The Bad Maharlika and Grand Star RORO Ferries Transformed

It was more than two decades ago when I first became acquainted on a regular basis with the Maharlika ships. This fleet consisted of the Maharlika I, Maharlika II, Maharlika III, Maharlika IV, Maharlika V, Maharlika VI and Maharlika VII. I just used their names with the Roman numerals for consistency because at other times they were also known with the Spanish numerals like “Uno”, “Dos”, “Tres” and so on and so forth. The fleet was basically fielded in the Eastern seaboard routes of the country like Lipata to Liloan, San Isidro or Allen to Matnog, other pioneering Bicol routes which they failed to hold (either too early for the day plus they didn’t know the tactic of subsidizing the buses) like Tabaco to Virac and Bulan to Masbate. Later, they tried the Pilar to Aroroy route where it seems they followed the feasibility study made by three renowned international shipping experts, each of have good Ph.Ds but unfortunately does not know local shipping plus they had a blip in their brains (like if a route has only one motor boat how can it then support a ROPAX?). And so,unfortunately. their data is shot full of holes and so it became a GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out).

Maharlika I

Maharlika I by Edison Sy of PSSS.

They also tried routes outside of the Eastern seaboard like Lucena to Marinduque, Batangas to Calapan and Roxas to Caticlan in support of the buses of their sister companies, the storied Philtranco which was fast becoming a shell of its former self and JAM. The Marinduque route did not last long and fortunately for them the two other routes mentioned lasted even though their buses didn’t last long in Panay island (they recently came back after the dominant bus Dimple Star was permanently suspended because of accidents). Maharlika, for brevity, is a long story of failing ships and failing routes. On the other hand, they have a boisterous and humbug CEO who is so full of himself (well, I won’t be surprised if he is a graduate of the Trump School). Like that resident of the White House, Christopher Pastrana also scored a coup with his later FastCat ships. Who said a bad thing can’t be turned in to a good thing?

When I was sailing with the Maharlika ships, I feel a letdown but this was very well-tempered because I am a grad of the even worse ships of Viva Shipping Lines of Batangas and its two legal-fiction companies. That was more palpable in the Maharlika I and Maharlika II which were fielded brand-news just fifteen years earlier (1982 and 1984) and yet were already worn down and beginning to break down (initially, a fault by the government). I did not know it yet then that Archipelago Philippine Ferries was just chartering those two ferries which were the pride of the government in the past. There is a claim that when the ships were already turning a profit the government one-sidedly changed the terms of the agreement. Whatever, it seems Archipelago Philippine Ferries, Pastrana’s company was just milking the ships out of its last value without care for the future life of the ships and the government was letting them. And to think that in the late 1990s there are even shut-outs (vessels can no longer be accommodated aboard) especially in the Liloan-Lipata route. In the main, Maharlika II was in this route and Maharlika I was in the San Isidro or Allen to Matnog route as they have been from the start.

Maharlika II in Liloan port

Maharlika II by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

After the sister ships Maharlika I and Maharlika II, Archipelago Philippine Ferries and its legal-fiction sister companies like Oro Star and Philharbor Ferries acquired two sister ships from Aki Kisen of Japan in 2000, just after the take-over of the of the first two ships, the Maharlika III and Maharlika IV which had the look of a double-ended ferry. They acquired these to bolster their operations as two ferries is not enough for their routes. The two were built in 1987 and 1993 and so in age they were younger than the first ships but just in the same decade of acquisition they are beginning to look worn down too and beginning to be unreliable. Sometimes there are cases when a ship will not sail for months and there was story of one of these newer Maharlika ships not capable of sailing being ordered towed out by the Port Manager of Liloan by a passing tug because it is clogging up his docking space (I saw that non-running ferry). Have anyone heard of ship’s ramp falling while the ship is sailing? There is a story of that in the Lipata-Liloan route and elsewhere but not necessarily running.

So in the 2000s, the period where I was frequently traveling using the Eastern seaboard route, I was wondering where Maharlika was headed. It seemed it was all a grand name (Maharlika is supposedly a legendary name with our national highway named likewise for that and there was even a Marcos plan to rename our country to “Maharlika” until some historians pointed out that “Maharlika” is of Hindu origin) but no substance or trait to support it. This was also the time when Maharlika was trying new routes which mostly bombed out.

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Grand Star RORO 1 and Maharlika Tres in their Dapdap port by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

Next came to them in 2002 the Maharlika V and almost all failed to after having parts of her former substructure cropped out. She first came to a related company in the Allen-Matnog route as the Christ The King when that route had a surplus of bottoms with many shipping companies competing. Her next reincarnation was as the Mindoro Express but she also did not last long in her namesake island and so she plied a route to Puerto Princesa, Palawan. It was there where she took an excursion in a shallow portion of the sea when it seems she had a fire and possibly she capsized in the fire-fighting effort. A ship owner who is a PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member shot a photo of her in Keppel shipyard in Batangas. When posted to PSSS, an eagle-eyed member thought that if the superstructure of Mindoro Express is cropped then she will look like the Maharlika V. In her permanent route of Liloan-Lipata, nobody knew what happened to her in Puerto Princesa. But even with this background, Maharlika V proved to be reliable for almost a decade. Until she became sickly too and spent two years in a shipyard in General Santos City not being repaired.

In 2003 and 2004, two old ferries from Norway built in the early 1970s came for Archipelago Philippine Ferries which became the Maharlika Seiz and Maharlika Siete. The two have very robust Wichman and Normo engines which are easy to maintain as told to me by a Norwegian ship spotter which happened to inquire to me where and in what condition they are now. Moreover, Scandinavian ships should have very strong hulls, their pride. These ex-Norwegian ships ran well for some time although the first to come, Maharlika Seiz proved to be very slow because of its small engine. They did not last that long, however, not because of the engines but because of the variable-pitch propellers, a common feature in European ships. This kind of propeller makes the engine last longer because of less stress but when that kind of propeller becomes defective it is supposedly a nightmare to repair.

Maharlika Cuatro

Maharlika Cuatro by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

When Phil-Nippon Kyoei, a new shipping company, gave up operations early this decade, Philippine Archipelago Ferries snapped up two of three ships for sale, the Grand Star RORO 1 and the Grand Star RORO 3 which also resembled double-ended ferries. The two were basically fielded in the Allen-Matnog route but the two were never renamed. In a short time though, like the Maharlika ferries the Grand Star RORO ferries looked worn out too. I can’t fathom why for a company having a sister company that deals in paints (CAPP) can’t have enough paint to have the ferries looking good. Well, maybe, that was the Pastrana standard then, the Pastrana way of doing things. And when Pastrana got his first FastCat, he told the spiel that he dreamed of good ferries serving Philippine waters after seeing bad ferries all around. But, the storyteller that he was, Pastrana does not have the gumption to say he was looking at his own ferries.

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Maharlika Cinco and Maharlika Seiz in Liloan Ferry Terminal. From ppavis.com.

When the first FastCat came, some of his ferries are no longer running especially Maharlika I which was just sidelined. They tried to sell that but of course, the government being the owner calls the shots. The sale of this ship to the breakers made the sister ship Maharlika II a better ship and it was in a long time that I saw her in good paint, and faster. It is possible after all some parts were first transferred to the sister. However, as her wont, Maharlika II stalled off Panaon island and the crew failed to start even one engine (well, Maharlika is also used to running on one engine). It is a big question why Maharlika IV which was just nearby did not come to her rescue for several hours until the seas turned rough with the coming of the night (as if they didn’t know this will happen). A story from a former employee says that if Maharlika IV sails and rescues her more questions will be unearthed. It is just so bad for the passengers of Maharlika II, some of who died in Surigao Strait, a busy shipping lane but there is no Coast Guard rescue ship (it has to borrow ferries on the route to effect a rescue) because most of their better ships as just used as port guards and serve as offices and suites of their commanders in the big cities and ports.

The sinking paved way for the fast disposal of the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ships. Selling them fast will lessen the questions on their shipworthiness and the stoppage of their use will make people forget easy a tragedy happened and anyway they got suspended too. What remained running before the FastCats came in big numbers are the Grand Star RORO ships and so they only got sold later. That was important for them in the Matnog-Allen route when they were not immediately able to secure a berth where their peculiar docking ramp will be placed. Actually for a time they had no running ships in many routes as the early phase-out of their ships were forced unto them. But maybe that played into their hands as people who don’t normally sail fail to get the connection of Maharlika and FastCat.

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Maharlika Siete by John Carlos Cabanillas of PSSS.

