The MV Eugene Elson

The MV Eugene Elson of Penafrancia Shipping Corporation of Bicol is one of the oldest ROPAXes (Roll-On, Roll-Off Passenger ship) still sailing in Philippine waters but she is still very reliable and well-appreciated. As a 1965-built ROPAX from Japan she has the looks and lines of the small ROPAX of that era which means she is a little chubby in looks and not that angular like the MV Melrivic Seven of Aznar Shipping which was also built in 1965. However, those looks do not detract from her primary purpose and mission which is to ferry passengers and rolling cargo (i.e. vehicles) safely and reliably.

Eugene Elson 1

Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS

This ship’s usual route is Tabaco, Albay to Virac, the capital and main port of the small island-province of Catanduanes. Tabaco City is the gateway to the province and the size of MV Eugene Elson is just right for that route as there are almost no ferries that is 50 meters in length there (except when there rotations due to drydocking). And also there are no 30-meter ferries in that route out of respect for the waves in the sea between the two provinces and besides single-engine ferries are not liked there, for safety and maneuvering reasons. So the MV Eugene Elson with its two engines and screws fits the bill well there too.

The MV Eugene Elson is a RORO ferry built by Hashihama Zosen of namesake city Hashihama in Japan where their yard is located. As said earlier, she was built in 1965 but her IMO Number is already 6601517 (in those days the first two digits of the IMO Number indicate the year the ship was built but that is not the case anymore nowadays). She was completed in December of 1965 and completion date is the date when the ship is already equipped and ready to sail. Her external measurements are 41.7 meters in Length Over-all (LOA), a Registered Length (RL) of 38.5 meters and a Length Between Perpendiculars (LPP) of 37.5 meters. The ferry’s Breadth is 14.6 meters locally although in Japan it was only 12.5 meters (the first one might be the more accurate one). Her Depth is 3.0 meters. As a whole she is not a big ship and a ship that is only a little larger than a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO (by the Philippines Ship Spotters Society definition) which in general is only 30 meters or so in length and sometimes even shorter.

In Japan, her Gross Tonnage (GT) was 526 (tons is no longer affixed in GT) but locally it was only 488. Her declared Net Tonnage (NT) which is the usable space of the ship for passengers and cargo is 118 which is rather suspiciously low. The ship’s Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) is 138 tons and she has a passenger capacity of 484 persons, all in sitting accommodations. The MV Eugene Elson is actually the smallest ferry in the fleet of the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (PSC) which was the successor company to the defunct Bicolandia Shipping Lines which used to own her. However small, this ferry still has two passenger decks with an airconditioned Mabuhay Class.

Eugene Elson bridge

Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS

The ship’s hull material is steel. She has one mast, two funnels and two RORO (Roll-on, Roll-off) ramps for ingress and egress of vehicles but the bow ramp is also the one used by the passengers for the same purpose as ferries in Bicol do not have separate passenger ramps (the stern ramp of this ship seems to have been welded shut already). The bow ramp of this ship is extended to better cope with low tide conditions. This ferry has a raked stem (which was what was usual in the era) and a transom stern (which is still what is common nowadays).

The MV Eugene Elson is powered by two Daihatsu marine engines with a total output of 1,100 horsepower. This is sufficient to propel her at 11.5 knots when new but nowadays she just chugs along at about 10 knots, the reason she takes four hours for her route which is less than 40 nautical miles. That is not a shame as most ferries in the route have about the same sailing time although some are faster than her.

Our group, the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) is familiar with this ship as once the group has already toured her when she was drydocked in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu and the master then, Captain Jun Benavides was gracious and hospitable enough to let us roam his ship and use her as a ship spotting platform (yes, passengers can reach the roof of this ship which is also the Bridge deck). Of course, he had also shared plenty of stories to us. We whiled our time there savoring the cooling breeze of the late afternoon until it was time to go for daylight was soon dimming.

Eugene Elson

Photo by James Gabriel Verallo of PSSS

This ship, when newly-built was first named as the MV Shimotsui Maru of the Kansai Kisen K.K. of Japan In 1976, under the same name, she was transferred to Kansai Kyuko Ferry K.K. Then in 1984, before her 20th year (the time Japan begins replacing its old ferries), this ferry came to the Philippines as the MV San Agustin of May-Nilad Shipping, a Manila ferry company that was always short in routes. Later, she became the MV Eugenia of Esteban Lul.

