It Seems They Are Beginning To Fear The Cargo RORO LCTs Now

Once upon a time, in the early days of connecting islands, LCTs had a place as exemplified by Millennium Shipping in the 1970’s and the LCTs connecting Mactan island and the islands of Samar and Leyte. But as it moved into the 1980’s and the 1990’s, it was the short-distance ferry-ROROs that began connecting the islands like in San Bernardino Strait, in Surigao Strait, in Verde Island Passage, in Guimaras Strait, in Tanon Strait, in Bohol Strait, across Camotes Sea, in Basilan Strait and in Panguil Bay. LCTs began losing favor then and some of the reason might be psychological. There was a belief then that LCTs were “less safe”.

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It was actually only Maayo Shipping and Tri-Star Megalink which bucked the trend in those decades before the change of the millennium by still using LCTs as passenger-cargo carriers. To some extent, Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) can also be counted here before the start of the new millennium. Among the the most notable operator of passenger-cargo LCTS in this millennium are Lite Ferries and Starhorse Shipping Lines. Of course, LCTs also connected Samal island, Guimaras and Olutanga islands but I would rather exclude it here as they were very short connections like the connection across Sula Channel of Albay to Cagraray island.

LCTs as means of transport are slow and slower than short-distance ferry-ROROs. Their passenger accommodations are also very basic and small and can be uncomfortable. They were never really meant to be people carrier unless one is talking of the hybrid Korean LCTs (like the Ma. Angelica Grace, Reina Banderada, Reina Justisya and Star San Carlos among others) which have more comfortable passenger accommodations and even airconditioning plus bigger engines which afford speeds higher than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs.

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I do not know which started the trend of using LCTs for vehicles mainly with not much intent to carry passengers. The most significant I noticed that had an operation like this was Golden Bridge Shipping of the Lua family (owner of a tramper company and Oceanjet) which has its base in Cansaga Bay and had a route to Hindang, Leyte. Early on they were known as Socor Shipping. Of course, Mandaue Transport also had a route from Mandaue to Tagbilaran and Simpoi Shipping had a route from Carmen to Ormoc.

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There were also LCTs that were used not for rolling cargo but as container van carriers. Ocean Transport chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation for this purpose which was copied by others until they were able to acquire their own LCTs. But of course, transit time from Manila to Cebu can take up to 4 days but container vans won’t protest unlike passengers. Some Asian Shipping Corporation LCTs were also chartered to load container vans from Manila to Cagayan de Oro.

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These operations are of course Cargo RORO operations. The only difference is instead of using Cargo RORO or RORO Cargo ships, LCTs are used. That is why I termed these LCTs as “Cargo RORO LCTs”.

Starting in 2012, LCTs from China began appearing in great number in Mactan Channel and the biggest owners were Cebu Sea Charterers, Broadway One Shipping, Concrete Solutions/Primary Trident Marine Solutions and Royal Dragon Ocean Transport. The first two simply had numbers as names of the LCTs. The third one was the owner of the Poseidon LCTs and the last one was the owner of the Meiling LCTs. Asian Shipping Corporation also bulked up their LCT fleet. Supposedly, these LCTs which were called “deck loading ships” in China will be used to transport ores from Surigao to China.

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However, two major happenings intervened. One, the need of China for ores declined and in November of 2013, Typhoon “Yolanda” wreaked havoc in Eastern Visayas. In the aftermath, in the need for relief and rehabilitation of the region, trucks and trailers have to cross. This happened during a time that the long-distance trucks were already running via Eastern Visayas as substitute for the ship-borne container vans and many of these are still destined for Mindanao.

Immediately, mile-long queues of trucks formed in the ports of Matnog, Allen, Liloan, Benit and Lipata leading to loud protests. MARINA then allowed the temporary use of LCTs which became de facto permanent until today. Meanwhile, there was also a great demand for bottoms to be used by trucks across Camotes Bay. Suddenly, the moored “deck loading ships” in Cansaga Bay was crossing Camotes Bay, San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait. Cebu Sea Charterers and the Poseidon LCTs slowly begans Cargo RORO LCT operations together with the Adnama LCTs (many more were used in Surigao and elsewhere). Roble Shipping meanwhile chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation which they replaced when they were able to acquire their own LCTs.

