The Biggest Shipping Modernization By Far

When the early 2010s entered, it was depressing for both the ship spotters and liner passengers. The Sulpicio Lines fleet was basically grounded by MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), a consequence of the capsizing of the Princess of the Stars in a strong typhoon and the company had begun disposing liners. The Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) including the SuperCat had already stopped from buying ferries and was more intent on a sell-out in order for them to concentrate on the more lucrative power generation field.

If there was growth, it was in the sector of short-distance ROROs (but only slightly) plus in the Cargo RORO sector (those ROROs that just load container vans and vehicles). Overnight ferries also increased but oh-so-slowly. There was not much to be excited then and in the main the observers are not excited by the LCTs of some shipping companies concentrating here like those of Broadway One Shipping, Seen Sam Shipping/Cebu Sea Charterers, Concrete Solutions/Primary Trident Marine Solutions, Asian Shipping Corporation, etc. Nor would they be impressed by a few brand-new tankers by Chelsea Logistics and a few container ships of Solid Shipping Lines. Very few noticed the new local-builds of Tri-Star Megalink, the unrecognized shipping company of Negros.

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The latest brand-new ship of Tri-Star Megalink in her maiden voyage. Photo by ‘wandaole’ of PSSS.

I myself did not expect much in the last half of the 2010s (I even thought the liners will be singing their swan song). The decade was dominated by a landlubber President and we had lackluster MARINA Administrators who seem to be short on vision and also in budget. We did not seem to have a direction in maritime development early in this decade. If there was any bright light in that darkness is there was a new type of ship starting to come, the catamaran-ROROs of Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the FastCats.

But miracles do happen at times. The country unexpectedly had a President whose mantra is “Build, Build, Build” and soon that also spilled over to the transportation sector and not only in infrastructure. And that included the maritime sector. Soon I saw a procession of new-build ROROs, High-Speed Crafts (HSCs) along with the usual LCTs which is now filling a new sector, the Cargo RORO LCT sector.

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The latest in the FastCat series. Photo by GoukaMaekkyaku of PSSS.

The FastCat series continued and is now of its 13th ship as of this writing (July 2019) and news said the series will comprise of 20 ships. And there is even a rumor that it will be 30 ships in total with some plying foreign routes (there is really an effect when the banks open their lending to shipbuilding). As such this catamaran-RORO will be the most successful design in the country although its plans came from Australia and the ships were built in China. What a comeback for a shipping company that used to operate ferries that were derided by the public and observers. The FastCat series started in 2013 and on the average two ships per year come.

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The newest ROPAX of Starlite Ferries. Photo by Mark Anthony Arceno of PSSS.

The Starlite series of new ferries which started in 2015 with the Starlite Pioneer also continued and this should be 10 in number and is now on its 5th ship. But that does not include 2 Southwest Maritime (SWM) ferries that are also now also in the fleet of Starlite Ferries. These ferries were designed and built in Japan. Now, just the FastCat and Starlite fleets already comprise of 20 brand-new ships as of today and more are coming.

Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) also has a new-build in an overnight route and a second brand-new ship for them has just been very recently launched in Japan and one more of this type will be built for them.

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The brand-new ferry of TASLI. Photo by Jose Zeus Bade of PSSS.

The Ocean Fast Ferries which is more popularly known as Oceanjet continues to locally assemble fastcraft kits from Australia in Mandaue that started with the Oceanjet 8 in 2011. As of the moment they already have 10 own-build fastcrafts. Actually once they launch a new fastcraft, they already have another one being built. As of today they are already the biggest HSC (High Speed Craft) company in the country with more than half of its fleet acquired brand-new.

The Aboitiz shipyard in Balamban, Cebu which was taken over by Austal of Australia re-started making HSCs for local use and so far they have delivered two as part of the SuperCat fleet and one to Grand Ferries of Calbayog, the Seacat One. It seems there are still about 3 or 4 of this kind of ship that that is being built by Austal Philippines in Balamban.

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Seacat One by Mark Edelson Ocul of PSSS.

Lite Ferries also took the brand-new route when the built 4 passenger-cargo LCTs from 2012 to 2016. These were built in China and finished in Mandaue. Island Shipping also bet on passenger-cargo LCTs but all were just locally-built in Hagnaya, Cebu. They had some 5 LCTs built in this decade and 4 of these were in the last 5 years when they began dumping their old cruiser ferries. Orange Navigation which is related to Besta Shipping Lines also had three passenger-cargo LCTs built locally starting in 2014 maybe to replace the losses of the mother company.

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A new-build from China of Lite Ferries. Photo by Russell Sanchez of PSSS.

Tri-Star Megalink of Negros had 7 ferries built this decade in a shipyard in Sagay City. Their design started with passenger-cargo LCTs albeit with extended passenger accommodations. Their design evolved until the later ones looked like conventional ferries already with bridges on the bow and no longer at the stern like those in LCTs. This meant a bigger and more comfortable passenger accommodation with the vehicle deck less hot or less wet depending on the season.

In Davao, Mae Wess/CW Cole also built two LCTs to connect Davao and Samal in their own shipyard in Samal. In Albay, the RLMC Ferry also came with two new ferries to serve Rapu-rapu and Batan islands.

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A new-build ferry of Mae Wess. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

And, in the past two years two new HSC companies came into being. Lucio Tan established a HSC company, the Mabuhay Maritime Express to ferry Philippine Airline (PAL) passengers from Kalibo to Boracay utilizing two beautiful catamarans. The other one was Island Water, a subsidiary of Shogun Shipping, a tanker company. This new company acquired 7 HSCs from Jianlong Shipbuilding of China. With such fast expansion their problem now is lack of viable routes. Shogun Shipping also contracted for 4 new ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships)and the first was already completed while three are still being built.

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A brand-new cat of Island Water from Jianlong Shipbuilding. Photo by Mark Ocul of PSSS.

Last but not least, Jomalia Shipping also ordered a brand-new HSC from Jianlong Shipbuilding, the Maica 5.

As of my count, there are now over 40 ferries of various types that have arrived in the last half of this decade and more are definitely coming. I have not seen or have known a rate of new-builds arriving in the country at this rate. And this does not even include more than two dozen brand-new LCTs for Cargo RORO LCT use. Those will ferry vehicles across short sea distances or container vans from Manila to the Visayas and Mindanao like what Ocean Transport does.

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A Cargo RORO LCT of Ocean Transport. Photo by John Carlos Cabanillas.

Liners, when they come have more impact in the imagination of the people. But their time has come and gone and we should acknowledge that the intermodal is already catching up with the container ships and the express container service of the liners. That is why these new-builds are mainly serving short-distance routes. The growth is already there.

I am glad that I was wrong when I thought our shipping doldrums will continue for a long time. I now look forward to more new ships coming into our seas.

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The Biggest Shipping Company Based in Mindanao (Part 2)

If the Aleson Shipping Lines was investing in ferries, it was also investing in cargo ships matching what the No. 1 shipping company then of Mindanao, the Sampaguita Shipping Corporation was doing. Maybe there was a need for Aleson Shipping to move and push their own cargo as they are traders and distributors after all. Additionally, in Western Mindanao and the islands (this refers to the Tawi-tawi group, Sulu, Basilan and the associated small islands)  the barter goods trade was strong then, the reason why Zamboanga ships reached as far as Singapore like the cargo ships then of the Aleson Shipping. In those times there was wide leeway for trading in the southern backdoor because then-President Marcos wanted to blow steam from the Muslim rebellion support by letting leading Muslim clans earn from these trading activities. And another reason is that the rice trade of Western Mindanao and the islands is also strong as the region is a rice-deficit area and rice from even outside the country is being in and traded.

The next ship actually acquired by Aleson Shipping Lines after their first ferry Estrella del Mar was the freighter Aleson or Aleson I which supported the commercial activity of Aleson Trading, the business arm of the Tan family which are actually regional distributor of goods. This cargo ship ranged as far as Singapore using the southern backdoor when there was no BIMP-EAGA concept yet.

Along the way, Aleson Shipping Lines acquired other small general-purpose cargo ships before the their acquisition of the Aleson Con Carrier (ACC) series of ships which are mainly containerized (the first cargo ships were not containerized and the company was not yet then in container shipping). Among these early are the Honduras, Honor and Alexander which mainly sailed as trampers and that means they have no fixed routes or schedules. These early freighters of Aleson Shipping are all gone now, disposed when the Aleson Con Carrier series began expanding and the company began to stress container shipping.

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Honduras. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

However, the company knew they cannot stand still especially when they have already disposed of some crafts and so they went back to the mode of acquiring a vessel each year using the profit in the operations of the fleet. And so in 2002, they purchased the first Ciara Joie. This vessel is a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO including in the form (single passenger deck, bow ramps) although its length already touched 40 meters at 40.8 meters (there are only a few vessels of this type that reach 40 meters in length). The first Ciara Joie was built by the Kawamoto Zosensho in Higashino, Japan in 1982. This ferry was first known as the Habu Maru No. 15 and she has the permanent ID IMO 8221129. The engine of the ship was small with only 700 horsepower on tap from her single Daihatsu marine engine. This first Ciara Joie was used by the Aleson Shipping in its expansion Bacolod-Iloilo route. Unluckily, she did not live long because in 2003, after only a year of sailing, she became unbalanced while handling cargo and she capsized right in BREDCO port in Bacolod City and was lost.

In 2003, Aleson Shipping Lines decided to join the fastcraft (FC) race and so the company acquired the Sea Jet which is however propelled by screws. This craft was acquired brand-new and she was built by the Far East Shipyard Co. in Sibu, Sarawak, Malaysia. The vessel follows the Malaysian riverboat design and she has a length of 38.7 meters. But then like most Malaysia-built fastcrafts she has no IMO Number. Powered by two Mitsubishi engines of 3,200 horsepower total, this fastcraft has a sustained top speed of 30 knots when new making her a true High Speed Craft (HSC). Later, Sea Jet was brought to Cebu (from Sibu to Cebu, pun intended) when fastcrafts lost favor in Western Mindanao but now she is back in Zamboanga again. This is the only High Speed Craft (HSC) ever purchased by the company and maybe it was good Aleson Shipping did not purchase many fastcrafts as the Malaysian fastcrafts really did not come to be favorites of most of the sailing public.

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Sea Jet. Photo by Albritz Salih of PSSS.

The next year, in 2004, the Aleson Shipping Lines purchased the Kristel Jane 3. This vessel was the former Ferry Izena of the Izena Ferry of Japan. Izena is an island in the Okinawa Prefecture of Japan and this island chain is known for high waves and maybe this is the reason why this ferry has high sides which means the Depth is high. The vessel was built by the Usuki Shipyard Co. in Usuki, Japan in 1983 and she has the permanent ID of IMO 8313489. The Kristel Jane 3 is not that big at 57.3 meters in length which means she is medium-sized for an overnight ferry and she has one-and-a half passenger decks only, a little smaller than most common in our overnight ferries which have two passenger decks. However, she looks tall because of the ship’s high sides. As an overnight ferry equipped with bunks, the passenger capacity is 512 persons which is about the average of her counterparts in Cebu. When still new her maximum speed was rather high at 16 knots because she has a total of 3,240 horsepower from a pair of Niigata engines.

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Photo by Albritz Salih of PSSS

Aleson Shipping Lines did not purchase a ship in 2005 but in 2006 they acquired the Trisha Kerstin 1. In Japan this ferry was known as the Wakashio of the Shodoshima Ferry which serves the Shodo Island in the Inland Sea of Japan. She was built in 1986 by Fujiwara Shipbuilding in Omishima, Japan and she possessed the permanent ID IMO 8608509. This is not a big ship at only 43.8 meters length and only onepassenger deck. She is almost like a basic, short-distance RORO equipped with seats and with the usual single bow ramp that also serves as the ingress and of passengers. Underpowered with only 1,300 horsepower from her single Yanmar engine, her design speed was only at 12.5 knots but that is better than the average basic, short-distance ferry-RORO. Her passenger capacity is rather high at 695 persons (sometimes I take the ratio of the passenger capacity to the engine horsepower and the higher the decimal means it should be more profitable, theoretically, at least on the passenger side).

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Photo by Albritz Salih of PSSS.

In 2007, the company acquired a replacement for the capsized first Ciara Joie and gave her the same exact name which produced confusion to many. This second Ciara Joie is also a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO with the classical design of that type. This ship was built in 1979 which means she was even older than the ferry she replaced (however, she proved to be very sturdy and reliable as she is running well until now). The builder is Imamura Shipbuilding Co. in Kure, Japan and her name in Japan was the Kamagiri No. 3. Her IMO Number is 7824778 and her length is 38.2 meters, among the bigger of basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. This second Ciara Joie is equipped with a single 900-horsepower Daihatsu engine which gave her a sustained speed of 10 knots (well that is still her top speed). She was used by Aleson Shipping Lines in opening their new Dapitan-Dumaguete route which was a new route then under the Strong Republic Nautical Highway (SRNH) of then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The route is again a new route for Aleson Shipping not using Zamboanga as a base. This time, however, their off-base route stuck and they are still serving the route (and it even extended to Siquijor later).

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Photo by Mark Edelson Ocul of PSSS.

