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.

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My Recent Trip to Masbate, Batangas, Mindoro and Bicol (Part 1)

I promised myself before that if I am in Cebu and if the Super Shuttle RORO 3 (SSR3) of Asian Marine Transport Corp. (AMTC) is running then I will take her to Batangas and that ship calls on Masbate on the way to there. I already inquired about her in AMTC Ouano last Sinulog but she was not running continuously yet then. She is my choice as she is the only direct trip to Batangas and she is the cheapest way to there. I also intended to take her on my way back to Cebu after I go on a short visit to Mindoro.

We thought she was just running recently but I found out she was already in the route since March but her schedule is irregular as it is already the cargo that determines when she leaves port making her more of a cargo-passenger ship or a RORO Cargo ship.

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When I verified she was sailing, I tried to get a ticket in their Gorordo office in Cebu but they were no longer issuing tickets there and so I just got one when I went to AMTC Ouano where she is docked. We left on a Monday midnight but actually I nearly left the ship even though I already had a ticket because upon boarding I found out many of her comforts were already gone when to think she wasn’t really a very comfortable ship to start with.

Gone already was the restaurant and the aircon sitting accommodation called “Theater”. Both were already closed. Of course the Tourist was never opened for since the very start SSR3 didn’t have enough passengers. Although I paid for the cheaper Seating accommodation in “Theater” they bumped me into the more uncomfortable Economy.

The Economy was the same and the mattresses are folded and the reason is to cut down on the dust settling in. But then it was still dusty as nobody takes care to clean them anymore and AMTC Ouano is dusty since the concrete has already turned into muck and the dust floating even diffracts my shots. The toilet and bath is also deteriorated too and less than clean (and its flies even go to the Economy section). The Economy is also hot even then but I found out the noise and vibration from the propeller shaft has lessened. There was no linen available. The Economy is basically for truck crews now and the passenger total was less than five.

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The only place to while away time in SSR3 where there is air. On the kiosk on the right some food is available. Getting hungry is a possibility in the ship. The seats are dusty.

For meals there is rice and the service crew of the kiosk in the bridge level will cook canned food in a single-burner stove when ordered and eggs are available plus drinks, biscuits and noodles. Even that kiosk is also deteriorated too and the seats are dusty. In the ship there were more apprentices than passengers and truck/vehicle crews (there was one pick-up in the load). But what they had were apprentices that do not know how to clean a ship.

My condition demands more comfort than the average person and I feared I won’t be able to sleep. I suffered in the trip but I tried the best I can to survive. But I cannot remember the last time I rode a more uncomfortable ship that has a reclining accommodation. Even the unimproved Lapu-lapu Ferry of more than ten years ago to Cataingan, Masbate with folding cots was more comfortable because it was airy and there was passenger service unlike in SSR3. In SSR3 I never saw a crewman in uniform and most of the persons doing some jobs were just apprentices. Now I wonder what they will learn after their apprenticeship expires when they don’t even tend to the ship and the passengers.

When I woke up in the morning we were still in the middle of Visayan Sea and it was the Samar Sea islands that were dominating the seascape. I knew there is just a small chance of a ship encounter as this place has few ships sailing at daytime. It is a long time before the islands seemed to move and the very few passengers and crewmen at the lounge by the kiosk don’t know them better than me. Until we passed by Cataingan Bay the Masbate land when we were astride it already seemed featureless. I just tried to view the islands in the east especially when we were approaching Naranjo islands. Yeah, with so many islands in the place and lots of fishes I was imagining the place as the birthplace of the Tausugs and the Badjaos which linguistic research says it is and they even have a descendant in the place, the Abaknons.

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Islands in Samar Sea

Until the ship reaches the Uson area with its offshore islands Masbate island is not exciting to watch passing by. Maybe the lack of a true mountain range is the reason and though there is a coastal road few developments are visible. It is the islands on the starboard of the ship that seems to provide variety. And I was peering into it as if I am trying to peer into history and the peoples of the area. I feel that what is called Masbateno now could be the mother language of many languages. If our people came from Formosa and Bicol is their landing place on the way south and Bicol with its many dialects is a Visayan language then Masbate and the islands in Samar Sea might have been the key to the diaspora south.

