New Developments in Masbate Port

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

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Masbate port

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

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

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

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

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

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A makeshift boat landing area adjacent Masbate port

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arriving in Masbate Port

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The other port of Masbate and the Burias motor bancas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two ROROs and a cargo in styropor boxes

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

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

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

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Jack Daniel lounge

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

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

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

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

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Nelvin Jules disembarking a well-wisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No good meal

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

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

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If they can only load a bus on the roof

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

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

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Leaving Jack Daniel behind

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

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

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Filipinas Ozamis Lounge class

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

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

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

My Trip From Bicol to Cebu Via Masbate (Part 1)

When I go from Bicol to Cebu I usually pass through Masbate. Going via Eastern Visayas is farther, longer and costs more. The route via Masbate also affords me the chance to cover a southern port of Bicol and the nascent port of Masbate. However, whatever route I take I usually end up tired and lacking sleep. The reason is I start my trip on a midnight and this is dictated by the the hours that the bus pass by Naga on the way to Pio Duran or Pilar, the jump-off points to Masbate. Well, even if I take the Eastern Visayas route still the buses pass Naga at night and at midnight I will be there awake in Matnog port. I don’t sleep well on buses and that is more so when there are frequent stops and shuffling of people and baggages.

On this particular trip, I had no firm decision whether to take the Pio Duran or Pilar route to Masbate. It was peak season, the buses were full, the weather was not very cooperative and so I decided I will just ride the first bus that will stop for me. Luckily,I was rewarded with a 4-day old bus, a brand-new unit recently fielded. It was SRO but I didn’t mind because as just a Pilar bus I know there will be passengers that will be going down in the next town or two and I was not mistaken. My bet to stay at the front paid off again and I was rewarded with a front seat (thanks again to the lady who pulled my arm so I can have her seat). I had opportunities to use my cam for bus pics although it was limited because it was night and dark. Besides the rain started again when the bus started rolling.

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Pilar Bus Terminal and my ride

This was the trip that fully exposed me to the damage of Typhoon “Nina” to the electrical lines (I had been exposed before to the physical damage when I made my shipspotting trip to Legazpi and Tabaco). All the towns we passed had no lights and the first one I noticed that had widespread lights was already the known junction in Kimantong, Daraga, Albay. But after passing that part of the poblacion of Daraga it was all dark again (and there was not even a moonlight) until we were already on the descent nearing the port town of Pilar (and Pilar is already some 130 kilometers from where I came from). After such a long drive the lights of Pilar felt welcome as we were no longer peering in the dark. And being just past the Yuletide season, the Christmas lights and decors were still on the streets and homes and those added to the welcoming feeling.

We stopped at the bus terminal of Pilar and I made small talk to the bus crew. This small talk enables me to update on some things I should need to know with regards to trips. The terminal is walking distance from the port of Pilar and we entered through a portion of the market that was converted as a port terminal. The ticket sellers (and the painitans) were there as well as their agents and runners. They were selling us the competing advantages of Denica Lines and Montenegro Lines (the RORO because just past midnight there were no fastcrafts yet). Showing my veteran side I passed by the terminal without deciding yet. I just asked what their fares and skeds were. The ferries are not yet leaving so I have time to get more info, assess the options and make the better decision. And who knows if a motor banca makes a very good offer?

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Motor banca to Mandaon

The row of motor bancas that were leaving comes before the ROROs. Uhm, there were more offerings now. Aside from the usual motor bancas to Masbate and Aroroy there was now a motor banca to Mandaon which on the southwest of Masbate island facing Romblon (and is a gateway to Sibuyan island by motor banca). And those were pre-dawn departures as in 3am to 4am. That was new to me. So they allow it now. In amihan? The waters of Ticao Pass, the Burias Gap and the Masbate Pass are not exactly known for gentleness. Cross-swells that need to be read well, you bet.

