Philtranco Always Tried Horizontal Integration

Horizontal integration is the setting up or the acquisition of a company at the same level of the value chain and that is meant to help the company compete. It can be a competitive strategy where economies of scale, more efficiency and increase of market power are the objectives. Companies engage in horizontal integration to benefit from possible synergies. But sometimes the resolution of a problem or a bottleneck prods a company into horizontal integration.

Philtranco Service Enterprises, Inc. (PSEI), the leading bus company in the Philippines then tried this strategy over a generation ago. From running a big fleet of buses from Manila to the southern part of the Philippines up to Davao City, they established their own RORO companies in the San Bernardino Strait crossing that linked Sorsogon and Samar. However, the results were certainly very mixed, to say the least, and controversial.

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The Cardinal Ferry 1. Research by Gorio Belen of PSSS in the National Library.

Since 1979, Philtranco buses (they were still known as Pantranco South then) have been rolling across already to Eastern Visayas via the San Bernardino Strait using the newly-fielded RORO Cardinal Ferry 1 of Cardinal Shipping. Newport Shipping which had ferries and cargo ships from Manila to Samar then followed with their Northern Star and Laoang Bay.

This reaction of Newport Shipping was very understandable as Newport Shipping was not really doing well with their Manila to Samar route and maybe they felt they have to defend their home turf as the owner of Newport Shipping is from Laoang, Northern Samar. They might have also felt that this new intermodal route might kill them in the long term and so they have to join the fun.

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MV Northern Samar. Formerly the MV Northern Star before she was refitted. Photo by Lindsay Bridge of PSSS.

Before the ROROs arrived it was the motor boats of Bicolandia Shipping Lines (this company has legal-fiction companies like E. Tabinas) which dominated the route across San Bernardino Strait. But with the buses now rolling the passengers no longer have to cut their bus trip to Matnog and they do not take a local bus to Allen, Northern Samar to take the lancha (motor boat). Convenience is what the intermodal system offered. Cargo of the passengers that was once a hassle became less with the bus for it afforded less handling and haggling.

Immediately, there was a surplus of bottoms in San Bernardino Strait as the government-owned Maharlika II (later replaced by Maharlika I whom it replaced earlier) was also plying the official Matnog to San Isidro, N. Samar route. Moreover, the passengers to Eastern Visayas did not immediately shift to the buses especially the passengers to Leyte. They were still content with the liners of Sulpicio Lines and William Lines which had calls in Calbayog, Catbalogan, Tacloban and other ports in Leyte and Southern Leyte. In terms of comfort the bus is actually inferior to the liners which has its own toilets and baths, are equipped with bunks with mattresses and even linen (called “beddings”) plus the meals are free and the rice servings are generous. However, they only call in ports unlike buses which roll through the various towns.

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The Maharlika I. Photo from Edison Sy of PSSS.

In the aftermath of that surplus of bottoms, Cardinal Shipping and Newport Shipping teetered especially when Eugenia Tabinas got into the RORO act starting when she was able to acquire the Northern Star in 1981 which she then renamed into the Northern Samar. Eugenia Tabinas was in a strong position as she dominated the intra-Bicol routes with her motor boats and so she can compete in one of her routes at just break-even.

However, with many buses crossing San Bernardino Strait, Philtranco thought they could save money if they operated their own ROROs where they will always have priority. And so they also got caught in the RORO act (they were still strong then and they have just re-fleeted into Hino) and they thereby acquired the Laoang Bay of Newport Shipping which was renamed into the Black Double. In 1984, this became the Philtranco Ferry 1 of Philtranco Services.

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The Philtranco Ferry I. Research of Gorio Belen of PSSS in the National Library.

It is here that things began to get interesting and lively. Eugenia Tabinas or Bicolandia Shipping smelled that Philtranco was operating without a Certificate of Public Conveyance (CPC) and complained to MARINA, the Maritime Industry Authority which is the country’s maritime regulatory agency and which has quasi-judicial powers. Philtranco countered that since they were only loading their own buses then there is no need for them to get a CPC. Now, if MARINA agrees with that then Philtranco will be the only sea carrier without a CPC and that has great implications.

Along the way, Black Double got unreliable as she was built in 1962 and diesel engines were not yet as reliable (with changes in design and technology that changed in the mid-1960s especially when Daihatsu marine engines became dominant). She was sold to Badjao Navigation and she became the Badjao and she plied a route from Cebu island to Leyte.

While the case was pending (as it reached the higher courts as MARINA quasi-judicial decisions can be appealed in the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court), Philtranco acquired the salvaged Mindoro Express from Prince Valiant Navigation which then became the Christ The Saviour and Christ The King. The RORO became the Luzvimin Primo because she was now under the Luzvimin Ferry Services, the new ferry company of Philtranco.

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The Mindoro Express just before she became the Christ The King and Luzvimin Primo . Photo by Edison Sy of PSSS.

In due time (which means a long time), the Supreme Court sustained the ruling of MARINA that a shipping company cannot carry passengers without a CPC and the ferry service of Philtranco stopped. By that time Philtranco was already toppling and it was fast losing its Hino buses.

Philtranco then fell into the hands of transportation mogul Pepito Alvarez who then equipped Philtranco with his new MAN and Nissan buses. Soon, he was able to reach a deal with the administration of President Fidel V. Ramos to operate the already-weak Maharlika ferries which in that time consisted only of Maharlika I and Maharlika II (this one was not in San Bernardino Strait but in Surigao Strait).

After settling in, Pepito Alvarez added the Maharlika Tres, Maharlika Cuatro and Lakbayan Uno (this was later sold to Millennium Shipping). And then the Luzvimin Primo became the Maharlika Cinco. Later, the Maharlika Seiz and Maharlika Siete were also also added to be followed by the Grand Star RORO 1 and Grand Star RORO 3 which came from Phil-Nippon Kyoei. This time Philtranco was already careful about the CPC. In these moves, Pepito Alvarez worked through his protégé Cristopher Pastrana.

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Maharlika Cinco and Maharlika Seiz. Photo from the PPA.

The horizontal integration of Philtranco was not necessarily beneficial for the passengers unless maybe in its early years when the dominant Bicolandia Shipping Lines engaged in what is locally-known as “alas-puno” system of departures when a ferry will only leave if it was already full of rolling cargo (and that was the cause of their downfall later). With that system, the buses and its passengers lose time and it could be in the hours.

But when ROROs bloomed in San Bernardino Strait, horizontal integration became a negative because Philtranco buses have to wait for the ferries (Maharlika ferries were not so reliable and it tried many routes in the country including in Catanduanes, Masbate, Marinduque, Batangas and Panay and so its presence in San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait was actually diluted and trips were few) as Philtranco buses have no freedom to sail in competing ferries.

I was once a passenger aboard a Philtranco bus from Davao. Our driver was driving fast so we can board the morning RORO of Maharlika in their Dapdap port (owned by sister company Philharbor). We arrived at 8:30am only to see the ferry has just left. There was only one Maharlika RORO then there and we waited for its return. Finally, we left Dapdap port at 1:30pm and everybody was so pissed up including the drivers as we saw several ferries leaving the competing BALWHARTECO port ahead of us. If our Philtranco bus had freedom, we would have been aboard the first of those that left BALWHARTECO port and saved several hours of waiting time.

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Grand Star RORO I and Maharlika Tres in Dapdap port. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

The Philtranco driver/conductors also didn’t like that they have no freedom to load the buses in competing ROROs. The reason is they can’t avail of the “rebates” offered by the competing shipping companies. This comes in the form of free ferry tickets that can be sold by the driver/conductors to their passengers. Even if only half the tickets are free that can come up to an average of P1,500 for the driver/conductors in additional income.

When Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the name of the shipping company established by Pepito Alvarez) weakened and they just had a limited number of ROROs running, Philtranco finally allowed its buses to ride the competing ferries as passengers began to shun them. However, when the FastCat ROROs came for Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the Philtranco buses were no longer allowed that again. There was also the experiment where the Philtranco buses were no longer boarded aboard the FastCat ROROs and only the passengers and their cargo were loaded. In that system, a Philtranco bus will be waiting at the opposite port.

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Philtranco buses that disembarked from a FastCat. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

Now, Philtranco’s fleet is whittled and it is already far from its number in the 1980s after they re-fleeted from Leyland to Hino. And the tables turned already. It is so-many FastCats that needs them now and not the other way around.

Now, did you know that founder A.L. Ammen tried horizontal integration too?

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A Report on the Recent Situation of Bicol Passenger Shipping

When I talk of Bicol passenger shipping that includes those that have routes to Samar for in the main Bicol ships do those route with the notable exception of Montenegro Shipping Lines which are dayo (foreigner) to Bicol but have a base in Masbate port. In the main, I don’t refer to the Cebu-Masbate steel-hulled ferries because those routes are just one of the operations of Cebu shipping companies with the notable exception too of Montenegro Lines which has a national operation of short-distance ferry-ROROs.

