Maasin Port Is An “Anomaly” And So Is The City

Maasin City as a provincial capital of Southern Leyte is an ”anomaly” but this is in no way meant to insult it and its people. But there is no other provincial capital in the country where the capital is the last and furthermost locality. And that becomes a problem for the people of its towns on the other end like San Ricardo and Silago. They would have to spend several hours on the road just to reach their capital should they need a transaction there. And funny, to reach Maasin faster, even public vehicles go back through Bato in the neighboring  Leyte province to take the mountain road that starts at Bontoc town because it is shorter and travel time is faster. Going back, many take the same road too.

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Maasin port by Donna Simon

Maasin port became an anomaly too because of that road. Ferries from Cebu would rather dock in Bato or Hilongos port in Leyte rather than Maasin port and its vehicles and the shuttles (called “boat service” when the ferries are not boats) will also take the Bato to Bontoc road. But the national government through the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) will always give priority to Maasin port because it has the designation as a provincial port even though the de-facto ports of entry now of Southern Leyte are the Hilongos and Bato ports in Leyte province.

Those two mentioned ports were so deadly especially with an extension like shuttle buses for passengers and a shortcut to Bontoc via Bato. The two killed the overnight ferries to Sogod, Liloan and Cabalian (or San Juan) especially those of ill-fated Maypalad Shipping (pun intended). Those ports have no chance as their ferries arrive near noon while ferries In Hilongos and Bato aided by shuttle buses can deliver passengers in those towns before breakfast. And the over-all fare is even lower because land fares are much cheaper than sea fares. Moreover, going to Cebu they would have just to wait for the shuttles instead of taking a local commute to the port and no transfers are needed.

Even Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) which has been loyally serving Maasin port (it was a bread and butter of the company in its earlier years) cannot increase its frequency to the city as its passengers now are just from Maasin and the towns between Maasin and Bontoc. In rolling cargo, unless they do some sacrifice they cannot match the rates of the ROROs serving Hilongos and Bato because the distance of the two from Cebu is shorter.

There is even no hope now of a fielding a RORO to the ports of Sogod, Liloan and Cabalian because in rates it can never compete with the Hilongos and Bato ROROs whose rates will be much lower because of the much shorter distance. Sogod, Liloan and Cabalian might be a little far but a car or a truck can easily roll to that and the fuel consumed will be much less compared to a RORO rate. Plus the total time will be way shorter. No way they can really win.

I do not think this situation will change in the future because one can’t change geography.  And thus one thing that could have boosted Maasin, that of being a good port of entry is really not around. Maasin could also not be a port of entry from Surigao like in the old past when ports were lacking because it is the farthest locality of Southern Leyte from Surigao.

In my wandering thoughts , I cannot even understand why Maasin became the capital of Southern Leyte when Sogod is the center point of the three “tentacles” of the province – the series of towns to Maasin, the series of towns to Silago and the series of towns to San Ricardo at the tip of Panaon island. Sogod could have been the commercial town of the province but a direct ship to Cebu hampered that, I think. Now, so-many intermodal trucks roam Southern Leyte already.

In the old past, liners from Manila also came to Maasin, Sogod and Cabalian. But those days are long gone now and will never come back again. Intermodal trucks from Manila have already cobbled up many of the cargo to the eastern seaboard of the country so much so that the old great port of Tacloban is diminished now.

And that also diminished Maasin port. Especially since the Palawan Princess of Sulpicio Lines which called on the port before is also gone now. Whatever, long live Maasin!

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The Lite Ferry 16

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The Lite Ferry 16 one week before the fire. Photo by Mark Edelson Idulsa Ocul of PSSS.

The other night, on August 27, 2019, the Lite Ferry 16 suffered an engine room fire while in the waters of Dapitan City and nearing already the port of Pulauan. The reference point used was Tag-ulo Point. Pulauan port is located on a J-shaped cove and Tag-ulo Point, some 1.5 nautical miles from the port is where a ship turns from a northward heading to a westward heading if going to Zamboanga from Pulauan like what Zamboanga Ferry used to do then. The remaining question was how far Lite Ferry 16 was that from that point when she lost power.

