The Bogo Connection to Masbate

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Photo credits: Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

In the old days, the Cebu connection to Masbate went from Cebu port. And among those that provided that connection were liner companies whose ships pass by Masbate first before heading to Cebu and northern Mindanao and from there their liners will retrace back the route. That is gone now and the last Manila liner that provided such connection was the Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines which stopped sailing in the aftermath of the Princess of the Stars‘ sinking in a typhoon in 2008. However, until a few months ago there were a ROPAX Cargo ship, the Super Shuttle RORO 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation that was running a route from Batangas to Cebu (Mandaue actually) and Cagayan de Oro via Masbate.

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Photo Credit: Wakanatsu

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Trans-Asia Shipping Lines also had an overnight ferry route from Cebu to Masbate since almost 40 years ago. That is gone now too, a victim of the decline of their fleet and now it is only Cokaliong Shipping Lines that has a Cebu-Masbate passenger service but it only runs once a week. Also long gone was the Palacio Lines’ route from Cebu to Placer, Masbate. But still around is the Lapu-lapu Shipping Lines’ route from Cebu to Cataingan, Masbate which is usually run by their Lapu-lapu Ferry 1, a cruiser ship.

In the past, wooden motor boats also did routes from various ports in Masbate to northern Cebu using the ports of Hagnaya, Maya and Polambato. The three are in San Remigio, Daanbantayan and Bogo towns, respectively. However, from the 1980’s, MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency, consistently pressured the wooden motor boats (the lancha) to retire citing them as “obsolete” and “unsafe”. Some had their franchises revoked and that practically ended the lives of the shipping companies owning them (many operate wooden motor boats because they can’t afford to buy steel-hulled ferries).

MARINA was so successful in that campaign that no motor boats still do a Cebu-Masbate route. What remained were the big passenger-cargo motor bancas which run until now (maybe these are “modern” and “safer” than the phased-out motor boats?). These motor bancas originate from Cawayan, Placer, Esperanza and Pio V. Corpus towns in Masbate. The eastern portion of Masbate island, by the way, is actually Cebuano-speaking and their economic tether is to Cebu. Their motor boats connect their people and their goods to Cebu. Some of their scions actually study in Cebu, too, and work there later on.

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Polambato port (Photo credit: James Gabriel Verallo)

This was the state of things when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pushed her Central Nautical Highway which pushed for ROROs. Since the nearest Maya port was in disrepair and there are issues of depth, the port of Polambato was designated as the connecting RORO port to Masbate. That was a two-birds-in-one-stone move as Polambato was already the connecting port to nothern Leyte via the Palompon port (it still is until now). So only one RORO port had two be developed for two routes. Neat but a route from Polambato is longer than a route from Maya port.

On the side of Masbate, two ports were offered as connection, the port of Cawayan on the southern side of Masbate island and the port of Cataingan on the southeastern end on the island in the protected Cataingan Bay. Cataingan port is the logical choice since it is actually the best port in eastern Masbate as it is considered the district port and it lies in a protected bay. In the past, it was a home of motor boats going to Cebu. It also has a shorter road distance to Masbate City, the main economic center of Masbate province and the take-off port of Masbate to the Bicol mainland. There was also an attempt for a two-birds-in-one-stone move there as Cataingan was also declared to be the Masbate port that will connect to Naval, Biliran and Leyte island.

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Cawayan port (Photo credit: Noel de Mesa)

Cawayan port, meanwhile, is a bit more distant from Masbate City and when the RORO route was opened its roads were in a worse state compared to the Cataingan-Masbate road which was at least asphalted though beginning to crack (now, however the roads of the two towns to Masbate are already improved). And in the Cataingan-Masbate road there are more towns and hence more commerce, more sources of produce and of course, passengers. But how come they still built the Cawayan RORO port? Well, maybe there was politics (I don’t know just where) and Gloria was actually too fond then of duplicate ports. It brings more income to you-know-where. So it was actually a one-bird-with-two-stones maneuver.

