The Matnog Ferry Terminal

The government ports that were built in the 1980’s to connect Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao through the eastern seaboard of the country were not called “ports” but instead were called “ferry terminals”. And so it became Matnog Ferry Terminal, San Isidro Ferry Terminal, Liloan Ferry Terminal and Lipata Ferry Terminal. The four actually had a common design in their port terminal buildings and general lay-outs. The paint schemes are also the same.

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Matnog town had been the connection of Sorsogon and Luzon to Samar even before World War II and it might even been before the Americans came. That situation and importance was simply dictated by location and distance as in Matnog is the closest point of Luzon to Samar. In the old past, that connection to Samar crossing the San Bernardino Strait was done by wooden motor boats or what is called as lancha in the locality.

These lanchas existed until the early 1980’s. Their fate and phase-out was forced by the arrival of the pioneering Cardinal Shipping RORO in 1979, the Cardinal Ferry 1. With the arrival of other ROROs and especially the government-owned and promoted Maharlika I, the fate of the lanchas were slowly sealed until they were completely gone. By this time the new Matnog Ferry Terminal which was a replacement for the old wooden wharf was already completed.

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The Matnog Ferry Terminal is a RORO port with a back-up area for vehicles waiting to be loaded. At the start when there were few vehicles yet crossing and there were only a few ROROs in San Bernardino Strait that back-up area was sufficient. But over time it became insufficient and so additional back-up areas were built twice. Before that the queue of vehicles sometimes went beyond the gate and even up to the Matnog bus terminal/public market. Worst was when there were trip suspensions and vehicles especially trucks snaked through the main streets of of the small town of Matnog.

The Matnog Ferry Terminal is one of the more successful ports of the government. Actually most ports owned by the government do not have enough revenue to pay for the operational expenses like salaries, security, electricity, transportation and communication and for maintenance. The performance and success of Matnog Ferry Terminal is dictated not by the quality of port management but simply by the growth of the intermodal system. From Luzon there is no other way to Eastern Visayas except via Matnog. The intermodal system began to assert itself in the 1980’s until it became the dominant mode of connection to most of the islands in the country.

The Matnog Ferry Terminal has a total of four corresponding ports in Samar, amazingly. These are the BALWHARTECO port, the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the Dapdap port of Philharbor Ferries, all in Allen town and the San Isidro Ferry Terminal. The first three are privately-owned ports. The government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal lost out early to the privately-owned ports because it has the longest distance at 15 nautical miles while BALWHARTECO port is only 11 nautical miles from Matnog. A shipping company using San Isidro Ferry Terminal will simply consume more fuel and it cannot easily pass on the difference to the vehicles and passengers.

The existence of those many ports in Samar showed the increase over the years of the number of ROROs crossing San Bernardino Strait and also the number of vessel arrivals and departures. Currently, on the average, a dozen ferries and Cargo RORO LCTs serve the routes here with the companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation/Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated, 168 Shipping Lines, Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation, SulitFerry and NN+ATS involved. The last two mentioned are operations of the liner company 2GO.

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In Samar, all those ferries can be docked simultaneously thereby showing enough docking capacity. In Matnog Ferry Terminal only about five ferries can be docked simultaneously especially since the two new RORO ramps there seems not to be in use. When they built that it was by means of bulldozing rocks into the sea to build a back-up area and those rocks seem to be dangerous to the ferries and their propellers and rudders which means a possible wrong design or construction.

When the government built a back-up area near the Matnog terminal/market, I assumed a true expansion of Matnog Ferry Terminal there. A causeway-type wharf could have been developed there and the docking ferries could have been separated there so there would be less mix-up of the departing and arriving vehicles. Causeway-type wharves like what was successfully deployed by the BALWHARTECO and Dapdap ports. This type of wharf is very efficient in using limited wharf space and it is very good in handling ROROs and LCTs.

Until now the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) insists on using pile-type wharves which is more costly but less efficient. A pile-type wharf is good if freighters and container ships are using the port but freighters do not dock in Matnog but in nearby Bulan port and there are no container ships hereabouts. If there are container vans passing here it is those that are aboard truck-trailers. But many know that if there are “percentages”, the less efficient pile-type wharves will guarantee more pie than can be “shared” by many. And I am not talking of the pie that comes from bakeshops.