The biggest shipping companies in Bicol are the sister companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which are legal-fiction companies of each other. They have combined operations, single crewing and maintenance and their ships rotate within their common routes. The only difference is the ships bought out from the defunct Bicolandia Shipping are all in Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (PSC) and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) is what made Bicolandia Shipping cry, “Uncle!” (which means give up na).

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The twin shipping companies have a total of 10 ROPAX ships plus a Cargo RORO LCT which is a recent acquisition to match that of NN+ATS (more on this later). Their best ship, the beautiful Jack Daniel (no, there isn’t free tasting of the famous drink) was acquired not so long ago and it is almost a fixture in the Masbate-Pio Duran route where her beautiful and luxurious lounge can be fully used and appreciated by the passengers since it is a three-and-a-half-hour route.

SCSC and PSC ply all the Bicol routes except for some parallel routes like the Tabaco-San Andres and Masbate-Pilar routes (more on this later). Which means they ply the Tabaco-Virac, Matnog-Allen (now through their own Jubasan port) and Masbate-Pio Duran routes. They don’t ply the Masbate-Pilar route as their ships are too big for the shallow Pilar port which lies in an estuary. In Catanduanes, it seems they now have a modus vivendi with Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) which now is doing the Tabaco-San Andres route exclusively through Codon port (but that route is not necessarily weaker than the Tabaco-Virac route as buses and trucks going to northern Catanduanes prefer that route because the remaining distance is shorter). Additionally, SCSC and PSC also operate the Liloan-Lipata route (however, after the Surigao quake RORO operations were transferred from Lipata Ferry Terminal to the Verano port of Surigao).

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The new development in Catanduanes shipping is the arrival of a new player, Cardinal Shipping which fielded the High Speed Craft (HSC) Silangan Express 1 which has good schedules and a very interesting fare which is even less than one might expect for a Tourist accommodation in a ROPAX (P320 fare in airconditioned accommodation versus the P230 Economy fare of a ROPAX ship). That is very cheap compared to the fastcrafts of Montenegro Lines in Masbate that charges double of the Economy fare of the ROPAX. The route of Cardinal Shipping is also Tabaco-Codon like that of Regina Shipping Lines or RSL.

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Another ferry was also added to the fleet of Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) when they acquired the former Maharlika Cuatro from Gabisan Shipping which purchased it from Archipelago Ferries. It was in Mayon Docks of Tabaco City last January but as of this writing she is already running as the Regina Calixta VI. RSL now also has an operation in the Batangas-Abra de Ilog route through Aqua Real Shipping and Calixta-III.

Tabaco port is also building an extension again and this is probably the third already. I am thinking, what for? In all my visits there I never saw Tabaco port full and I don’t think port visit is increasing there. There is also not that need for a big back-up area. There are no container vans unloaded there and ships that visit are generally small. To compare now, Masbate port is even busier than Tabaco port and Legazpi port is even their rival in port calls (as they both serve the province of Albay).

I thought before that the refurbishment of Legazpi port was not needed but it seems I was mistaken. There are more ships docking there now and those are bigger than the ones which dock in Tabaco port. For one, when Cebu freighters visit Albay, they use Legazpi port and not Tabaco port because it is nearer from Cebu. And most freighters that use Tabaco are just Bicol ships which are smaller than Cebu ships. I was even surprised by the big, Malaysian coal barge I saw in Legazpi port.

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Like before there are no ROPAXes in Legazpi (as I argued before a population of 100,000 in an island is needed to keep a RORO afloat if there is no strong tourism and Rapu-rapu island does not meet that criteria). Instead it has lots of big passenger motor bancas to Rapu-rapu and Batan islands plus Cagraray island too. The new passenger terminal building of Legazpi looks beautiful and modern. Like in Tabaco, the port and port terminal building (PTB) is open to the public and there is no cloud of suspicion that hovers unlike in ISPS ports. It was just like in the past when ports are just like part of public domain. That openness was the thing changed by this damned ISPS.

With the completion of the bridge from Albay mainland to Cagraray island through the Sula Channel, the old small Michael Ellis LCT to Misibis is now gone. A connecting bridge to an island is always better than a connection by an LCT. Maybe with that Cagraray island will develop faster.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation now have their new Jubasan port completed in Allen, Samar and so they already withdrew from using the BALWHARTECO port, their old port of entry to Samar, to the great disappointment and anger of the owner which nearly resulted into a court battle. I wonder if the judge-son-in-law of the owner was able to make clear to the patriarch that if it is all straight law then they would lose eventually and they might even be vulnerable to counter-suits they being the LGU holders (like a graft counter-charge).

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With the withdrawal of SCSC and PSC from their port, BALWHARTECO invited Montenegro Lines to just use their port exclusively. Before, Montenegro Lines used both BALWHARTECO and the Dapdap port of Philharbor, the sister company of Archipelago Ferries which once operated the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries. With the withdrawal of Montenegro Lines from Dapdap port now that port no longer has ferry operations. What is left there are the passenger motor bancas to the island off it which is Dalupiri island.

Before this, Philharbor invited Montenegro Lines to use Dapdap port since Archipelago have sold already their Maharlika ships and was already in the process of disposing their Grand Star RORO ships. If there is no other ferry company that will use the port it will fall vacant since the route allowed by MARINA to the new FastCats of Archipelago Ferries was the Matnog-San Isidro route. Before their withdrawal only Montenegro ferries were still using Dapdap port.

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It seems BALWHARTECO made a good offer to Montenegro Lines. They are known to be flexible and accommodating as their record of the past decades will show. Meanwhile, the Alvarez group which controls Archipelago Ferries, Philharbor and Philtranco is not known for that. They are instead known for quick retreats when subjected to the pressure of competition.

So I was not surprised by the result. Here is the queer situation of a port owner and operator with no ships of their sister companies docking because it is using a different port and a route that is significantly longer (which is the Matnog-San Isidro route). As a change, instead of being a ‘port to nowhere’ the San Isidro Ferry Terminal is now active again (she was active before Montenegro Lines left her for Dapdap and BALWHARTECO ports).

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It seems Montenegro Lines was the winner of the BALWHARTECO-Sta. Clara turmoil. Previously they were using four ferries in the Matnog-Allen route, two in Dapdap and two in BALWHARTECO. Recently they are now just using three ferries. It seems that was enough to have a ferry always on standby in the port which has more traffic (in the day that will be Allen and in the night that will be Matnog).

Another winner in the route is the NN+ATS outfit which is now openly admitted as an operation of 2GO. They are using chartered Cargo RORO LCTs from Primary Trident Solutions, owner of the Poseidon LCTs and now they even fielded a ROPAX LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26. They are operating that LCT under the banner of SulitFerry and the acronym is also “SF”, a reminder of their SuperFerry past before those liners were promoted into saints.

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With the Cargo RORO LCTs, the queue endured by the non-regular trucks in the Matnog-Allen route has come to an end as they are the priority of the Cargo RORO LCTs. These ships does not take in buses with its passengers and so no passenger accommodations are needed. The truck crews are just expected to stay with their vehicles for the duration of the voyage. MARINA is actually too suspicious of Cargo RORO LCTs having areas that can take in passengers on the sly.

The arrival of the Cargo RORO LCTs has affected the dynamics in the Matnog-Allen route. It has definitely taken traffic from the ROPAXes and the weight is significant because the non-regular trucks pay the highest rates. Actually, the rates paid by the regular trucks is heavily discounted and it is not always paid in cash (which means credit).

Another thing, from being second-class citizens the non-regular truck is now king but their loyalty now is on NN+ATS. What a turn-around too. From being largely ignorant of Matnog-Allen route because they were too confident of their CHA-ROs (Chassis-RORO) aboard their container ships and liners, now 2GO is already a player in intermodal route which helped kill their liners.

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It is also good that they use chartered LCTs whose crew is from Primary Trident Solutions. These crews are not graduates of the ‘shooing away’ seminars of 2GO, they have no knowledge of ISPS (and probably they don’t care too) and so like in the past they are very friendly to the passengers which they do not think or treat like potential “terrorists” like what is taught in 2GO seminars.

But even with NN+ATS and SulitFerry around and the concentration of Montenegro operations there, BALWHARTECO port is not too busy like in the past when to think 168 Shipping is still there with its three Star Ferry ships. Really, the weight SCSC and PSC is great especially since they have a lot of trucks and buses under contract.

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The PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) was impressed by the new Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. It was not small and unlike most private ports that will start with portions being unpaved in Jubasan it is a completely paved port. As such it is cleaner having no mud and people and patrons would not find it hard moving around (now one would wonder why after all these decades BALWHARTECO port is still mainly unpaved). They also maintained the slope of the land and so rain water immediately drains into the sea instead of forming puddles. There are a lot of eateries inside and it is a step up compared to what can be found in BALWHARTECO port including the presence of chairs and tables outside the eateries which are good for lounging around and sundowning.

