The Sulpicio Lines Fast Cruiser Liners

Don Sulpicio (Doña Paz) and Doña Ana (Doña Marilyn)

From the collection of John Uy Saulog

In the era of cruiser liners, not only did they get bigger but they also got faster. So they competed not only in amenities and passenger service but also in shorter cruising times and this was valuable not only in the far ports like Davao but also in the likes of Cebu and Cagayan de Oro. With fast cruisers, the travel time to the likes of Davao went down from three-and-a-half days to two-and-a-half days. It also brought down the cruising time to Cebu to less than a day.

The leading shipping company in the local routes Compania Maritima had been the first in fast cruisers with the fielding of “Filipinas” in the 1968 and the “Mindanao” in 1970. Both were capable of 18 knots and that was the reference speed then in that era to be considered “fast”. As expected, the two, one after the other. were fielded in the long Davao route.

William Lines followed suit from 1970 when they ordered the brand-new “Misamis Occidental” that was also capable of 18 knots. This was soon followed by the legendary “Cebu City” which was capable of 20.5 knots and this was assigned to the premier Manila-Cebu route. William Lines then followed up with four more fast cruiser liners and they had the biggest number of ships in that category. William Lines fielded their 20.5-knot “Manila City” to the Davao route.

Sweet Lines did not really have a fast cruiser except for the first “Sweet Faith” which they fielded in the prime Manila-Cebu route in a fierce competition with William’s “Cebu City”. This liner which arrived from Denmark in 1970 was capable of 20 knots. She had the pair “Sweet Home” (the first) which came in 1973 from Europe too. Sweet Lines dubbed the two as the “Inimitable Pair”. To be able to compete in the long Davao route, what Sweet Lines did was to use the shorter eastern seaboard on the route to Davao. With this tactic, they were also “fast”, so to say.

Negros Navigation also had their share with fast cruiser liners with the “Dona Florentina” and the beautiful “Don Julio”. This was capped by their fastest cruiser then, the “Don Juan” which was capable of 19 knots. A later ship, the “Don Claudio” was also fast at 18.5 knots when she was still in Japan. May I note that the Negros Navigation cruiser liners were not really in direct competition with their counterparts as they were just then in the Western Visayas routes.

The fragments of the Go Thong empire was late in fast cruiser liner segment. Maybe they needed to take stock and consolidate after their split in 1972. Sulpicio Lines entered the fast cruiser liner category just in 1975, the last among the majors which competed in this field. It has to be noted that Carlos A. Gothong Lines and Lorenzo Shipping did not follow in this category and neither did Aboitiz Shipping and Escano Lines. Only Compania Maritima, William Lines, Sweet Lines, Negros Navigation and Sulpicio Lines participated in this competition but actually Compania Maritima did not acquire any more liners, fast or not, after acquiring “Mindanao” in 1970 even though they had many hull losses in the succeeding years.

Folio Dona Paz

Created by Jon Uy Saulog

Sulpicio Lines acquired the “Himeyuri Maru” from Ryukyu Kaiun KK, more famously known as RKK Line in 1975. This ship was built by Onomichi Zosen in Onomichi yard in Japan in 1963. She measured 93.1 meters by 13.6 meters and her cubic volume was 2,602 gross tons. She was powered by a single Niigata engine of 5,500 horsepower and her top speed was 18 knots. Refitted in the Philippines she had a passenger capacity of 1,424. She was given the name “Don Sulpicio” in honor of the founder and she became the flagship of Sulpicio Lines (this was the second ship to carry that name in the fleet). In 1981, after a fire and refitting she was renamed the “Dona Paz”, the second to carry that name in the Sulpicio Lines fleet (the first was an ex-FS ship). A fine ship, she was unfortunately associated with great ignominy later.

In 1976, Sulpicio Lines acquired the sister ship of “Himeyuri Maru” from RKK Lines too, the “Otohime Maru” which was also built by Onomichi Zosen in the same yard in Onomichi, Japan three years later in 1966. She had the same Niigata powerplant of 5,500 horsepower. However, she was rated at 19.5 knots. She was 97.6 meters in length, 13.7 meters in breadth with a cubic volume of 2,991 gross tons. This ship was renamed to “Dona Ana” and together with “Don Sulpicio”, Sulpicio Lines called them the “Big Two”. They were used by Sulpicio Lines in fighting for their stake in the primary Manila-Cebu route. Later, they extended the route of “Dona Ana” to Davao. In 1980, “Dona Ana” was renamed to “Dona Marilyn”. She held the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route of Sulpicio Lines until she was reassigned the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route with the arrival of the “Cotabato Princess”. She held that route until her end.

In 1978, as Sulpicio Lines grew stronger, they acquired from RKK Lines again not one but two ships which were actually sister ships too but bigger than the earlier pair from Ryukyu Kaiun KK. These were the “Tokyo Maru” and the “Okinawa Maru” and again both were built by Onomichi Zosen in Onomichi yard in Japan. The first ship was built in 1969 and the second one was built in 1973. The “Tokyo Maru” had dimensions of 112.2 meters by 15.2 meters and she had cubic measurement of 3,510 gross tons. She was powered by a single Hitachi-B&W engine of 6,150 horsepower which gave her a top speed of 18.5 knots. “Okinawa Maru” measured 111.5 meters by 15.2 meters with a cubic volume of 3,800 gross tons. Her engine was a single Mitsubishi-MAN of 7,600 horsepower which gave her a top speed of 19 knots. Incidentally this engine also powered “Cotabato Princess”, “Nasipit Princess”, “SuperFerry 2”, “SuperFerry 5” and “Cagayan Bay 1”.

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Dipolog Princess and Princess of the Caribbean

Tokyo Maru” was renamed to “Don Eusebio” and “Okinawa Maru” was renamed to “Don Enrique”. When the “Princesses” came into the nomenclature of Sulpicio Lines she became the “Davao Princess” in 1987 because she was actually the Davao specialist. Later, she was renamed to “Iloilo Princess” when she was no longer holding that route (“Filipina Princess” supplanted her in 1993). Her local passenger capacity, as refitted was 1,379. Meanwhile, “Don Eusebio” was renamed to “Dipolog Princess”. She was then sailing the Manila-Dumaguete-Dipolog-Cagayan de Oro-Ozamis route. However, she was not actually calling in Dipolog but in Dapitan port. In her refitting here, her passenger capacity increased to 1,261. Later, she held the Manila-Tagbilaran-Dipolog-Iligan-Cebu route of the company until she was stopped from sailing.

The fifth and last cruiser Sulpicio Lines acquired in this period was the “Naha Maru” which also from RKK Line and she came in 1981. She was bigger than the earlier ships from RKK Line. The ship was built by Onomichi Zosen (again!) in Onomichi yard in Japan in 1972. She measured 130.9 meters by 16.8 meters and she had a cubic measurement of 4,957 gross tons. She was powered by a single Hitachi-B&W engine of 9,200 horsepower, the same type powering “Dipolog Princess” but with more cylinders. She had top speed of 20 knots when new. She was called as the “Philippine Princess” and she became the Sulpicio Lines flagship which means she held the Manila-Cebu route. For a long time, she and the William Lines’ flagship “Dona Virginia” fought in that route. Refitted here, she had a passenger capacity of 1,633.

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Photo credit: Philippine Daily Express and Gorio Belen

As a footnote, much later, when cruiser liners were no longer in vogue, Sulpicio Lines acquired another fast cruiser liner. This was the “Ogasawara Maru” of Tokai Kisen which was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Shimonoseki, Japan in 1979. She measured 110.5 meters by 15.2 meters and 3,553 gross tons. She was powered by two Mitsubishi engines totalling 11,600 horsepower and her top speed when new was 20.5 knots. She was known as the “Princess of the Caribbean” here and she came in 1997.

Like the William Lines fast cruiser liners, many of these Sulpicio fast cruiser liners also met grim fates (but in general they lasted longer and that is why the PSSS — Philippine Ship Spotters Society have still photos of them). Everybody knows the fate of “Dona Paz” which collided with a tanker in Tablas Strait on December 20, 1987 that resulted in great loss of lives.

The “Dona Marilyn”, meanwhile, foundered in a typhoon off Biliran on October 24, 1988 on her way to Tacloban from Manila. The “Philippine Princess” was hit by fire while refitting in Cebu on December 5, 1997. She was towed to Manila where she was broken up. The “Iloilo Princess” was hit by another fire while also refitting in Cebu on July 4, 2003. She capsized in port and she was broken up, too.

The “Dipolog Princess” was the only survivor of the five. She was among the Sulpicio Lines ships suspended as a consequence of the capsizing of the “Princess of the Stars” in a typhoon in June of 2008. She never sailed again and she was just anchored in Mactan Channel and later moored at the Sulpicio wharf in Pier 7 in Mandaue, Cebu. Together with the “Princess of the Caribbean” she was sold to China breakers and she was demolished in Xinhui, China by Jiangmen Yinhu Ship Breaking Company on January 2011.

Now, even Sulpicio Lines is no more.

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My Trip From Bicol To Cebu Via Masbate (Part 2)

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Arriving in Masbate Port

Upon disembarking from Marina Empress, I immediately went to the Cokaliong ship Filipinas Ozamis, my target ride to Cebu. I wanted to leave my things there and purchase a ticket from the Purser, if possible. I was rebuffed and not in a nice way (maybe they thought of me as just one feeble lolo). So things were no longer the same like when Trans-Asia Shipping Lines still held the Masbate route. Nor was it the same in Mangguino-o port in Calbayog when I rode their ship there to Cebu. So the arrangement is “more advanced” now. Gone was the old provincial port hospitality.

No use arguing with them so I went to their ticketing office outside the port gate. No shipspotting first as want to be ahead of the rest as I fear a big delegation or two might already be ahead of me given that next day was the start of Sinulog week in Cebu. I was the first in line when their office opened at 7am and I was able to get a Lounge ticket. It was my choice because I like the ambience and the space and besides I am a poor sleeper on rides anyway. It was easy except for a snafu as their ticket seller was new. A line was already forming behind me when I got my ticket.

I proceeded next to the newly-opened passenger terminal building (it was not operating before) and I tried to work on the lady guard. I need someone who I can trust my baggage to as I can’t lug it around while I shipspot. I said I need to take breakfast outside (the passenger terminal building has no eateries). She was kind and she took in my baggage. While free of my baggage already, I just took some shots of the port and its ship because my sugar was already dropping down.

