The Disproportionality of the Ferry Losses in the Philippines

Many times the question of if our ferries are safe is asked. This is especially true when a ferry has an accident or is lost especially when the casualty count is high. Rather than answering the question straight, if I am asked, I might answer it “it depends” because that is probably the most exact answer to the question anyway but then many will be puzzled by that answer (pilosopo ba?). Read on and you will be enlightened further and maybe your views about the safety our ferries might change.

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Even if a car is new it doesn’t mean it won’t take a dip into the water. Same principle applies with ships. Photo by Zed Garett (happened just today — what a timely photo for my article). Thanks a lot to the photo owner.

But first a clarification. I am purposely limiting this topic to ferries because tackling all the ship types at once will be very heavy and tedious as we have more freighters than ferries and add to that the other types like the tugs, tankers, etc. The ferry losses is the segment that actually raises the hackles of the people of the country who are mainly uneducated on the topic of maritime losses. This relative ignorance is further fanned by our also-uneducated media whose writers and editors cannot even seem to get the ferries’ names right (it seems they are too lazy to verify with MARINA, the maritime authority). Of course, it is well-known that our media is on the sensationalistic side and so oftentimes accuracy, objectivity and balance are lost with that (do these sell anyway?).

Another limitation I also pose here is I won’t include our wooden-hulled passenger crafts in the discussion. Those crafts are really flimsy especially those equipped with outriggers, the motor bancas. This ship type (those are ships because any sea craft having a passenger capacity of 12 is not a boat) lacks the basic safety equipment that even without a storm they can sink like when an outrigger breaks or when the hull develops a leak big enough that water can’t be bailed fast enough. But I would rather not comment on their seamanship or lack of formal maritime education because in my decades of traveling at sea I found that many of them are actually very good in reading the wind and the waves, a nautical skill that is not taught in maritime schools anymore. Also excluded in the discussion are the wooden-hulled lanchas and batels which were formerly called as motor boats which are not called as motor launches.

My topic here is about the disproportionality (or lack of proportionality) of our maritime losses to clarify that our ferry losses are not proportional with regards to the area and to the ship type (the implication is not all sink). Like what I just mentioned earlier, our wooden-hulled crafts especially the motor bancas are prone to losses especially in areas notorious for its dangerous waves like in Surigao. But these sea crafts continue to exist because in many cases these are the most practical crafts for certain routes like the routes to our small islands and islets or the coastal barrios that have no roads (or if taking the roundabout road will take too long). Motor bancas can land even on bare shores which the other crafts can’t do and moreover these can operate profitably on the barest minimum of passengers and cargo something which is impossible in steel-hulled vessels which have engines that are much, much bigger and are heavier.

The liners, our multi-day ships, among our class of ferries are also very vulnerable to losses (a surprise?) and much more than others classes pro rata to their small number. Relative to their small number, we have lost a lot of liners in the past for a variety of reasons – capsizing, foundering, beaching, wrecking, collision, fire, bombing and explosion. And this might come as a surprise to many because in the main it is our liners that are the biggest, these hold the highest of the certificates (and in insurance many have the comprehensive P & I or “Protection and Indemnity”), these have our most experienced and best crewmen supposedly (unlike in smaller ferries where a Second Mate can serve as Captain of the ship) and much pride of its shipping company is riding on them (well, not all, as we had liners that were no more than the average overnight ferry).

But this vulnerability is actually completely true. We lost the SuperFerry 3 (fire in a shipyard in 2000), SuperFerry 6 (fire while sailing in 2000 too), the SuperFerry 7 (fire in port in 1997), SuperFerry 9 (capsizing in 2009), the SuperFerry 14 (firebombing in 2000 but the official report says otherwise). A total of five SuperFerries when only a total of 20 ships ever carried the name “SuperFerry” (it seems it is not a good name?). The St. Thomas Aquinas, the former SuperFerry 2 was lost in a collision in 2013 and the St. Gregory The Great, the former SuperFerry 20 was also lost (taking a shortcut and hitting the reefs and she was no longer repaired and just sold after equipment was taken out). These two ferries were already under 2GO when they were lost. Not included here were the groundings of the Dona Virginia and the Our Lady of Banneux (technically under Cebu Ferries Corporation then but an actual liner) from which they were never repaired and ending their sailing careers).

Sulpicio Lines is much-lambasted and derided by most of our people but actually they have less losses from their “Princess” and “Don/Dona” series of ships in the comparative period as the existence of the “SuperFerries” of WG&A (William, Gothong & Aboitiz and its successor company Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). However, it is true that in passenger casualties the total of Sulpicio Lines is much, much higher because they have the tendency to sail straight into storms like the revered Compania Maritima before them (in terms of ship losses and not in casualties) and that historical company took a lot of losses from those risk-takings too (and more than even Sulpicio Lines).

From 1996 when the WG&A was formed, Sulpicio Lines only lost the Philippine Princess (fire while under refitting in 1997), the Princess of the Orient (capsizing in a storm in 1998), the Iloilo Princess (fire and capsizing while under refitting in 2003), the Princess of the World (fire while sailing in 2005) and the Princess of the Stars (capsizing in a storm in 2008) and the Princess of the Pacific (serious grounding incident resulting in complete total loss in 2004). That is until they were suspended in 2008 when only one liner was left sailing for them, the Princess of the South which did not sink.

In the comparative period, WG&A and ATS employed a total of 24 liners (the overnight ferries of Cebu Ferries Corporation was obviously not included here are they are not multiday liners). Sulpicio Lines had a total of 22 liners in the parallel period so their numbers are about even. But the ship loss total of WG&A, ATS and 2GO is clearly higher and the public was never made aware of this. Maybe some good PR works while it seems Sulpicio Lines never took care of that and all they knew was feeding their passengers well (unli rice or smorgasbord, anyone?). But then however those liner losses are scandalous in number, by whatever measure. Imagine losing more than one liner per year on the average.

Some of the liners of WG&A and ATS were not SuperFerries in name but but the Our Ladies, the two Cities and a Dona from William Lines had perfect safety records as none of them was ever lost. Now, does the choice of name matter in safety? Or the “lesser” ferries do try harder and are more careful? That discrepancy certainly made me think and it might be worth a study.

Negros Navigation was far safer than the WG&A and Sulpicio Lines losing only the St. Francis Xavier in 1999. Do naming of liners after saints enhance their safety? Conversely, do naming of liners with the qualifier “Super” means the ship will sink faster? Questions, questions. But the lightly-regarded and revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (CAGLI) tops them all with absolutely no losses. Now for a company that sometimes have difficulty painting their ships that is something (while the spic-and-span WG&A and ATS which repaints their liners while sailing tops the losses department). Does it mean it is better not to repaint liners well? I observed in the eastern seaboard that the ships that are not painted well have no losses (until the dumb Archipelago Ferries let its stalled Maharlika II sank into the waves in 2014 without rescuing it and thereby breaking the record – that ship was newly painted when it went under so the repainting might have doomed her?). Well, in my earlier thesis and later in this article I find it funny that the ships which are more rusty does not sink as long as it is not a Batangas ship (ah, the disproportionality again). While those that can always afford new paint like WG&A and successor ATS sink. Is a new coat of paint a sign of danger for the ship? Or is it the P & I insurance that did them in? Funny, funny. Negros Navigation when it was already in trouble and lacks the money already did not have one ship sinking. So the illiquidity which Negros Navigation suffered means more safety? Har, har! Whatever, I want to commend them and top honcho Sulficio Tagud for taking the high road and not just let the ships sink just to collect insurance. And last note, in multi-day liner operations before, Aleson Shipping Lines never lost a ship.

Liners sink at a faster rate pro rata compared to overnight ferries (if the wooden-hulled ferries of the past are not counted) and that is a big puzzle to me. And of course nobody will know for sure because nobody studied that as we don’t have the equivalent of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) of the USA which call in true experts and go in depth why the transportation accidents happened. Is it because while on a voyage the liners are practically running 24 hours a days and systems, equipment and personnel are stressed more? Is it because the ships reach their reliability/cycles earlier in terms of hours of usage like the electrical lines which is a cause of fire? Or are their crew simply more tired and believes that their ships with high certifications are less vulnerable to sinking (as if those certificates will keep the ship afloat)?

In the earlier decades and even recently it is known that liners take more chances with storms and maybe because they think they can battle the waves better because they are bigger. There are shipping companies who were known to be more brave (or foolhardy?) in sailing ships when there are storms about and among them the old Compania Maritima and Sulpicio Lines almost surely top the list. Now, however, the field is more level as all Philippine ships are barred from sailing when the center wind of the storm reaches 60kph. And for the smaller ships less than 250gt they are not permitted to sail when the center wind is already 45kph or when the local weather agency PAGASA declares a “gale warning” even though there is no a gale. When the suspensions are in effect better just watch the foreign ships still continue sailing for they are not covered by the suspension and most actually use INMARSAT or equivalent which is just a curiosity in the local maritime world until now when that is already well-established outside of the Philippines (the lousy PAGASA which can’t do localized forecasts seems to be already good for them since it is free while they have to pay for INMARSAT).

