Recent Developments in Bicol Passenger Shipping

A Backgrounder

A few years ago, Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) of Batangas entered the Matnog-San Isidro route using the government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal in San Isidro, Samar. Before that the company already plied before the Masbate City-Lucena route but got suspended when their MV Maria Carmela burned just before reaching Lucena and there were protests in Masbate backed up by their politicians. But aside from that route, Montenegro Shipping Lines had a route from Masbate City to Pilar using basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and hybrid LCTs (Pilar port can’t accommodate anything bigger because of its shallowness) and fastcrafts. In that route they were able to outlast the fastcrafts of Lobrigo Lines and the route became their staple and stronghold after they were driven out of the Batangas-Calapan route because the SuperCats there were simply superior than them.

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San Isidro Ferry Terminal

They then entered the Matnog-San Isidro route across San Bernardino Strait using the government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal. I knew it was a creeping move on their part and entry to the San Isidro route is easy since no ferry is using that route ever since Archipelago Philippine Ferries and Philharbor Ferries and Port Services left that port when they built their own port in Dapdap which is much nearer to Matnog than San Isidro. I knew MARINA, the maritime authority will easily grant a franchise since there is no ferry using that terminal and the 50-kilometer restriction has already been lifted by MARINA per Pres. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s instruction. Before, on parallel routes no franchise will be issued if the competing port is less than 50 kilometers away (but it seems that did not apply to the likes of western Leyte ports and the ports of near Dumaguete).

I was not worried for Bicol ferry companies as long as Montenegro Lines is in San Isidro because that route carries a significant penalty in distance as BALWHARTECO port which is being used by the Bicol ferry companies is just 11 nautical miles in distance while the San Isidro port is 15 nautical miles in distance from Matnog Ferry Terminal. I knew Montenegro Lines had to give near parity in rates if they want patronage. And they will have to field a faster ferry which they did and they suffered the fuel penalty. It was obvious that in using San Isidro Ferry Terminal that they are handicapped in competing with the Bicol ferry companies (Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, 168 Shipping Lines and Regina Shipping Lines).

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Dapdap port

But then it happened that the Archipelago/Philharbor operation which operated the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries was tottering they opened up Dapdap port for Montenegro Lines. And that is where I began to worry for the Bicol ferry companies as Montenegro Lines is a big shipping company (they even tout they have the most number of ferries which is actually true) and if transfer pricing was used by the big oil companies and by the bus group Vallacar Transportation Inc. locally then they can engage in price wars and the smaller Bicol ferry companies will suffer. With the move to Dapdap port and with the lessening of Archipelago and Philharbor ferries it is as if those twin companies are giving Montenegro Lines free business. Dapdap port is a little farther than BALWHARTECO port which the Bicol ferry companies are using but the difference in distance is minimal at about 11 nautical miles to 11.5 to 12 nautical miles. Of course, the shipping companies have their regular and locked patrons but there are a lot of non-committed vehicles especially the private vehicles (as differentiated from company vehicles) which pay the full, published rates unlike the regular and locked patrons.

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Jubasan port

A little later when the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) built its own port in Jubasan, also in Allen, for their and their sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation’s use, BALWHARTECO then opened its gates to Montenegro Lines and so the company finally had access to the most advantageous port in Samar (this port is in direct line to the vehicles from Catarman and Rawis). It seems the creeping strategy of Montenegro was finally working. In shipping it is not necessary that a company will get the most advantageous port or route at the start. With patience and resources, better arrangements and opportunities soon open.

Developments and the Current Situation

I was watching what will be the fate of the Bicol ferry companies especially since the long bond and partnership between BALWHARTECO and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the biggest Bicol ferry company was broken with the building of the Jubasan port against the wishes and objection of the owners of BALWHARTECO (this episode almost reached the courts since the owner tried to stop the construction as he was the Mayor of Allen where the ports are located and bitterness was really high). Well, none sank, most even grew and that was a surprise for me.

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Denica ferries in Masbate port

In Masbate, Denica Lines, which was basically only in motor bancas and cargo motor boats before fought back magnificently with the acquisition of the MV Odyssey to be followed by the MV Marina Empress which were just poor discards of other shipping companies. Both suffered engine troubles at the start and Denica Lines had to spend money for the two. Then this year Denica Lines was able to purchase a third basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the MV Regina Calixta II of Regina Shipping Lines of Catanduanes which was already buying bigger ferries. The MV Regina Calixta II is unrenamed as of this moment as changing names is actually not peanuts with regards to MARINA.

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Denica fastcrafts refitting in Pilar port

And last year Denica Lines got two rundown fastcrafts which they are slowly refitting right in Pilar port. So right now or soon, it seems Denica Lines is already ready to slug it out with Montenegro Lines toe-to-toe in the Masbate City-Pilar route. Meanwhile, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and twin company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation is doing roaring business in the parallel Masbate City-Pio Duran route especially since Medallion Transport was driven away from that route after their MV Lady of Carmel sank. The truck loading in that route is so good that Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation bought the LCT Ongpin, lengthened it and fielded it in the route as the LCT Aldain Dowey. And that is aside from two 60-meter ROPAXes they maintain in the route. So if the ferries of Denica Lines and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation in the route from Masbate City to the Bicol mainland is totaled then Montenegro Lines is outmatched already except in the High Speed Crafts segment which competes with the big motor bancas of different companies.

In the Matnog-Samar routes, the Bicol ferry companies are more than holding its own although both has not grown except in frequency. If there was growth it was taken by Archipelago Ferries Corporation which fielded a brand-new FastCat in the Matnog-San Isidro route which is also doing good business. But in terms of net, Archipelago Ferries is not ahead as the business they gained with the fielding of FastCat might not be greater than the business they lost with the disposal of the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries (and they are paying docking fees in San Isidro Ferry Terminal while their own Dapdap port is unused). In my comparisons, I still consider Archipelago and Philharbor as Bicol ferries since they started as such although with the good FastCats now they are trying to erase their connection to the lousy Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries because obviously they are ashamed of their record there.

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FastCat in San Isidro Ferry Terminal

And Montenegro Lines did not gain either in the Matnog-Allen route as the Bicol ferry companies was able to hold their own relative to them. If there was growth it was taken by the subsidiary of 2GO, the SulitFerry which operates a brand-new ROPAX LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26 and another one or two Cargo RORO LCTs depending on the season. Finally, 2GO discovered what was eating up their container shipping and passenger liner business and decided to compete (“if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”). Lacking enough resources, they started conservatively by just chartering new LCTs from Concrete Solutions Incorporated (CSI), owner of the Poseidon LCTs, whose fleet seems to be ever growing.

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The Poseidon 26 of Concrete Solutions and SulitFerry

In the routes to Catanduanes, there was obvious growth and changes. Initially, the most striking perhaps is the appearance of the two High Speed Crafts (although technically one is already a Medium Speed Craft) of the Cardinal Shipping Lines Incorporated, the MV Silangan Express 1 and the MV Silangan Express 3. I had my doubts early on about the viability of the two but it turned out they were doing okay. One reason maybe is their reasonable fares which is just about one will expect from a Tourist accommodation in a regular ferry and not double the Economy fare like what is charged in other parts of the country. The two HSCs of Cardinal Shipping also run in the hours not served by the regular ROPAX whose schedules are dictated by the arrivals of the buses (which means a morning departure from Tabaco and a noon departure from Catanduanes).

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The Regina Calixta VII (ex-Maharlika Cuatro). Photo by Dominic San Juan

One Catanduanes ferry company and a native of Catanduanes which made a great stride recently was Regina Shipping Lines or RSL. This company has already disposed their basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and instead bought bigger ferries. Part of their new acquisitions were the former MV Maharlika Tres, acquired from Atienza Shipping Lines and the former MV Maharlika Cuatro from Gabisan Shipping Lines. The two double-ended ferries became the MV Regina Calixta VI and and MV Regina Calixta VII in their fleet. The company was also able to acquire the former MV Grand Star RORO 3 which became the MV Regina Calixta VIII in their fleet. Rounding off the fleet is the MV Regina Calixta V which they acquired from China.

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The Regina Calixta VIII (ex-Grand Star RORO III)

The former ferries from Archipelago Ferries and Philharbor Ferries are no longer the sad ferries of Christopher Pastrana, the boastful. All feature Tourist accommodations now (there was none before) with a disco motif and sounds where good videos are played during the trip and all feature good, brand-new seats in Tourist (Regina Shipping Lines was in buses before and they know these things). Even the engines were refitted that the former MV Maharlika Tres is already running faster than her design speed (the maximum speed when new). The owner of Regina Shipping Lines simply opened his checkbook unlike Christopher Pastrana (who opened the checkbook of DBP instead) and the Mayon Docks of Tabaco City forthwith did the make-overs of the former lousy Archipelago and Philharbor ferries derided in the eastern seaboard. Now those ferries are already the favorites by the passengers.