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When I was outside the port already, I realized the info I got about Jollibee was bum. I did not like the heavy meals of the eateries near the port. It was then that I decided to take a risk of missing two ferry arrivals and a few fastcraft and motor banca departures. I wanted to see the new Gaisano mall which had a Bigg’s restaurant (the Bicol competitor of Jollibee which is more than their equal). It was somewhat near the market and the other Masbate port and bus terminal. I wanted to visit those places again because it will add to my Masbate photo collection and besides it had been sometime that I was there. It was also my intention to eat a farewell meal at Bigg’s since that is not available in Cebu and Mindanao.

I ate a fast breakfast at Bigg’s mindful that the ferries will arrive anytime. I was not mistaken coz going out of Gaisano I already saw buses from Manila rolling, the telltale sign that a ferry had already arrived. Nothing I can do anymore and so I just asked my tricycle driver to bring me to the Masbate bus terminal. On the way there we passed by the Masbate public market which is practically just across the street.

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The buses and commuter vans of Masbate fascinated me. Rarely do I see them and their spread is already the story of about the latest in Masbate land transportation. Adjacent to the bus terminal by the sea is the fishport, fish landing area and municipal port of Masbate. I found there the Burias motor bancas and other motor bancas aside from the fishing bancas of Masbate. I was lucky one Burias motor banca was already maneuvering to depart. The Burias motor bancas have a slightly different design from the other Masbate bancas.

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The other port of Masbate and the Burias motor bancas

It was just functional spotting there and I did not stay long although I was tempted to ride a van to Aroroy and ship spot there. But I thought if I did that I will miss a lot more in Masbate port and it is possible that when I come back most of the ROROs of Masbate port will have left already. But had I known then that there was a cheap Island Shipping LCT that leaves in the afternoon in Cawayan my plans might have been different (but that was no longer possible as I have already a Cokaliong ticket and I also wanted to ride the Filipinas Ozamis which I have not ridden before).

Back in port, I found the lady guard was really kind and accommodating. She agreed to take care of my things until her shift ends. By this time the port terminal building was beginning to get full of people as they force even the bus passengers to pass through it when actually short-distance ROROs are almost always ready for boarding. The building was already hot and stuffy as it has a bad airconditioning design and some aircon units were not working. Add to that people coming and going with the doors open.

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It was then that I made a full survey of the port. I noticed that the ferries Jack Daniel and Nelvin Jules of Sta. Clara Shipping were already docked there along with a small fastcraft of Montenegro Lines (it seems it had an early departure in Pilar given that at dawn there was no more RORO waiting there). Of course, passenger-cargo motor bancas from Pilar and Ticao island have already arrived too. Although there were some small crafts departures already this was the time (as in before 10am) that Masbate port is becoming already full. From 10am there will begin the RORO departures starting with Montenegro and Denica trips to Pilar (the trips to Pio Duran start later).

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The first notable departure I noticed was the fastcraft Lady Jacqueline which serves as the secure transport of a mining firm in Aroroy which fears the NPA (New People’s Army). Aside from personnel that craft is the daily carrier of the supplies sourced from the city. The fastcraft does not take in paying passengers.

This time around I already made up my mind that I will not try anymore to board all the ferries docked. One reason is to conserve my strength. When I try to do that I tend to distress in a few hours. Second, I have to be on guard regarding the vessels arriving and departures (I sometime miss some when I am touring ships). I know that soon the RORO departures will begin. But I also resolved I will try to visit the beautiful Jack Daniel of Sta. Clara Shipping. No member of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) has boarded that vessel yet and I will not pass up the chance.

Soon, as expected, starting just before 10am the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs Maria Angela of Montenegro Lines, the Odyssey of Denica Lines began leaving along with the small fastcraft of Montenegro Lines. And as usual motor bancas to and from Pilar and Ticao will arrive and depart along with small motor bancas from the other side of Masbate Bay. There was also a Burias motor banca that passed which emanated from the municipal port of Masbate. This was the time that the vessels in Masbate port will begin “thinning”.

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Two ROROs and a cargo in styropor boxes

As usual, docked in the port were a few freighters. In Masbate, freighters usually load copra and they use hoppers aboard trucks for that for ease in unloading (it will just be hooked by the boom of the ship). If the cargo is inbound to Masbate, it will most likely be cement. All other inbound supplies from Masbate is usually trucked. If the truck is outbound it might be carrying livestock as Masbate is known for that. In the bay, there were freighters anchored as usual, waiting.

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One prominent loose cargo that will be seen in Masbate are frozen fish and crustacean that are in styropor boxes. This comes from Sorsogon and it passes through Pilar port. Pilar and Sorsogon Bay is known for crustaceans. Some of the products are crab meat for the consumption of Cebu (most likely a crab omelet). If it is fish, it is the high-value kind which they call “isdang-bato”. Some of these are even for export. If there is a ship for Cebu like that day they will load it onboard. Otherwise, it will be loaded in the ferries in Cataingan port in the southeastern side of Masbate island. This port has connections to Bogo City and Cebu City.

When I came back to the port, there was still buses from Manila going out of the port bound for the far towns of Masbate like Aroroy, Balud, Esperanza and Pio V. Corpus. But soon all the many buses in the port are Manila-bound buses already. Many of them are early for their ships and their passengers contribute to the overflow inside the passenger terminal. It was still peak season and the buses were all full. Those who cannot be accommodated board the vessels bound for Pilar. There will be buses for Manila waiting there like my ride to Pilar.

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Jack Daniel lounge

When the sun was getting high I decided to take a break walking the length of the port by visiting the Jack Daniel. I did this before the lunchtime departures of the ferries began. I had an easy access and I went up immediately to the passenger deck. Her lounge and tourist was magnificent by short-distance RORO standards. Even the color motif was beautiful. At the back of it and at the bridge level there was the usual Economy section. The latter was the one we saw being built when PSSS first saw her in Nagasaka Shipyard.

I was able to talk with the Captain who is Alexander Saplat. He told me he was already the Captain way back in Nagasaka Shipyard and I was amazed when he told me they finished the painting of the ship in Pantao port (to nowhere) because it is cheaper to dock a ship there. He said the Niigata main engines are still good but they have a problem with an auxiliary. I told him his ship for its size has the biggest engine and highest design speed in the Philippines. However, in the Masbate-Pio Duran route they just aim for a three-and-a-half hour sailing time. It seems her good lounge will be appreciated for that voyage. Maybe that is the reason why they keep the ship there. It won’t be appreciated much in the one-hour-ten-minute sailing time between between Allen and Matnog.

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There were three Montenegro fastcrafts which I saw in Masbate Port. One is a small one and then the fastcraft City of Sorsogon. What attracted me, however, was the fastcraft City of Angeles that is the newest fastcraft of Montenegro Lines which I haven’t seen before. She was just the size of the City of Sorsogon.

At lunchtime the Maria Sophia of Montenegro Lines, the Marina Empress of Denica Lines left to be followed by Nelvin Jules of Sta. Clara Shipping which is still sporting the old blue and white livery of the company. We all took notice when she stopped at the middle of Masbate Bay still near the port. Soon we noticed a motor banca sidled with her. It turned out that a well-wisher was aboard when she departed. The motor banca then docked not for from us and soon a Montero SUV was flying inside the port (it was the fastest drive ever I saw inside a port). The driver must still be fuming.

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Nelvin Jules disembarking a well-wisher

Had a field day taking photos in Masbate port. I was so busy I decided to forego lunch and just relied on knick-knacks. Hard to go outside when one knows about four vessels will be departing around lunchtime and all the time buses (which I take shots of) were being loaded aboard.

I used the port terminal building to get some respite from the sun and have some rest. I registered a complaint to the highest official around that the airconditioning is not sufficient. He said even the Masbate local authorities have already complained but the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) has not acted on the matter. I said that they should discount their fees then. Their terminal fee is even higher than the port of Cebu when that port even supplies free shuttle and the airconditioning and seats are good.

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I also found another issue inside the port terminal. I noticed that the area reserved for kids with a playpen which is also the cooler portion of the terminal building was being occupied by Coast Guard men and their K-9 dog. Without much ado, I asked them to leave and they did (I prefaced it with the fact that they are college graduates hence should be act educated). After that some kids and a few adults used the place. The highest-ranking official of the port was there all the time and he did nothing and it seems that practice has been going on for some time. A Coast Guardsman went back and we had a polite but not a dry talk. Maybe it was the first time they faced someone like me. I said the Filipinos have a legacy of martial law in their brains – usually they can’t complain if across him was a man in uniform with guns.

The last ferry that was scheduled to leave Masbate port was the Jack Daniel. But past its ETD of 4pm I noticed she was still docked although most of her load was already inside her RORO deck. They said they were still waiting for some buses. Buses have contracts with ROROs in Bicol and it will not leave until all buses it should load were already accounted for. This reserved slot, this waiting for them is what new-to-intermodal private car owners do not understand in the intermodal system. It usually infuriates them because they thought everything is “first come, first served”. They don’t understand the the system of reservations works anywhere and everywhere.

By this time nearing late afternoon the only passengers left at the passenger terminal building were the passengers bound for Cebu. If one arrives he is immediately asked it he is for Pio Duran and if yes they will immediately tell him to go direct to the ship. With two ferries left and fastcrafts done for the day and just a few buses and cars inside the port there was no longer the bustle and the hubbub of the peak hours. Together with the sun beginning to dim I already feel a pang of loneliness inside the port. I went out. The pall is the same there. The business of the port for the day was drifting to a close. Even the kind lady guard was no longer around.

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I was charging my camera batteries and it so happened the young lady near the outlet turned out she was from Rinconada (and a Cebu student) and we had a talk. She was not able to get a good accommodations because she was rather late in arriving because she just took the 6am van to Legazpi and so she arrived at mid-afternoon. It was her usual ride, a ride I do not take for twice it resulted in photo finishes years before. But it seems the Montenegro fastcraft have turned around some things. But still it cannot be the ride for me because if I arrive at 2pm or 3pm most of the ROROs except one will be gone already and that is shipspotting failure already (shows what shipspotters have to endure at times as in this case in have to take a midnight ride).

