The Sunset of Tacloban Port

Tacloban City is the regional commercial center of Eastern Visayas and this has been so for about a century now. It has the advantage of a central location and a sheltered port and bay. Its reach weakens, however, in the western coast of Leyte which has its own sea connections to a greater trade and commercial center, the great city of Cebu which has been ascendant in the south of the Philippines since half a millennium ago. 

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As a regional commercial center, it is but natural for Tacloban to have a great port with trade routes to many places. That has been the situation of Tacloban since before World War II and even before World War I. It also does not hurt that Tacloban is the capital of the province of Leyte. In fact, because of her superior strategic location, Tacloban even exceeded her mother town which is Palo which is still the seat of the church hierarchy.

Before World War II and after that, passenger-cargo ships from Manila will drop by first in Masbate, Catbalogan and Calbayog before hooking route and proceeding to Tacloban. Some of these ships will then still proceed to Surigao and Butuan or even Cagayan de Oro using the eastern seaboard of Leyte. Tacloban then was the fulcrum of these liner routes going to Eastern Visayas. That route was much stronger than the routes that drop by Ormoc and Maasin and perhaps Sogod and Cabalian before going to Surigao. The two routes were actually competing (like Ormoc and Tacloban are competing). If the route via Tacloban was stronger it is because Tacloban was the trade and commercial center of the region.

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At its peak, Tacloban port hosted some seven passenger-cargo ships from Manila per week from different liner companies. She also had daily regular calls from passenger-cargo ships emanating from Cebu. There were also some ships that originate from as far as Davao which dropped by Surigao first. Such was the importance of Tacloban port then which can still be seen in the size of Tacloban port and the bodegas surrounding it.

There were many liner companies that called over the years in Tacloban from Manila. Among them were Sulpicio Lines (and the earlier Carlos A. Gothong & Co.), Compania Maritima, General Shipping Company, Philippine Steam and Navigation Company, Philippine Pioneer Lines (and later the successor Galaxy Lines), Escano Lines, Sweet Lines, even the combined Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and Lorenzo Shipping Corporation. When it was still sailing local routes, even De la Rama Steamship served Tacloban. Among the minor liner companies, Royal Lines Inc., Veloso Brothers Ltd., N&S Lines, Philippine Sea Transport and Oriental Shipping Agency also served Tacloban. Not all of those served at the same time but that line-up of shipping companies will show how great was Tacloban port then.

1979 Dona Angelina

Gorio Belen research in the National Library

For many years there was even a luxury liner rivalry in Tacloban port. This was the battle which featured the Dona Angelina of Sulpicio Lines and the Sweet Rose of Sweet Lines which mainly happened in the 1970s. Sweet Rose was sailing to Tacloban from the late 1960s and was in fact the first luxury liner to that port. The two liners were the best ships then sailing to Tacloban port. The rest, of course, were mainly ex-”FS” ships which was the backbone of the national liner fleet then and there was no shame in that.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

Tacloban port was doing well until the late 1970’s when a paradigm change pulled the rug from under their feet. This development was the fielding of a RORO by Cardinal Shipping, the Cardinal Ferry I that connected Sorsogon and Samar. With San Juanico bridge already connecting Samar and Leyte and the Maharlika Highway already completed, intermodal trucks and buses started rolling into Tacloban and Leyte. In fact, in just one year of operation the intermodal link was already a roaring success with many trucks and buses already running to Manila. Soon other ferries were connecting Sorsogon and Samar including the Maharlika I of the government.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

With this development the irreversible decline of Tacloban port began. It was a slide that never ever saw a reversal because what happened over the years was the buses and trucks rolling to Tacloban and Leyte just continued to multiply without abatement (and the ROROs in San Bernardino Strait also increased in number). Soon the passengers were already filling the intermodal buses and freight except the heaviest and the bulkiest was also slowly shifted to the trucks. Over the years the number of passenger ships to Tacloban slowly declined as a consequence.

In the late 1980’s, when the pressure of the intermodal was great there were still three national shipping lines with routes to Tacloban – Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines. In the early 1990’s. when Sweet Lines quit shipping only the top two shipping lines then where still sailing to Tacloban with the Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines and the Masbate Uno of William Lines. Incidentally, the infamous Dona Paz which burned and sank after a collision with a tanker in December 1987 originated from Tacloban.