Liners also sink faster than short-distance ferries whose sailing durations are all short and whose crews probably know their particular seas and routes more. When to think most short-distance ferries which are always small are captained in the main by Second or Third Mates and whose engine department are headed by Second or sometimes by just Marine Diesel Mechanics who have not even finished college but passed an exam just the same (well, competence in running and maintaining a machine well is not necessarily dictated by diplomas, trust me). Even though liners might be using ECDIS don’t be too sure they will reach their destination better than the lowly short-distance ferry using just what is called as dead reckoning. In truth, ECDIS or whatever better bridge equipment does not guarantee better seamanship or navigation. After all it will not show the wind and wave which only something like INMARSAT can.

So in liners disproportionality already exist. And their international certifications don’t even save them from disasters. So, I advise those who take liners, don’t be very sure and make the necessary precautions like memorizing the different alarms and making sure where your life vests are. And don’t jump to the water too early. Liners are tall and that plunge could hurt you. And when in the water at night tie yourselves together so as not to drift (a whistle is a big help in calling attention if you are drifting). Note the water can be cold at night and hypothermia can set in. Take a selfie too before jumping and upload it. Who knows if it will be your last photo. Your loved ones will sure prize it. Ah, don’t take all I said in this paragraph too seriously.

In overnight ferries there seems to be disproportionality with regards to companies and not to home port (if analyzed pro rata to the size of the fleet which means the size of the fleets are taken into consideration) and to the routes. Well, for practical purposes there are only a few home ports for overnight ferries – Cebu, Zamboanga, Batangas, Manila, Lucena and Iloilo, in that order maybe in terms of sailings (a clarification, there are overnight ships originating from say northern Mindanao but all of those ferries are actually based in Cebu). Analyzing, some overnight ferry companies deserve the Gold Award while some should be suspended from service, maybe.

It must be noted that one of the biggest overnight ferries two decades ago and which dominated the Visayas-Mindanao waters for nearly a decade, the Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC), a subsidiary of WG&A and successor Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) did not lose a single ship ever until it they left Cebu for Batangas and became the “Batangas Ferries” and even there their perfect streak continued. Maybe some of their people need to be recruited by other companies or sent there by MARINA to share the experience. They can lecture on the topic, “On How Not To Sink”. Maybe it is not just with the choice of name that they were safe? Or was it in the livery? The only problem it seems is they did not send their Captains to their liners like the St. Thomas Aquinas who made a dumb mistake trying to test the hardness of the ice-classed bow of the Sulpicio Express Siete.

In the Cebu-based regional shipping companies which are operators of overnight ferries it is probably Lite Ferries who is the Valedictorian having lost no ships even though their fleet is already big. Maybe that will come as a surprise to many but whatever they deserve a big round of applause. Another company whose Captains might need to be recruited by other shipping companies or pry open their secret if there is any. Are they better readers of SOLAS? One thing I am sure though is its owner does not belong to the same fraternity as one former Batangas shipping company owner who threatens mayhem if his ship sinks.

There are other overnight ferry companies in Cebu that could have shared First Honors with Lite Ferries but in a tie-breaker Lite Ferries wins because they have the most ships and not by a small margin at that. Others with perfect records are the defunct Palacio Lines (well, some might argue that that is a Samar shipping company but I digress). Now I can’t understand why an overnight ferry company with a perfect safety record will go under as a company. Seems something is not right. Aside from Palacio Lines there are a lot of there Cebu-based overnight ferry companies that have perfect safety records in terms of having no ship losses. Some of these are still extant and sailing and some have already quit the business (it’s a waste, isn’t it, for them to just go away like that).

Among these is the legendary Gabisan Shipping Lines, VG Shipping, Kinswell Shipping, Roly Shipping, Jadestar Shipping, South Pacific Transport and many other smaller shipping lines with just one or two ships (most of these are already gone now but still their perfect records remain). I just don’t know why they can’t catch a break from MARINA as in they are not given special citations and handed more privileges in sailing because after all they have proven they know their stuff in shipping. But no, when MARINA goes headhunting in safety they are lambasted in the same vein as those which had sunk ships as if they are just as guilty. Actually, to set the record straight about half of the overnight ferry companies in the whole Philippines never had any ship losses. This is true even in Zamboanga where Magnolia Shipping Lines, Ever Lines and a lot of other operators with just one or two steel-hulled ferries have perfect safety records. Now, can’t MARINA even for once credit them properly and publish their names because the way I feel at times with media reports and with MARINA statements it is as if all our shipping companies already had sunk ships which is simply not the case. In the liner sector that is true but in the overnight ferry and short-distance sector, combined, most shipping companies never had any ship losses. Don’t they deserve credit and more respect and recognition? But no, they are sunk not beneath the waves but in obscurity and that is one of the purpose of this article, to set the record straight.

In Manila, the old MBRS Lines and its successor Romblon Shipping Line never lost a ship (but the company is dead now anyway, sunk by the intermodal). In Lucena, Kalayaan Shipping Lines might have a perfect safety record too at least in steel-hulled ferries. In Batangas, there are operators of just one or two ferries which have not lost a ship (do they take care not to lose one because that will mean the shutdown of operations?). In Iloilo, did Milagrosa Shipping Lines already lost a ship? In number half of the overnight ferry operators never lost a ship although in the number of ships owned theirs comprise just the minority, to clarify.

It is in short-distance ferries that I noticed a lot more of disproportionalities especially in the recent decades when maritime databases were able to keep track with them (the wooden-hulled short-distance ferries generally doesn’t have IMO Numbers so keeping track of them is difficult but these lanchas or batels were our early short-distance ferries aside from the motor bancas). For this sector or segment I would rather stick to steel-hulled ferries like what I mentioned early on especially since there is no way to track the hundreds and hundreds of motor bancas and their losses which are not even properly reported at times.

There are areas, routes and short-distance companies that have perfect safety records (again, wooden hulled ferries are not included here and that also mean the earlier years). In the eastern seaboard where the typhoons first strike and where it is fiercest the routes and shipping companies there have a perfect safety record ever since the steel-hulled ships first appeared in 1979. This was only broken in 2013 due to the dumbness of a stranger which invaded the Masbate waters (is that part of the eastern seaboard anyway? but Masbate is in Bicol). They withdrew from Bicol after that incident to just sail the more benign Camotes Sea waters. And that is one of the reasons why I was furious at Archipelago Ferries for not coming to the aid of their stalled ship for 6 hours when their good ship was just just two hours sailing away and so the stricken ship slid off the waves (shouldn’t someone be hanged for that?). Because of that the perfect record of the local shipping companies based in the eastern seaboard was broken. I just hope the crewmen of Maharlika Cuatro which failed to respond to an SOS then are not employed in the FastCats now.

Short-distance ferries also does not sink in the Tablas Sea crossings or in the routes to Marinduque from Lucena. However, I do not know what is the curse of the Verde Island Passage that many ships have been already lost there when to think practically the same shipping companies ply the three routes mentioned. To think the Tablas Sea wind and waves could be rougher than that in Verde Island Passage. Did they assign their lousier crews there? Just asking. As they say the proof is in the pudding (and the pudding tastes bad).

I just wonder too about the luck of the Mindanao Sea crossings. The waves there could also be rough and the crossing is longer but none was ever lost among the short-distance ferries running the Dumaguete-Dapitan, Samboan-Dapitan and Jagna-Balingoan routes. Like in Tablas Strait, do the longer route makes the crews more careful? Are the crews there better trained and has better seamanship?

The many routes connecting Cebu island and Negros island and Negros island and Panay island are also safe. Hard to find there a short-distance steel-hulled ferry that sank. That is also true for the steel-hulled ferries connecting Masbate island to Cebu island when the distance there is also long for a short-distance ferry and the wind and waves are no less dangerous. What is their secret there? Is it just that Camotes Sea navigators are lousier? With exceptions, of course because Gabisan Shipping surely will not agree.

I could go to the less obscure, short-distance routes. Just the same I will tell you these are also safe. Never heard of a steel ferry going to Alabat that sank. Or to Dinagat and Siargao islands (sure their motor bancas sink). Or the routes to Basilan from Zamboanga. Not even a RORO to Guimaras have sunk or a RORO to Bantayan island. That is also true for the short-distance connections within Romblon island served by steel-hulled ships (the Princess Camille that capsized in Romblon port in 2003 was an overnight ferry from Batangas). No steel-hulled ferry connecting Leyte and Bohol was ever lost too. And that is also true for the route connecting Siquijor to Dumaguete.

