The King Frederick and Nelvin Jules

The King Frederick and Nelvin Jules of Santa Clara Shipping Corporation are actually sister ships which look like each other save for some minor differences. When trying to identify them I try to look for the name lest I might be mistaken in the identification (anyway, one of the two has a longer name).

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Both of these ships arrived in the country in 1999 and they were the opening salvo in the challenge of the newly-established Santa Clara Shipping Corporation in the Matnog-Allen route long dominated but badly served by Bicolandia Shipping Lines and its legal-fiction companies like E. Tabinas and Eugenia Tabinas. When the sister ships arrived they were not larger than the bigger ships in the route. However, they were the newest and the fastest and even newer than the government-owned Maharlika I which was built in 1982.

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With such an advantage the reigning Bicolandia Shipping Lines immediately cried foul and tried all the legal means to drive out King Frederick and Nelvin Jules because their old ships which were mainly acquired from other local shipping companies and were built in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were clearly inferior already in all respects. And Bicolandia Shipping Lines has the dead weight of a bad reputation originating from their ships having the wont of not sticking to departure times and trying to get full as much as possible before departure. Plus, of course, clients always want the new.

Bicolandia Shipping Lines failed in their opposition at the level of MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the maritime regulatory agency and which has quasi-judicial function and all the way to the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. And so the King Frederick and Nelvin Jules were not driven out from route and began to beat their opposition (there were other players in the route aside from Bicolandia Shipping and Maharlika I) until the day came when Bicolandia Shipping Lines surrendered and sold itself to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and became the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation.

The King Frederick,  the newer of the two sister ships was supposedly named after the top gun of the combine owning Santa Clara Shipping Corporation, Frederick Uy. She and the Nelvin Jules are ROPAX (RORO-Passenger) ferries built by Kanda Shipbuilding Co. in their Kawajiri yard in Japan. The two ferries both measured at 58.6 meters in Length Over-all (LOA), 55.5 meters in Length Between Perpendiculars (LPP or LBP) with a Beam or Breadth of 14.0 meters. Originally, the sister ships had a similar Gross Tonnage (GT) of 699 with a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 308 tons. By the way, the King Frederick was the last ever ship built by Kanda Shipbuilding in their Kawajiri yard.

The King Frederick‘s original name was Sagishima and she was built in 1987 and the Nelvin Jules’ original name was Kurushima and she was built in 1985 making her the elder ship of the two. When the two arrived in 1999 they were still both relatively young at 12 years and 14 years old, respectively. King Frederick has the IMO Number 8704315 while Nelvin Jules has the IMO Number 8504404 which both reflects the year when their keels were laid up. The sister ships have a steel hull, a box-like housing at the bow which protects against the rain when loading and unloading and also keeps the car deck less wet and muddy when it is raining. They both have a transom stern and ramps at the bow and at the stern. The ships both have two masts and two funnels at the top of the ship.

The sister ships are powered by two Daihatsu marine engines with a total of 2,400 horsepower and these gave them a sustained top speed of 13.5 knots when still new. In their 11-nautical mile Matnog-BALWHARTECO (Allen) route, the sister ships were capable of crossing the San Bernardino Strait in just under one hour when newly-fielded if the notorious waves of San Bernardino are not acting up. BALWHARTECO port was the choice of Santa Clara Shipping in Allen as it was a shorter route than the official Matnog-San Isidro route of the government. The San Isidro Ferry Terminal is the official government RORO port while the BALWHARTECO port is a private port and along time Santa Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) had a hand-and-glove relationship with the management of BALWHARTECO (Balicuatro Wharfage and Terminal Corporation).

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BALWHARTECO Port, the original home of King Frederick and Nelvin Jules

Before fielding here a new passenger deck was built on the bridge level of both ships. However, the Gross Tonnages (GT) of the sister ships dropped to 694 which is more likely an under-declaration. The declared Net Tonnages (NT) of the two ships is 357 (a clarification, both the GT and the NT have no units). The passenger capacities of both ships are 750 persons reflecting their almost similar internal arrangements. The Depths of the two ferries are both 3.8 meters which is about average for ships their size.

The new passenger deck became an all-Economy accommodation with fiberglass seats. On the lower deck, at the front portion was the old accommodation in Japan which became the Tourist section as it was air-conditioned and had better foamed seats. That section is also where the canteen was located. All passengers have access to that canteen.

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The canteen inside the Tourist section of the King Frederick

When the gusts are up in San Bernardino Strait along with its wind-driven rains and this can be often in the peak of the habagat (the southwest monsoon) and amihan (the northeast monsoon) that section is a welcome cover especially for the more vulnerable passengers like the small children, the pregnant and the old. The habagat and amihan are both fierce in San Bernardino Strait, it affects the area more than half of the year and ships crossing the strait sometimes have to take a dogleg route lengthening the transit time and producing seasickness in many passengers.

Behind this Tourist section is another Economy section with fiberglass seats also that were built in a former promenade deck of the ship when it was still in Japan. Many prefer this in inclement weather as it does not rock as hard as the deck above and it seems the winds can be less fierce here. Of course there is one less deck to climb or descend and that matters maybe in a short route when some passengers like me don’t bother to sit at all (too many views to enjoy from the ships to the seascape to the mountains and of course the ports and its activities). Maybe the reason they put the karaoke in the upper deck is to enjoin passengers to climb there.

Below this passenger accommodation is the car deck of the RORO ships. One advantage of the two sisters is the wide beam of 14.0 meters which allows four lanes of trucks or buses on either side of the “island” in the middle of the car deck which actually houses ladders going up and down and below the car deck are crew accommodations and the crew mess which are all air-conditioned.

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A crowded Nelvin Jules. See the “island” in the middle of the car deck

With 55.5 meters in LPP up to five rows of trucks and buses can be accommodated. Of course, though trucks and buses dominate the load in their routes, still smaller vehicles like cars and utility vehicles will normally be in the rolling cargo mix. These ships will normally be full because Santa Clara Shipping mastered the art of giving discounts and pay-later schemes, the reason a lot of trucks and buses are tied up to them. Tied-up buses which carry passengers that cannot be delayed even have priority in loading in them. The sisters have ramps front and bow but normally it is only the bow ramps that are deployed and employed, the reason vehicles have to board the ship backwards. One thing I cannot understand with the sister ships’ bow ramp is they are off-center. I do not know what is the advantage of it. Actually in cargo loading it only tends to affect the balance of the ship.

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King Frederick in Masbate. See the off-center ramp.

Along time especially with the arrival of other ROPAXes for Santa Clara Shipping Corporation, King Frederick and Nelvin Jules were also assigned to other routes of the company especially their new Masbate-Pio Duran route. There is no permanent fielding for them and the sister ships generally rotate between the two routes. Another route where King Frederick has been fielded is to their newest route, the Lipata-Liloan route which became a Lipata-Surigao route when a quake damaged the Lipata port (however, they are back now recently to Lipata Ferry Terminal).

Over-all, the sister ships proved very successful and became proven moneymakers for Santa Clara Shipping. Although 18 years sailing now locally, the two are still very sturdy and very reliable and almost no breakdown can be heard from them. What I only wish is Santa Clara Shipping make some sprucing in the ships so they will come back to like when they were still new here.

Even when the two sister ships are in San Bernardino Strait, they are no longer docking now in BALWHARTECO port as their company has a new, owned port now in Jubasan in the same town of Allen, Northern Samar. However, when this article was written none of them were there as Nelvin Jules was in the Masbate-Pio Duran route pairing with the ship Jack Daniel of the same company and they with their cargo RORO LCT Aldain Dowey are dominating the Masbate route.

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Nelvin Jules leaving Masbate port

I see many, many more years of sailing and service for the two sisters if the gauge is how sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation is taking care of the older ferries acquired from Bicolandia Shipping Lines. Both are equipped with tough and lost-lasting Daihatsu marine engines and simply put their company has the revenues and moolah to take care of them well. It has even a stake in Nagasaka Shipyard in the Tayud row of shipyards in Cebu where they are given priority.

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Nelvin Jules in Nagasaka Shiyard

If 50 years is the gauge now of longevity of ships, they will still be around in 2035, knock on wood.

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New Developments in Masbate Port

I had been to Masbate port twice in recent days in this month of July of 2017. The first one was when my ship Super Shuttle RORO 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) was on the way to Batangas and dropped anchor in Masbate first. The second was when I took the route via Pilar and Masbate ports on the way back to Cebu. Those two visits afforded me a chance to compare and weigh developments in Masbate port since last January of 2017 when I was also able to visit the port.

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Masbate port

The first notable thing is all works in expanding Masbate port has already been completed. The lineal distance of the port is a little longer now. On the other hand, talking of infrastructure, the Masbate port terminal building deteriorated in the same span of time as it is no longer air-conditioned and yet the dear terminal fee which is more expensive than the much better Cebu and Batangas ports remained the same when Masbate port does not even have shuttle buses and does not really have the capacity to take in all the passengers of the buses. And so it copied the Batangas port model which means bus passengers have to go down when the bus enters the port in order for them to pay the terminal fee and then board the bus again or walk to the ferry. The former is the preferred mode now.

Another new thing is Masbate port has an X-ray machine now for the baggage but it is not operational yet. Another useless piece of equipment just to justify the terminal fee and to have another reason for “cattle-herding” the passengers. It seems what is good enough for the buses is not good enough for PPA (Philippine Ports Authority), security-wise, because buses don’t bother checking the baggage of the passengers because they know the chance of them being victims of terrorist attacks is next to nil, at least in Bicol. And I think if one asks the ferries they will say they are not bothered if there is no X-ray machine. The buses and the ferries do not have the ISPS thinking that all passengers are possible terrorists. Actually that is simply ridiculous and is just the product of “praning” minds.