Jubasan port is more orderly and it looks more modern. Maybe with the shipping company being the operator it should end up that way as they have full control. By the way, Jubasan port will also have a lodge like in BALWHARTECO port. The structure is already there, that is the area above the eateries but it is not yet operating when PSSS visited the place. Now I don’t know if they will also have a disco like in BALWHARTECO port. Jubasan port also does not have the so-many hawkers of BALWHARTECO port.

Matnog meanwhile has minimal changes. I thought when they twice reclaimed new land the docking space will improve. It did not. There are two new RORO ramps on the left of the finger port (as viewed from the sea) but when I passed through it twice no ship was using it. Actually the docking space of Matnog port did not increase and on high tide a ship will still try to dock askew in the wharf for lack of docking space. During the late afternoon and evening peak hours not all the ships can dock and it has to undock after disgorging their rolling cargo and anchor offshore.

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I still cannot fathom how the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) inputs ship calls in their planning that they cannot see their docking area is not enough for the number of ships calling. They have two new RORO ramps but they bulldozed rocks beneath it. And so maybe the ships fear damage if they use those. Why can’t they just use the causeway-type of wharf like what is used in BALWHARTECO and Dapdap ports which can dock more ships for their given length of wharf space? The only reason I can see why PPA is too inept in port design is because they really can’t attract qualified people. And to compensate for this lack, their annual reports will be full of praises for themselves and their “achievements”. And now their top honcho says the Makati Car Club will test the RORO system. Now what does Porsche and Ferrari owners know about port design and the RORO system if one is not Enrique Razon? It was not designed for their kind of cars and heels.

Masbate port is actually more impressive than Legazpi or Tabaco in terms of activity. Unlike the two ports which looks semi-fringe in location (as in facing the ocean already), Masbate port is in the center of a nexus and connecting many islands. There are simply more ships there and more types from overnight ferries to short-distance ferry-roros to fastcrafts to motor bancas plus the usual freighters. The new port terminal building is now operating and so there is more try of control now to ensure everybody uses it (this is what I call as “cattle herding”). And I don’t like that system treating passengers not like people but like commodities.

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Actually, they can simply sell a ticket to anyone who wants to buy, passenger or not, like in Zamboanga port. With so many buses boarding their port terminal building is not sufficient (now tell me when did PPA learned how to input numbers). If the old system where buses simply park somewhere in the port and soon board afterwards was enough why try to force down the passengers down the bus so they will pass through the passenger terminal building when it does not have enough capacity anyway even in airconditioning? If terminal fee is all they want then they can just put in a table by the ship ramp. An explanation: bus passengers here already have their ferry tickets issued by the bus conductor so actually they do not need to queue as the buses offer free ferry tickets to their passengers. If the buses can be efficient why can’t the PPA? The reason is simple – they are a government entity.

What I noticed is it seems more passenger motor bancas are now using the Masbate municipal port cum fish landing area. Actually it has the advantage that it is just near the integrated bus, jeep and van terminal of Masbate City. The passenger motor bancas for Burias can also be found here. If I may have a suggestion, it is better if the passenger motor bancas just dock by the integrated terminal. Nothing beats that. If only they will see what is logical (but they might lose the votes of the cargadores and the tricycle drivers).

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The Masbate-Pio Duran route is now stronger compared to the Masbate-Pilar route in terms of RORO operation. It is actually the shorter route to Manila and it can accommodate bigger ships whereas Pilar can only accommodate basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. Medallion Transport has withdrawn from this route as a fall-out of the sinking of their Lady of Carmel. SCSC and PSC was the big winner in this and they now have made permanent two of their biggest ships in this route which have length of over 60 meters versus the 30 meters plus of the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs of Pilar.

In the Masbate-Pilar route, Denica Lines now has two ROROs that are running simultaneously and they were able to create a late departure from Bicol (or is it an early one?) when they created an early evening Pilar-Masbate schedule. Denica Lines also have two fastcrafts for refitting now that is moored in Pilar port. Obviously, they want to get a slice of the pie of the MSLI fastcraft business. If they price it like the Silangan Express to Catanduanes then MSLI will be forced to cut their high fares.

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In Pilar, I noticed they now have a Pilar-Mandaon passenger motor banca running. Plus they have pre-dawn departures now from Pilar for three destinations – Masbate City, Aroroy and Mandaon (Mandaon is a gateway to Romblon). They were able to expand Pilar port but its operation is just still like a municipal port as there is no good port lighting (are their charges for the ROROs and passengers not enough?). By the way, the ROROs from Pilar start earlier now. Good for those with still long land travel still remaining in Masbate island.

As before there are a lot of passenger motor bancas in Masbate port going to Pilar, Ticao island, the west bank of Masbate Bay. But maybe the Baleno bancas are gone because there is a van going there now up to Aroroy. The passenger motor bancas are still fighting even though it is already the era of the ROROs and the buses and the trucks aboard them. With no porterage and running at hours when there is no RORO they are still surviving. Well, the buses dictate the schedules of the ROROs and so I can’t see them running 24 hours as the buses have only certain hours of departures from Masbate and Manila.

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Some things of note. One, the Super Shuttle Ferry 19 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation has been sold and Olmillo Shipping has taken over the Bogo-Cawayan route. A new development too in this area was the fielding of Island Shipping of a ROPAX LCT in the Hagnaya-Cawayan route. The MSLI ferry is still running the Bogo-Cataingan route and ditto for Lapu-lapu Shipping that runs the Cataingan-Cebu route. In the future, however, the Bogo and Hagnaya ferries will most likely transfer to the new Maya RORO port because it is simply nearer to Masbate. Meanwhile, the big passenger- cargo motor bancas running between Masbate and northern Cebu are still running and their business not threatened after the initial cut made by the arrival of the ROROs.

Recently, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines don’t have a ship anymore to Masbate from Cebu, a victim of their lack of ferries. Cokaliong Shipping Lines has not fully filled up the slack and it has only a once a week Cebu-Masbate sked but they are always fielding a new good overnight ferry of theirs in the route. Meanwhile, for a year now Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) doesn’t have an operation anymore to Masbate since their SuperShuttle RORO 3 had engine problems. It has been over a year since 2GO withdrew their liner that passes through Masbate on the way to Ormoc and Cebu. Can’t really beat the intermodal buses and trucks now and as the saying goes if one can’t beat then join them and so they already had that NN+ATS in the Matnog-Allen route.

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Burias motor banca arriving in Pasacao

In other Bicol routes, passenger motor bancas still connect Burias island to Pasacao and Pio Duran while Ticao island has passenger motor bancas sailing to Bulan and Masbate ports. Masbate is also connected by passenger motor bancas from Cataingan to Calbayog in Samar and to Roxas City in Panay from Balud and Milagros and to Romblon from Mandaon. Caramoan through Guijalo port also has passenger motor banca to San Andres in Catanduanes through the Codon port. San Miguel island is connected by passenger motor bancas to Tabaco port.

And that above is what comprises Bicol shipping all in all. Not tackled here are the minor routes served by small passenger bancas that go to small islands that does not have a municipality and to coastal barrios which has no roads.

[Written based on January 2017 data.]

The Developments in the San Bernardino Strait Routes When the PSSS Visited in December of 2016

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Photo of Jubasan port by James Gabriel Verallo

I was able to visit the area twice, actually, the first one with the official PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) tour-meet and the second one in my private tour with Joe Cardenas, the PSSS member from Catarman (so he was a native of the area). I stayed longer the second time because I wanted to do some interviews in the ports of Allen and in the ships there (which I was able to do).

My first visit to the San Bernardino Strait area happened with the big group of the PSSS (the Philippine Ship Spotters Society). Joe Cardenas provided the car, a very good one and James Verallo provided the gas money. We were eight in the group including an American guest of Chimmy Ramos. He was Tim Alentiev, a retired B747 pilot from Seattle. Others in the group were Raymond Lapus from Los Banos, Nowell Alcancia from Manila. Mark Ocul from Ozamis and yours truly.

On the first day on the way to Allen, the first port of Northern Samar we visited was the San Isidro Ferry Terminal. It was already getting late in the afternoon when we reached the port as we came all the way from Tacloban and have visited already the ports of Catbalogan, Calbayog and Manguino-o. We were not able to start early because me and Mark’s ship from Cebu, the Oroquieta Stars of Roble Shipping departed four hours late because of the company’s Christmas party.

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The FastCat M9

Though late, it was just perfect as the FastCat M9 of Archipelago Ferries has just docked and was beginning to disembark passengers and vehicles. This catamaran RORO is the only regular user of the government-owned port and without it it would have been an empty visit save for the lone regular beer carrier which happened to be also docked and unloading that day. For some in the group it was a first experience to see short-distance ferry-ROROs in action.

We did not stay long and we hied off fast to the next port which was the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping. This port is a new development of the company and was built against the opposition of the Mayor then of Allen, Northern Samar which happened to be the owner of BALWHARTECO, the old dominant port in the area. It is a modern port, very clean and orderly, spacious and with lots of eateries that is more decent than the usual carinderia. There is not that mell of vendors and the hubbub one usually associates with ports that are not ISPS (International System of Port Security).