Witnesses said there was an explosion and electricity was lost just before that. The fire did not engulf the whole ship as it was mainly contained in the engine room but the part of the superstructure over that was affected too and so all the passengers could do was to gather at the forward portion of the ship that is basically an LCT in design which means the forward part have no structure above the car deck. Crowding the area were the various loaded vehicles and so some passengers jumped into the water. The ramp was deployed to increase the area were passengers can gather.

The fire started at 12:30am and three hours have to pass before any rescue came in the form of a FastCat from Dumaguete that was also headed to Pulauan port. There was no Coast Guard ship that arrived and the Coast Guard itself said that their nearest big patrol boat was in Cagayan de Oro which is almost the same distance as Cebu. The passengers complained of it and it has been my wonder for a long time now why the big Coast Guard ships are being used as “floating offices” in the big cities and ports where there are a lot of ships that can help while busy sea lanes where accident can happen have no Coast Guard ships except for very small ones. Like when Maharlika II distressed, the nearest Coast Guard detachment in Benit, San Ricardo, Southern Leyte just had an oar-powered launch. In Pulauan, usually there is no tug there that can assist in case of fire. But I wonder if there were no other ships docked then in Pulauan port that can come to the rescue of the passengers of Lite Ferry 16.

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The Lite Ferry 16 when she was newly-arrived in 2015. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

The Lite Ferry 16 is not a new ship (well, that kind is still rare in the Philippines). She arrived for Lite Ferries in mid-2015 and she was formerly a Hainan ferry that connected that island-province to the China mainland and she was originally built in 1995. The ferry was refitted in Ouano using Afloat Sea Repair (ASR) and that took nearly a year. The basic structure was preserved although a lot of metal was replaced. They also took out the engines and installed in place of it two brand-new Weichai diesel engines. I am not sure which company really owns her as Lite Ferries have three legal-fiction companies. An early communique said she belonged to Danilo Lines but when I checked the MARINA database of 2017, it said she belonged to Sunline Shipping Corporation.

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The old engine of Lite Ferry 16. Photo by James Gabriel Verallo of PSSS.

The ship was average in size for an overnight ferry at 64.6 meters x 16.0 meters and 992 gross tons but her passenger capacity is not big owing to having an LCT design. For most time, she holds the Samboan, Cebu to Pulauan, Dapitan route, a route pioneered by Lite Ferries which is a direct route from Cebu island to Mindanao that bypasses Dumaguete port in Negros island. The voyage usually takes six hours and she usually leaves Samboan at 7 in the night with a return trip the next morning.

As of now the fire in Lite Ferry 16 is already out and she is floating in Pulauan Bay. Her condition is actually repairable. If they do that, I do not know if they will try to change the superstructure so she will resemble less her former silhouette. She will most likely not head to the breakers as we are too considerate and sentimental of our ships. We actually have ferries that are still sailing that have already seen the bottom of the sea. What happened to Lite Ferry 16 is a minor mishap compared to that.

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Photo by Czed Flores.

However, Lite Ferries should pay more attention to their ships. It was not that long ago that another ship of theirs was also hit by an engine room fire, the Lite Ferry 28. The passengers of that were luckier as the ship was already very near the Taloot port of Argao, Cebu and another ship, the LCT Miami was immediately able to rescue the passengers of Lite Ferry 28. The circumstances of the Lite Ferry 16 and Lite Ferry 28 incidents are eerily similar, an engine room near the end of the voyage.

Now, let us just wait for the formal investigation that will determine what really happened in Lite Ferry 16.

