A Good Ship Is Gone

The uncle of a PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member saw the former SuperFerry 5 (last known as St. Joan of Arc in the Philippines) in Singapore a few months ago in what can be surmised as a one-way trip to a ship-breaking yard somewhere in South Asia. That ship has long been reported for sale and its owner 2GO is just as much willing to dispose of her. The ship’s final fate must have been sealed when the former SuperFerry 16 arrived back in the Philippines in 2015 after having been sold abroad for profit in 2007 at the height of the world metal prices then that was driven by the great China demand when its industrial output and drive to sell to the world hit high gear. 2GO wants a more modern fleet and they have no patience for old and graying ships.

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The former SuperFerry 5 which was known as the St. Joan of Arc in the fleet of 2GO was actually the last of our old generation of liners that was built in the 1970’s and which arrived in the country in the 1990’s. She was the lone wolf after the Princess of the South of Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation, the former Sulpicio Lines was disposed off in 2015 and the former SuperFerry 2 which was renamed to St. Thomas Aquinas sank in a collision near Mactan island in 2013 and after the former SuperFerry 1 which was renamed to St. Rita de Cascia was sold to China in and after the St. Joseph The Worker and the St. Peter The Apostle were sold to Bangladeshi breakers.

It was not actually the St. Joan of Arc which 2GO wanted to retain longer. It was actually the refitted St. Thomas Aquinas but as fate would have it she tried to test how the hard was the ice-classed bow of the container ship Sulpicio Express Siete of Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation or PSACC, the successor company of Sulpicio Lines. The former SuperFerry 5 was not a converted ship to two cargo decks like the St. Thomas Aquinas and hence her container capacity is lower while she can no longer fill her passenger accommodations. This was because passengers have already moved to other means of transportation after the liners became a disappointment when they failed to handle the challenge of the budget airlines and the intermodal buses and trucks.

I was puzzled how 2GO handled the St. Joan of Arc. She was already long for sale but there were no takers. That was the time when she still had a route to Tagbilaran and Dumaguete from Manila. She was already smokey then but if the experience of her sister ship the St. Thomas Aquinas which has the same engines is used as a guideline then if there was a decision to refurbish her she will still be a better ship. After refitting, the St. Thomas Aquinas was capable of 18.5 knots when to think she was only running at 17.5 knots when she was newly-fielded in the 1990’s. But of course she already had less metal when two passenger deck were removed. The St. Thomas Aquinas was also less smokey than her sister ship after she was refurbished.

I have long hated that policy of 2GO which they called “finding the right size” which is just a euphemism for culling ships and routes when their bean counters find out that they do not contribute to the profitability of the company. You see they are primarily in business and not in real shipping. It is just cold-bloodied calculation and not passion for sailing and moving goods and people. But then they are oblivious to the fact that with their uncertainty in serving a route makes patrons especially shippers look for other carriers. Like when the Cebu Ferry 2 abandoned Surigao. When they came back there was no cargo anymore and they didn’t even bother to deploy the car ramps anymore when we rode her. And ships cannot maintain a route without meaningful cargo. It is different when patrons know a shipping company will maintain the route no matter what. Otherwise, they will be talking to other carriers.

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In recent history, it was the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS), its subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC) and the latter 2GO which has been the greatest “donors” of passengers and cargo to their competition that the receivers should always give them giant cakes during Christmas as thanks for business they gained without any effort or investment. Actually, the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) should have rolled out two bands when Cebu Ferry 1 and Cebu Ferry 3 left Cebu for Batangas to become the “Batangas Ferries”. Well, even Cokaliong Shipping Line iNC. (CSLI) also became a beneficiary with the withdrawal of the Cebu Ferries from Surigao, Nasipit, Ozamis and Iligan. Imagine given four major Northern Mindanao ports free.

I just wonder why 2GO can’t give the St. Joan of Arc a permanent route then before they withdraw from the Zamboanga route. When they withdrew from Zamboanga they cited the Abu Sayyaf threat. But then they still sailed their container ships and other shipping companies still continued sailing to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao. Then they came back to Zamboanga when Abu Sayyaf attacks were continuing and they did not withdraw again until now. So that means they were simply lying the first time around that they withdrew.