One more notable thing is that the passenger motor bancas are now practically gone from Masbate port and they have already transferred to the municipal port of Masbate near the public market and the bus/van terminal because of the high passenger terminal fee being charged by the port when passengers have no actual need for the terminal as they go direct to their vessels. Actually, last January I saw a terminal building (it was named as a community fish landing center) being built in Masbate municipal port and I saw that it is already finished when I went to the bus and van terminal.

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The problem now in Masbate municipal port is congestion, I was told, especially in the rush hours of the morning and the early afternoon. The boat landing areas there are actually the facility being used by the so-many small passenger motor bancas and motor launches headed to the different barrios across Masbate Bay. Add to that that that is also the docking area of the passenger motor bancas to barrios just outside Masbate Bay and up to Baleno town. Now the bigger motor bancas to Ticao island, Pilar port and Burias island are also lumped there now. That also includes a few cargo motor boats that were once passenger motor boats.

Actually, some small motor launch operators also built docking areas just beyond the northern end of Masbate port. I was told these transfers were the reaction to the terminal fee that costs P30. A terminal fee of that amount for a P10 boat fare? So right now just a very few motor bancas use Masbate port. One effect is congestion of the port was gone in one stroke. So I wonder now if there was any need to lengthen the port after all. Maybe they could have just donated the construction materials to the boat landing areas at the end of the port. The surface there is still dried muck which is obviously undulating and slippery. Well, if the funds were really meant to benefit the public.

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A makeshift boat landing area adjacent Masbate port

Regarding steel-hulled ferries, the competition in Masbate port is heating up and truck volume was obviously bigger than last January. Not in the buses though as July is already part of the lean months. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation fielded their Cargo RORO LCT there, the LCT Aldain Dowey which was identified in PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) as the former LCT Ongpin. So now they have a total of three ferries in Masbate and I was told in summer Sta. Clara Shipping even fielded a fourth ferry. Their LCT is of the same length as their Jack Daniel and Anthon Raphael, their two ROPAXes there which are the best in the fleets of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (this is before the fielding of the former Tamataka Maru ships from Japan).

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Their LCT is the first to leave at noon and in the afternoon they are the only ferry departures from Masbate at 2pm and 4pm. Their three ferries are the biggest in Masbate because what their competitors have are only basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs because they use the shallow Pilar port whose depth cannot handle bigger ferries. By the way in terms of rolling cargo traffic the Pio Duran route now of Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping is the favorite now since Pio Duran in Albay is nearer to Manila than Pilar of Sorsogon while the rolling cargo rate is just about the same.

With the exception of the ROROBus which is related to Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. practically all the other buses to Masbate are handled by Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and Penafrancia Shipping Corp. as the third operator Denica Lines, a Pilar native does not load buses. Loading buses from Luzon meant extending discounts, rebates, free tickets and free meals and Denica Lines does not play that game because they say they have their share of rolling cargo too. And I saw that when we left left Pilar port aboard their Marina Empress at 3am and the car deck was full. From Masbate port their three ROROs Odyssey, Regina Calixta-II and Marina Empress all left full. Denica Lines has already bought the Regina CalixtaII of Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) of Catanduanes and so they have three ROROs also now while Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) is down to two ROROs from three. Maybe because it is lean months now and maybe they have one undergoing refitting in a shipyard.

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If we assume that Montenegro Lines has a third RORO in Masbate then a total of 8 ROROs make a daily crossing now to Luzon plus there is a Cargo RORO LCT for a total capacity of about 100 truck/bus units (of course, since there are smaller vehicles mixed in, the actual total is higher). Many of these come from as far as Cebu island. Buses will be at least a fourth of that total. One will wonder why there is such a large number of people on the move when within Masbate island there are not that many number of buses although there is a significant number of commuter vans.

Montenegro Lines have three fastcrafts and a catamaran in Masbate including their newest and fastest, the City of Angeles which is a catamaran. They also have there one of their biggest fastcrafts, the City of Masbate. Their future rival, the two fastcrafts of Denica Lines are still not ready and are still being refitted in Pilar port. Meanwhile, I wonder if the Masbate-Pilar motor bancas are already in terminal decline. There are just so many ROROs and High Speed Crafts. Although the motor bancas are faster than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs, they are noisier. They might be noisy, however, but still they are better than the “Stairs Class” of Montenegro Lines.

But in trucks and buses Sta. Clara and Penafrancia are already beating Montenegro Lines by about 3:1. Denica Lines could also be level now with Montenegro Lines in trucks and buses. By the way, sedans, SUVs, AUVs are not that many in the Masbate crossing to Pilar and Pio Duran and jeeps are practically unknown.

However, there is a rumor in Masbate port that a new player will come and serve the Masbate-Pio Duran route and it seems it is not Medallion Transport which was gone from the route after their Lady of Carmel sank in 2013 off Burias island. It remains to be seen if this rumor will come true.

The Super Shuttle RORO 3 of AMTC is also back in Masbate port and it connects to Batangas and Cebu plus Cagayan de Oro but their schedule is irregular as in there are no definite day for arrivals and departures as it is more of a container carrier now. There are also still a few motor bancas to Bulan when where before that was the dominant route to Bicol from Masbate.

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There are also off-hours docking now in Masbate port as Denica Lines has an early evening departure from Pilar. To the credit of Masbate port they let the passengers stay in the port terminal as the arrival of that is midnight and there is still no transportation to the towns outside Masbate City (and that gave me an idea). And Sta. Clara Shipping sends back its ship from Pio Duran if there are a lot of shut-outs (vehicles left unloaded in port) and that becomes another off-hours docking. That was the reason why they fielded their LCT because shut-out were already happening frequently (I saw that last January when one Mega Bus cannot be accommodated and they asked passengers of that to get down the ship and it was an event not good to look at — I pitied the passengers).

Masbate port is changing. Traffic is obviously up and I think the port will only get more important in the future when more traffic will shift to it from San Bernardino Strait if the rates become lower. Maybe then competition will further heat up and we will see the full blooming of Masbate port.

But they have to get that passenger terminal fee down. It is much higher than Zamboanga port when that port is better than Masbate port and the passenger terminal is not really needed by most of the ship passengers. A sore point really and that must change.

On The Way Back To Cebu (Part 2 of my trip to Batangas and Calapan)

When I realized I’m not gonna make the St. Francis Xavier of 2GO in North Harbor and that I wouldn’t wait anymore for the Super Shuttle RORO 3, I decided I will just go back to Cebu via Bicol, Pilar and Masbate because that route will give me more photos including bus and train photos plus the views along the way. When fellow passengers knew of my plight and plan they suggested to me the Turbina bus stop in Calamba. Well, I could go as far as Cubao if I wanted Manila bus photos but I decided against it because I wanted to take photos of the Bicol Commuter Train in Naga and for that I must arrive early afternoon there as I was just planning an overnight in Naga because I was not really prepared for a long stay (I should have been sailing with the Super Shuttle RORO 3 back and forth and my preparation was for such). In my mind I want to take the Cokaliong ship in Masbate and I wanted a whole day bus and ship spot in Masbate and also to make some interviews.

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View of a recently arrived ferry in Batangas port while waiting for a bus

I asked about the Supreme bus from Batangas to Lucena and funny none of the passengers, van drivers and guards have an idea of the first trip nor of the fare. It seems none of them have taken that ride. I was interested in that ride because I might have been to Ibaan before but I have not also taken it. Its distance will be shorter compared to Turbina and I assume the fare will be lower also. You see I was on a short budget and tours drain money fast.

My next problem was how to go to Batangas Grand Central Terminal. The guard resolved the first part. He pointed to me the ATI shuttle to the outside of the port gate (no one walks around in Batangas port as all are potential terrorists and saboteurs, that is the assumption in ISPS and their restriction is even greater than that of a military camp). I was warned how high is the charge of the tricycle drivers. But I was able to haggle down the P200 that they normally charge to P100). The Grand Terminal was really far. I found out that there was no seamless connection to there unlike when one’s destination is as far as Manila.

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Batangas Grand Central Terminal before dawn

Entering the terminal at 3:02am per the LCD clock of the terminal, I saw the Supreme aircon bus already on the way out. What a timing! I have to take it and forego bus pics as I was not prepared for another hour of a wait. I was charged P94, senior fare, that proved to be lower than my tricycle fare. With a very low volume of passengers I wondered how Supreme could be making money on their early trips which are not few in number. It seems they are among the bus companies that still understand that bus transport is public service. Their buses was the ride of people that needs to move early like vendors and those that have to go to the market early. A lot of the fares charged was only P10, the minimum fare. And to think they have no competition in the route.

I have some regrets being very early because in the dark one cannot see the landscape well. We arrived just past 5am in Arias, the junction of the road leading to Lucena proper and the diversion road. The unlucky thing was a Superlines bus overtook us and it was bound for Daet. I wanted to take the longer route rather than the Quirino Highway route for I have not passed that road for a long time now as buses no longer pass through it.