The Maharlika Cuatro and Maharlika Cinco (their naming then) was sold a “neighbor” in Leyte, the Gabisan Shipping Lines. The Maharlika Cinco was retained by the company and this became the Gloria V and the Maharlika Cuatro was sold to Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) of Catanduanes. Meanwhile, the Maharlika Tres was sold to Atienza Inter-island Ferries of Manila but later they also sold this to Regina Shipping Lines. Maharlika Seiz and Maharlika Siete were sold to breakers in Navotas but the custom there is to “display” the ships first in the hope that someone will buy it whole. And it did not help them that world metal prices were low in the past half-decade. Later, the Grand Star RORO 1 and Grand Star RORO 3 were also sold to Regina Shipping Lines. So, in total of the ships not lost or sold to the breakers only one, the Maharlika V is not in the possession of Regina Shipping Lines which then thereby sold their basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. Traffic in Catanduanes is on the big upsurge after all.

Maharlika Tres became the Regina Calixta VIII, Maharlika IV became the Regina Calixta VII, the Grand Star RORO 1 became the Regina Calixta VI, the Regina Calixta III became the Regina Calixta IX and later as the second Regina Calixta IV after the former holder of that name, which was the former Grand Star RORO 2 was sold to Dinagat to become the Cab-ilan of Waters-up MPC. Six of the ships of Regina Shipping Lines were former ferries of Christopher Pastrana who treated them badly and just covered it up in media by being noisy and boastful.

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Grand Star RORO 3 by Joe Cardenas III of PSSS.

And how are these ferries faring under the care of Gov. Joseph Cua of Catanduanes, the owner of Regina Shipping Lines? Very, very well as Albayanos and Catanduganons know. The superstructures changed now (no, they are not taller) and the paint is good. The interiors changed a lot too. Central to the changed motif is to make the journey as experience although it will only last four hours or less, the usual transit time between Tabaco, Albay and San Andres (the former Calolbon), Catanduanes, a route where Regina Shipping Lines (RSL)has no direct competitor (their competitor holds another competing route, that to Virac, the capital of Catanduanes). Regina Shipping Lines is a pioneer on the route. The ships have an airconditioned sections now that is modeled after a KTV lounge where before these ships under Pastrana have no airconditioned sections. And of course everything is spic and span after a long remodeling in Mayon Docks in Tabaco under the supervision of an SNAME naval architect who happens to be a PSSS member.

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Regina Calixta VIII, the former Maharlika Tres by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

The engines were refurbished too and all are very reliable now aside from running even better than their design speed. And to think these are ferries built in the 1980s (five) and 1990s (one). Maybe the top guns of MARINA, the maritime regulatory body should first do an educational tour of the RSL ferries before they deliberate on the proposal to cull the 35-year old ferries. Maybe they can learn a thing or two there. They should also take note too that no steel-hulled ferry ever sank in the route to Catanduanes.

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Aircon accommodation of Regina Calixta VI, the former Gtand Star RORO 1. Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

I was not really surprised by all these happenings to the former bad ferries of Pastrana. Gov. Cua operated very good RSL buses from Catanduanes and Tabaco to Manila. Like the premium bus companies of Bicol they invested in good seats and refurbished their buses before it becomes worn out and are no longer looking good. And that has paid off in passenger loyalty and good words and respect to them. RSL (this is how they are called in Bicol) did these refurbishing even though they have no direct competitor and they are always full that at times their ship has to sail back again as there are a good number of shut-outs. That just shows how they care and greed is not their paramount norm in running their shipping business.

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Regina Calixta VII, the former Maharlika Cuatro. Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

Meanwhile, the only old bad Pastrana ferry not in RSL hands had also be refurbished and re-engined by Gabisan Shipping and is also reliable now except for some hiccups at the start. It looks like the hull might still be okay after re-plating given her stint beneath the waves and the long lay-over in Gensan (well, weakened hull plates can be replaced). The story said from the shipyard there she had difficulty reaching Liloan municipal port where first works was done on her. Now, the ship has a Tourist Class too with decent accommodations. She had had more visits to the shipyards maybe because further repairs might have been needed given the sorry state when Gabisan Shipping first acquired her. Anyway, I give enough credit to Gabisan Shipping for saving her. I thought before she no longer had a chance given her history and condition. Now I wish MARINA can give her more life.

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Regina Calixta VIII (ex-Maharlika Tres) Tourist. Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

Meanwhile, for the veterans of the Eastern seaboard, they all know Christopher Pastrana has long been in the Hall of Shame but maybe he is now trying to change that with his FastCats. Well, it is easy when one is given new ships and one looks always good at the start when handed new ships. It is credit to him for his innovate catamaran-RORO design whoever is his benefactor may be but the banks deserve the credit too for opening its purses. His challenge now is how to pay for all of those ships. If he fails it will be the banks which will be holding the empty bag.

I Did Not Expect That The Panay Liners (Except For Iloilo) Will Easily Surrender To The Intermodal Trucks And Buses

In the island of Panay, liners from Manila (they were really liners but were doing practically what is an overnight route if 250 nautical miles can be called an overnight route) called in Dumaguit port in Aklan and in the Culasi port of Roxas City in Capiz and many liners were assigned here by WG & A, Aboitiz Transport System and Negros Navigation and by other earlier companies. There was also a once a week call by the Cotabato Princess of Sulpicio Lines in Estancia, Iloilo and of course there were many liners to Iloilo by the different liner companies as Iloilo port is an in-port to ships still headed to Zamboanga and beyond and to Cagayan de Oro and other northern Mindanao destinations. Of and on, there were also liners calling off and on in Boracay (through a transfer), Culasi and San Jose de Buenavista, the capital of Antique. The last that plied a route in Antique was the MBRS Lines of Romblon.

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The Cotabato Princess by Toshihiko Mikami.

I have noted before that the liners to Antique do not do well over the long term. Boracay ships, meanwhile, generally just call in the summer. Estancia, meanwhile was along the route of the Sulpicio ship to Iloilo. I thought Dumaguit and Roxas City routes were doing fine especially the service of WG & A and the successor Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). I don’t count too much the loss of the Negros Navigation ships as their problem lay elsewhere which was illiquidity. But Moreta Shipping Lines and for a time MBRS Lines also had ships in Dumaguit and Roxas City and the former was the last hold-out there.

Our Lady of Naju (Mis-identified as OLO Banneux)

The Our Lady of Naju which held the Manila-Dumaguit-Roxas route for a long time. From greeshipbreaking.com.

In the end of 2003, the Strong Republic Nautical Highway (SRNH) of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo finally reached Panay island through Caticlan after the road to Roxas town in Oriental Mindoro was paved (that was hell before) and the Dangay port was constructed. From then on intermodal trucks and buses from Luzon rolled into Panay island along with the private cars and other vehicles. And in a short time, Aboitiz Transport System quit the combined Dumaguit and Roxas routes. Moreta Shipping Lines and MBRS Lines, both of whom tried Panay rotes also quit in a few years’ time. Of course, the liner route to Iloilo is still existing but it was also impacted by the intermodal trucks and buses.

Don Julio

The Don Julio also held the Dumaguit and Roxas routes. Photo by Edison Sy of PSSS.

I was astonished by the fast defeat of the Panay liners because the defeat of the liners in Eastern Visayas did not come too suddenly (it actually took a generation). Also, I did think the intermodal buses to Panay were that superior to the liners but of course I know that passenger tastes could change suddenly. The traders will always leave the liners because with the intermodal trucks direct deliveries are possible obviating the need for a bodega and the double handling of cargo which can result in pilferage and damages.

Our Lady of Lipa Folio

The Our Lady of Lipa collage by John Michael Aringay of PSSS. One of the best ships in the Dumaguit and Roxas route.

An Aboitiz ferry leaves the North Harbor at 2pm and reaches Dumaguit port at 5am, leaves for Roxas City at 8am and arriving there at 10am. The passengers then will reach their homes at noon or past noon after a connecting trip was made. At 2pm the same ship will leave Roxas for Dumaguit, depart Dumaguit at 6pm and arrive in Manila at 9am the next day. A trip from Roxas City, the farther route takes 17 hours. Add the connecting trip that could be 18 hours or so for the passengers.

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Our Lady of Sacred Heart also sailed to Dumaguit and Roxas. Photo by Chief Ray Smith of PSSS.

