The Problem With The LCTs

In the old days after World War II, the LCTs, then known as “Landing Craft Tank” was the means to transfer vehicles across the islands and our Navy has the biggest number of that and they even have the bigger LSTs (Landing Ship Tank) which has a door covering the ramps while the LCTs have unshrouded ramps. The Navy then did the service of transferring the vehicles and the heavy equipment between the islands and in general for free for after all most of the businesses then were also in the hands of the local powers or their friends.

THE BRITISH ARMY IN THE UNITED KINGDOM 1939-45

A World War II LCT. Source: navsource.org

Along the years, privately-held LCTs started growing in number. It was easy to build, no sophisticated equipment is needed, it is cheap and it is practical with different uses. It can be used to transport goods to practically anywhere and even where there are only  unprepared ports. Loose cargo can easily be loaded and unloaded without the use of cranes or booms as a truck can just board the LCT and dock handlers or peons can manually load or unload the cargo. Plus, the LCT is actually a RORO (Roll On, Roll Off ship) as vehicles or tracked equipment can be loaded or unloaded through its ramp.

Our first short-distance ferry-ROROs carrying passengers, cargo and rolling cargo were actually LCTs. That was when there were still no shirt-distance ROROs (and that arrived only in 1979). The short-distance ferry-ROROs came and came but the LCTs remained in the shipping scene. They were still cheap to acquire and operate and they can be built practically anywhere and even in just an improvised shipyard. The skill level needed to build them was not high and the equipment level needed is low as in the acetylene torch was the most critical tool needed.

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A Maayo LCT by Mike Baylon of PSSS

Along the years, the LCT designation changed to “Landing Craft Transport” to better reflect that it no longer carry tanks as they were really full-pledged transports already. As of now, most of our LCTs are just pure cargo ships carrying anything including the ores of strip mining. However, they can still be found in some routes practically unchanged and being used as passenger-cargo ROROs and probably the premier exponent of that is the Maayo Transport which connects Cebu and Negros islands in the southern part. That company has a pure LCT fleet. Other notable operators are Tris-Star Megalink (although their design have evolved already) which connects Negros and Panay island through the Bacolod-Dumangas route. Starhorse Shipping Lines which started in the Marinduque routes also had LCTs in their start. Lite Ferries which is active in Central Visayas and northern Mindanao also uses many LCT and lately they have been acquiring those from China. Recently, a new shipping company touting the LCT came, the Orange Navigation of Baleno Shipping that has lost half its fleet to maritime accidents and which decided on the cheap LCT as replacement. Island Shipping, meanwhile, disposed of it basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and cruisers and invested in LCTs built right there in its Hagnaya base, There are also other small operators of passenger-cargo LCTs aside from the six mentioned.

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An Orange Navigation LCT by Jon Erodias of PSSS.

However, there is a problem now with the passenger-cargo LCTs and that is its lack of sophistication which means the passengers have to unnecessarily put it with them. That might be okay in the earlier days when we still lacked short-distance ROROs but times have already changed and so the LCT should also evolve.

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An Island Shipping LCT by Karl Sabuga of PSSS.

LCTs clearly lack passenger space and amenities and it is generally hot because the metal of the superstructure is just too near. They do not have the passageway at the sides of the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO which keeps the sunlight away from the passengers.

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Late-model Lite Ferries LCTs by James Gabriel Verallo of PSSS.

The LCTs are also bugged by lack of speed because of the shape of the hull (they are flat-bottomed) and generally they are underpowered. When the LCT was designed, speed was never one of the considerations. They were just designed to chug along and carry the cargo cheaply to unprepared docking areas. While short-distance ferries will sail at 10-12 knots, LCTs generally sail at 7-8 knots. Passengers have to put up with such deficiencies and for what? The same level of fares and rolling cargo.

I would argue that to be fair, operators of LCTs should charge lower rates, a discounted one. For them to charge the same with lower acquisition and operational costs means all those advantages just accrue to them and none for the passengers and shippers. One cannot say they have a choice because there is such a thing as time slot in shipping (and also two-hour separation in departure times in many ports) and the passengers and shippers would wait for hours just to wait for a better ride. MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency should also take note of this.