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From Jubasan, we passed by the Dapdap port of Philharbor. We did not enter the port any more and just viewed it from outside as we knew there were no more operations there as related company Archipelago Ferries was using San Isidro Ferry Terminal instead of their own port and the Montenegro Lines vessels transferred to BALWHARTECO when Sta. Clara Shipping and sister company Penafrancia Shipping left it for their own port.

We next visited BALWHARTECO port when dusk was setting in. We did not tour the port any longer as we decided it will be more worthwhile the next day when there is light. In the original plan, we should have stayed for the night in the lodge of BALWHARTECO (and do some night shipspotting for those still interested) but Chimmy suggested that it might be better to stay in Catarman where there might be better accommodations and food. The group agreed as anyway Joe and Nowell are headed for Catarman as the latter has an early morning flight back to Manila.

The bonus of the Catarman sleep-over was we were able to see Catarman, the town, and see off Nowell to the airport. Maybe except for me and Joe, nobody in the group has been to Catarman before and visiting it was an added treat. On the way back there a bonus shipspotting too because we made short tours of Caraingan and Lavezares ports. The first is the main inter-island port of Northern Samar and the second is the gateway to the destination being slowly discovered which is Biri, an archipelago offshore Northern Samar.

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Star Ferry II

Because of these extra tours and the need to secure first in Catarman a good bus ride for the members heading back to Manila, we were not able to cross early to Matnog. Even our tour of BALWHARTECO was peremptory and it was mainly just part of the effort to cross to Matnog. Still, it was enough as a ferry not yet leaving is a very good vantage point for shipspotting and the Reina Olimpia of Montenegro Lines proved to be that. The encounters with other ships in San Bernardino Strait added to the shipspotting prize.

We were not able to cross ahead of the bus and so the Manila-bound members have to board the bus immediately in Matnog. That in itself already shortened the Luzon part of the tour. When the bus rolled off, a member shouted to me (seems it was James) that the ramp of the Don Benito Ambrosio II of Penafrancia Shipping was already being raised. I looked at the bridge and I saw Capt. Sacayan, a friend of PSSS and I don’t know what reflex pushed me that I blurted out, “Capt, pasakay” and Capt. Sacayan immediately ordered the lowering of the ramp to the surprise of his deck hands. The Sta. Clara “Angels” (the three beautiful ladies in charge of arranging the passages of company-account trucks and buses) asked if we have a ticket and I pointed to Capt. Sacayan and from lip reading I think Capt. Sacayan said, “Oo, sa akin.”

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The Don Benito Ambrosio II by James Gabriel Verallo

I told my remaining tour mates not to wait for the ramp to land as I don’t think it would lest the ship incur the penalty of another docking and so we hopped on the ramp that was still a foot above the wharf. And from there we went straight to the bridge where Capt. Sacayan warmly welcomed us and turned on the airconditioners to full. We were sailing “Bridge Class” like in the Reina Olimpia on the crossing to Matnog. But the letdown was Mark failed to taste the “Bicol Express”. However, the free ride on the bridge with its unmatched viewpoint more than made up for that.

We disembarked in the new Jubasan port where we took our dinner and whiled some time trying to soak the atmosphere of the port. Funny, but our car was parked in BALWHARTECO, our point of departure earlier where our group had an incident with the LGU collectors of “illegal exactions” as we call it in PSSS for it is actually against Supreme Court decisions and DILG memorandum circulars. I wondered if Joe was worrying then for his car.

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The Nathan Matthew in Jubasan port (by James Gabriel Verallo)

After getting the car in BALWHARTECO we tracked back to Tacloban. It was uneventful as it was already night and it was just me and Joe keeping on the conversation.

I visited again the San Bernardino Strait area after the trip to Surigao del Sur where I accompanied Joe. This time my focus was BALWHARTECO and it is there where me and Joe separated, he headed back to Catarman and me on the way to Bicol but with an Allen stop-over. Night has set in when we parted ways and I stayed in the lodge of BALWHARTECO as I planned to do interviews the next day.

If there was still sunlight on our first visit to Allen, my second one was all rain and it was heavy with winds and so the swells were up, of course. But as Joe noted it was just the usual amihan (northeast monsoon) weather (with regards to this kind of weather, Joe and me are pretty much in agreement and so with typhoons). Good the Coast Guard in the area were not as praning (kneejerkish) as their counterparts in Cebu so they were not as trigger-happy in voyage suspensions. And to think the ferries that time in BALWHARTECO were barely able to hold position while docked even while ropes were already doubled. Some even anchor offshore to avoid damage to their hull.

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The Star Ferry 7 in the rain

In the next morning when the rain was still light I managed to find the oldest living porter of Allen who was in his 80’s and who had been a porter since 1943. He is the father of the caretaker of the lodge and from him I was able to get the history of the private port of Allen owned by the Suan family which owns the present BALWHARTECO. I was also able to get the ships of the past in the area from the time of the motor boats (lancha) including the motor bancas which then connected Allen and Calbayog for then there was no road connecting the two localities.

It was a funny interview as the old man was speaking in Allen Waray which I found I can understand 95% by using my knowledge of the different dialects of Bicol including what was then known as Bicol Gubat and Bicol Costa which are now no longer classified as part of the Bicol language. The Bicolanos and the Pintados share the same seafaring history in the past and maybe this was the reason of the close association of the languages of Bicol, Masbate and Samar including the Balicuatro area of Samar where Allen is located.

From the father and son pair, I was able to get referrals to old mariners in the area and I visited one in his home and the other one in his ship. Both came from Virac and first became crewmen of the Trans-Bicol Shipping Lines, the predecessor of Bicolandia Shipping Lines in operating motor boats (lancha) which connected the Bicol island-provinces and Samar to the Bicol mainland. The latter is actually the Chief Engineer of the Star Ferry II of 168 Shipping and this provided a bonus because we were able to have a discussion about the oldest RORO sailing in Philippine waters that is not a Navy ship and is not an LCT.

balwhar

I stayed a day more in BALWHARTECO because peak season caught me suddenly on a Friday afternoon and it was very difficult to get a ride with the sustained strong rains which produced landslides in Victoria town thus throwing the bus schedules into disarray (few were really coming). It was a nice courtesy stay which afforded me more opportunities to shipspot (and also do bus spotting) and to observe in general.

I absorb things fast even on limited time and even without asking too many questions. I just retrieve files in my head and add what I saw new, what changed and other observations. And from that I have a new mental picture of the port and area I visited. A two-day stay in Allen is a boon for observation and absorption of the movements and patterns in the area.

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After two nights, I tried to wangle a trip to Matnog where I planned to take a local bus to Naga. There was no hope in hitching a ride with the buses from the south because of the landslides and anyway all that arrive in Allen were full and it was sellers’ market and even the colorum vans to Manila were having a field day (they were charging fares from Catarman while waiting for passengers in Allen).

It wasn’t easy booking a crossing as the combination of rough swells and high tide plus the strong wind delayed dockings. Even with tickets, we passengers feared cancellation of voyages by the Coast Guard anytime given the wind and seas prevailing. After a long wait onboard, we finally all heaved a sigh of relief when we were given clearance to sail.

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The LCT Poseidon 26 of might have been the first to sail after the lull of sailings from Allen but she takes 2 hours for the 11-nautical mile route since her cruising speed is only 5-6 knots. She is a new ROPAX Cargo LCT and although her accommodations are all-Economy it is good, spacious and the seats are individualized with a row of industrial fans at the sides. Passengers are also allowed to visit the bridge which is a boon. She is sailing for NN+ATS or 2GO under the name SulitFerry.

We landed in Matnog at past mid-afternoon and the port was crawling with passengers and vehicles when normally such hour was already dead hour for the Matnog to Allen sailing. That is what usually results from voyage suspensions even though it is only for a few hours because everything piles up. I did not tarry at the port because I feared that I will be left  by local buses leaving Matnog if I did not hurry up. Being left by the last trip would probably mean staying the night in Matnog. But like Mark, I ended up not being able to tour Matnog port. I tried to make up for this by touring the market and terminal area of Matnog and trying to take shots of the port from there.

matnog

What did I learn new in the San Bernardino Strait routes? Well, maybe the biggest development was the opening of the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping. That meant the break of Sta. Clara Shipping (and its sister company Penafrancia Shipping) and BALWHARTECO, a long partnership that benefited both greatly. Well, maybe some things really have to end but I feared the parting of ways weakened both but only time can tell that.

With the break, BALWHARTECO which was crowded and very busy in the past suddenly had a slack and maybe that is the reason why they invited Montenegro Lines to concentrate all their ships there thereby emptying the Dapdap port of Philharbor. Meanwhile, Jubasan port is just serving Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping. One advantage of that is they have full control and so everything is orderly.

