Denica Lines

This small shipping company probably won’t be much heard outside Bicol and they might be small but they also carry some weight and they won’t topple easily. Alternately, the vessels of Denica Lines are also listed under the owner Carolyn Cua Sy-Reyes. The home port of Denica Lines is Pilar, Sorsogon and they are among the shipping companies connecting that town to Masbate island.

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The Lady Regina

Denica Lines started as a shipping company by operating big motor bancas. When I say “big” it is because its passenger capacity will run upward to 100 persons. Alternately, if loaded with just cargo it can take in the load of a mini-truck or cargo jeep (well, it cannot be all cement or rice because the weight of that might exceed the DWT of the banca thus sinking it).

The owners of Denica Lines actually started as sub-regional distributors and traders and like in many places elsewhere the possession of own motor bancas is a needed horizontal expansion as it gives flexibility to trading and also generate savings. Usually a shipping operator with its own trading business is much more stable than its competitors. One part might not earn much but then the other part will carry it through. And there will also be no problem with what is called in shipping as “shut-outs” which is the failure to have a cargo loaded. For perishables that could be disaster.

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Denica Lines has many big motor bancas. These are fast because those are powered by surplus truck engines and usually it is twin-engined. The total of the horsepower will be over 400 and that will guarantee the motor banca will travel at at least 13 knots which are even faster than the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO which usually travels at only 10 knots. I have seen in Ticao Pass and Masbate Pass that they are really faster. [Well, if used for heavy cargo then all that horsepower will be needed.] Of course, their weakness is the choppy waters and cross-swells. The motor bancas have to time the crests and throughs of the waves and look out for the cross-swells which can damage the outriggers which is called katig locally.

As of now the motor banca fleet of Denica Lines consist of the Lady Regina, Gloria Express, Gloria 7, Gloria 8, Gloria 9, Gloria 10, Phoenix Express I, Phoenix Express II, Hammity and Hammity 2 plus the motor boat Golden Blossom. I would assume that the missing in the series Gloria 1 to Gloria 6 were their earlier motor bancas that are no longer around. The first two, the Gloria Express and Lady Regina are supposedly the fastest in the fleet of Denica Lines including their steel-hulled ships. The two can do at least 14 knots in calm waters.

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In motor bancas, the biggest competitor of Denica Lines is the Lobrigo Lines which have a fleet as big as theirs and which operated buses before (which lost when the intermodal buses came as they didn’t have ROROs). Aside from Lobrigo Lines there are many other operators of motor bancas as Pilar is a motor banca haven after all. Aside from motor bancas there are also motor boats going to Aroroy, Masbate. This town also have many motor bancas from Pilar.

In 2002, Denica Lines ventured into steel-hulled ferries when the purchased the laid-up cruiser Elizabeth Lilly of the defunct Western Samar Shipping Lines. They refurbished the engines of the ship and it was again reliable. They renamed the ship as the Bikol Express but she was not really fast as she had only a single 550-hp Yanmar Marine engine and her design speed was only 11 knots. The size of the ship was just the equivalent of a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO at 29.3 meters by 6.0 meters and 189 in gross tons.

As a ferry, Bikol Express was not much. She didn’t even have bolted seats, just plastic benches that can be moved. The reason is like some of the motor bancas of Denica Lines is she doubles as a cargo ship with passengers. What cannot be carried by the motor bancas like a truckload or two of rice or cement, she will carry. Her DWT of 100 tons comes in handy for such loads.

M/V Marina Empress

Marina Empress by Irvine Kinea

But then ROROs of Montenegro Shipping Lines came and so Denica Lines has to adjust as the trucks instead of unloading their cargo in Pilar just board the RORO now and goes direct to Masbate. They sold the Bikol Express to Batanes Multi-purpose Cooperative (BMPC) and went hunting for a RORO. Again, true to form they settled on a RORO that was not sailing, the Torrijos or Vanessa P2 of the Sta. Cruz Shipping of Marinduque which was already then in the process of winding up their shipping operations having been on the receiving end of the pressure from stronger shipping companies like Montenegro Lines.

The ship was taken from a Navotas yard and she was renamed as the Marina Empress. The Marina Empress is a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO of just 700 horsepower from her single Daihatsu marine engine and with the external measurement of 32.3 meters by 7.8 meters and a gross tonnage of 195. However, like the earlier rumor, her engine was no longer strong.