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A Tri-Star Megalink ferry evolved from the LCT by Tristan Lirasan by PSSS

I commend the efforts of Tri-Star Megalink’s evolution of their LCTs into ferries already alike that of the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO.  Those are already faster, the bridges were move forward and so the passenger accommodation  were enlarged and an air-conditioned Tourist section is already standard. That’s the way it should be. There should be progress.

Meanwhile, Montenegro Shipping Lines pioneered the use of Korean hybrid LCTs like the Reina Justisya and the Reina Banderada which are fast for an LCT (because the power is higher) and do not have any more the hull of an LCT. Those even have bulbous bows. But the superstructures of those are not yet extended.

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A modernized LCT of Starhorse Shipping Lines. Photo by MJay Muyo of PSSS.

Lately, however, in a good development starting in 2018, Korean-type LCTs with extended superstructure and bulbous bows started arriving in the Philippines. This was represented by the Virgen de Penafrancia IX and Virgen de Penafrancia X of the Starhorse Shipping Lines of Lucena. In the same year, with the acquisition of a shipyard in Lucena, Montenegro Shipping Lines rolled out the new-build Santa Carmelita to be followed by the Santa Soledad, another new-build this year. Not to be outdone, Starhorse Shipping Lines is bringing anytime to the country their new Korean-built Virgen de Penafrancia XI.

On the other hand, the big Lite Ferries of Cebu which is beginning to dominate the short-distance routes in Central Visayas still have the traditional LCTs and lately they have been acquiring surplus and new-build LCTs from China. Lite Ferries also have LCTs just used for cargo including rolling cargo.

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An improved LCT by Montenegro Shipping Lines. Photo by Carl Jakosalem of PSSS.

There is now a new type of ship, the Cargo RORO LCT, the Philippine version of the RORO Cargo ships of Europe but much less sophisticated. They now serve as truck carriers in the busiest short sea crossings in the country and this segment is actually growing fast. A version of this serves as container van carrier from Manila to selected major ports in the Visayas and Mindanao to as far as Davao. In this role, the LCTs deficiency is minimized because what is mainly carried are trucks and its crew which is already used to the harsh realities of the road.

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A Cargo RORO LCT. Photo by Joe Cardenas of PSSS.

I think in due time LCTs should already be phased out in the passenger-cargo trade. Otherwise, the operators should strive to improve them and not just build the same model that was practically unchanged since 1945.

Our passengers deserve better now.

Denica Lines

This small shipping company probably won’t be much heard outside Bicol and they might be small but they also carry some weight and they won’t topple easily. Alternately, the vessels of Denica Lines are also listed under the owner Carolyn Cua Sy-Reyes. The home port of Denica Lines is Pilar, Sorsogon and they are among the shipping companies connecting that town to Masbate island.

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The Lady Regina

Denica Lines started as a shipping company by operating big motor bancas. When I say “big” it is because its passenger capacity will run upward to 100 persons. Alternately, if loaded with just cargo it can take in the load of a mini-truck or cargo jeep (well, it cannot be all cement or rice because the weight of that might exceed the DWT of the banca thus sinking it).

The owners of Denica Lines actually started as sub-regional distributors and traders and like in many places elsewhere the possession of own motor bancas is a needed horizontal expansion as it gives flexibility to trading and also generate savings. Usually a shipping operator with its own trading business is much more stable than its competitors. One part might not earn much but then the other part will carry it through. And there will also be no problem with what is called in shipping as “shut-outs” which is the failure to have a cargo loaded. For perishables that could be disaster.

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Denica Lines has many big motor bancas. These are fast because those are powered by surplus truck engines and usually it is twin-engined. The total of the horsepower will be over 400 and that will guarantee the motor banca will travel at at least 13 knots which are even faster than the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO which usually travels at only 10 knots. I have seen in Ticao Pass and Masbate Pass that they are really faster. [Well, if used for heavy cargo then all that horsepower will be needed.] Of course, their weakness is the choppy waters and cross-swells. The motor bancas have to time the crests and throughs of the waves and look out for the cross-swells which can damage the outriggers which is called katig locally.