The Uson area of Masbate also has a fascination to me as that was the only place in Masbate island that the Spaniards was able to control and the rest was controlled by the Moros. In Uson the Spaniards was able to established a galleon-building yard and the area south of the Bicol mountain ranges hosted the bulk of the galleon-building yards of the past as it had the best shipwrights then. I cannot help but think of that when I pass the place. By the way after Uson the ship will sail astride Ticao island too which was very important then to the galleon trade.

As forecast soon we were enveloped in heavy rain and visibility was hampered. The positive thing is everything cooled. It was a reminder that it was already habagat (southwest monsoon) season. We were now leaving the area where there is a gap in the far land mass. To the knowledgeable they know it is the San Bernardino Strait, the way of the galleons in the past into the Pacific Ocean (which is anything but pacific). It was also the way of our seafaring ancestors to Formosa and China, the Pintados with their boats that are even longer than the galleons. Their shipbuilding stopped when the Spaniards issued an edict outlawing them because they needed their skills for the galleons.

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Masbate port. We will try to dock sideways between the two ferries.

We arrived in Masbate after more than 14 hours of sailing and we had a long time docking because the Captain tried a 45-degree docking. Maybe the linear space was not enough for sideways docking. But then the Sta. Clara ferry Jack Daniel suddenly left ahead of time and maybe her Captain was apprehensive of our docking maneuver and she was not waiting for any more vehicles anyway. But with that the last chance I can take pictures of buses in Masbate port was gone. Regarding ferries there were still two Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) High Speed Crafts plus a small RORO of them that will spend the night in port.

I then just made my way to Masbate bus terminal where I found four buses and a few motor bancas in the nearby boat landing area for most have already left as it was already 4 o’clock in the afternoon and the activities in the two Masbate ports was already dying. I was clearly dissatisfied with my Masbate ship and bus spotting. My only consolation was eating the Reuben burger of Bigg’s Masbate but it cost over P200 already. I try to eat in Bigg’s whenever I am in Bicol because they can’t be found outside the region except for two of their outlets.

We left Masbate after more than three hours when night had already fallen after taking in livestock trucks and that meant cattle, carabao and goat (thanks there were no hogs). Masbate is known for livestock and the cattle was obviously for fattening. It was headed for Batangas and I assume when it reaches the market it will already be “Batangas beef”. The car deck of SSR3 when we left Masbate and actually they did not fully load it in Mandaue so the cargo in Masbate can still be loaded.

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For conversion to “Batangas cattle”

After dinnertime (there was actually no dinner), I was able to find a truck crewman that knows the area and like me has been around the country as he drifted from one job into another beginning with fishing. In terms of knowledge of the sea the contract fishermen in the big fishing fleets have almost the same knowledge as the seaman. Amazingly, he also knows buses. He has already lived in many places. We talked even past the Aroroy headland and lighthouse.

I was able to find a more comfortable position on an upper deck which I normally won’t take because of my condition but the only breeze was there. The alternative is to sleep on a bench in the bridge deck by the canteen. Even there it was dusty but at least it was airy. A practical passenger actually slept there and I also spent time there after a hypoglycemic attack when I needed to cool down.

In terms of uncleanliness I do not know if SSR3 has descended to the level of Viva Shipping Lines. Sorry to say it and no offense meant but SSR3 is only good for truck crews whixh is a hardy bunch and not passengers and may this serve as a warning. Cleaning is not part of the routine of the crew and the apprentices. If there is no regular schedule then MARINA could just withhold the passenger license like with what they did with Gothong Lines. It won’t matter on the part of AMTC anyway because for all practical purposes SSR3 is just a RORO Cargo ship now and she gets full anyway according to what I heard.