With Alabat Shipping Corporation of Alabat island going out of operations too, Denica Lines purchased its only ferry, the Odyssey which was the former Starlite Odyssey of Starlite Ferries. This is another basic, short-distance ferry-RORO with a not-so-strong engine anymore. She is powered by a 550-hp Kubota marine engine and her external measurements are 30.5 meters by 7.0 meters with a gross tonnage of 176 which means she is slightly smaller than the Marina Empress. Denica Lines did not bother to rename the Odyssey.

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Denica Lines rarely sails the two ferries simultaneously as both are not really that reliable. Their ferries are in direct competition with the basic, short-distance ferries of Montenegro Lines which also do the Pilar-Masbate route. Their ferries might not be spic-and-span (it will remind one of the E.B. Aznar Shipping basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs) but most times their competition from Montenegro Lines are also basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs of the same age (which means old). Unless Montenegro Lines bring in the Reina Banderada which is a bit better.

If one considers that Denica Lines has a lot of motor bancas that carry not only people but also cargo it will not look that Montenegro Lines dominates them in the Pilar-Masbate route. The two might have some rough equality since Montenegro Lines has fastcrafts in the route. In glitz and glamour, of course, Montenegro Lines exceeds them.

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Pilar port and market

The owners of Denica Lines are also “well-positioned”, as they say. The husband was the Mayor of Pilar until 2016. In the May elections of this year Carolyn Cua-Sy Reyes was elected the Mayor and whitewashing her five opponents with 84% of the votes going to her. Well, it seems they are really respected in Pilar (in 2013 the husband also whitewashed his opponents). I do not know Pilar that much but from what I know it does not have the bokong of Leyte nor the use of muscles and influence in gaining an advantage for ship operations or in locking out the opponent.

Such is Denica Lines.

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The Blue Magic Ferries and Starhorse Shipping Lines

These two shipping companies are actually successors of the once-dominant Viva Shipping Lines and its legal-fiction companies Sto. Domingo Shipping Lines and DR Shipping Lines which once dominated the seas of the old Southern Tagalog region before four provinces of it were spun out as the MIMAROPA region. These two companies were founded by the sons of the founder of Viva Shipping Lines, the widely-known Don Domingo Reyes or “DDR” to many. This founder was a powerful man during his time as he was the landsman in the Bondoc Peninsula in Quezon of the martial law dictator then. Don Domingo Reyes’ main base was Bondoc Peninsula although most people thought it was Batangas City and Lucena as he has his bases of his shipping there and people did not know of Villa Reyes in San Narciso, Quezon where he built his first wooden motor boats that were called batel in the region.

A laid-up Viva Shipping Line RORO by Edison Sy

The Blue Magic Ferries was first to be established among the two. This came into existence when the operations of Viva Shipping Lines, etc. were already winded down and its ships being disposed already. Almost all of the older ships of the Viva Shipping combine were sold and most to the ship breakers. Maybe that will be the logical fate since the Southern Tagalog region has a surplus of ferries then when two Zamboanga shipping companies (the Aleson Shipping Lines and A.S. Sakaluran) and a Cebu shipping company (ACG Joy Express Liner) even tried their fates there (none was successful, however).

Some fastcrafts of Viva Shipping Lines somehow survived and these combined with the remains of ACG Joy Express Line. This company started in shipping with the Sea Cat vessels that first operated out of Cebu and had routes to Bohol and whose founder is a well-known scion of Cebu who is Alvin C. Garcia (hence the initials). From what I can gather, Blue Magic Ferries is a sort of partnership between two sons of Don Domingo Reyes and Alvin C. Garcia.

Blue Water Princes 2. Blue Magic Feries Blue Line Shipping.

Blue Water Princess 2 by JM Litada

Blue Magic Ferries was able to accumulate at least five ferries with two ROROs and two fastcrafts and a catamaran High Speed Craft (HSC). The ROROs were the Blue Water Princess 1 which was known as ACG Joy 8 in ACG Joy Express Liner before. The other RORO was the Blue Water Princess 2 which was the former Asia Brunei of the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. The High Speed Crafts of Blue Magic Ferries that I was able to verify were the Blue Water Queen, the Blue Water Lady and the Blue Water Lady II. The first was the former Our Lady of Mt. Carmel of DR Shipping Lines which was purchased from Sun Cruises of Manila. The second was the former Sea Cat 25, a catamaran of ACG Express Liner and the last was the former Our Lady of Fatima of Sto. Domingo Shipping Lines.

Blue Magic Ferries based itself in Lucena, an old base of Viva Shipping Lines, their predecessor company (later Starhorse Shipping Lines based itself too in Lucena). From there they operated routes to Marinduque and Masbate which are also old routes of Viva Shipping Lines. Lucena then was not virgin territory and in fact there were many shipping companies operating routes from there including Montenegro Shipping Lines, Phil-Nippon Kyoei and Sta. Cruz Shipping. Meanwhile, Kalayaan Shipping Lines had a route to Romblon. [Note: Phil-Nippon Kyoei and Sta. Cruz Shipping are both defunct now.]