Comparing it to an intermodal bus from Manila that leaves at noon it will be in Calapan at past 6pm and be aboard the RORO from Dangay port at about before midnight and arrive in Caticlan before dawn . The buses’ times are more or less predictable because they have contracts with the ROROs that support them through rebates to keep their loyalty. Like before when Dimple Star buses were still running to Panay (they have been banned because of repeated accidents) they will be loaded aboard the Starlite Ferries ROROs. Philtranco, when it was still running to Panay was supported by the Maharlika ferries of their sister company Archipelago Ferry Philippines (this is also the owner of the FastCats).

Dimple 7814 aboard Starlite Annapolis

Dimple Star buses aboard Starlite Annapolis. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

From a 4am arrival in Caticlan the furthest of the bus passengers which is Iloilo will be arriving at noon and the shorter one to Capiz will be disembarking from the bus at about about breakfast time or for about 18 to 19 hours of travel time which is just about the travel time if a liner from Manila was taken.

The fare aboard the bus with two ferry rides across Verde Island Passage and Tablas Strait was just about the same as the ferry but bus passengers always complained then of lack of sleep because they are given seats aboard a midnight RORO that has no overnight accommodations (it just came lately). Meanwhile the liner has bunks with mattress, there is toilet and bath plus a lot of amenities including a restaurant where in the earlier days the food was free. There was also plenty of space to move about and if one takes the bath before disembarking one would leave the ship smelling fresh.

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Philtranco bus aboard an Archipelago Ferry Philippines RORO. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

So I really cannot fathom why the passengers of Panay dumped the liners for the intermodal buses (I do not know if it was the same reason from a passenger to Manila from Surigao who said to me that “there are plenty of things to see along the way”). Even if the destination is Iloilo there are also liners there and its liners are way better than that in Dumaguit and Roxas City. I can understand the choice of the passengers of Antique because the ships to their province are not that regular.

The passenger and vehicular ferry Princess of Antique berthed at port of Iloilo City, Panay, Philippines.

The Princess of Antique, once a ferry to San Jose de Buenavista. Photo by John Ward of PSSS.

Was it the mistake of Aboitiz Transport System that they did not field a daily ship to northern Panay? They could have done so but the question of course is the cargo as it is cargo that makes routes and not some bureaucrat’s wish or dream. There might not be enough cargo but couldn’t they bid for the trucks to ride at discounted rates like when they tried holding on to the Davao route by giving a special rate to the trucks serving San Miguel Corporation?

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A Moreta Shipping Lines ferry in Daumaguit port. Photo by Mike Gutib.

Whatever, until now I cannot really understand what happened to the liner routes of Panay (except for Iloilo). It is as if the intermodal trucks and buses gave Aboitiz and the others a knock-out blow in just two or three rounds.

 

The Trip Back to Tacloban From Surigao del Sur

Me and Joe did not stay long in Cortes, Surigao del Sur. It was just an overnight stay, a short visit to a shipmate and his family. The next day we prepared early because it will be a long drive back to where we came from. We wanted to find what ports were there in the five towns we just whizzed by the previous day. Me and Joe also planned to shipspot Taganito again and see if there are accessible ports there. We intended a make-up since the previous day all my batteries gave up while we were there and we were a little rushed up already lest nightfall overtakes us while we were still on the road.

Joe again mounted his a-little-balky GPS map as we will use it again in searching for ports (I realized already then that my plain refusal to use the capabilities of my smartphone is already a negative as I can’t assist Joe). We passed by Lanuza, Carmen and Madrid towns without any signs of a port. It was actually Madrid which interested as more as the owner of the “Voyagers” restaurant which we patronized on the way to Surigao del Sur hailed from that town and the shipmate of Joe was familiar with the surname (he said one of the most prominent families of that town).

We knew there will be a port that we will be visiting in the next town of Cantilan because the previous day we already saw its sign by the highway. Cantilan sticks to my mind because the controversial Prospero Pichay hails from that town and he claimed it was the mother town of that area and I was looking for signs of that. A presence of a port I will not be surprised because that is one of the givens at times if a powerful congressman hails from the place.

We found the road sign alright and it was indicated there the distance is 6 kilometers. Not near, we thought, but we were determined to see what it has because we wanted to see what Prospero Pichay has given his place. We were lucky that the road is already cemented in many places and those not were not muddy. We noticed signs of a fiefdom and we just continued on as the seaview is good. We found the Port of Cantilan which is in Barangay Consuelo.

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It was not a disappointing visit. The view was good with islets near the port and there were vessels but almost all were fishing vessels of the basnig type. I was surprised that one of those was the Clemiluza which I used to see in Cebu before. There were two fish carriers in the port and the total number of basnigs was nearly 10. The port had concrete buildings. I don’t know but the impression I got of the Port of Cantilan was that of a fishport.

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In the next town of Carrascal, the last town of Surigao del Sur going north, there were views of the sea and mines and it was a warning to us that Taganito is not too far anymore. Me and Joe tried a small road that goes to the sea. There was no port. What is noticed is the water by the beach. It is not the normal blue. It is brownish with some relation to muck including the smell. I wondered if there was fish still to be caught there.

We then reached the part which I remembered will show us the mining communities below which is part of the boundary of the two Surigao provinces. There was really no good vegetation and the terrain seemed to be really harsh before. I can sense there was really no good serviceable road here before the mines came. I remembered what the shipmate of Joe said to us the previous night that at his age he has not been yet to Butuan City or Surigao City because he said there was no road then. He said that if they needed something that is not available in Tandag, their capital and next town, they go to Davao (he studied college in Davao City by the way). Now I understand why before the Caraga Region was established, Surigao del Sur was part of Region XI that included the Davao provinces.

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We descended and reached sea level which is an indication the mining community centered in Taganito is already upon us. The bulk of the harsh and mountainous terrain is already behind us. It was the actually the physical boundary of Surigao del Norte and Surigao del Norte (and it confirmed to me what I noticed before that the actual boundaries of the provinces of Mindanao are actually physical boundaries too).

We knew from the day before that there was an indication of an open port in the area and we found it. It is the Port of Hayanggabon, a PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) port and it is still being constructed but it is already usable. It is obvious it is meant to be a RORO port. To where, I can surmise that it would an alternative port for the islands of Surigao del Norte. Bucas Grande island, the third major island off the Surigao coast with the town of Socorro is just offshore and Claver can be its link to the mainland. The Port of Hayanggabon can also be the dock of ships with supplies from Cebu and Manila.

We took photos of the ships in Hayanggabon port and also the vessels offshore (this is one of the characteristics of the Taganito area, the presence of a lot of ships offshore). We roamed the general area. There is a barangay hall that can pass off as a municipal hall in some remote areas of the country. There are also restaurants that is already more modern-looking than the usual roadside stand. One thing noticeable is a lot of mining trucks that were on the move aside from other mining vehicles.

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With the developments we saw, it seems the mining companies are doing CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) work. It can be seen in the schools, the school buses, the ambulance and the community lighting. Well, they should. They are earning a lot of money after all. Strip mining near the shore with no tailings ponds with just causeway ports means lower initial capital, lower operational costs over-all and hence more profits.

We did not try entering a mining port. We are almost sure they won’t allow us (they can easily cite the risks and company policy). We contented ourselves with shots from the road. However, I realized that with a vehicle and enough time one can look for vantage places but one needs really long lenses for Taganito as half of the ships are offshore. My 10x zoom was just barely capable for the ships that are docked.

We also took photos of the mining yards, the motor pools, the cuts in the mountain (the strip mines) and almost any other thing connected to their activities that are visible outside. It is seldom that one is near a mining community after all with its activities visible and palpable. Even their equipment is interesting enough. There is even a conveyor belt overhead. But I just wonder with all the heavy loads how long will the road hold before cracking.

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From Claver we sped up already. No more looking for ports and we intended to bypass Surigao City and head direct to Lipata Ferry Terminal. We knew it will be a really late lunch after all the sightseeing and shipspotting. Our target was “Voyagers” restaurant again. We loved the sights, the ambience, the newness and cleanliness plus I can recharge batteries there again, a crucial need in any long-distance shipspotting.

Before going to “Voyagers” we went first to the Lipata Ferry Terminal to know what were our ferry options and to arrange our ride. Of course when one goes canvassing we become an attractive target for the shipping company employees and their runners. There will of course be all the offers and blandishments plus the lies. I was used to that. I actually tried to be the front man instead of Joe because I know I can exude the mien of a veteran.

Actually, our first preference was the FastCat M7 so we can experience a good, new catamaran RORO on that route. Besides our preferred docking port is Liloan as we have been in Benit already on the way to Surigao (so taking a Montenegro Lines ferry again is already out of the options). We also want to shipspot that port from the inside.