When they came back to Zamboanga, it was a Manila-Cebu-Dumaguete route which was later redacted into a Manila-Dumaguete-Zamboanga route, a route longer than a Manila-Iloilo-Bacolod-Zamboanga route. If a route via Dumaguete can be maintained then for sure a route via Iloilo and/or Bacolod can be maintained profitably since Iloilo and Bacolod are both bigger than Dumaguete and the route is shorter. Besides there is no ferry between Iloilo and Zamboanga and there is no bus too while Dumaguete has a bus to Zamboanga and there was also the once-a-week Zamboanga Ferry of George & Peter Lines. And it is easy to cross to Dapitan and take a bus to Zamboanga from Dipolog, the next locality.

2GO could have refurbished the St. Joan of Arc and made her a permanent Zamboanga ship. Her size and speed would have been enough for the route and maybe they can even make a twice a week voyage there. And passenger load might have been better if their arrival time was proper. A 5pm arrival is bad as the connecting trips to the minor islands like the Pangutaran group and even Basilan are already gone by the time their ship arrives in Zamboanga. Actually buses to the the “3S” (Sibuco, Sirawai, Siocon) direction and the direction of Payao (the Lizamay buses) would have also been gone by that time. I noticed ATS and 2GO are not passenger-friendly with regards to arrivals as many of their arrivals are at night. Right now, three out of their five arrivals in Manila from Cebu are at night and they will force passengers down even when it is already midnight. So they think the streets of Manila are safe at night? Ha ha! That is also the time the taxis make a killing.

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St. Joan of Arc not sailing

2GO does not have the program of the likes of Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. and Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. to give their old ships a second lease of life. Those two companies still has many ships built in the early 1970’s like the St. Joan of Arc. And those ships are still creditable and reliable. In the international cruise industry, ships can be refurbished even when they were built decades ago and niche routes and cruising can be found for them. Like if the St. Joan of Arc was refurbished and assigned to Zamboanga permanently even before 2GO withdrew from there before. Or maybe toughened it out and served Tagbilaran, Dumaguete and Dapitan continuously with a Manila-Tagbilaran-Dumaguete-Dapitan-Manila route. Well, just wishing but Tagbilaran and Bohol has no more direct connection after the Dipolog Princess of Sulpicio Lines was gone. Those three ports might have enough passengers and cargo to sustain the ship.

But this is all water under the bridge now. The St. Joan of Arc is already gone as old ships have no future in 2GO. And maybe it was just proper that the people that initiated this system are already retired now too. They deserve the same fate maybe. It was just like when in ATS the execs approved of the culling and culling of ships until there were more VPs than liners and they did not realize that they will also be culled because that situation cannot continue.

There is a new management in 2GO after new investors came in. I just hope they are forward-looking and love ships instead of being wielders of knives.

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Some Musings on Ship Sinkings

Lately, there have been rumors that ferries of over 35 years old will be phased out and supposedly one of those pushing that is the current Secretary of Transportation which is Arthur Tugade and also supposedly involved is Alfonso Cusi, Secretary of Energy who is a shipping owner (Starlite Ferries). I do not know what Tugade knows about ships. He is a lawyer. Cusi, meanwhile has vested interest in the issue. Shipping owners got so alarmed that a meeting between them was called and attended by different shipping companies and they voiced opposition to such move which is also supported by the regional director of MARINA Central Visayas.

The proposal to phase out ferries is rooted in the belief that it is old age that sinks ships. Unfortunately, that is simply not true, that is just an assumption by those who have no true knowledge of shipping and empirical evidence do not support that. As one knowledgeable Captain said, it is human error that is the most common cause of sinking and I agree to that.

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Photo Credit: Dr. Normand Fernandez

I just wish when media and government officials discuss ship sinking that they be more specific and don’t use the term generically. Sometimes a ship is simply wrecked as in it lies on the shore incapable of sailing but it is not under water. Some of these can still be refloated and still sail later. This happened to many ships caught by the storm surges of super-typhoons like the Typhoon “Ruping” of 1990 and Typhoon “Yolanda” of 2008. Old age was not the cause of the capsizing or wrecking of those caught in those typhoons as most were actually in shelter and not navigating. In maritime databases they call these events “wrecking”. They will even indicate if it was refloated and indicate “broken up” when that was the subsequent fate of the wrecked ship.