After a short time, this ship was transferred to Eugenia Tabinas of E. Tabinas Enterprises under the same name MV Eugenia. I just wonder about the relationship of Eugenia Tabinas and Esteban Lul. E. Tabinas Enterprises and Bicolandia Shipping Lines which are synonymous and the same is headquartered in Tabaco, Albay. These dual companies took over the ships and operations of the pioneering Trans-Bicol Shipping Lines which was then just operating wooden motor boats or MBs then which otherwise were called as lancha in the region.

During its heyday, E. Tabinas Enterprises/Bicolandia Shipping Lines was the dominant Bicol shipping company and had routes from all the relevant Bicol gateways, i.e. Tabaco, Matnog and Bulan (which are both in the province of Sorsogon and Masbate. However, in 1999 a new shipping company with deeper pockets appeared in the critical Matnog-Allen, Samar route. This is the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) which challenged the claimed “pioneer” status of Eugenia Tabinas’ shipping companies. “Pioneer status” supposedly confers exclusivity to a route.

Eugenia Tabinas and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation fought initially from MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the Philippines’ regulatory agency in shipping and then all the way to the Supreme Court. When Eugenia Tabinas finally lost she offered a lock, stock and barrel sell-out to her enemy which was accepted and so she forever bowed out of shipping. This was the reason why MV Eugenia was transferred not to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation but to the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which was created specifically for the take-over of E. Tabinas Enterprises and Bicolandia Shipping Lines. This take-over and hand-off happened in 2006 and from then on the twin companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation were already the dominant shipping companies in Bicol (and until now).

Eugene Elson Virac

MV Eugene Elson in older livery in Virac port. Photo by Edsel Benavides

Under Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, all the former ferries of Eugenia Tabinas were renamed (except for the sunk MV Northern Samar) and so the MV Eugenia became the MV Eugene Elson. In the fleet of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which has combined operations, she is the smallest in terms of Gross Tonnage and Length. But she is not the smallest ever ROPAX to operate in Bicol as there were and are a few that are even smaller than her.

As mentioned before, the Tabaco-Virac route along Lagonoy Gulf is her main route now, a route known for rough seas during the amihan (northeast monsoon) season as that route is exposed to the open sea. But even  though small, she proved capable for that route although once a bus lain to her side even though lashed from the top when a rogue wave hit her in the bow. In the said route she would leave Tabaco port at daybreak and arrive in Virac at mid-morning. She would then depart Virac port after lunch and arrive in Tabaco at about 5pm and lay over in Tabaco port for the night. It is the buses’ schedules that dictate such departure times and buses and its passengers are the priority loads of the MV Eugene Elson like the other ROPAXes based in Tabaco. Nowadays, she always leave full as so many buses and trucks already cross to Catanduanes from the Bicol peninsula.

Eugene Elson top lash

Over-the-top lashing is de rigueur in the Catanduanes route

All in all, the MV Eugene Elson had a successful career and it seems she is destined for many more years of sailing (well, unless MARINA loses its mind and cull old ships as that has been their threat for many years already). Barring that scenario, I hope she still sails and sails and sails. And keep the record as the oldest sailing ferry  in Bicol.

The Unsinkable Ferry

Me and Angelo Blasutta, owner of Grosstonnage.com, a very good maritime database but now defunct collaborated in finding the IMO Numbers of Philippine ships so their origins can be traced. This difficulty of tracing our ships is brought about by the continued refusal of MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the local maritime regulatory agency, to use IMO Numbers which are unique, lifetime identification numbers of the ships (to be fair, the MARINA of Marcos’ time used IMO Numbers). Me and Angelo were able to trace a few dozen ships but most simply eluded our tracing. Many are impossible to trace because they were local-built and did not possess IMO Numbers from the very start. The sad thing is that consisted the majority of our fleet.