Blue Water Queen

Blue Water Queen by Edison Sy

Trouble first struck Blue Magic Ferries when the Blue Water Princess 1 was hit by storm waves while on a voyage from Lucena to Masbate which was an old route of Viva Shipping Lines. It seems the ship’s rolling cargo slid unbalancing the ship which then tried to seek refuge in western Bondoc Peninsula but capsized when the ship struck the shallows. This unfortunate incident happened in 2007 and it resulted in some casualties. To a beginning struggling company this type of incident can be hard to surmount especially if the company has other problems.

From a TV grab of Sydney Morning Herald

Starhorse Shipping Lines came later than Blue Magic Ferries around 2008 and started by leasing ships from DBP Leasing Corporation, the government’s ship leasing company. They named these into a series called “Virgen de Penafrancia”. That name is not surprising since Viva Shipping Lines originally started with the “Penafrancia” series of batels and then into a series of ROROs called the “Viva Penafrancia”. It was able to secure a route by accepting the promoted but harebrained route of MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority, the Philippines maritime regulatory agency). That route is from Laiya, San Juan, Batangas to Marinduque which does not make sense on two counts. One, the distance is double than that of from Lucena and those who know the sea knows it will not be able to compete in rates and fares with the ferries from Lucena. Second, the direction of the route means the ferry will be broadsided by the habagat (southwest monsoon) waves, the same problem usually encountered by the Lucena-Masbate ships which once nearly capsized a ferry in the Pasacao-Masbate route. Starhorse Shipping Lines was founded by Victor Reyes, the eldest son of Don Domingo Reyes. [Victor Reyes was recently deceased.]

Soon, as expected, Starhorse Shipping Lines was able to secure a transfer to the Lucena-Marinduque route and they chartered more ferries from DBP Leasing Corporation until their series reached the numeral “VIII” (however there was no “III” and “IV” but reports then said they purchased the Don Martin Sr. 6 of the defunct Palacio Lines of Cebu and Samar but this is missing now). So for a time, Starhorse Shipping Lines was able to accumulate more ferries from DBP Leasing Corporation, most of which were LCTs. This time around Starhorse, the successor, emphasized cleanliness and passenger service, two terms that were unknown in the predecessor company. However, they were in the route where the new dominant shipping company of Southern Tagalog and MIMAROPA, the Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. was operating. In the early days of Montenegro Lines, their predecessor company Viva Shipping Line applied the pressure on them, shall we say. This time around, it was already the pleasure of Montenegro Lines to return the favor.

M/V Pinoy Roro-1 Folio

From a folio by Irvine Danielles

Greater trouble erupted for Blue Magic Ferries at the same time Starhorse Shipping Lines started operations. It seems they found out then that they have no Certificates of Public Convenience (CPC or franchise) which supposedly should still be in the possession of the Reyes family. Actually, things are really puzzling for me. From records I can gather, some 24 ships of the Viva Shipping Lines combine were confirmed sold (I can name the 24 individually) and some was as late as 2006. However, the family can show nothing for it in terms of ability to purchase new ships (especially by Starhorse Shipping Lines). And what happened to the franchises? These thing do not disappeared in an instant as it is the residual of any defunct transportation company and can even be sold for cash or hoarded. Were the proceeds returned to a “patron saint”?

Blue Magic Ferries stopped operations in 2008. The Blue Water Princess 2 was sold to Navios Shipping Lines where she became their first vessel, the Grand Unity. Blue Water Lady II was sold to DIMC Shipping of Dumaguete where she became the Delta III. The fates of the other ships are unknown to me. Some might still be laid up and one was reported to be in a Navotas yard.

Starhorse Lines M/V Peñafrancia II

Virgen de Penafrancia II by Arnel Hutalla

Starhorse Shipping Lines isn’t doing too well lately. They have returned to DBP some ships (ironically some is already with their competitor Montenegro Shipping Lines) and now they are down to two, the Virgen de Penafrancia I and Virgen de Penafrancia II which are both LCTs. Heads-on, LCTs are usually at a disadvantage against short-distance ferry-ROROs although their Korean-made LCTs seem to be better than the ordinary LCT.

One of the two, Blue Magic Ferries is now out. I wonder if Starhorse Shipping Lines can hold on and i hope they can. They are trying but sometimes the death of the founder proves insurmountable.