Made small talk with the motor banca people. Well, not only they know more of their trade but also to cross-check the info about the ROROs. They are better sources of info, not that partial and without the rah-rah. I noticed something that was not there before. They are quieter now. The quietness of the beaten? It seem i can’t see anymore the elan I used to see in them before. Was it all just a mirage before or they were simply sleepy? There seems to be attitude of “Thanks, there are still passengers”. Maybe they are not used to the likes of me. Maybe they are just used to the passengers they know that are “theirs”. Or probably they thought I will not ride their craft anyway? Well, I was not inclined to ride them on that situation because their engines are simply too noisy for sleeping.

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Motor banca to Aroroy

I was mulling on an Aroroy motor banca. But thinking ahead, I realized I might not reach Masbate port before the first ROROs leave (and the fastcraft and the motor bancas leave even earlier) so I decided in favor of Denica Lines. It was supposed to leave earlier at 3am compared to the 4am of the Montenegro RORO and an earlier arrival in Masbate is better. But the decisive thing was while I already knew the Maria Angela of Montenegro Lines, I have not yet ridden the Marina Empress of Denica Lines. A 3am departure is perfect as the arrival in Masbate is before breakfast, a good time to catch the early birds. I did not know yet then that the Marina Empress had other advantages compared to the Montenegro RORO.

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Marina Empress

To relieve myself of my baggage which was a burden to me, I boarded the Marina Empress after buying my ticket. I then made a tour of the small ship (I thought that in Masbate I might not have the chance anymore if I am pulled by other immediate attractions like ship departures and arrivals there). I noticed that the crew were still all asleep and no one was really minding the ship. I thought that was a show of small port behavior. They know their clientele and there is really no threat to the ship (contrary to the over-active imagination of the believers in ISPS or International System of Port Security).

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Pilar port

I went down and made my first round of the port and the vessels docked there. It was a little difficult to survey the port as it was dark from end to end. Pilar is a substandard port as there is really no overhead port lighting like what is usual in other ports. I thought Pilar still has the characteristic of a municipal port. I realized it was actually a little dangerous to shipspot. One to watch his steps.

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Hammity and Denica fastcraft

With the dark enveloping the port, it was hard to gauge the lay-out of the port and the vessels docked there. But aside from the two ROROs which are prominent because of the height and size and the many motor bancas (which is difficult to count in the dark), there were two fastcrafts on an unlit portion of the port beyond and ahead of the cargo motor boat Hammity of Denica Lines (that was the first time I saw this boat which I first became familiar with in the MARINA database). Hammity was being used as an “LPG carrier”.

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I rounded the Hammity to get a better gauge of where the fastcrafts were tied up and where is the possible vantage point. It was difficult as it was unlighted and Pilar port had changes since the last time as was there (it was finally refurbished by the government but I was not impressed; it deserved something better given its traffic – now why does ‘ports to nowhere’ deserve more funds here in our country?). It seems the main change was only the addition of RORO ramps.

I realized that the best vantage point for the fastcrafts is the motor banca leaving for Aroroy. I made my way to its outboard gangplank. They did not mind. It is really the humble local crafts that are the most hospitable. But the problem was there was some distance. My flash can’t cover the whole lengths of the fastcrafts which are now perpendicular to me. Their lengths are probably over 20 meters.

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The two fastcrafts are already old and probably was bought as junk given the state I saw it. But of course Japan junk when refurbished here looks good again. I asked around. They have no names yet and no work has been done yet. The loan from the bank is taking time? Well, our commercial banking system is known for not being appreciative of the shipping sector. They would rather fund chattel mortgages of new cars. Well maybe because that has greater “value” (is “value” like beauty that it depends on the eye of the beholder?).

It was also difficult to photograph the motor bancas. They are tied perpendicular to the wharf and so my flash can’t reach the sterns of the bancas. I thought had this been daytime I would have had a field day. Well, I can’t even have a good shot of the motor banca and small fastcraft docked parallel to and near the Marina Empress. Worse, I can’t even make out their names. That will show how dark it was (I realized what I actually needed was a good flashlight).