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Tacloban Princess by John Carlos Cabanillas

When the WG&A merger came in 1996 the company pulled out the Masbate I from the Tacloban route. The last liners ever to sail the Tacloban route were the Tacloban Princess and the Cebu Princess which alternated in the route. Both belonged to Sulpicio Lines. The liner route from Manila to Tacloban was finally severed when Sulpicio Lines got suspended from passenger service as a consequence of the sinking of the Princess of the Stars when both the Tacloban Princess and the Cebu Princess were sold.

The overnight ferry service from Cebu almost followed the same path and died at almost the same time. The last three shipping companies which had a route there were Roly Shipping, Maypalad Shipping and Cebu Ferries Corporation (which was the successor of CAGLI). But passengers slowly learned that the routes via Ormoc and Baybay were faster and cheaper and the connection was oh-so-easy as the bus terminals of the two cities were just outside the port gates of Ormoc and Baybay. The High Speed Crafts (HSCs) to Ormoc, mainly SuperCat and Oceanjet also made great strides and captured a large portion of the passenger market and it further denied passengers for Tacloban. With the HSCs and overnight ships from Cebu that leave Ormoc in the morning there was no longer any need for Tacloban passengers to wait until night.

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http://www.maritime-executive.com/article/Paralyzed-Philippine-Port-Resumes-Operations-2013-11-21

The last rope for Tacloban port passenger-cargo ships was cut when the new coastal highway from Basey, Samar to Guiuan, Eastern Samar was completed. With that the passenger ships connecting Tacloban and Guiuan had to go as the fast and ubiquitous commuter vans (called “V-hire” in the province) suddenly supplanted them. Trucks also began rolling and some of these were even coming from Cebu via the intermodal.

Now only a few cargo ships dock in Tacloban port. There is still one cargo shipping company based in Tacloban, the Lilygene Sea Shipping Transport Corp. Gothong Southern Shipping Lines meanwhile still has a regular container ship to Tacloban but there are complaints that the rates are high (the consequence of no competition). Whatever, there are still cargoes better carried by ships than by trucks. However, some of the container vans for Leyte are just offloaded now in Cebu and transferred through Cargo RORO LCTs going to several western Leyte ports.

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What might remain for a long time maybe in Tacloban port are the big motor bancas for Buad island in Western Samar which hosts the town of Daram and Bagatao island which hosts the town of Zumarraga. I am not sure of the long-term existence of the other motor bancas for the other Samar towns except for maybe Talalora as more and more they have buses that go to Tacloban and maybe soon the commuter vans will follow. Or maybe even the jeep. The lesson is with roads established the sea connection always have to go in the long term.

Tacloban port is improved now. Improving the port eases port operations but it will not make the ships come back contrary to what the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) and the government say. It is cargo and passengers that make the ships come to a port but if there are other and better transportation modes that are already available then cargo and passenger volumes drop and sometimes it becomes uneconomical for the ship to continue operating.

So I really wonder what is the point in developing a port in the nearby town of Babatngon as an alternative to Tacloban port. Have the Philippine Ports Authority ever asked who wants to use it? It is not surprising however as the PPA is the master of creating “ports to nowhere” (ports with practically no traffic) especially in the time of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who was so fond of those (for many “reasons”, of course).

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Ormoc Port by John Luzares

In the past two decades the PPA always touted Tacloban port. For maybe they are based there. There was a denial that actually Ormoc port was already the main gateway to Leyte and it is no longer Tacloban port. Recently however, there seems to be an acknowledgment of the real score — that Ormoc port has actually been the de facto gateway already. The government is now developing Ormoc port and it is good that the PPA vessel arrival and departure site already covers it.

Whatever and however they try, it cannot be denied that the sun is already setting in Tacloban port. It is no longer the same port it used to be in the past because of the intermodal assault changed things.

Like they say, things always change.

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Ports Served By Liners That Lost To The Intermodal Buses

Once, there were ports that were served by the liners of the national shipping companies in the postwar years. Liners from Manila sailed to these ports and the length of their calls or service already exceeded a century. Now, there are no more liners to these ports and instead intermodal buses are the ones now moving their passengers.

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Among the ports I am referring to are San Jose in Occidental Mindoro (called Mangarin in the past), Culasi port in Roxas City (called Capiz in the past); Dumaguit (or New Washington), Batan, Malay (more popularly known as Caticlan now), all in Aklan; Lipata port in Culasi, Antique, San Jose de Buenavista in Antique. The list also includes Masbate; Laoang, Carangian (or San Jose) and Allen in Northern Samar; Calbayog and Catbalogan in Western Samar; Tacloban, Calubian, Palompon, Isabel, Ormoc and Baybay in Leyte; Maasin, Sogod and Cabalian in Southern Leyte. The list would also Tagbilaran in Bohol and Surigao City. Yes, the list is really long. And that is not even 100% complete.

