The Problem With The LCTs

In the old days after World War II, the LCTs, then known as “Landing Craft Tank” was the means to transfer vehicles across the islands and our Navy has the biggest number of that and they even have the bigger LSTs (Landing Ship Tank) which has a door covering the ramps while the LCTs have unshrouded ramps. The Navy then did the service of transferring the vehicles and the heavy equipment between the islands and in general for free for after all most of the businesses then were also in the hands of the local powers or their friends.

THE BRITISH ARMY IN THE UNITED KINGDOM 1939-45

A World War II LCT. Source: navsource.org

Along the years, privately-held LCTs started growing in number. It was easy to build, no sophisticated equipment is needed, it is cheap and it is practical with different uses. It can be used to transport goods to practically anywhere and even where there are only  unprepared ports. Loose cargo can easily be loaded and unloaded without the use of cranes or booms as a truck can just board the LCT and dock handlers or peons can manually load or unload the cargo. Plus, the LCT is actually a RORO (Roll On, Roll Off ship) as vehicles or tracked equipment can be loaded or unloaded through its ramp.

Our first short-distance ferry-ROROs carrying passengers, cargo and rolling cargo were actually LCTs. That was when there were still no shirt-distance ROROs (and that arrived only in 1979). The short-distance ferry-ROROs came and came but the LCTs remained in the shipping scene. They were still cheap to acquire and operate and they can be built practically anywhere and even in just an improvised shipyard. The skill level needed to build them was not high and the equipment level needed is low as in the acetylene torch was the most critical tool needed.

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A Maayo LCT by Mike Baylon of PSSS

Along the years, the LCT designation changed to “Landing Craft Transport” to better reflect that it no longer carry tanks as they were really full-pledged transports already. As of now, most of our LCTs are just pure cargo ships carrying anything including the ores of strip mining. However, they can still be found in some routes practically unchanged and being used as passenger-cargo ROROs and probably the premier exponent of that is the Maayo Transport which connects Cebu and Negros islands in the southern part. That company has a pure LCT fleet. Other notable operators are Tris-Star Megalink (although their design have evolved already) which connects Negros and Panay island through the Bacolod-Dumangas route. Starhorse Shipping Lines which started in the Marinduque routes also had LCTs in their start. Lite Ferries which is active in Central Visayas and northern Mindanao also uses many LCT and lately they have been acquiring those from China. Recently, a new shipping company touting the LCT came, the Orange Navigation of Baleno Shipping that has lost half its fleet to maritime accidents and which decided on the cheap LCT as replacement. Island Shipping, meanwhile, disposed of it basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and cruisers and invested in LCTs built right there in its Hagnaya base, There are also other small operators of passenger-cargo LCTs aside from the six mentioned.

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An Orange Navigation LCT by Jon Erodias of PSSS.

However, there is a problem now with the passenger-cargo LCTs and that is its lack of sophistication which means the passengers have to unnecessarily put it with them. That might be okay in the earlier days when we still lacked short-distance ROROs but times have already changed and so the LCT should also evolve.

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An Island Shipping LCT by Karl Sabuga of PSSS.

LCTs clearly lack passenger space and amenities and it is generally hot because the metal of the superstructure is just too near. They do not have the passageway at the sides of the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO which keeps the sunlight away from the passengers.

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Late-model Lite Ferries LCTs by James Gabriel Verallo of PSSS.

The LCTs are also bugged by lack of speed because of the shape of the hull (they are flat-bottomed) and generally they are underpowered. When the LCT was designed, speed was never one of the considerations. They were just designed to chug along and carry the cargo cheaply to unprepared docking areas. While short-distance ferries will sail at 10-12 knots, LCTs generally sail at 7-8 knots. Passengers have to put up with such deficiencies and for what? The same level of fares and rolling cargo.

I would argue that to be fair, operators of LCTs should charge lower rates, a discounted one. For them to charge the same with lower acquisition and operational costs means all those advantages just accrue to them and none for the passengers and shippers. One cannot say they have a choice because there is such a thing as time slot in shipping (and also two-hour separation in departure times in many ports) and the passengers and shippers would wait for hours just to wait for a better ride. MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency should also take note of this.

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A Tri-Star Megalink ferry evolved from the LCT by Tristan Lirasan by PSSS

I commend the efforts of Tri-Star Megalink’s evolution of their LCTs into ferries already alike that of the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO.  Those are already faster, the bridges were move forward and so the passenger accommodation  were enlarged and an air-conditioned Tourist section is already standard. That’s the way it should be. There should be progress.

