The Super Shuttle RORO 12 and Its New Route

Last April 30, the RORO Cargo ship Super Shuttle RORO12 of the Asian Marine Transport Corporation or AMTC participated in a very notable ceremony, the inauguration of the new Davao-General Santos City-Bitung route. I do not know when was the last time two Heads of State were present in the Philippines for a shipping inauguration. If there was one, it was eons ago. But right after the ASEAN Summit, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia came to Davao City for the inauguration. President Jokowi of Indonesia was even accompanied by her wife, the First Lady of Indonesia Iriana Widodo. I thought wow! that was the importance given on the opening of the route connecting the southern Philippines with eastern Indonesia. And the host of AMTC in Davao City, the Kudos Port was that lucky to have the presence of two Presidents. Wow, how lucky was Mr. Johnny Ng, the owner of the port. The inauguration might be “The Event” of his successful business career.

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And the ship Super Shuttle RORO 12 was also very lucky. Imagine all the photos and videos of her not only in media but also the social media. That goes true too to Kudos Port and its owner. Both the ship, the port are now famous and not only in Davao City. And then just past the narrows of Pakiputan Strait, the Super Shuttle RORO 12 met the China PLAN flotilla which is in a world tour and which picked Davao City as the first port of call. I do not know if that is auspicious but what a timing! It seemed a lot of attention was on Davao City that day and Super Shuttle RORO 12 was part of all that.

Viewing, talking of Super Shuttle RORO 12, I always have charged emotions. Many do not know but she is not a new ship in our waters for in 1994 she came to William Lines as the ROCON I. When she came she became the biggest cargo ship in the whole country, bar none. She was then the pride of William Lines and justifiably so. During the time she came, William Lines was in a battle to keep pace with Aboitiz Shipping and Sulpicio Lines which were both ahead of her in container ships before ROCON I arrived.

But when she arrived I had the thought, “Can ROCON I be fit for local routes or is she meant to do Far Eastern routes?” The reason behind that thought is ROCON I was much larger than the container ships in the country which is just about 90 meters or 100 meters in length and ROCON I was 160 meters in length. Even compared to the Ramon Aboitiz and Vidal Aboitiz of Aboitiz Shipping which were built in Ukraine, she was significantly bigger. And I thought “Is ROCON I the William Lines slam dunk a la Filipina Princess and Princess of the Orient of Sulpicio Lines?” When those two grand liners of Sulpicio Lines came in 1988 and 1993m they were much larger than the liners of the competition. And now ROCON I was just like those two.

I noticed the name “ROCON” was a play on the characteristics of the ship which is “RORO” and loads container vans. Before she came most the container ships in the country load and unload “LOLO”, an acronym for “Lift On, Lift Off”. That means in loading and unloading booms are used to lift the container vans. Meanwhile, ROCON I is a true RORO Cargo ship true. There are no cargo booms and container vans are hauled into or hauled off the ship. This means the container vans are aboard trailers that are pulled by prime movers. This system is actually faster in loading and unloading but trailers are an additional capital expense and there can’t be maximization like in LOLO ships where container vans are stacked with practically no wasted space.

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In Europe, the origin of ROCON I, RORO Cargo ships carry all types of vehicles crossing the seas from sedans to trucks to trailers. Since the load are vehicles then ramps are needed as access to the different car levels. Aside from ramps as access to the port, the RORO Cargo ships have car ramps connecting the various level and up to the sun deck. Sometimes lifts or elevators are also used. So even though ROCON I is a big ships in TEU her capacity is only 500. She was certainly not the first container ship with ramps here as the very first container ship of William Lines, the Wilcon 1 has a ramp and operates ROLO which means she has cargo booms at the front and a car ramp at the stern for combined RORO and LOLO loading and unloading. The Wilcon 4 of William Lines also has a RORO ramp and so do the Sinulog of Escano Lines but what really sets apart ROCON 1 is she has no booms and that is actually a leap of faith for William Lines as not much cars and trucks are loaded locally and for a ship to just carry 500 TEUs on 6,500 horsepower, the ratio does not seem to be too good.

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The ROCON I was built as the Mercandian Gigant for Nolis in 1984 by Frederikshavn Vft in Fredirikshavn, Denmark. Her name was already a giveaway to her size and she measured 160.5 meters by 22.3 meters with a gross register tonnage (GRT) of 15,375 tons. In those days those measurent were already very big (nowadays, container ships of over 200 meters are already common). Mercandian Gigant has a design speed of 16 knots from 6,500 horsepower from a single MaK engine. The ship was already equipped with the modern bulbous bow. Of course, she has only a single funnel.