One of the ships that eluded me is about an “unsinkable ship” which has Japan origins. Her specifications is near that of ferry Sanyo Maru but international maritime databases say she was broken up (well, that is not an ironclad guarantee because some “broken” ships ended up in other shores). I asked Rey Bobiles, then the nautical engineer of Sta. Clara Shipping Corp., sister company of the owner Penafrancia Shipping Corp. and he laughed and said they also can’t trace the IMO Number of the ship.

In late 2006, the ferry I am talking about can’t sail. She was then known as the Princess of Bicolandia. The ship was hit by a minor engine room fire and her engine control panel was burned and so she was laid up in Mayon Docks in Tabaco, Albay awaiting parts for repairs in the engine room. While in this condition, the strongest typhoon to ever visit Bicol region in recorded history, the Typhoon “Durian” which was better known locally as Typhoon “Reming” came in November of 2006. This super-typhoon had 10-minute sustained center winds of 195kph and gusts of 250kph.

For comparison, Typhoon “Yolanda” which wrecked Eastern Visayas in November 2013 had 10-minute sustained center winds of 200kph and Typhoon “Ruping”, the strongest typhoon to ever hit Cebu City in November 1990 has 10-minute sustained center winds of 190kph. All three generated powerful storm surges and all were deadly to shipping (Typhoon “Reming” was least deadly for shipping because Bicol has good ship shelters including the legendary and historical Sula Channel). Incidentally, all came in the month of November. We in Bicol know the amihan typhoons are the strongest ones.

But the Princess of Bicolandia can’t run and can’t hide. Mayon Docks secured the ships in their shipyard but with the strength and height of the storm surge the Princess of Bicolandia was pulled from her docking place by the storm surge. The people in Mayon Docks never thought they would see her again. After all, so, so many ships with crews and running engines got sunk in lesser typhoons and here is a super-typhoon for the ages and the ship was crewless and powerless (literally). And this is a RORO with no scantling at the bow area and at the stern and so water will easily slosh through her semi-open vehicle deck.

But lo and behold! The next morning, some rescue personnel braving the highway of the next town of Malilipot, Albay saw an unusual scene. There was a RORO ship sitting on a sandbar just off the shore. Not wrecked, not listing, not capsized. And so the news reached the shipyard and they can’t believe it. She was left there for a time and so the Princess of Bicolandia became an unusual “tourist spot”. Most thought the ship was gone, dead and will just be a “sitting monument” that will be chopped later on. That time was a period of indetermination because it happened during the sale and turn-over of Bicolandia Shipping Lines, the previous owner of the Princess of Bicolandia to Sta. Clara Shipping Company and Bicolandia Shipping Lines became the Penafrancia Shipping Company. The sale was lock, stock and barrel.

In May 2010, while in the company of fellow ship spotters of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) I was jolted while in Villono Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu. I saw a gray ship and I was electrified (really! I had goose bumps) because I immediately recognized she was the former Princess of Bicolandia which was then known in Bicol as a lost ship. I drew closer, to ask the skeleton crew. No, they said they do not know the name. I told them the name and the origins and the accident. It drew a blank stare. I did not know if they were playing poker with me.

The repairs in Villono Shipyard took over one-and-a-half years. On December 19, 2011 Vincent Paul Sanchez of PSSS espied her pulling out of the shipyard and heading north to Bicol. When he posted the photo I felt proud and ecstatic. Imagine a ship surviving such ordeal and sailing again! The great ships Princess of the Orient and Princess of the Stars did not even manage to survive typhoons of lesser magnitude than Princess of Bicolandia. Maybe the Bicol sili and Bicol Express were her charms. I knew when she reaches Bicol that jaws will drop (later Matnog porters confirmed to me that when they saw the ship they cannot believe their eyes too). Many really thought she was gone already, chopped up and dead. Her new name under Penafrancia Shipping was Don Herculano.

Don Herculano was a ship built in 1970 according to MARINA records. She is supposedly built by Shin Nihon, a shipyard I have difficulty in tracing. I am not sure if that is the same as Nihon Zosen Tekko KK which has records. This ship is a short-distance ferry-RORO with steel hull and ramps in the bow and at the stern (now closed). She has two masts, two funnels (only one before), two passenger decks, a forecastle and a single vehicle deck. Don Herculano has a raked stem and a transom stern.