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The first ferry leaving for Liloan was the Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping, an old and slow ferry. They lied about a 3-hour running time and said it will arrive in Liloan ahead of the FastCat M7, two obvious lies. Whatever, it will be the FastCat M7 for us. We do not want an old, slow and uncomfortable ferry that has no airconditioning. Joe after a continuous trip from Catarman to Tacloban, back to Catarman then back again to Tacloban and then Surigao del Sur needed an accommodation more than a basic one.

And so it has to be FastCat M7, our original choice. However, it will still be more than two hours from departure. Oh, well, we decided we will just while our time in “Voyagers” and charge my batteries. The Archipelago Ferries man did all the paperworks and we appreciated that (uhm, what a nice rolling cargo service, we thought). He returned with the change and I asked what was paid for. We learned that included already in the total charges was a “Barangay Fee” of 50 pesos.

Me and Joe had a hearty laugh with that. They were able to put one over us. We just explained to the Archipelago guy it is illegal per two Supreme Court final decisions. We let it at that. Me and Joe just wanted to fill in our stomachs, have some rest and enjoy the coziness of “Voyagers”. We already deserve it after over 1,100 kilometers of travel and 3 sea crossings over 4 days (Joe already had 1,400 kilometers over 5 days) and we still have 1 sea crossing and 400 kilometers to go).

We again went to “Voyagers” and they were surprised we were back. We told them they are the best around in Lipata and we like the ambience. Maybe because of that they gave us free halaya. It was delicious. We ordered one as baon but it turned out it was not for sale. “Voyagers” is one restaurant we can really recommend. Very hospitable. It like its settee that is like a sala plus its elevated location which is airy and nice for looking around.

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After two hours of rest we began the embarkation process. It was smooth. FastCat was more professional. I had small talk with some of the hands on the deck. That is where I learned that the Philtranco buses are no longer loaded (one of the reasons for the slack in rolling cargo). It is just the passengers and cargo of the bus and the process is the same in Liloan so in effect the passengers from opposite directions just swap buses. Looks neat but they said the passengers don’t like it.

The FastCat M7 is nice and relaxing. The passenger service and the canteen are good along with the rest of the ship which is new. Our trip is two-and-a-half hours and I was glad it was longer than the Lipata-Benit route as Joe can have more rest. I didn’t have much rest because as usual I was just milling around the ship until it got too dark for taking shots. Before that Benit port was visible and we had a freighter as a companion. By the way, we overtook Millennium Uno just after the midway of the route even though it departed an hour ahead of us.

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It was dark when we disembarked in Liloan Ferry Terminal. Joe parked the car first because I was making a round of the port taking shots and taking stock. There are more controls now but I was still able to get around. It did not change much anyway. However, because of the dark my shots were limited.

We then proceeded and not long after Joe asked where we can eat. I told him the nearest town with decent eateries is Sogod, the biggest town in the area. So instead of proceeding direct to Mahaplag we turned west in Sogod junction to the town. Nearing the town I was puzzled that past dinnertime there were still a lot of vehicles on the road and there was more near the town and inside the town there was traffic. Turned out it was the fiesta of the town but unfortunately we knew no one there. Sayang. We saw the barbecue plaza of the town and we had dinner there. It was satisfying.

After that was the drive again by the river of Sogod. Each and every time I pass it there seems to be changes because there is erosion andthe river change. We then turned to the left in Sogod junction and I warned Joe that from there it will be all uphill. The rain began coming. I don’t know but I associate that place with rain. Maybe it is because the vegatation is still heavy with a lot of trees and it is watershed area.

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Me and Joe will be running through Mahaplag again because the puppy we were supposed to pick up in Isabel was not available. Sayang. We could have stayed the night in Sogod, had more fun there and ran the picturesque seaside road to Maasin the next day and visit the many ports of Southern Leyte and western Leyte up to even Palompon. It would have been a hell of a shipspotting day.

We reached Mahaplag junction again and it was another disappointment as it was already night and there were no hawkers of kakanin and suman anymore. Me and Joe really wanted to test the rumored “poisoners” of the area, a thing we both laugh at because we knew it is not true. Never had a stomach ache in almost two decades I bought from that place and I am still alive.

Heavy rains pelted us after Mahaplag all the way to Tacloban. Joe was already showing signs of tiredness and the weather was not cooperative. In some sections there were already inches of water on the highway demanding more attention from a tired driver. We finally reached Tacloban near midnight.

We were unlucky because the hotels we went to were all full. Maybe because of the hour? We were wondering. We thought Tacloban was disaster area. We then found one across the Sto. Nino Shrine. It was not cheap but the accommodation was good. We have to settle for it. Joe was already clearly tired. Who would not be after 1,300 kilometers on the road spread over 5 consecutive days?

We retired immediately for the next day we will be looking for the unexplored old ports of Samar. Our main targets were Basey and Victoria ports. Guiuan we deemed was too far already.

[That part I already wrote in a previous article:,,,,]

Can Grief And Distress Be Read?

At the turn of the millennium, my parents were already getting old and with it came the inevitable sicknesses. I began visiting Bicol through the intermodal route from Davao. The reasons were varied. One, I found out that it cost only half compared to a trip via Manila. Second, I don’t have mall eyes and it is the countryside view that I enjoy. I even hate more the always-present clouds in a plane trip. Third, I don’t enjoy battling the hassles of Manila. Fourth, I want to learn new places and I am also a fan of buses. Lastly but not least, I am a ship spotter and I wanted to learn more about the ferries of the eastern seaboard.

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San Bernardino Strait from BALWHARTECO

The trips were exacting but I was younger and more eager then. I was not daunted that I don’t know the route well. By that time, I have began to give up on the Philtranco direct bus that I didn’t like. Honestly, as a Bicolano I was not a fan of the bus company as it has failed and abused Bicol for so long. Second, I do not want the long lost hours in the hot ports waiting for the ferries of Archipelago Philippine Ferries, their sister company when one is already tired (Philtranco is tied to the ferries of Archipelago). Sometimes, the bus waits for up to 5 hours for them. Third, in peak season it can be a battle for seats in Naga and then one had to wait for hours for the bus.

Since I was a lifelong traveler, I decided to experiment by using Manila buses to and from Leyte plus the Surigao ride I already knew. At times I ride some local buses, commuter vans and jeeps like those in Bicol, Samar and Leyte. What a fun it is to ride the ugly-looking Samar Bus Lines buses in the bumpy roads of Samar! Or the kamikaze buses to Sogod that freewheel the descents from Agas-agas. And riding the faster Tacloban van to Allen to catch the last St. Christopher bus in Allen, a rotten bus most of the time but they were the ones that specialized then on the “stragglers”, the passengers left by the last Manila bus from Tacloban.

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Those early trips that rely on connections were trials and errors. Early, I didn’t know the windows of the trips in each places (what hour is the first trip and what hour is the last trip). That was when I am forced to stay overnight in dark bus terminals like in Tacloban or even the plaza in Maasin or even wait alone in a waiting shed near midnight in Sogod junction with only mosquitoes for companions. Sometimes, having eateries open at night in a junction was already heaven like in Buray. If I know the schedules well now and the window hours of the trips is because I have learned from the mistakes of my trials and errors in the past.

In the process of all these, I grasped how lousy and how few were the ferry connections then across Surigao Strait. And I learned that in one mistake or one unfavorable bus or jeep connection might mean an 11-hour wait in Liloan port (once what made us miss the ship was a near-fistfight between our driver and another driver!). Or suffer long waits in Lipata port because the ferry was not running. And after all the hours of waiting then not being able to get a seat because the ferry was over its capacity. Lucky then if one will have an air vent for a seat as the stairs were just too dirty. Sometimes I vowed I will bring a carton or a newspaper so I can sit on the deck at the top of the ship.

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Lipata port

It was much better in San Bernardino Strait as there were more ferries there and not once I encounter a ferry that there that was overloaded. Even if it was, it will not be a problem since usually I don’t sit in a Matnog-Allen ferry at day. I just roam around the ship and see the outside view if there is light since the ferry there normally took only 1 hour and 10 minutes to cross. Just milling around is difficult in the Liloan-Lipata route because the ferries there took at least three-and-a-half hours to cross.

The trip going north for me was much better and less tiring because I know when the bus will be leaving the terminal and so I don’t waste time and effort needlessly. In Naga, it was much difficult since one can’t predict the exact arrival of the bus from Manila (and sometime they were delayed if it is rainy or there was some kind of road obstruction or traffic). When it rains it was much more difficult especially since flagging a Manila bus to Visayas was very hard since one can’t immediately read the signboard (it is not lighted). Moreover, Visayas buses were hesitant to stop for one or two solitary passengers which they think might just be destined a few towns away (and this has consequences).