Boarded my ship before 5pm with the lady student. That was the most we can do with our charging in the terminal. I tried to notice the crew if Cokaliong is different. Nope, as one told me before, there are no more able-bodied seamen now. Just all apprentices or interns. Made my first round, a quick one of the Filipinas Ozamis. I was glad I had a good accommodation as the ship was nearly full. Took my first shots of the inside of the ship before it got too dark. I may not have that chance when we reach Cebu.

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No good meal

I went out of the port again to my dinner outside before it became dark. I noticed the Jack Daniel was still there and she was already one-a-half hours past her departure time. I was intrigued and so I visited her again even though she lies at the farther part of the port. I asked around. They were still waiting for three buses of Mega Bus. This bus being trounced already by competition is already the last bus that leaves their destinations. I hope some passengers were not stewing.

Our ETD was 7pm so there was really no rush in my meal. But I was surprised that when I came back the Jack Daniel was still there. The port was already dark by then and there was not much activity anymore except near the two ferries remaining, our Filipinas Ozamis and the Jack Daniel. Filipinas Ozamis was already rushing her loadings. Nearly all of her passengers were already aboard.

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If they can only load a bus on the roof

I cannot resist going again to Jack Daniel. I asked around again. The Mega Bus buses which the Jack Daniel waited for were already there. But there was a hitch. They can load only two of the buses and passengers of one of the buses were being asked to alight from Jack Daniel. What a horrible development and I pitied the passengers. Usually there are sure slots for the buses as their places are already confirmed hours before they arrived. I thought some Masbate bigshot might have bulldozed his way in.

We left at 7pm and Jack Daniel was still there. I thought it would be smooth for us. But then we circled and the stern ramp was dropped. I thought there was a problem and we will be going back to the port. But then after stopping near the Jack Daniel, our ship then finally departed at about 7:25pm. A passenger asked me what was that all about. I don’t really know so I just joked they must be letting out some bad air.

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Leaving Jack Daniel behind

Made a tour of the ship after boarding again . It was already all night shots and sometimes the result was not good. But I want to do it because usually at Cebu there won’t be a chance anymore. And a tour like this with the ship already sailing and all the passengers onboard telegraphs a different feel. I saw that the lounges near the canteens and the open-air passenger area with tables and seat where the ones the passengers that are not resting were gathered. Filipinas Ozamis does not have the usual restaurant.

Filipinas Ozamis was not that big, I thought. Being full it felt even cramped. I was glad I got the Lounge Class. The lounge itself is not ticketed; it is the jetseater seats that are. So the total space for so few passengers in this class is big. The class accommodations of Filipinas Ozamis is not balanced. Lots of cabins whose total capacity is even bigger than Tourist, I found out in the General Arrangement Plan (GAP). That is why Tourist is almost all sold out while there are vacancies in Cabin. I thought some of the Cabins in the center should have been converted into an additional Tourist section.

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Filipinas Ozamis Lounge class

The ship was clean and our voyage was smooth. Soon I was back in lounge and I noticed the passengers are angling to sleep on the couches. I also did the same and I had a pleasant lie. I noticed few were occupying the jetseaters anyway when actually we are full in that class. The lounge had a wonderful ambience by the way. Very nice if with a group of friends.

Was able to get a reasonably good sleep for my age and I was up in Cebu when we were nearing the Mactan bridges. Once they broadcast to the crew, I will surely be up. I just wished our arrival was some 30 minutes later. Nothing good to capture on my lens even when we were already docking on Pier 1. Sayang. Had we had a late arrival it would have been grand shipspotting. I had enough batteries for that.

I had a good Bicol to Cebu trip via Masbate over-all. I was not that tired as I already learned how to pace myself. The cool weather was also a factor. It was a good shipspotting trip by all means.

The Trip from Tacloban to Surigao del Sur [Part 2]

When the smaller group of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) members split and said goodbyes in Tacloban bus terminal, I was aware it was already December 13 and it was the PSSS’ 8th anniversary. I dunno if anyone mentioned it but I didn’t coz I do not want to spook anybody since many associate the 13th with bad luck and we were still all traveling. In our drive to Surigao del Sur, I never mentioned to Joe the anniversary because active members remember the PSSS was founded on December 13. Well, the luck of PSSS is still holding, fingers crossed.

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From Surigao City, me and Joe followed the road to going to Butuan. In our short drive in the city I think Joe already had an idea of the lay-out of it since we took the main road going in and another road going out. Along the way we saw some prominent landmarks like the St. Paul College, the Lipata junction, the bus terminal and the airport plus the shuttered Pacific Cement company. If I remember right, what Joe told me this was his first time in Mindanao and I felt pangs of remorse we were not able to invite our two companions we left in Tacloban for I know they haven’t been to this place yet too. But our host in Surigao del Sur knows only two are coming and Joe didn’t want to abuse the hospitality.

It was a serene drive from the city punctuated by some curves and by some sea views. No meaningful ports really in the area until we arrived in the junction to Surigao del Sur by the progressive barrio of Bad-as which belongs to Placer town. I was surprised there was already a Prince hypermarket there, a Cebu chain. In a barrio no less, when the towns there don’t even have one. I thought the mines might be giving prosperity in the area and the chain bet that junction will soon boom (well, it already looks like a small town to me).

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From there it was a more serene drive. Fewer vehicles, fewer people. We were no longer in the main road, i.e. the Maharlika Highway or AH26 but the road is just as good with even less damage and bumps. We were some distance yet from the sea and small rice fields and low hills dominated the sight. We had a relaxed drive.

Soon, Joe rolled out his GPS map. We were now in an area where I was not familiar with the ports and roads so I can’t give him directions. I told him our first target is the Port of Placer that I have heard before which is named after the town that is still a part of Surigao del Norte (it always enters my mind that there is a port in Placer, Masbate and also in Placer in Surigao del Sur).

Not long after, the sea and then the town came into view. I have the impression of an old town but the progress we saw in Bad-as was not evident here. We made a tour of the town while looking for the protrusion in the GPS map that indicates a finger port. Soon we were running on a road by the sea that is also a docking wharf for the small fishing bancas. That road then led to the actual port which was walled with a gate.

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We paused, a natural reaction but when we entered slowly there was no challenge, just curious looks (maybe they were trying to figure who the big shots were entering the port). That’s the beauty of a port that is not ISPS. In an ISPS (International System of Port Security) port, the guards are generally hostile and visitors are not welcome (they only want people who have official business there).

The Port of Placer surprised me. Offshore there was a tanker (not the Pandacan-type, mind you) but in the port itself there were two Petron truck tankers transferring fuel to plastic drums aboard a motor boat and a big passenger-cargo motor banca (I thought this was illegal but, oh well, we have to be practical). We learned it is destined for a generating plant of an island. The fishing boats inside were bigger and mostly of the basnig type. There were also two motor boats one of which is discharging scrap metal to a truck and the other has drums for fuel also.

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Offshore were islands and islets. Not a surprise since looking at the map this portion of Surigao has many offshore islands. Fishing abounds here and it seems the Port of Placer is one of the recipients. There were fish trucks in the port along with fish brokers. Placer port, though out of the way did not disappoint me. The visit was worth it.

We next passed the small towns of Bacuag and Gigaquit. We had no target ports here. We next rolled into Claver town which was the last town of Surigao del Norte (and soon we understood how it came to be). It was more progressive and I half-expected it having heard of it in the past. The GPS indicated to us a finger port and so we came looking for it. It was small with just a motor boat which seems not to be too active. There was no open sight of the sea. Only mangroves. It was a disappointment. I only took long-distance shots because if we enter the only way out is by backing the car. Not good.

From sea level, the road began to climb and offshore at a long distance we can see LCTs and barges. I forced getting pics but the quality was not good as it was too far for my lens. It turned out I was over-eager. Later, we found out that the mining ports were still ahead of us and I already began to exhaust my supply of batteries (after visiting nine ports already it should have been no surprise). But i rued my over-eagerness.

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As we proceeded, we noticed more and more ships were coming into view and most of those were LCTs and barges with loads that look like brown earth. We can also already see the mining wharves which are mainly causeways built by rocks and earth just bulldozed into the sea (but the biggest in the area, that of Taganito Mining is a pile-type port and it docks bulkers and tankers). The seawater of the area already has a tinge of brown when it was supposed to be blue. We were coming into the mining pollution we have read and seen from the news.

Soon, it was obvious we were nearing a mining community. The mud in the road tells it and what we are meeting now in the road were mostly mining trucks and vehicles. There were also truck depots of the mines along the road and there were also heavy equipment. China brands were almost universally the makes of the rolling stock here, some of which I just seen for the first time in my life.

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Before descending to sea level, it was becoming obvious the mining community we supposed was not just composed of one company but of several distinct companies with it own compounds, gates and wharves. The community was several kilometers long and it already has the feel and flavor of an emerging town. I remembered our member ‘kensurcity’ mentioned to me in a shipspotting meet that Jollibee can open a store in Claver and he said it will thrive. Maybe, this place Taganito was what he was referring to. Well, mining boom towns have magic in terms of glittering metal.

At the center of this community is the legendary Taganito Mining Corporation of the sometimes-controversial Nickel Asia which hit jackpot with the rise of China’s metal needs. There are other mining companies in the area and all are just adjacent one another. One is Adnama Mining Resources and the PSSS is familiar with some of its LCTs that are normally caught by our cameras in Cebu waters.

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When i check the AIS sites, I often see MMSI vessels near Surigao that has Taganito port as the intended destination. It is not a government-owned port, by the way and there are actually many mining wharves in the area each hosting ships with many other ships anchored offshore. We saw about 20 ships in all in the Taganito area (it is actually several barrios) but one needs really long lenses to cover them all well.

Even in the descent to Taganito community (the mining companies are centered in the barrio of Taganito), one is already aware of the exposed rocks at the side of the road which really looked like ores. Slowly, one can also see the stripped mountains and the water run-offs that are brown in color. Ascending after Taganito, it was even more visible and the mining communities also come into view already along with the bays that hosts the wharves. Brown, stripped mountains up high, brown-colored water run-offs and a sea that is turning brown.

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There is no surprise in that because what is being done is plain strip mining (not open pit as there is no pit; the mining companies were just stripping the mountains) just several kilometers from the sea and there are no holding or containment pools. No wonder the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources is now threatening the closure of some of them. It was great shipspotting in that area, there are magnificent views but at the same time one would begin to understand the controversy surrounding the mining in that area.