The next year of 2008, Aleson Shipping Lines acquired another ferry from Japan. This was the former Geiyo of Takehara Namikatakan which became the Trisha Kerstin 2 in the fleet of the company. This ferry was built by Fujiwara Shipbuilding in Omishima, Japan in 1989 and her permanent ID is IMO 8824373. When she was acquired she became the youngest ship in the company by Date Of Build (DOB) with the exception of the the fastcraft Sea Jet which was acquired new. This ferry has two passenger decks and was refitted to be an overnight ferry equipped with bunks. She has a length of 59.5 meters which is almost equal to the Kristel Jane 3. Like the Danica Joy and the Stephanie Marie the ship has box-like structure covering the car deck at the bow area and that is actually an additional protective structure for the ship. The Trisha Kerstin 2 has a top speed of 14.5 knots when new from a two Daihatsu engines developing 3,000 horsepower, combined. The sister ship of the Trisha Kerstin 2  in the country is the Reina de los Angeles of Marina Ferries, the legal-fiction company of Montenegro Shipping Lines, Inc. (MSLI).

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Trisha Kerstin 2 by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

In 2009, Aleson Shipping Lines tried a new type of ship, a Medium Speed Craft (MSC) which resembles a High Speed Craft and so many were fooled at the start thinking she was a fast ferry. This craft was the former Victoria in Japan which became the Anika Gayle 1 in the company. The ferry is small with just a Gross Tonnage of 86 and actually she is slow as she has only one engine and just runs at 12 knots when new. She was acquired by Aleson Shipping as a small day ferry for Basilan passengers with no cars to load and was designed to compete with the successful Bounty Ferry of Evenesser Shipping (which is gone now) which had good seats and like Anika Gayle 1 did not carry cars. This ferry which its unique cropped bow is basically an air-conditioned vessel unlike her competitor which has more Economy seats than Tourist seats. This vessel was built in 1992 and she has no IMO Number. Her sister ships in the country is the Anika Gayle 2 and the Leopards Dos (the former Anstephen). The Anika Gayle 1 has a passenger capacity of 336.

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Anika Gayle 1 by Mike Baylon.

Come the succeeding year, 2010, the former Camellia 2 of Kure Matsuyama Ferry of Japan came to Aleson Shipping Lines. She was actually first acquired by DBP Leasing Corporation, a government corporation that leases ships and she was briefly known as DLC RORO I. In the fleet of Aleson Shipping she became the Trisha Kerstin 3 and she was refitted as an overnight ferry with bunks on two decks. This ferry was built by the Wakamatsu Shipbuilding in Kitakyushu, Japan in 1995 (and so she is much newer than Trisha Kerstin 2) with the IMO Number 9125516. She also has a box-like structure in the bow but in length she is a little short at just 47.9 meters. The power plant of Trisha Kerstin 3  is also a little small with only 2,600 horsepower from two Daihatsu marine engines. However, she has decent speed for her size at 14 knots unlike the Nikel Princely (the Trisha Kerstin 3 was her replacement ship). The Trisha Kerstin 3 has a sister ship in the country, the Reina de Luna of Marina Ferries which was the former Virgen de Penafrancia VII of the Starhorse Shipping Lines (and also as DLC RORO II and VG RORO I before).

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Trisha Kerstin 3 by Mark Edelson Ocul of PSSS.

The particular size of ferries with bunks for 500+ persons in two passenger decks was used by Aleson Shipping Lines in the farther overnight routes to Jolo, Sulu and Bongao, Tawi-tawi. Among these are the Trisha Kerstin 2, Kristel Jane 3, Danica Joy 2, Trisha Kerstin 3 and the Danica Joy (before she was shunted into the Dapitan-Dumaguete route with the arrival of more ferries). With this line-up of five ships of this type (and earlier with the displaced Nikel Princely as reserve ship), Aleson Shipping Lines was now capable of nightly trips to Jolo and Bongao even if the ships don’t sail on their 7th day because one of the five, the Sandakan ship is capable of sailing the 7th day to Jolo. Well, even before this set was completed Aleson Shipping was already able of doing this when their liners were still around. But this time the size of their ships for the overnight routes was just perfect, not to big nor too small.

Meanwhile, on the Basilan front Aleson Shipping Lines also had enough ships already for the two destinations of Isabela City and Lamitan City. The company still had their old Estrella del Mar, the Neveen, the Anika Gayle and the big Stephanie Marie which dominated the rolling cargo to the island (an understatement because at that time there was no other RORO ship to Basilan) and the four was sufficient to fend off all the challengers in this area as being a short route of just about an hour and a half, all can do two round trips in a day.

This development was a watershed for the company. With that and with the earlier collapse of Sampaguita Shipping Corp., the Aleson Shipping Lines began dominating the important Western Mindanao (the context is geographical and not the political subdivision) routes to Basilan, Jolo and Bongao which all represented provincial capitals. All was left to their competition were the secondary routes to Sibutu, Siasi, Olutanga and Margosatubig. Gone already were the routes to Pagadian. Malangas and the “3S” (Sibuco, Sirawai, Siocon towns in Zamboanga del Norte). The first and third lost to the buses and trucks while the second lost to rampant piracy and brigandage (well, its buses and trucks also lost to brigandage and stopped rolling to the town). That is probably the situation why the remaining main competitors of the company, the Magnolia Shipping Corporation and Ever Lines did not grow anymore. And that was probably also the reason why the KST (Kong San Teo) Shipping Lines, the reborn SKT Shipping Corporation collapsed again.

To complete the round-up, Aleson Shipping Lines lost three basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs in their failed Visayas and Luzon expansion, the Alex Craig, the first Ciara Joie and the Kristel Jane 2. They sent ships (one and then two) to the new but successful Dapitan-Dumaguete route (mainly the second Ciara Joie and the Danica Joy). Still they had enough passenger ships to dominate the primary Western Mindanao shipping routes. And to think that at the same time they also have many cargo ships already which I will discuss in “Part 3” of this article. That was how big and great Aleson Shipping Line was way back in 2010. And yet, ironically, they were practically unknown outside Western Mindanao. Now, if anyone was expecting that Aleson Shipping Lines will rest on its laurels, they will be in for a surprise — the acquisitions of this company even accelerated this decade, enough for them to overtake the bigger Cebu overnight ferries. Even me was among those surprised.

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Photo by Albritz Salih of PSSS.

Not content with this line-up, in 2011 Aleson Shipping Lines acquired the former Daito of Daito Kaiun, a ferry to a small island in the Okinawa chain of islands. This ferry was eventually used initially in the Jolo route after refitting but the difference is this vessel is not a RORO ship but a is cruiser ship with a transom stern (well, actually there is not much rolling cargo to Jolo; a RORO ship is easier to load and unload, however). The Daito became the Lady Mary Joy 3 in the Aleson fleet. She is rather long at 73.0 meters but not being a RORO ship her Beam is smaller. However, she is rather fast at 17 knots when new as she is powered by twin Niigata engines with a total of 4,000 horsepower. This vessel was built by Yamanaka Shipbuilding Co. in Namitaka, Japan in 1990 and she possesses the ID IMO 9006760. She is an overnight ferry-cruiser and to increase her passenger capacity part of the cargo deck was converted into a Tourist accommodations. However, most of her Japan passenger accommodations were retained including the passenger lounge. And for the Economy class, accommodations were built at the stern of the ferry. Now her passenger capacity is about 500 persons.

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Ciara Joie 2 by Albritz Salih.

In 2012, the company bought not one but two small ferries. This was meant to strengthen their Dapitan and Basilan routes as their long routes (Jolo and Bongao) already had enough ferries already by then. One that came to the company was the Ciara Joie 2 which is a sister ship of the second Ciara Joie. In Japan, she was known as the Kamagiri No. 7 indicating she and her sister ship came from same shipping company. On the other hand, the Ciara Joie 2 was built later, in 1982, but by the same shipbuilder and yard (Imamura Shipbuiding Co. in Kure, Japan). In length though she is a little shorter at 36.1 meters and thus her Gross Tonnage and Net Tonnage are smaller. Quizzically, her passenger capacity is much larger than her sister ship at 386 persons. Her engine is a little smaller too at 750 horsepower, not a Daihatsu like the second Ciara Joie but a Niigata. At any rate, they have the same top speed of 10 knots. On the outside the two sister ships look very similar thus she also has the structure of a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO.

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Anika Gayle 2 by Albritz Salih of PSSS.

What Aleson Shipping Lines purchased in 2012 was actually a pair of sister ships as the other small ship acquired was the Anika Gayle 2, the sister ship of the earlier Anika Gayle 1. One difference of the two is this craft has no chopped bow but she is a true Medium Speed Craft (MSC) with 17 knots maximum sustained speed when still new. The reason for this is she has twin engines and screws compared to the single engine and screw of her sister ship. In Japan, she was known as the Yamabiko. However, this MSC was built earlier than the sister as she was built in 1990. Anika Gayle 2 has a length of just 27.1 meters and the Gross Tonnage is 116. That shows she is a little bigger than Anika Gayle 1 but her passenger capacity is smaller at 235 passengers. Like the Anika Gayle 1, she is basically an air-conditioned vessel. The two both look beautiful and impressive.

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Lady Mary Joy 1 by Petersen Lim of PSSS.

In a further expansion mood the company acquired another cruiser in 2013 which was meant to challenge remaining major competitors Magnolia Shipping Corporation and Ever Lines in their remaining stronghold of Siasi. The vessel is the Funakawa Maru which is a converted fishing vessel and thus not a RORO ship but a cruiser. In the Aleson fleet she became the Lady Mary Joy 1, a nomenclature that will bring confusion to some since there was a previous Lady Mary Joy without a number and this usually indicates the first in a series. This vessel was built by the Niigata Shipbuiding & Repair, Inc. in Niigata, Japan in 1994 and she has the IMO Number 9088081. Her Length Over-all is 57.0 meters, about the length of the Aleson ferries to its longer routes of Jolo and Bongao. She is built too as an overnight ferry and she has two passenger decks with a cargo boom at the bow. The Lady Mary Joy 1 has a design speed of 13.5 knots from her single Niigata engine of 1,800 horsepower.

If Aleson Shipping Lines was adding one ferry per year, the year 2014 was again a big acquisition year for them when the company acquired multiple ferries like in 1994 and 1998. In this year Aleson acquired two basic, short-distance ferry-ROROS, the Ciara Joie 3 and the Ciara Joie 5 to further consolidate their Basilan (and especially the Lamitan route which is growing fast) and the routes from Dumaguete which soon extended to Siquijor. Aleson Shipping Lines also acquired the Stephanie Marie 2, a 50-meter class RORO ship. So if anybody will think the Lite Ferries of Cebu is the champion in adding ships in the current decade (Montenegro Lines vacated their title of that last decade when someone left Malacanang), well, there might be a need for a count-off between them and Aleson Shipping Lines. One edge though of the latter is they have plenty of small cargo/container ships.

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Photo by Albritz Salih of PSSS.

The Ciara Joie 3 was the former Ferry Yumutsu of the Miyako Ferry KK, an intra-Okinawa ferry company in Japan. She is a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO built in 1995 by the Izutsu Shipyard Co., a small shipbuilder known for building small ships in Nagasaki, Japan. This vessel with the IMO Number 9118862 has a Registered Length (RL) of 33.0 meters with a Beam of 9.5 meters and a Gross Tonnage of 191. One thing I noticed about this craft is its very low DWT (Deadweight Tons) which means she is not really designed for carrying trucks. The Ciara Joie 3 is capable of 10 knots, the normal speed for this type of ferry.

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Photo by Albritz Salih of PSSS.

Meanwhile, the Ciara Joie 5 was the former Kofuji No. 8 in Japan. She was built by Imamura Shipbuilding Company in Kure, Japan in 1987 with the permanent ship ID IMO 8615734. But although older in Date of Build she looks more modern and impressive (maybe because of her structure that looks muscular and aggressive) than the Ciara Joie 3 (which looks thin and lightweight) and she is slightly bigger with a length is 36.3 meters. One notable metric of the ferry is her Beam of 10.5 inches which is larger than usual for her size and so she looks bigger than she actually is. She is capable of 11 knots from her single Daihatsu marine engine of 1,000 horsepower. The Ciara Joie 5 is a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO with seats for passengers that are mainly original with a few additions at the stern. She does the Basilan route for Aleson Shipping through the port of Lamitan.

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Stephanie Marie 2 by Albritz Salih.

The Stephanie Marie 2 is almost like the earlier Stephanie Marie in size and is also refitted as a short-distance ferry with seats. Like her namesake, this ferry also has a Tourist accommodation built on the former lounge of the ship and thus tables and seats like in a lounge are still present. But the better part of the ship consists of Economy sections with seats and one noteworthy data on this ship is the passenger capacity of 1,073 persons and so in the fleet of Aleson Shipping she is now the ferry with the highest passenger capacity (but not the ship with the highest capacity ever because that distinction belongs to the liner Lady Mary Joy 2).  The Stephanie Marie 2 was built as the ferry Otagawa by the Kanda Shipbuiding Co. in Japan in 1986 with the IMO Number 8602062. She first went abroad to South Korea and became the Onbada 1 in 2000. Later, in 2008, she went to Hanil Express Co. (a company that has already sent a few ships in the Philippines) as the Hanil Carferry No. 3.  The Stephanie Marie 2 has a length of 55.9 meters and her permanent ID is IMO 860206. Like the Stephanie Marie, she has a box-like structure at the bow.  Her design speed is 15.5 knots from two Daihatsu marine engines.  And like her namesake she was also fielded in the Basilan route.

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Photo by Britz Salih of PSSS.

