The MV Eugene Elson

The MV Eugene Elson of Penafrancia Shipping Corporation of Bicol is one of the oldest ROPAXes (Roll-On, Roll-Off Passenger ship) still sailing in Philippine waters but she is still very reliable and well-appreciated. As a 1965-built ROPAX from Japan she has the looks and lines of the small ROPAX of that era which means she is a little chubby in looks and not that angular like the MV Melrivic Seven of Aznar Shipping which was also built in 1965. However, those looks do not detract from her primary purpose and mission which is to ferry passengers and rolling cargo (i.e. vehicles) safely and reliably.

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Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS

This ship’s usual route is Tabaco, Albay to Virac, the capital and main port of the small island-province of Catanduanes. Tabaco City is the gateway to the province and the size of MV Eugene Elson is just right for that route as there are almost no ferries that is 50 meters in length there (except when there rotations due to drydocking). And also there are no 30-meter ferries in that route out of respect for the waves in the sea between the two provinces and besides single-engine ferries are not liked there, for safety and maneuvering reasons. So the MV Eugene Elson with its two engines and screws fits the bill well there too.

The MV Eugene Elson is a RORO ferry built by Hashihama Zosen of namesake city Hashihama in Japan where their yard is located. As said earlier, she was built in 1965 but her IMO Number is already 6601517 (in those days the first two digits of the IMO Number indicate the year the ship was built but that is not the case anymore nowadays). She was completed in December of 1965 and completion date is the date when the ship is already equipped and ready to sail. Her external measurements are 41.7 meters in Length Over-all (LOA), a Registered Length (RL) of 38.5 meters and a Length Between Perpendiculars (LPP) of 37.5 meters. The ferry’s Breadth is 14.6 meters locally although in Japan it was only 12.5 meters (the first one might be the more accurate one). Her Depth is 3.0 meters. As a whole she is not a big ship and a ship that is only a little larger than a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO (by the Philippines Ship Spotters Society definition) which in general is only 30 meters or so in length and sometimes even shorter.

In Japan, her Gross Tonnage (GT) was 526 (tons is no longer affixed in GT) but locally it was only 488. Her declared Net Tonnage (NT) which is the usable space of the ship for passengers and cargo is 118 which is rather suspiciously low. The ship’s Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) is 138 tons and she has a passenger capacity of 484 persons, all in sitting accommodations. The MV Eugene Elson is actually the smallest ferry in the fleet of the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (PSC) which was the successor company to the defunct Bicolandia Shipping Lines which used to own her. However small, this ferry still has two passenger decks with an airconditioned Mabuhay Class.

Eugene Elson bridge

Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS

The ship’s hull material is steel. She has one mast, two funnels and two RORO (Roll-on, Roll-off) ramps for ingress and egress of vehicles but the bow ramp is also the one used by the passengers for the same purpose as ferries in Bicol do not have separate passenger ramps (the stern ramp of this ship seems to have been welded shut already). The bow ramp of this ship is extended to better cope with low tide conditions. This ferry has a raked stem (which was what was usual in the era) and a transom stern (which is still what is common nowadays).

The MV Eugene Elson is powered by two Daihatsu marine engines with a total output of 1,100 horsepower. This is sufficient to propel her at 11.5 knots when new but nowadays she just chugs along at about 10 knots, the reason she takes four hours for her route which is less than 40 nautical miles. That is not a shame as most ferries in the route have about the same sailing time although some are faster than her.

Our group, the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) is familiar with this ship as once the group has already toured her when she was drydocked in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu and the master then, Captain Jun Benavides was gracious and hospitable enough to let us roam his ship and use her as a ship spotting platform (yes, passengers can reach the roof of this ship which is also the Bridge deck). Of course, he had also shared plenty of stories to us. We whiled our time there savoring the cooling breeze of the late afternoon until it was time to go for daylight was soon dimming.

