The China-built LCTs

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

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

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

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Row of LCTs in North Mactan Channel

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

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Cargo RORO LCTs in Carmen port

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

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

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

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Brizu, a container carrier LCT by Ocean Transport

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

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ASC Ashley of Asian Shipping Corporation

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

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Owned LCTs by Roble Shipping

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

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

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

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

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).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo of Jubasan port by James Gabriel Verallo

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

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

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

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The FastCat M9

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

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

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

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

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

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Star Ferry II

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

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

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The Don Benito Ambrosio II by James Gabriel Verallo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Star Ferry 7 in the rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Cargo RORO LCT

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

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

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

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Dapdap port

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

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

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Reina Emperatriz and BALWHARTECO port by James Gabriel Verallo

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

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

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

It Is a Dogfight Now in the Surigao-Leyte Routes

In the early days there was only one RORO route connecting Surigao and Lipata across Surigao Strait and this was the Lipata-Liloan route using Lipata Ferry Terminal and Liloan Ferry Terminal. There was an earlier route using Surigao port and Liloan municipal port (run by Cardinal Ferry 2 of Cardinal Shipping) but that was in the earliest years and was gone in due time when the Ferry Terminals were built. And there was that really old routes using motor bancas to link Surigao to San Ricardo and Cabalian which are existing until today. And if Dinagat is considered still a part of Surigao then there is still a motor banca connecting that to Liloan.

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In the 1990’s, the RORO crossing between Lipata and Liloan was languid. At its worst there were only two trips each day and that happens in the off-peak season or when some ferries are hit by mechanical troubles or was in the drydock. This crossing then between Surigao Strait was known to be the base to some of the lousiest ferries in the country but to their credit they do not sink. Empirically, as has been noted in the Philippines there is no correlation between lack of maintenance and sinking. It really depends on the seamanship.

The Maharlika ferries then connecting Lipata and Liloan was known to sail even if only one of two of its engines is running. And Maharlika Dos will just stop sailing if its two engines were not running anymore and then clog Liloan Ferry Terminal. And to think this was a ferry built just the decade before. It even seems then that Maharlika Cinco was more reliable when to think she already had an excursion to the bottom of the sea in Coron as the Mindoro Express.

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The Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping was no more reliable then being very old already and there were instances she simply conks out and is not heard for months. Many will then surmise she was cut up already and when many think she was gone she will reappear suddenly. I was not too surprised by the performance and lousiness of these ferries because I had already observed the pattern that this was an affliction of many Marcos transport companies. Maintenance is lousy and there is no management to speak of if based on management books.

Three trips then in a day in one way was just enough for the traffic. Two trips is bad especially if one arrives in an off-hours because that will mean hours of interminable wait. Baddest is if one just misses a ship. That happened twice to me when I missed the 12nn ship in Liloan and I have to wait for the next trip which was 11pm. Mind you there is really nothing to go to, nothing to do in Liloan and the nearest semi-urbanized town Sogod is more than 40 kilometers away. There was also no cellphone signal then there in Liloan. There were also many times I reached Liloan in late afternoon and the next ferry was still that 11pm ferry because the 5pm ferry is missing.

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There are not many vehicles crossing then yet and the only buses crossing were the Philtranco buses to and from Manila (it was Pantranco South earlier). The long-distance trucks still have to discover this route then. Most trucks crossing then were Mindanao trucks that have goods to sell north.

Slowly the traffic grew. There were even those that bring their vehicles to Manila so they will have a car there. And slowly the trucks from Manila began using this route as well as the trucks that have a commerce between Southern Mindanao and Cebu. The Bachelor buses also started their route to Tacloban and Ormoc.

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Photo Credit: Bemes Lee Mondia

That then proved that the old ferries of the route – Maharlika Dos, Maharlika Cinco and Millennium Uno were inadequate. The first challenge and the first improvement was the arrival of the Super Shuttle Ferry 5 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) which arrived in the late 1990’s. The Super Shuttle Ferry 10 replaced it later. Along the way, Asian Marine Transport Corporation also rotated other ferries there.

The fielding of a lone AMTC ferry was just enough to fill up the needed lack of ferries in the route especially since Maharlika Dos and Millennium Uno never had sustained periods of reliability. It was also welcome since it was cleaner, faster and had an airconditioned accommodation plus it did not smell.

Things changed when Benit port at the southern tip of Panaon island was built by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, she who is wont for duplicate ports. However, Benit is not a simple duplicate port since its crossing distance is much shorter and so at the very start it was a threat to Liloan like when Allen displaced San Isidro port in Samar.