There was also another change in the Masbate ferries. This was when Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) sold their MV Super Shuttle Ferry 19, a double-ended ferry that was off-and-on doing the Bogo-Cawayan route. She was bought by the D. Olmilla Shipping Corporation, refitted also in Mayon Docks and she became the MV Cawayan Ferry 1. She still plies the same route and schedule.

Meanwhile, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation was able to acquire last summer two former Tamataka Maru ships from Japan, the MV Tamataka Maru No. 85 and the MV Tamataka Maru No. 87 in a buy one, take one deal and the two ferries were refitted in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu (Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is a stockholder in the said yard). The MV Tamataka Maru No.85 is now running the new route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the Liloan-Lipata route across Surigao Strait, an expansion route outside Bicol acquired by the company some two or three years ago. The ship is now renamed as the MV Adrian Jude and she is meant to compete with the MV SWM Stella del Mar of the Southwest Premier Ferries, a new operator in that route using a brand-new ferry similar to and the sister ship of the new vessels of Starlite Ferries of Batangas.

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The Adrian Jude. Photo by Capt. John Andrew R. Lape

The former MV Tamataka Maru No.87 is also ready now, she is already in Bicol and waiting but unrenamed yet according to the last information I received a day ago. She is meant to ply the new route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation from Masbate to Cebu, another new expansion route of the company but the exact route is still being applied for. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is one Bicol company aside from Denica Lines which has shown aggressive growth in the past years.

Meanwhile, it seems Montenegro Lines has lost its aggressiveness. Their fleet size in Bicol is practically the same although they rotate ships especially in the Matnog-Samar route (except for the MV Reina Emperatriz there and the MV Maria Angela in Masbate). Their only addition in Bicol is their new catamaran MV City of Angeles, a High Speed Craft in the Masbate-Pilar route.

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The City of Angeles

I was trying to analyze the lack of zest and the lack of pep of Montenegro Lines in the recent years especially in the context of Bicol shipping. It seems that when their “patron saint” went out of power and was made an enforced guest, Montenegro Lines’ drive faltered. It also seems that the blessings usually going to Montenegro Lines already went to another shipping company and so Montenegro Lines had to scrounge for additional ferries whereas before, they were buying ferries as if the supply of it won’t last (now it is the new favorite which is precisely doing that). Now, i don’t really know how come their blessings went away.

I do not know. Things can always change and it seems Montenegro Lines is no longer that great a threat to the Bicol ferry companies which showed spunk in the recent years except for 168 Shipping Lines, the owner of the local Star Ferry ships which seems to be languishing with no ship additions.

One loss, however, is something that cannot be averted and has long been expected. This is the discontinuance of the LCT to Cagraray island from the Albay mainland across the very narrow Sula Channel which has been a ship shelter for centuries now. A new bridge has been built connecting the fabled island which hosts the well-promoted Misibis Resort, the best resort in Albay province.

But as a whole Bicol ferry shipping was on the rise in the recent years and that is surely a good thing for the region.

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The King Frederick and Nelvin Jules

The King Frederick and Nelvin Jules of Santa Clara Shipping Corporation are actually sister ships which look like each other save for some minor differences. When trying to identify them I try to look for the name lest I might be mistaken in the identification (anyway, one of the two has a longer name).

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Both of these ships arrived in the country in 1999 and they were the opening salvo in the challenge of the newly-established Santa Clara Shipping Corporation in the Matnog-Allen route long dominated but badly served by Bicolandia Shipping Lines and its legal-fiction companies like E. Tabinas and Eugenia Tabinas. When the sister ships arrived they were not larger than the bigger ships in the route. However, they were the newest and the fastest and even newer than the government-owned Maharlika I which was built in 1982.

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With such an advantage the reigning Bicolandia Shipping Lines immediately cried foul and tried all the legal means to drive out King Frederick and Nelvin Jules because their old ships which were mainly acquired from other local shipping companies and were built in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were clearly inferior already in all respects. And Bicolandia Shipping Lines has the dead weight of a bad reputation originating from their ships having the wont of not sticking to departure times and trying to get full as much as possible before departure. Plus, of course, clients always want the new.

Bicolandia Shipping Lines failed in their opposition at the level of MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the maritime regulatory agency and which has quasi-judicial function and all the way to the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. And so the King Frederick and Nelvin Jules were not driven out from route and began to beat their opposition (there were other players in the route aside from Bicolandia Shipping and Maharlika I) until the day came when Bicolandia Shipping Lines surrendered and sold itself to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and became the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation.

The King Frederick,  the newer of the two sister ships was supposedly named after the top gun of the combine owning Santa Clara Shipping Corporation, Frederick Uy. She and the Nelvin Jules are ROPAX (RORO-Passenger) ferries built by Kanda Shipbuilding Co. in their Kawajiri yard in Japan. The two ferries both measured at 58.6 meters in Length Over-all (LOA), 55.5 meters in Length Between Perpendiculars (LPP or LBP) with a Beam or Breadth of 14.0 meters. Originally, the sister ships had a similar Gross Tonnage (GT) of 699 with a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 308 tons. By the way, the King Frederick was the last ever ship built by Kanda Shipbuilding in their Kawajiri yard.

The King Frederick‘s original name was Sagishima and she was built in 1987 and the Nelvin Jules’ original name was Kurushima and she was built in 1985 making her the elder ship of the two. When the two arrived in 1999 they were still both relatively young at 12 years and 14 years old, respectively. King Frederick has the IMO Number 8704315 while Nelvin Jules has the IMO Number 8504404 which both reflects the year when their keels were laid up. The sister ships have a steel hull, a box-like housing at the bow which protects against the rain when loading and unloading and also keeps the car deck less wet and muddy when it is raining. They both have a transom stern and ramps at the bow and at the stern. The ships both have two masts and two funnels at the top of the ship.

The sister ships are powered by two Daihatsu marine engines with a total of 2,400 horsepower and these gave them a sustained top speed of 13.5 knots when still new. In their 11-nautical mile Matnog-BALWHARTECO (Allen) route, the sister ships were capable of crossing the San Bernardino Strait in just under one hour when newly-fielded if the notorious waves of San Bernardino are not acting up. BALWHARTECO port was the choice of Santa Clara Shipping in Allen as it was a shorter route than the official Matnog-San Isidro route of the government. The San Isidro Ferry Terminal is the official government RORO port while the BALWHARTECO port is a private port and along time Santa Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) had a hand-and-glove relationship with the management of BALWHARTECO (Balicuatro Wharfage and Terminal Corporation).

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BALWHARTECO Port, the original home of King Frederick and Nelvin Jules

Before fielding here a new passenger deck was built on the bridge level of both ships. However, the Gross Tonnages (GT) of the sister ships dropped to 694 which is more likely an under-declaration. The declared Net Tonnages (NT) of the two ships is 357 (a clarification, both the GT and the NT have no units). The passenger capacities of both ships are 750 persons reflecting their almost similar internal arrangements. The Depths of the two ferries are both 3.8 meters which is about average for ships their size.

The new passenger deck became an all-Economy accommodation with fiberglass seats. On the lower deck, at the front portion was the old accommodation in Japan which became the Tourist section as it was air-conditioned and had better foamed seats. That section is also where the canteen was located. All passengers have access to that canteen.

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The canteen inside the Tourist section of the King Frederick

When the gusts are up in San Bernardino Strait along with its wind-driven rains and this can be often in the peak of the habagat (the southwest monsoon) and amihan (the northeast monsoon) that section is a welcome cover especially for the more vulnerable passengers like the small children, the pregnant and the old. The habagat and amihan are both fierce in San Bernardino Strait, it affects the area more than half of the year and ships crossing the strait sometimes have to take a dogleg route lengthening the transit time and producing seasickness in many passengers.

Behind this Tourist section is another Economy section with fiberglass seats also that were built in a former promenade deck of the ship when it was still in Japan. Many prefer this in inclement weather as it does not rock as hard as the deck above and it seems the winds can be less fierce here. Of course there is one less deck to climb or descend and that matters maybe in a short route when some passengers like me don’t bother to sit at all (too many views to enjoy from the ships to the seascape to the mountains and of course the ports and its activities). Maybe the reason they put the karaoke in the upper deck is to enjoin passengers to climb there.

Below this passenger accommodation is the car deck of the RORO ships. One advantage of the two sisters is the wide beam of 14.0 meters which allows four lanes of trucks or buses on either side of the “island” in the middle of the car deck which actually houses ladders going up and down and below the car deck are crew accommodations and the crew mess which are all air-conditioned.