Leaving the mining area, I began to understand why there was no proper road there before and why Surigao del Sur is cut then from Surigao del Norte then. The area is mainly rocks and it does not have good vegetation and so how much more agriculture? No agriculture, no people. No people, no roads. Then it turned out those rocks are valuable. And so the road connecting the two provinces was built (i was told it was mush before). It looks like a good mining road anyway because most of the vehicles that pass are connected to the mines.

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I exhausted my batteries after that place and me and Joe began to hasten because our target Cortes town is still a fair distance away and it was already past mid-afternoon. We just whizzed by the towns of Carrascal, Cantilan, Madrid, Carmen and Lanuza. We vowed just to cover them and whatever ports are there on our way back to Leyte and Samar. Then, we finally reached the house of Joe’s shipmate at 5pm which we found to be in a progressive but woody barrio off the main road. Good decision to just whiz by the five towns (and anyway I don’t have batteries anymore). Otherwise, we would be searching a woody, unfamiliar and probably dark place after nightfall.

A seafood fete awaited us and all were fresh catch (we learned the fishermen themselves hawk it house-to-house there). Joe immediately posted a shot of the feast in Instagram with a hashtag of the place. A companion we left in Tacloban immediately noticed it (chismoso talaga ang social media). Maybe he was wondering how Joe, in an area he hasn’t ever run was able to cover a lot of distance in just such a short span of time with a ferry crossing to boot and almost no sleep. I didn’t know why James immediately suspected I was with Joe. Was I missing something;)?

Ah, anyway our luck held. And it seemed we did very fine on the day of the PSSS’ anniversary and Joe was able to prove he was a superb driver. Imagine that distance (350 land kilometers plus the Surigao Strait crossing) and pace (13 1/2 hours) with nine ports and one port complex (Taganito) covered including a meal stop. Who will believe that was possible? I bet James was thinking i was holding the wheel.

[Part 3 will be in the next installment.]

The Trip From Tacloban to Surigao del Sur (Part 1)

The smaller tour group of the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) reached Tacloban on the midnight of the second night of the tour. Waiting for Mark to get a ride, we finally parted at about 3:30am of December 13 with Mark on the way to Bato, Leyte for a shipspotting of Bohol and James on the way back to Cebu via Palompon. Me and Joe’s destination was unmentioned but we were actually on the way to Cortes, Surigao del Sur, near the capital of Tandag to visit a shipmate of Joe and shipspot along the way.

There are really not many ports on the Tacloban-Panaon island axis if one follows the road to Mahaplag. From Tacloban, Joe and me had to take the Mahaplag route mainly because it was still dark and Joe also wanted to see the Agas-agas bridge. Besides, a trip via Silago will take longer and I want us to be on the 8am ferry in Benit because that will afford us the greatest chance of visits to the unexplored ports of Surigao without nightfall overtaking us. We had the thought of passing it on the way back, halfheartedly, because our tentative route on the way back now was via Isabel, Leyte to pick up a puppy.

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Liloan Ferry Terminal and Liloan bridge

We reached Liloan at about 6am and Joe tried entering the Liloan Ferry Terminal. I dissuaded him because I feared we will get in trouble with the LGU collectors of illegal exactions and we will lose more time if a scene erupts and anyway I don’t want to take the ferry there because I thought it will reach Lipata Ferry Terminal not sooner but later. I told Joe we can cover Lipata Ferry Terminal from the Liloan municipal port which is located just a kilometer from the other end of the Liloan bay.

I was not mistaken and we were lucky because as tipped by member Mervin Go Soon of Baybay (whom we met on the Oroquieta Stars on the way to the PSSS tour-meet assembly in Tacloban), the former Maharlika Cinco of Archipelago Ferries was there. The other tip of Mervin that the Grand Star RORO 3 was doing a Liloan Municipal Port to Surigao route also proved true because she was there besides the former Maharlika Cinco. We noticed no work was being done on the former Maharlika Cinco which would become the Gloria Five of Gabisan Shipping. I was wondering then who is operating the Grand Star RORO 3. I thought it was “M Shipping” whose AUV we encountered on the road (I was mistaken on that assumption as Mervin very recently told me that Grand Star RORO 3 was also bought by Gabisan Shipping and I wonder now if she is the Gloria One advertised by the company in Liloan port).

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Across the bay, we saw that it was only the Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping which was docked in Liloan Ferry Terminal. With its slow speed and the triple distance of Liloan compared to Benit port, it would have been disaster to our schedule had we taken it (so our bet not to enter Liloan Ferry Terminal was right after all). There was also anchored in the bay the Cargo RORO LCT GT Express 1 of GT Shipping which was doing a route to Surigao so that trucks wouldn’t queue long like in the past. I noticed the old Liloan municipal port terminal was already converted into an office by the municipality. But the old arrastre office was still there.

At the end of our short, alloted time in Liloan we made a run for Benit in San Ricardo town at the tip of Panaon island. I did not want a photofinish and I told Joe we need to put in some allowance on time lest we were shut out of the ferry (“shut out” in maritime use here means one’s vehicle or cargo fails to be loaded to a ship) and probably have to backtrack to Liloan and so we did not look for a place to eat anymore (anyway there was probably none that is inviting as Liloan is just a small town). Along the way we saw the abandoned port of San Francisco which once docked the copra ships of great shipping line Go Thong in the past.

We next came to “The Saddle”, a renowned mountain pass that Joe wants to conquer (it was called by that name because it resembles a horse saddle if viewed from the sea). It was not shipspotting but there were views of the sea from there and we knew right after that will come the town of San Ricardo but Benit port will still be some distance from it.

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Leaving behind Benit, its collectors of illegal exactions and “The Saddle”

Approaching Benit port, before the turn inside, I told Joe that if the San Ricardo LGU collectors of the illegal exactions flag him down that he continues driving as if he did not see anything. The ruse worked and upon entering the people of Montenegro Lines and the arrastre rushed us saying we will be the last vehicle that will be loaded. There were already shortcuts in the processing of papers and we were already on the ramp before all the papers were even processed. The ship left even before 8am and I saw two vehicles that arrived minutes after us were no longer accommodated (and there was actually still some space for at least one of them). So it was still a photofinish alright and a lucky accommodation. Sometimes that is one gets from being disciplined in the travel approach. I told Joe before that many said I am lucky with trips and it seems it was holding. Actually, it held during the 1,000 kilometers me and Joe ran with two ferry crossings and with many ports visited.

Our ship was the Maria Vanessa of Montenegro Lines, sister of the Maria Felisa (actually no other shipping company serves the Benit-Lipata route). Since we both lacked sleep, me and Joe barely toured the ship. Instead we immediately looked for a cool, comfortable and quiet place and soon we were asleep although the voyage usually takes only 1 hour and 15 or 20 minutes. We two really needed that rest even if it was so short. We did not even care for food as all we wanted is sleep.

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Lipata Ferry Terminal

That short sleep reinvigorated the two of us and there was no hassle in the disembarkation process nor in getting out of the Lipata Ferry Terminal. We did not try anymore to tour the port since we will be exiting Mindanao through that port anyway. What we wanted was food as our stomachs were grumbling already. It was already mid-morning and we only had hamburger the previous night in Tacloban terminal and no breakfast at all.

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“Voyagers” (Photo by Joe Cardenas)

Going out of the port, I espied a new place which looked like a diner to me although it looks more of a lodging place. I was able to convince Joe to backtrack and what a discovery! Well, they really serve meals and snacks and it turned out that the owner is a master mariner abroad and so the place was themed by maritime things. The was not the usual rush of people, it was quiet and clean and it does not look or smell like the usual roadside stands. The name of the place is “Voyagers” and we recommend it. Me and Joe took a little time to unwind and relax there before we proceeded to the city (i.e. Surigao City). 

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In the city, we first went to what is called the “Boulevard”. It is a boulevard indeed, a seaside one. It is adjacent to the main port of Surigao and it is there where the so-many big motor bancas of Surigao to Dinagat, Siargao and other islands dock. We were lucky since we were early they were still all there and since the sea was calm so many came. I walked the entire length of the Boulevard getting shots of all the bigger boats. Offshore, a few LCTs were moored, as always. LCTs are a fixture of Surigao now because the mines employ them.

From there me and Joe proceeded to the main port of Surigao which is called Verano port. Joe wanted to enter but I told him there is almost no chance of a free pass as it is an ISPS port which means visitors are not welcome. To buy a ticket for Siargao so we can enter means a bit heavy “entrance fee”. Might have been affordable for our pockets but I was always mindful of the time and I do not want the quest for the unexplored ports of Surigao be compromised (why is it that long-distance shipspotting is always balancing of compromises?). Besides I was more interested in the old docking area of boats nestled on the side of Verano which was not obvious or visible from outside it. So I just contented myself with some shots of Verano ships from the gate. There are not many of them at a given time anyway and two i even caught while departing.

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A view of Verano Port from the nearly-enclosed marina beside it

I then nestled myself into the narrow opening that leads to what I found to be a dirty marina where many bancas and motor boats were anchored (there were more than 15 of them). This looked like to be the old port as can be deduced from the road on the other side of where I was. It is now almost encircled by Verano port but I knew from observation inside Verano that passenger-cargo motor bancas emanate from it which I found to be bound to the smaller islands that belong to Surigao City.

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The MARINA nestled by Verano Port

Many of the vessels in that nearly-enclosed marina were actually fishing bancas. But it seems nobody cares anymore for that port and marina. It is dirty and it looks as if there is no order there and even the roads and pathways leading to it look unmaintained. I did not dare exploring anymore as the walkways looked dangerous to me.

From there me and Joe exited Surigao City not through the main road but through some shortcuts which Joe saw on the GPS map. We did not try anymore the Surigao-Lipata coastal road whose turn we missed earlier. The unexplored municipal ports and the mining ports of Surigao were the ones that were already pulling us. Their magnetites seem to be strong….

(More on the next installment.)

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.

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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.

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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 Ferry That Won’t Die

A few months ago, out of a sudden, a PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member espied a ship docked in Hilongos port. Even though it was dark he was able to recognize the silhouette since he has already sailed with it in crossing Surigao Strait. It was a surprise to the PSSS community since many thought she was already dead since it has been three years since she disappeared from the Liloan-Lipata route. The last that was heard of her was that she was in a General Santos City shipyard. That time the new FastCats of Archipelago Philippines Ferries were also due to arrive (and it did) and so they have no more need for their old and unreliable Maharlika ferries. In fact, they were also disposing off already their Grandstar RORO ferries which was even a later acquisition of theirs from Phil-Nippon Kyoei.