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Photo Credit: Philippine Star and Gorio Belen

Sometimes a ship loses buoyancy and capsize but not all of them sink to the bottom of the sea. Those on their side or even upside down but located in ports or in shallow waters can still be righted and salvaged and maybe it will still be capable of sailing after repairs if it is not Beyond Economic Repair (BER). Most of these cases are results of accidents like errors in unloading cargo (like Ocean Legacy or Danica Joy 2) or even ramming like Dingalan Bay and not from the age of the ship. Some had their rolling cargo shift due to rogue waves but reach port, and subsequently capsize like what happened in Ocean King II in Benit port. Some capsize in port due to action of other ships like what happened to Ma. Angelica Grace in Cabahug wharf. In maritime databases these are simply called “capsizing”. They contrast it when ships lose buoyancy while sailing which they call “capsizing and sinking”.

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Photo Credit: James Gabriel Verallo

The most terrible and most straightforward sinking is when ships are caught in storms and sink. Maritime database call these “foundering” and that means more than enough water filled the ship making it lose buoyancy. There could be many causes of that. One is the pumps simply failed for several possible reasons and that is a possibility in smaller ships in stormy seas. The motor might have died in a storm and so the ship cannot maneuver and list. Foundering is the most terrible fate of a ship like the hull breaking in half (but this is rare and there is no local case like this here in recent memory) as casualties in a ship that failed to beat the storm is terrifying (remember Princess of the Stars). Holes in the hull might even afford a ship enough time to seek the coast and beach the ship like what happened to Wilcon IX. If the ship was beached, maritime databases call it “beached” and such an act avert loss of lives.

If it is a collision and the hull was breached, maritime databases are specific. They indicate “collision” or “collision and sinking” if that was the case. It might even be “collision and beached”. Collision and sinking was the case of St. Thomas Aquinas and that sank not because she was old (she was 39 years old when she sank). Cebu City was rammed too and sank and she was only 22 years old then. Her sister ship Don Juan was only 9 years old when she sank after a collision. Dona Paz was 24 years old when she was rammed then burned and sank. Collision and sinking are usually navigation errors which means human errors and the age of the ships is not a factor. The ramming hull of the other ship won’t ask first if the hull it is ramming is old or young or what is the age.

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Photo Credit: Philippine Air Force and Jethro Cagasan

When a ship catches fire, hull losses are sometime inevitable. It will not be certain if the cause of that is age and sometimes that does not in outright sinking because the ship can still head for the nearest land and beach itself like what Don Sulpicio did. SuperFerry 6 when it caught fire did not sink and was towed to Batangas. SuperFerry 14′s fire was not contained early too but she was towed and just keeled over when she was already in shallow waters and the fire out. Some caught fire in shipyards or in the docks and some of them were SuperFerry 3, SuperFerry 7, Philippine Princess, Iloilo Princess, St. Francis of Assisi, Manila City, Cagayan de Oro City and Asia Thailand. Again, it cannot be assumed that happened because of old age as some burned due to the sparks of welding. None of that four were over 35 years of age when they were destroyed by fire. Some others assume more morbid intentions that can’t be proved anyway.

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Photo Credit: Britz Salih

Ferry sinking is not common on short-distance ferries maybe because its routes are short and their transit times are not long. The only exception to this is Besta Shipping Lines which lost half of its fleet (four out of eight) to accidents. However, only their Baleno Nine sank outright. Baleno Six was wrecked by a typhoon (that wrecked other ships too like the Sta. Penafrancia 7), Baleno Tres grounded in rocks and was wrecked (a clear case of human error) and Baleno 168 capsized near the port because of water ingress due to a broken propeller shaft but she did not sink (and maybe this was because of old age; but then it is also possibly because of its propellers repeated hitting bottom in the shallow San Jose, Occidental Mindoro port when she was with her previous shipping).

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Photo Credit: Mike Anthony Arceno

In the past, I remembered two shipping companies notorious for being dirty and rusty. The Viva Shipping Lines combine had some 36 ships two decades ago and some of those were wooden-hulled. Only two of those sank, the Viva Penafrancia 2 which hit the wharf or a fish corral and was holed (which is navigation error and not old age) and the San Miguel Ilijan which was hulked by fire but did not sink. The feared owner of the shipping company had supposedly told his ship captains he will bury them if their ship sink and his reputation is good enough it will be believed. Well, those two ships did not sink outright and maybe the captains’ lives were spared.