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A crowded Nelvin Jules. See the “island” in the middle of the car deck

With 55.5 meters in LPP up to five rows of trucks and buses can be accommodated. Of course, though trucks and buses dominate the load in their routes, still smaller vehicles like cars and utility vehicles will normally be in the rolling cargo mix. These ships will normally be full because Santa Clara Shipping mastered the art of giving discounts and pay-later schemes, the reason a lot of trucks and buses are tied up to them. Tied-up buses which carry passengers that cannot be delayed even have priority in loading in them. The sisters have ramps front and bow but normally it is only the bow ramps that are deployed and employed, the reason vehicles have to board the ship backwards. One thing I cannot understand with the sister ships’ bow ramp is they are off-center. I do not know what is the advantage of it. Actually in cargo loading it only tends to affect the balance of the ship.

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King Frederick in Masbate. See the off-center ramp.

Along time especially with the arrival of other ROPAXes for Santa Clara Shipping Corporation, King Frederick and Nelvin Jules were also assigned to other routes of the company especially their new Masbate-Pio Duran route. There is no permanent fielding for them and the sister ships generally rotate between the two routes. Another route where King Frederick has been fielded is to their newest route, the Lipata-Liloan route which became a Lipata-Surigao route when a quake damaged the Lipata port (however, they are back now recently to Lipata Ferry Terminal).

Over-all, the sister ships proved very successful and became proven moneymakers for Santa Clara Shipping. Although 18 years sailing now locally, the two are still very sturdy and very reliable and almost no breakdown can be heard from them. What I only wish is Santa Clara Shipping make some sprucing in the ships so they will come back to like when they were still new here.

Even when the two sister ships are in San Bernardino Strait, they are no longer docking now in BALWHARTECO port as their company has a new, owned port now in Jubasan in the same town of Allen, Northern Samar. However, when this article was written none of them were there as Nelvin Jules was in the Masbate-Pio Duran route pairing with the ship Jack Daniel of the same company and they with their cargo RORO LCT Aldain Dowey are dominating the Masbate route.

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Nelvin Jules leaving Masbate port

I see many, many more years of sailing and service for the two sisters if the gauge is how sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation is taking care of the older ferries acquired from Bicolandia Shipping Lines. Both are equipped with tough and lost-lasting Daihatsu marine engines and simply put their company has the revenues and moolah to take care of them well. It has even a stake in Nagasaka Shipyard in the Tayud row of shipyards in Cebu where they are given priority.

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Nelvin Jules in Nagasaka Shiyard

If 50 years is the gauge now of longevity of ships, they will still be around in 2035, knock on wood.

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.

Maharlika I

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.

A Report on the Recent Situation of Bicol Passenger Shipping

When I talk of Bicol passenger shipping that includes those that have routes to Samar for in the main Bicol ships do those route with the notable exception of Montenegro Shipping Lines which are dayo (foreigner) to Bicol but have a base in Masbate port. In the main, I don’t refer to the Cebu-Masbate steel-hulled ferries because those routes are just one of the operations of Cebu shipping companies with the notable exception too of Montenegro Lines which has a national operation of short-distance ferry-ROROs.

The biggest shipping companies in Bicol are the sister companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which are legal-fiction companies of each other. They have combined operations, single crewing and maintenance and their ships rotate within their common routes. The only difference is the ships bought out from the defunct Bicolandia Shipping are all in Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (PSC) and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) is what made Bicolandia Shipping cry, “Uncle!” (which means give up na).

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The twin shipping companies have a total of 10 ROPAX ships plus a Cargo RORO LCT which is a recent acquisition to match that of NN+ATS (more on this later). Their best ship, the beautiful Jack Daniel (no, there isn’t free tasting of the famous drink) was acquired not so long ago and it is almost a fixture in the Masbate-Pio Duran route where her beautiful and luxurious lounge can be fully used and appreciated by the passengers since it is a three-and-a-half-hour route.

SCSC and PSC ply all the Bicol routes except for some parallel routes like the Tabaco-San Andres and Masbate-Pilar routes (more on this later). Which means they ply the Tabaco-Virac, Matnog-Allen (now through their own Jubasan port) and Masbate-Pio Duran routes. They don’t ply the Masbate-Pilar route as their ships are too big for the shallow Pilar port which lies in an estuary. In Catanduanes, it seems they now have a modus vivendi with Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) which now is doing the Tabaco-San Andres route exclusively through Codon port (but that route is not necessarily weaker than the Tabaco-Virac route as buses and trucks going to northern Catanduanes prefer that route because the remaining distance is shorter). Additionally, SCSC and PSC also operate the Liloan-Lipata route (however, after the Surigao quake RORO operations were transferred from Lipata Ferry Terminal to the Verano port of Surigao).

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The new development in Catanduanes shipping is the arrival of a new player, Cardinal Shipping which fielded the High Speed Craft (HSC) Silangan Express 1 which has good schedules and a very interesting fare which is even less than one might expect for a Tourist accommodation in a ROPAX (P320 fare in airconditioned accommodation versus the P230 Economy fare of a ROPAX ship). That is very cheap compared to the fastcrafts of Montenegro Lines in Masbate that charges double of the Economy fare of the ROPAX. The route of Cardinal Shipping is also Tabaco-Codon like that of Regina Shipping Lines or RSL.

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Another ferry was also added to the fleet of Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) when they acquired the former Maharlika Cuatro from Gabisan Shipping which purchased it from Archipelago Ferries. It was in Mayon Docks of Tabaco City last January but as of this writing she is already running as the Regina Calixta VI. RSL now also has an operation in the Batangas-Abra de Ilog route through Aqua Real Shipping and Calixta-III.

Tabaco port is also building an extension again and this is probably the third already. I am thinking, what for? In all my visits there I never saw Tabaco port full and I don’t think port visit is increasing there. There is also not that need for a big back-up area. There are no container vans unloaded there and ships that visit are generally small. To compare now, Masbate port is even busier than Tabaco port and Legazpi port is even their rival in port calls (as they both serve the province of Albay).

I thought before that the refurbishment of Legazpi port was not needed but it seems I was mistaken. There are more ships docking there now and those are bigger than the ones which dock in Tabaco port. For one, when Cebu freighters visit Albay, they use Legazpi port and not Tabaco port because it is nearer from Cebu. And most freighters that use Tabaco are just Bicol ships which are smaller than Cebu ships. I was even surprised by the big, Malaysian coal barge I saw in Legazpi port.

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Like before there are no ROPAXes in Legazpi (as I argued before a population of 100,000 in an island is needed to keep a RORO afloat if there is no strong tourism and Rapu-rapu island does not meet that criteria). Instead it has lots of big passenger motor bancas to Rapu-rapu and Batan islands plus Cagraray island too. The new passenger terminal building of Legazpi looks beautiful and modern. Like in Tabaco, the port and port terminal building (PTB) is open to the public and there is no cloud of suspicion that hovers unlike in ISPS ports. It was just like in the past when ports are just like part of public domain. That openness was the thing changed by this damned ISPS.

With the completion of the bridge from Albay mainland to Cagraray island through the Sula Channel, the old small Michael Ellis LCT to Misibis is now gone. A connecting bridge to an island is always better than a connection by an LCT. Maybe with that Cagraray island will develop faster.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation now have their new Jubasan port completed in Allen, Samar and so they already withdrew from using the BALWHARTECO port, their old port of entry to Samar, to the great disappointment and anger of the owner which nearly resulted into a court battle. I wonder if the judge-son-in-law of the owner was able to make clear to the patriarch that if it is all straight law then they would lose eventually and they might even be vulnerable to counter-suits they being the LGU holders (like a graft counter-charge).

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With the withdrawal of SCSC and PSC from their port, BALWHARTECO invited Montenegro Lines to just use their port exclusively. Before, Montenegro Lines used both BALWHARTECO and the Dapdap port of Philharbor, the sister company of Archipelago Ferries which once operated the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries. With the withdrawal of Montenegro Lines from Dapdap port now that port no longer has ferry operations. What is left there are the passenger motor bancas to the island off it which is Dalupiri island.

Before this, Philharbor invited Montenegro Lines to use Dapdap port since Archipelago have sold already their Maharlika ships and was already in the process of disposing their Grand Star RORO ships. If there is no other ferry company that will use the port it will fall vacant since the route allowed by MARINA to the new FastCats of Archipelago Ferries was the Matnog-San Isidro route. Before their withdrawal only Montenegro ferries were still using Dapdap port.