Eugene Elson

Photo by James Gabriel Verallo of PSSS

This ship, when newly-built was first named as the MV Shimotsui Maru of the Kansai Kisen K.K. of Japan In 1976, under the same name, she was transferred to Kansai Kyuko Ferry K.K. Then in 1984, before her 20th year (the time Japan begins replacing its old ferries), this ferry came to the Philippines as the MV San Agustin of May-Nilad Shipping, a Manila ferry company that was always short in routes. Later, she became the MV Eugenia of Esteban Lul.

After a short time, this ship was transferred to Eugenia Tabinas of E. Tabinas Enterprises under the same name MV Eugenia. I just wonder about the relationship of Eugenia Tabinas and Esteban Lul. E. Tabinas Enterprises and Bicolandia Shipping Lines which are synonymous and the same is headquartered in Tabaco, Albay. These dual companies took over the ships and operations of the pioneering Trans-Bicol Shipping Lines which was then just operating wooden motor boats or MBs then which otherwise were called as lancha in the region.

During its heyday, E. Tabinas Enterprises/Bicolandia Shipping Lines was the dominant Bicol shipping company and had routes from all the relevant Bicol gateways, i.e. Tabaco, Matnog and Bulan (which are both in the province of Sorsogon and Masbate. However, in 1999 a new shipping company with deeper pockets appeared in the critical Matnog-Allen, Samar route. This is the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) which challenged the claimed “pioneer” status of Eugenia Tabinas’ shipping companies. “Pioneer status” supposedly confers exclusivity to a route.

Eugenia Tabinas and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation fought initially from MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the Philippines’ regulatory agency in shipping and then all the way to the Supreme Court. When Eugenia Tabinas finally lost she offered a lock, stock and barrel sell-out to her enemy which was accepted and so she forever bowed out of shipping. This was the reason why MV Eugenia was transferred not to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation but to the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which was created specifically for the take-over of E. Tabinas Enterprises and Bicolandia Shipping Lines. This take-over and hand-off happened in 2006 and from then on the twin companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation were already the dominant shipping companies in Bicol (and until now).

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MV Eugene Elson in older livery in Virac port. Photo by Edsel Benavides

Under Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, all the former ferries of Eugenia Tabinas were renamed (except for the sunk MV Northern Samar) and so the MV Eugenia became the MV Eugene Elson. In the fleet of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which has combined operations, she is the smallest in terms of Gross Tonnage and Length. But she is not the smallest ever ROPAX to operate in Bicol as there were and are a few that are even smaller than her.

As mentioned before, the Tabaco-Virac route along Lagonoy Gulf is her main route now, a route known for rough seas during the amihan (northeast monsoon) season as that route is exposed to the open sea. But even  though small, she proved capable for that route although once a bus lain to her side even though lashed from the top when a rogue wave hit her in the bow. In the said route she would leave Tabaco port at daybreak and arrive in Virac at mid-morning. She would then depart Virac port after lunch and arrive in Tabaco at about 5pm and lay over in Tabaco port for the night. It is the buses’ schedules that dictate such departure times and buses and its passengers are the priority loads of the MV Eugene Elson like the other ROPAXes based in Tabaco. Nowadays, she always leave full as so many buses and trucks already cross to Catanduanes from the Bicol peninsula.

Eugene Elson top lash

Over-the-top lashing is de rigueur in the Catanduanes route

All in all, the MV Eugene Elson had a successful career and it seems she is destined for many more years of sailing (well, unless MARINA loses its mind and cull old ships as that has been their threat for many years already). Barring that scenario, I hope she still sails and sails and sails. And keep the record as the oldest sailing ferry  in Bicol.

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The MV Jack Daniel

Two years ago, in 2015, when the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) had a tour of Cansaga, the group espied a beautiful white ship with red funnels being refitted in Nagasaka Shipyard, the former Villono Shipyard in the Tayud row of shipyards in Cebu. We were able to gain entry to the shipyard which happened to be the most hospitable in that row then. Drawing nearer, we saw the name of her former company, the Olive Line of Japan and we learned she was destined for the Sta. Clara Shipping Company, the biggest shipping company of Bicol.

