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.

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The Unsinkable Ferry

Me and Angelo Blasutta, owner of Grosstonnage.com, a very good maritime database but now defunct collaborated in finding the IMO Numbers of Philippine ships so their origins can be traced. This difficulty of tracing our ships is brought about by the continued refusal of MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the local maritime regulatory agency, to use IMO Numbers which are unique, lifetime identification numbers of the ships (to be fair, the MARINA of Marcos’ time used IMO Numbers). Me and Angelo were able to trace a few dozen ships but most simply eluded our tracing. Many are impossible to trace because they were local-built and did not possess IMO Numbers from the very start. The sad thing is that consisted the majority of our fleet.

One of the ships that eluded me is about an “unsinkable ship” which has Japan origins. Her specifications is near that of ferry Sanyo Maru but international maritime databases say she was broken up (well, that is not an ironclad guarantee because some “broken” ships ended up in other shores). I asked Rey Bobiles, then the nautical engineer of Sta. Clara Shipping Corp., sister company of the owner Penafrancia Shipping Corp. and he laughed and said they also can’t trace the IMO Number of the ship.

In late 2006, the ferry I am talking about can’t sail. She was then known as the Princess of Bicolandia. The ship was hit by a minor engine room fire and her engine control panel was burned and so she was laid up in Mayon Docks in Tabaco, Albay awaiting parts for repairs in the engine room. While in this condition, the strongest typhoon to ever visit Bicol region in recorded history, the Typhoon “Durian” which was better known locally as Typhoon “Reming” came in November of 2006. This super-typhoon had 10-minute sustained center winds of 195kph and gusts of 250kph.

For comparison, Typhoon “Yolanda” which wrecked Eastern Visayas in November 2013 had 10-minute sustained center winds of 200kph and Typhoon “Ruping”, the strongest typhoon to ever hit Cebu City in November 1990 has 10-minute sustained center winds of 190kph. All three generated powerful storm surges and all were deadly to shipping (Typhoon “Reming” was least deadly for shipping because Bicol has good ship shelters including the legendary and historical Sula Channel). Incidentally, all came in the month of November. We in Bicol know the amihan typhoons are the strongest ones.

But the Princess of Bicolandia can’t run and can’t hide. Mayon Docks secured the ships in their shipyard but with the strength and height of the storm surge the Princess of Bicolandia was pulled from her docking place by the storm surge. The people in Mayon Docks never thought they would see her again. After all, so, so many ships with crews and running engines got sunk in lesser typhoons and here is a super-typhoon for the ages and the ship was crewless and powerless (literally). And this is a RORO with no scantling at the bow area and at the stern and so water will easily slosh through her semi-open vehicle deck.

But lo and behold! The next morning, some rescue personnel braving the highway of the next town of Malilipot, Albay saw an unusual scene. There was a RORO ship sitting on a sandbar just off the shore. Not wrecked, not listing, not capsized. And so the news reached the shipyard and they can’t believe it. She was left there for a time and so the Princess of Bicolandia became an unusual “tourist spot”. Most thought the ship was gone, dead and will just be a “sitting monument” that will be chopped later on. That time was a period of indetermination because it happened during the sale and turn-over of Bicolandia Shipping Lines, the previous owner of the Princess of Bicolandia to Sta. Clara Shipping Company and Bicolandia Shipping Lines became the Penafrancia Shipping Company. The sale was lock, stock and barrel.

In May 2010, while in the company of fellow ship spotters of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) I was jolted while in Villono Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu. I saw a gray ship and I was electrified (really! I had goose bumps) because I immediately recognized she was the former Princess of Bicolandia which was then known in Bicol as a lost ship. I drew closer, to ask the skeleton crew. No, they said they do not know the name. I told them the name and the origins and the accident. It drew a blank stare. I did not know if they were playing poker with me.

The repairs in Villono Shipyard took over one-and-a-half years. On December 19, 2011 Vincent Paul Sanchez of PSSS espied her pulling out of the shipyard and heading north to Bicol. When he posted the photo I felt proud and ecstatic. Imagine a ship surviving such ordeal and sailing again! The great ships Princess of the Orient and Princess of the Stars did not even manage to survive typhoons of lesser magnitude than Princess of Bicolandia. Maybe the Bicol sili and Bicol Express were her charms. I knew when she reaches Bicol that jaws will drop (later Matnog porters confirmed to me that when they saw the ship they cannot believe their eyes too). Many really thought she was gone already, chopped up and dead. Her new name under Penafrancia Shipping was Don Herculano.

Don Herculano was a ship built in 1970 according to MARINA records. She is supposedly built by Shin Nihon, a shipyard I have difficulty in tracing. I am not sure if that is the same as Nihon Zosen Tekko KK which has records. This ship is a short-distance ferry-RORO with steel hull and ramps in the bow and at the stern (now closed). She has two masts, two funnels (only one before), two passenger decks, a forecastle and a single vehicle deck. Don Herculano has a raked stem and a transom stern.

The ship’s measurements are 46.4 meters length by 12.0 meters beam with a depth of 3.2 meters. Her original gross tonnage was 490 which was probably correct but this was re-declared to 1,029 so she can sail at typhoon signal number 1 (1,000gt ships can sail then at that storm signal but that is useless now since the rule changed; the rule for motor bancas are now the one used for steel-hulled ferries of whatever gross tonnage).

Don Herculano‘s net tonnage is 454 now and up from just 98 (which is probably underdeclared) as Princess of Bicolandia. She packs in 855 passengers all in seating accommodations and she has about 130 lane-meters in RORO capacity. She is powered by twin 1,000hp Daihatsu engines which propelled her to 13.5 knots in her better days.

I was able to interview her Captain when I sailed with her in the Allen-Matnog route. He confirmed to me that when found in the sandbar her engine room was half-flooded. I asked if they were able to order a new engine control panel. “No” was the answer because none was available in the surplus market, there are no more manufacturers and so they simply rigged switches and controls. There was even no oil separator available and so they just do things manually.

In the shipyard, they made repairs to the engines, the hull, the rudder and the propellers which were damaged by the typhoon. That was why she stayed a long time in Villono Shipyard. I moved around the ship. All traces of storm damage were no longer visible and not even in the engine room which I also visited. The Yanmar auxiliary engine was new, they said. The bridge was clean, spic and span.

Today, she mainly sails the Matnog-Allen route. She holds a powerful reputation there as people know the trials she went through and which she survived. “Hindi lulubog” (She will not sink.), that is what some whisper. I do agree.