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It seems BALWHARTECO made a good offer to Montenegro Lines. They are known to be flexible and accommodating as their record of the past decades will show. Meanwhile, the Alvarez group which controls Archipelago Ferries, Philharbor and Philtranco is not known for that. They are instead known for quick retreats when subjected to the pressure of competition.

So I was not surprised by the result. Here is the queer situation of a port owner and operator with no ships of their sister companies docking because it is using a different port and a route that is significantly longer (which is the Matnog-San Isidro route). As a change, instead of being a ‘port to nowhere’ the San Isidro Ferry Terminal is now active again (she was active before Montenegro Lines left her for Dapdap and BALWHARTECO ports).

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It seems Montenegro Lines was the winner of the BALWHARTECO-Sta. Clara turmoil. Previously they were using four ferries in the Matnog-Allen route, two in Dapdap and two in BALWHARTECO. Recently they are now just using three ferries. It seems that was enough to have a ferry always on standby in the port which has more traffic (in the day that will be Allen and in the night that will be Matnog).

Another winner in the route is the NN+ATS outfit which is now openly admitted as an operation of 2GO. They are using chartered Cargo RORO LCTs from Primary Trident Solutions, owner of the Poseidon LCTs and now they even fielded a ROPAX LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26. They are operating that LCT under the banner of SulitFerry and the acronym is also “SF”, a reminder of their SuperFerry past before those liners were promoted into saints.

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With the Cargo RORO LCTs, the queue endured by the non-regular trucks in the Matnog-Allen route has come to an end as they are the priority of the Cargo RORO LCTs. These ships does not take in buses with its passengers and so no passenger accommodations are needed. The truck crews are just expected to stay with their vehicles for the duration of the voyage. MARINA is actually too suspicious of Cargo RORO LCTs having areas that can take in passengers on the sly.

The arrival of the Cargo RORO LCTs has affected the dynamics in the Matnog-Allen route. It has definitely taken traffic from the ROPAXes and the weight is significant because the non-regular trucks pay the highest rates. Actually, the rates paid by the regular trucks is heavily discounted and it is not always paid in cash (which means credit).

Another thing, from being second-class citizens the non-regular truck is now king but their loyalty now is on NN+ATS. What a turn-around too. From being largely ignorant of Matnog-Allen route because they were too confident of their CHA-ROs (Chassis-RORO) aboard their container ships and liners, now 2GO is already a player in intermodal route which helped kill their liners.

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It is also good that they use chartered LCTs whose crew is from Primary Trident Solutions. These crews are not graduates of the ‘shooing away’ seminars of 2GO, they have no knowledge of ISPS (and probably they don’t care too) and so like in the past they are very friendly to the passengers which they do not think or treat like potential “terrorists” like what is taught in 2GO seminars.

But even with NN+ATS and SulitFerry around and the concentration of Montenegro operations there, BALWHARTECO port is not too busy like in the past when to think 168 Shipping is still there with its three Star Ferry ships. Really, the weight SCSC and PSC is great especially since they have a lot of trucks and buses under contract.

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The PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) was impressed by the new Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. It was not small and unlike most private ports that will start with portions being unpaved in Jubasan it is a completely paved port. As such it is cleaner having no mud and people and patrons would not find it hard moving around (now one would wonder why after all these decades BALWHARTECO port is still mainly unpaved). They also maintained the slope of the land and so rain water immediately drains into the sea instead of forming puddles. There are a lot of eateries inside and it is a step up compared to what can be found in BALWHARTECO port including the presence of chairs and tables outside the eateries which are good for lounging around and sundowning.

Jubasan port is more orderly and it looks more modern. Maybe with the shipping company being the operator it should end up that way as they have full control. By the way, Jubasan port will also have a lodge like in BALWHARTECO port. The structure is already there, that is the area above the eateries but it is not yet operating when PSSS visited the place. Now I don’t know if they will also have a disco like in BALWHARTECO port. Jubasan port also does not have the so-many hawkers of BALWHARTECO port.

Matnog meanwhile has minimal changes. I thought when they twice reclaimed new land the docking space will improve. It did not. There are two new RORO ramps on the left of the finger port (as viewed from the sea) but when I passed through it twice no ship was using it. Actually the docking space of Matnog port did not increase and on high tide a ship will still try to dock askew in the wharf for lack of docking space. During the late afternoon and evening peak hours not all the ships can dock and it has to undock after disgorging their rolling cargo and anchor offshore.

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I still cannot fathom how the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) inputs ship calls in their planning that they cannot see their docking area is not enough for the number of ships calling. They have two new RORO ramps but they bulldozed rocks beneath it. And so maybe the ships fear damage if they use those. Why can’t they just use the causeway-type of wharf like what is used in BALWHARTECO and Dapdap ports which can dock more ships for their given length of wharf space? The only reason I can see why PPA is too inept in port design is because they really can’t attract qualified people. And to compensate for this lack, their annual reports will be full of praises for themselves and their “achievements”. And now their top honcho says the Makati Car Club will test the RORO system. Now what does Porsche and Ferrari owners know about port design and the RORO system if one is not Enrique Razon? It was not designed for their kind of cars and heels.

Masbate port is actually more impressive than Legazpi or Tabaco in terms of activity. Unlike the two ports which looks semi-fringe in location (as in facing the ocean already), Masbate port is in the center of a nexus and connecting many islands. There are simply more ships there and more types from overnight ferries to short-distance ferry-roros to fastcrafts to motor bancas plus the usual freighters. The new port terminal building is now operating and so there is more try of control now to ensure everybody uses it (this is what I call as “cattle herding”). And I don’t like that system treating passengers not like people but like commodities.

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Actually, they can simply sell a ticket to anyone who wants to buy, passenger or not, like in Zamboanga port. With so many buses boarding their port terminal building is not sufficient (now tell me when did PPA learned how to input numbers). If the old system where buses simply park somewhere in the port and soon board afterwards was enough why try to force down the passengers down the bus so they will pass through the passenger terminal building when it does not have enough capacity anyway even in airconditioning? If terminal fee is all they want then they can just put in a table by the ship ramp. An explanation: bus passengers here already have their ferry tickets issued by the bus conductor so actually they do not need to queue as the buses offer free ferry tickets to their passengers. If the buses can be efficient why can’t the PPA? The reason is simple – they are a government entity.

What I noticed is it seems more passenger motor bancas are now using the Masbate municipal port cum fish landing area. Actually it has the advantage that it is just near the integrated bus, jeep and van terminal of Masbate City. The passenger motor bancas for Burias can also be found here. If I may have a suggestion, it is better if the passenger motor bancas just dock by the integrated terminal. Nothing beats that. If only they will see what is logical (but they might lose the votes of the cargadores and the tricycle drivers).

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The Masbate-Pio Duran route is now stronger compared to the Masbate-Pilar route in terms of RORO operation. It is actually the shorter route to Manila and it can accommodate bigger ships whereas Pilar can only accommodate basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. Medallion Transport has withdrawn from this route as a fall-out of the sinking of their Lady of Carmel. SCSC and PSC was the big winner in this and they now have made permanent two of their biggest ships in this route which have length of over 60 meters versus the 30 meters plus of the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs of Pilar.

In the Masbate-Pilar route, Denica Lines now has two ROROs that are running simultaneously and they were able to create a late departure from Bicol (or is it an early one?) when they created an early evening Pilar-Masbate schedule. Denica Lines also have two fastcrafts for refitting now that is moored in Pilar port. Obviously, they want to get a slice of the pie of the MSLI fastcraft business. If they price it like the Silangan Express to Catanduanes then MSLI will be forced to cut their high fares.

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In Pilar, I noticed they now have a Pilar-Mandaon passenger motor banca running. Plus they have pre-dawn departures now from Pilar for three destinations – Masbate City, Aroroy and Mandaon (Mandaon is a gateway to Romblon). They were able to expand Pilar port but its operation is just still like a municipal port as there is no good port lighting (are their charges for the ROROs and passengers not enough?). By the way, the ROROs from Pilar start earlier now. Good for those with still long land travel still remaining in Masbate island.

As before there are a lot of passenger motor bancas in Masbate port going to Pilar, Ticao island, the west bank of Masbate Bay. But maybe the Baleno bancas are gone because there is a van going there now up to Aroroy. The passenger motor bancas are still fighting even though it is already the era of the ROROs and the buses and the trucks aboard them. With no porterage and running at hours when there is no RORO they are still surviving. Well, the buses dictate the schedules of the ROROs and so I can’t see them running 24 hours as the buses have only certain hours of departures from Masbate and Manila.

