is heavily discounted and it is not always paid in cash (which means credit).

Another thing, from being second-class citizens the non-regular truck is now king but their loyalty now is on NN+ATS. What a turn-around too. From being largely ignorant of Matnog-Allen route because they were too confident of their CHA-ROs (Chassis-RORO) aboard their container ships and liners, now 2GO is already a player in intermodal route which helped kill their liners.

32903893666_c6576e2184_z1

It is also good that they use chartered LCTs whose crew is from Primary Trident Solutions. These crews are not graduates of the ‘shooing away’ seminars of 2GO, they have no knowledge of ISPS (and probably they don’t care too) and so like in the past they are very friendly to the passengers which they do not think or treat like potential “terrorists” like what is taught in 2GO seminars.

But even with NN+ATS and SulitFerry around and the concentration of Montenegro operations there, BALWHARTECO port is not too busy like in the past when to think 168 Shipping is still there with its three Star Ferry ships. Really, the weight SCSC and PSC is great especially since they have a lot of trucks and buses under contract.

746

The PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) was impressed by the new Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. It was not small and unlike most private ports that will start with portions being unpaved in Jubasan it is a completely paved port. As such it is cleaner having no mud and people and patrons would not find it hard moving around (now one would wonder why after all these decades BALWHARTECO port is still mainly unpaved). They also maintained the slope of the land and so rain water immediately drains into the sea instead of forming puddles. There are a lot of eateries inside and it is a step up compared to what can be found in BALWHARTECO port including the presence of chairs and tables outside the eateries which are good for lounging around and sundowning.

Jubasan port is more orderly and it looks more modern. Maybe with the shipping company being the operator it should end up that way as they have full control. By the way, Jubasan port will also have a lodge like in BALWHARTECO port. The structure is already there, that is the area above the eateries but it is not yet operating when PSSS visited the place. Now I don’t know if they will also have a disco like in BALWHARTECO port. Jubasan port also does not have the so-many hawkers of BALWHARTECO port.

Matnog meanwhile has minimal changes. I thought when they twice reclaimed new land the docking space will improve. It did not. There are two new RORO ramps on the left of the finger port (as viewed from the sea) but when I passed through it twice no ship was using it. Actually the docking space of Matnog port did not increase and on high tide a ship will still try to dock askew in the wharf for lack of docking space. During the late afternoon and evening peak hours not all the ships can dock and it has to undock after disgorging their rolling cargo and anchor offshore.

946

I still cannot fathom how the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) inputs ship calls in their planning that they cannot see their docking area is not enough for the number of ships calling. They have two new RORO ramps but they bulldozed rocks beneath it. And so maybe the ships fear damage if they use those. Why can’t they just use the causeway-type of wharf like what is used in BALWHARTECO and Dapdap ports which can dock more ships for their given length of wharf space? The only reason I can see why PPA is too inept in port design is because they really can’t attract qualified people. And to compensate for this lack, their annual reports will be full of praises for themselves and their “achievements”. And now their top honcho says the Makati Car Club will test the RORO system. Now what does Porsche and Ferrari owners know about port design and the RORO system if one is not Enrique Razon? It was not designed for their kind of cars and heels.

Masbate port is actually more impressive than Legazpi or Tabaco in terms of activity. Unlike the two ports which looks semi-fringe in location (as in facing the ocean already), Masbate port is in the center of a nexus and connecting many islands. There are simply more ships there and more types from overnight ferries to short-distance ferry-roros to fastcrafts to motor bancas plus the usual freighters. The new port terminal building is now operating and so there is more try of control now to ensure everybody uses it (this is what I call as “cattle herding”). And I don’t like that system treating passengers not like people but like commodities.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Actually, they can simply sell a ticket to anyone who wants to buy, passenger or not, like in Zamboanga port. With so many buses boarding their port terminal building is not sufficient (now tell me when did PPA learned how to input numbers). If the old system where buses simply park somewhere in the port and soon board afterwards was enough why try to force down the passengers down the bus so they will pass through the passenger terminal building when it does not have enough capacity anyway even in airconditioning? If terminal fee is all they want then they can just put in a table by the ship ramp. An explanation: bus passengers here already have their ferry tickets issued by the bus conductor so actually they do not need to queue as the buses offer free ferry tickets to their passengers. If the buses can be efficient why can’t the PPA? The reason is simple – they are a government entity.