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Tacloban port

How come our good liners with true passenger service and free food lost to the simple bus where there is no service and food is not free? When many of our liners were hotel-like. The simple reason is simply frequency and ubiquity. Buses leave daily while liners don’t. Buses have several trips in a day, both at night and day and in a wide span of schedules and so people have a choice. They also have a choice from several bus lines.

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I first had a glimpse of their magic of the nearly 15 years ago. I was aboard a bus from Maasin to Manila. The first trip then of the bus was 2am. I noticed that whenever and wherever the bus will see bags in the road without people around, our bus will stop, blow its horn and the passenger/s will appear from the house. Yes, there was no need to wait in the dark suffering from the cold and mosquito bites. The bus will simply stop for you. In Eastern Samar 18 years ago, a relative of the passenger rode the bus in Borongan and stopped the bus in a house in a barrio. Turned out the lady passenger has not yet finished her bath. Well, our bus driver simply turned off the engine to the laughter of all and we all waited and when the lady boarded there were cheers and more laughter. Are those ease and leaning backward possible in a ship? Simply no.

So whenever and wherever a bus begin crossing the straits I noticed they will simply kick out the liners from Manila. This first happened in Samar in the 1980’s. This was followed by Mindoro and Panay in the 2000’s. Masbate, Leyte, Bohol and Surigao soon followed suit. Practically it is only Negros and Cebu islands and northern  and western Mindanao that are immune from the buses from Manila.

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Intermodal buses in Masbate port

In the examples I gave I made sure it was the buses that torpedoed the liners and not the budget airlines. In those examples I am pretty sure most of the passengers transferred to the intermodal buses because if one checks the frequency of the airlines when there were still liners and today one will notice that the frequency increases of the airlines were modest while the intermodal buses grew by leaps and bounds. That is very clear in Panay. That is very clear in Eastern Visayas and Masbate. That is also true in Surigao, Bohol and Mindoro (maybe in Bohol many make a transfer to a Cebu plane).

I think the liners never knew what hit them. Probably they can not believe that they passengers will move from bunks to seats that taxes the butt and hurts the back. Their liners have toilets and baths and buses don’t have that. They have free food, good service (they have stewards and attendants), functioning restaurants, lounges and areas where passengers can mill around. There are even spas, discos and chapels. Yet the passengers exchanged them for seats where once can barely move. Sounds improbable, isn’t it? But that happened and not only in one place.

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And to think the bus fares are not even significantly cheaper, if it is. And there are ancillary costs like food, terminal fees, payment for using the comfort rooms of the terminals and eating places. And the perilous and embarrassing case of a sometime traveler’s diarrhea.

I once asked a lady seatmate in a bus (they are more inconvenienced as unlike males they need a true CR) from Surigao why. She said she likes the views when the bus runs, that she likes reaching places she had never been to before. Yes, on a liner you only see the sea, the seascape and some ports.

The bus passengers don’t even need to go to the ports and there be charged unfairly by the porters. And on the return trip they can stop the bus right by their gate (is there a convenience greater than that?). No need for porters again and relatives will be waiting by the gate since there is SMS now. And also in many cases the trip of the bus is shorter than the voyage of the ship. Many also think there is more risk in traveling in a ship. Courtesy of the highly-publicized sinkings like the Dona Paz and the Princess of the Stars.

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Even in places like Davao the intermodal bus was also a factor. That was also true in Iloilo and maybe Gensan also.

Those are the things that torpedoed the liners. Maybe the shipping companies never knew what hit them. Their belief is the budget airlines tripped them. That cannot be proven empirically in a lot of places. Maybe their pride is simply too high they cannot admit a lowly bus beat them.

If liners want to make a comeback they should do a real study why the passengers walked away. But I still doubt if they can really beat the intermodal bus. They are simply too ubiquitous.

The “Wonderful Stars” of Roble Shipping Lines

written by: Mike Baylon

The overnight ferry-RORO ship “Wonderful Stars” of Roble Shipping Lines of Cebu was hot in the news since yesterday, August 15, 2015 because of the fire which hit her in Ormoc City, Leyte, Philippines. She managed to dock and the fire was put out after about eight hours but the damages to the ship and cargo were heavy. However, except for two injured crew members there were no other casualties.

“Wonderful Stars” was the “Ferry Agata” when she was still sailing in Japan waters before she came over here. She was owned by the respected Japan regional line Kyushu Yusen K.K. “Ferry Agata” is among the many sisters commissioned by the company to sail their routes, among many other kinds of ferries.