In more recent years it was the Maharlika ships which was notorious for being dirty and rusty (but not as rusty as Viva). Yet for many years their ships do not sink even though it can’t sail because both engines failed or the ramp fell off. Maharlika Dos only sank because after four hours of wallowing dead in the water and with Maharlika Cuatro failing to come to the rescue she finally capsized and sank. It was a disservice to the original Maharlika ships which were fielded brand-new. However, the government is notorious for not taking care well of things and that continued under Christopher Pastrana who is infamous for making still relatively new ships look old and worn like the Maharlika Uno, Maharlika Dos, Maharlika Tres and Maharlika Cuatro. He also made the Grandstar ROROs look aged fast. And he will wail against the old ships (with crossed fingers) to promote his FastCats. What gall!

However the ship loss percentage of the two companies is low. As I have said before, the looks and lack of maintenance of the ships is not an automatic ticket to the bottom of the sea and Maharlika is the clear proof of that. And to think their ships are in the more notorious waters of the Philippines. Seamanship is actually probably more important. In Lucio Lim’s version (he of Lite Ferries Ferries), it is manning that is most important.

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Photo Credit: Mike Baylon

Overnight ships are also not wont to sink if one looks at their record. Uh, maybe not Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. which has lost 4 ferries, the first Asia Singapore (capsized and sank), the Asia Thailand (hulked by fire while not sailing), the Asia South Korea (grounded, capsized and sank but they claimed terrorist action) and the Asia Malaysia (holed and sank). But over-all, not many overnight ferries were lost in the previous decades. It is actually liners which are more prone to sink and it is funny because these are our biggest ferries and many of them carry international certifications. Many will bet that Sulpicio Lines leads in this infamous category. Well, not too fast because their rate of sinking is just about the same as William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) and Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). In a comparative period from 1996 to 2007 before the incident that forced out Sulpicio Lines from passenger shipping, WG&A lost SuperFerry 3 (fire in shipyard), SuperFerry 6 (fire while sailing) and SuperFerry 7 (fire while docked in North Harbor). And they had serious grounding incidents. Dona Virginia quit sailing after a grounding incident off Siquijor and Our Lady of Banneux also quit sailing after a grounding in Canigao Channel.

In the same period Sulpicio Lines lost the Philippine Princess (fire while refitting), Princess of the Orient (foundered in a storm), Princess of the Pacific (grounding leading to wrecking) and Princess of the World (fire while sailing, did not sink). Pro rata, the two biggest shipping companies were even in hull loss (my preferred term) rate until 2007. But with the so-infamous wrecking of Princess of the Stars in a storm, pro rata Sulpicio Lines exceeded WG&A/ATS in maritime hull losses. Then later for a much-reduced liner fleet losing St. Thomas Aquinas (collision and sinking) and St. Gregory The Great (grounding leading to BER) is also a high percentage for 2GO. Few in these cases of liners lost can be attributed to the age of the ships.one-way-bike-club

Photo Credit: ONE WAY BIKE CLUB

It is actually our wooden-hulled motor boats or batel which might have the second highest rate of sinking. And maybe that is the reason why MARINA is pressuring San Nicholas Shipping Lines to retire their batel fleet and convert to steel-hulled ships. But the Moro boats are not well-known for that. Bar none, it is actually the passenger motor bancas which have the highest loss rate. Every year a passenger motor banca will be lost to storms especially in the Surigao area. But this is due to rough waters and not to old age.

So, why cull ships after 35 years of age when it is still seaworthy? The examples of maritime hull losses I mentioned shows it was not old age which made them sink. I have a database of over 300 Philippine maritime hull losses dating back to the end of World War II (while the government authorities can barely list 50). The list of mine does not include motor bancas and fishing vessels. It will be more if that is included. I can show it is not old age which was the primary factor in the sinking of the 300+.