There was also an upsurge in LCT demand to Bohol and some old LCT began plying routes. Feeling their grip threatened, Lite Ferries bought them all lock, stock and barrel aside from buying additional LCTs. Meanwhile, Cebu Sea Charterers invaded other routes like the Carmen-Ormoc, the Dumangas-Banago and the Tuburan-Escalante routes. Suddenly, the lowly LCTs which became Cargo RORO LCTs looked menacing. Even the pioneer Golden Bridge Shipping which had queues even before “Yolanda” feels threatened now.

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How did this come to be? One reason is at the start, the overnight ferry companies crossing Camotes Sea did not give due regard to the rolling cargo or vehicles. They were too content in their successful palletized and loose cargo operations and they underestimated the need of the rolling cargo. At the start only Golden Bridge Shipping, Simpoi Shipping and Asian Marine Transport Corporation were servicing them. It seems Lite Ferries saw the need earlier than their fellow overnight ferry companies. Well, they are strong in rolling cargo operation in Bohol and is even dominating it.

Secondly, in terms of rates none can beat the Cargo RORO LCTs. They might be slow but in terms of rates they are far cheaper than the overnight ferry companies as in they can give rates that are cheaper by 40%. Well, they don’t need to invest in passenger services and accommodations and they have small engines compared to overnight ROROs. Now they even carry container vans not in trailers to Leyte from Cebu superseding the container ships that used to call in Leyte ports from Manila.

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That is always the danger brought by Cargo RORO LCTs, the low rates. Now feeling they can’t beat it, the overnight ferry companies are beginning to acquire their own LCTs. Lite Ferries is so well ahead in this game but Roble Shipping is already following suit. Medallion Transport seems not to be that worried yet because compared to other they saw immediately the need for rolling cargo operations and were not too dependent on palletized and loose cargo operations. After all they started in short-distance ferry-RORO operations and so they might have had a better understanding of rolling cargo from the start.

The old ROROs better adjust now. From what I heard even the big Asian Shipping Corporation which has the most number of ships in the Philippines is joining the fray. It seems they might have already tired of just chartering LCTs.

In the eastern seaboard, I heard the Cargo RORO LCTs are already the favorites of the truckers. As they say money talks. Price point as decision point is simply too easy not to miss. Everybody wants savings.

To me, it is no longer a question if the Cargo RORO LCT sector will take a slice of the pie. The question is how much. From container ships to liners to overnight ships to short-distance ferries, all are threatened. They will not be overwhelmed but they must be prepared to share the pie with the Cargo RORO LCTs. By how much, now that is the guessing game. All I know is the Cargo RORO LCT rates are simply unbeatable. And that might be sending shivers now down the spine of the competition.

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And I dare say this development is good. Rolling rates are simply too high in the Philippines because the regulatory agency MARINA never learned how to compute rates. It is as if fuel and distance are never really factored in.

Rolling cargo rates of the LCTs across Camotes Sea is now lower than RORO rate across Surigao Strait. How did that happen?

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The Aleson Shipping Lines

I really have no command of the history of Aleson Shipping Lines and so that will not be the focus of this article and I will only delve on it on the more recent years. Since many Pinoys have not reached Zamboanga, I want to expose the biggest shipping line of Western Mindanao (and also the whole of Mindanao) and compare it. I have long ago said to ship spotters that Aleson Shipping Lines is bigger than any Cebu overnight shipping company, bar none, and I want to show that so people will know more of one of our great overnight ferry companies.

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There is a saying in Zamboanga that, no matter what, Aleson Shipping will never sell the small cruiser ferry Estrella del Mar. The reason is she is their first ferry ever and they say everything started from that ship. Meanwhile, the second ship of Aleson Shipping is now gone and that is the Aleson 3, a cruiser they bought from Carlos A. Gothong Shipping Lines, Inc. (CAGLI) in 1984 which was the second Dona Conchita.

That was the simple start of Aleson Shipping and in their first decade they did not really expand much. In the first place, they were not a shipping company at the start but a trading company, a regional distributor of goods under Aleson Trading. It seems at the start their shipping was mainly a support to, a horizontal expansion of their trading activities.

