Do the Sinkings of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and MS Estonia Have Any Bearing On Us?

The two named incidents are among the most famous in the maritime world when RORO or ROPAX accidents are mentioned and discussed. The two cases have been used in many times to highlight the weakness of ROROs compared to conventional freighters which feature watertight compartments which the ROROs are sorely lacking (watertight compartments prevent ingress of water in case of a hull breach). Moreover, the two incidents have been used as rationales for RORO design changes and reforms in safety policies.

From “The Express” of UK

The MS Herald of Free Enterprise was a 131.9-meter ferry built in 1980 then sailing from Belgium to England. She sailed on a night of March 6, 1987 but the deck crew forgot to close the bow door and this door was not visible from the bridge and there was no CCTV to check that. When the ship reached cruising speed the sea entered the deck in great quantity which produced what is called the “free surface effect” which in this particular case was sea water sloshing within the hull that destroyed her stability causing her to capsize. That happened just minutes after leaving the port of Zeebrugge.

The MS Estonia was a 157.0-meter ferry built in 1979 then sailing from Estonia to Sweden. She sailed one night on September 28, 1994 on stormy seas of winds of 55 to 75 kilometers per hour which was considered normal in the part of the Baltic Sea in that part of the year. The significant wave height of the sea was estimated to be from 13 to 20 feet. On that particular night the visor bow door of the failed and it dragged the bow ramp of the ship. The visor door was not visible from the bridge. Water then entered the ship in great quantity and flooded the vehicle deck of the RORO and the free surface effect caused her to capsize much like what happened to the MS Herald of Free Enterprise.

From “The Local” of Sweden

These two grievious sinkings upset the ROPAX world causing changes in RORO designs like the recommendation that instead of having a bow ramp it is better for the ROROs to just have front quarter ramps where the blow from the waves will not be in great force. There was also the suggestion that front ramp mechanisms be done away completely and it seems this might already been adopted at least in principle. One effect is the sealing of bow ramps on some ships that have this feature. And the visor bow door was almost completely gone in RORO designs because of the MS Estonia incident as the thinking that it was an unsafe design (the hinges bear the whole weight of the visor door which are heavy).

But do these twin sinkings have any bearing on us, the Philippines, where a lot of ROROs especially the small ones have active bow ramps? All our basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs just have one ramp and this is located at the bow of the ship. Even the next size of ferries to the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs, those that are over 40 meters in length and have a passenger deck of more than one also commonly feature an active bow ramp (I am comparing this to ROROs that have bow and stern ramps but the bow ramp is not actively used or is permanently closed). And then all our LCTs and many of these are in passenger-cargo application also have just one ramp and the specific feature of LCTs is all of those just have one ramp and it is at the bow.

Superferry 18

The quarter-front ramp of the SuperFerry 18 (Photo by Jonathan Boonzaier)

But did any of our ferries with just one active ramp and at the bow at that ever sink like the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia? The answer is a big NO. We had sinkings of our ROROs with active bow ramps but not in the same circumstances as the sinking of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia. 

The MS Herald of Free Enterprise sank because of crew negligence and/or mistake. How would you call a ship sailing with its bow ramp and door open? Anywhere else that is plain idiocy. But here it happens commonly (LOL!). A lot of our small ROROs do not really close their ramps fully when sailing when the weather is good so that the hot car deck will have more ventilation (o ha!). That is against MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) rules of course but there are no MARINA people roaming the ports anyway. And if the bow ramps need to be completely closed that is easily checked and it is also very visible from the bridge as small RORO just have one car deck and so the bow ramp is almost line of sight with the bridge (actually if there is a problem it is that the bow ramp hampers the view of the navigation crew). Our ROROs also have a lot of crewmen and apprentices that failing to check the bow ramp is almost an impossibility and besides the Chief Mate will always be there (that high a position ha!) because he is in charge of the loading and unloading. So I say the MS Herald of Free Enterprise incident has no bearing here.