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Marinduque behind

When I woke up in the morning we were just between Marinduque island and the Batangas headland which corresponds to the town of San Juan. I laughed because that route will make one feel what the view is if the Starhorse ferry was still sailing the San Juan to Marinduque route. Astride San Juan the plains of Naujan of Mindoro, the former developed area of Mindoro before Calapan was very visible along with the two tall mountains of Mindoro. Up ahead were the islands in the Verde Island Passage. But I was wondering why our ship was following the coastal route. Were we reclassified into a “coaster”?

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Mindoro up ahead

I was able to engage in some productive exchanges with people connected with AMTC before entering Batangas Bay. From Matuco Point I was already busy taking photos of ships. The only positive thing about SSR3 was I was able to charge all my batteries. As usual there were a lot of ships in Batangas port and in the bay. Maybe my most notable finding was the reappearance of the former Siquijor Island II which is now The Pegasus. Our trip from Masbate lasted over 16 hours and it was near lunch when we arrived.

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Batangas port

Disembarking from the ship the ATI (Asian Terminals Inc.) shuttle picked us up. Nobody walks around in Batangas port because ISPS tells them any passenger is a possible saboteur and ATI is the new operator. I really cannot understand this practice of government of handing over fully-developed ports with a lot of traffic to private operators for just a small rental when a port like Batangas costs in the billions. A chance to engage in “golden signatures”, perhaps?

I did not have much time in Batangas port because upon surveying the ticketing booths I noticed the Starlite Pioneer was leaving at 1pm and I wanted to take that to assess the design of the new ship series of Starlite Ferries. I did not even have enough time to take enough bus pictures or have a proper lunch. But one thing I noticed in Starlite Ferries is a lot of passengers have food in see-through plastic meal boxes. I found out later that was already the new way of selling meals in Batangas and Calapan. Neat and practical and the price just matches that of fast food chains and there is less garbage and mess in the ship.

I found out the new Starlite Ferries has no meaningful difference over the older ferries except the side passageways are wider and there was an elevator for disabled persons. A wing passenger ramp like in Cebu is a better improvement for Batangas ferries because what they do is hold the passengers so that the vehicles can load or unload first. A wing ramp will enable simultaneous passenger and cargo loading and unloading which the Batangas ferries can’t do unlike in Central Visayas.

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By the way the passenger bridges of Batangas port are no longer used as shuttles just whisk away the passengers to their ship. So the design was wrong? Well, one does not need to go to the second floor of the passenger terminal building anymore and then go down to wharf level near the ship. Bus passengers meanwhile has to go down to pay the passenger terminal fee and board again their bus up to the ferry. Well it seems “cattle-herding” won’t go anytime soon in the ISPS ports. Why can’t the port assign collectors to go up the buses? It seems passenger comfort is an unknown objective to them. If passengers can move their asses so should they can for they are paid after. Maybe they can recruit former bus conductors to do that job for them.

Starlite Ferries built an open-air Economy section on top of the Japan-built passenger section to increase passenger capacity much like what shipping companies do with the surplus ships from Japan. It should have been my accommodation but the good thing is they upgraded us to the aircon section. That was a nice facility to cool down when ship spotting. My senior citizen fare was only P171 and I wondered how they computed that since it was lower than what I expected. Their fare are like the Economy of Oceanjet and FastCat which is about equivalent to the Economy of MSLI and I heard MSLI is suffering as a result. It is really good if there is true competition as fares go down.

It is nice taking a ferry to Calapan as there are many ships anchored in Batangas Bay and there are also encounters with ships from Calapan and ships traversing the Verde Island Passage. Sabang of Puerto Galera also becomes visible along with Maricaban island and Verde island. Traversing the strait one might think it was not habagat yet as the sea shows no sign of it. Approaching Calapan one has view of the town (it is a city), the settlements to the port and the port itself which looks very long now with many buildings already.

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A part of Calapan port

We arrived in Calapan port at past 3pm. Starlite Pioneer was not able to deliver on their 1 hour 45 minute promised crossing time and we took two hours in the 24-nautical mile route. I thought the cruising speed of the ship was 14.5 knots? That is what they advertised. But anyway the crew was nice and I was able to charge batteries a little. And riding a new ship is always nice.