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Some things of note. One, the Super Shuttle Ferry 19 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation has been sold and Olmillo Shipping has taken over the Bogo-Cawayan route. A new development too in this area was the fielding of Island Shipping of a ROPAX LCT in the Hagnaya-Cawayan route. The MSLI ferry is still running the Bogo-Cataingan route and ditto for Lapu-lapu Shipping that runs the Cataingan-Cebu route. In the future, however, the Bogo and Hagnaya ferries will most likely transfer to the new Maya RORO port because it is simply nearer to Masbate. Meanwhile, the big passenger- cargo motor bancas running between Masbate and northern Cebu are still running and their business not threatened after the initial cut made by the arrival of the ROROs.

Recently, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines don’t have a ship anymore to Masbate from Cebu, a victim of their lack of ferries. Cokaliong Shipping Lines has not fully filled up the slack and it has only a once a week Cebu-Masbate sked but they are always fielding a new good overnight ferry of theirs in the route. Meanwhile, for a year now Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) doesn’t have an operation anymore to Masbate since their SuperShuttle RORO 3 had engine problems. It has been over a year since 2GO withdrew their liner that passes through Masbate on the way to Ormoc and Cebu. Can’t really beat the intermodal buses and trucks now and as the saying goes if one can’t beat then join them and so they already had that NN+ATS in the Matnog-Allen route.

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Burias motor banca arriving in Pasacao

In other Bicol routes, passenger motor bancas still connect Burias island to Pasacao and Pio Duran while Ticao island has passenger motor bancas sailing to Bulan and Masbate ports. Masbate is also connected by passenger motor bancas from Cataingan to Calbayog in Samar and to Roxas City in Panay from Balud and Milagros and to Romblon from Mandaon. Caramoan through Guijalo port also has passenger motor banca to San Andres in Catanduanes through the Codon port. San Miguel island is connected by passenger motor bancas to Tabaco port.

And that above is what comprises Bicol shipping all in all. Not tackled here are the minor routes served by small passenger bancas that go to small islands that does not have a municipality and to coastal barrios which has no roads.

[Written based on January 2017 data.]

Our Visits to the Other Ports of Samar on December of 2016

The Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) tour group, after assembling in Tacloban first stopped in San Juanico bridge to take photos and enjoy the views and the experience especially of walking part of the bridge. Well, just being there is experience for most of those in the tour group. If it could be considered shipspotting it is maybe because of the seascapes and Tacloban port is also visible but at a great distance. I was wishing a ship will navigate the narrow strait separating Leyte and Samar but I know that is almost impossible with the new uncharted depths of the strait, a result that historical storm surge that came with Typhoon “Yolanda”. Actually, deeper container ships coming to Leyte now take the southern approach round Southern Leyte.

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The group then took a long road ride because the next port Catbalogan was some 100 kilometers away from Tacloban and we did not try to visit the many municipal ports along the way which were not along the main road. These old municipal ports were once the lifelines of the coastal towns of Samar to Tacloban when the road was not yet developed some fifty or so years ago. It would have been nice to visit them but it would take time and we were tight on time as our leg to Allen is some 250 kilometers and we have more important ports to visit along the way. And we were not even able to start early and that was the reason why I didn’t mention to the group the former important port of Basey.

We arrived in Catbalogan past lunchtime and we headed straight to the Catbalogan bus terminal which is located astride the port (in fact it was sitting on borrowed port grounds). From there we walked towards the port and it was a lucky day for us. I have not seen such number of vessels in Catbalogan since I first visited the port many, many years ago. We were doubly lucky that the motor bancas to the island-towns off Catbalogan in Samar Sea have still not left. Plus there were the usual cargo ships and an aggregates carrier LCT, the LCT Poseidon 10. I wondered if that number of ships meant progress for Catbalogan. I would really like to know. The only dampener in our visit was the knowledge that recently Roble Shipping has dropped their Cebu-Catbalogan route and it has already sold to Jolo their ship serving that route.

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Catbalogan Port

Since our lunch took time I knew we can’t spend much time on the next ports or even visit some that are near the road like Victoria port. In Calbayog, our next port, we obviated all walking shipspotting and instead opted for shippotting by car the length of the quay road parallel the Calbayog River wharf and fish landing area. There were still many fishing bancas the time we arrived but most of the passenger-cargo motor bancas to the island-towns towns in Samar were already gone as the last of those leave just after lunchtime. We also did not enter Calbayog port and instead just viewed it from afar as we were already pressured for time since we did not want nightfall to come while we were still on the road.

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Calbayog Port

From Calbayog we made a short detour to Manguino-o port just a few kilometers north of Calbayog port. This is now the only port with ferry connection to Cebu and we were unlucky that day because the Cokaliong ship was not there when we dropped by. Basically, aside from that ship only fishing vessels use Manguino-o port. However, from Manguino-o the private port of Samar Coco Products just a few miles south was also visible. Funny, but instead of ships our talk leaving the port was about the Samar bulalo because of my good experience with it in Manguino-o (one should try it on a Samar visit).

It was a long run again in the sun threatening to set over roads that I knew once did not exist. Once upon a time, there was no road directly connecting Allen and Calbayog save for a logging road which was not always passable and only passable to the sturdiest of jeeps (or was it a weapon carrier?). But soon the San Isidro Ferry Terminal came into view and I knew Allen is just a short distance away now and so there is still time to shipspot this government port that is the official connection to Matnog. We did but as the sun sets earlier in December and there was precipitation I knew it will be a photofinish to BALWHARTECO as I expected. This part I have already told in another article:

https://psssonline.wordpress.com/2017/01/29/the-developments-in-the-san-bernardino-strait-routes-when-the-psss-visited-in-december-of-2016/

From a sleep-over in Catarman, on the way back, we made a short visit to the Caraingan port which is located in the town now renamed as San Jose. I told the group this town is more known for the claim of Asi Taulava, the basketball player. Though the main inter-island port of Northern Samar and improved by the government, this port never really took off. It was never able to shake off its reputation for thievery and the new enterprises like coco processing now have their own ports. The damage of the 175kph typhoon that visited Northern Samar just a few years ago was still visible in the port. We did not walk the port to save on time, we just let the car do the walking for us.

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Caraingan Port

We next visited Lavezares port which had a long history. It’s significant lies in that it is the connection to the Biri islands offshore which is now being promoted as a tourist place if one wants to escape civilization. Biri and Lavezares have a reputation in history. For the former, it is the rocks and waves that can threaten ships. For the latter it was a launching port of long-range motor bancas that went beyond Biri in the past like Catanduanes and the Bicol eastern and northern shores. To me Lavezares, like Allen, its mother town is a remnant of the old seafaring tradition of the Pintados which can reach Formosa in the past before the Spaniards forbid local boatbuilding so they can press (as in force) our boatbuiders in building their exploitative galleons. Again, we just made a tour by car of Lavezares port.

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Lavezares Port

[The portion where we made an Allen to Matnog crossing and back is already in the article I attached earlier.]

On our way back to Tacloban there was no more chance of shipspotting as night had already set in contrary to my hope that we can cross early to Matnog and then be back in Allen just past lunch (that would then have afforded us another chance at the ports we just made a cursory visit of). But no regrets. It just meant a realignment of targets (for me).

Reaching Tacloban at midnight, I made Joe Cardenas (the car owner and our driver) sleep while looking for our companion Mark Ocul’s ride back to Cebu (James Verallo eventually convinced him to take a Bohol detour to max his shipspotting experience). Meanwhile at the back of my mind I had a 3:30am cut-off from Tacloban for I will then convince Joe to make a dash to be able to board the 8am ferry in Benit which will afford us enough time to look for and visit the many unexplored ports of Surigao on the way to his friend in Claver, Surigao del Sur without hitting dusk. When we parted, little did our two companions suspect me and Joe were still embarking on a long trip. With 850 kilometers now under his belt who would then suspect Joe is still up for another thousand kilometers of continuous driving?

[However, that portion will be the subject of another article and I will henceforth jump to when we were able to get back to Tacloban to make another run back to Allen.]

From a Tacloban sleep-over after Surigao, me and Joe crossed again the San Juanico bridge but there was no more walking of the bridge this time for we were dead serious in finding the unexplored ports of Samar (or at least those where our daytime will be able to cover). We were elated by our success in Surigao in using maps based on GPS in finding the obscure ports without much turning around (why, it was even more accurate than the locals). Instead of turning left to Sta. Rita, Samar we turned right after the bridge on the way to Basey, the old connection of Samar to Leyte when San Juanico bridge was not yet existing. I was excited what it will show us.

The drive to Basey took longer that I expected. I had a premonition of things we will see because we passed by the cemetery of Basey and it was big and it had Chinese names on it. I have an inkling it was not a small town in the past and there was probably a Chinese quarters which equates to trade.