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Arias junction in Lucena

The jeepney dispatcher in Arias was friendly and helpful and he told me the next bus will be an RMB ordinary bus and he told me the approximate time of arrival. I was mulling a Dalahican port diversion but the dispatcher was not encouraging. He said going out of the port is difficult at that time because there are no arrivals yet from Marinduque and the tricycle fare is very high. Sometimes the fewness of ships in a port convinces me against visiting if I lack the time and I am not really prepared. I just then contented myself with taking of bus shots which I prize because I lack Southern Tagalog bus photos. I also have to manage my Bicol ride because day trips to Bicol comes just one or at best two in an hour.

The RMB bus came and it was taking in short-distance passengers that normally are the passengers of the Raymond bus. I tried to get bus and places pictures although it was difficult as I was not at the front of the bus nor at the side. Then the text of Aris, a PSSS Moderator came in and asked me if I was at the North Harbor. I asked him to check the 2GO schedules earlier. I told him in a few minutes I will be in Atimonan port. I was expecting my answer will discombobulate him, a joke in itself as he did not know I was on the way to Bicol.

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Atimonan port and ships

I was able to get shots of Atimonan port and ships but I missed Siain port because of the trees. Then I saw that LCT at the end of the long coastal road straight before the road turns into the railroad tracks. I failed to get off a shot but I saw there was a makeship yard there and I wondered what they were doing there as it was far from what can be connected to shipping. Afloat ship repair? There were not much vessels in Lamon Bay except for the occasional fishing boats the largest of which is a basnig.

The bus then left Calauag into the hills and there were no more views of ships and of the sea. It was all buses and land views until we reached Mabolo of Naga where there were two fishing vessels. We took a little over 7 hours to reach Naga and that included two meal stops. I just paid P250 for the bus fare for a distance of about 250 kilometers.

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Fishing vessels visible from Mabolo bridge

Upon reaching Bicol Central Station, the Naga bus terminal that has many eateries I ordered kinalas, a kind of mami that is synonimous with Naga. With no rice I ordered Bicol Express and again I remembered Mark, a PSSS Moderator who failed to taste one in Matnog because we immediately boarded the Don Benito Ambrosio II of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation which was then leaving already. From a short meal, I immediately made my way to the PNR (Philippine National Railways) Naga station to take rail and train photos and to ride the Bicol Commuter Train (BCT) to Sipocot. I did that not only to satisfy myself but also the Aussie rail engineers who once worked with the PNR as AusAid technicians and who are PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) members too.

I did not move much in the station and in the train. I was tired. I just want the experience of a DMU (Diesel Multiple Unit) train being hauled by a locomotive. The DMU’s power is no longer enough for tractive power and it was only used to power the automatic doors, the fans and the lights. With our rundown railways, such weird contraptions happen. There was an announcement that the BCT will serve Legazpi last February. It did not happen as there were no locomotives available (yes their Board of Directors is that detached from reality). It is VP Robredo who is pushing for that but I think the lady does not understand rails and our rail situation. Internally, the PNR do not want to run the BCT to Legazpi as each run loses. Ever since 55 years ago it has already been proven that the trains cannot compete with the bus on parallel routes much like ferries can’t compete with them too on parallel routes.

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Bicol Commuter Train to Sipocot

From Sipocot I did not transfer to the bus anymore like what I usually do because I was tired and I had just come from a long bus ride and has already passed Sipocot hours before. We arrived in Naga in a heavy thunderstorm that flooded the city and we were marooned in the station. Good I already roamed the station and took shots before my BCT ride. In that thunderstorm before just before dusk there was no way to roam the station nor take any decent shot.

I spent the night in Naga and the next day I was back at the bus terminal to take more shots and to eat pilinut candies. The previous day I was not able to take many as I gave priority to railfanning. With my stay in Naga I was able to top all my batteries again. I resolved I will already leave that night so I will be in time for the Masbate-Cebu Cokaliong ship and my way will be through Pilar and not Pio Duran as I want to see the developments in the Denica Lines fastcrafts there and simply there are more ships in Pilar than in Pio Duran and that includes passenger-cargo motor bancas. In preparation for that I slept from late 5pm to 9pm as the bus to Pilar I was aiming at should be in the 11pm to 12mn range, ideally, as I was targeting the Denica Lines ferry at 3am which I knew will afford me a lying position and sleep as the passengers are not many because they don’t take in buses unlike the Montenegro Lines ship.

A Pilar bus entered the terminal at 10:30pm, the first one to do so. It had the quizzical signboard Pilar/Tabaco/Legazpi. I asked if it was for Pilar and they said “Yes”. I decided to take it. No harm in being 30 minutes early. A good insurance in case of an unlikely flat tire or a need to transfer buses. The bus almost immediately pulled out and I noticed the driver was serious in his driving which is not normally the case once a bus reaches Bicol. Upon reaching Tuburan junction in Ligao I knew the reason for the fast clip. We turned left. So we are on the way to Tabaco first. I checked the time. It was just 11:40pm. I was not worried. There was enough time. I thought better just enjoy the unintended excursion. A way to see Tabaco and Legazpi again.

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Tabaco port

As I expected we entered not the far Tabaco terminal but Tabaco port. I knew there will be passengers for Catanduanes for sure in the bus. Took shots but it was dark and there was rain. I knew the bus will not linger and it did not and after a stop in the city center we were on the way to Legazpi and we reached it at 12:50am.

By 1:40am we were already in Pilar port. We took 3 hours for a 165-kilometer run. I thought if only buses in Mindanao were that fast. I also thought the 80kph limiter devices based on GPS should be thrown to the sea. What is the use of that on a night run where there are few vehicles on the road when time should be gained? How could the Department of Transportation assume that sedan drivers who spend their whole day in the office are better drivers than real professional drivers?

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Denica Lines fastcrafts in Pilar port

The 3am Denica Lines ferry, the Marina Empress, which I like was there alright. With our arrival I still have time to roam the dark port and field questions. I found the Denica fastcrafts were still not ready and are still tied to Pilar port but the refitting of one has already advanced. The motor bancas to various destinations like Monreal and Aroroy were also there plus a Montenegro Lines RORO and fastcrafts. The Hammity cargo motor boat of Denica Lines was also there.

The fares were still the same but I found out that the Regina Calixta-II of Regina Shipping Lines already belongs to Denica Lines and so they have 3 basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs now and so when their fastcrafts are ready they will have a battle royale with Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated looming and probably the motor bancas will give them an advantage.

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Regina Calixta-II

I decided against an Aroroy entry to Masbate because the departure of the motor banca was still 5:30am and arriving in Aroroy at 8:30am will mean a 10:30am arrival for me in Masbate which means I will be missing a lot of action compared to a 7am arrival with Marina Empress when most ferries to Masbate has not yet arrived including the slow Filipinas Maasin from Cebu which was expected at 9:30am. I long wanted to reach Aroroy but the negatives are big.

Having arrived ahead of most of the buses which are now mainly carried by Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, I was able to observe a lot about the patterns. I realized that if I will not shipspot Masbate port then if I take one of the buses from Manila to Cawayan then I will still reach the Island Shipping LCT in Cawayan for Hagnaya in Cebu island.

In going back to Cebu via Masbate I ruled out taking the ROROBus because it leaves Masbate port at 8:30am to take the 12nn Cataingan-Polambato, Bogo ferry of Montenegro Lines. Leaving at that time means I will miss a lot of action in Masbate and I will just spend five hours staring into the sea when there is still a lot of happenings in Masbate port.

If I take the thrice a week Lapu-lapu Shipping night ferry in Cataingan to Cebu City that leaves at 6pm then it means I should already be in Masbate bus/van terminal at about 2pm. By that time 75-80% of the actions in Masbate port will have happened already. Maybe next time I should take that so I can check new developments in the road to there and in the port.

There is also a ferry equivalent to the MSLI ferry in Cawayan but I want to check if it is 100% in the route. But then one has to leave Masbate early also as in about 8am and maybe hitching a ride with an early bus from Manila is the trick but I am not sure if they are faster than the vans. It is not as cheap as the Island Shipping LCT which still has promotional rates.

When I entered the Masbate port terminal building after disembarking from the Marina Empress the beautiful lady guard immediately recognized me. I thought I was in luck because I can roam fully without worrying about my things and I will have full chance to charge my batteries as I drain them. Anyway this time around there were not that many passengers in Masbate port terminal building as they have already learned the Batangas way of sending the passengers to their buses after paying the passenger terminal fee (so what is the purpose of the passenger terminal fee which is actually more expensive than Batangas port and Cebu port)?

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LCT Aldain Dowey

A new addition I saw in Masbate is the Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. LCT, the LCT Aldain Dowey which just takes in trucks. With the fielding of that Sta. Clara Shipping and sister company Penafrancia Shipping has further outstripped Montenegro Lines in the Masbate route in terms of rolling cargo. By the way, I was astounded with their Anthon Raphael when she arrived as she had a dozen buses aboard when she arrived. MSLI has already lost to Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping in buses as she only carries ROROBuses now save for a lone Elavil bus. Compared to last January, Sta. Clara and Penafrancia have already far outstripped MSLI in rolling cargo.

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Anthon Raphael

The Cokaliong ship Filipinas Maasin showed herself in Masbate Bay at 10am. There were snickers of course because even Asia Indonesia and Asia Japan of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. did not take that long in reaching Masbate. I thought to myself Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. should change the ship assigned there as obviously she does not have enough speed for the route. Maybe she should just stick to the Surigao route which is shorter. The Filipinas Maasin car/cargo deck was full of cargo when she arrived.