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The lift. The mezzanine is at the background.

Inside the ship has three RORO decks for vehicles plus a mezzanine for cars aside from the top or sun deck which is also used for loading vehicles. Ramps connect the different levels and lifts are also employed. Like most RORO Cargo ships there is a tower at the front which accommodates the crew and the drivers of the vehicles and the bridge at the top. There are cabins for the drivers with its own toilet and bath and there are drawing rooms and a common galley which in layman’s word is the kitchen and restaurant of the ship (the term “galley” comes from the earlier centuries). Drawing rooms are the lounges of the ship and the officers have a separate drawing room. 

In 1995, ROCON I came to the Philippines and William Lines as mentioned before. She really seemed too big then for the route to Cebu. The ship did not sail long for William Lines because the “Great Merger” that produced the William, Gothong & Aboitiz or WG&A shipping company came on January 1, 1996 and she became the SuperRORO 200 in the new company. The next year the ship was sold abroad. And that was one thing I cannot understand about WG&A. They were able to accumulate a few good container ships that do not look like general-purpose cargo ships like the bulk of the Wilcons, Sulcons, Lorcons and Aboitiz Concarriers but instead of maintaining the routes to Hongkong and other ports in the Far East what WG&A did instead was to withdraw from foreign routes and surrender to the foreigners. What happened next was only foreign ships were carrying our container vans with the probable exception of Eastern Shipping Lines. While withdrawing from foreign routes what WG&A did was also to bully the smaller shipping companies in the country and in some cases that resulted in the collapse of the weaker shipping companies.

Of the ships we sold aboard it was ROCON I which first came back and that was completely unexpected as ships sold abroad never come back. The only other ship to come back here was the former SuperFerry 16 which became the St. Therese of Child Jesus of 2GO. So when the former Amirouche came here in 2015 to become the Super Shuttle RORO 12 I was shocked when the IMO Number (which is IMO 8222733) told me she was the former ROCON I. I was able to visit her in AMTC Pier 8 days after she arrived. I asked Yangyang Rodriguez, a high officer of AMTC if she was a former ship here and it seems he played coy with me. But of course IMO Numbers don’t lie and that is the beauty of it. Very easy in tracing a ship but MARINA, the local maritime administrator doesn’t use that because they insist on their own ship identification number which is useless in tracing ships.

Amirouche, the last name of the ship was refitted and she became the Super Shuttle RORO 12, the last big RORO Cargo ship so far of AMTC. She did not have a permanent route like the other RORO Cargo ships of the company. Sometimes she would come to Davao.

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Docked off Davao before inauguration

The news came of the planned inauguration of the Davao-General Santos City-Bitung (Indonesia) route. Two weeks before the planned inauguration Super Shuttle RORO 12 was already waiting in the southern Davao anchorage in Pakiputan Strait. She was obviously newly painted. I imagine her interiors were spruced up too. Who can tell if the two Presidents will board the ship together with their First Ladies and other dignitaries? And two days before the inauguration she was already docked in Kudos Port. Maybe top officers of AMTC was already around to make sure all goes well. I am also sure the Presidential Security Group (PSG) checked every nook and cranny of the ship and practically sealed it.

I was surprised by the choice of the Super Shuttle Ferry 12 for the route as she is a big RORO Cargo ship and the route to Bitung is just starting. This route was already in the news for the last four years or so and nothing came out of it. Once I was told the route is already off because, “Bawal ang bigas, bawal ang asukal, bawal ang (cooking oil). E, ano na lang ang ikakarga namin?” There is really a very strong protectionist lobby because if we will follow the zero tariff ASEAN scheme we will be flooded by goods from our neighbors because they are more efficient, their labor and fuel costs are less and so their consumer goods are cheaper. Many Filipinos and even the educated ones don’t know that the prices of our basic goods is well over the world market price. That is why so many Filipinos are poor and they can’t even buy the basic necessities.

Now I wonder what changed that the route is on again. As usual the media is next to clueless. All they can say is the route is a boon to something (basta me maisulat lang). We have talked before to the Purser of Pelita Harapan, a big wooden motor boat that once had a Manado-Davao route. He said we have salable goods to Indonesia and that is what they carry like plywood, construction supplies, flour and Coca-Cola which are all produced in Davao. He said the equivalent goods that come from the industrial area near Jakarta is more expensive because of the distance. There are many Indonesia products that can be traded in Davao but because of quantitative restrictions (QRs) and denial of permits it will treated as “smuggling” here. That is the sad system and wrong understanding of “free trade” here. What they say as “free trade” is actually restricted trade.