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Basey Port

We found Basey town alright and it was not the normal small town that I see in Samar. It was obvious it had a great past and the main street was densely packed, proof it had trade before. We found the port road and near it was the remnants of a Chinese quarters. There were concrete structures in the pier but obviously it was already a long-forgotten pier. Only passenger-cargo motor bancas were just using it. These were still active as it affords a shortcut and cheaper ride compared to the jeep (which seemed not to be thriving). I saw students going to Tacloban. It was a proof of links.

From Basey port, the port of Tacloban can be made out along with the San Juanico bridge. I mused – the bridge killed Basey and its progress. Like what I see when new roads bypassed towns. The sea was shallow. I was thinking what if the bridge had been built via Basey? What would have been the result?

We did not stay long in Basey. On the way back, me and Joe kept peering in our GPS map about that abutment which indicates another port which we disregarded on the way to Basey because the road signs contraindicated it. We then came to the junction leading to it and Joe decided we should check even though the road was not so inviting (well, that is one advantage of an SUV over a sedan). Not long after we saw a parish church. It was just before the port. A parish church in a barrio always indicated something more than an ordinary barrio. We learned that we are in San, Antonio, a barrio of Basey. So Basey has two ports not one!

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San Antonio Port

San Antonio port is much closer to Tacloban than Basey port. It seems they are just separated by a wide river and I can almost make out some of the buildings in Tacloban. San Antonio port, though smaller, is busier with more passenger-cargo motor bancas going to Tacloban. It was there that I learned the many motor bancas docked near the market of Tacloban were actually going to San Antonio. The ones docked there were the same motor bancas I saw in Tacloban two hours earlier when me and Joe made short tours of the Tacloban ports. It seems San Antonio is more connected to Tacloban than to its own town of Basey. Again I wondered what if San Juanico bridge was built not on its present site but on a site in San Antonio?

Me and Joe bypassed the Sta. Rita port which was still near Tacloban so as to save time. As always the 250-kilometers stretch of Tacloban to Allen is a challenge to shipspotters to cover before nightfall sets in. I thought maybe one has really to start early like in first daylight if one wants to visit more ports. In the same regard we also bypassed the port of Pinabacdao although there is a clear road sign indicating it. Anyway we wondered if that port and similar ports are already ‘ports to nowhere’ since vans and buses are already their connection to Tacloban.

Joe and me also bypassed the ports of Catbalogan and Calbayog. We reasoned we had been there before and we were more interested in the old port of Victoria and others near there. We just contented our eyes watching the seascape, the occasional ship offshore and with the passenger-cargo motor bancas in the navigable rivers of Samar that connects to the inland municipalities. We also had a dash of adrenaline against a Toyota Grandia (but it was not ship spotting).

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Manguino-0 Port

However, me and Joe made a short detour to Manguino-o port because our first one there was “empty”. The Filipinas Dapitan of Cokaliong Shipping Lines was there. We were able to enter briefly but the guards this time were not accommodating. Maybe the field of Psychology should do a research of how the completion of gates and fences affect the mentality of the guards. It seems with those completed it is now their duty to “protect their fortress”. Manguino-o was hospitable before.

We also bypassed another port with a link to an island-municipality although it is not far from the highway. Alas, me and Joe’s tour was full of ‘bypasses’ that I thought maybe Tacloban, Basey and nearby ports can be covered by tour in one day and maybe one just have to stop for the day in Catbalogan or Calbayog and the next day cover the ports of Northern Samar. There is really no way to cover all the ports in the Tacloban-Allen axis in one day. One will “waste” 100 kilometers from Tacloban to Catbalogan in land travel and next “waste” some 65 kilometers from Manguino-o to San Isidro. And to think the distance of Catbalogan to Calbayog is another 60 “empty” kilometers (as in there are no ports along the way).

The only worthwhile port Joe and me was able to visit after leaving Western Samar was the old port of Victoria which once upon a time had a connection to Manila. We did not use the GPS this time as Joe knows the junction. Like what I expected its poblacion was more packed than a town of its size and the remnants of an old trading quarter was still visible. We reached the port and it is located inside a river mouth where the waters are clear and beautiful spans of Victoria bridge was visible (actually the river might be named Bangon River). There were just a few bancas using the disused concrete port now and most were fishing bancas. There was a wharf for passenger-cargo motor bancas a hundred meters downstream and it was more busy.

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The ports of Victoria

The road to Victoria town and port is just by the bridge of Victoria. It seems Victoria was born around the river that traverses its entire narrow territory and with a wide navigable river it seems that river also serves as an artery. With such a lay-out, Victoria is also a ship shelter during storms. With the sun preparing to set, the slight rains and the silhouttes it produces we left Victoria with me feeling sad. There was no way to be upbeat about what we just saw which was a faded town left by its ship.

I wanted to find the other ship shelter in Victoria town which was Buenos Aires. Joe vetoed it and so we continued north. With the rains sometimes pelting us, explorations become limited. We did not go inside San Isidro Ferry Terminal any more and i just took some shots from the outside. We also bypassed Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping and and just took shots from outside of Dapdap port. Time just flew and when me and Joe entered BALWHARTECO port the light remaining or the lack of it was just about the same when the big group of PSSS first reached it. Me and Joe tarried a little more making a long goodbye with some small talk. I will be staying in BALWHARTECO lodge while he will still be proceeding to Catarman.

I had a pleasant stay in the lodge and it was a great platform for viewing the activities in the port. I spent the next two day exploring BALWHARTECO and the ships there and making interviews. I also looked for my old opponents there, the collectors of the illegal exactions but they were gone. I thought it was not me they feared but the American in our big group who was Tim Alentiev. Well, with his demeanor, attire and shades he might have looked like a CIA operative. Seriously!

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Star Ferry II

In BALWHARTECO I was able to visit the Star Ferry II twice. I was not that much interested in the other ships because I have already boarded them. I became more interested in Star Ferry II when PSSS was able to establish it was now the oldest passenger RORO sailing that is not an LCT (built in 1961!) and there were rumors she might be headed for scrapping (once when she was not running I saw her precisely moored in Victoria port). I wanted simply to know more about her and her current condition.

My second visit came because I was looking for Roger Chape, one of the oldest mariners in Bicol waters who started his career in motor boats (lancha). He happened to be the Chief Engineer of Star Ferry II but I did not know him the first time I boarded the ferry. We had a good talk although the ship was bucking heavily in the night swells and wind (it that was Cebu the praning Coast Guard there would have suspended voyages already). From him I got a better understanding of the state of the ship, a little of its history and how it is managed.

It was really so hard shipspotting in my two days in Allen. The rains were heavy and it simply would not relent. If not for an old umbrella given to me I would have scarcely been able to get around. And there was not even an LPA (Low Pressure Area) but just the usual heavy amihan weather of the area (amihan winds there could even be stronger than LPA winds).

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A ship in San Bernardino Strait amihan

My last chance of shipspotting in Allen was when I left for Matnog. It was long before they sold tickets because dockings can’t be done because of the strong swells and high tide (have one heard of that in Cebu?) I mean it was hours of wait. Then we were able to board but the Coast Guard won’t give clearance to sail because of the weather. It was just a temporary halt and not full suspension. We passengers were worried of a full suspension of voyages and we will become statistics for the evening news on TV (i.e. stranded in the port). While waiting I turned it into an opportunity for shipspotting. But then again the rain messes up the visibility and quality of shots.

I immensely enjoyed my Samar shipspotting despite of the rains which made it difficult to move around. It was a continuation of my summer of 2014 shipspotting with Jun Marquez (summer shipspotting that had plenty of rain too). It was nice and good by any means. I actually love Samar.

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)

My Samar-Leyte Ship Spotting With Jun Marquez

(Sequel to “On The Way To Leyte To Meet Jun Marquez”)

https://psssonline.wordpress.com/2016/05/14/on-my-way-to-leyte-to-meet-jun-marquez/

After leaving the town of Pintuyan, Leyte and the hospitality of Mayor Rusty Estrella, me and Jun settled down for a ride which was actually touring. It was a thrill for me as we were only two and it would be a tete-a-tete between friends in a locale we both know. It will be an intersection of parts he knows well with the parts that I know well. Leyte and Samar in all my years of travel there feels to me like I know the place or at least the highways. The two islands were my connection to my birth place of Bicol and I came to appreciate her well in my nearly two decades of passing through her. Now, I have a front seat ride with a ride pace I can control and view things or places I was not able to see well inside a bus.