This time around I did not go anymore to the Masbate bus/van terminal. I was already tired by 2pm when only one ferry has not left port aside from Filipinas Maasin. That was the last ferry to Bicol, the Jack Daniel. The Regina Calixta-II, the Odyssey and the Marina Empress of Denica Lines has already left and in that order. The Maria Angela and the Maria Sophia of Montenegro Lines have also departed along with their fastcraft and catamarans and two have already returned from Pilar, the City of Angeles and the City of Masbate.

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It also rained hard, another reason I lost taste for the bus/van terminal. I also thought I will be seeing the same buses there I saw days before when I was on the way to Batangas and regarding the motor bancas from there I caught them practically all and if I missed some it will be just a few fishing bancas. I just spent the mid-afternoon looking for a decent meal as I prioritized ship and bus spotting over meals. In January in going for meals I missed some of the actions and I did not want that to happen again. I also want to cover fully the loading and unloading of the buses. There were fewer buses this July compared to January.

When it rained hard and the wind blew I noticed the digital read-out of the time and temperature in Masbate port showed just 27 degrees Centigrade. It was just like having an air conditioner for the whole port. I pitied some of the passengers because the port management lacks care and imagination. They should have let the buses pick up the passengers by the driveway. It’s hard to make one’s way to the ferry in driving rain. Good in that situation the Maria Sophia went back to port when informed that there were bus passengers not yet boarded when their bus was already inside the ship.

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The Kulafu of Rufo Presado from Bulan in Masbate heavy rain

In all these happenings I never saw a port official appear and much more intervene. Oh, maybe, their job is just to sign papers, make memoranda and prepare reports, the typical bureaucratic dance. The porters were even more concerned for the passengers (but of course they will never become port managers).

After nearly completing my charging in the terminal building I hunted for a porter to interview about some history of Masbate port and its ships. By this time the passengers have already boarded Filipinas Maasin and Jack Daniel has already departed and so they’ve go no more thing to do as cargo loading is also finishing and the last passengers will be Masbate City locals and they are usually dropped by the ship’s ramp especially since only P6 is charged for an entering vehicle (while the passenger terminal fee is 5 times of that). In that situation there is practically no more action that I have to cover.

I found one and he has been a porter for over 20 years and his father was also a porter but now retired and is just fishing. He still remembers the liners of the early 1990’s and how Masbate ships evolved from motor bancas and motor boats to ROROs. They earned much more then when cargo handling was basically done manually and the liners still had lots of passengers. I just let him tell the stories that he recall. The only things I interjected were the history of the High Speed Crafts in Masbate and how the Bulan route lost to Pilar.

I realized as he was telling the story that maybe next time I should lessen the picture-taking and listen to stories more. I barely touched on the shipping owners like Rufo Presado and the owner of Lobrigo Lines, both of whom tried fastcrafts also. Aside from Denica Lines they are the biggest motor banca operators in Masbate. And I have not even explored well the complexity of the Masbate motor bancas or even its accidents. Anyway I got a number now. I also gave my source a tip for his time. The interview that took nearly an hour seems to just flew by. I was not able to judge well if my source is worth a PSSS cam. Maybe next time I have to ask my lady guard-friend.

After getting some light baon I boarded the Filipinas Maasin when dark was already threatening. I did not have enough time and interest to take a meal outside. I thought with my tiredness I will just sleep straightaway. But then I got hungry and I patronized the restaurant of the ferry. I found their prices a bit better than other ferries I have ridden.

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I made a light tour of the Filipinas Maasin to see how much changed when I rode her more than a decade ago. The lay-out was still the same. But what I noticed is the flooring. It is similar to what is used in buses and it needs no painting. But basically it is still the same ship. My complaint was they set 4 packaged type air conditioners at 16 degrees Centigrade when the ship was already sailing. They should have set it full blast when the passengers were just boarding. So I tried to tinker with the air conditioners. Otherwise we will all be suffering the whole night.

As usual sleeping did not come easy for me because of my neck condition. In each new sleeping place I have to discover what will suit it. I resolved my more complete tour of the ship will be in the morning when I can assess the ship better and my shots will be better. It is not scheduled to reach Cebu early anyway.

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Porter’s Marina

When I woke up I think we were just astride Catmon, Cebu and so I went back to sleep. The problem is when I woke up again I have already missed Danao City and its port and ships. I saw we were already nearing Liloan and Porter’s Marina. There was light rain and no good sun and I thought Tayud and Cansaga Bay shots will be problematic. It proved true even if the rain abated a little and the chance of having a good shot of ships in the Tayud yards was gone. I have to content myself with the anchored ships off it.

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Maica 2

Then I have to scramble for the ships in the Cebu Yacht Club. While taking shots of it a fastcraft overtook us and made a 180-degree turn into a dock in Mactan Island that I have not noticed much before. It was a little south of the Cebu Yacht Club. What I discovered was the new Maica 2 of Jomalia Shipping. It resembles the Oceanjet 15 of the Ocean Fast Ferries. I was able to take a lot of photos of her.

I have to hie off next to starboard as the Ouano ships including the new Trans-Asia 1 and the former Bao Dao ships will be coming into view. After that it was more or less a ride already like with Metro Ferry up to Pier 3. After that comes Pier 1 and its ships that cannot be covered from Metro Ferry. I saw a fastcraft coming on our port side and didn’t think much of it. Then it rounded our stern going into Pier 1 and then I realized she was the Oceanjet 288 of which PSSS has no photo yet of. Watta luck!

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Because it was a Sunday there were few ships in Cokaliong wharf. We arrived earlier than expected because the ship sped up because supposedly she will still be going to Palompon at noon and they still have to unload and load cargo. I was wondering how they can do it in 3 hours. Well, there are a lot of Cokaliong forklifts in the port.

My decision to take the Cokaliong ship from Masbate proved to be correct although that meant just one day of stay in Bicol. I had a full day in Masbate which was not possible if I took the Super Shuttle RORO 3 again which arrived on the previous night that I was already in Pilar. That means like what the crew said they usually stay 3 days in Batangas. And arriving at night in Masbate means no Masbate ship spotting which defeats one of my purpose. And they probably left Batangas at midnight so that was also next to useless in ship spotting.

With the Cokaliong ship I had good ship spotting from Porters Marina up to Pier 1. That was not possible with the Super Shuttle RORO 3 as it goes Around Mactan island and not under the Mactan bridges. And definitely Filipinas Maasin is a real passenger ship and notches ahead of Super Shuttle RORO 3 in comfort and amenities.

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End of my journey

Of course going via Bicol means my expenses were way higher than what I expected. But I hope more photos of ships, buses and train is enough compensation. Spotting long-distance is not really cheap. I have now more photos for PSSS, Shippax, Fleetmon and Lindsay Bridge.

Hope I can do it again!

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.

My Shipspotting Trips in Camarines Sur

I only had two shipspotting trips in Camarines Sur covering two ports. Overall, there are not that much shipspotting opportunities in Camarines Sur compared to the Albay or Sorsogon as the province is basically not an entrepot to big islands like the island-provinces of Catanduanes and Masbate. The only significant island offshore it has is the Burias island and half of this elongated island is not connected to Camarines Sur but to Pio Duran, Albay

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Pasacao National Port

I first went to Pasacao on the southwest of Naga along the province’s southern coast. Pasacao is the main port of entry by sea in Camarines Sur and also the connection to the western half of Burias island. There are four ports in this small municipality — the municipal port, the national port, the port of the old Bicol Oil Mill which has another name now (but people still refer to its old name anyway) and the tanker jetty of Shell Philippines.

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Pasacao Municipal Port

The first two ports are near and parallel to each other. The Bicol Oil Mill port is visible from the two government-owned ports but is located some two kilometers away. No need to go there because if there is a ship docked there it will be visible from the main ports anyway. The Shell jetty is not visible from that and I don’t go there anymore as most times no tankers will be docked there and going there will mean hiring a tricycle which is few in Pasacao.

I was lucky when I visited the Pasacao national port. It was the first time I saw that port full in all my visits there. And there was even no fishing vessels crowding the port (some of the fishing boats are in Pasacao municipal port instead). It was amihan (northeast monsoon) and so it is the peak of the fishing season in the southern seas of Bicol.

I was surprised a Medallion Transport ship was docked there, the Lady of Faith, an old reliable of the company. First time I saw a Medallion ship in Pasacao. Well, this shipping company has many freighters now and maybe that should not have been a surprise to me. After all they are Masbate port regulars.

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Freighters in Pasacao National Port

The Eduardo Juan of Jones Carrier Inc. was also there. I sometimes see this ship in Tayud and Surigao. The company reminds me that once they tried ROROs and they were among the early ones and that they pioneered the Dumaguete-Dapitan route but they did not last. Their ROROs were too small and it was the time of tight competition when Cebu Ferries was ruling the Vismin waves and were sinking smaller shipping companies in their wash.

The biggest ship in Pasacao national port was the Vietnam ship Thai Binh 16. Normally when I see a Vietnam ship its cargo would almost always be rice as we are a rice-deficient country and that includes the Bicol region. But this time the cargo it was unloading was corn. a surprise to me. Is Vietnam exporting corn to us already?

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There was a local ship there, the Princess Damaris of Candano Shipping Lines which is a shipping line from Bicol, in Tabaco. Their owners also own the only big shipyard in Bicol, the Mayon Docks in Tabaco. Princess Damaris was unloading flour in bags to a truck of Partido Marketing Corporation whose owners are major stockholders in Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, the dominant ferry operators in Bicol. Docked beside Princess Damaris because there was no more docking area was the Princess Sapphire.