All sinking are investigated by the Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI). But after some time maybe they donate the investigation papers to the termites or throw them away to Pasig River. That is why they can’t complete the list and argue against abogados like Maria Elena Bautista or Arthur Tugade when they are the true mariners. Talo talaga ng abogado ang marino kahit pa commodore o admiral at kahit maritime issues pa ang pinag-uusapan.

If the Supreme Court will be asked, their definition of seaworthiness is simply the ships having relevant certificates. To them it does not matter if the ship gets holed in deep seas while sailing. This is the gist of their most recent decision on a cargo ship of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation that sank in the late 1970’s. See how idiotic? The dumbies want to rewrite maritime concepts, that’s why.

If I will be asked maybe the culling of Tugade which should be raised first. The reason is old age.

It is in the Philippines where I noticed that the decision-makers are often those who don’t know a thing about the issues they are deciding on.

Experts do not matter in this land.

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Photo Credit: Lindsay Bridge

M/V St. Thomas Aquinas

The MV St. Thomas Aquinas was a former 2GO liner that was rammed on the side by the container ship Sulpicio Express Siete of Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation (PSACC) just south of Mactan Channel near Lauis Ledge lighthouse on the night of August 16, 2013. She sank in a matter of minutes because the PSACC ship feared being a sinking casualty and she pulled back allowing water to rush inside the hull of St. Thomas Aquinas (this is what usually happens when there is an underwater gash in the hull). A total of 137 persons died in the collision and a large oil spill affecting Mactan island resulted. St. Thomas Aquinas was better known locally as SuperFerry 2 and she is included in the book “The Great Passenger Ships of the World” by Frank Heine and Frank Lose (the original title was in German), a book where the Philippine Ship Spotter Society (PSSS) was a contributor.

M/V Superferry 2 folio ©John Aringay

St. Thomas Aquinas started life as the Ferry Sumiyoshi of Meimon Car Ferry K.K. of Kitakyushu, Japan. She was built in the Onomichi yard of Onomichi Zosen and she was the sister ship of Ferry Hakozaki which was better known locally as SuperFerry 5 and later as the St. Joan of Arc of 2GO (this ship is still sailing). Ferry Sumiyoshi’s keel was laid on August 1, 1972, launched on December 19, 1972 and completed on March 20, 1973. Her Length Over-all (LOA) was 138.6 meters and her Length Between Perpendiculars (LBP) was 128.0 meters with a Breadth of 22.15 meters. Originally, her Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) was 7,270 with a Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) of 2,596.
Ferry Sumiyoshi was powered by two Mitsubishi-MAN diesels (MAN engines built under license by Mitsubishi in Japan) of a combined 15,200 horsepower which gave her a service speed of 19 knots. She carried the international ID IMO 7304663 and she was a RORO-Passenger (ROPAX) Ferry. The ship originally had one and a half passenger decks, two and a half cargo decks, a full bridge deck and vehicle ramps at the bow and at the stern. Her original passenger capacity was 900 and she was first fielded in the Osaka-Shinmoji route in Japan.

Ferry Sumiyoshi ©Fakta om Fartyg

In April of 1992 she came to the Philippines to become the Aboitiz SuperFerry 2 (also SuperFerry II) of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation where she was converted into a 4-deck multi-day passenger liner originally serving the Manila-Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route (displacing the SuperFerry 1 in the latter port of call). She was the first liner fielded again by Aboitiz Shipping Corporation in the Manila-Cebu route after the shipping company gave up on that route for paucity of suitable liners (they were however serving the Cebu-Leyte route).

Superferry 2 ©Britz Salih

As reclassified, she had a Gross Tonnage (GT) of 11,405, a DWT of 2,947 and a passenger capacity of over 2,643 divided into the following classes: Stateroom, Cabin (for 2 and 4), Tourist, Deluxe and Economy. Adding weight her depth rose to 8.2 meters and her service speed dropped to 17.5 knots which meant a transit time of 22 hours in the Manila-Cebu route. Having a folding rear mast she can pass under the Mactan bridge. Her car deck can accommodate 108 trailers (she loads “CHA-RO” or container vans mounted on trailers and parked separate from the tractor heads).