In 2015, Aleson Shipping Lines did not acquire any ferry but to make up for that they purchased two ferries in 2016. These are the Antonia 1 and the Kristel Jane 5 and neither of the two are basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. The first of the two to be acquired was the Kristel Jane 5 which was first named as the Lady Mary Joy 4 (and maybe she was renamed as “4” is supposed to be “unlucky” in Chinese belief). The Kristel Jane 5 was built by Yamanaka Shipbuilding Co. in Namitaka, Japan in 1998 and she was given the permanent ID IMO 9199505. She was initially known as the Ferry Zamima owned by a city in Okinawa prefecture. This ferry is 61.0 meters in Length Over-all and in refitting a passenger deck with seats was added (visually that made her seem a little short for her actual length) and now she has two passenger decks. The Kristel Jane 5, a short-distance ferry-RORO is a speedy ship for her size at 17 knots top speed and that comes from a pair of Niigata engines with a total of 4,000 horsepower. This vessel has all the modern navigational and safety devices that can be required for a coastal ship of her size.

The other ship purchased by Aleson Shipping Lines in 2016 was the Antonia 1. This was an unusual purchase for the company as this was a former Vehicle Carrier, the first time they purchased such a type of ship (and probably there were only a dozen times we ever purchased a former Vehicle Carrier for conversion into a passenger-cargo RORO ship and that started with the third Don Carlos of Sulpicio Lines in 1977). Vehicle Carriers that are not ocean-going are usually big for regional operations. These are usually tall with high sides but powered with one engine only and that is what Antonia 1 is. This vessel is 103.6 meters in length with a Depth of 11.5 meters which indicates how high her sides is. As such she is now the biggest ferry in the fleet of Aleson Shipping and her declared Gross Tonnage of 3,471 is probably accurate (and that is even higher than the GT of the liner Lady Mary Joy 2). She was acquired by the company to serve their Sandakan route where a big cargo capacity might be needed depending on the political climate (she wouldn’t be oversized if and when unimpeded rice importation is finally allowed). The Antonia 1 started life as the Ariake Maru No. 18 of the Daisan Kaiun KK of Tokyo, Japan. She was built by Honda Shipbuilding Co. in Saiki, Japan. She is powered by a single Akasaka-Mitsubishi engine with 4,000 horsepower and her top speed when new was 15 knots. Of course, she is provided with bunks on the passenger accommodations that were hacked out of a former vehicle deck and metal was chopped from her sides to provide ventilation and viewing decks.

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Antonia 1 by Britz Salih.

The Ciara Joie 6 was acquired by Aleson Shipping Lines just two months after the arrival of the Kristel Jane 5 and so actually the company purchased three ships in a period of just three months, another acquisition burst for the company and maybe that is also part of the reason why they did not purchaser any ferry in 2018. The Ciara Joie 6 is another basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the fifth in the current fleet of the company. This ferry was built by Kawamoto Zosensho in Higashino, Japan in the year 1981 for the Mihara Sea Land Transport as the Kohun Maru (also spelled as Koun Maru) and she carries the permanent ID IMO 8035829. Later, she was owned by the Osaki Kisen Company, Ltd. This ferry is rather fast for a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO as she can do 11.5 knots when new. And the curious thing is her power plant is only a single 900-horsepower marine engine (actually the transmission matters too). And the length of this ferry is a little remarkable as she hit the 40-meter mark at 40.8 meters. Ciara Joie 6 arrived in the country in a little battered state being an old ferry already but Aleson Shipping refurbished her. But like in most short-distance ferry-ROROs the superstructure is no longer changed.

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Photo by Khrayl Mangiliman.

The last ferry acquired by Aleson Shipping Lines was the Ciara Joie 7,  a passenger-cargo LCT (Landing Craft Transport) acquired second-hand from South Korea in 2017, the first time the company acquired a ferry from that country. The vessel has no IMO Number (South Korea as well as China and the Philippines are not too fond of that) but she can be identified through AIS (Automatic Identification System), the transponder of ships. Vessels with AIS are identified by their MMSI Number and Ciara Joie 7‘s Number is 548154500 and so she can be always checked in her assigned Dumaguete-Dapitan route. This Korean-designed LCT was built in a South Korean yard and she was formerly known as the Bo Seong 3 and as the Se Jong No. 3. Korean-designed LCTs usually aren’t flat bottomed and some even have bulbous stems. The dimensions of the vessel is 51 meters by 13 meters in Length x Breadth. The design speed of Ciara Joie 7 was 10.5 knots but she is now struggling in speed with just an average of 7.5 knots currently and so unfortunately she is outgunned by the competition in that department (well, LCTs are outgunned in speed by conventional RORO ships as they are not built for speed).

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Ciara Joie 7 by Albritz Salih.

I can surmise of two reasons why Aleson Shipping Lines has a pause in their acquisition of ferries (and also container ships for that matter). One is they already have enough vessels at of the moment and they are not dispatching their old ferries as those are still reliable. They have a total of 20 ferries as of the moment (April 2019) and unless they expand to other routes they will have no good use for more ferries. And expansion of routes, should they go for it will mean competing out of their Zamboanga base but it might not be in the Damaguete-Dapitan and Dumaguete-Siquijor routes as those routes are already getting saturated (and they have four ships there already). If ever, the company might have now probe for other routes and that has a bearing for the second reason why the company is not expanding at the moment.

The second probable reason is Aleson Shipping Lines now has new competitors in their own turf of Zamboanga,. Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) “invaded” their home grounds and did the prime Zamboanga-Jolo route. Recently that company from Batangas even added a second ship to the route so it now has a nightly voyage like Aleson Shipping. Aside from Montenegro Lines there is also a new competitor in the route in the form of Theresian Stars (this is a shipping company and not the active ferry with the same name) which fielded the Asian Stars II which was the formerly the Filipinas Surigao and the Sacred Stars in Cebu. It’s impossible that these new ships in the route is not giving pressure or pause to Aleson Shipping and actually the company should take this threat to them seriously. Will Aleson go for a tit-or-tat and expand to other places in the country? Now, that remains to be seen.

 

(To be continued….)

Do the Sinkings of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and MS Estonia Have Any Bearing On Us?

The two named incidents are among the most famous in the maritime world when RORO or ROPAX accidents are mentioned and discussed. The two cases have been used in many times to highlight the weakness of ROROs compared to conventional freighters which feature watertight compartments which the ROROs are sorely lacking (watertight compartments prevent ingress of water in case of a hull breach). Moreover, the two incidents have been used as rationales for RORO design changes and reforms in safety policies.

From “The Express” of UK

The MS Herald of Free Enterprise was a 131.9-meter ferry built in 1980 then sailing from Belgium to England. She sailed on a night of March 6, 1987 but the deck crew forgot to close the bow door and this door was not visible from the bridge and there was no CCTV to check that. When the ship reached cruising speed the sea entered the deck in great quantity which produced what is called the “free surface effect” which in this particular case was sea water sloshing within the hull that destroyed her stability causing her to capsize. That happened just minutes after leaving the port of Zeebrugge.

The MS Estonia was a 157.0-meter ferry built in 1979 then sailing from Estonia to Sweden. She sailed one night on September 28, 1994 on stormy seas of winds of 55 to 75 kilometers per hour which was considered normal in the part of the Baltic Sea in that part of the year. The significant wave height of the sea was estimated to be from 13 to 20 feet. On that particular night the visor bow door of the failed and it dragged the bow ramp of the ship. The visor door was not visible from the bridge. Water then entered the ship in great quantity and flooded the vehicle deck of the RORO and the free surface effect caused her to capsize much like what happened to the MS Herald of Free Enterprise.

From “The Local” of Sweden

These two grievious sinkings upset the ROPAX world causing changes in RORO designs like the recommendation that instead of having a bow ramp it is better for the ROROs to just have front quarter ramps where the blow from the waves will not be in great force. There was also the suggestion that front ramp mechanisms be done away completely and it seems this might already been adopted at least in principle. One effect is the sealing of bow ramps on some ships that have this feature. And the visor bow door was almost completely gone in RORO designs because of the MS Estonia incident as the thinking that it was an unsafe design (the hinges bear the whole weight of the visor door which are heavy).

But do these twin sinkings have any bearing on us, the Philippines, where a lot of ROROs especially the small ones have active bow ramps? All our basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs just have one ramp and this is located at the bow of the ship. Even the next size of ferries to the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs, those that are over 40 meters in length and have a passenger deck of more than one also commonly feature an active bow ramp (I am comparing this to ROROs that have bow and stern ramps but the bow ramp is not actively used or is permanently closed). And then all our LCTs and many of these are in passenger-cargo application also have just one ramp and the specific feature of LCTs is all of those just have one ramp and it is at the bow.

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The quarter-front ramp of the SuperFerry 18 (Photo by Jonathan Boonzaier)

But did any of our ferries with just one active ramp and at the bow at that ever sink like the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia? The answer is a big NO. We had sinkings of our ROROs with active bow ramps but not in the same circumstances as the sinking of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia. 

The MS Herald of Free Enterprise sank because of crew negligence and/or mistake. How would you call a ship sailing with its bow ramp and door open? Anywhere else that is plain idiocy. But here it happens commonly (LOL!). A lot of our small ROROs do not really close their ramps fully when sailing when the weather is good so that the hot car deck will have more ventilation (o ha!). That is against MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) rules of course but there are no MARINA people roaming the ports anyway. And if the bow ramps need to be completely closed that is easily checked and it is also very visible from the bridge as small RORO just have one car deck and so the bow ramp is almost line of sight with the bridge (actually if there is a problem it is that the bow ramp hampers the view of the navigation crew). Our ROROs also have a lot of crewmen and apprentices that failing to check the bow ramp is almost an impossibility and besides the Chief Mate will always be there (that high a position ha!) because he is in charge of the loading and unloading. So I say the MS Herald of Free Enterprise incident has no bearing here.

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The basic, short-distance ferry-RORO that only has a bow ramp

Our small ROROs also don’t have bow visor door like the MS Estonia. How can it be when their mechanisms are very simple? They don’t even have hydraulic three-piece ramps and winches are all that are needed to raise the ramps to close or lower it to open the ramps. So how can one thing fail when it isn’t there? Now, if there are cracks or rust-throughs in the ramp mechanism that will be visible to all including the passengers, the drivers of the cars, the truck crews, the arrastre people and the hangers-on in the port. And Coast Guard people check on the safety of the ship before departures and supposedly they are very good on that and so what is then the problem? If there is already weakening of the ramp mechanism that will easily show when a heavy truck is loaded or unloaded and all would notice that. After all we are very good in noticing things unlike the Europeans (we notice what one wears and what are the latest rumors in town).

And besides all our ships here don’t sail in gale-force seas like the MS Estonia. Here when there is what is called a tropical depression (which means winds of 45 kilometers per hour), trips are already suspended. Even if there is no storm but the wind is high and the seas are choppy the local weather agency PAGASA that does not follow international conventions will already issue a “gale warning” even if there is no gale. So how can an MS Estonia incident happen here? That is impossible already when Malacanang and MARINA got too strict in sailings in bad weather.

Morever, our small ROROs were mainly built by the Japanese and Japan-built ships were never involved in failures and sinkings like what happened to the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia. We might have salty seas that produce rust but not the frigid waters and weather that accelerate the cracks in the metal like what befell the MS Estonia. Besides if there are ramp weakenings that is repaired early (who wants to earn the ire of vehicle owners when their rig can’t get out of the RORO and the RORO can’t sail and not earn revenues?). Our shipyards are experts in that type of repair/replacement (due to the high weights of some trucks and trailers the ramps normally buckle in loading and if it is already bent enough it is sent to the shipyard for ramp replacement).

Additionally, our local crew are really good and we are even known internationally for supplying hundreds of thousands of crew in international ships. There are small ROROs whose ramps fell our while in use but no sinkings ever happened because of that. But of course nobody would report such incidents to MARINA but I vow such things actually happened. Doesn’t that speak of the quality of our crews unlike the European crews (har har!). And our code of omerta?

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An LCT (Photo by Aris Refugio)

If we had capsizings of our small ROROs with bow ramps it was not because of “free surface effect” but of unbalanced loading maybe like what happened to Baleno Nine in Verde Island Passage and the Lady of Mt. Carmel in the Burias Gap. But I thought the Philippine Ports Author (PPA) had already installed weighing stations at the entrance of the important ports and so what is the problem? Our cargo masters are also very good in estimating the weight of a truck by just looking at its wheels, if there is no weighbridge available.

If sea water entered the car deck of our small ROROs it seemed the point of entry was at the stern like what happened to the Emerald 1 which seemed to fail in a sea surge off Matuco Pt. in Batangas and the Ocean King II which seemed to be a victim of a rogue wave in Surigao Strait (both of these ships also sank in the dark like the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and MS Estonia; it seems the dark is additional danger as checking of things are more difficult). This is also what happened to British RORO Princess Victoria in 1953 when her crew can’t handle water from storm surge in the English Channel entering the car deck through the stern door and ramp. So, empirically, shouldn’t we be closing stern ramps and not the bow ramp? I mean let us be consistent and logical? We should not just copying some rules because some dumb European ships experienced failures. Let us proceed from evidence.