Upon arrival in Calapan, I realized I had no time anymore to go to Puerto Galera because if I do so I will arrive there when the sun is already setting down and I still wanted to roam Calapan port and take photos of ships and buses there if there are any around (there was none as it was still to early for the buses from Panay and Occidental Mindoro). I was also interested in the Mindoro jeeps which are actually trucks in disguise as they can’t be found anywhere else.

After finding an eatery where I was able to charge battery I went to Calapan market to visit old haunts (I did business in Mindoro before) and see what changed, what remained. When I visited Calapan three years ago with two PSSS Moderators as hosts I was not able to figure out well the market as we were more on the outskirts and the new developments in Calapan. Roaming the market, I just did it on foot to better absorb things. I already tried to find our old place. I can no longer find it. The place of a lady Chinese friend was shuttered already. And the legendary Ampo was no longer there too.

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Calapan public market and terminal

Before leaving the city I took my first food that can be called a meal. That was also my rest. Then a heavy rain fell and that precluded any more roaming or getting around. Getting a tricycle also got difficult. It was already a little dark when I arrived back in the port and roaming and taking shots were compromised. I got back to the eatery to retrieve my battery. I was able to interview the owner a little about the old ferries of Calapan when all were still wooden-hulled and moving cargo were all mano-mano (by hands).

In Calapan port I made calls and verification through others of my possible rides. I have the phone of AMTC Batangas but they were not answering calls. They had a notice in their ticketing office that boarding of SSR3 is 6pm the next day. If that is the case then I can while away the time in Batangas port, the city and the terminal (or go to Puerto Galera). But I was warned aboard the ship that it usually takes 3 days before SSR3 heads back to Cebu. Even the crewman aboard SSR3 was not taking my calls.

My alternative if it really that long was to take the 7am St. Francis Xavier of 2GO the next day in the North Harbor of Manila. It will cost me more but I can cover North Harbor again. But I anticipated a problem with the 2GO ship. All charging are charged there at P5 for 10 minutes. It will cost me a fortune to charge all my batteries which take a total of over 12 hours. And that is what I cannot understand about 2GO when the likes of Trans-Asia can offer free charging by the bunk and that is also what I found out about the refurbished Filipinas Maasin of Cokaliong which was my ship back to Cebu. It’s hard when there are stockholders to please like in 2GO. They always expect dividends from profits.

I tried to avoid an early Calapan departure because I know there are less passenger comforts in Batangas port than in Calapan port. The first one is an ISPS port in the fullest sense and the passengers have a very small “corral” to roam around with few “grazing” areas like stores. That is not a problem in Calapan. If needed I can take a tricycle and head back to the city if I want a better eat or surroundings. If I go early there is no sense arriving in Manila at 2am. Manila is more dangerous and going to North Harbor early is also no good as the terminal is not open much ahead of the departure time (why waste power?).

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Issuance of free ferry tickets for bus passengers in Calapan port

So I decided on an 11pm FastCat where I can have a nice rest. I declined the Starlite ferry at the same time because it is the older Starlite Jupiter. I am not sure if it has individual seats in an air-conditioned compartment and visually I dislike seeing people sleeping on seats (Batangas ferries are known for scrimping on bunks unlike in Cebu). If it was a new Starlite ferry that is different from the Starlite Pioneer I would have taken it because I need charging.

While waiting in Calapan port I was able to befriend two guards and I had a lively conversation with them that I was able to get more sense of Calapan-Batangas shipping now. We also had some talks of the past of Mindoro. Nothing beats a good talk when one is just waiting anyway. While i was talking to them the buses from Panay island and Occidental Mindoro kept arriving and after a short wait they board their ferries. Dimple Star is already the dominant bus in the routes that cross from Batangas going south.

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The FastCat and the Starlite Jupiter arrived one after the other in Batangas after leaving one after the other in Calapan. Are the new ferries limiting their speeds already to save on fuel? We took nearly two hours to Calapan. My FastCat was the M5 and I have not ridden it before like the Starlite Jupiter. Their fares are about the same but I got the feeling the FastCat is more comfortable as it is a new ferry.