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Maria Angela

I boarded Maria Angela. Since she was filling up with passengers and rolling cargo, it was easy to get onboard. I look like one their passengers. The ferry was well lit unlike the Marina Empress. I thought maybe Dynamic Power of Mandaue made a sale of an auxiliary engine to them, seriously. I then went next to the fastcraft jetty of Montenegro Lines which I tried to use as a vantage point. It was still deficient – it was really too dark. I did not go anymore to the bigger fastcraft tied up in the jetty. I reasoned I will catch her in Masbate anyway in better light too.

Made more roamings of the port and port terminal to catch stories, size up things. When I noticed it was just less than an hour to departure time and there was no activity yet in the ferry I then went inside. The crew was still fast asleep including the Chief Mate. The Chief Mate is usually the one in charge of loading in the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. And horrors! The Maria Angela is undocking already and leaving before its ETD. Its vehicle deck was not even full.

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The small Montenegro fastcraft

I went down to their ticketing office to register a note. I was worried about a late departure especially if they try to take advantage of the absence of a Montenegro RORO. They said not to worry as loading is easy and fast as only three trucks are to be loaded and no bus. They said the Marina Empress normally doesn’t load a bus. They note it is an advantage to us because the accommodations do not get full. I understood it also that if true it will mean less noise, less people moving around.

In this talk with them, I also learned that their other RORO, the Odyssey left before 9pm and it was its usual schedule. That was new. Pilar has no night RORO to Masbate before. Maybe the competition with Pio Duran port which is on a parallel route to the Pilar-Masbate route is working wonders for options. The PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) knows parallel routes compete but a PhD holder in La Salle that did a thesis in shipping does not know that.

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Loading operation

About 20 minutes from departure time, the crew awakened and began loading the three trucks nonchalantly and right after that our vessel undocked. We were almost on time. And the ticketing office was right. There were just a few passengers since we have no bus on board. The former Tourist section where I was in was still half-lit. With the good seats that was more fit for sleeping than the usual Economy seat, we few passengers all had good benches for sleeping and in semi-darkness too. I opened the door near my head and there was freeze breeze and soon I was fast asleep.

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Nice to sleep in

It was the first ever that I had a good sleep on a ferry to Masbate that I woke a little late. I usually wake up when I feel a little commotion and when I opened my eyes it was already light. My thought that we were already in Masbate was correct. We already passed by the Masbate lighthouse and we were already inside Masbate Bay and the ship was already entering final docking maneuvers. It was not too late really but it was better had I woken up 15 minutes earlier. Now everything is already rush.

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Nearing Masbate Port

I tried to take as many photos of the ships and the port of Masbate before we docked. But as I said I was a little late and soon I have to disembark too. I cannot stay long because I have no ticket yet for Cebu and I have a worry because the entering week was Sinulog Festival week in Cebu and I fear a delegation or two might already have tickets aside from the Masbate tourists going to the festival.

(To be continued…)

It’s An Uphill Fight Now For The Pilar-Masbate Big Motor Bancas

Once upon a time, some 50 years ago and earlier, the main connection of Masbate island through its main port of Masbate to the Bicol mainland was the progressive town of Bulan in the southernmost tip of Sorsogon. Masbate then had good and links to Manila through passenger-cargo liners. All of those that drop anchor in Masbate port were still proceeding to Sorsogon and the northern ports of Bicol, Samar, Leyte, Cebu and with some still going to northern Mindanao ports.

These links had been around right after the war and even before the war. The trade driving it was copra and the port ’round Samar Sea and environs and the northern Bicol ports were great funnels of copra. Copra then was a powerful commodity such that there was even a “Coconut Alliance” in the same manner that there was a “Sugar Alliance” in the Philippine Congress and at the apex of that early on was presidentiable Jose Avelino of Samar which later passed on to Emmanuel Pelaez of Misamis Oriental with Emilio Espinosa of Masbate the local linchpin in the area. These “alliances” were pressure groups and plays a key role in selecting and supporting the national candidates.