So a lot of our short-distance routes and the ferries plying them are actually safe. Who can argue against a perfect safety record? A little rust will not sink ships nor would a non-functioning firefighting pump (and the ship is not in the middle of an ocean anyway). Those are just a little margins that are not that critical. Does not look good to the eye but to a passenger like me it is more important if MARINA enforces their Memorandum Circular that ferries should feed its passengers if the arrival of the ship exceeds 7am. And I am more concerned if the ship is clean especially the rest rooms and if there is clean drinking water. Besides, trust me, our mariners are not that negligent or dumb that they will leave the ramps unclosed and then sail like what some Europeans did.

So are our ferries safe? Yes, it is except for the liners, some shipping companies and some routes and areas. Never mind if they are old. It is not necessarily the factor that will sink ships (a ship if it loses motive power still has the flotation of a barge). It is actually the lack of seamanship that sinks ships (old ship, new ship can both collide or fail to heed the weather). And trust the short-distance ferries on the fringes and don’t underestimate them. The crew won’t let their ships sink if their families, relatives, friends, schoolmates, etc. are aboard. Well, not all. Be a little wary in Verde Island Passage and in Camotes Sea.

Let us be more objective. Our ferries and mariners are not really that bad, contrary to what hecklers say.

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The Princess of the Orient

When William Lines fielded the Wililines Mabuhay 1 in the premier Manila-Cebu route as their challenger in the flagship wars, her main shipping rival Sulpicio Lines rolled out the bigger Princess of the Orient as their answer. Amazingly, the two ships in came from the same company in Japan and both belonged to the highly-regarded and legendary “Sun Flower series” of the Nihon Kosoku Ferry of the Terukuni group. The Princess of the Orient was the Sun Flower 11 while the Mabuhay 1 was the Sun Flower 5. The Princess of the Orient was a lengthened version of the series of sister sister and she had two center funnels in a line. Her superstructure was different too and that was the reason, along with the length, that it was not obvious that the two belonged to the same series of ships. The forepart below the bridge was convex too so she did not look as angular as Mabuhay 1. She also had long bridge wings.

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Sun Flower 11 (Photo by funekichemurase)

The “Sun Flower” series of luxury ships was the dream of Mr. Kijiro Nakagawa, the shipping king of Kyushu, one of the four main islands of Japan. He was the Chief of the Terukuni Kauin which controlled the Nihon Kosoku Ferry, the operator of the beautiful, luxurious and well-regarded “Sun Flower” series of ships which was the nearest equivalent in Japan of the highly-regarded and famous Stena series of luxury ships of Sweden. In this series of seven, it was Sun Flower 11 which was the biggest and longest.

The Sun Flower 11 was built by the Kurushima Dockyard Company in their Onishi shipyard in 1974. At 195.8 meters length over-all (LOA), she was 10 meters longer than her sister ships but she had a similar breadth like the others at 24.0 meters. Consequently, her gross tonnage (GT) was larger at 13,598 and her DWT (deadweight tonnage) was 3,110 tons. This big ship was powered by two Kawasaki-MAN diesel engines of 28,000 horsepower which gave her a top speed of 25 knots when new. Her engine configuration were different from her sister ships and she had only two, not four and her engine arrangement, having no synchronizers, were different, too.

The ship already had the then-very-modern bulbous stem but her stern was cruiser and this contributed to her more rounded look (compared to the angular look of her sister ships). She had three passenger decks and two car decks plus a mezzanine deck for sedans. This ship was actually one of the so-called “highways of the sea” — overnight ROROs on long-distance routes of Japan via overnight voyages mainly and that was why they needed to be fast. Catering not only to truckers but also to commuters and travelers, they were given luxurious accommodations with many amenities including good food and entertainment.

Unlike Sun Flower 5, Sun Flower 11 had no front quarter ramps nor a bow ramp. What she had instead at the front was a side ramp on the starboard side. She was also equipped with two stern quarter ramps of the three-piece kind. For added comfort for passengers in rough seas, the ship was also equipped with fin stabilizers which decreased the roll of the ship (the swaying from side to side). She was also advertised to have a computer-controlled steering system. Maybe that meant it was computer inputs and motors that controlled the action of the rudder (and the stabilizers) and not via the traditional cables. Her original route was Osaka to Kagoshima.

The “Sun Flower” series of luxury ships were not successful financially because the Oil Crisis of 1973 where fuel prices spiked caught them hard. Terukuni Yusen went bankrupt but Nihon Kosoku Ferry continued operations. In 1984, the Sun Flower 11 was sold to her builder Kurushima Dockyard Company along Sun Flower 5 but she was chartered back to Nihon Kosoku Ferry so that their operations can continue. However, in 1990, Nihon Kosoku Ferry finally gave up and Sun Flower 11 (and Sun Flower 5) went to Nihon Enkai Ferry which was later named as the Blue Highway Line. So though future competitors in the Philippines that was how tightly interwoven were the careers of two luxury sister ships. In 1991, she was renamed as the Sun Flower Satsuma and in 1993, she was sold to the Philippines (together with Sun Flower 5).

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Princess of the Orient by Britz Salih

Sun Flower Satsuma went to Sulpicio Lines Inc. (SLI) and her sister ship, the original Sun Flower 5 (renamed as Sun Flower Osaka) went to William Lines Inc., SLI’s chief rival. And so the intertwined sister ships began their battle in the Philippines as flagships of the two leading shipping companies then. In refitting and conversion, the superstructure of Sun Flower Satsuma was largely left unchanged except that additional scantling was added to the whole top deck to accommodate the Economy class. The mezzanine of the car deck was also converted into additional Economy accommodations. However, since this lacked ventilation it was hot and not too liked by the passengers.

In the conversion, the Gross Tonnage (GT) of the ship barely rose from 13,593 in to 13,734 here. She had a net tonnage of 6,445 locally and a deadweight tonnage of 3,172. She was given the local Call Sign of DUAO8. The main difference here compared to Japan was her big drop in speed. Unlike Mabuhay 1 which was still capable of 20 knots, she can only do 18.5 knots, the reason why she takes 21 hours for the 393-nautical mile Manila-Cebu route. With a tall air height and tall masts, she goes around Mactan Island as she cannot go under the two Mactan bridges. She only did the Manila-Cebu route twice a week that is why she has plenty of lay-overs.

The Princess of the Orient had eight accommodation classes. Highest was the Royal and the Imperial Suites which was not really meant for the common passengers even if they can afford it. Those were reserved for the relatives of the owners and the rich of Cebu who still took ships then. The other classes were the Suite, the Cabin for 4 with Toilet and Bath, the Cabin for 2 w/o Toilet and Bath, the Tourist Deluxe, Tourist, Economy Deluxe (air-conditioned Economy) and Economy. If P464 was the fare of the lowest class then P1,650 was the passage of the highest class but it has all the amenities and its occupants need not go to the restaurants for their meals because it will be served right there and they have their own personal sala so they need not mix with the hoi polloi. This was also true for Suite passengers.

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Princess of the Orient by Britz Salih

The Princess of the Orient had the biggest passenger capacity ever by a liner in the Philippines at 3,912 persons which was almost double that of her main rival Mabuhay 1. Being super-big she had plenty of space, accommodations and amenities. It was tiring to make the rounds of the spaces devoted to passengers especially if one includes the converted mezzanine (many thought this had no access to the rest of the ship but if one knows how to read general arrangement plans then one could reach it from the other classs). With its big space and few windows, the Tourist of this ship can be disorienting after one wakes up as from the bunk one can’t tell if it is night or day. In roaming this section too, one has to mind his route as it is not easy to locate back one’s bunk because the passageways are byzantine-like. In the First Class at the forward portion of the ship, it was rows and rows of cabins. In the Economy in the converted top deck it was one long walk from one end to the other.

All the passage classes were entitled to free meals aboard the ship. The highest classes will be assigned to the First Class restaurant and here it was eat-all-you-can as in smorgasbord, a feature of dining always appreciated by top passengers in Sulpicio Lines. The Tourist classes also have their own restaurant and here real china and crystal glasses were used along with linen. The Third Class restaurant, meanwhile, resembles a cafeteria and steel trays were used and glasses were plastic. Nevertheless, since it is rice-all-you-can, the passengers will still have full stomachs especially since it is soup-all-you-can. In Third Class, meals will be by schedule, it was announced in loudspeakers and bellmen will make the rounds to call out as not all Economy passengers can be accommodated in one sitting (well, the bellmen also make a round of the Tourist sections since the favorite activity of the passengers is sleeping). Well, even in the Tourist restaurant, long queues can form and some passengers rather than line up will just come back at a later hour. Anyway, they know that for sure the meals and the unlimited rice will never run out in Sulpicio Lines.