The media and bureaucrats say that instead of container vans from Davao going the roundabout way to Indonesia via Manila and Jakarta (Tanjung Priok), the direct route will be cheaper. I don’t know who is fooling whom with that. There is practically no trade between southern Philippines and eastern Indonesia because “free trade” is regarded as “smuggling” and that was the previous viewpoint of Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. He didn’t want cheap rice, oil and sugar from Indonesia (that is why I am asking now what changed). If there was really significant trade that would have been visible in general-purpose ships. But actually it is hard to track them because MARINA cannot implement also the IMO requirement for AIS (Automatic Identification System) which is used track ships.

Actually what might happen is goods meant for eastern Indonesia will use General Santos City and Davao as intermediate ports (both these ports host foreign container ships regularly). So instead of the container vans offloaded in Tanjung Priok which is farther it will be offloaded in the two Philippine ports and supposedly there should be savings in cargo rates (but that is assuming there is enough volume).

I guess AMTC fielded only a big and good ship for the inauguration for pomp and effect. I do not think there is enough volume to sustain the Super Shuttle RORO 12. If needed be, AMTC has the smaller Super Shuttle RORO 14 and Super Shuttle RORO 6 (if it is running) for that.

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Super Shuttle RORO 12 on the way to Bitung

It is funny some are fooled by media that Super Shuttle Ferry 12 will accommodate passengers and some government officials echo that and even cited tourism. But the RORO Cargo ships of AMTC are not allowed to carry passengers. Did something change too in this regard? Bitung is the bigger port in that part of Sulawesi and the bigger city is Manado but its port is small. There was once a Davao-Manado plane but it was discontinued for lack of passengers. Even the Pelita Harapan is gone now and it was a Davao-Manado ship mainly used for cargo (and to repatriate Filipino prisoners in Indonesia). Pelita Harapan can carry cargo but not fuel for sale. Madidiskubre kasi na mura ang fuel sa Indonesia.

I wish Super Shuttle RORO 12 well. But let us just see what will happen to this new trade route.

I Was Able to Cover The Inaugural Voyage of the Davao-General Santos City-Bitung (Indonesia) Route of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) by Accident

I said by accident because it was not really done based on a plan. As of yesterday I was not even sure on going to Samal because I was wary of the tight security because two Heads of State (President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia) will be in Kudos Port in Panacan, Davao City near the President Duterte office in Davao or what is called as “Panacanang” (the question was how near one can get without some sort of official pass) and I was sure there will be suspension of voyages for some hours. And I thought Aris Refugio, the superb Samal ship spotter will have a better vantage point than me although what he needed might be a superzoom cam.

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Kudos Port by Aris Refugio

What attracted me, however, was the knowledge that there will be plenty of ships around because even yesterday there were already nine ships off Sta. Ana port in what me and Aris call the “South Davao anchorage”. I already noticed the bottling of ships and I was sure it will be more bottled today since three Chinese warships were coming to Davao. I was actually amazed by the coincidence of the inauguration with two Heads of State and the coming of three China warships (were the Chinese ships there for additional security?).

But I decided to go anyway this morning. The Chinese warships were attraction enough and the knowledge of bottled ships was the bonus. I went not for the inauguration because I was not even sure of the schedule or what will happen. I thought the event will be confined to Kudos Port and there was no decent way to approach it when the two Heads of State were there (and it turned out the First Ladies were also there).

I did not go to Sta. Ana Port. In the morning the shots there are lousy because the cam is against the sun. I thought it would be best to cross to Samal because Sasa Port is best covered in the morning as the sun will be behind me. And if there are ships in Pakiputan Strait aside from Sasa Port it will be bonus. Plus if there is some happening in Kudos Port that is visible it will be another bonus.

I got off at Mae Wess Port. The passenger queue was up to the gate. It was hot and humid but since I was there already I waited a little. But somehow I guessed I was in the wrong place and I backed out and went to Km. 11 Port. I thought the queue there is shorter although the boat’s run is further from Sasa Port.

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Start of the inaugural voyage of Super Shuttle RORO 12 with water salute (M. Baylon)

There was also a queue there alright but shorter. After a few minutes I decided to move ahead of the queue to see what was happening in Pakiputan Strait. And I was lucky. The inaugural run of the Super Shuttle RORO 12 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) was just beginning and I have a good vantage point that was not against the sun and was not too far.