When I arrived in Batangas port at 1 am there was only one bus available, an N. De la Rosa Transit which is a Cubao/Kamias bus and passes through the Cubao underpass. I didn’t like it. I don’t want to go down in Makati and so I waited. But there was no other bus because a 2GO ship arrived ahead of us and vacuumed the waiting buses. At that hour going to the Batangas Grand Terminal will cost money by tricycle. Yes, one can get marooned in Batangas port after midnight.

Until 3am arrived. The N. De la Rosa bus has not yet left. Seems it was waiting for the 1am ferries from Calapan. 3am is the critical hour for me. If my bus is not leaving by that time then there is no more point going after a 7am ferry in North Harbor as I might just miss it. Good i hedged my bet and didn’t get a 2GO ticket yet although their ticketing office was open.

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A view of Batangas port while waiting for a bus

And from there my plans changed in an instant. Good I was from Luzon and I know the other alternatives. I can’t wait for the other 2GO ferries in North Harbor as the next two departures are at night and the arrival in Cebu will also be at night and what is the use of that for ship spotting? It is also not a good alternative to wait for the SSR3 for 3 days. I was also not prepared for any long-ranging diversion in terms of days as I was not prepared for that in many ways.

I have to go some other way back….

(To be continued…)

What Could Be The First True Test Of The New Starlite Ferries

Since last year, 2015, the new Starlite ferries began arriving in Batangas, the home port of Starlite Ferries Incorporated. So far as of this writing (September 2016) four has arrived in the country, the Starlite Pioneer, the Starlite Reliance, the Starlite Eagle and the Starlite Saturn. These are brand-new ferries ordered from Japan from a loan extended by the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP). More are actually on the pipeline and coming soon.

These new ferries were built by the Kegoya Dockyard in Kure yard, Japan and by Fukushima Zosen in Matsue yard, Japan (another report said Shimane yard). The common measurements are 67.0 meters length overall (LOA) by 15.3 meters breadth by 9.4 meters depth with a Gross Tonnage (GT) of about 2,700. The DWT is about 915 and the passenger capacity is about 750 which indicates an all-seating arrangement. The top sustained speed of these ferries are 14.5 knots.

The owner of Starlite Ferries, Alfonso Cusi is too proud and expansive about his ferries. As advanced features he cites the bulbous stem but then most ferries of this size since 30 years ago already featured bulbous stems. This feature lessens drag which then increases the speed by a little. Cusi also cites its motion dampening system. Admittedly this is a plus on rough seas as added passenger comfort. The owner also cited the deep draft of his new ships. That will add to the stability of the vessel because it lowers the center of gravity.

I was hoping Cusi will mention other features like ECDIS but he did not mention it or even INMARSAT (it might have NAVTEX though). I hope the ship has an autopilot and automatic docking system. I also would want to see if she already has the joystick instead of the traditional steering wheel. Plus a collision avoidance system. And a depth finder that is mated to ship’s autopilot to immediately stop the ship if grounding or hitting an underwater object is imminent. If the ship has these features then all the expansiveness of Cusi will be justified. When he talks he makes it sound as if all the other ferries of his competition are already obsolete.

Externally, the new Starlite Ferries don’t look much. It is as if she borrowed the lines of a 1960’s ship, to be honest. Actually, the newer ship of Cokaliong Shipping Lines look better aesthetically. Also the Jack Daniel of Sta. Clara Shipping or even the Trans-Asia 3 of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. If her external lines looked impressive the more that there will have been be “Oh’s and Ah’s”.

The ships have high sides. That is a plus on rough seas and also a plus when listing. However, that feature might not be tested as the government is already nervous about any kind of rough seas and will suspend voyages when storm winds several hundred kilometers away reach 60 kilometers per hour which is even less than a full gale in England. But for Cusi to say all ferries here were designed for the calm seas of the Inland Sea of Japan is too much. Some of our ferries from Japan had routes to the Ryukyus or some shimas outside the Japan main islands. To also say that his new ships are the only IACS-classified ship is also out of the line. China belongs to IACS and they have ships here along with the FastCats of Australian design and which are ABS-certified. Many ships from Japan when they came here were also Class NK.