The ship’s measurements are 46.4 meters length by 12.0 meters beam with a depth of 3.2 meters. Her original gross tonnage was 490 which was probably correct but this was re-declared to 1,029 so she can sail at typhoon signal number 1 (1,000gt ships can sail then at that storm signal but that is useless now since the rule changed; the rule for motor bancas are now the one used for steel-hulled ferries of whatever gross tonnage).

Don Herculano‘s net tonnage is 454 now and up from just 98 (which is probably underdeclared) as Princess of Bicolandia. She packs in 855 passengers all in seating accommodations and she has about 130 lane-meters in RORO capacity. She is powered by twin 1,000hp Daihatsu engines which propelled her to 13.5 knots in her better days.

I was able to interview her Captain when I sailed with her in the Allen-Matnog route. He confirmed to me that when found in the sandbar her engine room was half-flooded. I asked if they were able to order a new engine control panel. “No” was the answer because none was available in the surplus market, there are no more manufacturers and so they simply rigged switches and controls. There was even no oil separator available and so they just do things manually.

In the shipyard, they made repairs to the engines, the hull, the rudder and the propellers which were damaged by the typhoon. That was why she stayed a long time in Villono Shipyard. I moved around the ship. All traces of storm damage were no longer visible and not even in the engine room which I also visited. The Yanmar auxiliary engine was new, they said. The bridge was clean, spic and span.

Today, she mainly sails the Matnog-Allen route. She holds a powerful reputation there as people know the trials she went through and which she survived. “Hindi lulubog” (She will not sink.), that is what some whisper. I do agree.

The MV Mac Bryan

The latter half of the 1990’s was a decade of ferment in Zamboanga shipping like in Cebu shipping, Manila shipping and Batangas shipping. The liberalization and modernization policy of President Fidel V. Ramos was already in full swing and all were optimistic that the bad decade of the 1980’s was really over. The mood then everywhere and in every sector was to invest and to expand. Shipping was not excluded in that and ships of all kinds were coming fast from freighters to containers ships to conventional ferries up to the High Speed Crafts. But the bears soon follow the bulls and in the early 2000’s shipping actually has an overcapacity then. But this was not captured by the paper of Myrna S. Austria which still held that many routes have no or no significant competition. Wrongly because she only looked at competitions within a route and completely failed to see that parallel routes actually compete.

In the hoopla decade for shipping that was the 1990’s the Ever Lines Inc. of Zamboanga had a rather calculated response only. They only brought in two ferry-ROROs that was the next bigger size to the small, basic, short-distance ferry. This kind of ferry usually have a passenger deck and a bridge deck (which can be converted to an additional passenger deck), two ramps front and rear and two engines (and of course, two funnels and two propellers). The two ships that they brought in were the former MV Amagi and the former MV Shiraito of the Surugawan Car Ferry of Japan. The former became the MV Ever Queen of the Pacific in the fleet of Ever Lines while the latter became the MV Ever Queen of Asia. The two were true sister ships and they arrived in Zamboanga in 1998. In 2007, after nine years of sailing, Ever Lines decided to sell the MV Ever Queen of the Pacific when they were able to buy a fishing vessel, the former MV Coral White which was then converted into a passenger-cargo ship in Zamboanga. This ship is not a RORO (Roll On, Roll Off) and is a bit smaller but Ever Lines deemed her fit for their Tawi-tawi routes and so the MV Ever Queen of the Pacific was sold to the Sta. Clara Shipping Company of Bicol where she became the short-distance RORO named the MV Mac Bryan.

The MV Amagi which became the MV Ever Queen of the Pacific and later the MV Mac Bryan was built by the Shimoda Dockyard Co., Limited in Shimoda yard in Japan in 1970. The ship measured 54.0 meters in length over-all, 50.9 meters in length between perpendiculars with and an extreme breadth of 12.0 meters (which means she is a “thin” ship) and a depth of 3.8 meters. Her Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) was 491 and her Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) was 102. She was powered by two Niigata marine diesel engines with a total output of 1,800 horsepower which propelled the ship to a sustained top speed of 14 knots when still new. She plied a route in Suruga Bay much like other ferries that later came to the Philippines. Her passenger capacity in Japan was 203 in seats in a cabin with a few more seats in the open deck. Her permanent ID is IMO 7034452.