What I noticed is it seems more passenger motor bancas are now using the Masbate municipal port cum fish landing area. Actually it has the advantage that it is just near the integrated bus, jeep and van terminal of Masbate City. The passenger motor bancas for Burias can also be found here. If I may have a suggestion, it is better if the passenger motor bancas just dock by the integrated terminal. Nothing beats that. If only they will see what is logical (but they might lose the votes of the cargadores and the tricycle drivers).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Masbate-Pio Duran route is now stronger compared to the Masbate-Pilar route in terms of RORO operation. It is actually the shorter route to Manila and it can accommodate bigger ships whereas Pilar can only accommodate basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. Medallion Transport has withdrawn from this route as a fall-out of the sinking of their Lady of Carmel. SCSC and PSC was the big winner in this and they now have made permanent two of their biggest ships in this route which have length of over 60 meters versus the 30 meters plus of the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs of Pilar.

In the Masbate-Pilar route, Denica Lines now has two ROROs that are running simultaneously and they were able to create a late departure from Bicol (or is it an early one?) when they created an early evening Pilar-Masbate schedule. Denica Lines also have two fastcrafts for refitting now that is moored in Pilar port. Obviously, they want to get a slice of the pie of the MSLI fastcraft business. If they price it like the Silangan Express to Catanduanes then MSLI will be forced to cut their high fares.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In Pilar, I noticed they now have a Pilar-Mandaon passenger motor banca running. Plus they have pre-dawn departures now from Pilar for three destinations – Masbate City, Aroroy and Mandaon (Mandaon is a gateway to Romblon). They were able to expand Pilar port but its operation is just still like a municipal port as there is no good port lighting (are their charges for the ROROs and passengers not enough?). By the way, the ROROs from Pilar start earlier now. Good for those with still long land travel still remaining in Masbate island.

As before there are a lot of passenger motor bancas in Masbate port going to Pilar, Ticao island, the west bank of Masbate Bay. But maybe the Baleno bancas are gone because there is a van going there now up to Aroroy. The passenger motor bancas are still fighting even though it is already the era of the ROROs and the buses and the trucks aboard them. With no porterage and running at hours when there is no RORO they are still surviving. Well, the buses dictate the schedules of the ROROs and so I can’t see them running 24 hours as the buses have only certain hours of departures from Masbate and Manila.

33021931845_5b4ab40f67_z

Some things of note. One, the Super Shuttle Ferry 19 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation has been sold and Olmillo Shipping has taken over the Bogo-Cawayan route. A new development too in this area was the fielding of Island Shipping of a ROPAX LCT in the Hagnaya-Cawayan route. The MSLI ferry is still running the Bogo-Cataingan route and ditto for Lapu-lapu Shipping that runs the Cataingan-Cebu route. In the future, however, the Bogo and Hagnaya ferries will most likely transfer to the new Maya RORO port because it is simply nearer to Masbate. Meanwhile, the big passenger- cargo motor bancas running between Masbate and northern Cebu are still running and their business not threatened after the initial cut made by the arrival of the ROROs.

Recently, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines don’t have a ship anymore to Masbate from Cebu, a victim of their lack of ferries. Cokaliong Shipping Lines has not fully filled up the slack and it has only a once a week Cebu-Masbate sked but they are always fielding a new good overnight ferry of theirs in the route. Meanwhile, for a year now Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) doesn’t have an operation anymore to Masbate since their SuperShuttle RORO 3 had engine problems. It has been over a year since 2GO withdrew their liner that passes through Masbate on the way to Ormoc and Cebu. Can’t really beat the intermodal buses and trucks now and as the saying goes if one can’t beat then join them and so they already had that NN+ATS in the Matnog-Allen route.

32647920551_fc660e2f30_z

Burias motor banca arriving in Pasacao

In other Bicol routes, passenger motor bancas still connect Burias island to Pasacao and Pio Duran while Ticao island has passenger motor bancas sailing to Bulan and Masbate ports. Masbate is also connected by passenger motor bancas from Cataingan to Calbayog in Samar and to Roxas City in Panay from Balud and Milagros and to Romblon from Mandaon. Caramoan through Guijalo port also has passenger motor banca to San Andres in Catanduanes through the Codon port. San Miguel island is connected by passenger motor bancas to Tabaco port.

And that above is what comprises Bicol shipping all in all. Not tackled here are the minor routes served by small passenger bancas that go to small islands that does not have a municipality and to coastal barrios which has no roads.

[Written based on January 2017 data.]

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 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.