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In a causeway-type of wharf the ferries can dock adjacent each other

Matnog Ferry Terminal by its evolution is actually a little bit different now from its sister ports because its wharf has an extention through a short “bridge” like what was done in Cataingan port although this is less obvious in the case of Matnog. The three other Ferry Terminals have no such extensions which is done if the water is shallow and there is enough money like in Ubay port which has an extension that is long and wide enough to land a private plane already (and yet it handles far less traffic than the Ferry Terminals). Almost always the priorities of government in disbursing funds is questionable at best. The budget used in Ubay port would have been more worthwhile if it was used in the shallow Pilar port which has far more traffic and is of much greater importance.

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With lack of RORO ramps it is normal that ferries in Matnog will dock offshore. It is also usual that a ferry will wait a little for a ferry loading to depart before they can dock especially at peak hours. Again, the docking of ferries askew to the port in high tide where there is no RORO ramp still goes on. Matnog Ferry Terminal and the Philippine Ports Authority is really very poor in planning that one will question what kind of data do they input in planning. I even doubt if the idea of a breakwater ever crossed their minds. Matnog is one place where swells are strong especially both in habagat and amihan (it has that rare distinction) or if there are storm signals (and Bicol is so famous for that) or when there is what is called as “gale” warning by the anachronistic weather agency PAGASA (they issue a “gale warning” even if there is no gale; they could have just issued a “strong swell “ warning because it is actually what they are warning about).

In Bicol, Matnog Ferry Terminal has the most number of vessel departures per day if motor bancas are excluded. Matnog’s vessel departures can reach up to 20 daily in peak season with a corresponding equal number in arrivals. In this regard, Matnog Ferry Terminal is even ahead of the likes of Legazpi, Tabaco and Masbate ports and such it is Number 1 in the whole of Bicol. That will just show how dominant is the intermodal system now. And how strategic is the location of Matnog.

A few years ago there was a change in Matnog Ferry Terminal that I was bothered about. Matnog is one port that has a very strong traffic and traffic is what drives income up. But before her term was up Gloria gave the operation of Matnog Ferry Terminal passenger building to Philharbor Ferries. This was also about the same time she wanted to privatize the regional ports of the country with strong traffics like Davao, Gensan and Zamboanga.

Now what is the point of giving the control of a passenger terminal building of a very strong port to a private entity? That port terminal building is actually a cash machine. Imagine about 2,000-3,000 passengers passing there daily in just one direction. Of course Gloria has some debt to the true owner of Philharbor in terms of executive jet services during her term and for providing escape to Garci. Was the deal a payback?

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No covered passenger walkway in Matnog

After years of private operation I have seen no improvement in Matnog Ferry Terminal. From what I know the construction of the two new back-up areas were funded by government. So what was the transfer of control of the passenger terminal building all about? They cannot even build a covered walkway from the passenger terminal to the ferries when BALWHARTECO port was able to do that (and both have long walks to the ferry). Does it mean that BALWHARTECO port cares more about its passengers?

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BALWHARTECO covered walk for passengers

Matnog Ferry Terminal could have been a greater port if properly managed and it should have been properly managed and programmed because it is one of the critical ports of the country. It is actually the strongest of the four Ferry Terminals and by a wide margin at that. Now, if only they will plow some of the profits of the port back into improvements of the port. Or shell out money like what they did to Ubay and Pulupandan ports which severely lacks traffic until now even after spending three-quarters of a billion pesos each. Again one will wonder what kind of data PPA used. Did the “figures” come from whispers of powerful politicians? And did they twist the moustache of NEDA Director-General Neri?

Quo vadis, Matnog Ferry Terminal? You should have been greater than your current state.

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My Shipspotting Trips in Camarines Sur

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

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Pasacao National Port

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

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Pasacao Municipal Port

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

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

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

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Freighters in Pasacao National Port

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo of Jubasan port by James Gabriel Verallo

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

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

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

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The FastCat M9

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

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

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

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

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

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Star Ferry II

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

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

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The Don Benito Ambrosio II by James Gabriel Verallo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Star Ferry 7 in the rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Cargo RORO LCT

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

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

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

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Dapdap port

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

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

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Reina Emperatriz and BALWHARTECO port by James Gabriel Verallo

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

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

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

The Ports in Davao PMO Hosting Foreign Ships

written by: Mike Baylon

There are a host of ports under the Davao Port Maritime Office (PMO) that serve foreign ships. Most of these are privately-owned and the number increased dramatically in the recent years because of the congestion in the government-owned regional port, the big port of Sasa. On peak days it is not uncommon if 7 or 10 ships are anchored offshore waiting for docking space in the Davao PMO ports. In these count of ports the tanker wharves are not included nor are the private wharves of most oil mills in Davao that sometimes host foreign tankers or general cargo ships engaged in the copra/coconut oil trade. Also not counted are the ports where rice from Vietnam is unloaded.