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The basic, short-distance ferry-RORO that only has a bow ramp

Our small ROROs also don’t have bow visor door like the MS Estonia. How can it be when their mechanisms are very simple? They don’t even have hydraulic three-piece ramps and winches are all that are needed to raise the ramps to close or lower it to open the ramps. So how can one thing fail when it isn’t there? Now, if there are cracks or rust-throughs in the ramp mechanism that will be visible to all including the passengers, the drivers of the cars, the truck crews, the arrastre people and the hangers-on in the port. And Coast Guard people check on the safety of the ship before departures and supposedly they are very good on that and so what is then the problem? If there is already weakening of the ramp mechanism that will easily show when a heavy truck is loaded or unloaded and all would notice that. After all we are very good in noticing things unlike the Europeans (we notice what one wears and what are the latest rumors in town).

And besides all our ships here don’t sail in gale-force seas like the MS Estonia. Here when there is what is called a tropical depression (which means winds of 45 kilometers per hour), trips are already suspended. Even if there is no storm but the wind is high and the seas are choppy the local weather agency PAGASA that does not follow international conventions will already issue a “gale warning” even if there is no gale. So how can an MS Estonia incident happen here? That is impossible already when Malacanang and MARINA got too strict in sailings in bad weather.

Morever, our small ROROs were mainly built by the Japanese and Japan-built ships were never involved in failures and sinkings like what happened to the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia. We might have salty seas that produce rust but not the frigid waters and weather that accelerate the cracks in the metal like what befell the MS Estonia. Besides if there are ramp weakenings that is repaired early (who wants to earn the ire of vehicle owners when their rig can’t get out of the RORO and the RORO can’t sail and not earn revenues?). Our shipyards are experts in that type of repair/replacement (due to the high weights of some trucks and trailers the ramps normally buckle in loading and if it is already bent enough it is sent to the shipyard for ramp replacement).

Additionally, our local crew are really good and we are even known internationally for supplying hundreds of thousands of crew in international ships. There are small ROROs whose ramps fell our while in use but no sinkings ever happened because of that. But of course nobody would report such incidents to MARINA but I vow such things actually happened. Doesn’t that speak of the quality of our crews unlike the European crews (har har!). And our code of omerta?

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An LCT (Photo by Aris Refugio)

If we had capsizings of our small ROROs with bow ramps it was not because of “free surface effect” but of unbalanced loading maybe like what happened to Baleno Nine in Verde Island Passage and the Lady of Mt. Carmel in the Burias Gap. But I thought the Philippine Ports Author (PPA) had already installed weighing stations at the entrance of the important ports and so what is the problem? Our cargo masters are also very good in estimating the weight of a truck by just looking at its wheels, if there is no weighbridge available.

If sea water entered the car deck of our small ROROs it seemed the point of entry was at the stern like what happened to the Emerald 1 which seemed to fail in a sea surge off Matuco Pt. in Batangas and the Ocean King II which seemed to be a victim of a rogue wave in Surigao Strait (both of these ships also sank in the dark like the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and MS Estonia; it seems the dark is additional danger as checking of things are more difficult). This is also what happened to British RORO Princess Victoria in 1953 when her crew can’t handle water from storm surge in the English Channel entering the car deck through the stern door and ramp. So, empirically, shouldn’t we be closing stern ramps and not the bow ramp? I mean let us be consistent and logical? We should not just copying some rules because some dumb European ships experienced failures. Let us proceed from evidence.

We also have a RORO, a half-RORO at that because she looks like a conventional cargo ship but she has a stern ramp and she had a passenger deck built atop what should be cargo deck. This was the Kalibo Star which sank in daytime on a rainy day with choppy seas in 1997. Water seeped into a hatch that the crew failed to close and “free surface effect” capsized the ship. So from evidence it seems what we really should we be closing are the stern ramps and not ROROs (well, even the capsized Princess of the Orient and Princess of the Stars were stern loading ROROs). I mean shouldn’t we proceeding from empirical evidence instead of being copycats? (Disclosure: I have a private database of over 300 Philippine ships that was lost since the end of the war which I have consulted.)