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There was also an LCT anchored offshore waiting for a berth, the Seamine 9 which was loaded with cement. Also anchored offshore was the Claudia Alexis of Avega Brothers and this was also a surprise to me that they also serve Bicol now. Maybe like Medallion Transport they have so many ships now and their expansion was even faster. Claudia Alexis I usually only noticed in Cebu before.

While shipspotting in the Pasacao national port, the big motor bancas from Burias began arriving. I was there before lunchtime, the time they begin to arrive. Also there in the port were the smaller motor bancas to the coastal barrios of Pasacao and Libmanan. Bancas are a fixture of the southern coast of Bicol because unlike in the northern coast of Bicol there is no southern coastal road except in the road maps (no, they do not exist actually).

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I decided that to save on time and to prevent exhaustion that I should just cover the Pasacao municipal port from the Pasacao national port. Everything is within the range of my lens anyway and it is only motor bancas that are there anyway plus bancas of the subsistence fishermen. There are still other things and places in Bicol that I have to cover. I have not been to my place for a long time.

The next port of Camarines Sur that I covered was the fishport of Camaligan which is just adjacent Naga City and which looks like a suburb of it (actually, Naga has many small towns around it). I was determined to go the the fishport itself and see what it has to offer. This determination is actually an offshoot of a frustration that there is no other worthwhile Camarines Sur port to go to. Cabusao port I know will be a disappointment and I will be crazy if I go to Tandoc port in Siruma. With regards to Guijalo port in Caramoan I was thinking of something different (more on this later).

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The Camaligan fishport is actually some distance away from Naga and not so near like in my imagination. But I was interested in it because it is the principal fishport of Camarines Sur although it is located along the banks of Bicol River and it is still some distance from the sea. Well, this is so because the Bicol River is a navigable river and Naga City which is even beyond Camaligan is reachable by steel-hulled trawlers from San Miguel Bay and beyond (once upon a time there were ferries from Naga to Mercedes, Camarines Norte, the port town besides Daet).

Once this fishport supported a sardines packing plant and it was the first in Bicol. Unfortunately it did not last very long and the cited reason was the lack of fish (well, even the legendary canneries of Zamboanga import fish). I was interested what the fishport still had to offer, the activities it has left and what kind of vessels are present there.

Unlike most government-owned ports, the Camaligan fishport is not under the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority). It is the Philippine Fish Development Authority (PFDA) which owns it. The atmosphere there was relaxed. If fact there seems to be not much activity and there were just a few vehicles.

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There was one basnig there and four trawlers which seems to be Dragon Marus. It is hard to gauge their activity especially as water lilies clog the port (and this indicates lack of activity; well, it was amihan and fishing north of Bicol is not good). There was also a yacht, the Artist Ryuma and two patrol boats of BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources), one of which is on dry land. The bigger patrol boat seems to be ensnared by the water lilies.

There was also the sad sight there of the cruise boat of Camaligan. The town tried to develop their waterfront and offer cruises along the Bicol River, an effort to generate tourism. Sadly it did not take off. The boat seems not be in sailing condition anymore.

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I decided that Camaligan fishport does not have much to offer anymore. If there is fish it seems it is just trucked direct to the market or to Manila. The small quantity of fish in the fishport might have just been trucked by refrigerated trucks. There are no signs of active fish trading unlike what I saw in the Port of Cantilan or Port of Placer when me and Joe visited Surigao.

I did not stay long. No need to. On the way back, I dropped by the Camaligan waterfront and see what’s there, try to gauge the ambience and offerings. I thought it would not sell really. Not much sight or experience to offer and it will be better if a cruise boat is actually based in Naga for easier access and with probably more experiences to offer.

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I thought of a Naga-Guijalo-Codon (San Andres, Catanduanes)-Tabaco-Naga tour, a long and daring one because I will try to complete it in one day. The impetus was the 24/7 trip now of the Naga-Caramoan bus. I was planning to leave early so I will reach the buses that will be loaded in San Andres for Tabaco and Manila (and go via Virac if there is still time). I had my doubts of course if I will reach it on time because I will be dependent on the schedule of the Guijalo-Codon motor banca.

But Typhoon “Nina”, the strongest to visit Camarines Sur in more than a decade threw my plans awry. It is hard to bet on a trip like that with all the disruptions and damages caused the typhoon. Plus it was rush season as it was Christmas and rides could be full especially after the suspensions and cancellations. I decided not to push through but reserve it on another time after more research and better preparation.

On a note, when I reached Tabaco port on another shipspotting trip I espied the glitch in this plan. I realized that the better plan is to go the other way, the counterclockwise way which means I should go to Tabaco first. There are dawn trips from Naga to Tabaco like there are dawn trips to Caramoan but the advantage of the counterclockwise way is that there are trips in Caramoan back to Naga even late and that is not so in the Catanduanes to Tabaco crossing.

When I realized this I had run out of time and budget in Bicol and resolved I will just do it next time.

The Biggest Shipping Combine in Bicolandia

The Bicol Region has a handful of shipping companies of significant size and that includes the Candano Shipping Lines that is probably the most well-known before and it has clout because they also own the only significant shipyard in the Bicol region, the Mayon Docks in Tabaco, Albay. But among this handful, the biggest is the shipping combine of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which have practically the same group of partner-owners. This handful does not include the Archipelago Ferries Philippines Corp. which no longer acts as a Bicol shipping company and is in fact willing to forget and shut the doors on their Bicol roots because they know it is not something they cannot be proud of.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, like Penafrancia Shipping Corporation is into RORO ferries and not cargo ships. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation antedates Penafrancia Shipping Corporation because of the peculiar circumstances wherein they were born. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation was formed in 1999 in order to challenge the then-dominant (dominant as in a near-monopoly) Bicol ferry company, the Bicolandia Shipping Lines which was known by other names like Eugenia Tabinas, E. Tabinas or Eugenia Tabinas-San Pablo (well, using legal-fiction companies is not uncommon in inter-island shipping). When Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation came into the Bicol shipping picture with its superior ships, Bicolandia Shipping Lines argued they are entitled to “protection” using what was known as the “prior operator rule”. That was interpreted by shipping companies being challenged as an equal to a near- and legalized monopoly — they argued that nobody else can enter their routes (ahem! ahem! and wow!). If there is a need to increase ships, they argued that they should be the ones that should add ships (hey, aren’t the saying they “bought” the route already?).nm-dominic-san-juan

In this fight, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation had the backing of the Eastern Visayas mayors especially those from Leyte because their populace had already enough of the lousy service of Bicolandia Shipping Lines which practiced the “alas-puno” system wherein ships depart when it is already full or near-full, in contravention of the published times of departures. However, the Bicolandia Shipping Lines lost in the sala of the maritime regulatory agency, the Maritime Regulatory Agency or MARINA which actually has quasi-judicial powers and can become the court of first instance in maritime cases. That was the turn of the decision because that time the liberalization policy of Fidel V. Ramos on shipping was already the new norm.

Bicolandia Shipping Lines then appealed to the higher court, the Court of Appeals and upon losing again there they brought the case to the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court which also ruled against them. The Supreme Court held any incentive given by government does not mean a company gaining monopoly rights (obviously, I say). Having lost in the courts and being also losing in the seas of Bicol not only to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation but also to other newcomers like Regina Shipping Lines (which also has deep pockets, heavy political clout and a bus company) and 168 Shipping Lines, Bicolandia Shipping Lines offered to sell themselves lock, stock and barrel. Maybe it was a good move instead of finding themselves depreciated or worse bankrupt in the long run. Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. was losing because its ships were already older than competitions’ and besides having tried the patience of the customers with their always-delayed departures they had already lost the goodwill of the public.

It was Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation that had the pockets deep enough to buy Bicolandia Shipping Lines lock, stock and barrel. They might be new but their stockholders were already established in other businesses and that even included shipping. But instead of buying Bicolandia Shipping Lines and integrating its fleet with theirs, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation decided to form the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation for said acquisition. Penafrancia Shipping Corporation has almost the same ownership group as Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. When the acquisition was complete Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation acted just like one company much like one or the other is a legal-fiction company. Their scheduling are united and their ticketing, berthing, crewing and supplies are unified too. That also goes through for their customer relations, the corralling of vehicles to contracts, negotiations and arrangements with the different ports and LGUs (local government units) and the maintenance of friendly relations with MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency. Drydocking and repairs are also unified.dh

Sta. Clara Shipping Corpo and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation operates four routes which are all short-distance ferry routes using ROROs. Their primary one is the Matnog-Allen route and the other routes are the Tabaco-Virac route, the Masbate-Pio Duran route and the Liloan-Lipata route, their recent expansion. In serving these routes, Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. has six ROROs and Penafrancia Shipping Corp. has four ROROs. The two companies do not operate cruisers and practically all their load are rolling cargoes which means trucks, buses, panel trucks, jeeps, cars and SUVs and even long vehicles and heavy equipment (though they don’t prefer the last two).

The six ROROs of the Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. are the following:

King Frederick: IMO 8704315. Built in 1987 by Kanda Shipbuilding Co. in Kawajiri yard, Japan. 58.6m x 14.0m x 3.8m. 694gt, 357nt, 304dwt, 750 pax. 2 x 1,200hp Daihatsu, 13.5kts when new.

Nelvin Jules: IMO 8504404. Built in 1985 by Kanda Shipbuilding Co. in Kawajiri yard, Japan. 58.6m x 14.0m x 3.8m. 694gt, 357nt, 304dwt, 750 pax. 2 x 1,000hp Daihatsu, 13.5kts when new.