Superferry 2 ©Gorio Belen

Aboitiz Shipping Corporation did not provide free meals to the passengers then but the fares were a little lower compared to competition to compensate for that. A passenger then will have his choice of what to eat. One orders meal a la carte in the cafeteria that was centrally located which was open from early morning to just past midnight. Passengers can also lounge here and while away time and various drinks can be ordered any time. The first class passengers have their separate restaurant. There was also a disco-karaoke and a coffee shop.

The ship featured a lounge for upper class passengers and a lobby and front desk for everyone along with other amenities and offerings like a video game arcade, a kiosk and books/magazines and board games for rent and a beauty salon. The ship sides were open and served as passageway and it also served as a viewing deck and smoking area. The sun deck of the ship also serves as a promenade area.

Superferry 2 interior ©Wakanatsu

On January 1, 1996 she passed on to the merger company William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) and in the renaming of the ferries of the merged fleet she retained the same name as WG&A decided to use the SuperFerry brand with the lesser ferries branded the “Our Lady”, a brand from Gothong Shipping. Initially she held on to her same route but a little later she did other routes (but not the prime Cebu route). Then she was paired with SuperFerry 5 to do rotational routes and a little later more this pairing included the SuperFerry 9 (in rotational pairings WG&A matches the ferries in speed and size). Doing rotational routes that varied over time along with differing assignments and schedules were a WG&A trademark which was hard to track unless one monitors their advertisement in the dailies.

Superferry 2 in WG&A livery ©Wakanatsu

With the divestment of the Chiongbian and Gothong families in WG&A (with the notable exception of Bob Gothong), the company was renamed the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) in 2003. With sizable sell-off of ships (liners, overnight ferries and container ships), ATS found themselves lacking container capacity especially when they sold off SuperFerry 15, 16, 17 and 18. Part of their remedy aside from chartering container ships was to convert 4-deck liners into liners with only two passenger decks with two container decks. This halved the passenger capacity of the converted ships but almost doubled the container capacity. ATS thought this was the correct solution to declining passenger patronage and lack of container capacity (but later developments proved them wrong).

As converted, the passenger capacity of SuperFerry 2 dropped to only 904 with only two Staterooms and two Cabins. With some engine efficiency adjustments the service speed went up to 18.5 knots (with a maximum equaling her old 19 knots) and with only a few passengers the ship tended to be very cold at night especially when it is raining. The ship moreover became an all-airconditioned ship. Her Net Tonnage (NT) dropped to 5,869. As a two-passenger deck ferry there was much less space for passengers to roam and amenities and facilities were less. The dining area of the upper and lower classes became shared.

Superferry 2 ©Mike Baylon

Later on with the buy-out of Aboitiz Transport System by Negros Navigation using the China-ASEAN Fund loan in 2012 she passed on to the newly merged company 2GO. She was renamed as the St. Thomas Aquinas and she did the Manila-Cebu-Zamboanga and Manila-Cebu-Nasipit routes among other always-changing routes and schedules. In 2GO she was still speedy but with more emphasis put on the declining cargo and because of that like other ships in the fleet she tended to be late because of delayed departures waiting for cargo.

St Thomas Aquinas in 2GO livery. ©Mike Baylon

To make up for lost time because she was four hours late, she was speeding in the early night of August 13, 2013 in Hilutungan Channel and in rounding the southern coast of Mactan island. The area is notorious for radar scatter because of the ship facing land formation with hills, towers and plenty of buildings and vehicles. Also rounding Mactan island the radar won’t give an image of the ships exiting Cebu port and Mactan Channel. The early night too is the peak departure time of ships leaving Cebu. Nearing Lauis Ledge and the reefs of Cordova, Mactan and the narrows and shoals off Talisay, Cebu, the ship barreled into the narrowing shipping lane at over 16 knots when ships were expected to do 15knots or less in that area where the shipping line is curving like in a continuous arc.

At that time Sulpicio Express Siete with an ice-classed bow (reinforced as she was originally a Baltic Sea ship) was exiting Mactan Channel at slow speed. Meanwhile, Trans Asia 9 which was late in departure was catching up and asked permission to overtake on the right or starboard of Sulpicio Express Siete. The shallows of Talisay were looming ahead (a ship of Cokaliong Shipping Lines made a mistake here and ended up high and dry). So Sulpicio Express Siete gave her a wide berth and moved to the middle of the channel and slowed down a bit as she will be veering right soon as she was headed in the direction of Dumaguete while Trans Asia 9 is headed to Cagayan de Oro.