There were many tugs accompanying Super Shuttle RORO 12 and they were giving her the “water salute” which means a water spray that is not really aimed at the ship but instead is just a light plume. This ceremony is given by tugs during important departures or arrivals.

I was not sure how far the tugs will accompany Super Shuttle RORO 12. I was not even sure if the RORO Cargo ship will just then go back to port. In the vicinity there were also Coast Guard and Navy ships. It seems they were taking the security of the two Heads of State and other VIPs very seriously.

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The convoy with Super Shuttle RORO 12 (by Mike Baylon)

Then the convoy turned to starboard. The thought that the ship might really sail already crossed my mind. I had to get inside Km. 11 Port because the structure is already threatening to hide the convoy. I asked permission from the Coast Guard and they readily acceded and I had the full use of the wooden port to get good angles. I felt what a lucky day!

As I thought the voyages of the ferries between Davao and Samal were suspended. I thought if I waited in the queue in Mae Wess Port there would be no chance to get aboard its ships and use it as a vantage point. So I silently thanked my lucky stars.

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A motor boat crossed the bow of Super Shuttle RORO 12 (by Mike Baylon)

However, two motor boats from Babak Port crossed the convoy and one just by the bow of Super Shuttle RORO 12. I thought the Coast Guard in Babak Port did a lousy job in making sure that no ships will cross the convoy. By this time some of the tugs were beginning to fall back and there was no longer a water spray.

I noticed the LCTs and double-ended ROROs of Mae Wess were already drifting to Km. 11 Port. They wanted to cross right after the convoy passed. But there were still tugs trailing plus the Coast Guard and Navy ships (well, their base was actually in Sta. Ana Port a few kilometers down south and they probably have to tail Super Shuttle RORO 12).

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A Coast Guard ship tailing Super Shuttle RORO 12 and a tug that has turned back

By the time the ship leveled with Sasa Port, some of the tugs have already stopped or have already gone back. The tug that was accompanying the ship long was the Super Shuttle Tug 1 which also belongs to Asian Marine Transport Corporation. Eventually she also dropped back and so i thought Super Shuttle RORO 12 was really on her way now to her first voyage.

I then decided to take a motor boat to Babak Port to get a longer and a different view of Super Shuttle RORO 12. The crew of MB Ruby gave me a good vantage point when they realized I was covering the event. We also had some tete-a-tete. They were knowledgeable about the inauguration. Funny they were even talking about the snipers providing security to the event.

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Only Super Shuttle Tug 1 still accompanying Super Shuttle RORO 12 (by Mike Baylon)

When I reached Babak Port I had no intention of staying long. I wanted to cross immediately to Kudos Port to do some interviews about what transpired there and I took the DavSam II which has the same owner as Kudos Port. The crew said they were never able to observe the inauguration since it was done under a temporary enclosure and they also can’t get near.

When I landed in Kudos Port I tried to make some interviews with the canteen staff of Kudos Port and with a Coast Guard personnel. Like the crew of DavSam II, they said they also can’t observe the proceedings. And like the crew it seems to them what they noticed first was the water salute. They said the affair started at 9am and security was really tight and they can’t even move from their assigned places. I asked who the VIPs were. They can’t give me an answer.

Then I received a text message from Aris that two Chinese warships have already passed the point opposite Quaco. That point is just a half kilometer from Sasa Port. So finally I knew where Aris was and it seems he was able to cover the Chinese warships more. That was good as we were not duplicating efforts.

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The bigger Chinese warship docking in Sasa port (by Mike Baylon)

So I then hied off back to Km. 11 Port. I knew I will be able to capture the ships there as they are docking and I was not wrong. However, the restaurant ship The Venue of Mae Wess was beginning to spoil the view early. I wanted to go to Mae Wess and ride a ferry to Caliclic but I did not like the queue and I thought Aris will be able to cover it from Caliclic anyway.

No, he ran out of batteries. And we were not able to communicate well because my cellphone battery was very low too. I thought there was still tomorrow to cover the Chinese warships when the passenger volume to Samal is lighter. For sure Aris will be able to cover them docked. So I just went to Sta. Ana Port. The sun is already behind me. There were eight ships off Sta. Ana Port, five of which were not there yesterday.

It was not a bad day. A complete coverage of the inaugural run of the ship to Bitung, Indonesia plus two Chinese warships and an assortment of tugs, enforcement ships plus ferries wallowing for they can’t cross.

Sometimes an unplanned trip turns out better than a planned trip if one’s stars are aligned.