We also have a RORO, a half-RORO at that because she looks like a conventional cargo ship but she has a stern ramp and she had a passenger deck built atop what should be cargo deck. This was the Kalibo Star which sank in daytime on a rainy day with choppy seas in 1997. Water seeped into a hatch that the crew failed to close and “free surface effect” capsized the ship. So from evidence it seems what we really should we be closing are the stern ramps and not ROROs (well, even the capsized Princess of the Orient and Princess of the Stars were stern loading ROROs). I mean shouldn’t we proceeding from empirical evidence instead of being copycats? (Disclosure: I have a private database of over 300 Philippine ships that was lost since the end of the war which I have consulted.)

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The Samar Star, a ship similar to the lost Kalibo Star (Photo by JC Cabanillas)

Hindi tayo dapat uto-uto (we should not be like marionettes). If there is a marionette in our maritime world it might our MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency who is wont to sign all the protocols handed down by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) so as the claim “we” are “IMO-compliant” and brag as if that is an achievement. Why, we don’t even use IMO Numbers as MARINA insists on its own numbers that are not searchable anywhere else. And when former Senator Miriam asked that those protocols be submitted to the Senate for ratification the government of Noynoy flatly refused. Now it seems these signed protocols are being bandied about as if they are official, as if those have the force of law like what they do with the ISPS protocol. From what I know only our Congress can pass national laws and that was why the late Miriam was pointedly challenging MARINA then. These protocols we signed are not part of our laws, they do not have the effect of a law and if one searches there are no penal provisions attached unlike in a law.

Besides we should not be bandying some rare failures in a different land (or sea) as if they general application. In engineering, the lessons derived from a cause of failure is specific in use and is not generalized. If a bridge or a building collapsed it does not mean that all the bridges and buildings with similar designs have to be torn down or closed. If a plane of sweptback wing design crashes not all sweptback planes are banned. Is the maritime world not an engineering world too (it was not when hulls were still wooden and we have not graduated from that?). So the maritime world is not an empirical world but a world of knee jerk artists?

Rather than blindly following IMO protocols we should have our own empirical study of our ship losses so more concrete lessons can be gained.

But then I doubt if MARINA and the Philippine Coast Guard even have a complete database of our ship losses (it seems they can’t provide a list of more than 50 sinkings).

As they say, let us proceed from evidence. Let us not assume we are as dumb like some Europeans.

Was It Choking Or Indigestion For Starlite Ferries?

Almost since its establishment I tried to monitor the Starlite Ferries which was founded by Alfonso Cusi who has Mindoro origins. Starlite Ferries was easier to track since unlike her pair Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. which is related in a way to them in patronship, Starlite Ferries did not expand beyond Mindoro unlike the other one which can be found practically all over the Philippines (and so it has the distinction of being a national shipping line without being a liner company). Starlite Ferries, meanwhile, remained a short-distance ferry company and in this segment they basically carry rolling cargo or in layman’s term we call that as vehicles and passengers, of course.

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Starlite Pioneer by Raymond A. Lapus

Over the years of its existence, Starlite consistently added ferries to its fleet (although they had sales and disposals too) until they reached some 11 passenger ships in 2013, to wit, the Starlite Jupiter, Starlite Phoenix (a fastcraft), Starlite Juno (a fastcraft), Starlite Neptune, Starlite Polaris, Starlite Annapolis, Starlite Atlantic, Starlite Navigator, Starlite Ferry, Starlite Pacific and the Starlite Nautica. In their track record, aside from surplus ships acquired from Japan they were not anathema to buying the discards of other local shipping company like when the Shipshape/Safeship ferry dual ferry companies quit operations and they took over its fleet (but not the routes to Romblon). And from Cebu they got a ferry from the defunct FJP Lines which is better known as Palacio Lines. Actually, the first three ships of Starlite Ferries which are no longer existing now were from other local shipping companies.

However, over the years, what I noticed with Starlite Ferries is although their fleet is already relatively big by local standards they did not get out of the confines of Mindoro where they were just serving four routes. These are the Batangas-Calapan, Batangas-Puerto Galera, Batangas-Abra de Ilog and Roxas-Caticlan routes. The longest of this route is the last named that takes four hours of sailing time while the other routes take two to two-and-a-half hours depending on the ship. With such length of sailing time it can be gleaned that actually their 11 ferries is  a little bit over already than their need for the four routes.

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Starlite Reliance by Carl Jakosalem

So it came as a bombshell for me and many others that they will be getting 10 new ferries from Japan through a loan with a government loan window (and the first one, the Starlite Pioneer arrived in 2015). They were too proud of the coup and acquisition, of course, and they crowed about it in the media with all the jeers about the old ferries but I was skeptical. My first question is where will they put it. It is easy to apply for new routes but the approval is another matter. They do not own MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the maritime regulatory agency, it is no longer the reign of the nina bonita Maria Elena Bautista who did a lot for her patron and its pet Montenegro Lines. And I was sure the players that will be affected by their planned entry will fight tooth and nail (who wouldn’t?) and the approval process for franchises goes through public hearings anyway and if there is real opposition then it will be difficult to rig it (what are lawyers for anyway?). Getting route franchises is not as easy as getting it from a grocery shelf unless it is a missionary route which no shipping company has plied before except for motor bancas. And there is no more possibility now that a program like the “Strong Republic Nautical Highway” of Gloria which created new routes (and made it appear that old routes are “new routes”). It was the time of Noynoy when their new ferries came and Al Cusi who is identified with Gloria was out of power.

It is obvious that they can only absorb the new ferries well if they can dispose all their old ferries. But regarding the price it will be, “Are they buying or are they selling?”. That means forced selling will not gain them a good price and with the ferry structure in the country and their fleet size I am not even sure if there will be enough buyers especially when banks are averse to extending loans to shipping companies. Pinoys are averse to the breaking of still-good ships unless one’s name is starts with “A” and ends with “z” or maybe connected to 2GO (well, Negros Navigation’s case then was different as there was force majeure in it).

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Starlite Eagle by Carl Jakosalem

And they might be forced to sell their old ships if they have honor because after all the owner Al Cusi is one of the hecklers of our old ferries and pushing for their forced retirement (and the sauce for the goose should also be the sauce for the gander but then Al Cusi was not selling old ferries until his end in shipping). I thought those in government should lead by example? By 2016, with the ascension of Digong, Al Cusi was back in power and my fears of an administrative fiat to phase out old ships intensified.

Then a news item came out that they will enter the prime Ormoc route. My immediate thought was of a dogfight not only in sailing but also in the approval process of a franchise. The Ormoc route from Cebu has a lot of parallel routes competing with it (like Palompon, Baybay, Hilongos, Bato and Albuera routes) and all of them will raise a howl against the entry of an outsider especially one with good ships, naturally. I was even titillated how that will play out (it could have been a good boxing match or worse an MMA fight). But then nothing came out of that news. Well, certainly Al Cusi knows how to pick a good route, I thought, but he might have underestimated the opposition (of course, the better the route, the fiercer will be the opposition).

And then another news item was published that Starlite Ferries will go into Southeast Asia routes. Well, really? That was my thought as I had doubts again. It is Indonesia that is the most archipelagic in our region but I knew the rates there are too cheap and sometimes as ROROs there is practically no fare charged in the old ships if patrons don’t want to pay (and so I remember the problem of some of our operators in our ARMM Region where collection of fares can be a problem and rates are really so low). They wanna go there with brand-new ships, I thought? Won’t there be demand for reciprocity? Oh, well, I would welcome Indonesian ferries in our waters especially if they are liners, why not? Now, what a way of upsetting the cart, I mused. But then nothing came out of that too.

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Starlite Saturn by Raymond A. Lapus

The logical is actually to phase out his old ferries immediately as there is no way to create a bonanza of new routes given how difficult it is to secure new routes in the country and actually the situation is the feasibility of routes are limited as it is dictated by people and goods movements and not by wish, simple geography as in nearness or MARINA inducement. They can try the Pilar-Aroroy route that was validated by three titled international experts on shipping with all the feasibility study calculations but then as known by the locals it wouldn’t last and they were proven right as the route lasted only a few months (Archipelago Philippine Ferries tried it). Plus they might have to dredge Pilar port as that is shallow for their ships (the government will pass on to them their dredging responsibilities and they will be lucky to earn a thank you). MARINA has actually a lot of routes that they were promoting like the Pasacao to Burias route, the Cataingan to Maripipi route, et cetera but shipping operators not biting as they are not fools unlike some sitting in some MARINA chairs. With Starlite Ferries obliged to pay the bank amortization they cannot simply let their ships gather barnacles in Batangas Bay.

But where will he sell his old ferries? Many of the ships of Starlite Ferries are not fit to be small short-distance ferry-ROROs, the type most needed and most flexible to field (that will survive better in low-density routes) and now the problem is that is being supplanted now in many cases by the passenger-cargo LCTs and RORO Cargo LCTs which may be slow but are cheap to operate (and so many of these are arriving from China brand-new and not surplus with good terms). The reinforcements that entered San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait were actually LCTs (the former are operated by SulitFerry, a 2GO enterprise) and there are LCTs that are new arrivals in Tablas Strait that belong to Orange Navigation, a sister company of Besta Shipping.

Cebu won’t buy it as what is mainly needed there are overnight ships and generally bigger than what Starlite Ferries have. The actual direction of ferry sales is from Cebu to Batangas and not the other way around. It is also hard to sell the Starlite ferries to Zamboanga as only one shipping line has the capability there to buy (Aleson Shipping Line) and they have enough ships already and they can afford to buy direct from Japan. It won’t be Manila as there are no more overnight ships there remaining to Mindoro and Romblon (Starlite Ferries helped sank Moreta Shipping Lines, MBRS Lines and its successor Romblon Shipping Lines). The operators to Coron and Cuyo are not that big and the Starlite ships are too big for those routes. It is really hard to dispose of 11 ferries unless Starlite gives it on a lay-away plan but then they have to pay the bank for their new acquisitions.

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Starlite Archer by John Edmund

I feared Al Cusi with his Malacanang clout and political clout (he is vice-president of the ruling party now) will resort to administrative fiat through the Department of Transportation. But that will be bloody and when the old operators feared something was afoot with the Tugade trial balloons they were ready with deep questions like if there is a study that shows old ferries are unsafe (good question) and MARINA was put on the defensive. These old operators are not patsies, they can hire good lawyers and they have congressmen as padrinos that Tugade and Cusi cannot just push around.

And so came the announcement that there will be no phase-out of old ferries (which is nonsense anyway as phase-out should be based on technical evaluations and not on age). It seems that was a big blow to Starlite Ferries which by that time was already shouldering the burden and amortizing five new ferries with five more on the pipeline and their old ferries still around and unsold (their other new ferries are Starlite Reliance, Starlite Eagle, Starlite Saturn and Starlite Archer). Trying to force their old ferries in some near routes might just mean competing with their sister Montenegro Lines and their shared patron saint will look askance to that.

I guess the financial burden of the new ships were getting heavier by the day for Starlite Ferries. With a surplus of ferries they were even able to send Starlite Annapolis to Mandaue just to get some new engines if what I heard was true. There is really no way to cram 15 ferries (as Starlite Atlantic was lost maneuvering in a typhoon) in just four short-distance routes. I just don’t know, should have they converted some of their new ships into overnight ferries and competed in the longer Batangas to Caticlan route? But the accommodations of the former Cebu Ferries ship of 2GO are superior to them. How about the Batangas to Roxas City route that is irregularly served by Asian Marine Transport Corporation?

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The most senior now in the fleet of Starlite Ferries

But instead of fighting to resolve their problem, Al Cusi took the easy way and sold out. Well, it is never easy to finance five new ferries with five more still on the way with no new routes coming. They might drown in debt and default. Or end up just helping the bank make their living (in Tagalog, “ipinaghahanapbuhay na lang ang bangko”).

I wonder why Al Cusi did not just get two or three units for testing and evaluation and proceed slowly. With that they might have known with less pain and pressure that although their ferries are new it does not have a technological edge nor an advance over the old ferries unlike the new FastCats. They knew already that intermodal vehicles are mainly locked like the Dimple Star buses are locked to them and so newness of the ship will not easily sell and not even to private car owners whose main concern is what RORO is leaving first (and that is also the main concern of the passengers who do not even have a free choice if they are bus passengers).

It looks to me the 10 new ROROS ordered by Starlite Ferries was a simple case of indigestion or worse a choking. It looks like more of the latter and so Al Cusi spit it out and settled for a half billion pesos as consolation for the sale of Starlite Ferries to the Udenna group, the new hotshot in shipping which also owns Trans-Asia Shipping Lines of Cebu now. That might be a good decision for Udenna as their Trans-Asia Shipping Lines lacks ferries now whereas Starlite Ferries has a surplus and so it might be a good match. Converting the ships into overnight ferries is not difficult nor would it cost much although the ships of Starlite Ferries is a little small than what Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was accustomed to (but then it is also possible to lengthen the upcoming ferries).

Now I don’t really know exactly where Starlite Ferries is headed and it will not be as easy to guess that but in all likelihood a Starlite and Trans-Asia marriage might work out especially since the Udenna group has the money to smoothen out the kinks.

Nice experiment but it seems the 10 new ships was too much for Starlite Ferries to chew.