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A Cargo RORO LCT

The second biggest development in the strait crossing might be the emergence of Cargo RORO LCTs that takes on only trucks. One or two of them sail depending on the season plus there is a ROPAX Cargo LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26. These are operated by NN+ATS or 2GO and the LCTs are chartered from Primary Trident Solutions. The ferry is being billed as SulitFerry. Though brand-new and nice, it is cheaper than the rest. The drawback is its cruising speed is slow. Their ticketing office hands, however, are nicer than the rest and are better trained. It showed.

With the fielding of the Cargo RORO LCT and the ROPAX Cargo LCT, the long queues of trucks which were legend in the past seemed to have disappeared. These trucks are actually the “non-priority” ones which means they are not priority because they has no prior arrangements with the shipping companies. Trucks were singled out because buses which have passengers and fixed schedules always had the higher priority and so these trucks get shunted out.

The LCTs of NN+ATS definitely took rolling cargo from the other companies. Some seem to overstate it but hard figures will show there are usually ten short-distance ferry-ROROs by Sta. Clara Shipping, Penafrancia Shipping, Montenegro Lines, 168 Shipping, Regina Shipping Lines in the strait plus the catamaran RORO of Archipelago Ferries. Two or three LCTs were added in the route so it was a significant increase but not by much.

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Dapdap port

Another notable development in the strait was the closing of the Dapdap port of Philharbor. It seems it was not able to weather the rearrangements brought about by the opening of Jubasan port. It is ironic that its sister company Archipelago Ferries is instead using the San Isidro Ferry Terminal (but maybe that is what their franchise demanded). Maybe if the Grand Star ROROs were not disposed off it might still be operating. However, the motor bancas to the island off it are still there.

Meanwhile, Matnog Ferry Terminal has added two ramps plus an expansion of the back-up area but one of its ramps is now just for the use of FastCat which need a specific mechanism wherein to attach their catamaran ROROs. With four ramps available (and I doubt if all are usable) plus a docking area without ramp (which is only good if the tide is not low), one would wonder how it can possibly cope with the twelve vessels or so operating in the strait especially in the hours that the buses and trucks are concentrated in Matnog.

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Reina Emperatriz and BALWHARTECO port by James Gabriel Verallo

Me, I always have questions and doubts about the ability of the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) regarding port planning and design. BALWHARTECO and Jubasan ports are clearly better than Matnog Ferry Terminal in its capacity to absorb ships. Imagine there are four ports on Samar side while there is only one in Sorsogon side. Maybe the town of Matnog should just develop their own port so capacity will be increased and they will have revenues at the same time.

San Bernardino Strait is one of the most important crossings in the country as it is the main connection between Luzon and the Visayas on the eastern side. It is used by a lot of buses and trucks plus private vehicles 24/7 and a lot of people move through it. In that way alone it is already fascinating to me.

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The Nathan Matthew and ship spotters of PSSS (by James Gabriel Verallo)

The MATNOG-ALLEN ROUTE

Since the historical days of yore, Samar has always been connected to Bicol. And that can be proven true from prehistory. How? Ethnologue, which is used by the United Nations for language analysis has reclassified the supposed “Bicol” dialect of southeastern Sorsogon as a dialect of Waray (and I asked a Sorsoganon friend and she declared to me they can talk to Samarenos without translation). This connection was also true in the days of the pre-Spanish Waray sea warriors (which were later called the “Pintados” by the Spaniards because of their body tattooing) who roamed the seas of our eastern seaboard up to the present-day Taiwan. In the glory period of our shipbuilding and seafaring traditions, Bicol and Samar were among the premier shipbuilding sites in our archipelago before we fell to the Spanish colonizers who then denied we had such traditions.
Converted to Christianity and ravaged by the hardships of forced labor of galleon-building for the Spaniards, Samar and Bicol did not lose its links. In Spanish times Samar boats called in Bicol places to trade and to pay homage to the premier religious image and pilgrimage site in the old Ibalon province (which now encompasses Albay, Sorsogon, Catanduanes, Masbate and the Partido district of Camarines Sur after it lost its province status) which is located in Joroan of Tiwi town. Sail-powered <i>paraus</> from Samar and Samar Sea islands continued to travel and trade to Legazpi and Tabaco until the early ’60s during the <i>habagat</i> and they roamed as far as Catanduanes. Samar to Legazpi <i>barotos</i> that dropped by some Sorsogon towns also sailed in this period. Even in recent times there were still boats from Samar that plied a route to Catanduanes from Biri islands which used Rapu-rapu island in Albay as the intermediate stop-over. Legazpi-based cargo-passenger motor boats also sailed to Rapu-rapu and Samar destinations. Ironically, although a historical maritime link, the sea between Samar and Bicol northeast of San Bernardino Strait has no name.
Islands are usually connected at their nearest crossing. So in the case of Bicol and Samar the logical connection will be really between Matnog in Sorsogon and Allen in Samar. Before the advent of ROROs the most established line here was the Trans Bicol Lines which has connections then to all the major islands surrounding the Bicol peninsula which are the Catanduanes, Samar and Masbate islands. Later this historical shipping company passed on to Eugenia Tabinas who used the shipping companies E. Tabinas Enterprises and Bicolandia Shipping. Included in the sell-out were the motor boats of Trans Bicol Lines.
Trans-Bicol Line. ©Edsel Benavides

The latter-day Northern Samar also had its own connection to Manila separate from the connection of the provincial capital then of Catbalogan. The main port of entry of the northern part of Samar island cannot be Catbalogan as there were no good roads then connecting it to the provincial capital (in fact Motor Boats then circumnavigated the island connecting Samar towns). These passenger-cargo ships from Manila to the northern part of Samar also called on Masbate and Sorsogon ports before docking in Allen and Carangian. Many of those ships then still proceed to Legazpi, Virac and Tabaco. Some even sail as far as Nato and Tandoc ports in Camarines Sur and a few sail up to Mercedes and Larap ports in Camarines Norte.

M/V Venus ©Gorio Belen/Philippine Herald

The ships mentioned above that called on Samar ports also served as Samar connection to Bicol including the freighters that also take in some passengers aside from cargo. Some of the shipping lines which had routes then in this part of the country were Madrigal Shipping, NORCAMCO and NCL (the earlier North Camarines Lumber), N&S Line, Rodrigueza Shipping and Newport Shipping. The passenger-cargo ships they operated were generally small.

With the strengthening of the South Line of the Manila Railroad and Railways (MRR, which was the latter PNR) that offered rail service up to Legazpi and bus connections to Larap, Daet, Tabaco and Sorsogon the shipping lines mentioned slowly lost market and patronage. Additionally, the legendary ALATCO bus company also offered Pasay-Larap-Daet-Legazpi-Naga-Tabaco buses with connections to Siruma and Nato, too). The first can bring passengers and cargo to its destination in less than 24 hours and the latter in just over a day or even less if it was up to the Camarines provinces only while the ship takes four days up to Legazpi and a week up to Camarines Norte. With better competition around first to go were the routes to the Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay and Catanduanes ports while the Sorsogon and Samar route held on for a while.
N%S Lines Ad. ©Gorio Belen
A momentous change then happened in early 1979 when Cardinal Shipping decided to field a short-distance ferry-RORO, the “Cardinal Ferry 1” between Matnog and Allen. With no port improvements yet it just used the wooden wharves of old that were meant for motor boats. Pantranco buses (now Philtranco) then rolled to the new province of Northern Samar up to Rawis, the port of Laoang which is also the base of motor bancas that connect to towns of Northern and northern Eastern Samar that have no roads. Slowly, the Matnog-Allen motor boats lost business and they retreated one by one to other Bicol routes that have no ROROs yet. With that the Samar-Bicol route served by steel-hulled ships from Manila also slowly withered but the service went on until about 1981 or 1982 and maybe it’s just because the shipping companies plying the route have nowhere else to go.
Cardinal Shipping Ad. ©Gorio Belen

Shortly after Cardinal Ferry opened the Matnog-Allen route, Newport Shipping also plied the route using the “Northern Star” (later known as the “Northern Samar”) and “Laoang Bay” (later known “Badjao”, “Philtranco Ferry 1” and “Black Double”). But government official accounts usually say that this route started with the fielding of the government-owned Maharlika I in 1982. That is, of course, historically and factually wrong. Maharlika I came when Matnog Ferry Terminal was already built and it connected to San Isidro Ferry Terminal, which is in another town south and not in Allen. (The two were called “Ferry Terminals” when they were actually modern RORO ports.) For government officials to say the government was the first to connect Matnog and Allen is then doubly incorrect.