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Photo credit: Joel Bado

The ferry was the Maharlika Cinco which has long held the Liloan-Lipata ferry route for Archipelago Philippine Ferries. She was actually their most reliable ferry in the route, she was always there as if she had never heard of the two-year rule for mandatory drydocking. Maharlika Dos might be in and out of service like Millennium Uno but Maharlika Cinco will always be there.

If one who doesn’t know her will think she is just another bland ferry then maybe he will be surprised if he will know that this ferry has a colorful history. Maharlika Cinco had actually bounced between routes and owners, has had a trip to the seabed, had her superstructure ripped, etc. Her bounces were actually too fast that international maritime databases has a hard time catching up with her thus it has lots of errors.

This ferry was first known as the Sata Maru No. 3 of Kinkowan Ferry KK and home ported in Kagoshima, Japan. She was supposed to be built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Kobe, Japan but instead she was subcontracted to a shipbuilder that was not well-known, the Tokushima Sangyo in Komatsushima, Japan. Her keel was laid in November 1971 and she was launched in April 1972. She possessed the permanent ID IMO 7205221.

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Photo credit: To the lady in the photo

The ship is a RORO with ramps at the bow and at the stern. She measures 70.9 meters in length over-all (LOA) with a beam of 12.5 meters and a load capacity of 500 deadweight tons. Her original gross register tonnage (GRT) was 997 tons. She has a raked stem, a transom stern with two masts and two side funnels. Sata Maru No. 3 was equipped with two Niigata diesels with a total of 2,600 horsepower giving her a top speed of 14 knots when new.

In 1981, when Kinkowan Ferry quit operation she went to Nankai Yusen KK. A few years later she was sold to Badjao Navigation in the Philippines and she became the Christ The Saviour. Badjao Navigation had a route from Cebu to Samar among others but it was not really successful. Maybe like Newport Shipping that had a route from Manila to Samar she thought that it would be better if they will do a Matnog-Allen route which was growing then. By this time she was already known as the Christ The King. However, ROROs in the route multiplied fast.

Maharlika Cinco

Photo credits: Philtranco Heritage Museum and Dennis Obsuna

In time, Badjao Navigation quit the shipping business and she passed on to Luzvimin Ferry Services of the Philtranco Service Enterprises Inc. (PSEI), an intermodal bus operator with routes from Manila to Visayas and up to Mindanao where she became the Luzvimin Primo. Maybe when Badjao Navigation was still doing the Matnog-Allen route she was just under Provisional Authority (PA) because soon after Luzvimin Ferry Services started operations the ruling shipping company of San Bernardino Strait protested, the Bicolandia Shipping Lines, and pointed out that her competitor has no Certificate of Public Conveyance (CPC) or franchise.

Luzvimin Ferry Services defended itself by saying that their ferries were just meant to carry their buses. The case was first heard in MARINA, the local maritime regulatory body which has quasi-judicial powers but eventually it reached the courts (the higher court even) which held that any ship transporting vehicles must secure a franchise from MARINA. And that was the end of Luzvimin Ferry Services and the career of the former Badjao Navigation ferries in San Bernardino Strait.

In about 1990, Christ The King next found itself in Batangas under a new company, the Prince Valiant Navigation where she was known as the Mindoro Express. When she went to that new area there was also a ruling shipping company there which was even tougher in challenging newcomers and sometimes the challenge is even outside the legal plane. I don’t know exactly why but soon she was doing a route to Palawan. There she sank in Honda Bay near Puerto Princesa port.

Mindoro Express ( now Maharlika Cinco )

Photo credit: Edison Sy

It turned out she was eventually refloated and brought to Keppel Batangas shipyard where a shipping owner who later became a PSSS member caught her in cam. This was in late 1991. From his analysis, he thinks the sooty exterior in the starboard side indicated the ship had a fire. He says firefighting water on just one side of a ship can capsize a ship. The ship bore other damages too like a missing port funnel and deformations in the structure.

Mindoro Express ( now Maharlika Cinco )

Photo credit: Edison Sy

Much later, sometime about 2002, a ferry for Archipelago Philippine Ferries turned up in the Liloan-Lipata route to double their unreliable 18-year old Maharlika II. The name of the ship was Maharlika V. To almost everyone including me they thought this was just another ferry that just arrived from Japan. It seems even Philtranco bus drivers did not recognize her (or they were playing poker?). One thing though is she seems a little rusty but I think nobody thought much of it since being a bit rusty was an Archipelago Philippine Ferries trademark. And maybe nobody gave a damn as long as the ship was reliable. After all, the Liloan-Lipata route was home to unreliable ferries until Super Shuttle Ferry 5 appeared on the route.

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Photo credit: PDO-Visayas of PPA

Fast forward to December 2008, the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) was born. With its growing photostream from the members’ contribution, it afforded members (and the world) a view of the different ships from all over the Philippines from ferries to freighters to tankers and tugs and everything in between. A member then contributed a photo of Maharlika Cinco when their family had a vacation in Southern Leyte and they crossed Surigao Strait. That was 2009.

It was here that the PSSS member who caught a photo of Mindoro Express in Keppel Batangas in 1991 realized that if the superstructure of Mindoro Express is cropped then it would look almost exactly the same as Maharlika Cinco and he alerted me. When a collage of the two was posted in PSSS the riddle of Maharlika Cinco‘s origin was solved. The two were exactly the same ship. Later, upon researching, the two ships had identical IMO Numbers and that was the final confirmation since IMO Numbers are unique numbers and only one hull can possess a particular number.

Comparison

Photo credits: Edison Sy and Joel Bado

Maharlika Cinco continued sailing but in this decade her engines were already beginning to get less reliable. Not soon after she disappeared from the route with the last news saying she was in a General Santos shipyard with an uncertain return. With Maharlika Cuatro and a rejuvenated Maharlika Dos (she was regenerated when her sister ship Maharlika Uno went to the breakers), it looked like Archipelago had no more use for her. To me, I no longer expected to see her again. Her metal before she disappeared also seemed to be on the soft side already. Soft metal plus unreliable engines plus no more use to me looked like equal to goodbye.

It was like waking to a stupor when somebody called me from Hilongos to report that discovery of an apparition of a ship in the night. The PSSS member then proceeded to investigate. She would be the Gloria V of Gabisan Shipping which has a Hilongos-Cebu route. Yes, it was a buy one, take one deal. They also acquired the Maharlika Cuatro which stopped operation in the aftermath of the Maharlika Dos sinking. He asked what was the former name of the ship. “Mindoro Express”, they said, as if they can fool the PSSS ship spotter (and our ship spotter laughed). Maybe they were ashamed to admit it was the Maharlika Cinco because Liloan is too near and the ship does not really have a sterling reputation there.

Decrepit Maharlika Cinco

Photo credit: Rex Nerves

They latter admitted a difficult sailing from General Santos City via Zamboanga (they were afraid of the rough waters in the eastern seaboard of Mindanao). The engines failed several times and they had to seek shelter and assistance. The trip took long but finally they made it to Hilongos in one piece. No, sorry, they would not honor a ship tour. It’s understandable.

After some preliminary work, Maharlika Cinco disappeared from Hilongos. From checking, PSSS members said she was not in Tayud, the great shipyard row of Cebu (she is too big not to be noticed from offshore). Then she was discovered in Liloan municipal port. They would finish the refitting there. They brought it over there since in Hilongos she would often be forced to undock if a ship is coming.

Maharlika Cinco

Photo credit: Rex Nerves

Gabisan Shipping intends to sail her in the Cebu-Hilongos route. They say one of the Gloria cruisers will be sold and the Maharlika Cuatro which is in Tayud is for sale. It seems even Gabisan Shipping, a staunch believer in cruisers is also getting aboard now in the RORO bandwagon to Leyte. After all the Cargo RORO and the other ROROs are making a killing. Speculation says she will be spruced up to be able to compete with the Graceful Stars of Roble Shipping.

This is simply a ferry that wouldn’t die and I don’t know if she has a charm embedded in her hull. If she will survive now, I just hope the MARINA plan which is fanned by some politicians and columnists that 35-old ferries will be retired will not snuff out her life. Finally.

The MV Ma. Angelica Grace

The Ma. Angelica Grace is a unique but hard-luck ship. Of Korean design and origin she had that extended scantling already making for a bigger passenger accommodation although she is basically an LCT. Following Korean innovation she is faster like a conventional ferry and her hull is not exactly flat but more like that of a conventional ship. She is really speedy for an LCT (17.5 knots!) because she is overpowered.

When she first came into the country in 2009 and sailed for Rapal Inter-island Shipping, I was surprised because I knew the route she is embarking on is bound to end in doom. That is the Batangas-Romblon-Masbate route. Sometimes, I wonder why some shipping companies seem not to study failures in the past. But maybe then they might have a connection or attachment in the place which is hard to quantify.

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The route linking Batangas and Masbate was marginal even in the heydeys of Viva Shipping Lines and to think it was a long-held route by them. The competing Lucena-Masbate route is even superior from the passenger and rolling cargo point of view. This is so because since rates in the sea is far higher than rates in the land then what makes sense for them is a short sea crossing, if possible and the Lucena-Masbate route is far shorter than the Batangas-Masbate route. In fact that route was held longer by Viva Shipping Lines (up until their demise) that the Batangas-Masbate route.

But then the entry of the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO to Masbate from Pilar trumped both Batangas and Lucena since that route is very short. Suddenly, the crossing of trucks to Masbate became affordable (thence, only a select few dare pay the hefty rolling rate to Lucena or Batangas). Later, with the ferry company encouraging and supporting the bus companies, soon the rolling of buses also commenced and that impacted a lot on the choice of the passengers. Suddenly, the direct bus crossing to Masbate was already their default choice.

In the Batangas-Romblon section, Rapal Inter-island Shipping will also not have its way. Montenegro Lines has a headstart there and CSGA Ferry (MV Princess Annavell) was also doing the route. And that is aside from the ferry from Lucena of Kalayaan Shipping. Soon the successor of MBRS Lines (which held the Manila-Romblon routes then) will come back as the Romblon Shipping Lines and operate the liner Mary The Queen. Romblon does not have a big population anyway nor such great economic activity to support so many ships. So when the Maria Angelica Grace came into the picture I know they will go out of the picture soon (pun intended) and I was not mistaken.