Hansel Jobett: IMO 7927075. Built in 1979 by Kanda Shipbuilding Co. in Kawajiri yard, Japan. 51.1m x 14.0m x 3.4m. 610gt, 288nt, 208dwt, 580 pax. 2 x 1,000hp Daihatsu, 13.5kts when new.

Mac Bryan (ex-Ever Queen of Pacific): IMO 7034452. Built in 1970 by Shimoda Dockyard Co. in Shimoda yard, Japan. 54.0m x 12.0m x 3.8m. 499gt, 239nt, 2 x 900hp Niigata, 14kts when new.

Nathan Matthew (ex-Asia Japan): IMO 7326582. Built in 1973 by Naikai Zosen Corp. in Taguma yard, Japan. 64.0m x 13.1m x 3.3m. 1,030gt, 359nt, 443dwt. 2 x 2,000hp Daihatsu, 16kts when new.

Jack Daniel: IMO 8848604. Built in 1990 by Fujiwara Zosensho Co. in Omishima yard, Japan. 65.0m x 14.0m. 965Gt, 252dwt. 2 x 2,150 Niigata, 17kts when new.

The four ROROs of Penafrancia Shipping Corp. are the following:

Don Benito Ambrosio II (ex-Princess of Mayon): IMO 7629520. Built in 1967 by Hashihama Zosen in Imabari yard, Japan. 64.0m x 11.3m x 3.6m. 1,010gt, 686nt, 175dwt, 494 pax. 2,000hp Daihatsu + a Yanmar replacement engine, 13kts when new.

Don Herculano (ex-Princess of Bicolandia): unknown IMO Number. Built in 1970 by Shin Nihon(?) in Japan. 46.4m x 12.0m x 2.8m. 1,029gt, 454nt, 855pax. 2 x 1,000hp Daihatsu, 13.5kts when new.

Eugene Elson (ex-Eugenia): IMO 6601517. Built in 1965 by ImabariShipbuilding Co. in Imabari yard, Japan. 41.7m x 14.6m x 3.0m. 488gt, 118nt, 138dwt, 484 pax. 2 x 550hp Daihatsu, 11.5kts when new.

Anthon Raphael: IMO 8921781. Built by Naikai Zosen Corp. in Setoda yard, Japan. 61.4m x 14.0m x 3.2m. 1,093gt, 688nt, 270dwt, 400pax. 2 x 1,700hp Daihatsu, 15.5kts when new.

Note: Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and Penafrancia Shipping Corp. do not use single-engined, single-screw ships because of its weakness in handling the strong swells of Bicol especially during the habagat (southwest monsoon) season.

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Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation are very good in locking in the buses. That means the buses are contracted to be loaded in them in contracts. That also means these buses are paying what is called in the trade as “special rates” or even “super special rates” or even better. In this trade, the charge on buses are way lower than the published rates because the fares of the passengers makes additional revenue. With these contracts, the buses have guaranteed loading even in peak season and the ships will even wait for them if they are a little late. The driver/conductors need not even go to the windows to transact. The “Super Angels” of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation will then just go to them inside the car deck of the ship and if it is a company account then all they have to do is just sign and it will be settled company-to-company.

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Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation also gives the driver/conductors what is called in the trade as “rebates”. That consists of complimentary tickets that can then be sold to the passengers and the equivalent money will go to the driver/conductors as extra income for their kabuhayan (meals and many other things for their upkeep and pleasure). This practice is recognized and tolerated by the bus companies as incentives to their their driver/conductors but the general riding public does not know that (that, however, is open knowledge in the ports). So even without a contract the driver/conductors themselves will herd their buses to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation except for Philtranco driver/conductors who are locked in to Maharlika ships without the discount their counterparts in other companies enjoy. In this world, the greatest advertisement is actually cold cash.

And I give respect to Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. for developing this practice of rebates to the bus companies and drivers/conductors. With it, development of routes is easier because the bus company need not shoulder all the expenses of bringing the bus across the strait since by rules and previous decisions they cannot charge that to the passengers. Oh, well, only slyly in case, in such a way that passengers won’t notice. But how can the passengers there in Bicol notice when fares are discounted almost whole year round? Well, with this practice the ships of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation are almost always full of vehicles. This duo really knows their business.

The duo are also very good in locking in the trucks. The system works the same as in buses but the discounts are not that steep because there are no passengers as additional revenue. And in terms of priority in loading they come second to the buses because unlike the buses they don’t have that tight schedule to meet and there are no passengers that will complain when a ferry is missed. There are also company accounts where only the signature of the driver is needed (no payments are made) and it is settled company-to-company. There are discounts for the suki (regular customers) which can be enjoyed by the truck crew especially by the driver. As suki these trucks get priority boarding over other trucks and private vehicles.hj

This then brings us to the complaints of the driver-owners of private vehicles which only cross during vacations. When they arrive in the port they think the system is on a first-come, first-served basis and they grit their teeth and vent their frustration even over the media when they see buses and trucks that came later than them board first. Their charge is “favoritism” but they do not understand that like in many other things reservations trump their case and these suki or company accounts are just like reservations. Actually, dozens of kilometers away these priority boardings already confirm their coming arrival and in case of buses or panel trucks the reservations can be year-round and if it will not be availed they cancel the reservations over the cellphone so their space can be given to others. Reservations works in the airlines, the shipping industry, in theaters or concerts, in restaurants and in many other industries. It is otherwise called as “bookings”.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation are very good in cultivating the drivers. Aside from rebates, they can arrange a lot of personal services aboard the ships be it massage, manicure, services that are more personal, a good sleeping place and that also include free meals that are good. When I had access to their hospitality area inside Hansel Jobett I saw three viands for lunch including sugpo (tiger prawns) and those were free and the mess was airconditioned. That area was beneath the car deck on the engine level and I was surprised it existed. If Hansel Jobett has that then King Frederick and Nelvin Jules also have that since the three ships are related in design. It is not accessible to ordinary passengers but I was a VIP then (ehem! ehem!) and they gave me use of one the cabins. It was the equivalent of a first-class cabin of a liner although smaller.

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Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation are also very good in cultivating relationships with owners. Aside from hefty discounts and priority boardings with their trucks (and no hours lost waiting in ports means extra available trucks, satisfied customers and less labor cost) there are other benefits too like company-to-company singilan (reconciliation of accounts) which in effect means a loan. I heard settling takes months and that is extra working capital for forwardersand truckers while that might just be empty space for the ship otherwise. Even if the truck crew has no more money to board the ship they will not be denied boarding. Now that is one big utang na loob.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. had a long, beneficial and mutually supportive relationship with BALWHARTECO, the operator of the premier port in Allen, Northern Samar which is a private port. They grew together and had a relation like brothers. Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation brought in traffic to BALWHARTECO not only because they had the most number of ships but with the support of the duo to buses and trucks the traffic volume increased and BALWHARTECO earns with wharfage and other port fees.

With their cooperation together, the duo and BALWHARTECO were able to trump the other ports in Northern Samar that link to Matnog. First to be defeated was the official government port, the San Isidro Ferry Terminal. Though vehicles see San Isidro first it had an Achilles heel — it was by far the most distant port from Matnog at 15 nautical miles compared to the 11 nautical miles of BALWHARTECO and the 12 nautical miles of the Dapdap port of Philharbor which was the second to be defeated and not by distance alone since the distance difference is not significant.dba-nj-edsel

In port and ferry patronage, one that wins is the one with the most number of ships because that means there will be no long waits before departures. And it is reassuring to drivers if there are always ships in port and with multiple ones (which means a choice). That became the weakness of San Isidro port and Dapdap port even though they come into view earlier as the vehicles won’t come to them if it sees that there are no ships in port. The driver soon had the mentality to go straight to BALWHARTECO since there are always ships there.

With the acquisition of Bicolandia Shipping Lines plus other ship acquisitions, Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. became the dominant shipping company in Bicol engaged in RORO operations. They defeated the Archipelago Ferries+Philharbor Ferry combine which were more known as the Maharlika ships. That duo had no focus, were lousy in maintaining ships and were also lousy in competing, all the diseases prevalent in former crony companies. That combine supported another lousy sister company, the Philtranco Service Enterprises Inc. but their pairing actually doomed them both. Philtranco buses would wait in the port even though there are no Maharlika ships in port thus losing hours, And with a captive bus company, Archipelago Ferries+Philharbor Ferry did not learn how to play well the rebate-vehicle locking game (in fact they never seemed to learn it).

The stockholders of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation+Penafrancia Shipping Corporation might not really need to take profit, so to speak. They are very good in their other businesses and their owners are established businessmen with some dominant in their regional sphere. Some are even engaged in shipping too. In shipping, I glimpse the method they use in their other businesses especially the locking game.

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Soon, the duo’s owners engaged in horizontal expansion. They were able to establish a partnership with the Villono Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu. With the creation of that partnership, they withdrew patronage of the Mayon Docks in Tabaco City, Albay and brought their ships for drydocking and maintenance in the far-off Tayud. Maybe one of the benefits of this partnership is they then had a reputation of taking care well of of their old ships. Well, with a profitable operation and well-heeled owners that might not be a surprising thing.