Meanwhile, Montenegro Shipping Lines pioneered the use of Korean hybrid LCTs like the Reina Justisya and the Reina Banderada which are fast for an LCT (because the power is higher) and do not have any more the hull of an LCT. Those even have bulbous bows. But the superstructures of those are not yet extended.

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A modernized LCT of Starhorse Shipping Lines. Photo by MJay Muyo of PSSS.

Lately, however, in a good development starting in 2018, Korean-type LCTs with extended superstructure and bulbous bows started arriving in the Philippines. This was represented by the Virgen de Penafrancia IX and Virgen de Penafrancia X of the Starhorse Shipping Lines of Lucena. In the same year, with the acquisition of a shipyard in Lucena, Montenegro Shipping Lines rolled out the new-build Santa Carmelita to be followed by the Santa Soledad, another new-build this year. Not to be outdone, Starhorse Shipping Lines is bringing anytime to the country their new Korean-built Virgen de Penafrancia XI.

On the other hand, the big Lite Ferries of Cebu which is beginning to dominate the short-distance routes in Central Visayas still have the traditional LCTs and lately they have been acquiring surplus and new-build LCTs from China. Lite Ferries also have LCTs just used for cargo including rolling cargo.

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An improved LCT by Montenegro Shipping Lines. Photo by Carl Jakosalem of PSSS.

There is now a new type of ship, the Cargo RORO LCT, the Philippine version of the RORO Cargo ships of Europe but much less sophisticated. They now serve as truck carriers in the busiest short sea crossings in the country and this segment is actually growing fast. A version of this serves as container van carrier from Manila to selected major ports in the Visayas and Mindanao to as far as Davao. In this role, the LCTs deficiency is minimized because what is mainly carried are trucks and its crew which is already used to the harsh realities of the road.

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A Cargo RORO LCT. Photo by Joe Cardenas of PSSS.

I think in due time LCTs should already be phased out in the passenger-cargo trade. Otherwise, the operators should strive to improve them and not just build the same model that was practically unchanged since 1945.

Our passengers deserve better now.

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The Biggest Shipping Modernization By Far

When the early 2010s entered, it was depressing for both the ship spotters and liner passengers. The Sulpicio Lines fleet was basically grounded by MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), a consequence of the capsizing of the Princess of the Stars in a strong typhoon and the company had begun disposing liners. The Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) including the SuperCat had already stopped from buying ferries and was more intent on a sell-out in order for them to concentrate on the more lucrative power generation field.

If there was growth, it was in the sector of short-distance ROROs (but only slightly) plus in the Cargo RORO sector (those ROROs that just load container vans and vehicles). Overnight ferries also increased but oh-so-slowly. There was not much to be excited then and in the main the observers are not excited by the LCTs of some shipping companies concentrating here like those of Broadway One Shipping, Seen Sam Shipping/Cebu Sea Charterers, Concrete Solutions/Primary Trident Marine Solutions, Asian Shipping Corporation, etc. Nor would they be impressed by a few brand-new tankers by Chelsea Logistics and a few container ships of Solid Shipping Lines. Very few noticed the new local-builds of Tri-Star Megalink, the unrecognized shipping company of Negros.

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The latest brand-new ship of Tri-Star Megalink in her maiden voyage. Photo by ‘wandaole’ of PSSS.

I myself did not expect much in the last half of the 2010s (I even thought the liners will be singing their swan song). The decade was dominated by a landlubber President and we had lackluster MARINA Administrators who seem to be short on vision and also in budget. We did not seem to have a direction in maritime development early in this decade. If there was any bright light in that darkness is there was a new type of ship starting to come, the catamaran-ROROs of Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the FastCats.

But miracles do happen at times. The country unexpectedly had a President whose mantra is “Build, Build, Build” and soon that also spilled over to the transportation sector and not only in infrastructure. And that included the maritime sector. Soon I saw a procession of new-build ROROs, High-Speed Crafts (HSCs) along with the usual LCTs which is now filling a new sector, the Cargo RORO LCT sector.

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The latest in the FastCat series. Photo by GoukaMaekkyaku of PSSS.

The FastCat series continued and is now of its 13th ship as of this writing (July 2019) and news said the series will comprise of 20 ships. And there is even a rumor that it will be 30 ships in total with some plying foreign routes (there is really an effect when the banks open their lending to shipbuilding). As such this catamaran-RORO will be the most successful design in the country although its plans came from Australia and the ships were built in China. What a comeback for a shipping company that used to operate ferries that were derided by the public and observers. The FastCat series started in 2013 and on the average two ships per year come.