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Well, Visayas buses are not so kind to passengers in Bicol because Bicol bus operators tell them not to take passengers bound for Bicol (when they legally can and anyway Bicol buses ply routes to the Visayas) and if they do they are stoned. There were stretches in Bicol where the driver/conductor will tell the passengers to deploy the shades (these are curtains actually) to avert injury should a stone hit the bus. That is the reason why riding a Visayan bus I don’t speak Bicol nor do I introduce myself as a Bicolano (I say I am a Tagalog which is also true and I will speak Tagalog with the accent of my parents).

One of the trips I remember well was a southbound trip where I started it too tired and very much lacking in sleep plus I was out of sorts. My brother gave me extra money for a plane trip but on the last minute I decided against it and I took the bus from Naga. My trip started at night as usual (because there are no buses from Manila passing Naga to the Visayas during the day). I can’t remember my bus now but we reached Matnog uneventfully sometime midnight and we reached Tacloban about midmorning.

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Matnog port

Usually, if I had a direct Naga-Tacloban bus I will get off in Tacloban and look for a connecting ride to Liloan. I usually do that since it is very hard to time a Liloan or Davao bus from Manila in Naga. I know that in Tacloban there will always be vans for Liloan but these were not many then. So, if there is a Sogod bus leaving immediately I might take a chance on it since van waiting times to fill can take two hours or more then. Or else take the more frequent Hinundayan van and get off at Himayangan junction and take a habal-habal to Liloan.

I reached Liloan in time for the new-fielded Super Shuttle Ferry 10 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) which was then the best ship in the Liloan-Lipata route. Before boarding and in the bus trip maybe I was not looking too much at myself and I was just preoccupied in gazing the views and in trying to find sleep and peace.

2008 Super Shuttle Ferry 10 @ Lipata 1

Photo by: Gorio Belen

The crew of Super Shuttle Ferry 10 was welcoming unlike the crews of their competitors which nary had time for passengers and treats them like cattle. If one needs anything from them one still has to look for a crewman. Maybe since they are too used to then with overcrowded ferries they would just rather disappear and also to avoid complaints about the congestion and the dirtiness (one can’t see anyone of them take the mop to clean the muddy deck when it is rainy). Or to try to find a seat for passengers unable to find one. Or assist the elderly and pregnant.

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I was looking for a seat among the lounge seats of Super Shuttle Ferry 10 in the Tourist section where I can have the chance of a semi-lying position to sleep when a crewman approached me. “Sir, would you like to take a bath?” I was dumbfounded and astounded. Never in my hundreds of trips aboard ferries have I ever heard such a question. He offered a lounge seat and placed my knapsack there and said to the passengers around, “Let Sir have this seat so he can lie and sleep.” I was doubly astounded. And he nodded to the crewman in charge of checking the Tourist tickets at the door as if to say “reserve this seat for him, don’t let others take it”. And that angel of a crewman led me to a bath in the middle of the Tourist section and guarded it so there will be no intrusion. The bathroom was clean and so was the water. It was one of the most refreshing baths I ever had.

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Bath is in the middle of that structure in the middle of the passenger deck

The crewman led me back to the seat after my bath (I was actually a little numb and so I welcomed the assistance) and said to the effect that “please no one disturb him”. In an instant I was deeply asleep and only a gentle nudge woke me as we were docking in Lipata. I softly thanked the two crewmen and it was thanks from the bottom of my heart. Soon I was looking for a connecting bus to Davao.

Can grief and distress be read in a person? Maybe I was not aware of this before because growing up in a region where we have no relatives, we don’t attend burials. Actually, once when my wife was confined in a hospital I was froze when an employee burst into tears wailing, “Wala na si Sir”. I grew up not witnessing such things or taking care of patients in hospitals when they were already terminally sick.

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The TB of SSF10 on the right

Until now I can only thank from the bottom of my heart that crewman of Super Shuttle Ferry 10 who assisted me and showed me all kindness and assistance I needed then. The trip I was making then happened after the death of my mother.

Was he really able read me? Was there some angel whispering in his ears? Did a senior officer noticed me and gave instructions? I don’t know, I don’t have the answers.

Super Shuttle Ferry 10 was soon replaced in the Liloan-Lipata route and I never rode her again. But in one ship spotting session of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society), we were able to board her in Mandaue Pier 8, the AMTC wharf. Yes, the lounge seat where I lain was still there. The only change was it was already re-upholstered.

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I had goose bumps looking at that seat and at the same time my heart was pounding. I tried to look at the faces of the crew. My angel was no longer there. But whatever, this article is my way of saying thanks to you again. From my heart, I wish you reach far in your career.

Sometimes The Best Way From Davao To Cebu Is Via Baybay

A few years back, I was planning to go to Cebu from Davao. I had already made Cebu to Davao combined land and sea trips via Leyte before that and though more tiring and longer I found out it was more rewarding – in views and photos, in insights and just by the plain experience. With those long trips I am able to talk to people, soak a lot of things and garnet a lot of photos of ships to share with friends and the ship spotting world.

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In my travels through the decades I had always sought new routes, new connections so that my travels will be more diverse. No need really to trod the old routes as I am not for the “safety” conferred by it. I want the new, the unexpected and sometimes I welcome the difficulties. One learns with experimentation and errors. I have had failures and misses that I sometimes had to sleep in terminals or lose hours waiting for the next connection. But I never despair or get upset with that because I try to make it a learning experience. If I can guide people now with their travels, it came from the failures and successes of my experimentation with routes and connections. Of course, one has to read and research so the failures will be less than the successes and so that the experience will be more rewarding. It is always better to be not so dumb with the new places one will pass through.

One attraction of a trip from Davao to Cebu via Leyte is I will be able to ship spot Lipata port again and one of its corresponding ports in Panaon island. In the main I try to pass by Surigao every year or two as to be acquainted with the place again. Surigao is one place that has a tug in my heart because in the many years since I learned the overland trip from Davao to Bicol I found it a nice intermediate point. Actually, the crossing of Surigao Strait is refreshing to me especially the always changing seascape one sees as the ship chugs along. There is also the sight of the “The Saddle”, the volcano that produced the Guinsaogon tragedy, the historic Limasawa island, Nonoc island that is synonymous to nickel and the northernmost headland of Mindanao, the Punta Bilar. And of course the realization that in Surigao Strait one the greatest naval battles in history took place.

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Lipata Port

Panaon island also holds attraction to me that I have sought tales about it. I was able to learn the peculiarity of its copra, its old ports, its original people, the Mamanwas, a dark people of Aeta stock, similar to the original people that once dominated the eastern Mindanao cordillera but who are dwindling now. One will see their relatives in the mountain pass that divide Agusan del Norte and Surigao del Norte and sometimes one will read about them in the news when conflict arises between mining companies and their ancestral domain claims.

Now, don’t people say now that Agas-agas is majestic? Maybe they talk of the new bridge now spanning that chasm. It was a bridge that was the solution put forward by JICA to solve the problem of the always cut road because water from the mountain will always crash through on the way to that chasm in the rainy season, the beginning of a river, hence the name “agas-agas”. With it cut the vehicles from the south will head to Maasin and Bato, Leyte to make the long cut to Tacloban.

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The boundary of Leyte and Southern Leyte, once impenetrable before also have a great attraction to me because I am a nature guy. Though not really a great forest, still the lay of the land and the vegetation attracts me along with the many curves and ascents and descents of the road. How can one forget the old Sogod buses then which just freewheel going down and engage 2nd gear when the rig goes too fast already? The mere swaying of that into the road curves by the ravines is exhilarating (but terrifying to many). I don’t know if they stopped the practice already but I found it heartwarming that in Christmas, the oh-so-few barrios by the there will put Christmas lights by the road. From out of the dark and gloom one will notice at night that the bus is passing a small barrio and it feels welcoming.

I can go on with what I remember with the route. Those are some of the things why a route to Leyte is always an attraction to me. I want to experience it again and besides I want to visit a ship spotter in Baybay, someone who knows a great deal the ferries of Leyte in the past and so I wanted to have a chat with him. He was also once assigned to Bicol in an abaca trading firm, an oldie at that and for one who was always attracted in crops and trading I also wanted to have sharing with him. I have lost track of the the abaca trade in actuality (as opposed to figures) and I know it has a revival of sorts (recently, news say there is a shortage of abaca fiber). And besides he teaches at Visayas State University which was once known as VISCA, a highly-rated college in agriculture (#4!) but few knows that. I always had an attraction for agriculture and crops.