I also just wonder about the fate of Placer port on the southern side of Masbate island. In the past, Placer was the connecting port of the southern side of Masbate island to Cebu City. It is even closer to Bogo than Cawayan (or even Cataingan) and the RORO will be less broadsided by the habagat and amihan waves in that route. They said there is an issue with the port with regards to depth but it was never clear to me (again was there politics?). Whatever, Cawayan won out over Placer and that was that. One’s fate and progress can really just be decided in an instant in Manila and NEDA, the validator of projects is actually just a stamp pad.

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Cataingan port

Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) pioneered the Polambato (Bogo) to Cataingan route. Among its early clients were its own ROROBus intermodal buses doing a Manila-Cebu route via Masbate. Meanwhile, it was the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) that pioneered the Polambato (Bogo) to Cawayan route with their Super Shuttle Ferry 19, a double-ended ferry. Montenegro Lines used a rotation of ferries in the Bogo-Cataingan route while Super Shuttle Ferry 19 is sometimes not in the route and none is running at times as AMTC lacked ships as the years went by because they lose ships (as in hull losses) and also because of ship unreliability.

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The ferry next bigger to the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO in Polambato (Photo credit: John Carlos Cabanillas)

Both routes are still running now and Montenegro Lines even tried a twice a day sailing but settled with a once a day sailing with a ship next bigger in size to the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the starting ship of both routes (or a modernized LCT at times). Lately, however, Asian Marine Transport Corporation sold out both its ships and its route to Cawayan and Super Shuttle Ferry 19 became the Cawayan Ferry 1 of the new company D. Olmilla Shipping Corporation. The Bogo-Cawayan route, as a note, still has no intermodal bus and it is the weaker of the two. I heavily doubt if it can overtake Cataingan.

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Cawayan Ferry 1 (Photo credit: James Gabriel Verallo)

Even with these two routes running, the motor bancas of Masbate still sail regularly to Bogo and Maya. These motor bancas sometimes carry hogs (in a deck below the passenger deck) and that is a commodity not acceptable to MSLI or AMTC unless it is loaded in trucks and even then it will only be loaded with reluctance (as their passengers might complain of the smell in the 6-hour voyage). And besides, the passengers and the cargo of the motor bancas enjoy a point-to-point direct sailing with no land transfer (the ROROs doesn’t go to Placer or Esperanza). It might even stop offshore near a remote barrio and the passenger and cargo will be transferred to his own motor banca. Bookings can also be done informally (and even by cellphone). A passenger from Placer can be picked up by the Cawayan boat at sea if they receive a validated text message and if there is no motor banca from Placer.

Though affected by the development of the Bogo-Cataingan route, the Cataingan-Cebu ship of Lapu-lapu Shipping is still running. Its service of loading frozen fish in styrofoam boxes without using trucks can’t still be equaled by the Cataingan-Bogo RORO as a truck would be needed from Bogo. They send it out by Lapu-lapu Ferry 1 and it will just be picked up by the customer in Cebu Pier 3 and the empty boxes will be loaded by the customer in the return trip. Sometimes, the advantage of a RORO is overstated by the government which is always pushing it. How can shipping 2 or 3 styrofoam boxes be sulit using a truck or a Multicab?

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Lapu-lapu Ferry 1 in Cataingan port

The route from Cebu via Masbate to Manila is not cheaper compared to the Cebu to Manila route via Leyte and Samar although looks shorter on the map. That was found out by a Swiss member of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member who did both routes in the same month. The RORO rates via Masbate is high because there is lack of competition and maybe the sea crossing is longer if the Bogo-Palompon route is taken as the comparison. Meanwhile the rates via Leyte and Samar are cheaper and sometimes there are discounting plus there is the cheap Cargo RORO LCTs. However, the land route through it is some 225 kilometers longer compared to a Pilar, Sorsogon route and 265 kilometers via a Pio Duran, Masbate that both uses Masbate.