The first order of business was the ascent and descent through was is called “The Saddle”, a peak dividing Pintuyan and the next town of San Francisco which indeed looks like a horse saddle from the sea. This road is a mountain pass feared especially by the truckers. I told Jun it does not even begin to compare with the “Tatlong Eme” in Quezon. My analysis is with the disuse of that legendary mountain pass the drivers of today have no good idea how to handle their horses in challenging ascents and descents (when to think their mounts are overpowered now and has power steering). Moreover, I have observed they no longer know the rules of the roads in the mountain passes, i.e., the one going up will always have the right of way, trucks can use the other side of the lane in the hairpins and tight curves and the descending trucks should not stop on that side but on the other side as they will block the truck or trailer going up and horns should always be used as query and reply. Me and Jun began to connect. We were two oldtimers talking.

Next in the order was to look for the old, abandoned San Francisco port which even became a topic in our talk with Mayor Rusty Estrella and which he confirms still exists and to which he answered some of my questions. I was surprised to know the Go Thong ship then there was passenger-cargo. I thought she just carried copra during the heyday of copra and of course Lu Do & Lu Ym and Go Thong (the first was the biggest copra dealer then before Enrile, Cojuangco and company muscled their way in and the latter was the biggest carrier of copra). Yes, it was still there. The wharf was still intact but lonely and the surf was really strong.

I was also getting a kick seeing the buses of Panaon island (they have their own uniqueness) and soon the next order was the Panaon bridge (or is it Liloan bridge?), the short bridge connecting Panaon island and Leyte island as if it is just crossing a river. Approaching this I sensed there is a sense of hurry in Jun as we did not take the opportunity to pass by Liloan town and its port or visit Liloan Ferry Terminal. I thought there should have been enough time if we were just going straight to Baybay City (his hometown) via Mahaplag junction (it’s actually not a “crossing” but most wrongly call it as such). In the past I always enjoyed the ride through the mountains to Mahaplag and passing by Agas-agas where water flowed naturally (and wrecks the road). Now a bridge has been built instead of repairing the road again and again (it was built according to Japanese design). There was a sign of hurry in Jun and we did not stop by the bridge that is now becoming a tourist site.

Then I learned he wants me to view the Typhoon “Yolanda” devastation (so that means turning right in Mahaplag junction instead of turning left) but leaving Pintuyan at 3pm means we didn’t have much time really as the drive is at least 3 hours (the late departure from Pintuyan also precluded a ride through the new Silago road and the sea landscapes of Cabalian Bay). One might want to speed up but that also defeats viewing the scenes and besides lack of familiarity with the road means more use of the brakes too. In the straights after Abuyog town I commented that it seems the devastation was worse in the news compared to the actuality (seems when media takes photos they take the worst scenes and people react correspondingly). Having been born and raised in Bicol, a typhoon area, I knew a thing or two about typhoon damage.

Nearing Palo, Leyte it was beginning to get dark. The “curfew” of my cam was fast approaching and it was beginning to get difficult to take bus shots, one of my targets when I travel. Then it began to unravel that Jun is actually targeting a place much farther than Tacloban, an idea I have no inkling before. Jun, they Leyteno wants to go to Allen, Northern Samar! How could I have anticipated that?

I do not know if I sounded dissuasive to Jun but I told him that Allen is 250 kilometers from Tacloban. He told he is used to driving long distances in Australia. I told him it would take 5-6 hours at the rate he was driving (and our mount, a Ford Ranger is no longer the fast type). His response was, “Is is still open in BALWHARTECO at 12 midnight?”. I told him at that hour the disco there will still be furiously blasting and that sleeping (we planned to take a room) might actually be the problem (haha!). Now when did one hear of a disco inside a port? Well, there’s one in Polambato, Bogo but I can’t think yet of any other example.

Jun knew before that I was going to Allen after Leyte to take ship pics and here he was offering a free ride to me! I was flabbergasted. How can I refuse that? But I knew there should be a deeper reason. It turned out that when he was still a student during Martial Law days he had an experience riding a Manila-Baybay bus. He wants to relive that especially he wasn’t able to really know Samar then, his home region. And of course things and places change after 25 years. And so “two birds in one stone”, he was going with me since he knows I know Samar, I won’t lost my way and I can answer his questions! How could I have anticipated that? A Dabawenyo and a Bicolano at the same time will be the tourist guide in Samar! And we will take shot of ships! And well, ship spotting is always more enjoyable if there is a companion.

Since he told me it is there is traffic inside Tacloban especially at that hour and anyway it is already getting dark and Tacloban was dark after dark (no electricity in the lamp posts), I suggested to Jun that we bypass Tacloban, we use the diversion road and just visit Tacloban on our return trip. Anyway, we were still full after that hearty meal in Mayor Estrella’s house and I said we can eat in the Jollibee in Catbalogan or Calbayog at about 9pm when it will still be open as looking for decent food in Allen could be a little problematic at midnight. I estimated our arrival in BALWHARTECO or Balicuatro port will be 12 midnight.

It was already nearly dark when we reached San Juanico bridge so no shots were possible at that picturesque bridge. I warned Jun that Samar is dark at night, there are no street lights and it will be seldom that we will encounter another vehicle and I also told him repairs or looking for a vulcanizing shop is a problem while running in the Samar night. But like me Jun is not the frightful type. Soon our speed dropped as there was mist and there was fog on the road (this is not unusual in Samar). Then our companion and pace-setter vehicle also dropped out and we were all alone. I told Jun the buses for Manila were already well ahead of us and there is no more local bus and there will just be two or three buses that will be leaving Tacloban that night and two will probably do a night lay-over in Calbayog and we will reach Allen without encountering any Manila bus yet. Yes, night runs in Samar are lonely and difficult (I will not say dangerous) once you run into mechanical trouble.

From San Juanico bridge the road is mostly straights and well-paved and we had no incidents. Then we came to Buray, the old junction to Eastern Samar. I told Jun once I spent a few dawn hours there waiting for a bus and I didn’t knew then there was a rumor about poisoners there and I was happily eating (seems it’s not true as I am still alive; didn’t also know before Mahaplag junction also has that “reputation” and I also buy there and usually). I also told Jun my funny experience one morning aboard a local jeep in Wright town (now known as Paranas). When they told me they will be picking up passengers I easily assented to that. After all, is there a jeep that does not pick up passengers? Then they entered Wright town (it is not on the highway) and by golly, it was “free tourism”. Seems they have their clientele by the pattern they blow their horn. Then we stopped by a house to pick up “Ma’am” Well, she has just finished bathing and so we waited for her and the driver turned off the engine. Then came out a beautiful, young teacher and the conductor asked me if she can seat with me at the front (at the back there were some fish). Yes, my drive with Jun evoked some memories. That was 18 years ago!

Then the fishponds of Jiabong came into view in the soft moonlight and I always take pleasure when I pass through that place. I always remember the fries from tahong that they sell. It seems there is no product like that anywhere in the Philippines. Their area is known for tahong and they sell it far and wide up to Iligan, Bukidnon and Davao in Mindanao (yep, I came to know the trader and well, that is intermodal talk again). I am also attracted by the estuaries and navigable rivers not only in Samar but anywhere else (my eyes are actually easily attracted by waters and what navigates there).

Soon from the a cliff, the lights and city of Catbalogan appeared. The outlines of the bay were also apparent and it is actually a majestic view at night (well, even in the day). We then began the narrow descent to Catbalogan. It was a respite after a little over two hours of running in the dark highway of Samar. We were soon on the narrow roads of Catbalogan and we decided to find Jollibee Catbalogan. The city proper is a little of a maze and we had a little bit of hard time finding the fast-food restaurant. The people we asked didn’t seem to understand that we non-locals don’t have an idea of what they take to be commonly-understood references . It was not helped that the streets of Catbalogan are narrow and it was mostly dark as most enterprises have already closed. Anyway, we found Jollibee Catbalogan and we took our dinner.

We then proceeded on our way after our meal and we passed the new Catbalogan bridge. The road after Catbalogan is narrow with houses occupying what should have been the shoulders of the road. Then the roads became more challenging. What I mean is it is no longer as straight but it does not really climb. Anyway, I assured Jun we will veer off the wrong road as I know it very well (that is always the fear of a driver on a night drive in an unfamiliar road). I was trying to feel if Jun was already tired but he was keeping pace and since there is no traffic there was a big leeway for mistakes, if any. Actually I was the one more tired because except for the three hours we spent at Mayor Estrella’s house I had no rest since my trip started from Davao and it was already my second night on the road (and my bus ride from Davao was tiring as it was an ordinary bus).