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I did research on the timetables and decided the 9pm Philtranco bus from Davao Ecoland terminal will best suit my travel needs. I predicted it will be in Mahaplag junction (some call it a “crossing” but it is actually a junction) just before noon the next day and from there Baybay will be a short distance away (24 kms). Just in time for lunch and if I am lucky I can have a meeting with Mervin Soon and be free part of the afternoon to roam Baybay and then take the cheap night ferry to Cebu which will serve as my first rest.

Being a Bicolano I am not a great fan of Philtranco as it disappointed us a lot in the past even when it was still Pantranco South. I got a ticket in their booth and promptly went back to complain. Yes, the sly charging to the passengers of the rolling rate of the bus was there in the ticket. I made my point and they issued me a new ticket and refunded me P50. They knew they were talking to someone not dumb.

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I viewed the bus. A relatively new Daewoo BF106, a Hino RK derivative, the front-engined version. It is non-air and it will be the first time I will be riding it so I welcomed the chance to assess it. Not good. If the Hino RK platform is not respected in Luzon this was a worse version. Stiff, not too compliant platform and the suspension hisses as lot. The windows rattle too. I thought the old Leyland Albions of Pantranco South was better. But of course they were not powerful, runs slow compared to today. Well, time passes. What I mean is technology improves. The upholstery is low-class too. The edge of the headrests were fraying from being used as hand support of the passengers when getting on and off.

We made some fast clip. It was a night trip and except for designated stops where they have a pick-up, the bus just rolled into the night. That is why I recommended before for Davao passengers to just use the Manila buses in going to Leyte rather than riding the slow Bachelor buses that hugs the terminals a lot and which is hard to sleep on because of that (passengers and vendors rustling every now and then and the bus will turn on its interior lights at every terminal). If a Manila bus from Davao can reach Tacloban in 16 hours or so, it will take a Bachelor bus nearly a day to reach the same place. I am talking of the transit times then.

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Vultures of Benit

Our bus reached Lipata port at sun-up which was just in time for the 6am Montenegro Lines ferry (it leaves anything but 6am sharp). Got off the bus, made a roam of the port and took shots, absorbed the atmosphere, made observations. Why would I queue with the rest of the bus passengers? That’s dumb. They will let you in the ferry even without ticket (just be prepared for the ticket inspection). And besides, it was never the job of the ferry people to check if one has a terminal ticket.

I headed next to the ferry and boarded. I wanted to take shots and talk to some crewmen. Met a kind engineer who offered me to partake breakfast on the bench near the door to the engine room. After some talk I asked if I can visit the engine room. I ask for this before the ferry sails because that is more difficult to ask when the engine is already running and besides that it will be too noisy then.

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Mahaplag junction

The engine room of Maria Lolita was very clean, tidy, well-organized. I noted the Yanmar engine, its dials and then the auxiliary engines, etc. When my back was turned, the main engine started. I asked what time we were leaving? The oilers said “Now!”.

No time to get tickets anymore. Just made small talk, asked questions on the oilers regarding the engine and engine performance. The noise was bearable, the vibration acceptable. I know the inspection of tickets will be fast since Benit port is just about 1 hour and 15 minutes only. When I knew the coast was clear I headed up first to the car deck and then to passenger deck. I met the kind engineer and he had the smile na “Nakalusot ka!”. I just smiled back. At the passenger cabin there were quizzical looks from some of the bus passengers. It meant, “Where have you been? We thought you were left in the port.” A ship spotter maiiwanan sa pantalan?

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Maria Lolita is a double-ended RORO with two heads or bridges. But only one bridge is being used and she does not sail like the usual double-ended RORO (which means she still turns around). With one bridge not used I was able to roam and inspect it closely. One thing I noticed is the view is good and it looks modern.

Maria Lolita has only one passenger deck and in the center is the airconditioned Tourist and outside of that on the sides is the Economy. The passenger capacity is only moderate. But she is relatively fast for its size. The vessel is still relatively new by Philippine standards.

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Baybay City

The bus made a meal stop in Benit. By 8:30am we were already rolling out of the port. The vultures of Benit are still there by the gate demanding the illegal exaction from the hapless but clueless passengers who should not be charged anyway as the Supreme Court has already decided such LGU exactions are void and illegal. Well, I bet even our lawyers and judges pay those illegal exactions. I guess that is how “enlightened” we are as a people.

The climb to “The Saddle” soon began. It should have been a magnificent sight of the sea but the growth and undergrowth is thick. It is not a long climb and soon came the slow descent. We were rolling now in the straight and flat roads of Panaon, not first class but good enough. There are only a few vehicles and the sea is almost always on sight. The towns looked small (until I found out later that Pintuyan poblacion was not in the highway when we were invited by its Mayor).

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Soon we reached Liloan bridge, the short bridge spanning the very narrow Liloan Strait that looks more like a river but it actually divided Panaon island from Leyte island (and the northern part of Liloan town to its southern part). Again the road was mostly straight and traffic very light. It is heavy in coconuts fronds as Panaon is coconut country). We passed by Himayangan junction which leads to Silago and the towns by Cabalian Bay and which is dominated by the volcano Mt. Cabalian. Sogod junction appeared with its beer slogan “So good, ayos na ang kasunod” that was already decades old. I always wondered as a boy ano yung kasunod. Maybe it is the only place in the country that that ad slogan is still used.

After that I knew the hard climbs will begin when the bus will just alternate between 2nd and 3rd gears and be down to 1st in some stretches. I was busy watching the scenery, taking shots if possible when the bus swung to a parking area. It was the Agas-agas rest area of the DPWH. The bridge is just nearby but the bus didn’t slow down when we passed through it. Maybe the driver is also too full of its sight it he doesn’t care anymore (anyway, bus drivers are not tourist guides). More climbs and descents, curves and turns and soon we were in Mahaplag junction with its empty gas station and lots of vendors. It was just past 11am. So far our transit time was still just 14 hours. The comparative Bachelor bus will just be entering Surigao transport terminal (that is why I don’t use the “Express” in their name because that is blasphemy against the true express buses and as I said before when a bus company has the name “Express” it is sure as hell that it is a slow bus).

I partook some of the offerings of the vendors and downed it with two bottles of soft drinks. I was hungry, I was dehydrated. I always wondered about all the rumors and warnings that the food in Cuatro de Agosto barrio is “poisoned”. All the years I have always bought there and I did not even had the slightest stomach ache. I also wonder about the reputation of Buray, the old junction to Eastern Samar. I have eaten there. Now where were the supposed “poisoners” of the place? If one listens to all these tall tales a fearful person will form the idea that Eastern Visayas is the land of “poisoners”. Well, in Tacloban terminal they will even offer free tikim of their moron. I have not heard of a complaint there that they were poisoned.

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Then the vendors were even kind enough to wait for a van for me and talk to the driver if I can be accommodated (it was a hot day). Soon I was on the descents to Baybay and then to its rice plains (Baybay is known for rice and maybe that is part of the reason why VISCA is there). Finally, I had a signal in my Sun cellphone and notified Mervin. He won’t be available till past noon but we will have lunch together. I didn’t mind as I can have a visit to Baybay transport terminal again. Nice to lounge there and I taste the offerings there too. I am a kakanin person.

I soon met Mervin for the first time. He was still very healthy then, the type who had a very understanding mother. He took me to a seaside ihaw-ihaw restaurant (it’s no longer there now). Had a good view of Baybay port and soon we were talking about ships especially the old ones. He knows some of the shipping scions being classmates with them in Sacred Heart School and he knows their stories. We also talked about TAG Fiber. Yes, he knows Bicol abaca.

We parted at mid-afternoon and I had the reign of Baybay again. Enough time to soak it up, observe the movements, gawk at their kind of vehicles. They have double-tire jeeps and that goes to Abuyog town passing by Mahaplag.

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It rained in the late afternoon and early evening making access to the port difficult. The walk is a little long and it is uncovered. I took the Rosalia 3. I prefer these old ships especially the local-builds. They are a little bit unlike the ex-Japan ferries and I am interested in their history. The Lapu-lapu fare is cheap. P300 for economy and P400 for tourist (I heard that even got lower because of tightening competition). It was bunks tejeras in economy, bunks also in Tourist. It was reasonably clean and the aircon is cold enough with free beddings. The rain gets in a little in the economy. Rain in Baybay is driven by the wind.

I made a tour of the ship even that night but I vowed I would linger in the morning to get a fuller and clearer view and throw questions. Sure enough I was among the last to wake up and get off the next morning. I was able to explore the ship and heard some Lapu-lapu Shipping tales. Rosalia 3 is small but she is actually a fast ship. Later, we learned she has three engines and is of fishing vessel origin. Now, isn’t that nice to know?