M/V Northern Samar ©Lindsay Bridge
On another footnote, Carlos A. Gothong Lines, Inc. (CAGLI) also claims that they pioneered ROROs in the Philippines with their fielding of “Don Calvino” and “Dona Lili” in 1980 from Cebu. But evidence shows ROROs first came to Matnog-Allen among all places in the country and that is one significance of this route aside from it connecting Luzon to the Visayas and heralding the first intermodal buses and trucks in the country. (This is of course excepting the LCTs and barges pulled by tugs that connected some very near islands like Mactan and Cebu and Samar and Leyte though San Juanico Strait as those are technically ROROs too since vehicles roll on and roll off, too, to and from their car decks.)
After a few Newport Shipping quit (as their intermediate routes to Romblon was also drying) and “Northern Star” as “Northern Samar” was sold to Bicolandia Shipping in 1981. “Laoang Bay” meanwhile passed to different owners over the years. In due time Bicolandia Shipping dominated the route especially with the addition of “Princess of Bicolandia”, “Princess of Mayon” and “Eugenia”. Philtranco tried to challenge the monopoly of Eugenia Tabinas-San Pablo (who also used the company E. Tabinas Enterprises) and they rolled out the “Philtranco Ferry 1” which was the former “Laoang Bay”. They did not get a franchise and they argued instead that since they are just transporting their buses then they need not get a CPC (Certificate of Public Convenience). Unfortunately, the court did not agree with them and they were knocked out from the route. In the future though they will be able to come back.
M/V Princess of Mayon ©Gorio Belen

The 1980s was also the heyday of “Maharlika I”. She was fielded brand-new and as such was a great ship at the start. But being a government-owned company, mismanagement soon brewed and internal rot set in. She also had the disadvantage of serving a longer route (14 nautical miles vs. 11 nautical miles). Meanwhile, a new private port in Allen rose and BALWHARTECO soon showed the country how to develop properly a RORO port.

Maharlika and Northern Samar. ©Lindsay Bridge

Before the old millennium was over a new challenger to Bicolandia Shipping appeared on the horizon, the Sta. Clara Shipping Company with its more modern “Nelvin Jules” and it was very prepared for the challenge as it had a petition signed by all the Leyte mayors asking that the route be opened to other shipping companies. Bicolandia Shipping tried to TKO it like what they were able to do with Philtranco Ferries by claiming it had “missionary status” but the courts ruled that said status does not grant it a monopoly. Bicolandia Shipping by this time had a bad reputation where its ships only leave when it is already full or near-full without the observance of the proper ETD (Estimated Time of Departure which is part of the CPC along with the route).

Nelvin Jules ©Masaharo Homma

When Philtranco fell into the lap of Pepito Alvarez it also made a comeback. Under his landsman, it used the companies Archipelago Shipping, Philharbor Ferries and Oro Star. It leased the “Maharlika I” and “Maharlika II” from government and then added a few more ships including three double-ended ROROs, the “Maharlika Tres”, “Maharlika Cuatro” and the “Lakbayan I”. aside from other ferries (they were also serving many other routes aside from this route). They also built a new port in Dapdap, also in Allen and two kilometers south of Balicuatro (where BALWHARTECO is located) which had a route distance of 12 nautical miles to Matnog, a neglible increase over the 11 nautical miles of Balicuatro.

Grand Star RORO 3 and Maharlika Tres ©Mike Baylon
Bicolandia Shipping vessels cannot compete with the Sta. Clara and the Alvarez ships which were newer and better. Exercising pragmatism Bicolandia Shipping proposed to fold operations and sell the ships and franchises to the Sta. Clara group. The deal was done and Penafrancia Shipping was born.
Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping had the backing then of the Balicuatro Wharfage and Terminal Corp. (BALWHARTECO) which which was developing its new port slowly but consistently and which served as a model for RORO port development and operations with its shops, offices, lodging house, disco, flea market, eateries and gas station where regulars can load vehicles and even gas up on credit. BALWHARTECO also supported the intermodal buses and trucks with generous discounts and rebates so much so that the development of this shipping sector now poses a threat to container shipping.
Balicurato Wharf ©Joe Cardenas

Later, BALWHARTECO also hosted and supported 168 Shipping (the Star Ferries). With so many ships in the Matnog-Balicuatro route using advanced marketing techniques and cultivated tie-ups with bus and trucking companies and supported by BALWHARTECO, the Dapdap port wilted especially when Philtranco drivers were freed and given a choice and where to load their buses. Meanwhile with the opening of Dapdap and withdrawal of Maharlika the San Isidro Ferry Terminal became practically a “port to nowhere” (a port hosting no ships). This was reversed when it was leased to Montenegro Shipping Lines but after their lease expired they also left for Dapdap and Balicuatro after finding the distance uncompetitive and San Isidro Ferry Terminal had no more ferries again.

Nelvin Jules, Hansel Jobbett, and Star Ferry II ©Jazon Morillo

Recently, because of some reasons and misunderstandings, the Sta. Clara group tried to build its own port in another barrio in Allen and located further south of Dapdap (which means buses and trucks see it first except when these came from Catarman and beyond). The Allen LGU had it closed and no wonder because the Mayor is the owner of BALWHARTECO (now how legal is that is another matter). Construction continued as the heavy equipment were actually inside the port. Now the Hizzoner and the Sta. Clara group are fighting it out in the court and this battle royale will probably define the shape of the Matnog-Allen route in the future.

New Sta. Clara Shipping Port ©Mike Baylon
With two ports in Allen and possibly three soon and with ROROs mushrooming in the route the problem now is in Matnog port which is presently congested and overcrowded as its expansion followed a snail’s pace and because the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) does not know efficient RORO port design. While the limited wharf length of Balicuatro can accommodate six ROROs all at the same time, the Matnog port can only dock four ROROs simultaneously (although it is trying to add two more). And to think there are other ferries coming from Dapdap. So at peak hours the ROROs have to wait offshore in Matnog and pull out or undock to give way to priority ferries that will load or unload. This contributes to delays, added fuel consumption, more work for the crews and unnecessary risks for the ships. And that is not to mention frayed nerves at times and hot tempers especially when there are mishaps, near-mishaps and strong winds and currents. Matnog is not a protected port and as a southern-facing port is affected by the habagat and surges especially when there are weather disturbances in our eastern seaboard.
Whatever the twist and turn in its varied history ,the Matnog-Allen route will probably last nearly forever as the need for bridging of islands and the imperative for moving of cargo and people will probably never vanish there as it is the shortest connection between Luzon and Eastern Visayas. As they say, it is always, “Location, location and location…”.
Matnog Port ©Mike Baylon

The Maharlika Sisters

MAHARLIKA 1. ©Grek Peromingan

“Maharlika I” and “Maharlika II” were two sister ships commissioned by the Philippine government in the 1980’s to connect the Maharlika Highway from Aparri to Zamboanga via RORO (Roll On, Roll Off vessel). “Maharlika I” was fielded in the Matnog-San Isidro, Samar route to connect Luzon and the Visayas while “Maharlika II” was fielded in the Liloan, Leyte-Lipata, Surigao City route to connect Visayas to Mindanao.

While the two vessels were built from the same ship plan of Japanese design, it was intended that one will be built in Japan with Filipino engineers observing the process so that the second one could be built in a Philippine yard with the experience gained. The idea was to get the moribund government-owned shipyard in Bataan to get going again. Japanese soft loans were used to build the ships which part of the “Philippine-Japan Friendship Highway” package that also included funds to build the likes of the San Juanico Bridge and the RORO ports along the route.

1983 1108 Maharlika II Maharlika 2 Launch ©Gorio Belen

“Maharlika I” was built by Niigata Engineering in their Niigata yard and was completed on January of 1983. Meanwhile, “Maharlika Dos” was built in the Mariveles yard of Philippine Dockyard and was completed on July of 1984. Philippine Dockyard was the former NASSCO (National Shipyard and Steel Corporation) which built the ferries “General Roxas” and the “Governor B. Lopez” in 1960 and 1961 (incidentally those two were the last ferries built by that shipyard before the Maharlika Dos).

As RORO vessels, the sisters were equipped with ramps at the bow and at the stern as she was designed without the need for the ships to still turn around. Their bow ramps were of the more complicated “visor” type where the bow of the ship has to swing up first before the ramp can be deployed. The stern ramps were of the conventional two-piece design. In later years the bow ramps were no longer in use (“visors” are additional maintenance items).

Maharlika Dos with open visor door. ©Edison Sy

The two sisters were not of identical dimensions as the “Maharlika I” was longer at 66.3 meters versus the 60.0 meters of the Maharlika Dos. They shared the same beam of 12.5 meters but the Gross Tonnage (GT) of “Maharlika I” was higher at 1,971 tons versus the 1,865 tons of “Maharlika II”. The two had the same twin Niigata diesel engines that produced a total of 3,200 horsepower and giving them a service speed of 14.5 knots using two screws.

Between the two, “Maharlika I” has the bigger passenger capacity at 524 with “Maharlika II” having a capacity of 417. There were no attached passenger ramps to the two. When the ships dock a movable ramp was attached to the ship which is not fastened safely most of the time. Cargo capacity, meanwhile, was 14 trucks or buses and more if combined with smaller vehicles.