A steel-hulled RORO she has a bow ramp and a stern ramp with a car deck of four lanes with a total of approximately 50 meters length. Her approximate rolling cargo capacity is about 550 lane-meters. She has a rectangular box at the bow where the ramp fits and this serves as rain deterrent so that the car deck won’t be as wet and slippery in rainy weather. The bow of the ship has a raked look and with the rectangular box she looks muscular. She only has one passenger deck and the bridge deck was reserved for the crew. The ship has two masts with the aft mast looking tall. The stem of the ship is raked and the stern is transom.

After being sold to Ever Lines and arriving in Zamboanga in 1998 she underwent refitting to become an overnight ferry fitted with bunks. Together with the sister ship the MV Ever Queen of Asia, they were used in the Zamboanga-Jolo-Siasi-Bongao-Sitangkai route of the company. This is actually not an overnight route but a multiday route with the ships sailing between route legs are mainly at night and it takes five days for the ship to come back. However, though the routes and schedules are fixed the MV Ever Queen of the Pacific was not a true liner as the amenities do not fulfill that of a modern liner although she was a two-class ship with an open-air Economy class and an airconditioned Tourist class. Her sailing was more of a multi-overnight ferry with few basic amenities. She can also be called a passenger-cargo ship as the stress in that route is cargo and they take in lots of it but it is not rolling cargo although she is a RORO. The ramps actually just makes the loading and unloading of the porters easier. Most of the cargo in their route is loose cargo.

In 2007 when she was sold to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation to do short-distance Bicol routes she was reconverted to a short-distance ferry not with bunks but with seats and this time she is already known as the MV Mac Bryan. At the front an airconditioned section with bus seats (yes, bus seats!) were fitted. This was the old passenger section in Japan. Since the original seats were no longer around this was the most available seats already that were a little comfortable and ordering them was not difficult as in the Bicol routes the ships of Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and its sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation loads a lot of buses. At the rear of the airconditioned Tourist section is the open-air Economy class with fiberglass bucket seats which is not comfortable for long sailings. The ship also has a small kiosk between the two accommodation classes where drinks, snacks and knickknacks are available. There is no restaurant but there is a simple galley for the crew.

This time around as the MV Mac Bryan under Sta. Clara Shipping Corp., she is already used as a true RORO and almost all her loads are vehicles, practically 98% of it, and most of it are trucks and buses. These intermodal trucks and buses are in the main already contracted by the company. So in peak seasons it actually operates not in First Come, First Served basis as most ignorant motorists suppose and which they do not understand. The ship will even wait for a “suki” vehicle if it is a little delayed to the scratching of the heads who do not know or understand the contractual system.

Equipped with seats the passenger capacity of MV Mac Bryan is about 500. As fitted now her Net Tonnage (NT) is 239 and her Gross Tonnage (GT) marginally rose to 499. Her local Call Sign is DUJ 2136 but she has no MMSI Number.

I have visited the bridge of MV Mac Bryan like I have visited the bridge of her sister ship MV Ever Queen of Asia. The bridge equipment of MV Mac Bryan is more complete and it is much cleaner and tidy. It even has a mini-library for the necessary files and references.

In Sta Clara Shipping Corporation she plies all routes of the company in rotation. The three routes of her company are Matnog-Allen, Tabaco-Virac and Masbate-Pio Duran. In her last assignment after her drydock in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, she was brought to the last-named route because they want their second ship there to have a smaller engine since their second schedule for the route is not that full. She did not stay full-time there because Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation always rotate their ship and route assignments.

I have heard the Niigata engines of MV Mac Bryan are no longer that strong. But over-all, she is still a reliable ship. Maybe she just need to have her engine revolutions lessened a bit. Well, her company and its sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corp. are actually good in extending the life of old ships and with its special relationship with Nagasaka Shipyard it is sure that their ships will be maintained well. And if need be she can just specialize in the short Matnog-Allen route which can be kinder to the engines although her rolling capacity might be a little small for the route when peak seasons come.

I expect a long more time of her sailing the Bicol routes successfully, knock on wood.