I also made a tour of the nearby ships. I really make the most when I am inside the port because once outside it is very hard to get in and visit the ships because of ISPS (International System of Port Security). In its book, everyone should be treated as a “potential terrorist”. It was made by some who graduated in Praning School.

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Soon the sun was beginning to get hot. Time to go. As usual because of ship spotting I leave the port tired as I will max everything as long as I have the strength.

That is me as a ship spotter.

Trip Summary:

An ordinary bus plus free ferry, then a cheap van and a cheap ferry, that was why I was able to reach Cebu cheaper than if I had taken a bus to Cagayan de Oro and rode the Trans-Asia ferry. Actually, even if I had paid for the ferry fare, the route via Baybay is still cheaper. Imagine that! In the map, the route will look more circuitous and it has two sea crossings (but that meant more ships can be caught by a ship spotter). But those sea crossings are cheaper than the much longer sea crossing through Mindanao Sea.

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A Tale of a Slow Double-Ended RORO

This ferry is more appropriately named as “double-ended ferry” and not “double-headed ferry” like the preferred name in Japan as she does not have two separate bridges or pilot houses like the dead Super Shuttle Ferry 2 although technically she might have dual controls like the other double-ended ferries in the country which number over a dozen including local-builds. But like most double-ended ferries she is slow as having having screws at each end means a lot of drag and thus lower speed. The low speed might also be due to the transmission gearing. If she was designed to cross very narrow channels of water then providing acceleration off the port, the “pull”, might have been given more weight and not the cruising speed.

The ferry is the Lakbayan Uno which is infamous in its routes for its low speed. She might have had 910 horsepower from her Yanmar Marine engine originally but her design speed, her speed when she was new was just 7.5 knots! With such speed a ferry should not have been used in a route such as she had cruised most of her career here, the Bacolod-Dumangas route as such low speed would tell on her and there is no way the passengers and shippers won’t notice as she has competition that are way faster than her. If there is no meaningful discount on fares and rates then as we say it lalangawin siya (there will be few patrons).

Lakbayan Uno originally came to the country in 2000 as part of the contingent brought in by Philtranco in their attempt for horizontal integration. Pepito Alvarez, the great land transport mogul of the recent era has just taken over Philtranco and with his Nissan UD national franchise and Number 1 ranking in buses sold, he was refleeting the old moribund Philtranco South Enterprises Inc. (PSEI) which were formerly equipped with Hino buses that were already all worn down and depleted in numbers through the loss of the old units with bad maintenance and inside irregularities.

I am not really sure which company really owned Lakbayan Uno at the start. What is known through PSSS contributions and through maritime databases is she was part of the three-vessel acquisition in 2000 which all featured double-ended ROROs, the other two being the sister ships from Aki Line of Japan which became the Maharlika Tres and Maharlika Cuatro which were still relatively new when acquired. Lakbayan Uno was the oldie in the group having been built way back in 1973. But the acquiring company could have originally been Philharbor Ferry Services (and that brings us to the trouble of having many legal-fiction companies). At the start she might not have been under the Archipelago Ferries Philippines Corporation.

Lakbayan Uno did not last long under that combine and in 2001 she became part of the still-respectable fleet then of Millennium Shipping which still had LCTs (which later ended up with Maayo Shipping serving the Negros-Cebu connection). Under Millennium Shipping, Lakbayan Uno tried to shore up the Millennium Shipping connection between Ozamis City and Tubod, Lanao del Norte that was spanning the narrow Panguil Bay.

Millennium Shipping originally bridged Panguil Bay from the port of Tubod to the port of Silanga, Tangub City, a very, very short distance. That was the original RORO connection across Panguil Bay. However, when Daima Shipping built their own port and connected direct to Ozamis City, the Millennium Shipping connection was trumped (along with the across-the-Panguil connection of Tamula Shipping featuring small cruisers).

Millennium Shipping tried to counter by building their own port in Tubod and linking direct to Ozamis. To avoid congestion in Ozamis port which had limited docking space they built their own wharf adjacent to the Ozamis PPA port. However, their transit times are longer, their private port in Tubod was located further west (while most of passengers and vehicles come from the east).

Besides those, their route is longer and using LCTs exacerbated the deficiency as LCTs were slow and passengers complained of the inferior passenger accommodations aggravated by the long use already. Meanwhile, competitor Daima Shipping was using then-novel double-ended ferries which had airconditioning for such a small upping in fares.

That was the reason why Millennium Shipping brought in Lakbayan Uno to the Panguil route. However, she was not able to stem the tide of rout. She was slow, her transit times were longer and the killer was Daima Shipping has far too many ferries than them and it gets full easy and so departure times were fast as they can offer 20-minute intervals even then while Millennium Shipping offers hourly departures. If they accelerate the departures they risk sending out nearly-empty ships. But over time that what was what happened – nearly-empty ships sailing and so they quit operations in Panguil Bay and sold their LCTs.

Lakbayan Uno then found itself in the Bacolod-Dumangas route (and she has been there ever since). At the start she might have been a match for the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs of Montenegro Lines except for the speed. But in the succeeding years better competitors arrived in the route and she was being badly overwhelmed.

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And that brings me having a cocked eye on Millennium Shipping which was reduced to two-ship fleet, the other the very old and antiquated Millennium Uno which is also heavily outmatched in her route and also very slow. The company bears the name Floirendo which is respected and is a heavyweight in the Banana Country of Davao. Everybody knows they are loaded but why such an underwhelming shipping company and ships derided by many? Why, his PhP 75 million donation to the campaign of then-Mayor Duterte would have been enough to buy a good short-distance ferry-RORO or two.

Lakbayan Uno might not have been that bad but the problem is she is assigned a route where her weakness in speed is too exposed. But then I don’t know of many routes now that are very short where that won’t be exposed. Maybe Davao-Samal but they never seriously threw a look in that route. If they put Lakbayan Uno in that route it would have been superior to the Mae Wess LCTs then.

Lakbayan Uno was built in the Japan as the Shigei Maru No. 11. She has two sister ships in the Philippines, the Shigei Maru No.7 and the Shigei Maru No. 12 which are known locally as the Swallow-I and Swallow-II of Daima Shipping. The latter is the former Our Lady of Mediatrix which was heavily damaged when two of it loaded Super 5 buses were car bombed and she caught fire (she was rebuilt by Daima Shipping over several years). So when she was in Panguil Bay then, Lakbayan Uno used to see her sister ships.

All the three sister ships were built by Kanbara Shipbuilding in Onomichi, Japan. Their dimensions are also about the same. More exactly, Lakbayan Uno‘s external dimensions are 33.8 meters in length over-all, 29.9 meters length between perpendiculars, a breadth of 10.0 meters and a depth of 2.9 meters, very common measurements of a short-distance ferry-RORO but they happened to be double-ended ROROs. With such external measurements, a rolling capacity of 6 trucks or buses maximum is expected. If sedans it will be a little more.

Lakbayan Uno‘s dimensional weights are 221 in gross tonnage and 92 in net tonnage with a load capacity of 170 deadweight tons. She has a passenger capacity of about 200 all in sitting accommodations. She has two ramps, bow and stern, a single car deck, a single passenger deck, a bridge amidship and only one mast. Amazingly, her sisters ships here has even less power than her but their design speeds are higher! The ID of Lakbayan Uno is IMO 7370399.

In this decade, Lakbayan Uno is not only infamous in lack of speed in Bacolod-Dumangas but also in showing unreliability and at times she is not even sailing that some ship spotters in seeing a photo of her in that pose inevitably ask. Recently, however, Lakbayan Uno was re-engined, a declaration of intent by Millennium Shipping that they are not ready to let her go. Well, if they will let go of one it would have been Millennium Uno, probably the oldest RORO around that is not an LCT and barring Star Ferry II which was a cobbled ship from Ace-I.

The new engine of Lakbayan Uno is a Weichai WP-12C-450 from China and it is rated at 450 horsepower. Her new speed is 9.1 knots, an improvement over her design speed. There is a claimed reduction of fuel consumption from 117 liters/hour to 35 liters/hours. Now that is outstanding! That will probably be the life saver of Lakbayan Uno. With a fuel cost of probably only P2,000 per voyage (P70 liters x P27.50/liter of diesel), well, that could be one truck charge only. Who was it who told me RORO rates in Samal are just OK (and I told him it was sky high)? Baka pa nga tubong-lugaw ang operasyon ng ROROs as long as walang nakawan. And of course beyond the speed and lower fuel consumption, a new engine’s contribution is reliability.