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At the start, nobody plied a route to Benit. Maybe the incumbent ships of the route didn’t want a change because after all they can charge more in the longer route. But that proved shortsighted.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo then gave the operation of the port to Montenegro Shipping Lines, her favorite shipping company. Maybe to forestall any loss she made it a buy one, take one deal. She also gave the operation of the very profitable Matnog port to Montenegro Lines! As they say in the Philippines, iba na ang malakas!

Montenegro Lines then proceeded to operate a Lipata-Benit route. Suddenly, the former pliers of the Lipata-Liloan route found they have been outflanked. The crossing time to Benit is just over a third of theirs. And woe to them, the Manila bus companies which had a route to Liloan extended their route to San Ricardo (which has jurisdiction over Benit). But don’t think the Manila buses goes to Benit port. They don’t. One still has to take a 2-kilometer habal-habal ride to the port.

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Montenegro Lines made a killing in the Benit route. Their rates are almost the same as the Liloan rates and yet they only travel 3/8 of the distance. If that is not tubong-lugaw, I don’t know what is. The passenger fares are also much higher per nautical mile than the Liloan fares. And ever since from then the ridership and load of the Liloan ferries have been on the decline. There was even a time when all buses – Philtranco, Bachelor and the various colorum buses were taking the Benit route.

Then came the Typhoon Yolanda tragedy. With the surge in relief and rehabilitation efforts suddenly there were complaints of mile-long queues of trucks. It was not only because of Yolanda. By this time the forwarders and shippers have found that sending a truck especially a wing van truck to Mindanao is cheaper than a container van and it arrives earlier. This was also the time too when Manila port congestion and Manila traffic became issues and the forwarders and shippers found it was better to send a truck down south than try to beat the traffic and congestion in Manila. And the benefit is double if the origin is LABAZON (CALABARZON without Cavite and Rizal). By the time the cargo is loaded in a container ship in North Harbor the comparative truck will already be making deliveries in Mindanao.

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And so MARINA approved the fielding of Cargo RORO LCTs which was designed to take in the trucks and its crews. Supposedly it does not take in passengers but it seems there are exceptions. The people call it “2GO” there because the operator is NN+ATS. The Cargo RORO LCTs are just chartered but they are the brand-new China LCTs which are called “deck loading ships”.

Along this way, AMTC lost its route service because they lacked ships and they pulled out the Super Shuttle Ferry 18 so it will retain its Roxas-Caticlan route. Sta. Clara Shipping/Penafrancia Shipping then appeared in the Liloan-Lipata route. I thought there was an equilibrium already.

But lo and behold! the much anticipated and already announced FastCats of Archipelago Philippine Ferries (which were also the owner of the lousy Maharlika ships appeared) and they brought not one but two new catamaran FastCats which are faster and has higher rolling capacity than the old ferries in the route. They might have really been entitled to two since previously they had two ships there but one already sank, the Maharlika Dos and the others were sold, the Maharlika Cuatro and Maharlika Cinco (the first was a replacement for the latter).

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Lately, it seems FastCat pulled out one of its crafts but is still sailing 3 round trips a day (or at least two on weak days). And being fast and new it is pulling in the vehicles. Meanwhile, the Cargo RORO LCTs are suctioning the trucks as it is the cheapest transit available. With those two developments even Montenegro Lines in Benit is affected. But more affected are the other ferries in Liloan that they now resort to “callers” in the junction leading to Liloan port. How fortunes change! In the past just when a ship is arriving there was already a queue of vehicles for them.

Added to the fray is Millennium Shipping which is not quitting yet. The Grandstar RORO 3, previously of Archipelago Philippine Ferries appeared and it is using the Liloan municipal port. Reports say it is Millennium Shipping that is operating it already aside from their Millennium Uno.

Times have changed. Where before three or four trips a day seemed adequate it seems there are about 15 trips a day now but not all are full. The way I sense it with the Cargo RORO LCTs and FastCat it is already a dogfight now and there might even be an excess of bottoms already.

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Photo Credit: Joel Bado

Well, that is good as the public might benefit. However, I have doubts as I noticed MARINA never ever learned how to compute rates even in light of cheap fuel. I wonder if fuel consumption is ever factored in their rates.

I just wonder if AMTC and Ocean King I are thankful they are no longer in the route.

The Biggest Shipping Combine in Bicolandia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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!