The duo has also shown they can defend and hold turf and can also expand. The stronger Montenegro Lines (Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. of Batangas) came but they did not buckle. At the same time they were also able to expand like when they tried the Pasacao-Masbate route being promoted by MARINA (they soon withdraw from this route). The also tried the Bulan-Masbate route which made no sense for bus passengers and for the trucks as it is farther from Manila (they can’t operate in the Pilar-Masbate route because they have no basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and the Pilar port is shallow). However, they struck gold in the Masbate-Pio Duran, Albay route. With rebate support the buses were able to roll into Masbate even though the land kilometerage within Masbate island is short to be able to recoup the rolling cargo rate (this was the failure of the Maharlika ferries + PSEI attempt a decade before them). Recently they also went to Liloan-Lipata route.

In recent years, the duo tried another horizontal expansion, the building and operating of a port in Allen, Samar too where BALWHARTECO is also located.

This led to the split of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation+Penafrancia Shipping Corporation and BALWHARTECO. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation said they resented the coming of 168 Shipping in BALWHARTECO (or was it the entry of Montenegro Lines that broke the camel’s back actually?) which supposedly was against an agreement (sorry, I cannot verify this). Or maybe they also saw how profitable is a port operation and the formula they already saw in the operation of BALWHARTECO. And so they built their own port in Jubasanbut this was stopped by the Mayor of Allen who happened to be the owner of BALWHARTECO. Construction continued even though the gates were shuttered and the knowledgeable knew the Mayor will lose since a Mayor’s permit can be demanded thru a court mandamus (or even ask the Department of Interior and Local Government for his suspension). The Mayor actually has no legal leg to stand on and jurisprudence said they always lost. And so Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation was able to finish the port and it is now operating.

However, I have doubts if that is a good move in the long term. They no longer have the backing of BALWHARTECO and the Mayor of Allen town and it might just lead to a war between them. After all they both know the formula and bad blood exists now. Admittedly, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation might have the edge as they have the ships and can do transfer pricing, that is, charge low in the rolling cargo to attract the vehicles and they can “correct” in port charges. Both of them know how to make a port attractive – loading even if the truck has no budget (but here Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation can do it both ways not only in port charges but also in shipping charges), diesel fuel loan, other rebates, the presence of shops along with eateries, lodging and a blaring disco along with many personal services to the drivers.

The problem of the two is they are not competing in a vacuum. They actually have a threat in the Fastcats, the big Montenegro Lines and the new Cargo RORO LCTs. Montenegro Lines will always be around as it has a big fleet and a deep bucket and probably supported by a heavyweight (literally and figuratively) former powerful figure, a “patron saint”. Recently, it was able to get a franchise for the Masbate-Pio Duran route and that can cut into the income of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation. Montenegro Lines can also apply for the Tabaco-Virac route especially since Regina Shipping Lines abandoned this in favor of the Tabaco-San Andres route (hence, there is an apperance of a “monopoly”). After all this is the era of liberalization. And Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation can find itself in the shoes of Bicolandia Shipping Lines before, that is defending turf via the “legal” way. Actually they are already doing the denial game with their blocking of the entry of FastCats in Allen.

The FastCats could be the more serious threat in the long run as it has new ships, a new paradigm that could be dangerous if it is able to run many trips a day which they will certainly do. What they are showing is they will not play the old game of running just a few trips a day. It seems they will try to run to the ground the opposition because that is the only way they can win because they are carrying a lot of amortization weight.

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Actually it seems duo lacks the ships now especially since they have to respond to the moves of Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation with its FastCats which is a different animal than they competed with in the past. Montenegro Shipping Lines presence in Bicol is also increasing as Archipelago Ferries collaborated with them and recently they even were able to get a franchise in the Masbate-Pio Duran route. In Liloan-Lipata route they had to bring a better RORO to be able to compete with the speed and newness of FastCats. The will have to respond in Masbate-Pio Duran by maybe with also plying a route to Pilar port which is improved now. They will need three ships in Masbate, one in Liloan, two in Tabaco and that will leave them with just four ships in Samar and not all might be running because of drydock requirements and the sometimes trouble like what happened to the Nathan Matthew recently which is docked in San Isidro port for repairs. Remember one of the most important factor to attract drivers is the always-presence of ships waiting in the port. They might be stretched too thin now unless they acquire new ships (they have the financial capability for that).

Another new threat also and a possible paradigm change is the new Cargo RORO LCTs that are plying routes in Matnog-Allen and in Liloan-Lipata. NN+ATS (euphemistically called “2GO” but that is near the truth) operates them by chartering big China-made LCTs. Cargo RORO LCTs is the recent bane of short-distance ferry-ROROs and overnight ferry-ROROs because these can offer rates as much as half off the current rates because they have no investment in passenger comfort and service, they are fuel misers albeit slow and they have to discount to gain rolling cargo.

What I see is a lot of labu-labo (free-for-all) in Bicol in the coming years. Many will be bruised and I don’t know which will fall to the ground. Well, I just wish it will not turn out that Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation bit more than what it can chew.

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Photo Credits: Dominic San Juan, Edsel Benavides, Aris Refugio, Mike Baylon, PSSS

The Well-Travelled MV Asia Japan, the Third

The MV Asia Japan, the third to carry such name in the Trans-Asia Shipping Line, Incorporated (TASLI) fleet is the Asia Japan most would likely remember. But she was already the third to carry such name in the Trans-Asia fleet as two previous cruiser ships named Asia Japan came before her in the Trans-Asia fleet Shipping Line. The third Asia Japan I am describing here is a RORO (Roll-on, Roll-off) ship and not a cruiser ship like the first two to carry that name. Her company, the Trans-Asia Shipping Line, Incorporated is a regional shipping company based in Cebu that is sailing Visayas-Mindanao routes.

The first Asia Japan was the former Ishu Maru from Kyushu Yusen of Japan with the IMO Number 5164459. She was built in 1957 and she came to the Trans-Asia Shipping fleet in 1975. This ship was later sold to Roble Shipping Incorporated where she became the second Guada Cristy of that company. The second Asia Japan, meanwhile, was the former Nankai Maru from Nankai Kisen of Japan with the IMO Number 7130191. She was built in 1956 and she came to the Trans-Asia Shipping fleet in 1974 where she was first known as the Solar before she became the second Asia Japan (Trans-Asia Shipping Line Incorporated was first known as Solar Shipping Line Incorporated). This ship was later sold also to Roble Shipping Incorporated where she became the first Guada Cristy. She was wrecked in 1990, the reason why there became a second Guada Cristy.

The second Asia Japan was sold by Trans-Asia Shipping Line Incorporated in 1988 when the third Asia Japan was purchased by the company from Ise Bay Ferry or Ise-wan Ferry. This Japanese company sold this ship, their Atsumi Maru because their brand-new Atsumi Maru was already delivered to them. Incidentally, this successor Atsumi Maru also came to the Philippines in 2007 to the fleet of Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated (MSLI) where she is known as the Maria Oliva.

The earlier Atsumi Maru was built by Naikai Zosen Taguma Works in Taguma, Innoshima, Japan in 1973. She is steel-hulled ship with a raked stem and a transom stern, two masts and a single passenger deck. A RORO ship, she has a bow ramp and a stern ramp and a single car deck. She has an over-all length of 64.0 meters, a length between perpendiculars of 60.3 meters and a maximum breadth of 13.1 meters. Her original Gross Register Tons (GRT) was 990 and her Deadweight Tonnage (DWT)was 403 tons. She is equipped with 2 x 2,000hp Daihatsu engines which propelled her to 16 knots on two screws. In the Philippines, her probable sister ships are the late Starlite Voyager of Starlite Ferries Incorporated (though their bows are different) and the Reina Timotea of Marina Ferries, the legal-fiction sister company of Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated.

When Atsumi Maru arrived in the Philippines in 1988 to become the third Asia Japan, another deck was added to her to increase the passenger capacity. She was also converted into an overnight ferry with bunks. With that, her Gross Tonnage rose to 1,302 with a Net Tonnage of 359 and her Deadweight Tonnage also increased to 443 tons. Her new passenger capacity was 454 persons in a three-class configuration – Cabin, Tourist and open-air Economy. She had a good restaurant, a bar-lounge, a lobby and a front desk. This Asia Japan already had a Hotel Department aside from the Deck Department and Engine Department, one of the first regional ships to have such distinction. Maybe that has a connection to its first route Zamboanga which I will discuss later. For easier docking this ship is also already equipped with side thrusters at the bow. She also had a cargo ramp at the port side and two passenger ramps at the stern and another ramp at the port side.

Her first route was the Cebu-Dumaguete-Dipolog-Zamboanga route. This was still the time when big Cebu regional shipping companies Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, George & Peter Lines and the Zamboanga-based Aleson Shipping Lines were still giving much importance to the Cebu-Zamboanga connection via Dumaguete (this was later downgraded by the opening of the Dapitan-Dumaguete RORO connection). It was amazing then that a new ship like the third Asia Japan will be fielded to this route when Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was still using their older overnight ferry-cruisers in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route which was the premier Visayas-Mindanao route.

Later, the third Asia Japan was also fielded in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route when Trans-Asia Shipping Lines began selling their old overnight cruisers in the early 1990’s. But with the arrival of the new and bigger RORO series of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines – the Trans-Asia (1) in 1993, the Asia Philippines in 1994 and the Asia China in 1995, Asia Japan was relegated to the secondary routes of the company like Cebu-Iloilo. Very soon the Visayas-Mindanao overnight ferry wars which was started with the creation of the big Cebu Ferries Company started and Trans-Asia Shipping Lines had to reserve her best and biggest ferries to the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro premier route. This was also marked by the withdrawal of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines in the Cebu-Zamboanga route and just sticking to cargo there with the Asia Pacific. The coming of the more superior Lady Mary Joy (1) of Aleson Shipping Lines practically closed the door to them in Zamboanga (this Aleson ship is different from the current Lady Mary Joy 1 of the company). Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was immediately under siege by the much bigger Cebu Ferries Corporation as they bore the brunt of the offensive of that subsidiary of the giant William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) shipping line.