Lakbayan Uno is still in the Bacolod-Dumangas route. She has been there since she left Panguil Bay. I hope that somehow she survives the fierce and better competition there (she will with that low fuel consumption!) Well, with a Floirendo as owner they might not really be expecting profits from the ship anymore. If the goal is only to keep the ship alive and to be able to pay the crew then maybe there will be no temptation to sell especially to the breakers.

As a last resort they can bring that home to Davao. Samal still lacks ferries, always been. With tourism and being a get-away place of Dabawenyos, an upward demand has always been the pattern. She will be welcome, I guess.

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Photo Credits: Carl Jakosalem, Britz Salih, John Carlos Cabanillas

The Cruel Loss of the Southern Mindanao Liner Routes

Talking here of Southern Mindanao ports, I am not only referring to Gensan (General Santos City) and Davao but also of Zamboanga and Cotabato which are technically Western Mindanao and Central Mindanao ports. But once the four were all closely interrelated as the routes through them are inter-connected. This connection also goes all the way to Iloilo port which was the intermediate port then of the Southern Mindanao liners.

In the late 1990’s, Davao had six liners to Manila per week which was about the same number Gensan and Zamboanga had. Cotabato had less as in only about two or three as it was not as big as the three other cities. Cotabato port, by the way, is actually the Polloc port in Parang, Maguindanao, a nearby town and not the river port in the city which is too shallow for liners.

I cannot believe that in just over a decade’s time from that all four ports will lose their liner connection to Manila or to Iloilo and Cebu. To think that since the Spanish times all had steamers from Manila with the exception of Gensan which was not yet existing then. Zamboanga has one ship a week now to Manila but several years ago she also lost her liner to Manila. The intermediate port of her liner now is Dumaguete and not Iloilo any more.

The slide first started when Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) shrunk operations due to financial difficulties. Among the routes they abandoned early were their routes to Southern Mindanao (but they held on to the Zamboanga route). The frequency they held was never filled up. Among that could be added to the early loss here was when Aleson Shipping Line of Zamboanga also dropped their liner route when they sold their Lady Mary Joy (not to be confused with the current Lady Mary Joy 1 which is a different ship) to the breakers because its run was not profitable.

But the big slide came when Sulpicio Lines got suspended in 2008 after of the floundering of the Princess of the Stars in a typhoon which drew international and local outcries. In the aftermath of that, stringent regulations were laid out for Sulpicio Lines in order for them to come back to passenger shipping. Only two liners were maintained by Sulpicio Lines after that and they withdrew from all routes in Southern Mindanao (among many other routes too).

I was saddened and worried by the departure of Sulpicio Lines. I know the passenger liner segment of shipping was weakening already as budget airlines and the intermodal buses were getting stronger but Sulpicio Lines is not the ordinary shipping company that will immediately withdraw from routes as soon as that route is no longer showing profit. It was one resilient liner that was actually needed then to shore up the weakening passenger liner sector.

I was apprehensive even then of that development because the only remaining liner company in Mindanao which is governed by bean counters is very fast in junking routes and in selling liners to breakers. Even when they fielded the SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21, my apprehensions were not quelled especially since I know they are fast weakening in container shipping because they have the highest rates and new challengers with lower rates are already around and challenging them.

And I was not mistaken in that apprehension because in just over a year they withdrew from Davao but still temporarily retained Gensan. But in about one or two years’ time again they withdrew from Gensan, Cotabato and Zamboanga. With that withdrawal the Iloilo-Zamboanga route was also eliminated.

At about that time, the buses for Manila leaving Ecoland terminal in Davao grew in number. It was not just Philtranco anymore but PP Bus came and soon the so-called “colorums” followed. It was not just the budget airlines that benefited from the withdrawal of the liners.

Davao was at least more fortunate because there are many Manila flights to it and there are plenty of intermodal buses to Manila. Gensan and Cotabato was not that fortunate because even though they have planes to Manila they do not have buses to Manila. Now some people are simply afraid to take flights and some do not have the identification papers needed to board planes. Some are too terrified to enter an airport because they fear losing their way around (well, I found out there were even people who do not know how to order in Jollibee) and also be exposed as stupid barrio folks. They may not really like the buses but they dislike the plane even more.

So some Cotabato folks would take the bus to Davao and transfer to the Davao-Manila bus. People from near Cotabato City also has the option to take the commuter van to Marawi-Iligan so they can take the ship there. Some can also opt for the commuter van for Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte and from there they can connect to Ozamis which both has a ship and a plane. Well, people from Davao or Cotabato province also take the bus or commuter van to Cagayan de Oro where there is also a plane and a ship.

But what kind of cruelty is that of forcing people to travel long land distances in order to catch a ship? Maybe to ameliorate that the only liner company offered tickets to Manila which included a bus ticket of Rural Transit of Mindanao to Cagayan de Oro for a ride that is 320 kilometers from Davao.

With the loss of the Southern Mindanao liners, people also lost their transport for the intermediate routes like Davao-Zamboanga, Gensan-Zamboanga and Cotabato-Zamboanga. Also lost was the intermediate route Iloilo-Zamboanga. Taking a ship then was cheap, relaxing and one disembarks freshened (after taking a bath) and probably fed and ready for the next trip. Now one has to take the plane or the very long bus or commuter van ride.

There is a Davao-Zamboanga plane but it is more expensive than the Tourist class of the former liners. There is no Gensan-Zamboanga or Cotabato-Zamboanga plane as of the present. There is a Zamboanga-Iloilo plane but not daily and it is more expensive than the former liners. Saying it is more expensive does not even include the airport terminal fee nor the airport transfer expenses.

From Zamboanga, people now take the cruel route of a Rural Transit bus up to Bacolod which takes over a day. Mind you the ordinary bus has no comfort room nor meals on board and one is tossed around for that length of time. So the meals are extra expense (it is automatically included in the ticket of Sulpicio Lines). I tell you that ride is backbreaking and it is hard to sleep because at every terminal the bus will stop, open its lights, vendors will board or hawk and there is the general shuffling of people coming up and going down. One also had to look if his luggage is already being taken down by other people.

I also take the very difficult bus-commuter van-bus ride from Davao to Zamboanga and it is backbreaking too and lasts nearly a day if via the Narciso Ramos Highway of Lanao del Sur. The trip is longer and more expensive if it is via Cagayan de Oro. All these alternatives to the ship I am mentioning are all more expensive and the wear to the body is maybe twenty times that of the ship. One reaches his destination fagged out, dehydrated, hungry and stinky.

The Gensan-Zamboanga land trip is no less arduous than the Davao-Zamboanga land trip. Look at the map and one can see the distance is almost the same. If it is via Cagayan de Misamis the distance is even greater. It is only Cotabato-Zamboanga which is a little nearer but the distance is still about 450 kilometers and the waiting time for the commuter van to leave is long as it is basically alas-puno. There is a certain minimum number of passengers before a van will leave (it will cancel the trip if filling up takes too long or the minimum is not reached). And mind you those commuter are not even airconditioned. And in the Pagadian-Zamboanga stretch, the Rural Transit bus is oh-so-slow because there is no competition. Expect up to 12 hours for a 280-kilometer route.

This is the cruel condition left to the passengers when the only remaining liner company in Southern Mindanao jilted and left them. There was a merger again later between the last two liner companies which produced 2GO but still the liners did not return and there is no hope on the horizon that they will return.

Now if only MARINA will relent and allow again some cargo or container ships to take in passengers again that will be better but I don’t see it happening. All they know is to say they are open for new liners companies applying but entering the liner business is too unattractive for all the shipping companies. There are more regulations, more investments needed including in service people and supplies, passenger can balk at delayed arrival or of anything in the service if it is below par. And if there is an accident, for sure, the press and the social media will be baying at their door.

If MARINA knows anything about liner shipping and the plight of Southern Mindanao passengers they should even encourage Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) to take in passengers because their Cargo ROROs need no modifications to carry people. But does MARINA really know anything about passenger liner shipping? They didn’t even understand that with their too strong restrictions on Sulpicio Lines they will be killing a liner company and that there won’t be a replacement anymore.

Now that is the sad fate of us Southern Mindanao passengers.

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The MATNOG-ALLEN ROUTE

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

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

M/V Venus ©Gorio Belen/Philippine Herald

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

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

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

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

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

Maharlika and Northern Samar. ©Lindsay Bridge

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

Nelvin Jules ©Masaharo Homma

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

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

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

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

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

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