When Liners Were Still Small and Short-legged

After World War II and for a generation after, the Philippines had so many small and short-legged liners. This was dictated by the situation that when the United States replaced our merchant fleet that was destroyed in World War II as was their promise (since they requisitioned our passenger ships then and the others were ordered destroyed to prevent falling into enemy hands), the replacement they gave were mainly small ships that were not even ferries in the first place. Because of that we had very few big liners in the first two decades after the war. The bulk of our liner fleet then consisted of the small ex-”FS” cargo ships of World War II and the many and even smaller ex-”F” cargo ships, many of which were lengthened like the ex-”FS” ships to increase passenger and cargo capacity. Aside from those two types we also had a few ex-”Y” ships, former tankers which were a little smaller than but related to the ex-”FS” ships plus some “liners” converted from minesweepers and PT boats (can you imagine that?). Conversion to ferries of those were the shipping thing after the war much like the conversion of former Army jeeps of the US Army into the “jeepneys” which became a Filipino thing.

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An example of a converted ex-“FS” ship.  Credits to Gorio Belen and Evening News

The term “liners” here is liberally used to describe the multi-day ships then which had more or less definite schedules for departures of arrivals (they were never very prompt then for various reason but they have published estimated times of departures and arrivals). In general, being small they are of no match in terms of accommodations, comfort and amenities to the liners of the past two or three decades and almost all of them did not possess air-conditioning and some are practically single-class ships and just divided into upper deck and lower deck. Thus, they were really different from the luxury liners we take for granted now.

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A converted and lengthened ex-“F” ship. Credits to Manila Bulletin and Gorio Belen

Being small and doing long routes, the small liners had many intermediate ports of call and there were several reasons for that. One is more ports of call means more passengers and cargo and during that time the country’s population was just a fifth of today’s. Another reason is a lot of localities and islands need connections to the national center which is Manila when during that time our road system was still primitive. And another reason is these ships when built were never meant to carry about three hundred passengers and that meant food, water and other provisions can run out and so the ship must be replenished along the way especially since refrigeration of the ships was limited. This was the time when a rule was instituted that passengers must come to port four hours before departure time (and then suffer more wait if the cargo handling is not yet finished – there are important shippers who with one call can make the ship wait for his last-minute cargo). A reason for that rule is the need to make a head count of passengers and add some figure as allowance and from that calculate the provisions that must be carried by the ship. There was even a running joke that the chandler (the supplier) will only then order how many hogs and chicken must be slaughtered.

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Not an ex-“FS” ship but of the same size. Credits to The Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen.

A characteristic these small liners is the paucity of refrigeration. If there is such the capacity was not really meant for the number of passengers already being carried as a passenger-cargo ship because the ship was just a freight ship during the war with a limited number of crew. As such ice chests had to be employed so that the loaded food provisions will not spoil. But then the ship was not really big for all the supplies needed and revenue cargo is the priority in the holds and in the other cargo areas. Water is an important provision that must also be considered since not only the drinking needs of the passengers must be taken into account.

The longest single legs of these ships were from Manila to Cebu, Manila to Tacloban and Manila to Dumaguete, all of which were just short of 400 nautical miles. With a speed averaging 10 knots that meant a travel time of over one-and-a-half days which means five meals have to be served to the passengers. That transit time does not even include additional time in dodging bad weather and in hiding in coves and letting the storm pass if it is strong. But from Cebu, Tacloban or Dumaguete, these liners are still bound for Northern Mindanao or Southern Mindanao and if the final destination is Davao, it is not even half of the way yet. In fuel, however, it might not have been that much of a concern for these ships were capable of crossing long distances in the Pacific Ocean during the war (but with refueling at sea of course).

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A former minesweepers. Still on the way to Surigao and Davao before the accident. Credits to The Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen.

One advantage of being short-legged is the vessels have to call on a lot of ports along their routes. So in that time a lot of small and minor ports are being served and have connections to Manila, the national port. But maybe one had not heard now of Pulanduta port or Gigantes, Looc, Ibajay, Sangi, Anakan, Victoria, Nato, Angas, Tandoc, Mercedes, Larap, Bacuit, Araceli, Caruray, Casiguran, Carangian, Cabalian, Calubian, Kabasalan, Kolambugan, Sipalay,et cetera, when before they had connections to Manila. Aside from those ports mentioned, the liners then will also drop anchors in the various Mindoro ports, in several Panay ports, a few ports in Romblon province , in Marinduque ports, in Masbate ports too on the way to ports in the east or ports farther down south including ports of Mindanao, the so-called “Land of Promise” then to entice people to move there (but it was disaster for the natives and the Muslims as they lost their ancestral lands).

In the longest route to Davao these small liners will pass by Cebu, Tagbilaran, Dumaguete and Zamboanga ports before heading to Celebes Sea for Cotabato, Dadiangas or Davao. These might even drop by Iligan, Ozamis or Pulauan first. Using the eastern seaboard of Mindanao the liner could have already dropped anchor in Masbate, Catbalogan, Tacloban, Surigao and maybe even Mati or Bislig. Some will pass by Iloilo or Pulupandan ports and Cagayan de Misamis or Iligan ports before going to Southern Mindanao while still passing through some other ports along the way. That was one reason why Surigao was a very important port as it was a critical stop-over then (the next leg if Mati is still a long way to go and especially if it is direct Davao). When to think Surigao was very far from the size of Zamboanga City. That city also functioned as a critical stop-over like Dumaguete. In the longest route then to Davao the most number of interports called before Davao in a route was ten. It will then take over a week before the liner reach Davao and one week was the usual transit time to Davao.

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Not and ex-“FS” ship but of the same size. Credits to Evening News and Gorio Belen

If one had the inclination these long voyages with many stop-overs also afford “free tourism” since the liner will be spending many hours on the intermediate port because of the slow cargo handling then and there will be time to roam the port city (that was what my late father used to do then). The stops then were really long compared to now as the cargo was not yet containerized and only a single boom handles all the loading and unloading aside of course from the backs of the porters. On the other hand for those prone to seasickness these long voyages are simply torture especially if during the monsoons when the weather is acting up. Summer travel doesn’t afford relief, however, as there is no air-conditioning on board, in the main.

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As can be gleaned from the photo there is no air-conditioned section. An ex-“FS” ship. Credits to Gorio Belen and the newspaper.

In those days the position of the Purser was important for he decides what supplies must be purchased along the way and by how much and he has the authority how much will be charged for the cargo loaded along the way. This is the reason why this position is filled by trusted men of the shipping owner. Nowadays, liners with their available big cargo space including refrigerated container vans and freezers plus big pantries is just basically loaded now in Manila and Cebu and if there is a local purchase then it must probably just fish or some vegetables which are cheaper than in the provinces than Manila or Cebu. With strong communication, too, now the tendency is to centralize everything unlike before (there is now what is called as the “commissary”) and so the Purser of the liner, if it still exist is no longer as important as before.

There were really a lot of these small and short-legged ferries then. The biggest reason is when there were no container ships yet these passenger-cargo ships were the main carriers of cargo then, too. So, all in all, some 60 converted ex-”FS” ships sailed our seas and approximately the same number of ex-”F” ships were also sailing. Plus there maybe two dozen small ships of the other types as liners too. So the small liners of the past might be some 140 ships in total or maybe the number will even reach 150 liners. Some of those, however, were primarily used only in the regional routes. But isn’t that number amazing?

But 25 years or a generation after these small liners came and dominated the local waters the fast cruiser liners began arriving in force and it was a paradigm-changing arrival. The main selling point of these fast cruiser liners was their speed. To maximize that selling point and the utilization of the ships that meant reducing travel time to Davao to three days which means a lot of interports had to be stricken off from the routes. Being bigger too that meant the small and shallow ports (and most of which still featured wooden wharves) can no longer be served by them. And so these small ports along the way lost their connection to Manila like the ports I listed earlier which people might no longer know now but had connections to Manila before when the liners were still small and short-legged.

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A fast cruiser liner but the interports are not shortened yet. Credits to Evening News and Gorio Belen.

And then in less than a decade’s time after the fast cruiser liners began arriving another paradigm-changing shift happened in local shipping when the first local container ships appeared in our waters. These container ships have a faster turn-around time than the small and short-legged liners because like the fast cruiser liners these just called on a few interports and sometimes there is even none. With the safety and security offered by the container vans and faster cargo handling soon the death knell to the old small and short-legged liners was sounded and in a few years they were practically gone from our waters.

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The first container ship in local waters. Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen.

But if there was a sector that lost with all these advances in speed and size it has to be the small and shallow ports along the way which lost their Manila connection. Some retained their Manila connection for a time but declined in importance like Romblon, Masbate, Catbalogan, Tacloban, Surigao, Tagbilaran and Pulupandan. Those that lost their Manila connection just look and wave at the ships passing their place. As replacement, regional and sub-regional ports had to be developed like Batangas, Lucena, Pilar, Matnog and later the intermodal system linking the islands had to develop, too.

But as a whole our number of regularly-scheduled ships dropped in number because the ships got bigger and the faster ships had more total voyages in a year. Actually, even the first generation container ships were bigger than the small and short-legged liners. Now their equivalent in size are just the bigger among our intermodal short-distance ferry-ROROs which connect our near islands and is the carrier of the intermodal trucks and buses like those which cross from Batangas to Mindoro, those which cross from Mindoro to Panay, those which link the eastern seaboard of the country, those which link Bicol, Masbate and Cebu and those which link the different Visayan islands, etc.

Now only a few will remember our small and short-legged liners which dominated our seas in the first 25 years or so after the end of World War II when our merchant fleet was born again. None of it exists now even as a museum piece.

RORO Developments in Northern Cebu

In northern Cebu, easily the most busy is Hagnaya port which is so known that it even eclipses its town of San Remigio in name recall in many people. This is so because tourism to Bantayan island has really boomed as it became one of the getaways of Cebuanos. And besides the island is also known for dried fish especially danggit and table eggs which they send to their capital Cebu City.

Super Shuttle Ferry 26, Super Shuttle Ferry 3 and LCT Island II

Hagnaya port

Two shipping companies duke it out in the route to Bantayan — Island Shipping Corporation and the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (Super Shuttle Ferry). The two uses short-distance ferry-ROROs and LCTs to connect to the island. Recently, the bus company Ceres Liner started their run to the island with it loading the buses aboard the ROROs.

A new development in Hagnaya port was the recent start of the Hagnaya to Cawayan, Masbate RORO route of Island Shipping Corporation using an LCT. This is like reopening of the old route to Masbate of the motor boats of yore that also originated from Hagnaya. This new route is meant to compete with the ROROs emanating from the Polambato port of Bogo, Cebu which connect to Cawayan and Cataingan, Masbate. Whether this route will last remains to be seen because of other developments.

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New Maya port

And this development I am talking about is the nearing completion of the new Maya port at the northernmost tip of Cebu island which is part of Daanbantayan town. This a RORO port and it will have the advantage of being nearer to Masbate and hence a shorter distance will have to be traveled by the RORO. If the new route offers cheaper RORO rates then Polambato and Hagnaya ports will lose. If not, then the only advantage then of the new route might be a little bit of a shorter transit time and in experience that doesn’t matter much as a decision point for patrons. To remain in contention, maybe the competing ROROs in Polambato and Hagnaya might have to match rates with compensation for the less kilometers traveled by land from Metro Cebu, the main point of origin of the trucks.

Polambato port not only serves Masbate. Actually, it was first built as a RORO connection to Leyte island. A new development there is the recent entry of E.B. Aznar Shipping in the Bogo-Palompon route, a route badly served by Asian Marine Transport Corporation since they have long stoppages when their ferry is not capable of sailing due to mechanical troubles. With that the Ceres Liner bus to Leyte stops and truckers to northwestern Leyte and Biliran will need to find an alternative. This irregularity of service was actually alleviated when Medallion Transport started a Cebu-Palompon service using a RORO and unlike Cokaliong Shipping Lines Incorporated which anteceded them in the route, their RORO is perfectly capable of rolling cargo since it does not have chopped ramps.

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Polambato port (Photo by jaedee021)

I always wondered how come RORO shipping from northern Cebu to Leyte did not develop like the ROROs to Bantayan when the northwestern district of Leyte has five towns to the three of Bantayan island. Maybe one of the reasons is there might not be enough tourism. Regarding their agricultural produce, maybe it is supplied more to the rest of Leyte and Biliran. Bringing them across the sea to Cebu is additional expense and unless the price differential is high then there is no point in bringing it to Cebu.

There is a resort off Leyte that is slowly being famous now, the Kalanggaman island. But in development as a resort, it seems it is still a long way off that of the very well-known Malapascua island off the northernmost tip of Cebu. Speaking of this island, there are only motor bancas going there which use the old Maya port which is not a RORO port. I do not know if bigger vessels will be used to Malapascua when the new Maya port is finished but probably not since that will require an equally-capable port in the resort island.

Old Maya port

Old Maya port

In the old Maya port there is also a regular motor banca to Esperanza, Masbate. There are also motor boats from Bogo to Cawayan and Placer in Masbate. I just do not know how much those will be impacted when the new Maya port opens. Viewing it from the time the ROROs arrived, a lot of business has already been taken by the ROROs from the motor bancas especially since there is not much need now of point-to-point services to Masbate towns since the roads in Masbate have already improved a lot and so there are already more vehicles rolling.

One thing sure, the ports, the ROROs and the routes in northern Cebu are still evolving. I was anticipating before that it will serve as an alternative to Manila of the people of that part of Cebu rather than backtracking to Cebu City. However, I noticed that the connecting rides still do not mesh very well and it is obvious it is not geared to that. Moreover, there is still not that visible savings in fare. Additionally, the people there are not used to long bus rides whereas one can recline in the liner from Cebu for all they want and have free meals too and good toilets and baths.