Ferry Agata ©Wakanatsu via James Gabriel Verallo

This ferry was built by Naikai Zosen in their Taguma plant in Yard #445. Her keel was laid on February 10, 1979 and she was launched on May 9, 1979. After installment of equipment and sea trials she was delivered to Kyushu Yusen on July 14, 1979. She possessed the permanent ID IMO 7903809. She is not MMSI-equipped, however.

“Ferry Agata” was a two-deck, steel-hulled ship with the dimensions 71.33 meters LOA/64.01 meters LPP by 13.42 meters Breadth with a Depth of 4.63 meters and a Draught of 3.7 meters. Her freeboard was 930mm and she has high sides. Originally, she measured 1,296 gross tons with a net tonnage of 398 and capacities of 498 passengers and 50 cars. She had a service speed of 15.6 knots with a fuel consumption of 16 tons of marine diesel per day at average speed. She is powered by two Niigata diesel engines that totaled 4,200 horsepower driving two fixed-pitch propellers.

She came over to the Philippines in 2007 to belong to Roble Shipping Lines of Cebu. Scantlings and a passenger deck were added to her but her Gross Tonnage remained at 1,296 (which is a local measurement magic). Her Net Tonnage increased to 540, however, which seems to be a fair measure. Her declared Deadweight Tonnage or DWT is 546. Passenger capacity is over 800 now (however, some of that are “sitting”).

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Wonderful Stars in her glory days ©Mike Baylon

Her route here was Cebu-Ormoc and vice-versa and usually she take six hours of sailing for the route. “Wonderful Stars” usually have a full load of rolling cargo but a small portion the forward section of the car deck is used for loose cargo. In the Cebu-Ormoc route she was probably the best ship and among the biggest, at least in the regular sailers.

Having sailed with her I noticed that the Cabins seem to be original or at least the lay-out is original. The Tourist is in the middle with the Cabins on the side. On the rear of this same deck are the cruel fiberglass seats “specially designed” for six hours of sitting. On the upper deck which was added here are the non-air Economy Section and the restaurant. I will note that among intra-Visayas overnight ferries she has good food and service and the prices are moderate compared to other ships. No need to bring value meals from the favorite fastfood.

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Wonderful Stars Restaurant ©Mike Baylon

On August 14 evening she sailed from Cebu to Ormoc with over 500 passengers and a crew of over 60 (including apprentices, I guess, since the number is high). Also aboard were 23 vehicles with a few trucks (she is actually a favorite RORO ferry in the route with a liked departure and arrival times). A report said that at dawn abreast of Merida town in Leyte a small fire was noticed near the car deck. It is said that the ship was able to alert the port and she was still able to dock and unload passengers without casualty although smoke was already billowing. A few of the vehicles were able to get out but it reports say most were caught.

The fire raged for about eight or nine hours before it was put under control sometime past noon of August 15 and by that time she was already heeling to port. Hours of bombardment of water can do that to a ship and the pumps might no longer be working. She will not capsize and sink, however, because she is in shallow waters. Reports now say the owners are planning to tow her back to Cebu, maybe for better assessment and possible repairs.

©Capt. Lape onboard SuperCat

©Geraldine Astrologo Tan via Gabriel de Cadiz

©Keith Inghug
Wonderful Stars on Fire at Ormoc Port

The CEO of Roble said the ship is insured for PhP 60 million. The fire bureau estimates the damage at less than PhP 100 million (but I wonder what are their expertise in marine adjustment, the estimation of marine damage cost). The passenger compartments of the ship are gone along with the ship bridge and there were a lot of damaged or lost vehicles. However, it is said the engine room of the ship was spared and if this is true, the possibility of a successful repair and refit increases.

As things stand now if she will be repaired it will take months on end. However, Roble Shipping Lines is blessed with spare ships and they already have a new ferry being refitted in Pier 7 Mandaue, the “Taelim Iris”, a Cargo RORO sourced from South Korea but Japan-built. It seems she will be ready even before “Wonderful Stars”.

Wonderful Stars Aftermath ©Karina Sia via John Michael Aringay

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Wonderful Stars on Fire Video ©Lex Luther D. Caigas


More Photos of Wonderful Stars: CLICK HERE

Quo Vadis, Lite Ferry 8?