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The newest ROPAX of Starlite Ferries. Photo by Mark Anthony Arceno of PSSS.

The Starlite series of new ferries which started in 2015 with the Starlite Pioneer also continued and this should be 10 in number and is now on its 5th ship. But that does not include 2 Southwest Maritime (SWM) ferries that are also now also in the fleet of Starlite Ferries. These ferries were designed and built in Japan. Now, just the FastCat and Starlite fleets already comprise of 20 brand-new ships as of today and more are coming.

Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) also has a new-build in an overnight route and a second brand-new ship for them has just been very recently launched in Japan and one more of this type will be built for them.

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The brand-new ferry of TASLI. Photo by Jose Zeus Bade of PSSS.

The Ocean Fast Ferries which is more popularly known as Oceanjet continues to locally assemble fastcraft kits from Australia in Mandaue that started with the Oceanjet 8 in 2011. As of the moment they already have 10 own-build fastcrafts. Actually once they launch a new fastcraft, they already have another one being built. As of today they are already the biggest HSC (High Speed Craft) company in the country with more than half of its fleet acquired brand-new.

The Aboitiz shipyard in Balamban, Cebu which was taken over by Austal of Australia re-started making HSCs for local use and so far they have delivered two as part of the SuperCat fleet and one to Grand Ferries of Calbayog, the Seacat One. It seems there are still about 3 or 4 of this kind of ship that that is being built by Austal Philippines in Balamban.

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Seacat One by Mark Edelson Ocul of PSSS.

Lite Ferries also took the brand-new route when the built 4 passenger-cargo LCTs from 2012 to 2016. These were built in China and finished in Mandaue. Island Shipping also bet on passenger-cargo LCTs but all were just locally-built in Hagnaya, Cebu. They had some 5 LCTs built in this decade and 4 of these were in the last 5 years when they began dumping their old cruiser ferries. Orange Navigation which is related to Besta Shipping Lines also had three passenger-cargo LCTs built locally starting in 2014 maybe to replace the losses of the mother company.

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A new-build from China of Lite Ferries. Photo by Russell Sanchez of PSSS.

Tri-Star Megalink of Negros had 7 ferries built this decade in a shipyard in Sagay City. Their design started with passenger-cargo LCTs albeit with extended passenger accommodations. Their design evolved until the later ones looked like conventional ferries already with bridges on the bow and no longer at the stern like those in LCTs. This meant a bigger and more comfortable passenger accommodation with the vehicle deck less hot or less wet depending on the season.

In Davao, Mae Wess/CW Cole also built two LCTs to connect Davao and Samal in their own shipyard in Samal. In Albay, the RLMC Ferry also came with two new ferries to serve Rapu-rapu and Batan islands.

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A new-build ferry of Mae Wess. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

And, in the past two years two new HSC companies came into being. Lucio Tan established a HSC company, the Mabuhay Maritime Express to ferry Philippine Airline (PAL) passengers from Kalibo to Boracay utilizing two beautiful catamarans. The other one was Island Water, a subsidiary of Shogun Shipping, a tanker company. This new company acquired 7 HSCs from Jianlong Shipbuilding of China. With such fast expansion their problem now is lack of viable routes. Shogun Shipping also contracted for 4 new ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships)and the first was already completed while three are still being built.

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A brand-new cat of Island Water from Jianlong Shipbuilding. Photo by Mark Ocul of PSSS.

Last but not least, Jomalia Shipping also ordered a brand-new HSC from Jianlong Shipbuilding, the Maica 5.

As of my count, there are now over 40 ferries of various types that have arrived in the last half of this decade and more are definitely coming. I have not seen or have known a rate of new-builds arriving in the country at this rate. And this does not even include more than two dozen brand-new LCTs for Cargo RORO LCT use. Those will ferry vehicles across short sea distances or container vans from Manila to the Visayas and Mindanao like what Ocean Transport does.

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A Cargo RORO LCT of Ocean Transport. Photo by John Carlos Cabanillas.

Liners, when they come have more impact in the imagination of the people. But their time has come and gone and we should acknowledge that the intermodal is already catching up with the container ships and the express container service of the liners. That is why these new-builds are mainly serving short-distance routes. The growth is already there.

I am glad that I was wrong when I thought our shipping doldrums will continue for a long time. I now look forward to more new ships coming into our seas.