Maharlika I stern. ©Edison Sy

Initially, it was the Philippine government that operated the sisters starting in 1984. In the late 1990s the two, however passed on to the control of the twin company PhilHarbor Ferries and Archipelago Ferries. The two were no longer in pristine condition then as they aged fast, a process “normal” for government-owned equipment. The decline was, however not reversed and soon the two were no longer reliable. They were operated even with only one engine running that lengthened considerably the sailing times. Interviewing a crew member, he told they just clean and repaint the parts and put it back rather than replacing it as called for in preventive maintenance. I have seen the two not sailing because two engines are busted.

In  passenger service, there was really none to speak of and the Maharlika sisters were not even clean and tidy. There was a foul smell especially in the toilets and it smells of the sweat in the air-conditioned section. Overloading, too, was rampant especially in the peak seasons when ferries in the route were still few. Sometimes I feel lucky having an air vent for a seat. It beats the muddy stairs anytime and it is airy, at least.

Maharlika II at Lipata Port ©Mike Baylon

For a country like the Philippines which has a hundred ferries that are 40 years old and above that are still sailing right now, the sisters did not live long lives. “Maharlika I” was deemed “BER” (Beyond Economic Repair” before the first decade of the new millennium was over and they tried to sell it for scrap. Initially, that went for naught as somebody questioned the move and “Maharlika I” was just moored in San Isidro, Samar. Eventually, she was broken up in Navotas in 2010 after sailing less than 25 years.

It seems parts from “Maharlika I” were transferred to “Maharlika II” as initially “Maharlika II” ran well after “Maharlika I” was sold. But soon it seems her old disease caught up with her once again and her sailing time for her 38-nautical mile route went up to 4.5 hours again which signified she was again running on one engine. She will depart one hour ahead of “Super Shuttle Ferry 18” and yet that ship will catch up with her midway into the Surigao Strait.

Maharlika 2 ©Mike Baylon

The FastCats

Starting in 2013, the brand-new FastCats of Archipelago Philippine Ferries started arriving in Batangas one after another. As of last count at the end of 2014 five are already in the Philippines with five more set to arrive in 2015. The arrival of these vessels was well-noted and it created a stir as brand-new ships don’t come into the country (the last wave were the High Speed Crafts that came 20 years ago).

The FastCats are ROPAX (RORO-Passenger) catamarans by classification. They were designed in Australia and built in China in several yards. The capital was loaned from DBP Leasing Corporation, a government-owned and controlled corporation (GOCC). Published reports say one FastCat costs PhP 240 million.

FastCat M2 ©Mike Baylon

The FastCats are supposed to be fielded in the routes of Archipelago Ferries and PhilHarbor Ferries which are two separate companies legally but operating as one. These two companies operate the poorly-maintained “Maharlika” ship series. The routes where the FastCats are supposed to be fielded are:

Batangas-Calapan with 2 FastCats

Bulalacao-Caticlan (in place of Roxas-Caticlan) with 2 FastCats

Matnog-Allen with 2 FastCats

Liloan-Lipata with 1 FastCat

Dumaguete-Dapitan with 1 FastCat

Bacolod-Iloilo with 2 FastCats

The first route served was Batangas-Calapan starting in 2013. As of the end of 2014 it is still this route that Archipelago Ferries is serving. One problem is FastCats cannot use a port directly because a specific pneumatic docking mechanism has to be attached to the vessel before it can handle rolling cargo (i.e. vehicles). This was the reason why for several months they can only handle passengers in the Batangas-Calapan route when the docking mechanism was damaged by a typhoon. When the docking mechanism is already attached in the wharf other ships can no longer use the same docking space as it becomes an obstruction to them. FastCats are not equipped with RORO ramps for vehicles.

FastCat pneumatic ramp ©Raymond Lapus

The FastCats are identical and all are sister ships. They measure 50.6 meters by 17.5 or 18 meters and a GT of 683 for the slimmer ones and a GT of 704 for the wider ones. Net Tonnage is 207 with a DWT of 300 tons and a passenger capacity of 275. Each is powered by four Yanmar Marine or its clone Newage diesels which develop a total of 2,600 horsepower. The FastCats have steel hulls and aluminum alloy superstructure. Cruising speed is 17 knots and thus are classified as Medium Speed Crafts (MSCs).

Fastcat M2 Bridge ©Raymond Lapus

The passenger accommodations of the FastCats are only on one side of the vessel in two decks. The lower deck is the airconditioned Tourist section together with the canteen. The non-airconditioned Economy section is above that on the bridge level. The bridge occupies the center position in the ship with 360-degree visibility and its consoles are modern-looking.

FastCat airconditioned accomodations ©Raymond Lapus
FastCat open-air accomodations ©Raymond Lapus

The car deck has a declared capacity of 8 regular trucks or buses and 20 cars. Converted that should be at least 18 trucks minimum if there are no long trucks or trailers. However, what will be the limiting factor is the deadweight tons of 300. Truck-trailers with container vans can weigh up to over 30 tons here and wing van trucks can also exceed 20 tons gross. Deadweight tons is actually the sum of the weights of the cargo, fuel, water, ballast, supplies and stores and passengers and crew carried by the ship so the net carrying capacity in weight of a FastCat will not reach 200 tons as the FastCats are designed to carry 79.0 tons of fuel, 6.7 tons of fresh water and 2.9 tons of lubricating oil.

FastCat M2 Car Deck ©Mike Baylon

Can the FastCat pay for itself? I think that is the big question (although I will grant the FastCats are a good addition to the local fleet being new and a good technical development). I am concerned with this not only as a citizen but also it reminds me of the brand-new ship purchases of the government-owned National Development Company in the 1960s which were leased to local companies. The government lost money in that and we only squandered the war-reparations money that came from Japan. If this FastCat project fails then in the end we will be the ones paying for the mistake.

For high-density routes like Batangas-Calapan where FastCats sail night and day there is no problem in viability. This is akin to budget air carriers which can afford brand-new planes because the planes fly from dawn to night and people are willing to pay high for air cargo and parcels which are the bread and butter of planes. But in less dense route I wonder if the viability is not iffy. At PhP 240 million each and assuming 6% interest and 15-year repayment term the interest and principal payment will come out to about PhP 2 million a month. And for that money out it does not yet include fuel (which is the primary operational cost), crewing, docking charges, insurance, maintenance and drydocking costs and depreciation.

FastCat M1 docking at Batangas ©Mike Baylon

There will be routes where two roundtrips a day might not be feasible for the FastCats at the current traffic especially if they use two vessels in the route. That is why I am a little puzzled why Archipelago went for 10 FastCats immediately. Unless they are thinking of penetrating other high-density routes like Cebu-Bohol, Cebu-Leyte or Cebu-Negros but they might run against the blocking tactics of the current operators as they are not former operators there.

What is notable, however, is that the FastCat is a good technical development, although not as a catamaran RORO because there have been such ships before her contrary to the claim of Archipelago Ferries. What I mean is at 2,600hp which is average for an HSC (High Speed Craft) here they can carry a lot of vehicles while an HSC can’t. And the passenger capacity at 275 is also just about average for an HSC here. So that bonus of being able to carry 8 trucks and 20 cars is a very big plus compared to an HSC which cannot carry any significant amount of cargo and thus has to charge the passengers high. With a high cargo load the FastCats can charge just a little bit higher than ROPAXes (of course being new carries a little premium). While being at least 1.5 times faster than them and not conceding that much in speed compared to HSCs which use semi-economical speeds now.

FastCat M2 cruising between Batangas and Calapan ©Raymond Lapus

Many owners or crew of the rolling cargo will prefer the FastCats if the rates are comparable to the old and sometimes half-decrepit ROPAXes. And FastCats have the bonus of speed and a snappier crew ,which is a far cry from the old Archipelago and PhilHarbor ways. And maybe they are safer too not just because of the design but because they are simply much newer which means less things can go wrong like engines conking out in a near-gale which is what happened to “Maharlika Dos”.

Maybe the survival and viability of the FastCat will need taking traffic and patronage away from ROPAX competitors (and even the HSCs). I do not know if this was their calculation and intention right at the very start. I have no qualms with that as free competition is really like that. As long as cartels or monopolies do not happen then supposedly the passengers and shippers should stand to benefit from competition in the market.

It is only time and practice that will really tell if at that price tag the FastCats are really viable. Much will also depend on the quality of management, the maintenance and the use of astute business policies. Of course, the price of fuel will also be a factor along with our exchange rates (the price of parts depends on this). The current downward spiral of the world market price of oil is a boon to shipping as fuel cost is the highest operation cost in shipping.

FastCat M2 ©Raymond Lapus

Maybe having the FastCats built in China (but with the assurance of an Australian design as Australia is a world leader in catamaran design) was a wise business decision as China is now the world’s leader in shipbuilding cost (as in the lowest cost builder). Having China equipment might also be a good decision as it brings down the cost and replacement parts are cheaper there. Possession of an ABS (American Bureau of Standards) certification is also reassuring.