Blue Magic Ferries and Starhorse Shipping Companies are two successor companies I have a hard time figuring out. I wonder if there are smokes and mirrors even in the predecessor company.

LG Flatscreen TV for Entertainment

Starhorse Shipping goodluck charms by Irvine Kinea

As a last note, I have learned that Viva Shipping Lines still have some ships in storage in Lucena and San Narciso, Quezon. Will there be a rebirth? Or is it already too late and the family is too fractured now?

I am still interested in the further developments of these successor companies of Viva Shipping Lines.

It’s An Uphill Fight Now For The Pilar-Masbate Big Motor Bancas

Once upon a time, some 50 years ago and earlier, the main connection of Masbate island through its main port of Masbate to the Bicol mainland was the progressive town of Bulan in the southernmost tip of Sorsogon. Masbate then had good and links to Manila through passenger-cargo liners. All of those that drop anchor in Masbate port were still proceeding to Sorsogon and the northern ports of Bicol, Samar, Leyte, Cebu and with some still going to northern Mindanao ports.

These links had been around right after the war and even before the war. The trade driving it was copra and the port ’round Samar Sea and environs and the northern Bicol ports were great funnels of copra. Copra then was a powerful commodity such that there was even a “Coconut Alliance” in the same manner that there was a “Sugar Alliance” in the Philippine Congress and at the apex of that early on was presidentiable Jose Avelino of Samar which later passed on to Emmanuel Pelaez of Misamis Oriental with Emilio Espinosa of Masbate the local linchpin in the area. These “alliances” were pressure groups and plays a key role in selecting and supporting the national candidates.

Masbate port was a hub where goods can be exchanged with other ports in that area. This also involved goods to and from the national capital center and that was one of the reasons of the strong Masbate-Bulan connection. However, at the tail end of the 1970’s these nexus of links where Masbate was a major player began to go downhill. There were plenty of interconnected reasons for that and that will require a long discussion and hence will be left out of this article but two of those were the development of the highways and the rise of the intermodal transport system.

In the next phase when Masbate port just became a sideshow in the national liner network, the Masbate-Bulan link just became more of a purveyor of local goods. Masbate will no longer supply goods from Manila since Bulan has already a good road connection to Manila (courtesy of the buses Pantranco South and JB Lines). Motor boats and big motor bancas made the link between the two ports. However, in the same period emerged a new challenger to Bulan which was the port and town of Pilar in Sorsogon and in due time the Pilar-Masbate connection superseded in importance the Bulan-Masbate connection.

What tilted the balance was Pilar is much nearer than Bulan to the regional trade center of Legazpi-Daraga and to Manila. The bus factor got into the picture too. Where before JB Line and Pantranco South bus waited for passenger in Bulan terminal right beside the port, slowly “colorum” buses and Pantranco South buses began waiting for passengers in Pilar terminal right beside the port too. Pilar is significantly nearer to Manila than Bulan and so the fare is cheaper and the travel time shorter. Really, when roads get good, some paradigm changes are induced. Through the sea, Pilar and Bulan are nearly equidistant to Masbate port.

Big motor bancas and small motor boats connected Pilar and Masbate with the former much more in abundance. Both are powered by surplus truck engines (some are twin V-8s!) but the big motor boat being lighter is nimbler and faster. Another change that tilted the balance for Pilar was the reawakening of the Aroroy gold mines which was started by the small miners. This mine like the Larap mine shuttered in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s due to the drop of the world prices of copper and iron. Now such reawakening fueled people movement and the bus in Pilar and Pilar-Aroroy big motor bancas and small motor boats were there to serve it. Bulan cannot be the port of departure because it is simply too far from Aroroy. And so the start of the 1980’s saw the beginning of the heyday of the Pilar-Masbate big motor bancas.

The traffic in the route is heavy both ways in the early morning and approaching mid-afternoon. The reason for latter is these big motor bancas do not run at night and not because of MARINA or Coast Guard edicts. The trips last 3.5 to 4 hours and they hightail it before dusk settles. The reason, as anyone who is familiar with the coastal sea is the winds begin to get active and so do the swells when night is approaching. And the seas here, the Ticao Pass, the Masbate Pass and the Black Rock Pass have a high level of notoriety in showing no mercy to small crafts. These waters are graveyards of many motor bancas especially the fishing bancas. These three bodies of water are considered the most dangerous waters of Bicol, bar none.