Will there be route in the future from northern Cebu direct to the Bicol mainland via Bulan port? Once this port had a Palacio ferry from Cebu City. Or even a route to Calbayog in Samar? This route will be nearer than the one from Cebu City. Now these remain to be seen but I won’t be surprised if those materialize in the future.

Is There Enough Cargo To Move Around?

In the last few years there has been an upsurge in the ships that move cargo. First, that became noticeable with the LCTs that became ore carriers of the black sand mining in a few provinces and particularly in Surigao where opening of mines close to the sea boomed. That happened because of the sudden great demand then of metals in China.

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An aggregates carrier LCT off Taganito, Surigao

Just after the peak of that demand, a fleet of brand-new LCTs built in China appeared in north Mactan Channel. That happened when the demand for metallic ores in China was beginning to wane. And so initially those LCTs especially those owned by Broadway One Shipping and Cebu Sea Charterers were just anchored in the channel. Those LCTs were only known by their numbers but in size those were bigger than the average Philippine LCT. Generally, their powers and speeds were also higher and better.

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Row of newly-arrived LCTs in north Mactan Channel

With nowhere to go these LCTs including those owned by others but also built in China (like the Poseidon LCTs, the Meiling LCTs, those owned by Premium Megastructures Inc., Adnama Resources, etc.) became aggregates carriers and Cargo RORO LCTs and in the latter it challenged in the business then dominated by Goldenbridge Shipping which had a route from Labogon, Mandaue to Hindang, Leyte. Sand is gold in Cebu because of its construction needs and it is not readily available in the island in quantity because of its upraised sea floor origins which meant just a lot of limestone. And so sand is transported from Leyte whose land is volcanic in origin and thus there is plenty of sand and hard rock. Aggregates carrier LCTs go as far as Samar and some also go to Bohol.

The value of Cargo RORO LCTs was highlighted when the super-typhoon “Yolanda” struck and lots of trucks have to move to Leyte and long queues of truck formed in Matnog and Lipata ports and there was also a lot of needed bottoms for trucks crossing from Cebu to Leyte. The LCTs filled this need and suddenly the Cargo RORO LCT segment was here to stay. It challenged not only old LCT operators like Mandaue Transport and Simpoi Shipping but also the overnight ferry companies operating ROROs that Roble Shipping even felt the need to charter LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation (ASC), owner of many LCTs for charter. Now Cargo RORO LCTs connects many islands and it is also a viable transporter now of container vans from Manila to the Visayas and Mindanao, a mode pioneered by Ocean Transport that also started by chartering LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation before acquiring their own China-built LCTs.

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On the left is an LCT of Asian Shipping Corporation chartered by Roble Shipping

I can understand the need and value of LCTs which have proven their uses and versatility recently and that is why it is still continuing to increase in number. But in the same period I also noticed the rise in the numbers of our container ships and general-purpose cargo ships which are mainly freighters on tramper duty. In general that is a surprise for me as I know our local inter-island trade is flat and intermodal trucks have already stolen a significant portion of their cargo and that can be shown in the queue of trucks in many short-distance crossings like in the routes to Panay, the routes to Eastern Visayas and Surigao and Cargo RORO LCTs are used by these intermodal trucks along with short-distance ferry-ROROs. Cargo RORO LCTs are also used by tractor-trailers hauling container vans to serve islands where local container ships are now gone or where the service is weak or the rate expensive. Examples of these are Samar, Leyte and Bohol islands.

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A Cargo-RORO LCT

I have been contacted by a writer doing the history of Delgado Brothers or Delbros which once dominated the Manila ports and which was also involved in shipping then (it was also the first employer of my late father). Delbros happened to by one of the two dominant leasers of container vans locally together with Waterfront and they cannot resolve the problem of flat leasing for several years already and they cannot fathom the reason why. I told her the reason is simple – the intermodal trucks are stealing their business.

But in recent years I have seen our container shipping companies add and add container ships. Most remarkable is Oceanic Container Lines (OCLI) which has the most number of container ships now. Notable too is Philippine Span Asia Container Corporation (PSACC), the new name of the controversial Sulpicio Lines. Lorenzo Shipping and Solid Shipping have also added a few. There are new players which are Moreta Shipping Lines which was formerly in overnight ferries, Meridian Shipping and Seaborne Shipping and these new players are also expanding their route networks. To this might be added Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Incorporated (TASLI) which now has a container ship to Manila.

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A deck loading ship

Another notable addition is Fiesta Cargo and Logistics (this is not the exact name of the company) which operates true deck loading ships. These ships have flat decks like those in LCTs and booms for cargo handling. Aside from this and container ships, the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) also added a few RORO Cargo ships, their forte and choice of transport.

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A RORO Cargo ship

For NMC Container Lines and 2GO there was no noticeable addition although the latter have chartered container ships from Caprotec and they also charter ships from Ocean Transport (or is it Key West?). Hard to say because of the rumored split between the two. Escano/Loadstar meanwhile seems to be exhibiting a decline in their fleet.

In general-cargo ships a few companies showed newly-acquired ones and probably topping the list is Avega Brothers which from chartering ships from Asian Shipping Corporation went on a spree of acquiring trampers that though Manila in origin they regularly anchor ships now in north Mactan Channel. Medallion Transport and Roble Shipping also both acquired a significant number of freighters. Aside from the three mentioned many other shipping companies also added freighters to their fleet.

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Asian Shipping Corporation LCTs in their Mandaue port

Asian Shipping Corporation which specializes in chartering ships and operating barges aside from LCTs needs special mention because of the rate they are adding ships annually. As of last year their fleet total is nearly 200 ships already including the lowly tugs but MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) has noted that they already have the biggest fleet in the country in terms of Gross Tonnage (GT), the traditional method of comparing ship and fleet size and that they have already displaced 2GO from its old Number 1 perch. 2GO temporarily regained the top ranking with their acquisition of the liner St. Therese of Child Jesus but I wonder if they did not slide to Number 2 again with the sale of the liner St. Joan of Arc. For an operator of supposedly “lowly” ships the achievement of Asian Shipping Corporation certainly has to be lauded.

But all of these leads me to the question, “Is there enough cargo to move around?” I know many of the trampers are just carriers of cement and other construction/hardware/electrical materials that they are practically “cement carriers”. Some are “copra carriers”. And these trampers are also carrier of bagged flour of various kinds and also other bagged products like fertilizers and feeds. But our freighters seldom carry rice and corn now unlike in the past. Ditto for cassava – the volume now is small.

Is there really a significant rise in the volume of these products? Maybe in cement and related materials because of the construction boom. But I wonder about the others. Are there other products being carried now? What I know is a lot of grocery items is now carried by the intermodal trucks.

Coal might be big now because of the rise in number of our coal plants. But freighters do not carry that. Other types of fuel are carried by the tankers.

There are incentives now from the government on the acquisition of new ships and it even opened a loan window with the government-owned Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP). Are shipping companies taking advantage of that just to hoard ships?

What I know is shipping rates in the country are high if compared to other countries. That can cover low cargo volume. The most visible show of that are our container ships. Seldom will one see them full or even near that. Well, operating ships is expensive especially since MARINA exactions adds to the cost.

Whatever, newer ships are always good. I just want to see where this would lead. Lower rates? Probably not. Better service? That is hard to measure on cargo ships. More availability of ships? Maybe one can count on that.

Anyway, this article is just meant as an update on one aspect of our cargo shipping.

New Developments in Masbate Port

I had been to Masbate port twice in recent days in this month of July of 2017. The first one was when my ship Super Shuttle RORO 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) was on the way to Batangas and dropped anchor in Masbate first. The second was when I took the route via Pilar and Masbate ports on the way back to Cebu. Those two visits afforded me a chance to compare and weigh developments in Masbate port since last January of 2017 when I was also able to visit the port.

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Masbate port

The first notable thing is all works in expanding Masbate port has already been completed. The lineal distance of the port is a little longer now. On the other hand, talking of infrastructure, the Masbate port terminal building deteriorated in the same span of time as it is no longer air-conditioned and yet the dear terminal fee which is more expensive than the much better Cebu and Batangas ports remained the same when Masbate port does not even have shuttle buses and does not really have the capacity to take in all the passengers of the buses. And so it copied the Batangas port model which means bus passengers have to go down when the bus enters the port in order for them to pay the terminal fee and then board the bus again or walk to the ferry. The former is the preferred mode now.

Another new thing is Masbate port has an X-ray machine now for the baggage but it is not operational yet. Another useless piece of equipment just to justify the terminal fee and to have another reason for “cattle-herding” the passengers. It seems what is good enough for the buses is not good enough for PPA (Philippine Ports Authority), security-wise, because buses don’t bother checking the baggage of the passengers because they know the chance of them being victims of terrorist attacks is next to nil, at least in Bicol. And I think if one asks the ferries they will say they are not bothered if there is no X-ray machine. The buses and the ferries do not have the ISPS thinking that all passengers are possible terrorists. Actually that is simply ridiculous and is just the product of “praning” minds.

One more notable thing is that the passenger motor bancas are now practically gone from Masbate port and they have already transferred to the municipal port of Masbate near the public market and the bus/van terminal because of the high passenger terminal fee being charged by the port when passengers have no actual need for the terminal as they go direct to their vessels. Actually, last January I saw a terminal building (it was named as a community fish landing center) being built in Masbate municipal port and I saw that it is already finished when I went to the bus and van terminal.

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The problem now in Masbate municipal port is congestion, I was told, especially in the rush hours of the morning and the early afternoon. The boat landing areas there are actually the facility being used by the so-many small passenger motor bancas and motor launches headed to the different barrios across Masbate Bay. Add to that that that is also the docking area of the passenger motor bancas to barrios just outside Masbate Bay and up to Baleno town. Now the bigger motor bancas to Ticao island, Pilar port and Burias island are also lumped there now. That also includes a few cargo motor boats that were once passenger motor boats.

Actually, some small motor launch operators also built docking areas just beyond the northern end of Masbate port. I was told these transfers were the reaction to the terminal fee that costs P30. A terminal fee of that amount for a P10 boat fare? So right now just a very few motor bancas use Masbate port. One effect is congestion of the port was gone in one stroke. So I wonder now if there was any need to lengthen the port after all. Maybe they could have just donated the construction materials to the boat landing areas at the end of the port. The surface there is still dried muck which is obviously undulating and slippery. Well, if the funds were really meant to benefit the public.

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A makeshift boat landing area adjacent Masbate port

Regarding steel-hulled ferries, the competition in Masbate port is heating up and truck volume was obviously bigger than last January. Not in the buses though as July is already part of the lean months. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation fielded their Cargo RORO LCT there, the LCT Aldain Dowey which was identified in PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) as the former LCT Ongpin. So now they have a total of three ferries in Masbate and I was told in summer Sta. Clara Shipping even fielded a fourth ferry. Their LCT is of the same length as their Jack Daniel and Anthon Raphael, their two ROPAXes there which are the best in the fleets of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (this is before the fielding of the former Tamataka Maru ships from Japan).

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Their LCT is the first to leave at noon and in the afternoon they are the only ferry departures from Masbate at 2pm and 4pm. Their three ferries are the biggest in Masbate because what their competitors have are only basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs because they use the shallow Pilar port whose depth cannot handle bigger ferries. By the way in terms of rolling cargo traffic the Pio Duran route now of Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping is the favorite now since Pio Duran in Albay is nearer to Manila than Pilar of Sorsogon while the rolling cargo rate is just about the same.

With the exception of the ROROBus which is related to Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. practically all the other buses to Masbate are handled by Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and Penafrancia Shipping Corp. as the third operator Denica Lines, a Pilar native does not load buses. Loading buses from Luzon meant extending discounts, rebates, free tickets and free meals and Denica Lines does not play that game because they say they have their share of rolling cargo too. And I saw that when we left left Pilar port aboard their Marina Empress at 3am and the car deck was full. From Masbate port their three ROROs Odyssey, Regina Calixta-II and Marina Empress all left full. Denica Lines has already bought the Regina CalixtaII of Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) of Catanduanes and so they have three ROROs also now while Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) is down to two ROROs from three. Maybe because it is lean months now and maybe they have one undergoing refitting in a shipyard.

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If we assume that Montenegro Lines has a third RORO in Masbate then a total of 8 ROROs make a daily crossing now to Luzon plus there is a Cargo RORO LCT for a total capacity of about 100 truck/bus units (of course, since there are smaller vehicles mixed in, the actual total is higher). Many of these come from as far as Cebu island. Buses will be at least a fourth of that total. One will wonder why there is such a large number of people on the move when within Masbate island there are not that many number of buses although there is a significant number of commuter vans.

Montenegro Lines have three fastcrafts and a catamaran in Masbate including their newest and fastest, the City of Angeles which is a catamaran. They also have there one of their biggest fastcrafts, the City of Masbate. Their future rival, the two fastcrafts of Denica Lines are still not ready and are still being refitted in Pilar port. Meanwhile, I wonder if the Masbate-Pilar motor bancas are already in terminal decline. There are just so many ROROs and High Speed Crafts. Although the motor bancas are faster than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs, they are noisier. They might be noisy, however, but still they are better than the “Stairs Class” of Montenegro Lines.

But in trucks and buses Sta. Clara and Penafrancia are already beating Montenegro Lines by about 3:1. Denica Lines could also be level now with Montenegro Lines in trucks and buses. By the way, sedans, SUVs, AUVs are not that many in the Masbate crossing to Pilar and Pio Duran and jeeps are practically unknown.