Masbate port was a hub where goods can be exchanged with other ports in that area. This also involved goods to and from the national capital center and that was one of the reasons of the strong Masbate-Bulan connection. However, at the tail end of the 1970’s these nexus of links where Masbate was a major player began to go downhill. There were plenty of interconnected reasons for that and that will require a long discussion and hence will be left out of this article but two of those were the development of the highways and the rise of the intermodal transport system.

In the next phase when Masbate port just became a sideshow in the national liner network, the Masbate-Bulan link just became more of a purveyor of local goods. Masbate will no longer supply goods from Manila since Bulan has already a good road connection to Manila (courtesy of the buses Pantranco South and JB Lines). Motor boats and big motor bancas made the link between the two ports. However, in the same period emerged a new challenger to Bulan which was the port and town of Pilar in Sorsogon and in due time the Pilar-Masbate connection superseded in importance the Bulan-Masbate connection.

What tilted the balance was Pilar is much nearer than Bulan to the regional trade center of Legazpi-Daraga and to Manila. The bus factor got into the picture too. Where before JB Line and Pantranco South bus waited for passenger in Bulan terminal right beside the port, slowly “colorum” buses and Pantranco South buses began waiting for passengers in Pilar terminal right beside the port too. Pilar is significantly nearer to Manila than Bulan and so the fare is cheaper and the travel time shorter. Really, when roads get good, some paradigm changes are induced. Through the sea, Pilar and Bulan are nearly equidistant to Masbate port.

Big motor bancas and small motor boats connected Pilar and Masbate with the former much more in abundance. Both are powered by surplus truck engines (some are twin V-8s!) but the big motor boat being lighter is nimbler and faster. Another change that tilted the balance for Pilar was the reawakening of the Aroroy gold mines which was started by the small miners. This mine like the Larap mine shuttered in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s due to the drop of the world prices of copper and iron. Now such reawakening fueled people movement and the bus in Pilar and Pilar-Aroroy big motor bancas and small motor boats were there to serve it. Bulan cannot be the port of departure because it is simply too far from Aroroy. And so the start of the 1980’s saw the beginning of the heyday of the Pilar-Masbate big motor bancas.

The traffic in the route is heavy both ways in the early morning and approaching mid-afternoon. The reason for latter is these big motor bancas do not run at night and not because of MARINA or Coast Guard edicts. The trips last 3.5 to 4 hours and they hightail it before dusk settles. The reason, as anyone who is familiar with the coastal sea is the winds begin to get active and so do the swells when night is approaching. And the seas here, the Ticao Pass, the Masbate Pass and the Black Rock Pass have a high level of notoriety in showing no mercy to small crafts. These waters are graveyards of many motor bancas especially the fishing bancas. These three bodies of water are considered the most dangerous waters of Bicol, bar none.

There are many operators of big motor bancas in the Pilar-Masbate route but two entities dominated, the Denica Lines and the Lobrigo Lines and their rivalry is intense but not destructive. The two then raced with bigger and faster motor boats but their rivalry did not end in that sphere. Lobrigo Lines went into the bus business as vertical integration. So you ride their motor banca and you are assured of a bus seat (that was not sure in the past when there were not so many buses yet). In the reverse route, their bus passenger goes to their motor bancas. Of course all assistance and courtesy is extended and it was not simply like hauling cattle as this route is an epitome of free market competition. So aside from plenty of choices in bus and motor banca, the fares are fair game to haggle and courtesies are on full display. Pilar and Masbate are ports where there is no talk of porterage for motor banca passenger cargo. One does not queue for tickets also. They ask you inside the boat if you are already ready to pay and there is just a minimal charge for cargo.