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Maria Angelica Grace was first known as the A Rim Car Ferry No. 2 of the A Rim Car Ferry of South Korea. She was built by Ilheung Shipbuilding Co., Ltd. in Mokpo yard in South Korea. She has two masts, two funnels, a half passenger deck and a car deck with a single bow ramp as access and she has a square end stern. Like most LCTs, her access to the passenger deck is through stairs at the very end of the ship.

This modern LCT measured 56.6 meters in length over-all, a beam of 10.0 meters and a depth of 2.8 meters. Her dimensional weight are 416 gross tons and 200 in net tonnage and the ship’s DWT is 152 gross tons. She is powered by twin Caterpillar engines with a total of 2,550hp (that is High Speed Craft range!) which gave her a top speed of 17.5 knots which was indeed very fast for an LCT.

Maria Angelica Grace had a limited passenger accommodation but it had airconditioning which might have been original in Korea. However, she was fitted with bunks since her route to Romblon and Masbate are overnight routes. She also has a few seats and in the rear there is a small canteen and mess. That facility is needed by ferries doing overnight routes.

When she quit her Sibuyan Sea route she was then leased to Surigao to carry not passengers but metallic ores. I wonder why they did not just apply for other routes because later it was found out that metallic ores loaded into the deck is toxic for LCTs as the ores easily corrode the deck and since it is a deck exposed to rain the water combined with the ores will result in leaching.

Maria Angelica Grace was pulled out after two years in Surigao and her shiny white paint was already gone and the deck corroded. She was leased to Mandaue Transport which has Cargo RORO LCT operations from Cabahug wharf in Mandaue, Cebu to Tagbilaran, Bohol. The MARINA of Region 7, however advanced some conditions. They demanded a new coat of paint and repairs has to be made to the car deck. Work was being done to her when we visited her. Her bunks were also being removed. MARINA Region 7 is rather strict in the rule the Cargo RORO LCTs should not have passenger accommodations. They do not want any passenger revenue accruing on the sly.

With these met she soon began sailing as the third LCT of Mandaue Transport in the Mandaue-Tagbilaran route carrying rolling cargo (i.e. vehicles). However, her career with Mandaue Transport did not last long how; it was actually very short. In a few months, she capsized (but not sunk) right in Cabahug wharf while loading. The strong wash of a High Speed Craft passing capsized her. Maybe the time that happened her load was unbalanced and maybe it was a vulnerable point as Cabahug wharf is in the northern narrows of Mactan Channel and High Speed Crafts pass just about a hundred meters away.

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Maria Angelica Grace was refloated and she was towed to Colorado Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu. However, years have passed and yet no work was being done on her. That was still the situation when Philippine Ship Spotters Society (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) members visited Colorado Shipyard. She looked rusty again and maybe it is even more rusty in the car deck. With her capsizing, she also suffered damages in the engine room and bridge for sure.

I do not know what is her future. What I know is her capsizing resulted in the restrictions in the the speeds of the High Speed Crafts inside Mactan Channel.

I just rue such fate of a once fast LCT.

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Photo Credits: Nowell Alcancia, John Carlos Cabanillas, Mike Baylon, Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS)

The Danica Joy 2

The Danica Joy 2 is unique among local ferries because it is the only one with a foreign route, that is, to the port of Sandakan in Sabah, Malaysia. No other ferry has that distinction. Glan port in Sarangani province might have a connection to Indonesia but it is Indonesian ferries which sail the route. However, soon maybe with the establishment of the Kudat-Bataraza route linking Sabah and Palawan Danica Joy 2 might lose that distinction as a local ferry is slated to do that route. Malaysian ferries are not interested to do a route to the Philippines because the near islands to them are underdeveloped and it is us who needs products as their goods are much cheaper than ours except for “sin” products which is illegal in their land like alcoholic drinks and we have plenty of that. Besides, we are also very well known for piracy and kidnapping, or at least the Abu Sayyaf is.

The Danica Joy 2 is not really a big ship. She is actually much smaller than the Lady Mary Joy which pioneered the route to Sabah at least in the legal realm. What I mean is from Zamboanga, Jolo, Bongao and other islands there are wooden cargo-passenger motor boats called Moro boats in PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) and junko or lancha in the place which makes run to Sabah. Most of these are unregistered and in all cases they have no ferry franchises from MARINA, the local maritime authority. But it is known by all that they run otherwise how could we have such an big “illegal” population in Sabah and how could be there so many “barter” goods in southwest Mindanao that reach even Cebu and Davao. Many of our islands near Sabah are almost completely dependent on fuel from that Malaysian territory and that dependence even extends to cooking oil, rice, cigarettes and many other grocery products and it is these junko or lanchas that carry them.

Danica Joy 2 also carries back “barter” goods but in limited amounts per passenger otherwise it will already be considered as “smuggling”. Just what constitutes the “legal” amount, well, there is no hard and fast rule in the area but if you ask the Customs and especially the Department of Finance all those should be levied import duties (well, it is their duty to suck as much amount from the citizenry). But Danica Joy 2 is the more “legal” means to buy from Sabah compared to the junko or lancha which suffers seizures of goods now and then (of course the authorities would show “they are doing their job”). I don’t know exactly why but the Sandakan fare of Danica Joy 2 is almost triple compared to Bongao when the difference in distance between them from Zamboanga is not great. Maybe some of the fare is for “protection” and not only from authorities but also from the pirates.

Danica Joy 2 is more like an overnight ship but with her Zamboanga-Jolo-Sandakan route she functions like a multi-day liner. However, her capacity to feed her passengers is limited if compared to the true Manila liners. In southwestern Philippines that is the weakness of the ferries and even their dining areas is limited. That is why passengers bring their own food and the role of food vendors inside the pier becomes important. However, in Zamboanga because it is an ISPS (International System of Port Security) port, the vendors are often harassed and their goods thrown to the sea. They know the faces of the vendors, they can even require IDs but it seems they would rather follow foreign impositions than understand the welfare of the passengers and the vendors (as if they have no social value). These vendors are actually the cheaper offerer of food and drinks to the passengers. Every passenger knows passenger needs are much more expensive aboard the ship.

People in the Visayas will probably understand more the limited size of Danica Joy 2 if I say that she is the sister ship of the Asia Philippines of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Incorporated (TASLI). However, they have different builders but just the same they really resemble each other. Danica Joy 2 was built by Nakamura Shipbuilding & Engine Works in Yanai yard in Japan as the Orange Hope of the shipping company Shikoku Ferry in Japan in 1982 and she carried the ID IMO 8135253. She is only 62.7 meters in length over-all, 12.0 meters in breadth and 4.5 meters in depth. Her original gross register tonnage was 974 tons. She is actually smaller than almost all of the overnight ferries of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. and Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. For more comparison let it be said that she only matches the Filipinas Dapitan and Filipinas Dinagat in size.dj2-port

After 16 years of sailing in Japan, Orange Hope came to the Philippines when she was acquired by the Aleson Shipping Lines of Zamboanga in 1998. This was amid the great expansion not only of the company but also by competitors in Zamboanga which left some bankrupt later. She was refitted in Varadero de Recodo, the favorite shipyard of Aleson Shipping Lines. In refitting, additional scantling were built and she became a two-passenger-deck ferry and she became an overnight ship featuring an all-bunks accommodation. Her original route was Zamboanga-Jolo which is an overnight route.

With refitting, her gross tonnage only increased minimally from 974 to 998 which is below that of her sister ship Asia Philippines and her net tonnage was declared to be 491. Danica Joy 2 is a medium speed ferry capable of 16 knots when new. This comes from a pair of Daihatsu marine engines with a total of 4,000 horsepower. Now she often sails at 13 knots only. However, there was a time, a few years ago, when Danica Joy 2 was unreliable and sometimes tugs have to be sent out to her rescue. She was then known for announcing her arrival with thick smoke on the horizon (people on the docks can identify her on the horizon with that). But the more aggressive Aleson Shipping scions opened their checkbooks, major repairs were done to the engines and she is now a reliable ship once more with less smoke.

The Danica Joy 2 accommodates 636 passengers in 3 classes – Cabin, Tourist and Economy. The cabins are built locally indicating she was not used for long distances in Japan and the doors were in fact too plain-looking. The Tourist class and the Economy class are the usual Economy that can be found in other overnight ferries with the Economy at the stern also and in two decks which is normal pattern. In Economy there is no bunk number associated with the ticket purchased. Since it does not get full or overfull it is more of a “first come, choose first basis”. The early birds choose the breezier portions, of course.

This ferry has no stern passenger ramps nor of flying passenger ramps on the sides. What it has are side ramps that fold to the side, Zamboanga-style. But it is well-organized since from that ramp one will find a catwalk on the side above the car deck. If a passenger is bound for the Economy section he or she then turns to the stern. If the passenger is bound for Tourist or Cabin he or she heads to the bow. From the catwalk there are stairs to the decks above. For the upper classes upon entering one sees the front desk or information counter (that is rare in a Zamboanga ship). The Tourist section is on the lower passenger deck and the Cabin is on the upper passenger deck.

What is another unusual lay-out for Danica Joy 2 is right after the information counter comes the ship’s restaurant and besides that is the store (it is not a kiosk). Actually it is a clever lay-out because Economy passengers can access those without going through the Tourist section. The ship’s restaurant is a combination of modern and old. Aside from curvaceous plastic chairs there are also the old iron, holed chairs which is an Aleson Shipping trademark. Meals are not part of the ticket and what is served are very basic and instant meals. In Zamboanga, in multi-day ships passengers are advised to bring their own food or seek food from the vendors in the intermediate ports or outside.dj2-rest

I have been to the bridge of this ship. It is a decent bridge with the lay-out and instrumentation of the medium-size ferries of her era and nothing fancy. Behind the bridge, as usual are the cabins of the top deck and engine officers of the ships and on the stern of the uppermost deck is another restaurant, the mess hall for the crew. It is pretty decent and it is called the “McBobords” complete with the arches of McDonald’s.dj2-bridge

The car/cargo deck of this ship is interesting to watch. Unlike all other Zamboanga ships the load is mainly containers as in XEUs (ten-foot container vans) and it is moved by forklifts carried aboard by the ship. The use of container vans is for the security of the merchandise and not for ease of loading and unloading. And maybe to also hide the (barter) goods from prying eyes, greedy hands and smoochers in uniform. Probably the transaction of “grease” is also per container basis and bahala na kung ano ang nasa loob (no more pricing of what’s inside the containers). Everybody knows the cargo from Sandakan is primarily “barter” goods. Semi-finished furniture of good wood is also one of the “imports” from Sabah.dj2-car-deck

Danica Joy 2 became a Sandakan ship only when Lady Mary Joy 2, a much better and bigger ship was sold to the breakers because it was not making making money and it was too big for the overnight Zamboanga routes. But the original route of that starts from Cebu. It failed because Aleson Shipping Lines didn’t realize Visayans are too fearful of Zamboanga and didn’t know the economic possibilities of Sandakan or Sabah. That was the time when the Ramos administration was pitching the BIMP-EAGA integration which simply failed to get off the ground. Besides, the local producers’ lobbies are simply too strong and opposing (well, even now). And our consumers are simply too clueless to realize the potential benefits for them in lower prices and more choices.