We passed Calbayog City, the only other mecca of light on our trip (the towns of Samar are all small). It was bigger than Catbalogan and more lighted. After passing the city, I told Jun the dark won’t come for several kilometers as we will still pass through the municipal districts absorbed into Calbayog so it will meet the criteria of the late 1940’s. Then we passed the junction of the road leading to Lope de Vega and Catarman which was the old Samar road when the direct road to Allen does not yet exist. The road then began to have more curves and climbs and unfortunately some portions of the road were cracked and this ran for kilometers and so our mount have to “dance” trying to evade this. It would have been easier if it was light. After nearly two hours of dark and lonely driving we were already in Allen and we passed by Dapdap port before we turned round the town to go to Balicuatro port.

At 12:30am we entered the gates of BALWHARTECO (Balicuatro Wharfage and Terminal Corp.), the biggest and most progressive port in Allen. Allen is the Visayas connection to Luzon and its counterpart port there is Matnog. The guards thought we will board the RORO but we told them we are just touring. We also told them we are just looking to sleep in the lodging house of BALWHARTECO and in the morning we will take ship pics. BALWHARTECO is a private port, they have never heard of ISPS (International System of Port Security) there, the port is geared for hospitality and service and so one will never hear of the word “Bawal” (which means “It’s prohibited”) there whereas in government ports whose first guiding motto is “Be ‘praning’” one’s ears will be saturated by that word. In Balicuatro you can roam the port for all you want and take pictures and nobody will mind you.

After finding a good parking area (that means a slot away from the trucks to avoid damage) we went to the hotel or more properly the lodge. The hotel was a little full and there were no more airconditioned rooms. We also had another request which seemed a little odd to the front desk – we wanted the room to be farthest from the disco. It was a good decision as I found out in the next morning the disco stopped at 4am. We soon feel asleep. We were tired especially me.

I woke up at 6am and headed straight to the wharf. But the 6am ferry was no longer there. I was told it got full early. Soon Jun was around and I tried calling the Captain of the Don Benito Ambrosio II as I had a PSSS shirt for him. We were soon able to board the ship. In Balicuatro if one has the time and energy he can board all the ships that dock. There is really no hint of suspiciousness and I like that because that was the situation in the old past when they were even happy you are taking interest in their ship (nowadays if you take interest in a ship you are a potential terrorist). In Manila, Cebu or Davao, if you enter the port they will think you will take out of the port a container van all by your bare hands.

We talked to the Captain who was apologetic he was not able to answer immediately because he had the flu. We took some time to talk to the Captain of the Don Benito Ambrosio II and waited for the arrival of Star Ferry III. Then we had to disembark because the ferry was already leaving. And there went away my chance because of a conflict. In my plan, with my connections developed with Sta. Clara Shipping and sister company Penafrancia Shipping I planned to joyride their ships (and pay if needed) and take as much ship photos as I can and elicit as much data and history (with my base the BALWHARTECO hotel). Depending on my health I planned to go to Masbate and Cebu via Bulan or if my body was not strong enough then I will rest first in Naga.

Even before boarding Don Benito Ambrosio II, I was already able to locate and talk to the Allen LGU man who tracks the vehicles coming out of the ROROs for the purpose of their taxation. For the first time I had somebody who can tell me where located was the first Allen ports (that are no longer existing now) and he knew all the old ships from Cardinal Ferry I and the old Matnog-Allen motor boats (since those are things that happened in the 1970’s, it is hard now to find a first-hand, knowledgeable source). If I were able to stay, I would have squeezed him for all his knowledge.

But then Jun’s main reason for his vacation was to attend the 80th birthday of his father and he wants me to attend it! He in fact has already promised I will be present. And that birthday was that day we were in Allen. He promised we will be there that dinner. I immediately knew it was tough as were some 370 kilometers from Baybay City and we still have to do ship spotting along the way. We agreed a Balicuatro departure of 9am (later I realized we should have left earlier). My Allen-Matnog joy trips were gone. I just promised myself I will cover it on my Manila trip the same month (however, this no longer happened as along the way I developed a medical condition).

We took some time to prowl Balicuatro port, its eateries, the stalls and merchandise offered. I was actually looking for pilinut candies and not the dried fish and dried pusit (these are the common pasalubong items hawked in Balicuatro). Of course we did not forget to take bus photos. There at least Jun got a good idea what is the kind of movements in a short-distance RORO port where most of the load are trucks, buses and bus passengers (this was certainly different from his experience in the western Leyte ports). He then had an idea how many buses and bus passengers passes through there and I pointed out to him how much the Allen municipal LGU earns daily (and yet there is no infrastructure or development to show for it). The illegal exactions of the vehicles had actually long been deemed by the Supreme Court as illegal but of course illegal practices are very hard to stop in the Philippines because of the weak rule of law and even judges and lawyers will not stand up to what is patently illegal (of course, they all know that permanent checkpoints have long been declared illegal by the Supreme Court and yet they will not raise even a whimper).

We then took leave of BALWHARTECO after a late breakfast. Now came the tough part – how to ship spot along the way, visit the Tacloban devastation wrought by Typhoon “Yolanda” and still be able to reach Baybay at dinner time. But we were not the ones to worry about such conflict. Sometimes the Pinoy bahala na attitude comes in good stead too. What was more important was to maximize the situation, forget the pressure, take pleasure in what was there before you and enjoy what is a trip that might not be duplicated again.

From BALWHARTECO we first visited the Dapdap port of Philharbor Ports and Ferries Services. This is the other private port of Allen but less stronger in patronage than BALWHARTECO although most vehicles first reach it in Allen. The reason is it has less ferries and so departures are fewer and that might mean a longer waiting time for the vehicles. Philharbor is the sister company of Archipelago Ferries which is synonymous to the Maharlika ferries whose reputation is much less than stellar. The Grand Star RORO 3, a ship they have acquired to replace broken Maharlika Uno had just left and all we can take were long-distance shots (now if only we left BALWHARTECO earlier!). But the express jeeps that meet the passengers that disembarked from Matnog (they call that “door-to-door” because those will really deliver you by your gate; of course the fare is higher but what convenience especially if you have lots of pasalubong – rides are difficult in Samar because public utility vehicles are few and these jeeps specialize in the barrio route) were still there as well as the motor bancas for the island-municipalities off the western coast of Northern Samar (specifically Dalupiri, Capul [which speaks a Tausug language, the Inabaknon] and the Naranjo group of islands).

We next stopped at the private port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. that was then undergoing construction (it is operational now). We can’t enter as the gates were locked and there was a crude notice, “Closed by LGU”. Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and its sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corp. were the biggest clients of BALWHARTECO and if they leave a lot of things will change and so the Mayor of Allen who owns that wanted it stopped by using the powers of his office (not issuing a Mayor’s permit). Talk about a self-serving action! I told Jun Sta. Clara Shipping will win as they are not lightweights and they have won before a maritime suit big time and the resistance by the Mayor can easily be challenged in the court by a plea for a mandamus order (Philippine jurisprudence is very clear on that).

The island of Samar, Southern Leyte and Agusan del Sur are among the places I noticed that sudden, heavy downpours will happen even in the peak of summer. It was raining cats and dogs when we reached San Isidro Ferry Terminal and we had difficulty getting out the car. This port is a government-owned and is the official connection to Matnog but lost since it is farther. They were surprised there were visitors since their port no longer has ROROs docking. But we were even in luck as there was a beer carrier from San Miguel Brewery in Mandaue, Cebu and so it was not so desolate. We were entertained at the office and we were surprised to learn that the Philippine Ports Authority office in San Isidro Ferry Terminal controls all the ports in that area of Samar. So that was one reason they still have not closed. (Note: The FastCats of Archipelago Ferries are now using San Isidro Ferry Terminal now.). This port has an islet just off it which acts as a protection for the port against big waves.

Driving south we spotted a port I did not notice before from the bus. It was a private port with copra ships. But all we can do is to take long-distance shots from two vantage points but then we can’t stay any longer as the rains pelted us again and we have to run to the car as there is no other shelter (it was a road cliff on our left and a sea cliff on our right and there are no houses). But the rain had a cooling effect, it made vegetation greener and fresher and it felt fine on a summer day. However, it was a bane in my taking photos of the buses. It should have been heaven for a bus spotter as I had a front seat and it was peak time of buses leaving Samar for Manila but so many of my shots were of poor quality because the windshield has drops of rains and smudges.

We entered the town of San Isidro in the hope we can get a better shot of the port we saw and maybe ask around around to flesh more data. But there were no openings as it is all barred by GI sheets. Jun reminded me to hurry as we were still far from Baybay. But I least we saw the municipal hall and poblacion of San Isidro. This was not visible from the buses as they don’t enter the town proper. That is actually the weakness of bus touring. There are so many poblacions that the bus don’t enter and so views and insights are lost and one can’t judge how big is the town or what is the activity. In Pintuyan, I commented to Mayor Estrella that I thought his town was very small. It turned out his town center is not by the main road….

[There will be a continuation in a future article.]