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(c) closedcircuitdivers.com.au. Credits also to Arckz Pananganan

The Princess of the Orient had plenty of amenities and offerings. She was also sold as “hotel on the sea” and as a “floating convention center”. For this purpose, she had a conference room with all the necessary equipment. As “floating hotel”, her suites were luxurious and had amenities that can be found in good hotel rooms. For First Class passengers there was a separate VIP lounge for them not accessible to the passengers of the lower passage classes. For unwinding during the night, there was a theater with live entertainment where drinks and finger food can be ordered. The ship also had a dance floor with dance instructors. For the children, there were kiddie rides, video games and playground equipment. She was also equipped with a gym for those wanting to work out a sweat. Well, visiting all the parts of the ship was already a work-out as one deck from one end to the other was already a third of a kilometer and there were three-and-a-half decks to roam plus there were stairs to navigate.

After sailing serenely for four years, the Princess of the Orient had a bad incident when on December of 1997 she caught fire in the engine room while refueling in North Harbor. With significant damage she was sent to Singapore for repairs. It was noticeable that she had a slight but visible list to port and rumors ascribed it to the fire and some said her fin stabilizers were also damaged and locked into position. It also seemed she lost a little speed to just 18 knots.

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Princess of the Orient (Credits to Nonoy Lacza, Manila Chronicle & Gorio Belen)

On September 18, 1998, on one voyage from Manila, she left port in a typhoon (based on the Philippine definition of typhoon which is just a storm or a gale in other countries). Liners then can routinely leave port at Signal Number 2 (this was defined then as having center winds of 91-120kph). It was a Friday night 10:00 PM when Princess of the Orient left Manila North Harbor about two hours late. Most probably she waited a little for the typhoon to pass. During that time, “Typhoon Gading” (“Typhoon Vicki” internationally) was already in the Quirino-Pangasinan border in northern Luzon.

The 8:00 PM weather bulletin of PAGASA, THE forecast winds was only 100 KPH at the center. A few hours before that PAGASA said the center winds was only 75 KPH. With the typhoon completely passing in a few hours and with such low forecast of winds, maybe it put complacence on the Captain and on the company. However, the 100 KPH center winds was a severe underestimation as later analysis by other weather centers put the true strength of the typhoon at 160 KPH which is already in Signal No. 3 and hence, dangerous to all sea vessels (now 45 KPH can already deemed “dangerous” for all sea vessels except for foreign vessels which have no tolerance for such inanity and just continue sailing in our waters when all our local ships, big or small are suspended from sailing). The Typhoon Vicki case earned PAGASA censure from other weather forecasting agencies.

Coming out of Manila Bay, the Princess of the Orient was subjected to fierce winds, much more than what they expected. Reports and speculation said the container vans on chassis with wheels were not properly secured (maybe that meant only wooden chocks were used) and these moved in a situation where the car deck was not full. A mariner familiar with her theorized she had not fully ballasted by the time she left Manila Bay as it takes several hours for her to be fully ballasted (and hence lowering her center of gravity and adding to her depth, the portion of the ship below water).

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The long reach of Typhoon Vicki (NOAA image)

Soon, the Princess of the Orient developed an uncontrollable list to port around 12 midnight, a dangerous condition in a severe tropical storm or higher (with winds maybe over 120 KPH, locally). A survivor I had talked to who suffered a broken collarbone because he slammed into a bulkhead said the list then was already over 45 degrees. Remember she had a previous list to port and waves were continuously pounding her at the bow and at starboard. The Board of Marine inquiry later blamed the Captain for errors in handling the situation.

Off the shores of Cavite province, the ship floundered about 5 minutes before 1:00 AM. She was able to launch life rafts and in the gathering light of the day these were seen by Cavite fishermen bobbing in the angry swells. In the Philippines, it is the fishermen who are the bravest in strong seas and they are the best hope of passengers struggling to survive in these kinds of seas. Even with such dangerous conditions, the brave Cavite fishermen launched their fishing bancas before light to come to the aid of the passengers of the Princess of the Orient. The Coast Guard rescue boats arrived much later.

Of the 388 passengers and 102 crewmen aboard the ship, 95 lost their lives in the floundering of the Princess of the Orient. Some sources though said the number of deaths reached 150 but there could be speculation in that number. The Captain did not survive the loss of his ship and a witness said the last time he saw him, the Captain was assisting passengers into life rafts. I was taught Captains should behave that way in such critical situations.

Today, Princess of the Orient lies on its port side in the seabed at 150 meters depth a few kilometers off the coast of Cavite. She has now become a dive site although few can reach her because of the depth.

The Princess of the Orient sailed for five years only here. What a waste of a great liner!

The Matnog Ferry Terminal

The government ports that were built in the 1980’s to connect Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao through the eastern seaboard of the country were not called “ports” but instead were called “ferry terminals”. And so it became Matnog Ferry Terminal, San Isidro Ferry Terminal, Liloan Ferry Terminal and Lipata Ferry Terminal. The four actually had a common design in their port terminal buildings and general lay-outs. The paint schemes are also the same.

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Matnog town had been the connection of Sorsogon and Luzon to Samar even before World War II and it might even been before the Americans came. That situation and importance was simply dictated by location and distance as in Matnog is the closest point of Luzon to Samar. In the old past, that connection to Samar crossing the San Bernardino Strait was done by wooden motor boats or what is called as lancha in the locality.

These lanchas existed until the early 1980’s. Their fate and phase-out was forced by the arrival of the pioneering Cardinal Shipping RORO in 1979, the Cardinal Ferry 1. With the arrival of other ROROs and especially the government-owned and promoted Maharlika I, the fate of the lanchas were slowly sealed until they were completely gone. By this time the new Matnog Ferry Terminal which was a replacement for the old wooden wharf was already completed.

Maharlika I

The Matnog Ferry Terminal is a RORO port with a back-up area for vehicles waiting to be loaded. At the start when there were few vehicles yet crossing and there were only a few ROROs in San Bernardino Strait that back-up area was sufficient. But over time it became insufficient and so additional back-up areas were built twice. Before that the queue of vehicles sometimes went beyond the gate and even up to the Matnog bus terminal/public market. Worst was when there were trip suspensions and vehicles especially trucks snaked through the main streets of of the small town of Matnog.

The Matnog Ferry Terminal is one of the more successful ports of the government. Actually most ports owned by the government do not have enough revenue to pay for the operational expenses like salaries, security, electricity, transportation and communication and for maintenance. The performance and success of Matnog Ferry Terminal is dictated not by the quality of port management but simply by the growth of the intermodal system. From Luzon there is no other way to Eastern Visayas except via Matnog. The intermodal system began to assert itself in the 1980’s until it became the dominant mode of connection to most of the islands in the country.

The Matnog Ferry Terminal has a total of four corresponding ports in Samar, amazingly. These are the BALWHARTECO port, the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the Dapdap port of Philharbor Ferries, all in Allen town and the San Isidro Ferry Terminal. The first three are privately-owned ports. The government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal lost out early to the privately-owned ports because it has the longest distance at 15 nautical miles while BALWHARTECO port is only 11 nautical miles from Matnog. A shipping company using San Isidro Ferry Terminal will simply consume more fuel and it cannot easily pass on the difference to the vehicles and passengers.

The existence of those many ports in Samar showed the increase over the years of the number of ROROs crossing San Bernardino Strait and also the number of vessel arrivals and departures. Currently, on the average, a dozen ferries and Cargo RORO LCTs serve the routes here with the companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation/Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated, 168 Shipping Lines, Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation, SulitFerry and NN+ATS involved. The last two mentioned are operations of the liner company 2GO.

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In Samar, all those ferries can be docked simultaneously thereby showing enough docking capacity. In Matnog Ferry Terminal only about five ferries can be docked simultaneously especially since the two new RORO ramps there seems not to be in use. When they built that it was by means of bulldozing rocks into the sea to build a back-up area and those rocks seem to be dangerous to the ferries and their propellers and rudders which means a possible wrong design or construction.

When the government built a back-up area near the Matnog terminal/market, I assumed a true expansion of Matnog Ferry Terminal there. A causeway-type wharf could have been developed there and the docking ferries could have been separated there so there would be less mix-up of the departing and arriving vehicles. Causeway-type wharves like what was successfully deployed by the BALWHARTECO and Dapdap ports. This type of wharf is very efficient in using limited wharf space and it is very good in handling ROROs and LCTs.

Until now the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) insists on using pile-type wharves which is more costly but less efficient. A pile-type wharf is good if freighters and container ships are using the port but freighters do not dock in Matnog but in nearby Bulan port and there are no container ships hereabouts. If there are container vans passing here it is those that are aboard truck-trailers. But many know that if there are “percentages”, the less efficient pile-type wharves will guarantee more pie than can be “shared” by many. And I am not talking of the pie that comes from bakeshops.

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In a causeway-type of wharf the ferries can dock adjacent each other

Matnog Ferry Terminal by its evolution is actually a little bit different now from its sister ports because its wharf has an extention through a short “bridge” like what was done in Cataingan port although this is less obvious in the case of Matnog. The three other Ferry Terminals have no such extensions which is done if the water is shallow and there is enough money like in Ubay port which has an extension that is long and wide enough to land a private plane already (and yet it handles far less traffic than the Ferry Terminals). Almost always the priorities of government in disbursing funds is questionable at best. The budget used in Ubay port would have been more worthwhile if it was used in the shallow Pilar port which has far more traffic and is of much greater importance.