As of now the motor banca fleet of Denica Lines consist of the Lady Regina, Gloria Express, Gloria 7, Gloria 8, Gloria 9, Gloria 10, Phoenix Express I, Phoenix Express II, Hammity and Hammity 2 plus the motor boat Golden Blossom. I would assume that the missing in the series Gloria 1 to Gloria 6 were their earlier motor bancas that are no longer around. The first two, the Gloria Express and Lady Regina are supposedly the fastest in the fleet of Denica Lines including their steel-hulled ships. The two can do at least 14 knots in calm waters.

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In motor bancas, the biggest competitor of Denica Lines is the Lobrigo Lines which have a fleet as big as theirs and which operated buses before (which lost when the intermodal buses came as they didn’t have ROROs). Aside from Lobrigo Lines there are many other operators of motor bancas as Pilar is a motor banca haven after all. Aside from motor bancas there are also motor boats going to Aroroy, Masbate. This town also have many motor bancas from Pilar.

In 2002, Denica Lines ventured into steel-hulled ferries when the purchased the laid-up cruiser Elizabeth Lilly of the defunct Western Samar Shipping Lines. They refurbished the engines of the ship and it was again reliable. They renamed the ship as the Bikol Express but she was not really fast as she had only a single 550-hp Yanmar Marine engine and her design speed was only 11 knots. The size of the ship was just the equivalent of a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO at 29.3 meters by 6.0 meters and 189 in gross tons.

As a ferry, Bikol Express was not much. She didn’t even have bolted seats, just plastic benches that can be moved. The reason is like some of the motor bancas of Denica Lines is she doubles as a cargo ship with passengers. What cannot be carried by the motor bancas like a truckload or two of rice or cement, she will carry. Her DWT of 100 tons comes in handy for such loads.

M/V Marina Empress

Marina Empress by Irvine Kinea

But then ROROs of Montenegro Shipping Lines came and so Denica Lines has to adjust as the trucks instead of unloading their cargo in Pilar just board the RORO now and goes direct to Masbate. They sold the Bikol Express to Batanes Multi-purpose Cooperative (BMPC) and went hunting for a RORO. Again, true to form they settled on a RORO that was not sailing, the Torrijos or Vanessa P2 of the Sta. Cruz Shipping of Marinduque which was already then in the process of winding up their shipping operations having been on the receiving end of the pressure from stronger shipping companies like Montenegro Lines.

The ship was taken from a Navotas yard and she was renamed as the Marina Empress. The Marina Empress is a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO of just 700 horsepower from her single Daihatsu marine engine and with the external measurement of 32.3 meters by 7.8 meters and a gross tonnage of 195. However, like the earlier rumor, her engine was no longer strong.

With Alabat Shipping Corporation of Alabat island going out of operations too, Denica Lines purchased its only ferry, the Odyssey which was the former Starlite Odyssey of Starlite Ferries. This is another basic, short-distance ferry-RORO with a not-so-strong engine anymore. She is powered by a 550-hp Kubota marine engine and her external measurements are 30.5 meters by 7.0 meters with a gross tonnage of 176 which means she is slightly smaller than the Marina Empress. Denica Lines did not bother to rename the Odyssey.

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Denica Lines rarely sails the two ferries simultaneously as both are not really that reliable. Their ferries are in direct competition with the basic, short-distance ferries of Montenegro Lines which also do the Pilar-Masbate route. Their ferries might not be spic-and-span (it will remind one of the E.B. Aznar Shipping basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs) but most times their competition from Montenegro Lines are also basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs of the same age (which means old). Unless Montenegro Lines bring in the Reina Banderada which is a bit better.

If one considers that Denica Lines has a lot of motor bancas that carry not only people but also cargo it will not look that Montenegro Lines dominates them in the Pilar-Masbate route. The two might have some rough equality since Montenegro Lines has fastcrafts in the route. In glitz and glamour, of course, Montenegro Lines exceeds them.

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Pilar port and market

The owners of Denica Lines are also “well-positioned”, as they say. The husband was the Mayor of Pilar until 2016. In the May elections of this year Carolyn Cua-Sy Reyes was elected the Mayor and whitewashing her five opponents with 84% of the votes going to her. Well, it seems they are really respected in Pilar (in 2013 the husband also whitewashed his opponents). I do not know Pilar that much but from what I know it does not have the bokong of Leyte nor the use of muscles and influence in gaining an advantage for ship operations or in locking out the opponent.

Such is Denica Lines.