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We were impressed with the ship because she was modern-looking and sleek too. A quick check with maritime databases revealed she was the former MV Azuki Maru and the ship was built by Fujiwara Zosensho in 1990 and she carries the ID IMO 8848604.

A query in the shipyard said she will not be modified much and she will sail very soon. But we later learned one passenger deck was added to the ship which is very usual in the Philippines to increase passenger capacity. I actually half-expected that since I know Sta. Clara Shipping carries a lot of buses and in such cases the ship will need a high passenger capacity. Just loading six to eight buses which is normal in Bicol might already mean a total of 300 to 400 passengers in the peak seasons.

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I later learned from her Captain that she was taken out from Nagasaka Shipyard and her finishing works like painting were just done in Pantao port, a “port to nowhere” in the southern coast of Albay beyond the southern mountain range which is actually the official regional port of the Bicol Region but where no ships dock. It was done to save on costs as that will mean paying up just the normal docking fees.

The MV Jack Daniel is a medium-sized RORO ferry by Philippine standards and big for a short-distance route. All routes of Sta. Clara Shipping are short which means the transit time is only one to three hours. This ferry has ramps at the bow and at the stern leading to her single car deck and she has two passenger decks. The ship is equipped with the modern bulbous stem and her stern is transom.

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The external measurements of the ship is 65.0 meters by 14.0 meters and her Depth is 3.7 meters. Locally, her Gross Tonnage (GT) declined from the 965 in Japan to 795 which is a probable underdeclaration. Her declared Net Tonnage (NT) is 541 (and her ratio to the GT of 795 is unusual). MV Jack Daniel’s Deadweight Tonnage (DWT), the measure of loading capacity is 252 tons.

Locally, the ship’s Call Sign is DUF2109 and her MMSI Number is 431000381. She is equipped with twin Niigata engines with 4,300 horsepower on tap and her design speed is 17 knots. For her size, she has the most powerful engines in the country and she has the highest design speed. Tracked in AIS (Automatic Identification System), she is still running at 13-13.5 knots which means a transit time of 3 hours in her current Masbate-Pio Duran route and this is important as she is the ship that is last to depart from Masbate at 4pm on every other trip.

The ship has a wonderful and aesthetically very pleasant air-conditioned lounge with comfy sofas that is used as the Tourist Class. This is also important in the route for those who want to be relaxed before riding again the bus (as most of her passengers are bus passengers). The Tourist Class of the ship is also equipped with Japan original seats with tables and there is plenty of roaming space in that accommodation. And big windows make observance of the seascape easy.

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The Economy Class of the ship consists of the usual fiberglass seats in the short-distance routes in the country. This is located in the upper passenger deck, the deck that was added in Nagasaka Shipyard and located at bridge level. The passenger capacity of MV Jack Daniel is 492.

I have been to the bridge of this ship and it looks modern. In general the ship is still clean and tidy. The car deck has four lanes and it has about 750 lane-meters. Trucks, buses and sedans plus a few motorcycles are the usual rolling cargo of MV Jack Daniel. And as usual in short-distance routes there is that basic canteen selling drinks, instant noodles and biscuits which are just meant as snacks and not as meals.

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The MV Jack Daniel has the unique feature in that the roof of the box-like structure at the bow of the ship can be raised hydraulically and it is automatically raised when docked. So there is no problem that a high truck or bus will scrape that roof when the tide is low.

For a long time now the MV Jack Daniel is sailing the Masbate-Pio Duran route linking Masbate province and Albay and a route for buses, trucks and cars from Masbate to Manila and vice-versa. She is fit there as her comfort and speed can’t be enjoyed enough in the short Matnog-Allen route across San Bernardino Strait. Alternatively, she is also fit in the Liloan-Surigao route of the company which is approximately equal in distance and sailing time to the Masbate-Pio Duran route.

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As of today the MV Jack Daniel is the best ship of Sta. Clara Shipping and also the fastest. She also have those distinctions in the Masbate to Bicol mainland routes that includes the Masbate-Pilar route. The ship is known to have good load in her route which has always been going up since it was created a few years ago.