Meanwhile, Denica Lines ventured into passenger ferries first with the cruiser ferry Bikol Express which was the former Elizabeth Lilly of Western Samar Shipping Lines. When they sold that Batanes Multipurpose Cooperative, they then acquire the Odyssey of Alabat Shipping Corporation which is a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO. Later, they also acquired the Vanessa P2 (ex-Torrijos) of Sta. Cruz Shipping which served the Lucena-Marinduque route and they renamed this the Marina Empress. This ship is another basic, short-distance ferry-RORO.

Lobrigo Lines took a different approach. They bought two fastcrafts from Japan which became the Maria Natasha and Maria Querubin. Not long after they sold the fastcrafts to Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. of Batangas which became the point of entry for that company in Bicol waters. The buses of Lobrigo Lines did not last that much long either. After less a decade only a few were still running until operations were nearly shut. It came back but other operators are merely riding on their permits. Maybe being good in seacrafts do not guarantee one will be good in land transport.

Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. whose inferior fastcrafts was trounced in the Batangas-Calapan route then was able to find a profitable haven in Pilar-Masbate. They actually invested in a jetty so their fastcrafts can safely use Pilar port which has notorious shallow waters because it lies in an estuary. They also invested in wharf improvement so they can also operate safely the basic-short distance ferry-ROROs they brought to the route. Then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo never saw fit to improve Pilar port because that happened to be under the district of a political opponent which was Francis Escudero. She would rather waste money in dozens of “ports to nowhere” than invest in one opposition port which has a true and growing traffic.

With the success of the fastcrafts and the basic-short distance ferry ROROs and with it the buses now crossing to and now rolling in Masbate island in its entirely, the Pilar-Masbate big motor bancas felt severe pressure. In most instances now, they are just the carriers of local passengers and cargo since Manila passengers and small cargo is now borne by the buses. Intermodal trucks has also invaded Masbate island and that further lessened the load of the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas.

Still the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas are still plying the route bravely and with elan. In the early morning from Masbate they rule the route since the buses and trucks are still not yet around and so the earliest RORO leaves around 10am. In the early morning hours from Masbate their competition are the fastcrafts. But the fare of those are double compared to them and so it is generally the middle and upper classes including the government workers who are patrons of that. The hoi polloi and the early cargo belongs to them because the fastcrafts don’t carry cargo.

In Pilar many leave too in the early morning hours especially if the ROROs are gone. The ROROs depart before morning since the buses and trucks are already there and those are early because most will still roll the length of Masbate island and it is their target to finish the route before lunch is well past. In the midmorning there will be no more ROROs in Pilar that will be crossing to Masbate and in Masbate there are no more ROROs after 1 pm. When there are no more ROROs that is the opening for the motor bancas. But it does not mean they will not leave if there are ROROs running. They will and they will try to overtake the RORO since they are faster (what are twin V-8s for anyway?).

However, a new development ratcheted up the pressure on the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas. A new route was developed, the Masbate-Pio Duran, Albay route. Pio Duran is nearer to Manila than Pilar and it has deeper waters and so there are no low tide restrictions. This route further took away traffic from the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas and since they are not running that route they cannot compete directly.

The Pilar-Masbate motor banca is not laying over and die. They are fighting hard especially on local cargo and passengers. They really try to lasso passengers and cargo. They will even take in cargo even without accompanying passengers and deliver it within the town through tricycles. They will treat the passengers well. Well they have to since they are no longer as full as before. There is no more way to take back the bus passengers although the knowing and especially those just from Masbate City or nearby know they can still take the motor banca which is cheap and they can haggle with the fare in the buses waiting in Pilar. Or be even to leave earlier if they will choose to proceed to Legazpi which has day morning bus trips which are faster (the buses from Pilar will still look for passengers along the way).

But still it is clear that the heyday of the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas is now over and it is already an uphill fight for them. I just hope it does not degenerate to a struggle for survival.