It was in the 1990’s when Aleson Shipping made their moves in shipping that featured continuous acquisition of ships that not only involved ferries but also small cargo ships. And that what made them different from some Cebu overnight majors like Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) and Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) which for a long time have no cargo ships. And they might have been not that early in ROROs like TASLI but they were not behind CSLI, Palacio Lines and George & Peter Lines. They were ahead in ROROs compared to other overnight ferry companies in Cebu that got big later like Roble Shipping, Lite Shipping, Medallion Transport, etc. Like the mentioned Cebu overnight ferry companies, they might have had ROROs but it was not for vehicles but for palletized and loose cargo that were mainly handled by forklifts. One thing though, they learned how to use container vans much earlier than all those Cebu overnight ferry companies. So who said Zamboanga shipping is behind Cebu shipping in cargo?

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In the mid-1990’s, it dawned on her Zamboanga rivals that Aleson Shipping was acquiring more ships than them and that included the old Number 1 Sampaguita Shipping Corporation. This company also had cargo ships and then Aleson Shipping matched it in number. By 1997 it looked as if there was a new throne holder in Zamboanga. And Aleson Shipping did not make the mistake of Sampaguita Shipping in buying cruisers as overnight ferries since they concentrated on ROROs except for their day ships to Basilan which featured small cruisers.

Before the end of the 1990’s, there was an emphatic display of being the new king of Zamboanga shipping when Aleson Shipping ventured into the liner business when they sailed the Zamboanga-Manila route with the Lady Mary Joy and the Cebu-Dumaguete-Zamboanga-Sandakan route with the Lady Mary Joy 2. This also expansion also featured going to Lucena to do a Marinduque route.

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Photo by Ray Smith

These expansions backfired and Aleson Shipping was not able to sustain those. However, they were able to survive it and they sold their liners and the Alex Craig that went to Lucena. There were other upheavals too in Zamboanga shipping at the start of the new millennium that were caused by over-expansion in the late 1990’s. These were so strong that two old shipping lines of Zamboanga shipping, the Sampaguita Shipping Corp. and SKT Shipping Corp., both collapsed. Among the factors too was the loss of a major overnight route, the Zamboanga-Pagadian route because of the cementing of the parallel highway. Like in Batangas, there was a surplus of bottoms in Zamboanga that resulted in heavy discounting of fares or fare wars. Maybe with other lines of business Aleson Shipping was more geared to absorb shocks in the shipping trade.

With the stoppage of two main rivals and also of some minor rivals, Aleson Shipping turned on the screw and acquired more ships. From 2002 they acquired a ferry every year except in 2005 and 2014 was tops when they acquired 3 ships. And aside from their old cargo ships that bore name of persons, they also began their Aleson Con Carrier or ACC series of cargo ships in 2001. As of this year, 2016, they now have an Aleson Con Carrier 15.

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Now the other major competitors remaining of Aleson Shipping, the Magnolia Shipping Corporation and Ever Lines are just in niche routes now. Some other competitors also collapsed like KST Shipping (the revived SKT), Basilan Lines, A. Sakaluran and Monte Alegre Shipping. As a result,they are already very dominant in Zamboanga now. They have routes to Jolo, Siasi, Bongao, Isabela City and Lamitan City. They also expanded but only in routse they can manage, the Dapitan-Dumaguete and Dumaguete-Larena routes and the Cebu-Tubigon route. Their cargo and container ships now reach Manila, Batangas and Bacolod aside from their earlier routes to Cebu, Dapitan and Southern Mindanao.

Like in other shipping companies, after 20 years or so there is a generational change at the helm. But instead of weakening like in most family-held shipping companies, I heard and there is outward evidence that the second generation of Aleson Shipping is even fiercer than the founder. And they were decisive in Aleson Shipping not losing the old ships due to weak engines. They opened their wallets and so now those limping ferries are back in fighting form.

The ferry fleet of Aleson Shipping:

Estrella del Mar (short-distance ferry) IMO 8945220, original name. Cruiser built in 1975 by Varadero de Recodo in Zamboanga, Philippines. 38.1m x 6.7m x 3.0m, 230gt, 143nt, 494 pax, 1 x 850hp Yanmar, 10.5kts.