The MV Jack Daniel is the pride of Sta. Clara Shipping. She has reason to be.

The Jadestar Tres and the Jadestar Seis

The Jadestar Tres and Jadestar Seis were once small short-distance ferry-cruisers by Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) definition. These two are sister ships and before they plied the Cebu-Tubigon short-distance route for Jadestar Shipping Lines. This company has folded now after initial success and these sister ships are the only ones still sailing from the old Jadestar fleet although in different capacities and in different places now.

Among the two it was Jadestar Seis that was built earlier in 1982 and she was originally known as the Tsuya Maru. Jadestar Tres was built in 1984 and she was first known as the Sei Maru. Both ships were built by Nagasaki Shipyard & Machinery Works in Nagasaki, Japan. Tsuya Maru/Jadestar Seis has the ID IMO 8204377 and Sei Maru/Jadestar Tres has the ID IMO 8408117. Jadestar Tres had the local Call Sign DUH 2428 and Jadestar Seis had the local Call Sign DUH 2436. The closeness of the two call signs means they arrived in the Philippines not far apart and of course the Jadestar Tres arrived first.

Both ships arrived in 2005 and were once the workhorses of Jadestar Shipping in the Cebu-Tubigon route together with the Jadestar, the first ferry of the company as the Jadestar Nueve and Jadestar Doce did not play prominent roles for the company. Maybe that was because their different designs might not have been well too-suited even from the start (Jadestar Nueve, a former Hongkong ferry was very tall and sways in the Bohol Strait wind and Jadestar Doce was a Low Speed Craft catamaran). It was the three which then can be usually found in docked in Pier 3 or sailing in Bohol Strait with their distinctive red livery.

The two ships have steel hulls with  raked stems and  transom sterns. The sister ships have a single mast, two low funnels and two passenger decks. As cruiser ships, they did not carry vehicles and hence they did not have ramps for rolling cargo nor did they have car decks and this could have what was fatal to their careers in the Cebu-Tubigon route.

The sister ships had the same external dimensions at 36.0 meters LOA, 33.2 meter LBP, 7.2 meters breadth and 2.9 meters depth. However, Jadestar Seis‘ GT (gross tonnage) is 225 while that of Jadestar Tres is only 172. The NT (net tonnage) of Jadestar Seis is 116 and that of Jadestar Tres is 101 (these are nominal numbers and no “tons” are attached). The DWT (deadweight tonnage) of Jadestar Seis is 50 tons while the DWT of Jadestar Tres is 53 tons.

Jadestar Seis has a declared capacity of 502 persons while that of Jadestar Tres is 512 persons. These are all in sitting accommodations. The sister ships are both powered by single Daihatsu engines of 1,000 horsepower and they have a design top speed of 12 knots. However, in Bohol Strait they were usually doing 10 or 10.5 knots only.

The sister ships have an airconditioned Tourist class accommodation at the front of both the upper deck and the lower deck, the original passenger accommodations in Japan. At the rear of those are the open-air Economy accommodations. Some luggage and cargo can be stowed in the rear of the lower deck above the open engine room which is noisy (and so passengers avoid that area). However, few take the Tourist class as anyway the aircon and the smell were not first rate and nor are the seats.

At the start of their passenger operation in 2004, Jadestar Shipping found early success as people of Bohol are wont to going to Cebu for their needs. Cebu is also the transit point for many coming from other places like Mindanao if they are going to Bohol. Bohol’s tourism was also picking up and there are many Bol-anons studying or working in Cebu. Tubigon was also fast developing to be the alternate port to Tagbilaran and actually it was a cheaper alternative as it was nearer to Cebu at only half of the distance to Tagbilaran.