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The Samar Star, a ship similar to the lost Kalibo Star (Photo by JC Cabanillas)

Hindi tayo dapat uto-uto (we should not be like marionettes). If there is a marionette in our maritime world it might our MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency who is wont to sign all the protocols handed down by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) so as the claim “we” are “IMO-compliant” and brag as if that is an achievement. Why, we don’t even use IMO Numbers as MARINA insists on its own numbers that are not searchable anywhere else. And when former Senator Miriam asked that those protocols be submitted to the Senate for ratification the government of Noynoy flatly refused. Now it seems these signed protocols are being bandied about as if they are official, as if those have the force of law like what they do with the ISPS protocol. From what I know only our Congress can pass national laws and that was why the late Miriam was pointedly challenging MARINA then. These protocols we signed are not part of our laws, they do not have the effect of a law and if one searches there are no penal provisions attached unlike in a law.

Besides we should not be bandying some rare failures in a different land (or sea) as if they general application. In engineering, the lessons derived from a cause of failure is specific in use and is not generalized. If a bridge or a building collapsed it does not mean that all the bridges and buildings with similar designs have to be torn down or closed. If a plane of sweptback wing design crashes not all sweptback planes are banned. Is the maritime world not an engineering world too (it was not when hulls were still wooden and we have not graduated from that?). So the maritime world is not an empirical world but a world of knee jerk artists?

Rather than blindly following IMO protocols we should have our own empirical study of our ship losses so more concrete lessons can be gained.

But then I doubt if MARINA and the Philippine Coast Guard even have a complete database of our ship losses (it seems they can’t provide a list of more than 50 sinkings).

As they say, let us proceed from evidence. Let us not assume we are as dumb like some Europeans.

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Was It Choking Or Indigestion For Starlite Ferries?

Almost since its establishment I tried to monitor the Starlite Ferries which was founded by Alfonso Cusi who has Mindoro origins. Starlite Ferries was easier to track since unlike her pair Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. which is related in a way to them in patronship, Starlite Ferries did not expand beyond Mindoro unlike the other one which can be found practically all over the Philippines (and so it has the distinction of being a national shipping line without being a liner company). Starlite Ferries, meanwhile, remained a short-distance ferry company and in this segment they basically carry rolling cargo or in layman’s term we call that as vehicles and passengers, of course.

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Starlite Pioneer by Raymond A. Lapus

Over the years of its existence, Starlite consistently added ferries to its fleet (although they had sales and disposals too) until they reached some 11 passenger ships in 2013, to wit, the Starlite Jupiter, Starlite Phoenix (a fastcraft), Starlite Juno (a fastcraft), Starlite Neptune, Starlite Polaris, Starlite Annapolis, Starlite Atlantic, Starlite Navigator, Starlite Ferry, Starlite Pacific and the Starlite Nautica. In their track record, aside from surplus ships acquired from Japan they were not anathema to buying the discards of other local shipping company like when the Shipshape/Safeship ferry dual ferry companies quit operations and they took over its fleet (but not the routes to Romblon). And from Cebu they got a ferry from the defunct FJP Lines which is better known as Palacio Lines. Actually, the first three ships of Starlite Ferries which are no longer existing now were from other local shipping companies.

However, over the years, what I noticed with Starlite Ferries is although their fleet is already relatively big by local standards they did not get out of the confines of Mindoro where they were just serving four routes. These are the Batangas-Calapan, Batangas-Puerto Galera, Batangas-Abra de Ilog and Roxas-Caticlan routes. The longest of this route is the last named that takes four hours of sailing time while the other routes take two to two-and-a-half hours depending on the ship. With such length of sailing time it can be gleaned that actually their 11 ferries is  a little bit over already than their need for the four routes.

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Starlite Reliance by Carl Jakosalem

So it came as a bombshell for me and many others that they will be getting 10 new ferries from Japan through a loan with a government loan window (and the first one, the Starlite Pioneer arrived in 2015). They were too proud of the coup and acquisition, of course, and they crowed about it in the media with all the jeers about the old ferries but I was skeptical. My first question is where will they put it. It is easy to apply for new routes but the approval is another matter. They do not own MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the maritime regulatory agency, it is no longer the reign of the nina bonita Maria Elena Bautista who did a lot for her patron and its pet Montenegro Lines. And I was sure the players that will be affected by their planned entry will fight tooth and nail (who wouldn’t?) and the approval process for franchises goes through public hearings anyway and if there is real opposition then it will be difficult to rig it (what are lawyers for anyway?). Getting route franchises is not as easy as getting it from a grocery shelf unless it is a missionary route which no shipping company has plied before except for motor bancas. And there is no more possibility now that a program like the “Strong Republic Nautical Highway” of Gloria which created new routes (and made it appear that old routes are “new routes”). It was the time of Noynoy when their new ferries came and Al Cusi who is identified with Gloria was out of power.