The third Asia Japan sailed many secondary routes for Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. Before the end of the old millennium the assignments of the fleet got quaky with the losses of the Asia South Korea (grounding and sinking) and Asia Thailand (fire) with no clear replacement. Not long after, this the RORO Asia Singapore, the Second, was also sold to F.J. Palacio Lines. Later, the third Asia Japan was assigned to the Cebu-Masbate route of the company. She was a big success there as that route of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was practically a monopoly. And Masbatenos were not disappointed at her appointments especially since she was a former Cebu-Zamboanga ferry, a route which takes about a day with its two stop-overs. In routes such as this, the passengers’ comfort and sustenance needs are greater than that of a simple overnight ferry.

Once, I booked a ticket from Cebu to Cagayan de Oro hoping to catch either the Trans-Asia (1) or Asia China. Lo and behold, when I reached the waterfront what I saw waiting for us was the Asia Japan. I actually grumbled and said we are entitled to a discount as our fare was supposedly on that superior-than-her sister ships. I can accept the third Asia Japan as a Cebu-Masbate ferry as there was none better than her in that route (her reliever Asia Brunei was just as good) but the Cebu-Cagayan route is littered with superior overnight ferries that was at or near the level of Manila liners like the Princess of the Ocean, the Our Lady of Good Voyage, the Our Lady of the Rule and the Dona Rita Sr.

I was disappointed. The aircon was not strong and the restaurant was no longer as good as before. Maybe her best Hotel Department crewmen were already assigned to the better overnight ferries of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. And then I was furious that when I woke up we were still just at the entrance of Macalajar Bay and still distant from Cagayan de Oro. Other passengers were already impatient and I even saw one flash the pumping arm sign to the bridge which is a universal sign of “Hurry up!”. Passengers in this route were used to daybreak or even dawn arrivals which were needed by passengers still travelling 300 land kilometers or over by buses or commuter vans like me.

Soon, some were groaning they were already hungry. I was, too. I know that by MARINA rules they should have fed us breakfast but there was no decent breakfast to speak of even if one was willing to pay. It was a personal disaster to me as I was a diabetic. We finally reached Cagayan de Oro port and to a man I know all were disappointed. They should never have substituted Asia Japan in that route because it will just be a disaster for the goodwill and reputation of the company like what happened. I asked of the speed and a crewman grimly admitted she can just do 10 knots then, best. Use that in a 134-nautical mile route with a departure of 8PM and no breakfast; it does not need coconuts to foresee the consequences. I thought they should just better stick Asia Japan to the 110-nautical mile Cebu-Masbate route where the expectations of the passengers is not so high. In an afterthought, yes, I also realized she has been sailing for nearly nearly twenty years already and it seems time has not been very kind to her engines.

Not very long after that Asia Japan was seen by members of the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) to be just laid up in the Ouano wharf in Mandaue, tied up. It was intriguing the members especially since the fleet of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was very thin for its routes. Already gone were the Asia Brunei, Asia Hongkong which were both sold and soon Asia Malaysia was gone, too (she capsized and sank off Iloilo). And there was the third Asia Japan just lying around there. That time, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines cannot even serve her Nasipit route and just a single ship from two was serving her Iloilo route.

Once, on a visit to Ouano wharf, we were able to ask the in-charge of the ship her state. He told us third Asia Japan was sold by Trans-Asia Shipping Line to Key West Shipping Line Corporation which were operators of tugboats and partner then in the West Ocean Lines & Transport Incorporated operating container ships. We saw some works being done and the in-charge told us the ship will be used for a Cebu-Zamboanga run. That was intriguing as she was a former Cebu-Zamboanga ship and neither Key West Shipping Line Corporation nor West Ocean Lines & Transport Incorporated have operated ferries before. I am not even sure if they were holders of a franchise (CPC) in that route but in case it will be a welcome development since there was just one ferry left in the Cebu-Zamboanga route, the Zamboanga Ferry of George & Peter Lines and she was already very slow then.

Soon the little works we observed in Ouano wharf stopped and the next thing we knew was she was already in Nagasaka Shipyard in the shipyard row of Cebu in Tayud by the Cansaga Bay and bridge. We thought then further works will done there especially since the in-charge in Ouano admitted to us that the third Asia Japan doesn’t have strong engines anymore. Then me and a fellow ship spotter were able to board the ship and meet her new officer-in-charge, Engr. Rey Bobiles, the naval architect of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, a Bicol shipping company. It was a surprise and a further intrigue!

Yes, the third Asia Japan was renamed into Strong Heart 1, a show she was really transferred to the Key West Shipping Line Corporation as all the names of the vessels of the company starts with “Strong” like Strong Will, Strong Devotion, Strong Desire, Strong Dignity, Strong Bliss, etc. No, she will no longer be sailing for Zamboanga as she has already been sold to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and will become a Bicol ferry. It turned out that Trans-Asia Shipping Line sold her to Key West Shipping Line Corporation to settle fuel debts dacion en pago. I suddenly realized the connection. Trans-Asia Shipping Line was also intending to sell Trans-Asia 3 because “she consumes too much fuel”. It seemed believable at first glance because she has 2 x 4,500 horsepower engines. Then an investigation with the proper authorities commenced and it turned out Trans-Asia Shipping Line was simply a victim of a fuel scam as in fuel pilferage, a scourge of our local transport fleet. It happens even in the tankers, in the fishing fleets, in land tankers and in trucks.

Strong Heart 1 stayed very long in Nagasaka Shipyard with few works being done. She simply became the office of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and clearing house for the new crew recruits of the company and dormitory at the same time. She can stay in the shipyard long because Sta. Clara Shipping Company and her sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation are stockholders in Nagasaka Shipyard. Actually, vessels of the companies were withdrawn from the servicing of Mayon Docks Incorporated in Tabaco City in Albay and transferred to the care of Nagasaka Shipyard. Bicol ships also owned by the related stockholders of the two companies were also being transferred to the care of Nagasaka Shipyard. Nagasaka Shipyard was the former Villono Shipyard before the change in the ownership structure (Engr. David Villono, the founder is still the head of this shipyard).

While in the shipyard engine parts were ordered fabricated in Japan. When that arrived in 2014, serious restoration work was done on Strong Heart 1 which was already renamed to Nathan Matthew. Since she has lain untended in sea water for several years she was already rusty and when walking around one has to be careful not to fall in the weak deck plates and stairs. It was even raining at times inside some portions of her already. So, she was stripped to metal by sandblasting, her weak hull and deck plates were replaced and her engines were repaired.

A portion of her superstructure in the aft of the second deck was removed too since it was thought her space for passengers as a short-distance ferry will be enough since she will simply be fitted with sitting accommodations. With this, her gross tonnage was reduced to 1,030 nominal tons and her net tonnage was also reduced to 357 nominal tons. Her passenger capacity increased to about 800, however. So the rumor and the wish that she will still be an overnight ferry in the Liloan-Lipata route never materialized. Drivers and passengers in that route wished there will be a replacement of the Ocean King I in that route since when they arrive from Manila or Luzon they are already badly in need of an accommodation where they can lie down and sleep.

Upon finishing works in Nagasaka, the Nathan Matthew was first fielded in the Masbate-Pio Duran, Albay route. I don’t know if they want to tickle the Masbatenos but for sure many there will be many there who will recognize her even if she was already converted to a short-distance ferry, even though the bow ramp has changed and even though they chopped off part of the second passenger deck and even though the name has changed. Even with alterations, I noticed passengers really familiar with a ship still recognize them even after a long absence. Nathan Matthew won’t be an exemption.

She did not stay long there in that route, however. In not a long time she was transferred to the new Liloan, Southern Leyte to Lipata, Surigao route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. The company has long been a holder of a franchise (formally Certificate of Public Convenience) in that route but it is only now that they had a ship that can serve there. Right now, Nathan Matthew is the biggest ship in that route especially since the Archipelago Ferries Philippines Corporation ships (the Maharlika Dos, Maharlika Cuatro and Maharlika Cinco) are already gone in that route.

There, Nathan Matthew is directly competing with the newly-fielded FastCats of Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the obsolescent Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping and the Cargo RORO LCTs chartered by NN+ATS which is aimed against the truck congestion in that route (also for really heavy load like earth movers and trailers capable of carrying that). However, that route is slowly being squeezed by the shorter Benit, San Ricardo to Lipata route held by Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated (MSLI). Now it seems a new port will be built in San Ricardo, S. Leyte and if that will materialize that might be the end of the Liloan-Lipata route.

In won’t mean the end of Nathan Matthew, however, as she might simply be transferred to the new San Ricardo route. Otherwise, she can also be fielded in the other routes of owner Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (making her more well-travelled). It won’t be much of a burden for them because her owners are known also for having deep pockets, relative by Bicol standards. They are even operating their own port now in Allen, Northern Samar.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is known for taking care well of old ships. They are actually allergic to breakers, to put it in another way. And with the support of Nagasaka Shipyard, this refurbished ship looks like it still has a long way to go. With the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation officers and crew steeped and trained in the dangerous swells of San Bernardino Strait I don’t see her suffering the fate of the capsized and sank Maharlika Dos in Surigao Strait, knock on wood.

Long live then this well-travelled ship!