While the gap between Sulpicio Express Siete and Trans Asia 9 was getting bigger, the late-running Oceanjet 8, a fastcraft of Ocean Fast Ferries speeding from Tagbilaran moved into the gap between the ships and went into the starboard of Sulpicio Express Siete which was not her correct lane and in violation of maritime rules of the seaway. This had the effect of delaying of the veering of Sulpicio Express Siete in her correct lane in a shipping line with divider without marking buoys (AIS showed that at the time of passing of Trans Asia 9 Sulpicio Express Siete was slightly to the left of the median).

After Oceanjet 8 passed and when Sulpicio Express Siete was veering into her lane a reckless maneuver was made – St. Thomas Aquinas sped up and tried to follow Oceanjet 8, a classic case of brinkmanship. Ships don’t slow down and can’t maneuver like cars and the reinforced bow of Sulpicio Siete scraped against the hull and the passenger ramp of St. Thomas Aquinas, cut it up to below the waterline near the stern and the engine room. In moments, St. Thomas Aquinas had a fatal wound and power was knocked out and complete darkness fell in St. Thomas Aquinas with the bow on Sulpicio Express Siete lodged inside the rear hull of the 2GO liner. Some passenger took advantage of this momentary coupling of the two ships and jumped to the bow of the container ship. They were among the luckier ones because in minutes it was obvious their liner was stricken with a mortal blow worse than the Italian liner Andrea Doria.

Timeframe of collision ©Marinetraffic.com/Jeth Casagan

While the Andrea Doria had a good design that limited water intrusion and which kept her afloat for many hours St. Thomas Aquinas was a RORO which lacked watertight doors and compartments. When Sulpicio Express Siete reversed screws and disengaged she immediately developed a dangerous list and she capsized within minutes not affording enough time for proper evacuation which was made more difficult by the darkness. Trans Asia 9 also did not come to the rescue unlike the French liner Ile de France which illuminated Andrea Doria and launched lifeboats to the rescue.

Immediately after the accident charges and counter-charges of fault and recriminations were hurled and mainly by 2GO and netizens were quick to blame PSACC, the former Sulpicio Lines. Their former bad reputation hurt PSACC’s case in the bar of public opinion and it was even made worse by the fact that it was their ship which rammed and sank the other and was beyond the median line initially. Almost to a man almost everybody was blaming PSACC except maybe PSSS and a few others including mariners who understand COLREG (Collision Regulations) which governs rules of the road at sea. A Special Board of Marine Inquiry (SBMI) made an investigation that drew mainly on eyewitness account which tend to be biased depending of which ship they were boarded. In PSSS we noted there was almost no use of AIS which is the ship’s transponder and St. Thomas Aquinas was visible because their MMSI module was active and that gave her location, direction, speed and identity along with other data. It was her AIS which said she was overspeeding and she crossed the bow of the PSACC ship, a maneuver not permitted unless the other ship gave permission (this was also established later by the official investigation report).

Damage on Sulpicio Express Siete ©John Cabanillas

After over a year, the Philippine body tasked with determining fault, the Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI) determined liabilities and this was affirmed by their supervisory body, the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC). It sidestepped a purely COLREG-based decision and instead looked at other technicalities. The result said the St. Thomas Aquinas was mainly at fault because it held that ships moving out of port have priority over incoming ships. The report also noted a collision could have been avoided if both ships slowed down especially since they are not in radio contact.

Up to now the remains of St. Thomas Aquinas still lay near the collision site and lays precariously by her side in a sea ledge like the Costa Concordia. The maritime authority has already decided that 2GO should remove her as she poses hazard to navigation. Meanwhile, the municipality of Cordova is pressing payment for damage to their mangroves and fishing ground due to the oil spill in the aftermath of the sinking. Victims are still seeking further compensation while the two captains directly involved in the collision remain suspended. The other ships involved were not called to bar to answer for their actions.

Pumping oil from the remains of M/V St. Thomas Aquinas

Now, the liner St. Thomas Aquinas is just a memory but a bitter one at that especially for the victims who are not holding on to solid hopes as deadly maritime accidents in the Philippines take the courts up to over a generation to make a final decision.

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