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With lack of RORO ramps it is normal that ferries in Matnog will dock offshore. It is also usual that a ferry will wait a little for a ferry loading to depart before they can dock especially at peak hours. Again, the docking of ferries askew to the port in high tide where there is no RORO ramp still goes on. Matnog Ferry Terminal and the Philippine Ports Authority is really very poor in planning that one will question what kind of data do they input in planning. I even doubt if the idea of a breakwater ever crossed their minds. Matnog is one place where swells are strong especially both in habagat and amihan (it has that rare distinction) or if there are storm signals (and Bicol is so famous for that) or when there is what is called as “gale” warning by the anachronistic weather agency PAGASA (they issue a “gale warning” even if there is no gale; they could have just issued a “strong swell “ warning because it is actually what they are warning about).

In Bicol, Matnog Ferry Terminal has the most number of vessel departures per day if motor bancas are excluded. Matnog’s vessel departures can reach up to 20 daily in peak season with a corresponding equal number in arrivals. In this regard, Matnog Ferry Terminal is even ahead of the likes of Legazpi, Tabaco and Masbate ports and such it is Number 1 in the whole of Bicol. That will just show how dominant is the intermodal system now. And how strategic is the location of Matnog.

A few years ago there was a change in Matnog Ferry Terminal that I was bothered about. Matnog is one port that has a very strong traffic and traffic is what drives income up. But before her term was up Gloria gave the operation of Matnog Ferry Terminal passenger building to Philharbor Ferries. This was also about the same time she wanted to privatize the regional ports of the country with strong traffics like Davao, Gensan and Zamboanga.

Now what is the point of giving the control of a passenger terminal building of a very strong port to a private entity? That port terminal building is actually a cash machine. Imagine about 2,000-3,000 passengers passing there daily in just one direction. Of course Gloria has some debt to the true owner of Philharbor in terms of executive jet services during her term and for providing escape to Garci. Was the deal a payback?

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No covered passenger walkway in Matnog

After years of private operation I have seen no improvement in Matnog Ferry Terminal. From what I know the construction of the two new back-up areas were funded by government. So what was the transfer of control of the passenger terminal building all about? They cannot even build a covered walkway from the passenger terminal to the ferries when BALWHARTECO port was able to do that (and both have long walks to the ferry). Does it mean that BALWHARTECO port cares more about its passengers?

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BALWHARTECO covered walk for passengers

Matnog Ferry Terminal could have been a greater port if properly managed and it should have been properly managed and programmed because it is one of the critical ports of the country. It is actually the strongest of the four Ferry Terminals and by a wide margin at that. Now, if only they will plow some of the profits of the port back into improvements of the port. Or shell out money like what they did to Ubay and Pulupandan ports which severely lacks traffic until now even after spending three-quarters of a billion pesos each. Again one will wonder what kind of data PPA used. Did the “figures” come from whispers of powerful politicians? And did they twist the moustache of NEDA Director-General Neri?

Quo vadis, Matnog Ferry Terminal? You should have been greater than your current state.

The Liner That Sank A Liner Company (The Saga of the Princess of the Stars)

The Princess of the Stars of Sulpicio Lines Incorporated was the biggest-ever liner to grace the Philippine seas. She was not the longest, however, because such honor belonged to the Princess of the Orient, also of Sulpicio Lines but compared to that liner the Princess of the Stars was wider and taller and for confirmation, her Gross Tonnage (GT), the measure of the total volume of the ship, was higher. In the comparison, the M/S Philippines of Emilio Yap was excluded because that ship was not a sailing liner but a floating hotel when it came here.

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Photo from homepagenifty2

The Princess of the Stars was the second Ferry Lilac of Shin Nihonkai Ferry Company which is known in Japan for building big liners that sail the open waters of Japan. Shin Nihonkai was among the companies that offered the “Bypasses of the Sea” service in the earlier decades in Japan which meant big, fast ROROs that took in vehicles along sea lanes instead of it battling the clogged highways of Japan then. From utilitarian ROROs, that concept evolved into the “cruiseferries” in the 1970’s which offered hotel-like accommodations aside from being able to carry vehicles. When patronage weakened in the 1980’s due to the rise of other modes of transports that evolved into the “carferries” which is again utilitarian but more comfortable than the first generation of long-distance RORO’s that appeared in the 1960’s.

The Ferry Lilac already belonged to the “carferries” class when built and much like the New Miyako which became the SuperFerry 12 in the Philippines for they were built in the same year but Ferry Lilac was much bigger than the New Miyako. When completed in July of 1984, Ferry Lilac was the largest RORO-passenger ship existing in Japan. She was assigned the Maizuru-Otaru route that passes through the Sea of Japan in the western seaboard of that country. As a “carferry”, although she still had suite rooms and other high class rooms, the emphasis was already on food and restaurants, live entertainment and shows and on game halls. Her capacity was 554 passengers but after remodeling that increased to 788 passengers. Her design and equipment were supposedly of the latest of the period being the “ultimate carferry” then.

The Ferry Lilac‘s design philosophy followed what was the naval design thinking then. Japan researchers determined that the swells of the open seas of Japan has an average of 140 to 145 meters between crests and so they suggested that the length of the liners be greater than that. The belief was that the ship would be able to ride between two crests and such will not pitch too much. However, it seems that was a naive assumption because after the ship’s bow rose with the coming swell the bow will then sink after the swell passed the center of the ship. In Youtube, there are videos of ship bow that appears to be submarining into the sea (of course, it will rise again). This phenomenon also happens to all kinds of ships including container ships, bulkers, military ships and other kind of ships in the heavy swells of the open seas.

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Photo by Joel Bado

The second Ferry Lilac was tall and she had high sides and the superstructure encompasses the whole ship. The philosophy behind the high sides is it serves as a protection against big waves including rogue waves and in case the ship listed she will not take in water easily hence forestalling capsizing. That was proven in later cases like the Ariake (which was hit by a rogue wave) and the Cougar Ace which did not immediately sink even though their sides were already lying in the water. I do not know if the design philosophies mentioned in this paragraph and the previous one weighed on the decision to risk her in a typhoon later. I heard her company was very confident in her ability to survive heavy seas as supposedly these big “carferries” were designed to survive seas generated by tropical cyclones of 120-130kph center wind strength.

The second Ferry Lilac was built by Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries (IHI) in Aioi shipyard in Japan in 1984 and had the permanent ID IMO 8323161. Her dimensions were 192.9 meters by 29.4 meters with a gross register tonnage (GRT) of 18,268 tons. This later rose to 23,824 in gross tonnage (GT) with a net tonnage (NT) of 16,040. Its DWT (deadweight tonnage) was 7,670. The ferry was big but was not really built for speed unlike the big ferries of Japan in the previous decade as her design speed was only 21.5 knots. The power comes from SEMT-Pielstick engines that develops only 26,400 horsepower.

The ferry was released from Japan in 2004 after twenty years of service and went to Sulpicio Lines Inc. There was minimal refitting and there was no change in the superstructure and most works were done just in Cebu port. The refitting were mainly on how the facilities of the ship will conform to local conditions like the provision of an Economy Class and its corresponding Economy restaurant. Otherwise, the facilities and comforts of the ship were already more than enough as with the space for passengers. In the period of her arrival, passenger load of the liners was already declining and so there was no longer any pull to greatly increase the passenger capacity which was just limited to 1,992, a far cry from the 3,912 of the Princess of the Orient which was similar to her in size.

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Photo from Wakanatsu

When Princess of the Stars was fielded she became the flagship of Sulpicio Lines vice the Princess of the Universe. As flagship, she did the Manila-Cebu route twice a week. Sailing, she usually catches the attention of observers for her sheer size. Docked in Manila or Cebu, she simply dwarfed the other ferries and with her height she simply towered above the other ferries. But unlike what others may expect, she was not led by the most senior captain of Sulpicio Lines. Others declined because they know handling a ship that big is more demanding. Looked from an angle, ships of these size were not really designed for Philippine waters. That size might have been demanded when passenger demand was still strong but not in the new millennium and Princess of the Stars might just be part a showcase. More kindly, she can also be looked as the replacement of the big and luxurious Princess of New Unity which was sold to breakers that same year.

The Princess of the Stars did not sail long, however. Sailing on the night of June 20, 2008 for Cebu, she failed to stop and seek shelter unlike two ships of Aboitiz Transport System which dropped anchor and sought shelter in Puerto Galera because of a coming typhoon. The Princess of the Stars simply sailed on when the evening news already warned of Typhoon “Frank” that will pass the northern coast of Leyte on a collision course with the Princess of the Stars (she left Manila at 8pm and the evening news was 6:30pm). The expected strength then of the typhoon was some 120-130kph which was theoretically within the capacity of the ship to handle. Was the voyage a test case of her strength in Philippine typhoons?