However, things always change and sometimes paradigm changes happen that upsets the old order of things. Lite Shipping, buoyed by many and fast ship acquisitions fielded the double-ended RORO ferries Lite Ferry 9 and Lite Ferry 10 in the Cebu-Tubigon route in 2009. Their challenge to the route was also tightened by the fielding of the Lite Ferry 22, a ROPAX LCT and the Lite Ferry 23, a low-speed catamaran RORO in the Mandaue-Tubigon route. These two were concentrating on the rolling cargo (i.e. vehicles) to Bohol.

Since rolling cargo revenue far outweighs passenger revenues (while rolling cargoes also bring passenger revenues from the vehicles’ passengers) these ROROs can run with less than half full of passenger load as long as they have a good load of vehicles. And Jadestar Shipping do not have that advantage since their ships are cruisers. Cruisers, by its very nature cannot carry a significant amount of cargo, even loose cargo.

In 2010, the Star Crafts fastcrats of Malaysian origin began appearing in the route. At double the speed of the Jadestars they can do the Cebu-Tubigon route in just an hour versus the two hours of the Jadestar while the fare is not double. This proved to be a big come-on especially since the Star Crafts were airconditioned. The aircon vs. aircon fare difference of the competitors was actually not big but the speed difference and transit times were great.

Come the second decade of the new millennium Jadestar Shipping was obviously being squeezed by Lite Shipping and by Sea Highway Carrier (including its legal-fiction companies), the company of the Star Crafts fastcrafts. One disadvantage of a shipping company with only one route like Jadestar Shipping is there is no other route that can buoy up the company if squeezed in one route. The Island Shipping Corp. cruisers were also being squeezed in the route but that company has a strong presence in the Cebu-Bantayan island route.

By 2012, Jadestar Shipping was already kaput, a victim of declining patronage and of revenues not enough to sustain operations. They stopped sailing and brought their ships to the shipyards. The useless Jadestar Nueve and Jadestar Doce were also sold for scrap. Once in a while, some PSSS ship spotters would view them in Tayud using ultrazoom or superzoom cameras. The distance was far.

In 2013, a Jadestar was first espied in the PPA vessel arrival/departure site. It carried the name Jadestar Legacy. A check by a PSSS Admin proved she was Jadestar Seis (the name is etched in the hull) in practically the same livery. Only the name “Legacy” was added but she was now registered in Zamboanga. Further check showed the seats in the rear of the lower deck were removed so more cargo can be stowed. There is more amount of cargo in Zamboanga than in Bohol.

The ship is now owned by Ibnerizam Shipping and she is doing the Zamboanga-Isabela City, Basilan route, an even shorter route than the 22 nautical miles of Cebu-Tubigon at only 14 nautical miles. Her passenger load in the new route is stronger. She has a very old, salty captain who was too fearful of the owner who is always aboard. This is the only captain I met who is not appreciative of a ship spotter admiring his old smoky bathtub. The old cruiser is now down to 8 to 8.5 knots although at times she would take two hours on the route if the sea is rough or the sea is against her.

Meanwhile, while visiting Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu my fellow ship spotter from PSSS suddenly recognized a ship now in green livery being refitted and converted. I was not sure of the identification but he was certain. Then the engraved name came. Sure she was the Jadestar Tres and she was being converted into a Gemini ship, the Gemini 10 specifically. This company is known for having cargo ships that look like passenger-cargo cruisers. It is owned by Wellington Chan Lim of Isla de Bantayan Shipping.

In a few months, ship spotters began seeing her between Pier 2 and Pier 3 in Cebu near the Lapu-lapu Shipping ferries in the cruiser ship row of Cebu Port. There is wide vacant spaces in the upper and lower decks. She loads cargo in boxes and also day-old chicks, among other goods. She supposedly does a route to Masbate. Her schedule to Cebu is irregular and it cannot be predicted when she will appear there. Maybe she is also sails to the other islands and ports.

These sisters are now just the survivors of the Jadestar Shipping fleet which even had a cargo ship before, the Jadestar Dos. Somehow, it is heartwarming that they are still sailing and did not end up as plain scrap metal.

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The MV Mac Bryan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Well-Travelled MV Asia Japan, the Third

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long live then this well-travelled ship!