It Is a Dogfight Now in the Surigao-Leyte Routes

In the early days there was only one RORO route connecting Surigao and Lipata across Surigao Strait and this was the Lipata-Liloan route using Lipata Ferry Terminal and Liloan Ferry Terminal. There was an earlier route using Surigao port and Liloan municipal port (run by Cardinal Ferry 2 of Cardinal Shipping) but that was in the earliest years and was gone in due time when the Ferry Terminals were built. And there was that really old routes using motor bancas to link Surigao to San Ricardo and Cabalian which are existing until today. And if Dinagat is considered still a part of Surigao then there is still a motor banca connecting that to Liloan.

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In the 1990’s, the RORO crossing between Lipata and Liloan was languid. At its worst there were only two trips each day and that happens in the off-peak season or when some ferries are hit by mechanical troubles or was in the drydock. This crossing then between Surigao Strait was known to be the base to some of the lousiest ferries in the country but to their credit they do not sink. Empirically, as has been noted in the Philippines there is no correlation between lack of maintenance and sinking. It really depends on the seamanship.

The Maharlika ferries then connecting Lipata and Liloan was known to sail even if only one of two of its engines is running. And Maharlika Dos will just stop sailing if its two engines were not running anymore and then clog Liloan Ferry Terminal. And to think this was a ferry built just the decade before. It even seems then that Maharlika Cinco was more reliable when to think she already had an excursion to the bottom of the sea in Coron as the Mindoro Express.

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The Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping was no more reliable then being very old already and there were instances she simply conks out and is not heard for months. Many will then surmise she was cut up already and when many think she was gone she will reappear suddenly. I was not too surprised by the performance and lousiness of these ferries because I had already observed the pattern that this was an affliction of many Marcos transport companies. Maintenance is lousy and there is no management to speak of if based on management books.

Three trips then in a day in one way was just enough for the traffic. Two trips is bad especially if one arrives in an off-hours because that will mean hours of interminable wait. Baddest is if one just misses a ship. That happened twice to me when I missed the 12nn ship in Liloan and I have to wait for the next trip which was 11pm. Mind you there is really nothing to go to, nothing to do in Liloan and the nearest semi-urbanized town Sogod is more than 40 kilometers away. There was also no cellphone signal then there in Liloan. There were also many times I reached Liloan in late afternoon and the next ferry was still that 11pm ferry because the 5pm ferry is missing.

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There are not many vehicles crossing then yet and the only buses crossing were the Philtranco buses to and from Manila (it was Pantranco South earlier). The long-distance trucks still have to discover this route then. Most trucks crossing then were Mindanao trucks that have goods to sell north.

Slowly the traffic grew. There were even those that bring their vehicles to Manila so they will have a car there. And slowly the trucks from Manila began using this route as well as the trucks that have a commerce between Southern Mindanao and Cebu. The Bachelor buses also started their route to Tacloban and Ormoc.

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Photo Credit: Bemes Lee Mondia

That then proved that the old ferries of the route – Maharlika Dos, Maharlika Cinco and Millennium Uno were inadequate. The first challenge and the first improvement was the arrival of the Super Shuttle Ferry 5 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) which arrived in the late 1990’s. The Super Shuttle Ferry 10 replaced it later. Along the way, Asian Marine Transport Corporation also rotated other ferries there.

The fielding of a lone AMTC ferry was just enough to fill up the needed lack of ferries in the route especially since Maharlika Dos and Millennium Uno never had sustained periods of reliability. It was also welcome since it was cleaner, faster and had an airconditioned accommodation plus it did not smell.

Things changed when Benit port at the southern tip of Panaon island was built by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, she who is wont for duplicate ports. However, Benit is not a simple duplicate port since its crossing distance is much shorter and so at the very start it was a threat to Liloan like when Allen displaced San Isidro port in Samar.

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At the start, nobody plied a route to Benit. Maybe the incumbent ships of the route didn’t want a change because after all they can charge more in the longer route. But that proved shortsighted.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo then gave the operation of the port to Montenegro Shipping Lines, her favorite shipping company. Maybe to forestall any loss she made it a buy one, take one deal. She also gave the operation of the very profitable Matnog port to Montenegro Lines! As they say in the Philippines, iba na ang malakas!