However, there is a rumor in Masbate port that a new player will come and serve the Masbate-Pio Duran route and it seems it is not Medallion Transport which was gone from the route after their Lady of Carmel sank in 2013 off Burias island. It remains to be seen if this rumor will come true.

The Super Shuttle RORO 3 of AMTC is also back in Masbate port and it connects to Batangas and Cebu plus Cagayan de Oro but their schedule is irregular as in there are no definite day for arrivals and departures as it is more of a container carrier now. There are also still a few motor bancas to Bulan when where before that was the dominant route to Bicol from Masbate.

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There are also off-hours docking now in Masbate port as Denica Lines has an early evening departure from Pilar. To the credit of Masbate port they let the passengers stay in the port terminal as the arrival of that is midnight and there is still no transportation to the towns outside Masbate City (and that gave me an idea). And Sta. Clara Shipping sends back its ship from Pio Duran if there are a lot of shut-outs (vehicles left unloaded in port) and that becomes another off-hours docking. That was the reason why they fielded their LCT because shut-out were already happening frequently (I saw that last January when one Mega Bus cannot be accommodated and they asked passengers of that to get down the ship and it was an event not good to look at — I pitied the passengers).

Masbate port is changing. Traffic is obviously up and I think the port will only get more important in the future when more traffic will shift to it from San Bernardino Strait if the rates become lower. Maybe then competition will further heat up and we will see the full blooming of Masbate port.

But they have to get that passenger terminal fee down. It is much higher than Zamboanga port when that port is better than Masbate port and the passenger terminal is not really needed by most of the ship passengers. A sore point really and that must change.

On The Way Back To Cebu (Part 2 of my trip to Batangas and Calapan)

When I realized I’m not gonna make the St. Francis Xavier of 2GO in North Harbor and that I wouldn’t wait anymore for the Super Shuttle RORO 3, I decided I will just go back to Cebu via Bicol, Pilar and Masbate because that route will give me more photos including bus and train photos plus the views along the way. When fellow passengers knew of my plight and plan they suggested to me the Turbina bus stop in Calamba. Well, I could go as far as Cubao if I wanted Manila bus photos but I decided against it because I wanted to take photos of the Bicol Commuter Train in Naga and for that I must arrive early afternoon there as I was just planning an overnight in Naga because I was not really prepared for a long stay (I should have been sailing with the Super Shuttle RORO 3 back and forth and my preparation was for such). In my mind I want to take the Cokaliong ship in Masbate and I wanted a whole day bus and ship spot in Masbate and also to make some interviews.

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View of a recently arrived ferry in Batangas port while waiting for a bus

I asked about the Supreme bus from Batangas to Lucena and funny none of the passengers, van drivers and guards have an idea of the first trip nor of the fare. It seems none of them have taken that ride. I was interested in that ride because I might have been to Ibaan before but I have not also taken it. Its distance will be shorter compared to Turbina and I assume the fare will be lower also. You see I was on a short budget and tours drain money fast.

My next problem was how to go to Batangas Grand Central Terminal. The guard resolved the first part. He pointed to me the ATI shuttle to the outside of the port gate (no one walks around in Batangas port as all are potential terrorists and saboteurs, that is the assumption in ISPS and their restriction is even greater than that of a military camp). I was warned how high is the charge of the tricycle drivers. But I was able to haggle down the P200 that they normally charge to P100). The Grand Terminal was really far. I found out that there was no seamless connection to there unlike when one’s destination is as far as Manila.

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Batangas Grand Central Terminal before dawn

Entering the terminal at 3:02am per the LCD clock of the terminal, I saw the Supreme aircon bus already on the way out. What a timing! I have to take it and forego bus pics as I was not prepared for another hour of a wait. I was charged P94, senior fare, that proved to be lower than my tricycle fare. With a very low volume of passengers I wondered how Supreme could be making money on their early trips which are not few in number. It seems they are among the bus companies that still understand that bus transport is public service. Their buses was the ride of people that needs to move early like vendors and those that have to go to the market early. A lot of the fares charged was only P10, the minimum fare. And to think they have no competition in the route.

I have some regrets being very early because in the dark one cannot see the landscape well. We arrived just past 5am in Arias, the junction of the road leading to Lucena proper and the diversion road. The unlucky thing was a Superlines bus overtook us and it was bound for Daet. I wanted to take the longer route rather than the Quirino Highway route for I have not passed that road for a long time now as buses no longer pass through it.

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Arias junction in Lucena

The jeepney dispatcher in Arias was friendly and helpful and he told me the next bus will be an RMB ordinary bus and he told me the approximate time of arrival. I was mulling a Dalahican port diversion but the dispatcher was not encouraging. He said going out of the port is difficult at that time because there are no arrivals yet from Marinduque and the tricycle fare is very high. Sometimes the fewness of ships in a port convinces me against visiting if I lack the time and I am not really prepared. I just then contented myself with taking of bus shots which I prize because I lack Southern Tagalog bus photos. I also have to manage my Bicol ride because day trips to Bicol comes just one or at best two in an hour.

The RMB bus came and it was taking in short-distance passengers that normally are the passengers of the Raymond bus. I tried to get bus and places pictures although it was difficult as I was not at the front of the bus nor at the side. Then the text of Aris, a PSSS Moderator came in and asked me if I was at the North Harbor. I asked him to check the 2GO schedules earlier. I told him in a few minutes I will be in Atimonan port. I was expecting my answer will discombobulate him, a joke in itself as he did not know I was on the way to Bicol.

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Atimonan port and ships

I was able to get shots of Atimonan port and ships but I missed Siain port because of the trees. Then I saw that LCT at the end of the long coastal road straight before the road turns into the railroad tracks. I failed to get off a shot but I saw there was a makeship yard there and I wondered what they were doing there as it was far from what can be connected to shipping. Afloat ship repair? There were not much vessels in Lamon Bay except for the occasional fishing boats the largest of which is a basnig.

The bus then left Calauag into the hills and there were no more views of ships and of the sea. It was all buses and land views until we reached Mabolo of Naga where there were two fishing vessels. We took a little over 7 hours to reach Naga and that included two meal stops. I just paid P250 for the bus fare for a distance of about 250 kilometers.

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Fishing vessels visible from Mabolo bridge

Upon reaching Bicol Central Station, the Naga bus terminal that has many eateries I ordered kinalas, a kind of mami that is synonimous with Naga. With no rice I ordered Bicol Express and again I remembered Mark, a PSSS Moderator who failed to taste one in Matnog because we immediately boarded the Don Benito Ambrosio II of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation which was then leaving already. From a short meal, I immediately made my way to the PNR (Philippine National Railways) Naga station to take rail and train photos and to ride the Bicol Commuter Train (BCT) to Sipocot. I did that not only to satisfy myself but also the Aussie rail engineers who once worked with the PNR as AusAid technicians and who are PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) members too.

I did not move much in the station and in the train. I was tired. I just want the experience of a DMU (Diesel Multiple Unit) train being hauled by a locomotive. The DMU’s power is no longer enough for tractive power and it was only used to power the automatic doors, the fans and the lights. With our rundown railways, such weird contraptions happen. There was an announcement that the BCT will serve Legazpi last February. It did not happen as there were no locomotives available (yes their Board of Directors is that detached from reality). It is VP Robredo who is pushing for that but I think the lady does not understand rails and our rail situation. Internally, the PNR do not want to run the BCT to Legazpi as each run loses. Ever since 55 years ago it has already been proven that the trains cannot compete with the bus on parallel routes much like ferries can’t compete with them too on parallel routes.

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Bicol Commuter Train to Sipocot

From Sipocot I did not transfer to the bus anymore like what I usually do because I was tired and I had just come from a long bus ride and has already passed Sipocot hours before. We arrived in Naga in a heavy thunderstorm that flooded the city and we were marooned in the station. Good I already roamed the station and took shots before my BCT ride. In that thunderstorm before just before dusk there was no way to roam the station nor take any decent shot.

I spent the night in Naga and the next day I was back at the bus terminal to take more shots and to eat pilinut candies. The previous day I was not able to take many as I gave priority to railfanning. With my stay in Naga I was able to top all my batteries again. I resolved I will already leave that night so I will be in time for the Masbate-Cebu Cokaliong ship and my way will be through Pilar and not Pio Duran as I want to see the developments in the Denica Lines fastcrafts there and simply there are more ships in Pilar than in Pio Duran and that includes passenger-cargo motor bancas. In preparation for that I slept from late 5pm to 9pm as the bus to Pilar I was aiming at should be in the 11pm to 12mn range, ideally, as I was targeting the Denica Lines ferry at 3am which I knew will afford me a lying position and sleep as the passengers are not many because they don’t take in buses unlike the Montenegro Lines ship.

A Pilar bus entered the terminal at 10:30pm, the first one to do so. It had the quizzical signboard Pilar/Tabaco/Legazpi. I asked if it was for Pilar and they said “Yes”. I decided to take it. No harm in being 30 minutes early. A good insurance in case of an unlikely flat tire or a need to transfer buses. The bus almost immediately pulled out and I noticed the driver was serious in his driving which is not normally the case once a bus reaches Bicol. Upon reaching Tuburan junction in Ligao I knew the reason for the fast clip. We turned left. So we are on the way to Tabaco first. I checked the time. It was just 11:40pm. I was not worried. There was enough time. I thought better just enjoy the unintended excursion. A way to see Tabaco and Legazpi again.

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Tabaco port

As I expected we entered not the far Tabaco terminal but Tabaco port. I knew there will be passengers for Catanduanes for sure in the bus. Took shots but it was dark and there was rain. I knew the bus will not linger and it did not and after a stop in the city center we were on the way to Legazpi and we reached it at 12:50am.

By 1:40am we were already in Pilar port. We took 3 hours for a 165-kilometer run. I thought if only buses in Mindanao were that fast. I also thought the 80kph limiter devices based on GPS should be thrown to the sea. What is the use of that on a night run where there are few vehicles on the road when time should be gained? How could the Department of Transportation assume that sedan drivers who spend their whole day in the office are better drivers than real professional drivers?

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Denica Lines fastcrafts in Pilar port

The 3am Denica Lines ferry, the Marina Empress, which I like was there alright. With our arrival I still have time to roam the dark port and field questions. I found the Denica fastcrafts were still not ready and are still tied to Pilar port but the refitting of one has already advanced. The motor bancas to various destinations like Monreal and Aroroy were also there plus a Montenegro Lines RORO and fastcrafts. The Hammity cargo motor boat of Denica Lines was also there.

The fares were still the same but I found out that the Regina Calixta-II of Regina Shipping Lines already belongs to Denica Lines and so they have 3 basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs now and so when their fastcrafts are ready they will have a battle royale with Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated looming and probably the motor bancas will give them an advantage.

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Regina Calixta-II

I decided against an Aroroy entry to Masbate because the departure of the motor banca was still 5:30am and arriving in Aroroy at 8:30am will mean a 10:30am arrival for me in Masbate which means I will be missing a lot of action compared to a 7am arrival with Marina Empress when most ferries to Masbate has not yet arrived including the slow Filipinas Maasin from Cebu which was expected at 9:30am. I long wanted to reach Aroroy but the negatives are big.

Having arrived ahead of most of the buses which are now mainly carried by Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, I was able to observe a lot about the patterns. I realized that if I will not shipspot Masbate port then if I take one of the buses from Manila to Cawayan then I will still reach the Island Shipping LCT in Cawayan for Hagnaya in Cebu island.

In going back to Cebu via Masbate I ruled out taking the ROROBus because it leaves Masbate port at 8:30am to take the 12nn Cataingan-Polambato, Bogo ferry of Montenegro Lines. Leaving at that time means I will miss a lot of action in Masbate and I will just spend five hours staring into the sea when there is still a lot of happenings in Masbate port.

If I take the thrice a week Lapu-lapu Shipping night ferry in Cataingan to Cebu City that leaves at 6pm then it means I should already be in Masbate bus/van terminal at about 2pm. By that time 75-80% of the actions in Masbate port will have happened already. Maybe next time I should take that so I can check new developments in the road to there and in the port.

There is also a ferry equivalent to the MSLI ferry in Cawayan but I want to check if it is 100% in the route. But then one has to leave Masbate early also as in about 8am and maybe hitching a ride with an early bus from Manila is the trick but I am not sure if they are faster than the vans. It is not as cheap as the Island Shipping LCT which still has promotional rates.

When I entered the Masbate port terminal building after disembarking from the Marina Empress the beautiful lady guard immediately recognized me. I thought I was in luck because I can roam fully without worrying about my things and I will have full chance to charge my batteries as I drain them. Anyway this time around there were not that many passengers in Masbate port terminal building as they have already learned the Batangas way of sending the passengers to their buses after paying the passenger terminal fee (so what is the purpose of the passenger terminal fee which is actually more expensive than Batangas port and Cebu port)?

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LCT Aldain Dowey

A new addition I saw in Masbate is the Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. LCT, the LCT Aldain Dowey which just takes in trucks. With the fielding of that Sta. Clara Shipping and sister company Penafrancia Shipping has further outstripped Montenegro Lines in the Masbate route in terms of rolling cargo. By the way, I was astounded with their Anthon Raphael when she arrived as she had a dozen buses aboard when she arrived. MSLI has already lost to Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping in buses as she only carries ROROBuses now save for a lone Elavil bus. Compared to last January, Sta. Clara and Penafrancia have already far outstripped MSLI in rolling cargo.