Once a week, on her off-Sandakan route, Danica Joy 2 will also sail the Zamboanga-Jolo route, her original route.

Danica Joy 2 will still sail a long time because she is needed in the route. Trade realities might change (as in Zamboanga barter weakened because Manila importers are now permitted to import direct from Singapore) because there are simply too many Muslim Filipinos in Sabah and they need a transport to Zamboanga for that.

For me the social function is the more important function of Danica Joy 2, not the trade function.

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The FastCats That Could Be Paradigm-Changing

When the FastCats first arrived I did not know how to assess them properly. It was brand-new but truckers and buses which are charged disproportionately higher (because they say of the weight) decide on the price point and not on the newness and amenities of the ship. Actually, rebates in the form of complimentary passenger tickets (which is then sold), outright discounts and cash bonuses are stronger inducements to them. The superior speed of the FastCats might not also be decisive because that can be trumped by longer waiting hours in the ports if the departure gaps are significant. And by large on many buses and trucks it is not the decision of the drivers where to board as that is a company decision if there are company-to-company arrangements and accounts. It might only be in private cars and SUVs where the FastCats might have a better pull but then most drivers will not wait if the departure time is still two or more hours away.

The amortization weight of the FastCats also played into my mind. These medium-speed ships were all loaned from the DBP (Development Bank of the Philippines) from a JICA loan window meant to modernize our shipping. I do not know the loan terms and that part not on the top of the table but it could be in the vicinity of P3 million a month, a rough guesstimate. That would translate to about P80,000 a day (it could be less if the amortization terms are longer and it could be higher if shorter or if the if it is not a soft loan) on top of operational costs and other costs incremental to operating a ship (think fuel and parts) and a shipping company (think offices and office staff) plus the mandatory taxes, insurance and registration. Add to that the expenses and downtime of drydocking which will also be in the millions of pesos.

A Moderator of Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS), our Math Professor induced me to Calapan to have a firsthand look. After observation and calculation, I immediately conceded that if the route is Batangas-Calapan with its high traffic the FastCats will be profitable since ferries sail there 24/7 except on rough weather and storms. But I had my doubts then on other routes where the traffic is not so strong. Weaning away patronage from competitors is not that easy because it is not really a free market since many trucks and buses are already locked in in contracts with some shipping companies especially those which are good in the rebate, discounting and hospitality (like free meals) game. These shipping companies generally have their ships fully or nearly-fully amortized hence their break-even point could be lower even if their fuel cost is higher .

The FastCats are catamaran ROROs but unlike what they say they were not the first to field this type of craft since the Starlite Ferry and Lite Ferry 23 came ahead of them. The FastCat are not High Speed Crafts (HSCs) because they only sail at 17 knots. Hence, their classification will fall to Medium Speed Craft or MSCs. It seems the choice of their name was meant to fool those who are not very knowledgeable of sea crafts.

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The FastCats originated from a design of Sea Transport Solutions of Australia but all were built in China by different yards. These vessels feature aluminum alloy hulls for less weight which help in boost speed, lower fuel consumption and in resisting corrosion. A catamaran design means less drag but it can also be wicked in cross-swells. The FastCats do not carry their own ramp thus saving more weight and instead there is a hydraulically-activated ramp in the port which connects to the ship. The disadvantage however is they need a dedicated docking area because the ramp-in-the-port precludes the use of others of that space and so applying for a port are sometimes complicated by this requirement. The ramp can also be damaged by storm waves as shown by what happened in Calapan port.

The dimensions of the FastCat are 50.6 meters in length over-all, 47.2 meters in length between perpendiculars, 17.8 meters in breadth and 4.2 meters in depth. Originally the ship has 683 to 704 gross tons when these left China but with the added passenger deck for the Economy class on the bridge level (they call the bridge the “wheelhouse”) the gross tonnage rose and in the case of FastCat M6 it Is already 967 gross tons. The gross tonnage of the others would then not be far from that. The original net tonnage was 207 to 212 but definitely it is now far higher than that because of the additional Economy section. Generally, the declared DWT is 300 tons.

The passenger capacity of the vessel is between 275 to 290 divided into Tourist and Economy. The Tourist has cool airconditioning and airline-type seats with enough leg space and it is located on the deck below the Economy. The ship’s canteen which reminds one of a convenience store is also located there and its offerings are much better than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs around. The passenger service is much better too in all aspects. It seems the service personnel were recruited from Hotel and Restaurant Management course grads instead of the plain able-bodied seamen of competitions’. The passenger accommodations are located in only one side of the ship making for an unbalanced look. The bridge is located at the middle of the ship above the car deck.

The first FastCats are powered by 4 Cummins engines with a total of 2,600 horsepower while the latter ones are powered by Cummins clones built in China with the same power output. From a report I got the FastCats have 4 screws which means they are not using synchronizers. That means less weight, less complication, less power lost and there is no possibility of an unbalanced and difficult run if ever one engine loses power (as they will just shut down another engine on the opposite bank). The bridge of the FastCats are also modern like that of a High Speed Craft (not the ones from Malaysia) and for me the most notable feature is it produces its own power and is not dependent on the power supplied by the engine room (and that is a lot of safety margin).

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The FastCats were built by different companies in different yards in China. They total ten but the owner of Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation recently announced they will order more and will apply for routes in our neighboring countries and on additional routes in the country. The ship series was originally intended to be named “FastCat M1” to “FastCat M10” but heeding the Chinese aversion to the number “4” there is no “FastCat M4” and instead there is a “FastCat M11”. The first one in the series of sister ships arrived in 2013 and the last one arrived in 2016.

Analyzing the FastCats and comparing it to other ROROs of the same length what I noticed is the 17.8 meters breadth of the FastCats means an extra RORO lane. At 2,600 horsepower the FastCats do not use a bigger engine than many ROROs of the same length. That means the extra speed comes not in overpowering these catamaran ROROs. It was instead coming from the less weight due to the aluminum alloy hull, the less drag of the catamaran design and the minimalist superstructure. The last one might be the key along with the use of aluminum. The old-style ROROs really have a lot of steel being carried around. That will tell on fuel consumption and it will weigh down the speed. That is the reason why most ROROs in the 50-meter class with about the same or a slightly higher power output runs at only 13-14 knots. And for sure with the higher vessel weight and conventional hull design plus the age they consume much more fuel than the FastCats.

fastcat-car-deck-jakosalem

And that is the reason why the FastCats can, at the start, match the fares and rolling rates of the competing ROROs although they are carrying a much higher amortization rate. Anyway they cannot charge significantly higher because the better amenities and passenger service will only primarily attract the private vehicle owners driving sedans and SUVs.

However, total revenues of any transport will primarily depend on the kilometers or nautical miles run. That is true for airplanes, that is true for the buses and that is also true for ships. That is one of the reasons why budget airplanes are successful now because they practically fly round-the clock with just a few hours of lay-over and to be able to do that they use double crewing. That is also the reason why Philtranco loves the Manila-Davao run because night and day the bus runs and the more kilometers and hours it run the more is its revenues.

And that brings to the tactic that Archipelago Philippine Ferries is and will be using to have enough revenue in routes not as strong as Batangas-Calapan — they will run the opposition to the ground by running the FastCats with as many trips as possible in a day like in the 44-nautical mile Dumaguete-Dapitan route where they now have 3 round trips in a day (there is no guarantee, however, that this will not change). Somehow, something has to give way and since they are running they will be able to gain load and passengers. There is really no reason for them to wait for the next ferry unless they are contracted to it as they are not faster. Everybody loves time saved as long as the rates are about the same.

FastCats can do that many trips a day because they are faster. That is the same line of reasoning why regional container ships normally sail now at 20 knots, the same speed as our SuperFerries that became saints of 2GO. With such speed they can make more voyages in a year and that means more revenues. Or put it another way the shipping operator can make the same revenue with less number of ships. Neat, huh?

Faster time is also a come-on on ferries that have close time departures. If there is a FastCat that is promising a 2.5hr sailing time in a route then dumb is the passenger of private car owner which will opt for a 4-hour sailing. Well maybe if he is related to the owner or the Captain then it is forgivable. That is the reason why then I do not take the slow Maharlika II in the Liloan-Lipata route since Super Shuttle Ferry 18 will overtake it even if it left later and I have the benefit of a ship with better accommodations. But in shorter routes the sailing time difference will be not that much great and the come-on of greater speed will be less. The time consumed waiting in the port will be the more decisive factor then.

That is why the FastCat is dangerous for the old-style ferries and even to new Starlite Ferries. Speed is their ace. I have heard that even in the Batangas-Calapan route some now opt for the FastCat rather than the SuperCat because at 17 knots versus 22 knots the travel time difference in the 24nm route is not that great and yet there is a significant difference in fare as in almost double while their facilities are just about the same. So even the High Speed Crafts which gulp a lot of fuel and do not carry any significant volume of cargo is threatened by them.