Stephanie Marie (short-distance ferry) IMO 8427278. ROPAX built in 1979 by Kanda Shipbuilding in Kawajiri, Japan as Marima III. 63.2m x 12.0m x 4.1m, 910+gt, 316+nt, 945 pax, 2 x 1,600hp Daihatsu, 15kts.

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Neveen (short-distance ferry) IMO 7509976. Cruiser built in 1975 by Maebata in Sasebo, Japan as Mishima Maru No. 3. 35.0m x 6.4m x 2.8m, 223gt, 61+nt, 332 pax, 1 x 1,000hp Daihatsu, 13kts. [This is laid up.]

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Danica Joy (built as overnight ferry) IMO 7852414. ROPAX built in 1972 by Nakamura in Yanai, Japan as Nakajima. 48.0m x 11.3m x 3.7m, 483+gt, 245nt, 448pax, 2 x 1,000hp Daihatsu, 13kts.

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Danica Joy 2 (overnight ferry) IMO 8135253. ROPAX built in 1982 by Nakamura in Yanai, Japan as Orange Hope. 62.7m x 12.0m x 4.5m, 998+gt, 491nt, 636pax, 2 x 2,000hp Daihatsu, 16kts. [She capsized in Zamboanga port Sept. 2016; salvageable.]

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Sea Jet (High Speed Craft) No IMO Number. Fastcraft built in 2003 by Far East in Sibu, Malaysia as Sea Jet. 38.7m x 4.2m x 1.6m, 97gt, 26nt, 2 x 1,600 Mitsubishi, 30kts.

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Kristel Jane 3 (overnight ferry) IMO 8313489. ROPAX built in 1983 by Usuki in Usuki, Japan as Ferry Izena. 57.3m x 11.2m x 3.2, 494+gt, 270 nt, 512pax, 2 x 1,620hp Niigata, 16kts.

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Trisha Kerstin 1 (short-distance ferry) IMO 8608509. ROPAX built in 1986 by Fujiwara in Omishima, Japan as Wakashio. 43.8m x 11.6m x 3.3m, 384+gt, 72+nt, 695pax, 1 x 1,300hp Yanmar, 12.5kts.

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Ciara Joie (basic, short-distance ferry) IMO 7824778. ROPAX built in 1979 by Imamura in Kure, Japan as Kamagiri No. 3. 38.2m x 8.6m x 3.0m, 235gt, 139nt, 203pax, 1 x 900hp Daihatsu, 10.5kts.

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Trisha Kerstin 2 (overnight ferry) IMO 8824373. ROPAX built in 1989 by Fujiwara in Omishima, Japan as Geiyo. 59.5m x 12.3m x 3.0m, 699gt+, 241nt, 2 x 1,500hp Daihatsu, 14.5kts.

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Anika Gayle (Low Speed Craft) No IMO Number. Ferry built in 1992 in Japan as Victoria. 86gt, 332pax, single engine, 11kts.

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Trisha Kerstin 3 (overnight ferry) IMO 9125516. ROPAX built in 1995 by Wakamatsu in Kitakyushu, Japan as Camellia 2. 47.9m x 12.0m x 3.6m, 639+gt, 412nt, 1 x 1,300hp Daihatsu, 14kts.

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Lady Mary Joy 3 (overnight ferry) IMO 9006760. Cruiser built in 1990 by Yamanaka in Namikata, Japan as Daito. 73.0m x 11.0m x 5.3m, 835gt, 568nt, 500pax. 2 x 2,000hp Niigata, 17kts.

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Ciara Joie 2 (basic, short-distance ferry) IMO 8216966. ROPAX built in 1982 by Imamura in Kure, Japan as Kamagiri No. 7. 36.1m x 8.7m x 2.9m, 198gt, 100nt, x 386pax, 1 x 750hp Niigata, 10kts.

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Anika Gayle 2 (Medium Speed Craft) No IMO Number. Ferry built in 1990 in Japan as Yamabiko. 27.1m x 6.0m x 2.2m, 116gt, 79nt, 235pax, twin engines, 17kts.