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Anthon Raphael

The Cokaliong ship Filipinas Maasin showed herself in Masbate Bay at 10am. There were snickers of course because even Asia Indonesia and Asia Japan of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. did not take that long in reaching Masbate. I thought to myself Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. should change the ship assigned there as obviously she does not have enough speed for the route. Maybe she should just stick to the Surigao route which is shorter. The Filipinas Maasin car/cargo deck was full of cargo when she arrived.

This time around I did not go anymore to the Masbate bus/van terminal. I was already tired by 2pm when only one ferry has not left port aside from Filipinas Maasin. That was the last ferry to Bicol, the Jack Daniel. The Regina Calixta-II, the Odyssey and the Marina Empress of Denica Lines has already left and in that order. The Maria Angela and the Maria Sophia of Montenegro Lines have also departed along with their fastcraft and catamarans and two have already returned from Pilar, the City of Angeles and the City of Masbate.

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It also rained hard, another reason I lost taste for the bus/van terminal. I also thought I will be seeing the same buses there I saw days before when I was on the way to Batangas and regarding the motor bancas from there I caught them practically all and if I missed some it will be just a few fishing bancas. I just spent the mid-afternoon looking for a decent meal as I prioritized ship and bus spotting over meals. In January in going for meals I missed some of the actions and I did not want that to happen again. I also want to cover fully the loading and unloading of the buses. There were fewer buses this July compared to January.

When it rained hard and the wind blew I noticed the digital read-out of the time and temperature in Masbate port showed just 27 degrees Centigrade. It was just like having an air conditioner for the whole port. I pitied some of the passengers because the port management lacks care and imagination. They should have let the buses pick up the passengers by the driveway. It’s hard to make one’s way to the ferry in driving rain. Good in that situation the Maria Sophia went back to port when informed that there were bus passengers not yet boarded when their bus was already inside the ship.

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The Kulafu of Rufo Presado from Bulan in Masbate heavy rain

In all these happenings I never saw a port official appear and much more intervene. Oh, maybe, their job is just to sign papers, make memoranda and prepare reports, the typical bureaucratic dance. The porters were even more concerned for the passengers (but of course they will never become port managers).

After nearly completing my charging in the terminal building I hunted for a porter to interview about some history of Masbate port and its ships. By this time the passengers have already boarded Filipinas Maasin and Jack Daniel has already departed and so they’ve go no more thing to do as cargo loading is also finishing and the last passengers will be Masbate City locals and they are usually dropped by the ship’s ramp especially since only P6 is charged for an entering vehicle (while the passenger terminal fee is 5 times of that). In that situation there is practically no more action that I have to cover.

I found one and he has been a porter for over 20 years and his father was also a porter but now retired and is just fishing. He still remembers the liners of the early 1990’s and how Masbate ships evolved from motor bancas and motor boats to ROROs. They earned much more then when cargo handling was basically done manually and the liners still had lots of passengers. I just let him tell the stories that he recall. The only things I interjected were the history of the High Speed Crafts in Masbate and how the Bulan route lost to Pilar.

I realized as he was telling the story that maybe next time I should lessen the picture-taking and listen to stories more. I barely touched on the shipping owners like Rufo Presado and the owner of Lobrigo Lines, both of whom tried fastcrafts also. Aside from Denica Lines they are the biggest motor banca operators in Masbate. And I have not even explored well the complexity of the Masbate motor bancas or even its accidents. Anyway I got a number now. I also gave my source a tip for his time. The interview that took nearly an hour seems to just flew by. I was not able to judge well if my source is worth a PSSS cam. Maybe next time I have to ask my lady guard-friend.

After getting some light baon I boarded the Filipinas Maasin when dark was already threatening. I did not have enough time and interest to take a meal outside. I thought with my tiredness I will just sleep straightaway. But then I got hungry and I patronized the restaurant of the ferry. I found their prices a bit better than other ferries I have ridden.

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I made a light tour of the Filipinas Maasin to see how much changed when I rode her more than a decade ago. The lay-out was still the same. But what I noticed is the flooring. It is similar to what is used in buses and it needs no painting. But basically it is still the same ship. My complaint was they set 4 packaged type air conditioners at 16 degrees Centigrade when the ship was already sailing. They should have set it full blast when the passengers were just boarding. So I tried to tinker with the air conditioners. Otherwise we will all be suffering the whole night.

As usual sleeping did not come easy for me because of my neck condition. In each new sleeping place I have to discover what will suit it. I resolved my more complete tour of the ship will be in the morning when I can assess the ship better and my shots will be better. It is not scheduled to reach Cebu early anyway.

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Porter’s Marina

When I woke up I think we were just astride Catmon, Cebu and so I went back to sleep. The problem is when I woke up again I have already missed Danao City and its port and ships. I saw we were already nearing Liloan and Porter’s Marina. There was light rain and no good sun and I thought Tayud and Cansaga Bay shots will be problematic. It proved true even if the rain abated a little and the chance of having a good shot of ships in the Tayud yards was gone. I have to content myself with the anchored ships off it.

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Maica 2

Then I have to scramble for the ships in the Cebu Yacht Club. While taking shots of it a fastcraft overtook us and made a 180-degree turn into a dock in Mactan Island that I have not noticed much before. It was a little south of the Cebu Yacht Club. What I discovered was the new Maica 2 of Jomalia Shipping. It resembles the Oceanjet 15 of the Ocean Fast Ferries. I was able to take a lot of photos of her.

I have to hie off next to starboard as the Ouano ships including the new Trans-Asia 1 and the former Bao Dao ships will be coming into view. After that it was more or less a ride already like with Metro Ferry up to Pier 3. After that comes Pier 1 and its ships that cannot be covered from Metro Ferry. I saw a fastcraft coming on our port side and didn’t think much of it. Then it rounded our stern going into Pier 1 and then I realized she was the Oceanjet 288 of which PSSS has no photo yet of. Watta luck!

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Because it was a Sunday there were few ships in Cokaliong wharf. We arrived earlier than expected because the ship sped up because supposedly she will still be going to Palompon at noon and they still have to unload and load cargo. I was wondering how they can do it in 3 hours. Well, there are a lot of Cokaliong forklifts in the port.

My decision to take the Cokaliong ship from Masbate proved to be correct although that meant just one day of stay in Bicol. I had a full day in Masbate which was not possible if I took the Super Shuttle RORO 3 again which arrived on the previous night that I was already in Pilar. That means like what the crew said they usually stay 3 days in Batangas. And arriving at night in Masbate means no Masbate ship spotting which defeats one of my purpose. And they probably left Batangas at midnight so that was also next to useless in ship spotting.

With the Cokaliong ship I had good ship spotting from Porters Marina up to Pier 1. That was not possible with the Super Shuttle RORO 3 as it goes Around Mactan island and not under the Mactan bridges. And definitely Filipinas Maasin is a real passenger ship and notches ahead of Super Shuttle RORO 3 in comfort and amenities.

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End of my journey

Of course going via Bicol means my expenses were way higher than what I expected. But I hope more photos of ships, buses and train is enough compensation. Spotting long-distance is not really cheap. I have now more photos for PSSS, Shippax, Fleetmon and Lindsay Bridge.

Hope I can do it again!

The Leyte-Surigao Crossing Is Heating Up

Just after Super-typhoon “Yolanda” in 2013, long lines of trucks formed in the Surigao Strait crossings connecting Leyte and Mindanao when the relief and reconstruction efforts were in full swing. I thought it was just a temporary phenomenon brought about by the typhoon destruction but the truck queues persisted after that (but the buses were not affected by that in the main because bearing passengers they always have the highest priority in boarding short-distance ROROs). Cargo RORO LCTs requested by the government helped in transporting trucks months after the super-typhoon passed until the situation more or less returned to normal.

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LCT sent by Asian Shipping Corporation to the Typhoon Yolanda relief effort (Photo by ASC)

But further developments showed there was really increased vehicle traffic already in the Liloan-Lipata and Benit-Lipata parallel routes that connect Leyte and Mindanao. So in the recent years the Surigao Strait saw more short-distance ferry-ROROs sailing the north-south direction. These included new players plus a dedicated Cargo RORO LCT plying the route and carrying trucks. With such there is a palpable increase in the sailing frequencies between Leyte and Surigao.

The once-oldest ferries in the route, the Maharlika ferries are now gone after the sinking in 2013 of its Maharlika Dos off the southwest tip of Panaon island when its engines conked out and she was swamped by waves when no help came after she drifted for hours. Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the owners of the Maharlika series then stopped operations until they were able to bring their new catamaran-ROROs which are part of the FastCat series.

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Now these new type of ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships) hold different time slots. Even with just a single ferry which is currently the FastCat M7, it can do three round trips in a day with its superior speed (17 knots) and favorable passenger and shipper response. The FastCat is gaining popularity in the route by offering the same rates but employing a brand-new craft with the best passenger service in the short-distance routes together with the legendary 2GO liners. They are practically the horse to beat there now from being derided in the past because of the lousiness of their Maharlika series.

FastCat still uses the Liloan-Lipata route even though Lipata port was damaged by an earthquake in 2016 which forced other ships to use the other port of Surigao City which is Verano port. This is the port that caters before to the passenger ships from Cebu (there are no more liners from Manila) and freighters plus different crafts to Dinagat, Siargao and various small islands off the Surigao mainland.

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Benit port and MSLI ferry

Giving them stiff competition because it enjoys a short route are the ferries of Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) which uses the Benit port exclusively to sail the Benit-Surigao route. Normally, this shipping company deploys two big short-distance ferry-ROROs in the route and these are usually the sister ships Maria Felisa and Maria Vanessa. The Benit-Surigao route is only a little over a third of the Liloan-Lipata route but the MSLI rates are only a little less than Liloan-Lipata rates and so MSLI enjoys greater profitability than competition and I wonder why MARINA allows the shipping company to prey on the passengers and vehicle owners when I thought they are the maritime regulatory agency (and they are regulating what and are they for the shipping owners or for the passengers and shippers?).

A newcomer on the route is the Southwest Premier Ferries which is using a brand-new ferry, the SWM Stella del Mar which is a sister ship of the new vessels of Starlite Ferries of Batangas. This company promised several trips in a day but I wonder how they can live up to that if they don’t have enough rolling cargo as many of the vehicles there are already locked to their competitors (well, they can offer discounting to attract the clientele of competition). Southwest Premier Ferries is just a few months on the route.

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Photo from Scoopnest.com

A Bicol shipping company has also invaded the route, the Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. which rotates some of their bigger ships in the route and sometimes it uses a ferry of its legal-fiction company Penafrancia Shipping Corp. As of the time of this writing they are using the ship King Frederick but with two ferries from Japan being refitted right now in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu, it is probable that one of the two might be assigned to their Liloan-Surigao route to better handle the challenge of the new ferries in the route.

Another old shipping company still plying the route through Liloan and Surigao is the Millennium Shipping Inc. which uses its old and slow Millennium Uno, a ferry with over half a century of sailing experience. At several times in the past this ferry was thought by observers to be already gone only to rise again like a phoenix and one of the recent episode was when they voluntarily stopped sailing after the hot eyes that came with the sinking of the Maharlika Dos (she has her own deficiencies after all). When the ruckus died down the ship quietly went back to sailing with some cosmetic changes and engine improvements so that from 4 hours plus she can now sail the 38-nautical mile distance in a little over 3.5 hours.

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Added to that mix of ships is a Cargo RORO LCT, the GT Express I of GT Express Shipping which was once connecting Negros and Panay islands through the Banago-Dumangas route. This LCT actually uses the Liloan municipal port which once had overnight ships to Cebu and not the Liloan Ferry Terminal. The two ports are just a kilometer apart in a very small bay. As a Cargo RORO LCT, the GT Express 1 can only take in trucks.

One shipping company that is gone now in the route is Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) which stopped their sailing when they found themselves lacking ferries because of mechanical failures on their other ferries. It is a loss and a perplexity because they fielded in the route the first decent ferry when all that was available 15 years ago were the lousy Maharlika and Millennium ferries. I don’t think they will come back in the route because they still lack short-distance ferry-ROROs.

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Verano Port of Surigao City

So right now 6 different ROROs ply the routes across Surigao Strait from 5 different shipping companies and total of about a dozen voyages in a day with a capacity for over 200 assorted vehicles each way excluding motorcycles plus a passenger capacity of more than 4,000. Such is the available capacity now on the route which is a far cry from that of a decade ago when shut-outs happen.

One reason from the increased demand in the route is Surigao Strait became a favorite crossing point of vehicles to or from Cebu of vehicles not only from CARAGA Region but also from Southern Mindanao as Northern Mindanao is not a viable entry for the rates there are very high. This is aside from the fact that that strait is the old crossing point of buses and trucks coming from Luzon and going to Mindanao.

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“The Saddle” dominates the view of the Surigao Strait crossings

The competition in the route might be heating up for now with some threatened over-capacity but in a few years, with the growth in traffic being shown by the route then maybe more ships and frequencies will again be needed. Actually there is a report that a new port will be built in San Ricardo east of Benit and it will be connected to the eastern coastal road being built in Panaon island that will bypass the mountain pass called “The Saddle” which gives some trucks problems because of the inexperience now of drivers in mountain passes.

Maybe by then there will also be more routes across Surigao Strait in the future. More is merrier and normally that redounds to the benefit of the passengers and shippers if only MARINA will do its job. Let us see it then.