I always wondered about the bravado of the Princess of the Stars. Normally before when there was a storm in Eastern Visayas and the ship wanted to still sail to Cebu or northern Mindanao they take the southern route which means from Verde Island Passage the ship turns to Tablas Strait instead of pursuing the route passing through the Sibuyan Sea. The ship will then sail through the seas off the western side of Panay island and then turn to Panay Gulf and round Negros island on its southern part and then head northward to Cebu port. The wind and swells will be strong in Sulu Sea but the ship will be farther from the eye of the typhoon and after rounding the southwest tip of Panay island the wind and swells will already be at the stern of the ship and the rocking will be less. I have been aboard such detours in the past and I know this custom.

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Photo by Rodney Orca

Tucked in and sheltered by an island, the wind and swells will be moderated and not that much felt in a ship. It is after venturing in the open when the roughness of the sea begins. In the past, our ships has learned to use the cover of the islands if they are not seeking shelter. Even small islands like the Romblon islands provide a measure of cover.

By next morning, Typhoon “Frank” was stronger (it was already developing more strength that night) and its strength was already 165kph, a strength that is not to be messed with. Well, ships going from Australia and the Philippines that pass through our eastern seaboard don’t drop anchor and seek shelter. But they know how to distance themselves from the typhoon. This can be verified through AIS. Where a typhoon is passing the area is clear of ships. Some stop, some take a detour and some seek shelter and drop anchor. Princess of the Stars was in the vicinity of a typhoon and in fact was in a collision course but did neither of the three evasive actions mentioned previously. She simply sailed on until she was already in the eye of the typhoon. Actually, that was a feat of seamanship – to sail into the eye of a strong typhoon. Few can do that (restated, only fools do that).

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Taken from http://www.typhoon2000.com

But the ship did not survive and capsized off the southeast coast of Sibuyan island in an inverted position and stuck in a reef which saved the ship from sinking completely. However, that was no use to most of the passengers and crew of the ship as only 54 survived while 814 were dead or missing and some were washed far away.

Like the Dona Paz tragedy, the Princess of the Stars sinking caused national and international outcry and shamed Sulpicio Lines to heights greater than the Dona Paz tragedy where there was still dispute then who was really at fault in the collision that torched and sank Dona Paz. In the Princess of the Stars case there was no one to blame except for Sulpicio Lines. The company tried to blame the government forecasting agency PAGASA but that did not gain traction. One thing was sure in the accident, the ship was not using state-of-the-art forecasting services like INMARSAT which was the first one to declare that the missing Malaysian Airlines jet MH370 veered south and was lost in the Indian Ocean (when that was not their function or service).

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Credits: NAMRIA and PDI

The backlash of this tragedy was so great it also sank the passenger service of Sulpicio Lines. Now they are forever barred from engaging in passenger liner shipping. And until now they are still haunted by suits. They were even forced to rename their company into the Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation (PSACC).

With the sinking, the Philippine government also tightened regulations on sailings during storms. Now, no Philippine ship can sail when the winds reach 60kph or even less at times. Above that only foreign ships are still sailing our waters.

And that is the ironic thing I find now. Imagine only foreign ships can sail our waters when the wind blows. All because of the Princess of the Stars.

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Photo by Britz Salih

Note: I don’t know who wrote the Wikipedia article of Princess of the Stars. It has errors in the specifications of the ship.

A Brave Short-distance RORO

A few months before they came here, a few in Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) already noticed them in a few ship-for-sale sites. They were sisters ships doing inland routes in China which has a great system of internal waterways based on their great rivers (which we have none). So when they finally came, it is as if the ship spotters were already “acquainted” with them so much so their specifications are already known although they have no IMO Numbers and they are not in the international maritime databases (which rely on IMO Numbers or MMSI Codes at the very least). If not for those ship-for-sale sites, the two would have been practically untraceable especially since the MARINA Database available to the public was not as good as before the fire that gutted the national office of MARINA almost a decade ago. Well, it is not even visible now as of the time of this writing and the last version was still the 2014 version with just a few fields of information.

The riverboat sister ships went to two acquainted Bicol ferry companies, the Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) and 168 Shipping Lines where they were known as the Regina Calixta V and the Star Ferry 7, respectively. Lately, Star Ferry 7 is just called as Star Ferry since the first to carry that name for the company has already been sold to a shipping company doing the Manila-Cuyo route, the J.V. Serrano Shipping Lines.

The external dimensions of the sisters are practically the same and ditto for the superstructure. Their main difference, however, is Regina Calixta V have two engines while Star Ferry 7 is single-engined. Of course, Regina Calixta V is a little faster (her total horsepower is not double that of her sister) but her engines proved troublesome at times, hence her reliability is not that good and there are times she ends up dead in the water. Meanwhile, the single-engined Star Ferry 7 turned out to be very reliable and she was not that much down on speed against her competitors although her total horsepower to gross tonnage and length ratios are lower than all of her competitors.

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With a single engine (which the crew can’t identify before I told him what was its make) and China as her origin, I did not expect her to be very brave as I experienced in one of my trips aboard her on rough seas. But I was not really was not much surprised by her daring because on a previous trip with her I was able to meet her crew in the bridge and I don’t what came to my mind but I asked who is the helmsman on rough seas and the two Captains (yes, that ship has two Captains rotating on shifts) both pointed out to the Chief Mate who showed sign of assent. And I was surprised because without prompting the Captain on duty said in the presence of many bridge crew that his Chief Mate is the best helmsman in the route – the sometimes dangerous Matnog-Allen crossing in San Bernardino Strait where ship at times have to do a dogleg route so it will not be broadsided too much by the waves and the wind. I knew the Captain was not pulling my leg because he showed conviction on what he said and at the same time readable respect to his Chief Mate. The Captain on duty did not grow in the route nor in the more turbulent Bicol waters as he is actually not a Bicolano.

It was a pleasant introduction and the Captain gave me permission to roam the ship and to take pictures and I was even able to tour the engine room. It was clean, organized and I tried to note the makes of engines and equipment there, things I am seeing for the first time because I have not boarded a China-made ferry before. So even in roaming the deck I was more concentrated than usual and trying to note their difference and peculiarities. I found there was none. It is as pleasant as the rest and I would say even better-designed and the workmanship was fine. It looked more airy to me and less confined. Maybe the riverboat design was showing.

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Star Ferry 7 was built in 1994 and it was 2011 when she came to the Philippines. She measures 57.1 in length, 11.9 meters in breadth and 3.0 meters in depth. Those measurements say she is not a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO but of the class next bigger. Her original gross tonnage (GT) was 984 but there was a slight expansion of the roof in the upper deck and so the gross tonnage rose to 1,014 (at least they are honest). I also think they want to reach that figure because in the past 1,000gt ships in Bicol have certain privileges regarding voyage suspensions in inclement weather.

The net tonnage (NT) of the ship is 344 and her passenger capacity is 400, all in sitting accommodations because she is just a short-distance ferry (but a short-distance ferry doing night voyages too and those benches, like those on her counterparts are difficult to find sleep in when the buses cross from Matnog to Allen on midnights). This ship for all its length and gross tonnage is powered by a just single engine with 600 horsepower on tap. The engine’s make is Hongyan and the design speed of the ship is 9.5 knots which is lower than the 11 knots or higher of the competition. In Bicol, rare is the ship with a single engine except for Regina Shipping Lines which has basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs.

What I first noticed about the ship is she has beautiful posts for the chains of her ramp and the superstructure below the bridge is a bit curved and there are visors to the bridge’s windshields. It all contributed to a more modern look along with the sides looking less slab-sided. The scantling of the ship does not extend fully to the stern and there is no box structure at the bow (they didn’t need the extra protection against rogue waves on rivers). The car deck basically can accept only two rows of trucks and sedans in the middle row. Lengthwise, 5 or 6 trucks or buses can be accommodated depending on the length. When I rode on an afternoon, a peak hour of crossing to Matnog, the ramp can’t be fully hoisted up because the deck was a little overfull and they even shoehorned trucks and buses 3 across near the bow. When that happens there is no more space for a person to move between the vehicles even sideways. But that can only be done on gentle weather and side mirrors have to be folded.

My Allen-Matnog trip was uneventful, very normal, even dry except for the hospitality of the crew. But my return trip was anything but uneventful (it’s not dry, it’s not wet; it was very wet). Starting from Naga, it was already raining but not that hard. I felt lucky there were still laborers around because trying to hail a Visayas bus in Naga highway at night is very difficult. But I am amazed that the laborers can identify a bus at 250 meters even by just its lights (maybe years of observation taught them that especially since they have to be ready if that stops). Going east I noticed the rains getting heavier. I don’t know if there was a storm, we Bicolanos don’t care for that unless it is a strong typhoon (in which case preparations have to be done) and LPAs (Low Pressure Areas) are part of Bicol territory. Has been, always been so. In fact, we may have 8 classifications of rain in our vocabulary.