It is obvious that they can only absorb the new ferries well if they can dispose all their old ferries. But regarding the price it will be, “Are they buying or are they selling?”. That means forced selling will not gain them a good price and with the ferry structure in the country and their fleet size I am not even sure if there will be enough buyers especially when banks are averse to extending loans to shipping companies. Pinoys are averse to the breaking of still-good ships unless one’s name is starts with “A” and ends with “z” or maybe connected to 2GO (well, Negros Navigation’s case then was different as there was force majeure in it).

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Starlite Eagle by Carl Jakosalem

And they might be forced to sell their old ships if they have honor because after all the owner Al Cusi is one of the hecklers of our old ferries and pushing for their forced retirement (and the sauce for the goose should also be the sauce for the gander but then Al Cusi was not selling old ferries until his end in shipping). I thought those in government should lead by example? By 2016, with the ascension of Digong, Al Cusi was back in power and my fears of an administrative fiat to phase out old ships intensified.

Then a news item came out that they will enter the prime Ormoc route. My immediate thought was of a dogfight not only in sailing but also in the approval process of a franchise. The Ormoc route from Cebu has a lot of parallel routes competing with it (like Palompon, Baybay, Hilongos, Bato and Albuera routes) and all of them will raise a howl against the entry of an outsider especially one with good ships, naturally. I was even titillated how that will play out (it could have been a good boxing match or worse an MMA fight). But then nothing came out of that news. Well, certainly Al Cusi knows how to pick a good route, I thought, but he might have underestimated the opposition (of course, the better the route, the fiercer will be the opposition).

And then another news item was published that Starlite Ferries will go into Southeast Asia routes. Well, really? That was my thought as I had doubts again. It is Indonesia that is the most archipelagic in our region but I knew the rates there are too cheap and sometimes as ROROs there is practically no fare charged in the old ships if patrons don’t want to pay (and so I remember the problem of some of our operators in our ARMM Region where collection of fares can be a problem and rates are really so low). They wanna go there with brand-new ships, I thought? Won’t there be demand for reciprocity? Oh, well, I would welcome Indonesian ferries in our waters especially if they are liners, why not? Now, what a way of upsetting the cart, I mused. But then nothing came out of that too.

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Starlite Saturn by Raymond A. Lapus

The logical is actually to phase out his old ferries immediately as there is no way to create a bonanza of new routes given how difficult it is to secure new routes in the country and actually the situation is the feasibility of routes are limited as it is dictated by people and goods movements and not by wish, simple geography as in nearness or MARINA inducement. They can try the Pilar-Aroroy route that was validated by three titled international experts on shipping with all the feasibility study calculations but then as known by the locals it wouldn’t last and they were proven right as the route lasted only a few months (Archipelago Philippine Ferries tried it). Plus they might have to dredge Pilar port as that is shallow for their ships (the government will pass on to them their dredging responsibilities and they will be lucky to earn a thank you). MARINA has actually a lot of routes that they were promoting like the Pasacao to Burias route, the Cataingan to Maripipi route, et cetera but shipping operators not biting as they are not fools unlike some sitting in some MARINA chairs. With Starlite Ferries obliged to pay the bank amortization they cannot simply let their ships gather barnacles in Batangas Bay.

But where will he sell his old ferries? Many of the ships of Starlite Ferries are not fit to be small short-distance ferry-ROROs, the type most needed and most flexible to field (that will survive better in low-density routes) and now the problem is that is being supplanted now in many cases by the passenger-cargo LCTs and RORO Cargo LCTs which may be slow but are cheap to operate (and so many of these are arriving from China brand-new and not surplus with good terms). The reinforcements that entered San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait were actually LCTs (the former are operated by SulitFerry, a 2GO enterprise) and there are LCTs that are new arrivals in Tablas Strait that belong to Orange Navigation, a sister company of Besta Shipping.