Nobody might have realized it but Lite Ferry 8 might now be the RORO ferry with the second-most number of years of service in the Philippines after “Melrivic Seven” (excepting also the LCT’s). She first came to our country in 1980 as the “Sta. Maria” of Negros Navigation, the first RORO ship in their fleet. Later, in 2001 she was sold by Negros Navigation to George & Peter Lines where she became the “GP Ferry-1”. After several years, in 2007 she was sold by G&P Lines to Lite Ferries where she became the “Lite Ferry 8” and was designed to compete in the prime route across Camotes Sea, the Cebu-Ormoc route. She is certainly a well-traveled ferry.

“Lite Ferry 8” started life as the “Hayabusa No. 3” of Kyouei Unyu of Japan with IMO Number 7323205. She was built by Yoshiura Zosen in their Kure shipyard and she was completed on April of 1973. As built, her Length Over-all (LOA) was 72.0 meters and her Breadth was 12.6 meters with a Gross Tonnage (GT) of 691 and a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 1,680. She was powered by two Akasaka marine diesel engines totaling 4,200 horsepower routed to two screws. She had a maximum service speed of 15 knots when she was still new.

Sta. Maria ©Gorio Belen

Before leaving Japan, she was renamed as the “Hayabusa No.8”. In December of 1980 she came to Negros Navigation of the Philippines which added decks and passenger accommodations to her. She was among the first RORO’s in the Philippines and the first for Negros Navigation. She could actually be the first RORO liner in the country (as distinguished from short-distance and overnight ferries). Originally, she held the route from Manila to Iloilo and Bacolod and calling on Romblon port along the way. In one sense she replaced the flagship “Don Juan” of the Negros Navigation fleet which sank in a collision on April 22, 1980.

Sta. Maria ©Gorio Belen

With the advent of additional liners in the Negros Navigation fleet, the smaller and slower “Sta. Maria” was withdrawn from the Manila route and shunted to regional routes. Among the routes she did was the Cebu-Iloilo-Puerto Princesa route and later the Iloilo-Bacolod route. In 2000, when Negros Navigation already had a surplus of ships and the parallel route Dumangas-Bacolod was already impacting the Iloilo-Bacolod route she was sold to George & Peter Lines which needed a replacement ship after the loss of their ship “Dumaguete Ferry” to fire.

GP Ferry-1 ©Wakanatsu and Toshihiko Mikami

In George & Peter Lines, she became the “GP Ferry-1” where she basically did the staple Cebu-Dumaguete-Dapitan route of the company which was an overnight and day route on the way to Dapitan and an overnight route on the way back to Cebu. When there were still no short-distance RORO ferries between Dumaguete and Dapitan this was a good route. But when short-distance ferries multiplied in the route and with it dominating the daytime sailing, slowly George & Peter Lines saw their intermediate route jeopardized and the process accelerated with the entry of Cokaliong Lines in the Cebu-Dapitan-Dumaguete route.

I think it is in this context that G&P Lines sold her to Lite Ferries in 2007. By this time her engines were also beginning to get sickly, a factor of age exacerbated with longer route distances. Lite Ferries designed her to compete in the prime Camotes Sea route where the “Heaven Stars” of Roble Shipping Lines and the good overnight ferries of Cebu Ferries were holding sway. However, she was not too successful for Lite Shipping as her old engines seemed to be too thirsty and not too solid for the route. Sometime in 2010, Lite Ferries began using the Lite Ferry 12 for the Ormoc route and after that Lite Ferry 8 already spent considerably more time in anchorage than in sailing. Lite Ferry 12 had considerably smaller engines than “Lite Ferry 8” and her size was just a match for the like of “Wonderful Stars” which was also doing the Cebu-Ormoc route.

Lite Ferry 8 ©Jonathan Bordon

“Lite Ferry 8” was also put up for sale but with the history of her engines any sale except to the breakers will not be easy. Her accommodations and size is not what is used for the short-distance ferries and her engines are also too big for that route class. The only RORO now of her length, engine size and passenger accommodations are the overnight ferries from Cebu to Northern Mindanao but Lite Ferries do not sail such routes except for their route to Plaridel, Misamis Occidental and even in such route lengths the company prefers to use ROROs in the 60-meter class with engines totaling less than 3,000 horsepower.

As of now, “Lite Ferry 8” is almost a ship without a route. She is difficult to find a soft landing spot and she does not have the endurance of the Daihatsu-engined ex-“Asia Indonesia” and ex-“Asia Brunei” which more or less shares her age and size and engine power. Kindly to her, Lite Ferries is not a company known for contacting fast the breakers’ numbers unlike Cebu Ferries and its former mother company.

Lite Ferry 8 ©Aristotle Refugio

So the question lingering about her now is, Quo vadis?.