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Since I was not able to hail a bus early and the bus made a long stop-over with meal in Sorsogon City in their own rest stop, we found out in reaching Matnog port that our ferry will be the fourth one to depart that night. I did not mind as long as we don’t depart nearing dawn. The ferries depart one after another anyway after the buses and trucks start arriving and the earliest buses arrive in Matnog just past 9pm. These are the day trip buses. Buses to the Visayas generally depart Manila at day whereas Bicol buses generally depart at night since their routes are shorter and departures are timed that it will arrive in Bicol when there is light already. Meanwhile, Visayas buses generally cross San Bernardino Strait at night because they still have nearly a whole day run to their destinations. Well, the Allen-Tacloban leg alone will already take at least 6 hours and some are still bound for Maasin and San Ricardo which are another 4 hours away.

I also did not mind we were a little late because I was able to board a bus I have a long history of liking, the CUL bus and our bus is not a common unit. I thought it was the usual Nissan PE6 but when I boarded I noticed the different instrument cluster. It was a Nissan PF6, a more powerful version, more respected. They seated me at the front seat and I had a long talk with the kind driver. I complimented his driving precision. It turned out he used to drive for Shell Philippines and you need driving precision to haul its rigs. He left because cellphones are not allowed (now how many times have you experienced before being told in a Shell gas station to turn off your cellphone?).

After a long time in the back-up area of Matnog port, their in-charge said we will be taking Star Ferry 7 and so we boarded. The queer thing is the first three ferries ahead of us, though all already full, refused to sail. They were just anchored offshore. A Captain in the route has the discretion not to sail if he thinks the wind and swells are too strong. There is no need for PAGASA, the Coast Guard or MARINA to tell him that. If a Captain thinks the seas are too heavy he will wait until dawn when the wind will die down a little and begin to shift direction (at dawn it will shift east and thus the wind will be behind him). The passengers will initially get more sleep and then fritter that they will be arriving late but of course there is nothing that they can do.

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After boarding the ferry, the driver of the CUL 0040 bus invited me to just stay in the bus. It is a privilege usually not accorded to a passenger. I was grateful and this was not the first time I was extended such an invite. That means I can lie flat and sleep at the seats across the aisle (easy for me as that is a Bicolano specialty of the ages past when few ride the bus in storms). The driver will turn on the airconditioning for a while and so it is like sleeping in an airconditioned soft bunk unlike the passenger upstairs who will be trying to find sleep in all positions of discomfort and with humidity from all the people around (later my co-passengers will ask where was I as they thought I was left in Matnog because they didn’t see me upstairs).

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Then came the announcement we will be the first to sail. The driver and me looked at each other. There was a little disbelief as we thought we will also wait for near-dawn. The driver nodded at me, a sign we are buddies. We will look out for each other if there was danger. The very least of that is to wake up one and/or warn if one felt there was imminent danger (well, like water sloshing on the deck or the ferry listing).

I noticed from the bus windows that our ferry turned on all its lights including the two searchlights ahead. Then four able-bodied seaman in ponchos and with long flashlights took up posts on the four corners of the vessel in driving rain (I pitied them; I hope they gave them a shot or two of gin or rum). They and the searchlights were look-outs against rogue waves. All the vehicles were fully lashed and with ropes across the roofs. There were chocks, front and back, on all wheels. All were protection against vehicles moving or sliding in case a rogue wave strikes. If there is one that will hit the ship and move the vehicles, we will list and that could be the beginning of a terrifying goodbye. The searchlights are needed so the helmsman will be able to read and time the swells. I can picture him, the Chief Mate – big man, big torso which muscles as if conditioned by gym training, heavy boots (he told me he needs that for footing), very good stance as if he can simply whirl the helm if needed. I can also imagine him demanding that the windshields be polished dry (or maybe like the driver of CUL 40 he has shampoo and cigarette leaves for the windshield) and commanding reports from the look-outs on the side of the bridge wings.

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I told the driver of CUL 0040 that we have the best helmsman in San Bernardino Strait. That seemed to reassure him a little. Soon we were asleep, no more small talk. No need to keep awake, we will not be of any help in keeping the ship more safe and if there is an emergency we will need the extra strength. But I am always awakened. The ship at times fall about by more than a meter and we can feel in our body (so that means the difference of the crest and the trough of the swell might be some five feet). Sometimes it feels the ship suddenly stopped. Timing the swells and we are pushed back ( orwas the propeller nearly sticking out of the water?). At times the direction of the ship seems to change suddenly and we will twist and the hull will creak. I will look out of the bus window. The look-out near us was still there, immobile. So I know we are still safe and I will go back to sleep. The ship was merely just suffering a little from the sea.

After two hours (the normal San Bernardino crossing is 1 hour, 10 minutes), I noticed looking out of the bus window that the sky was beginning to get light. The wind has died down a bit and the rocking of the ship is less. I can glean the Samar land mass in the dark. I know we were already safe although we are still at sea. The look-outs are still there. If only I can offer them coffee but I had none; maybe their teeth were already chattering from the cold. It was still raining but not as fierce as before. Soon there was the cables running and screw reversing followed by the grinding sound of the ramp against the causeway-type wharf. The docking was a little hard but I don’t blame our helmsman. Maybe his muscles are already tired and hurting from over two hours of battling the sea. I noticed our transit time took double than the usual.

With that voyage my respect for Star Ferry 7, her helmsman and her bridge and engine crew increased by not only a notch. She might just be a China ship, a riverboat at that but on that night she and her helmsman simply humbled the Japan-made ships of her competitors.

After the voyage, I knew in my heart and I am well-convinced that the reputation of the Chief Mate-helmsman of Star Ferry 7 was fully deserved.

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My Samar-Leyte Ship Spotting With Jun Marquez (Part 2)

(Sequel to: https://psssonline.wordpress.com/2016/07/31/my-samar-leyte-ship-spotting-with-jun-marquez/

After San Isidro town we ran at some fast clip to make up for time as we were still very far from Baybay and it was already nearing noon. Along the way, I just pointed to Jun the port in Victoria town of Northern Samar which has motor bancas to Dalupiri island but once that port had a ship to Manila. Running, I was also taking pictures of the buses we encountered along the way. The rain has already become a light drizzle and so my shots had become better. I pointed to Jun there was not really much agriculture in Samar and I told him what was Samar’s diet during the late Spanish times (and now Secretary of Agriculture Pinol wants to make Samar the country’s “vegetable bowl”; supplanting Benguet, Isabela, Nueva Ecija and Bukidnon where people really know how to plant vegetables and where the soil is better?).

After an hour-and-a half of rolling we reached the port of Manguino-o in Calbayog, the port with a RORO connection to Cebu which was just recently developed (one of the parallel ports of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo – two ports serving just one locality). Fortunately, this did not turn into a “port to nowhere” (a port with no ships) because Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. served it (but along the way in the other Calbayog port Palacio Lines sunk). We slowly descended into Manguino-o port and the scene was picturesque. We were lucky a Cokaliong ship, the Filipinas Dinagat was there along with a slew of big fishing bancas or basnigs (some with Masbate registries) and local motor bancas that are ferries. The big fishing bancas were busy loading their catch into styropor boxes with ice. The iced fish will be loaded in the Filipinas Dinagat and will be disposed of in Cebu where the demand is greater and price is higher. With the ferry connection there was no more need for the fishing boats to still go to Maya port in the northern tip of Cebu.

There was an easy atmosphere in the port although the walls and the passenger terminal building were not yet finished. I noticed no hustler hanger-ons nor toughies asking for free fish. The port has a different atmosphere than Calbayog port before which is more tense. The old Samar ports have a long reputation for bullies and thievery. I was glad Manguino-o is starting from a clean slate and Cokaliong Shipping Lines is known for tight control. In my voyage before from Manguino-o port I was able to talk to their port captain who exercised tight grip on the crew at wharf and on the porters. That should be the case everywhere. It also seems the fishing vessels now patronize Manguino-o because this is now the port with connection to Cebu. Departure of the ferry to Cebu from here is in the evening when buses and jeeps contracted by Cokaliong Shipping Lines as shuttles will begin arriving from late afternoon.

From Manguino-o port the private wharf of Samar Coco Products, an oil mill, is visible from a distance across the cove. We didn’t have time to visit it nor we were sure of a welcome and so we just took long-distance shots. There were two ships there then, a Granex steel-hulled freighter and a wooden motor boat that were probably delivering copra. In Manguino-o port the view of the rock formations and the offshore rocks (islets) is really beautiful and it is complemented by the islands offshore. However, we didn’t tarry in the port because of the time pressure. The view of the fish being loaded and the views were already enough enjoyment for the eyes.