Foreign Ships in Pakiputan Strait ©Mike Baylon

Foreign ships that call in Davao that are counted in this article mainly consist of what is called in the PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) as “regional container ships” (because they ply the East Asia regional routes although some reach as far as Europe and the Middle East), reefers, tankers and bulkers (bulk carriers). The first constitute the bulk of these while the second is a significant presence too. Both have daily presence or arrival in Davao while the foreign tankers and bulk carriers are not that frequent.

The ports in Davao PMO which host foreign ships are the ports of Sasa, Panabo (which consists of two: TADECO and PACINTER), Pantukan and Maco (both in Davao del Norte), Hijo (in Tagum City), AJMR, AJMR 2, KTC, Holcim, Craft Haven, TEFASCO, Third Millennium Oil Mill and New Davao Oil Mill. Sometimes foreign ships also dock in Astorga in Sta. Cruz town and Digos. Of all the ports mentioned only Sasa, Pantukan, Maco and Digos are government-owned ports. Most of the ports mentioned are located in Davao City. There are other ports in Davao PMO which do not handle foreign ships.

DBCOM to Holcim Port ©Aristotle Refugio

A total of about 30-40 ships call on all these port in a week and most of it are foreign. Most are container ships of which some are the gearless type now with lengths of over 200 meters. The export of Cavendish bananas, fresh fruits (mangoes, “solo” papayas, “broad-shouldered” pineapples) and fresh produce (like asparagus and lettuce) fuel this boom on ship calls in Davao. Actually these ships will take in almost anything including “saba” banana, other varieties of bananas including the red variety (“morisco”), camote, yam, etc. The penalty for Davao is the prices of fruits and produce have gone up a lot in the last few years in a classic situation where the demand is greater than the supply.

Container vans do not only come from Davao Region. It comes as far as Agusan del Norte, Misamis Oriental, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao along with other nearer provinces. They are hauled to Davao because daily there are regional container ships and reefers in Davao while in the likes of Misamis Oriental they only call a few times a month and harvesting will not wait for them. In late 1990’s Davao lost out to Misamis Oriental in the bidding for the Mindanao International Container Terminal (MICT). Just the same even with infrastructure there the Davao PMO ports soundly beat the MICT in ship calls.

Buda highway and Sayre highway junction ©Mike Baylon

This only proves the adage that, “where there is cargo, the ships come.” The country has a lot of export processing zones with a government agency promoting them, Davao has none but Davao PMO simply beats silly these export processing zones or ecozones. In fact, in foreign ship arrivals Davao is well ahead of Cebu, Batangas and Subic ports and it is just behind the great Manila ports. Yet for all this shipping activity Davao does not have the road congestion of Manila. Nor does it have the extortion and mulcting activities rampant in Manila. One of the things that is rampant instead in Davao is the building of container yards to support this ship activity. With this activity one of the skilled labor in short supply in Davao are forklift operators.

If there is anything this port boom in Davao PMO proves is that if there is really shipping traffic then the private sector will not wait for the government to build the ports and the container yards for them. This flatly disproves the wrong mantra of government bureaucrast and politicians interested in ‘percentages’ that government must always build ports so shipping will grow (and they also actually also want to overstate their importance). In fact in the Philippines there are more privately-owned ports and wharves than government-owned ports although most of them just handle their own needs and are not commercial ports.

Panabo Port ©Janjan Salas

In the future, I still see more ports will be built for the foreign ships calling in Davao and some will be expanded. This is so because the hectarage of crops for export continue to grow in Mindanao and thousands of hectares are added yearly to the total. This growth will even accelerate if the Bangsamoro Basic Law will be approved as the people in Bangsamoro wants to join this bandwagon too. In fact, the most important export, the Cavendish variety of banana in the world, only 55% of the world demand is being filled right now and China, South Asia and the Middle East is fast developing a taste for that fruit and their traders are itching for supplies.

Bigger container ships are willing to ply a route to Davao. One factor that limits their size is the shallow depth of our ports and that is a challenge that must be addressed by port expansion. As of now it is only Panabo port that can handle the bigger gearless container ships.

For the Davao ports, it will continue to be up and up. The region and the regions around have discovered a new “gold mine”, the fresh fruits and fresh produce. This is our new primary export crop that supplanted the abaca and copra of the past century and it seems the taste of the foreign countries for these are just beginning to be whetted.

Sasa Port, Davao City ©Aristotle Refugio