A view of some of the old-style ferries of the competition or possible competition, same size class and engine size:

King Frederick 56.8 m x 14.0m, 2400hp, 13.5 knots when new

Nelvin Jules 56.8 m x 14.0m, 2400hp, 13.5 knots when new

Maria Zenaida 54.0m x 11.4m, 2400hp, 12.5 knots when new

Reina Genoveva 59.9m x 11.0m, 2600hp, 14 knots when new

Reina Hosanna 59.9m x 11.0m, 2600hp, 14 knots when new

Super Shuttle Ferry 12 53.0m x 10.4m, 2700hp, 14 knots when new

Lite Ferry 15 60.3m x 11.4m, 2600hp, 14 knots when new

Starlite Navigator 57.3m x 13.5m, 2400hp, 14 knots when new

Lite Ferry 1 48.7m x 11.0m, 2000hp, 13.5 knots when new

Lite Ferry 7 50.8m x 10.8m, 2000hp, 14 knots when new

Maria Helena 49.0m x 12.2m, 2000hp, 14 knots when new

Maria Rebecca 49.9m x 13.2m, 2000hp, 13.5 knots when new

Hansel Jobett 51.1m x 14.0m, 2000hp, 13.5 knots when new

Star Ferry III 46.4m x 11.5m, 2000hp, 13.5 knots when new

Those ferries are already 1.5 knots down, on the average, from their speed when new. And those 2,000hp ferries will be using more fuel now per nautical mile than the 2600-horsepower FastCats. Even when new it is not sure they were consuming less fuel because of their higher weight and drag. Those 2,600-horsepower ferries will be definitely consuming much more fuel now than the FastCats.

Note also the difference in the breadth which translates to lane-meters of rolling cargo. Those ferry sampling have on the average a greater passenger capacity than the FastCats especially since all except one have two passenger decks. But on ROROs the rolling cargo earn a disproportionate share of the revenues compared to passengers and FastCats have one or two more lanes for vehicles compared to that sampling. And if the passenger capacity of the FastCats will prove lacking then another passenger compartment can be added to the vacant side of the vessel. So sometimes it is said that the FastCats are not full but their rolling cargo load might already “full” if compared to the load of that sampling which has a narrower and smaller vehicle deck than the FastCats.

There are short-distance ferry-ROROs that are in the 60-meter class that can run at 14-14.5 knots true speed if they want but on the average these feature engines that are on the average are bigger as in nearly 1,000 horsepower more. The fuel consumption difference compared to the FastCats will even be greater and actually they might be one truck longer than the FastCats but still the rolling cargo capacity of the FastCats are bigger. A sampling:

Maria Felisa 57.4m x 13.0m, 3600hp, 15.5 knots when new

Maria Vanessa 57.4m x 13.0m, 3600hp, 15.5 knots when new

Maria Oliva 64.3m x 13.5m, 3200hp, 16 knots when new

Maria Ursula 61.4m x 14.0m, 3400hp, 16 knots when new

Reina de los Angeles 60.9m x 12.8m, 3600hp, 16 knots when new

Anthon Raphael 61.4m x 14.0m, 3400hp, 15.5 knots when new

For sure this set consumes a lot more fuel than the FastCats and there is still a 2.5-3-knot disadvantage.

The only one in this size which will not be too a laggard compared to the FastCats is the Jack Daniel of the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. She is 65.0m x 14.0m and sailed at 17 knots when new but her engine has 4,300 horsepower already, well over the 2,600 horsepower of the FastCats. Maybe the aluminum hull and the catamaran design did a lot of magic to keep the FastCats separated from the pack.

Which brings us to the new Starlite ferries. These are 66.8-67m x 15.3m ferries and that means a car deck capacity nearly equal to the FastCats. These definitely has more passenger capacity at 750 persons but as I have said if a new passenger compartment will be built on the other side of the FastCats the current passenger capacity of 300 of the FastCats will nearly double to 600 which will not be much behind than the new Starlite ferries. These new Starlite ferries have a speed of 14.5 knots and 3,650 horsepower are needed to produce that speed. So for a possible equality in passenger and rolling cargo capacity the new Starlite ferries are using more fuel for even less speed. Now I begin to understand why there are a lot of catamaran ROROs in other countries with aluminum hulls. They are simply more efficient. And these are the aces of the FastCats.

fastcat-canteen

If all can run 100 to 150 nautical miles average in a day (that is about the back-and-forth run of the Cebu ferries to Ormoc) then they might be able to amortize their fleet, my guess. In Batangas-Calapan they have no problem with that quota. In Cebu-Ormoc, the Oceanjets and SuperCats do over 200 nautical miles in a day, to think and they are profitable (with maybe a 2/3 load) even though they guzzle a lot of fuel. That will take a lot of wrestling customers away from other shipping companies. Well things do not happen in a vacuum. With amortized ships the others could choose to lower the fares and the rates (now that will be good for the the riding public and shippers; after all rolling and cargo rates in the Philippines is really high).

But then I don’t place too much emphasis on that now. If the amortization is only P80,000 a day, if a FastCat runs 8 trips in a day that will be only P10,000 per trip and if that is Batangas-Calapan that will just mean taking out the revenues from two trucks! And it might just be one truck in longer routes! Above and beyond the operational costs like fuel, labor, etc. Dangerous, dangerous! For the competition, that is. That also shows how high our rolling rates are (as I always asked since when did MARINA learn how to properly compute rolling and container rates?)

However, in the Liloan-Lipata route I heard a disquieting report. One FastCat has left and the remaining one also cheats now on the schedule as in they compact the schedules if there is not enough load (well, useless to run and run if the load cannot justify it). The reason is the Cargo RORO LCTs there are suctioning the trucks like vacuum. That is also a phenomenon noted in the various Cebu-Leyte routes and even in the various Cebu-Bohol routes. Cargo RORO LCTs can offer rates as low as half of the conventional ROROs and for trucks that is a decisive come-on. And that is the reason why and Cargo RORO LCTs seem to be also a new paradigm change.

And besides many commercial vehicles (trucks, buses and panel trucks like those of LBC, etc.) are already locked in through company-to-company arrangements and through the use of super special rates and special rates plus other inducements. As I said it it not really a free market and the only ones that actually pay the published rates are the newcomers and the seldom travelers. The published rates are actually artificially high so as to cover all the discounts that the RORO ferry companies are giving to their regulars. This is actually a sucker’s world but the newbies do not realize that.

Which of the two paradigm changes will prevail? And will the old RORO ferry companies hold on through the locking game? Well, only the future can tell (how can we guess all their moves, counter-moves, guts and instincts?). But I love paradigm changes. With those things begin to get interesting.

fastcat-docked

Photo Credits: Carl Jakosalem, Nowell Alcancia, Mike Baylo, PSSS

The Hijos-1

The motor launch Hijos-1 is one of the country’s smallest steel-hulled ferries, if not the outright smallest (the Anrans of Golden Star Manning and Management is smaller but it might not be steel-hulled). The comparison does not include what the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) call as Moro boats which are concentrated in Zamboanga (anyway, the bulk of them are bigger than Hijos-1). Generally, the batels (wooden motor boats) of Luzon and Visayas (also called lancha here) which were once called as “motor boats”, officially, are also bigger than Hijos-1, in the main. That is how small Hijos-1 of Hijos de Juan Corrales, the shipping company owning and operating the passenger motor launch.

Hijos-1 was built in Mambajao, Camiguin by local shipbuilders. The hull design was very simple – it was an outright motor launch design but only bigger than what can be found in most US marinas. There is only a single passenger deck with benches in an open-air Economy class. The pilot house is above the passenger deck and it has a little extension to accommodate additional passengers. The roof of the passenger deck can also be used for stowing things including life rafts. There is a single mast and two funnels. The passenger accommodation is also used for loose cargo.

The external measurements of Hijos-1 are only 19.5 meters registered length. At that length the big motor bancas are longer than her by 10 meters! Her breadth is 4.5 meters which is narrower than the batels and Moro boats. The ship’s depth is 2.8 meters and I would say this is a little deep for her size. Her dimensional weights are 47 in gross tonnage and 35 in net tonnage. She has a passenger capacity of just 90 persons which is even less than the big motor bancas.

The Hijos-1 is also one of our oldest ferries around being built way back in 1966 so that means she is on her golden anniversary. Good she is steel-hulled because if she was wooden-hulled MARINA would have long ago pressured her out of passenger service for being “unsafe”. Well, unless it hit a rock a wooden motor boat or batel/lancha hulls do not leak and I don’t see how a steel-hulled motor launch which has practically the same hull design as our motor boats is any safer.

Like when the steel-hulled Pilar II floundered when hit by heavy swells between Linapacan and Busuanga islands. Of minesweeper origin, her steel hull did not save her from the heavy seas she encountered. Just like motor boats flounder there later also.

But Hijos-1 is lucky all these years as her Balingoan-Benoni route might be short but that narrow strait between the Mindanao mainland and Camiguin island also produces heavy swells that hit the sea crafts there broadside (a member of PSSS hit by that can attest to it). Or maybe there is also good seamanship and familiarity with the seas in her route which is a definite plus for survivability. Whatever, she has a good reputation for being stable if rough seas visit her route.

Hijos-1 is not a RORO and rolling cargo is the great source of revenue these days (or even way back). But she continues to survive financially. I have been told the reason – with only a few crew and a thrifty 440-horsepower Yanmar engine (is this still correct? someone said it is a Cummins but officially in MARINA that’s that) that keeps her above water (and may I add, loyal passengers maybe who are willing to make do with an old sea craft but which perhaps they have grown to love).

Well maybe at even hall-full that will already mean P5000 plus in revenue including from a little of  loose cargo. For sure she will not consume P3000 worth of diesel fuel and motor oil on the route. I think her break-even point might just be a third of the passenger load. The Yanmar engine doesn’t need to push a lot of weight also. There is also a tale that she can carry a small vehicle. I will not be surprised. In some far-off areas they shoehorn that even today in wooden motor boats or on a pair of motor bancas.

The hull of a vessel is easy to maintain (unlike what most landlubbers think otherwise). All it needs is re-plating when it gets thin. Unless there is major damage from having a romance with rocks (true rocks) when beams buckle. Old sea crafts of still-good hulls surrender if their engine finally quit for good. But Yanmar engines are very long-lasting, spare parts are easy to secure and so I hope her engine is still trusty. Well, at the worst there are surplus 420hp truck engines in the market. It might be demeaning but truck engines work in motor boats, big motor bancas and even the Metro Ferry boats in Cebu (though steel-hulled too I did not compare them to Hijos-1 in size because their hull looks more like that of motor bancas to me without the outriggers).

Such a cute little craft. I hope she continues to sail on past her 50 years.

Photo Credit: Janjan Salas