Cebu won’t buy it as what is mainly needed there are overnight ships and generally bigger than what Starlite Ferries have. The actual direction of ferry sales is from Cebu to Batangas and not the other way around. It is also hard to sell the Starlite ferries to Zamboanga as only one shipping line has the capability there to buy (Aleson Shipping Line) and they have enough ships already and they can afford to buy direct from Japan. It won’t be Manila as there are no more overnight ships there remaining to Mindoro and Romblon (Starlite Ferries helped sank Moreta Shipping Lines, MBRS Lines and its successor Romblon Shipping Lines). The operators to Coron and Cuyo are not that big and the Starlite ships are too big for those routes. It is really hard to dispose of 11 ferries unless Starlite gives it on a lay-away plan but then they have to pay the bank for their new acquisitions.

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Starlite Archer by John Edmund

I feared Al Cusi with his Malacanang clout and political clout (he is vice-president of the ruling party now) will resort to administrative fiat through the Department of Transportation. But that will be bloody and when the old operators feared something was afoot with the Tugade trial balloons they were ready with deep questions like if there is a study that shows old ferries are unsafe (good question) and MARINA was put on the defensive. These old operators are not patsies, they can hire good lawyers and they have congressmen as padrinos that Tugade and Cusi cannot just push around.

And so came the announcement that there will be no phase-out of old ferries (which is nonsense anyway as phase-out should be based on technical evaluations and not on age). It seems that was a big blow to Starlite Ferries which by that time was already shouldering the burden and amortizing five new ferries with five more on the pipeline and their old ferries still around and unsold (their other new ferries are Starlite Reliance, Starlite Eagle, Starlite Saturn and Starlite Archer). Trying to force their old ferries in some near routes might just mean competing with their sister Montenegro Lines and their shared patron saint will look askance to that.

I guess the financial burden of the new ships were getting heavier by the day for Starlite Ferries. With a surplus of ferries they were even able to send Starlite Annapolis to Mandaue just to get some new engines if what I heard was true. There is really no way to cram 15 ferries (as Starlite Atlantic was lost maneuvering in a typhoon) in just four short-distance routes. I just don’t know, should have they converted some of their new ships into overnight ferries and competed in the longer Batangas to Caticlan route? But the accommodations of the former Cebu Ferries ship of 2GO are superior to them. How about the Batangas to Roxas City route that is irregularly served by Asian Marine Transport Corporation?

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The most senior now in the fleet of Starlite Ferries

But instead of fighting to resolve their problem, Al Cusi took the easy way and sold out. Well, it is never easy to finance five new ferries with five more still on the way with no new routes coming. They might drown in debt and default. Or end up just helping the bank make their living (in Tagalog, “ipinaghahanapbuhay na lang ang bangko”).

I wonder why Al Cusi did not just get two or three units for testing and evaluation and proceed slowly. With that they might have known with less pain and pressure that although their ferries are new it does not have a technological edge nor an advance over the old ferries unlike the new FastCats. They knew already that intermodal vehicles are mainly locked like the Dimple Star buses are locked to them and so newness of the ship will not easily sell and not even to private car owners whose main concern is what RORO is leaving first (and that is also the main concern of the passengers who do not even have a free choice if they are bus passengers).

It looks to me the 10 new ROROS ordered by Starlite Ferries was a simple case of indigestion or worse a choking. It looks like more of the latter and so Al Cusi spit it out and settled for a half billion pesos as consolation for the sale of Starlite Ferries to the Udenna group, the new hotshot in shipping which also owns Trans-Asia Shipping Lines of Cebu now. That might be a good decision for Udenna as their Trans-Asia Shipping Lines lacks ferries now whereas Starlite Ferries has a surplus and so it might be a good match. Converting the ships into overnight ferries is not difficult nor would it cost much although the ships of Starlite Ferries is a little small than what Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was accustomed to (but then it is also possible to lengthen the upcoming ferries).

Now I don’t really know exactly where Starlite Ferries is headed and it will not be as easy to guess that but in all likelihood a Starlite and Trans-Asia marriage might work out especially since the Udenna group has the money to smoothen out the kinks.

Nice experiment but it seems the 10 new ships was too much for Starlite Ferries to chew.