Whatever, the Bogo routes will definitely stick. That is what was shown by the last decade. Well, unless it is supersed by the Maya port which is under construction now. It might not necessarily be cheap but there are people and goods that has Masbate as a destination (and newbies who will think it is cheaper through there since it looks nearer on the map). And there are those who will still prefer the shorter route and just save on time. And also save on wear on the vehicles and the driver. And arrive earlier and for truck owners save on wages and have their trucks be available for an extra day.

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Maya port (Photo credit: bUs sPoTTeRs

If only their rates are more competitive then maybe the Bogo connection will be flying now.

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What Could Be The First True Test Of The New Starlite Ferries

Since last year, 2015, the new Starlite ferries began arriving in Batangas, the home port of Starlite Ferries Incorporated. So far as of this writing (September 2016) four has arrived in the country, the Starlite Pioneer, the Starlite Reliance, the Starlite Eagle and the Starlite Saturn. These are brand-new ferries ordered from Japan from a loan extended by the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP). More are actually on the pipeline and coming soon.

These new ferries were built by the Kegoya Dockyard in Kure yard, Japan and by Fukushima Zosen in Matsue yard, Japan (another report said Shimane yard). The common measurements are 67.0 meters length overall (LOA) by 15.3 meters breadth by 9.4 meters depth with a Gross Tonnage (GT) of about 2,700. The DWT is about 915 and the passenger capacity is about 750 which indicates an all-seating arrangement. The top sustained speed of these ferries are 14.5 knots.

The owner of Starlite Ferries, Alfonso Cusi is too proud and expansive about his ferries. As advanced features he cites the bulbous stem but then most ferries of this size since 30 years ago already featured bulbous stems. This feature lessens drag which then increases the speed by a little. Cusi also cites its motion dampening system. Admittedly this is a plus on rough seas as added passenger comfort. The owner also cited the deep draft of his new ships. That will add to the stability of the vessel because it lowers the center of gravity.

I was hoping Cusi will mention other features like ECDIS but he did not mention it or even INMARSAT (it might have NAVTEX though). I hope the ship has an autopilot and automatic docking system. I also would want to see if she already has the joystick instead of the traditional steering wheel. Plus a collision avoidance system. And a depth finder that is mated to ship’s autopilot to immediately stop the ship if grounding or hitting an underwater object is imminent. If the ship has these features then all the expansiveness of Cusi will be justified. When he talks he makes it sound as if all the other ferries of his competition are already obsolete.

Externally, the new Starlite Ferries don’t look much. It is as if she borrowed the lines of a 1960’s ship, to be honest. Actually, the newer ship of Cokaliong Shipping Lines look better aesthetically. Also the Jack Daniel of Sta. Clara Shipping or even the Trans-Asia 3 of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. If her external lines looked impressive the more that there will have been be “Oh’s and Ah’s”.

The ships have high sides. That is a plus on rough seas and also a plus when listing. However, that feature might not be tested as the government is already nervous about any kind of rough seas and will suspend voyages when storm winds several hundred kilometers away reach 60 kilometers per hour which is even less than a full gale in England. But for Cusi to say all ferries here were designed for the calm seas of the Inland Sea of Japan is too much. Some of our ferries from Japan had routes to the Ryukyus or some shimas outside the Japan main islands. To also say that his new ships are the only IACS-classified ship is also out of the line. China belongs to IACS and they have ships here along with the FastCats of Australian design and which are ABS-certified. Many ships from Japan when they came here were also Class NK.

I just wonder about the 9.4 meters depth of these new Starlite Ferries. That is double the normal depth of ferries her size. Does she have a second car deck below her main car deck? If that is the case then she will be carrying an impressive rolling cargo capacity. Whatever, her 15.4 meters breadth also caught my attention. ROROs her size normally don’t exceed 14 meters in breadth and many are even less than that. Maybe that is the reason why instead of being sleek they look a little bloated to me.

That 15.4 meters might be a plus as that might mean 4 full lanes. It might not accommodate 4 buses or trucks across but definitely it will accommodate two trucks and two sedans or SUVs across while the ferries of this size might have difficulty doing that over the entire length of her car deck. But the caveat is if she can attract that many vehicles.