There are many operators of big motor bancas in the Pilar-Masbate route but two entities dominated, the Denica Lines and the Lobrigo Lines and their rivalry is intense but not destructive. The two then raced with bigger and faster motor boats but their rivalry did not end in that sphere. Lobrigo Lines went into the bus business as vertical integration. So you ride their motor banca and you are assured of a bus seat (that was not sure in the past when there were not so many buses yet). In the reverse route, their bus passenger goes to their motor bancas. Of course all assistance and courtesy is extended and it was not simply like hauling cattle as this route is an epitome of free market competition. So aside from plenty of choices in bus and motor banca, the fares are fair game to haggle and courtesies are on full display. Pilar and Masbate are ports where there is no talk of porterage for motor banca passenger cargo. One does not queue for tickets also. They ask you inside the boat if you are already ready to pay and there is just a minimal charge for cargo.

Meanwhile, Denica Lines ventured into passenger ferries first with the cruiser ferry Bikol Express which was the former Elizabeth Lilly of Western Samar Shipping Lines. When they sold that Batanes Multipurpose Cooperative, they then acquire the Odyssey of Alabat Shipping Corporation which is a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO. Later, they also acquired the Vanessa P2 (ex-Torrijos) of Sta. Cruz Shipping which served the Lucena-Marinduque route and they renamed this the Marina Empress. This ship is another basic, short-distance ferry-RORO.

Lobrigo Lines took a different approach. They bought two fastcrafts from Japan which became the Maria Natasha and Maria Querubin. Not long after they sold the fastcrafts to Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. of Batangas which became the point of entry for that company in Bicol waters. The buses of Lobrigo Lines did not last that much long either. After less a decade only a few were still running until operations were nearly shut. It came back but other operators are merely riding on their permits. Maybe being good in seacrafts do not guarantee one will be good in land transport.

Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. whose inferior fastcrafts was trounced in the Batangas-Calapan route then was able to find a profitable haven in Pilar-Masbate. They actually invested in a jetty so their fastcrafts can safely use Pilar port which has notorious shallow waters because it lies in an estuary. They also invested in wharf improvement so they can also operate safely the basic-short distance ferry-ROROs they brought to the route. Then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo never saw fit to improve Pilar port because that happened to be under the district of a political opponent which was Francis Escudero. She would rather waste money in dozens of “ports to nowhere” than invest in one opposition port which has a true and growing traffic.

With the success of the fastcrafts and the basic-short distance ferry ROROs and with it the buses now crossing to and now rolling in Masbate island in its entirely, the Pilar-Masbate big motor bancas felt severe pressure. In most instances now, they are just the carriers of local passengers and cargo since Manila passengers and small cargo is now borne by the buses. Intermodal trucks has also invaded Masbate island and that further lessened the load of the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas.

Still the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas are still plying the route bravely and with elan. In the early morning from Masbate they rule the route since the buses and trucks are still not yet around and so the earliest RORO leaves around 10am. In the early morning hours from Masbate their competition are the fastcrafts. But the fare of those are double compared to them and so it is generally the middle and upper classes including the government workers who are patrons of that. The hoi polloi and the early cargo belongs to them because the fastcrafts don’t carry cargo.

In Pilar many leave too in the early morning hours especially if the ROROs are gone. The ROROs depart before morning since the buses and trucks are already there and those are early because most will still roll the length of Masbate island and it is their target to finish the route before lunch is well past. In the midmorning there will be no more ROROs in Pilar that will be crossing to Masbate and in Masbate there are no more ROROs after 1 pm. When there are no more ROROs that is the opening for the motor bancas. But it does not mean they will not leave if there are ROROs running. They will and they will try to overtake the RORO since they are faster (what are twin V-8s for anyway?).

However, a new development ratcheted up the pressure on the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas. A new route was developed, the Masbate-Pio Duran, Albay route. Pio Duran is nearer to Manila than Pilar and it has deeper waters and so there are no low tide restrictions. This route further took away traffic from the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas and since they are not running that route they cannot compete directly.

The Pilar-Masbate motor banca is not laying over and die. They are fighting hard especially on local cargo and passengers. They really try to lasso passengers and cargo. They will even take in cargo even without accompanying passengers and deliver it within the town through tricycles. They will treat the passengers well. Well they have to since they are no longer as full as before. There is no more way to take back the bus passengers although the knowing and especially those just from Masbate City or nearby know they can still take the motor banca which is cheap and they can haggle with the fare in the buses waiting in Pilar. Or be even to leave earlier if they will choose to proceed to Legazpi which has day morning bus trips which are faster (the buses from Pilar will still look for passengers along the way).

But still it is clear that the heyday of the Pilar-Masbate motor bancas is now over and it is already an uphill fight for them. I just hope it does not degenerate to a struggle for survival.