After a short drive, we next visited the Calbayog River boat landing area which is accessible after crossing the old bridge spanning Calbayog River. I always liked looking at or visiting this wharf which is adjacent to the market of Calbayog. If one is visiting the old Calbayog port this wharf comes before. What I like here is the jumble of bancas from big to small and from fishing bancas to motor bancas ferries to islands of Samar Sea which is under the jurisdiction of Western Samar. On any given morning their number would be in the dozens. We arrived there before lunch and so there were still many motor banca ferries that were leaving and we were able to take photos of them along with the docked fishing bancas. To save on time and to protect against the heat we just used our vehicle to survey the whole scene. I also pointed out to Jun the passenger terminal for the motor banca ferries.

We then entered the old Calbayog port. They were kind enough to let us in although we have no business except ship spotting. It was already redeveloped but it no longer has a RORO to Cebu because Palacio Lines which has Calbayog origins has already quit (ironically). It had actually no more ferries left. What is has now are a few small cargo ships (two when we visited) and the big fishing bancas that cannot be accommodated in the boat landing area by Calbayog River. I noticed no fish being unloaded (it was nearing noon already) and there was also no cargo being unloaded by the freighters. Except for the presence of the big fishing bancas, Calbayog port was a little desolate.

I also pointed to Jun the locally-built breakwater built by piling stones, the native way. It was good to look at although it is just low. It extends from the boat landing area to the Calbayog port. Me and Jun were comparing it to the gilded breakwater of Enrile and Gigi in Cagayan that cost P4.5 billion and that amount is already enough to build 10 good-sized ports. Yes, if only there is less thievery in government we would have better infrastructure.

We did not stay too long in Calbayog port because of the we were short of time and soon we were on the way to Catbalogan. We passed by Sta. Margarita town, the town with an L-shaped curve along the highway. I don’t know but I find Sta. Margarita beautiful including its coconut groves and its mix of rice field. The road there is good now. Soon we were watching the sea (Samar Sea) and its blend of wonderful seascape which is observable from high from the highway. Soon we were descending to Catbalogan. Jun suggested we bypass Catbalogan port to make up for time. I acceded; it is already a “this one or that one” situation. We had to decide between Catbalogan and Tacloban became it was nearing mid-afternoon and we are not even halfway to Baybay. We thought Tacloban has more importance and we will still have the chance to view the damage of Typhoon “Yolanda”. Catbalogan will be the only major port we will miss on our drive and probably it doesn’t have a good share of ships anyway since it is less active than Calbayog port (but once upon a time this was the most active port in the entire Samar island). It does have a Roble ship though once or twice a week.

We ate at Jollibee again because we already needed food and I needed to recharge the batteries of my camera so I will still have some charge available in Tacloban. It was near 2pm when we left Catbalogan. I had some chance to point out to Jun the important landmarks inside the capital city including the city hall and provincial capitol and soon we were climbing the narrow road out of Catbalogan. The view from the hills of the bay was again magnificent. This time the Samar estuaries and fishponds were more visible and we passed by Jiabong and Buray junction again. In Hinabangan we passed through the diversion road and told Jun of my near-mishap when driving at night at 11pm my engine quit right there (the road was still muddy then). Since it was mostly straights in that part of the Samar highway, we were going at a fast clip. Soon the eatery before San Juanico bridge came into view followed by the junction to Basey, the clear landmark we are already very near San Juanico bridge.

It was already near 4pm when we reached the famous San Juanico bridge. We saw the wrecked DPWH dredger and the damage to the government maritime school (National Maritime Polytechnic) by the bridge. Soon we were in Barangay Anibong, the place of the wrecked ships. It had a playground atmosphere especially it was a Sunday afternoon. There were other visitors including foreigners helping the victims of the typhoon. Me and Jun were talking if the ships can still be saved. I told him it depends. I said all that might be needed are bulldozers to dig a canal so the ships can be towed to open water. But that will mean also bulldozing houses and it might be unacceptable. We moved further on to a point where Tacloban port was visible across the bay but all that can be taken were long-distance shots in the glistening sun.

Soon we were hightailing it to Baybay. The sister of Jun has already followed him up. “What time will you arrive?” was the question. On the way I still took as much pictures as I can while discussing the disaster. Jun pointed out the first-class emergency tents donated by Australia. We saw similar donations from other countries all part of the “1/7th rule” where advanced countries are obliged to send 1/7th of their emergency stockpile when a disaster occurs somewhere in the globe to immediately alleviate suffering and save lives. That was the reason why ships from the USA, Japan, France, etc. immediately arrived in Tacloban and Guiuan, Samar along with cargo planes full of relief goods. The locals and its countrymen cannot understand such kind of response which was the resolution gathered from the Aceh tsunami disaster.

Jun and me was further discussing how long will the crops be productive again. I said for those heavily damaged coconuts it will be two years. I was also discussing the failure of “Project NOAH” of the government along with PAGASA and NDRRMC which looked amateurish (the latter should have gotten typhoon veterans from Bicol). The problem with the government agencies is they were too bilib in PAGASA and so they discounted the shrill warnings of NOAA and Weather Underground of the US which predicted 6 meters waves whereas PAGASA and Project NOAH predicted 6 feet of storm surge (and no need to say who was right). It was the record storm surge that made most of the damage. It was not the 200kph sustained winds at the center of the typhoon.

Dusk was already gathering when we turned past Abuyog. It will be lucky if we will arrive by the 7pm dinner as we still have a mountain to cross. Soon we were in the hills of Mahaplag. It was already dark and there was no chance to savor the mountain views. Then on the descents to Baybay there was a gridlock. A truck laden with a container van hit the electrical wires crossing the street and pulled it down to the road. At first none of the vehicles dared to cross. But with the help of the locals we were able to get through the maze. We were lucky our vehicle was small and crossed to the other side of the highway as the truck was stuck in the middle of the road. But we lost a good 30 minutes. It was already 8pm when we reached the house of Jun’s parents which was located north of Baybay.

Jun’s father was a retired professor of VISCA, the former Visayas State College of Agriculture, a nationally-ranked college of agriculture (it was ranked 4th then, said my brother). Now it is called the Visayas State University (VSU). A ship spotter who is good in ships teaches there and we were scheduled to visit him. Jun’s father speaks good English. As Jun described before, his mother is a Chinese-Filipino. The youngest sister of Jun (who was there and entertained us) and her husband is leaving the next day for a company-sponsored foreign tour. The discussions became more important than the dinner and it covered a wide range of topics.

I was free the next morning since Jun has to send off his sister and brother-in-law. I spent it roaming the city center of Baybay including the market (this portion of the city is not visible from the bus), the bus terminal and the port which were all just adjacent to one another. Like in Ormoc, the bus terminal is right outside the gate of Baybay port but the difference is the wharf of Baybay port is some distance from the gate. The docked ships were Lapu-lapu Ferry 8 and the Sacred Stars.There was not much port activity. That was not the first time I made tambay in that bus terminal. It fascinates me. I am able to gather info and see the public utility vehicle movement and of course also take shots. I like their locally-built jeeps too. Those go to Abuyog and some are the double-tire type. Of course, I also try to taste the local flavors even at the risk of having stomach trouble (but that rarely happens to me).

Before mid-afternoon, me and Jun were ready to visit the Visayas State University instructor and Baybay ship spotter, Mervin Soon who is not that well health-wise. I nearly did not recognize him (I visited him before). But he was still in high fighting spirit. Mervin knows a lot about ships on the eastern seaboard including Bicol since he worked there before. He knows the ships including the defunct ones from the 1990’s and that included Cebu ships since he studied in Cebu (like Jun). I still wanted to interview him about ships but we did not stay too long as our presence is a danger to Mervin and our schedule was already getting tighter as will be revealed later.

I thought Jun will spend the night in Baybay and I will already take the Lapu-lapu Ferry ship that night to Cebu which was not too exciting as I already rode their Sacred Stars before. If that was the case then I would still have plenty of time since the scheduled departure time was still 8pm. If it was the case I was going alone I was even thinking of going to Hilongos to take the ferry there so that might ride will be different and anyway I have not passed through Hilongos before. But Jun had change of plans and he intended to sail that late afternoon via Oceanjet in Ormoc, the last trip for the afternoon. That day was actually the birthday of my son in Cebu and so makakahabol pa somehow if I go with Jun. And so when I called him he was surprised because he was expecting me three days later (on the assumption I will go via Masbate from Allen).

We just had enough time to catch Oceanjet 5 in Ormoc. The line was long, we were nearly full in the vessel. The aircon of Oceanjet 5 was cold and we were at the stern, our choice. But even there near the engine it was comfortable as the NVH (Noise, Vibration, Harshness) was low. The trip was uneventful and there was nothing much to see because we departed Ormoc when it was beginning to get dark. We arrived in Cebu at 8pm on a night with moderate rain. Jun and me shared the same taxi and we soon parted ways.

I covered more than 1,200 kilometers in 3 days plus a ship ride on the 4th day. It was tiring but I had plenty of photos and memories. It would also turn out to be my last long-distance land trip.