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Lady Mary Joy 1 (overnight ferry) IMO 9088081. Cruiser built in 1994 by Niigata in Niigata, Japan as Funakawa Maru. 57m x 9.0m x 3.9m, 488gt, 1 x 1,800hp Niigata, 13.5kts.

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Ciara Joie 3 (basic, short-distance ferry) IMO 9118862. ROPAX built in 1995 by Izutsu in Japan as Ferry Yumutsu. 10.0m breadth, 191gt, single engine.

Ciara Joie 5 (basic, short-distance ferry) IMO 8615734. ROPAX built in 1987 by Imamura in Kure, Japan as Kofuji No. 8. 36.3m x 10.5m x 3.0m, 264gt, 131nt, 1 x 1,000hp Niigata, 10kts.

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Stephanie Marie 2 (short-distance ferry) IMO 8602062. ROPAX built in 1986 by Kanda in Kawajiri, Japan as Otagawa. 55.9m x 14.0m x 3.8m, 983gt, 1,073pax, 1,300hp Daihatsu, 14kts.

The cargo fleet of Aleson Shipping:

Nico Bryan (used as container ship) IMO 8951956. Small GP ship built in 1976 by Yoshida in Arida, Japan as Meiji Maru No. 11. 53.6m x 9.3m x 3.5m, 244gt, 132nt, 667dwt, 10kts

Aleson Con Carrier 1 (used as container ship) IMO 8720565. Small GP ship built in 1988 by Masui in Nandan, Japan as Kazuhisa Maru. 51.5m x 10.5m x 5.4m, 248gt, 167nt, 601dwt, 10kts.

Aleson Con Carrier 2 (used as general cargo ship) IMO 8718665. Small GP ship built in 1988 by Onoda in Taiyo, Japan as Hamako Maru. 53.1m x 9.5m x 5.1m, 247gt, 167nt, 662dwt, 10kts.

Aleson Con Carrier 3 IMO 8822193. Small GP ship built in 1989 by Miura in Saiki, Japan as Hakko Maru No. 31. 58.7m x 9.6m x 5.0m, 247gt, 170nt, 650dwt, 10kts.

Aleson Con Carrier 5 (used as container ship) IMO 8905505. Small GP ship built in 1989 by Taiyo in Onoda, Japan as Shin Chitose. 53.3 x 9.5m x 5.1m, 246gt, 166nt, 668dwt, 10kts.

Aleson Con Carrier 6 (used as general cargo ship) IMO 8708921. Small GP ship built in 1987 by Miura in Saiki as Sanko Maru. 58.0m x 9.5m x 5.2m, 246gt, 159nt, 680dwt, 10kts.

Aleson Con Carrier 8 (used as container ship) IMO 8708921. Small GP ship built in 1989 by Yamanaka in Namitaka, Japan as Kiku Maru No. 8. 55.8m x 9.3m x 5.5m, 246gt, 168nt, 661dwt, 10kts.

Aleson Con Carrier 9 (used as container ship) IMO 7903146. Small GP ship built in 1979 by Kanda in Kure, Japan as Ashidagawa. 63.3m x 14.2m, 942gt, 324nt, 349dwt, 15kts.

Aleson Con Carrier 10 (used as container ship) IMO 8630796. Small GP ship built in 1987 in Japan. 50.1m x 10.5m, 287gt, 195nt, 674dwt.

Aleson Con Carrier 11 (used as container ship) IMO 8840030. Small GP ship built in 1989 in Japan. 53.3m, 611gt, 348nt, 619dwt.

Aleson Con Carrier 12 IMO 9001370. GP ship built in 1991 by Banguhjin in S. Korea as Dongjin Yokohama. 94.0m x 3.8m x 6.7m, 2448gt, 1349nt, 3386dwt.

Aleson Con Carrier 14

Aleson Con Carrier 15 (used as general cargo ship) IMO 9153848. GP ship built in 1996 by Imamura in Kure, Japan as Mercury Seven. 83.8m x 14.5m, 2921gt, 3773dwt, 12kts.

A total of 19 ferries and 13 cargo/container ships. They are now one of the biggest regional shipping companies in the Philippines. And yet even among ship spotters she is barely known because so few have ever been in Zamboanga.

Maybe in due time the company will earn her merited recognition.