FastCats have a handful of business and competition pluses. Now, if only Archipelago Ferries reinvents itself completely and be able to maintain its new standards so it can surmount the biggest hurdle of the FastCats which is its high acquisition price.

FERRIES THAT HAD SECOND LIVES

There are lucky ships that lived two lives. Some met accidents and were properly repaired. Some simply grew old but were modified and modernized. If not for the presence of IMO Numbers which are permanent hull numbers and reflected in maritime databases tracing them would have been difficult but not impossible.
Some ships meet accidents like grounding and capsizing and this can easily happen to LCTs and barges which being flat-bottomed do not have the best stability in a heavy sea. But grounding and capsizing is not a big deal for them as they can be easily refloated, towed and repaired especially since they are equipped with watertight compartments that limit damage when the hull is breached. Having a high density of beams also helps to limit damage due to deformation of structures.
If LCTs and barges are vulnerable then more so are the tugs. They can even capsize while pulling a stuck-up ship. Just the same this type is resilient to damage and can easily be refloated and repaired. Even if they are washed ashore or beached in a typhoon they will sail again like a phoenix. No wonder tugs live very long lives although they are small.
Ferries are a different matter. They are not that resilient. Cargo ships are not much luckier too at times since it can be difficult to refloat them especially when loaded by a heavy cargo. With a cargo of cement that is next to impossible. Tankers are not that lucky too. In a fire or an explosion it is a clear goodbye.
We have a few ships that grew old that were modified after laying up idled for years in some obscure part of a shipyard. One of those is the “Star Ferry-II”of 168 Shipping which was formerly the “Ace-1” of Manila Ace Shipping. Laid up for lack of patronage and suitable route she one year appeared in the Matnog-Allen route. I interviewed a crewman and he told me the captain told them it was rebuilt from various parts thus confirming the suspicion of a PSSS moderator that somehow she has a resemblance especially at the bridge area to the “missing” “Ace-1” which formerly plied the Batangas-Mindoro route.
M/V Ace 1 ©Edison Sy
Star Ferry II ©Joe Cardenas
What is remarkable in her rebirth as “Star-Ferry-II” is she will defeat the claim of “Millennium Uno” of Millennium Shipping as the oldest conventional RORO sailing in the Philippines which means LCTs which are technically ROROs are excluded. “Ace-1” was built in 1961 while “Millennium Uno” was built in 1964, a clear lead of three years. Both are old and weak now but the debate between them will continue.
Nobody that will lay sight at “Lapu-Lapu Ferry 1” of Lapu-Lapu Shipping will ever think she is an old ship. And nobody will ever suspect she is the old second “Sweet Time” of Sweet Lines that seemed to have just disappeared in the Cebu-Bohol route. She was rebuilt in Fortune ShipWorks in Consolacion, Cebu in 2002 but what an incredible rebuild since she no longer has resemblance to her former self. She still retains, however her old Hanshin engine.
Sweet Time ©Edison Sy
Lapu-Lapu Ferry-I ©Mike Baylon

When the overnight ferry-cruiser “Honey” of Lapu-Lapu Shipping disappeared there were questions where she went. After some time a “new” “Lapu-lapu Ferry 8” appeared in the Lapu-Lapu Shipping wharf between Pier 1 and Pier 2. Later, we were able to confirm she was indeed the former “Honey” but what a change. There was also no resemblance to the old ship except for the bridge area as noted by another PSSS moderator. What is amazing is her length increased from 20.1m to 35.8m and her breadth increased too from 6.8m to 7.3m.

Lapu Lapu Ferry 8 ©Mike Baylon

It seems among shipping companies it is Lapu-Lapu Shipping which is the master of ship transformations. Their third ship, the “Rosalia 3” was converted from a former ferry sailing the Bantayan route which stopped operations when ROROs began ruling Bantayan Island. Actually as “Rosalia 3” it is already her third iteration since originally she was a single-screwed fishing vessel. Converted to a passenger ship two more engines and screws were added. At full trot she can actually do 16 knots according to her captain and competitors wonder where such a humble-looking cruiser is drawing her mojo.

Rosalia 3 ©Mike Baylon

In Zamboanga there are ships too that disappeared and then reappeared in a different guise. One of this is the “KC Beatrice” of Sing Shipping which was formerly the “Sampaguita Lei” of the defunct Sampaguita Shipping. Having her prominent features changed she does not look the dowdy old ferry she formerly was. Her engine was also changed. She disappeared for nearly a decade and she re-emerged in 2005.

Sampaguita Lei ©Mike Baylon

Another ship in Zamboanga City that was came back like magic was the long-missing “Rizma” of A. Sakaluran. There were two PSSS founders who were checking her being completed three years ago in Varadero de Recodo in Zamboanga City yet we did not suspect she was the former “Rizma”. We were just wondering then what former ship is “Magnolia Liliflora” as looking at her hull even in the dark we can make out she has an old hull. Now she proudly flies the flag and colors of Magnolia Shipping.

Magnolia Liliflora ©Mike Baylon

There are ships that went through worse fates before being resurrected — they sank, were salvaged and were refitted. One was the “Mindoro Express” which sank in Palawan after being pulled-out from the Matnog-Allen route where she was known as “Christ The King” and “Luzvimin Primo”. She was raised up, repaired and refitted in Keppel Batangas, superstructure was chopped and she re-emerged as the “Maharlika Cinco” of Archipelago Ferries/Philharbor in Liloan-Lipata route. She is now missing again and last report was she was seen laid up in a shipyard in General Santos City.

Mindoro Express ©Edison Sy
Maharlika Cinco ©Joel Bado

It was the same situation for “Joy-Ruby” of Atienza Shipping which was the former “Viva Sto. Nino” of Viva Shipping Lines. She sank stern first nearing the port of Coron and she was stuck up with the bow jutting from sea. She was salvaged and repaired and she reappeared as the “Super Shuttle Ferry 15” of Asian Marine Transport in 2008 and plying the Mandaue-Ormoc route.

Super Shuttle Ferry 15 ©Mike Baylon

More than a decade ago, “Melrivic Three” of Aznar Shipping sank right after leaving the port of Pingag in Isabel, Leyte on the way to Danao. One of the passengers was to later become a PSSS moderator. He says the ferry did not completely sink and was later retrieved from the sea and repaired. This ship is still sailing in the same route.

Melrivic Three ©Jonathan Bordon

If you can’t put a good man down, as they say, that could also be true for ships. “Our Lady of Mediatrix” of Daima Shipping became the unfortunate collateral damage of the bombing of two Super Five buses aboard her while she was about to dock in Ozamis port one day in February 2000. White phosphorus bombs were used and the two buses completely burned along with other vehicles on board. The bridge of the double-ended ferry got toasted along with the car deck but the engine room was intact. Laid up for some time she was towed to the shipyard in Jasaan, Misamis Oriental where she was lovingly restored and she emerged again as the “Swallow-2” of the same company. Her bridge was altered, people know her story but they don’t mind and they still patronize her although about 50 people died in the carnage she went through.

Our Lady of Mediatrix ©BBC News Asia
Swallow-2 ©Mark Ocul
Compared to the tales of “Mindoro Express”, “Joy-Ruby”, “Melrivic Three” and “Our Lady of Mediatrix” ,the story of some LCTs of Asian Marine Transport and Jomalia Shipping that partially capsized near port sounds tame. There is actually not much difficulty in raising them up. Practically, those cases are not really stories of ships living second lives.

There were also other lengthening or renewing of lives of ships. Siquijor-I is supposedly a former fishing vessel and training ship of Siquijor State College that was already laid up. How she ended as a property of the Governor then is another matter. And then there is the SuperFerry 1 which within one year of sailing was hit by engine fire. She was towed to Singapore where she was re-engined and repaired. She came out then much faster.

Siquijor Island 1 ©Jonathan Bordon
SuperFerry 1 ©Aristotle Refugio

A special case was the partially capsized “Ocean King II” which was hit by a rogue wave in Surigao Strait. She was able to make it to Benit port where the Coast Guard made a big but wrong show of rescue (using rapelling ropes instead of just getting bancas nearly and urging all to evacuate at once when the ship would no longer sink as she is touching bottom). She lain there for some time until she was towed to Navotas. We all thought she will be cut up there until one day she emerged as a cargo ship and now named as “Golden Warrior”.

Ocean King II ©rrd5580/flickr
Dragon Warrior ©Aristotle Refugio

There are others that merit attention here. “Gloria Two” and “Gloria Three” of Gabisan Shipping were supposedly rebuilt from fishing vessel hulls and done in Leyte. That is also the case of “April Rose” of Rose Shipping which is now with Atienza Shipping. And the “Bounty Ferry”of Evenesser Shipping is supposedly built from a launch from the US Navy if tales are to be believed.

Bounty Ferry ©Britz Salih

Whatever the case may be, there are many ways of giving ships second lives. There is not much technical difficulties involved unless it is fully submerged and far from land. If near land what it needs is just some concern, a dash of love and of course, cash.