Fifteen new ferries are arriving for Starlite Ferries. That means that where before they can just stick to Mindoro island routes, their home ground , this time around they have to expand to other routes. In media, it was stated that Starlite Ferries will enter the Cebu-Ormoc route. The Cebu to Leyte routes especially on the vehicle side is crowded especially with the entry of the Cargo RORO LCTs and even the well-established overnight shipping companies are cringing at the onslaught of that new paradigm as these offer rates as low as half of the rates they used to charge. Trucks are the biggest source of revenue across Camotes Sea not the sedans or AUVs, at least in rolling cargo. There are no buses in these routes.

Can Starlite Ferries compete against them? In trucks the rolling rate is the decision point. In Mindoro, Starlite Ferries has proven they are good in locking in buses as they have in their bag the biggest bus company to Panay, the Dimple Star. But there are no buses here. I wonder how Starlite Ferries will win the trucks which now make a beeline to the Cargo RORO LCTs for they are the cheapest in the route by a big margin. These can afford to do that since they have no investment in passenger comfort and amenities and they can sail slow with their less powered engines and the longer transit times are understood part of the low charge.

Compete in passengers? Somehow being new is a plus in the decision of the passengers – as long as the departure times are proximate. I wonder if Starlite Ferries will sail at night because if they will do that then they have to provide bunks and not only that but several classes of accommodations are well. The competition even has Suite Class. Meals and a dining area are also expected. The burned Wonderful Stars of Roble Shipping was the benchmark in that.

I wonder if the superior speed of the new Starlite can come into play. In the Cebu-Leyte route if the voyage is at night a superior speed might mean nothing at all because that will only result in an ungodly arrival which does not mean anything to most passengers. If Starlite leaves at 11pm like the competition what is the advantage of a 3am arrival over a 4am arrival? One thing sure if Starlite Ferries come into Ormoc with only benches or seats they will already be losing a lot of passengers. Unless it is a jetseater type of seat in an airconditioned accommodation that is priced low.

If it is a day trip the superior speed might factor in a bit. They can depart as late as 1pm and arrive at 5pm which is still acceptable and passengers will have the option of having lunch at shore that is not very early. Or leave at 8am and still arrive at noon. However, at sheer speediness they can’t make much out of it since those who want it real fast will opt for the fastcrafts of Oceanjet, SuperCat or Weesam Express. Or even the plane being sold now by Cebu Pacific.

The Starlite Ferries are also carrying a lot of amortization weight in every ship whereas their competitors do not have such burden. Some even have their ships debt-free and some are carrying the low interest and easy terms of the ships from China and that is common in the Cargo RORO LCTs. A rough guesstimate is about P3 million per month of principal and interest payments for each new Starlite Ferries. That could be some P100,000 a day. And that is above any operational cost, depreciation, mandatory fees and insurance charges.

Cebu-Ormoc will be the first real test of the new Starlite Ferries. They will be starting from scratch and will not have the advantages and favors of having operating for long in Mindoro where they have already locked-in customers. If in Mindoro they only have a handful of competition but in Cebu-Leyte since all parallel routes are actually competing then they are arrayed at dozen plus competitors which have ships of all kinds.

Their main opponent might not be even in Ormoc as it might be the better ships of Palompon, a parallel route where Cokaliong Shipping and Medallion Transport have ferries better than what can be found in Ormoc and are even cheaper. The tough opposition can also be found in the many nondescript ports in Leyte being used by the Cargo RORO LCTs like the GGC Port and the IDHI port along with the the Hindang Port used by Goldenbridge Shipping. A report to me said there is even a new unidentified port 27 kilometers south of Ormoc being used by the Cargo RORO LCTs. And of course Bato, Hilongos and Pingag, Isabel have more than a fair amount of rolling cargoes and passengers. Cebu-Ormoc is also a bread and butter route of the High Speed Crafts which are known to adjust fares to boost ridership.

I am really interested to watch how this will play out. They might see a dogfight soon.

Photo Credits:

Jefferson Provido [Starlite Pioneer]

Ralph Russell Abesamis [Starlite Eagle and Starlite Saturn]

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