Montenegro Lines then proceeded to operate a Lipata-Benit route. Suddenly, the former pliers of the Lipata-Liloan route found they have been outflanked. The crossing time to Benit is just over a third of theirs. And woe to them, the Manila bus companies which had a route to Liloan extended their route to San Ricardo (which has jurisdiction over Benit). But don’t think the Manila buses goes to Benit port. They don’t. One still has to take a 2-kilometer habal-habal ride to the port.

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Montenegro Lines made a killing in the Benit route. Their rates are almost the same as the Liloan rates and yet they only travel 3/8 of the distance. If that is not tubong-lugaw, I don’t know what is. The passenger fares are also much higher per nautical mile than the Liloan fares. And ever since from then the ridership and load of the Liloan ferries have been on the decline. There was even a time when all buses – Philtranco, Bachelor and the various colorum buses were taking the Benit route.

Then came the Typhoon Yolanda tragedy. With the surge in relief and rehabilitation efforts suddenly there were complaints of mile-long queues of trucks. It was not only because of Yolanda. By this time the forwarders and shippers have found that sending a truck especially a wing van truck to Mindanao is cheaper than a container van and it arrives earlier. This was also the time too when Manila port congestion and Manila traffic became issues and the forwarders and shippers found it was better to send a truck down south than try to beat the traffic and congestion in Manila. And the benefit is double if the origin is LABAZON (CALABARZON without Cavite and Rizal). By the time the cargo is loaded in a container ship in North Harbor the comparative truck will already be making deliveries in Mindanao.

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And so MARINA approved the fielding of Cargo RORO LCTs which was designed to take in the trucks and its crews. Supposedly it does not take in passengers but it seems there are exceptions. The people call it “2GO” there because the operator is NN+ATS. The Cargo RORO LCTs are just chartered but they are the brand-new China LCTs which are called “deck loading ships”.

Along this way, AMTC lost its route service because they lacked ships and they pulled out the Super Shuttle Ferry 18 so it will retain its Roxas-Caticlan route. Sta. Clara Shipping/Penafrancia Shipping then appeared in the Liloan-Lipata route. I thought there was an equilibrium already.

But lo and behold! the much anticipated and already announced FastCats of Archipelago Philippine Ferries (which were also the owner of the lousy Maharlika ships appeared) and they brought not one but two new catamaran FastCats which are faster and has higher rolling capacity than the old ferries in the route. They might have really been entitled to two since previously they had two ships there but one already sank, the Maharlika Dos and the others were sold, the Maharlika Cuatro and Maharlika Cinco (the first was a replacement for the latter).

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Lately, it seems FastCat pulled out one of its crafts but is still sailing 3 round trips a day (or at least two on weak days). And being fast and new it is pulling in the vehicles. Meanwhile, the Cargo RORO LCTs are suctioning the trucks as it is the cheapest transit available. With those two developments even Montenegro Lines in Benit is affected. But more affected are the other ferries in Liloan that they now resort to “callers” in the junction leading to Liloan port. How fortunes change! In the past just when a ship is arriving there was already a queue of vehicles for them.

Added to the fray is Millennium Shipping which is not quitting yet. The Grandstar RORO 3, previously of Archipelago Philippine Ferries appeared and it is using the Liloan municipal port. Reports say it is Millennium Shipping that is operating it already aside from their Millennium Uno.

Times have changed. Where before three or four trips a day seemed adequate it seems there are about 15 trips a day now but not all are full. The way I sense it with the Cargo RORO LCTs and FastCat it is already a dogfight now and there might even be an excess of bottoms already.

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Photo Credit: Joel Bado

Well, that is good as the public might benefit. However, I have doubts as I noticed MARINA never ever learned how to compute rates even in light of cheap fuel. I wonder if fuel consumption is ever factored in their rates.

I just wonder if AMTC and Ocean King I are thankful they are no longer in the route.