I just wonder about the 9.4 meters depth of these new Starlite Ferries. That is double the normal depth of ferries her size. Does she have a second car deck below her main car deck? If that is the case then she will be carrying an impressive rolling cargo capacity. Whatever, her 15.4 meters breadth also caught my attention. ROROs her size normally don’t exceed 14 meters in breadth and many are even less than that. Maybe that is the reason why instead of being sleek they look a little bloated to me.

That 15.4 meters might be a plus as that might mean 4 full lanes. It might not accommodate 4 buses or trucks across but definitely it will accommodate two trucks and two sedans or SUVs across while the ferries of this size might have difficulty doing that over the entire length of her car deck. But the caveat is if she can attract that many vehicles.

Fifteen new ferries are arriving for Starlite Ferries. That means that where before they can just stick to Mindoro island routes, their home ground , this time around they have to expand to other routes. In media, it was stated that Starlite Ferries will enter the Cebu-Ormoc route. The Cebu to Leyte routes especially on the vehicle side is crowded especially with the entry of the Cargo RORO LCTs and even the well-established overnight shipping companies are cringing at the onslaught of that new paradigm as these offer rates as low as half of the rates they used to charge. Trucks are the biggest source of revenue across Camotes Sea not the sedans or AUVs, at least in rolling cargo. There are no buses in these routes.

Can Starlite Ferries compete against them? In trucks the rolling rate is the decision point. In Mindoro, Starlite Ferries has proven they are good in locking in buses as they have in their bag the biggest bus company to Panay, the Dimple Star. But there are no buses here. I wonder how Starlite Ferries will win the trucks which now make a beeline to the Cargo RORO LCTs for they are the cheapest in the route by a big margin. These can afford to do that since they have no investment in passenger comfort and amenities and they can sail slow with their less powered engines and the longer transit times are understood part of the low charge.

Compete in passengers? Somehow being new is a plus in the decision of the passengers – as long as the departure times are proximate. I wonder if Starlite Ferries will sail at night because if they will do that then they have to provide bunks and not only that but several classes of accommodations are well. The competition even has Suite Class. Meals and a dining area are also expected. The burned Wonderful Stars of Roble Shipping was the benchmark in that.

I wonder if the superior speed of the new Starlite can come into play. In the Cebu-Leyte route if the voyage is at night a superior speed might mean nothing at all because that will only result in an ungodly arrival which does not mean anything to most passengers. If Starlite leaves at 11pm like the competition what is the advantage of a 3am arrival over a 4am arrival? One thing sure if Starlite Ferries come into Ormoc with only benches or seats they will already be losing a lot of passengers. Unless it is a jetseater type of seat in an airconditioned accommodation that is priced low.

If it is a day trip the superior speed might factor in a bit. They can depart as late as 1pm and arrive at 5pm which is still acceptable and passengers will have the option of having lunch at shore that is not very early. Or leave at 8am and still arrive at noon. However, at sheer speediness they can’t make much out of it since those who want it real fast will opt for the fastcrafts of Oceanjet, SuperCat or Weesam Express. Or even the plane being sold now by Cebu Pacific.

The Starlite Ferries are also carrying a lot of amortization weight in every ship whereas their competitors do not have such burden. Some even have their ships debt-free and some are carrying the low interest and easy terms of the ships from China and that is common in the Cargo RORO LCTs. A rough guesstimate is about P3 million per month of principal and interest payments for each new Starlite Ferries. That could be some P100,000 a day. And that is above any operational cost, depreciation, mandatory fees and insurance charges.

Cebu-Ormoc will be the first real test of the new Starlite Ferries. They will be starting from scratch and will not have the advantages and favors of having operating for long in Mindoro where they have already locked-in customers. If in Mindoro they only have a handful of competition but in Cebu-Leyte since all parallel routes are actually competing then they are arrayed at dozen plus competitors which have ships of all kinds.

Their main opponent might not be even in Ormoc as it might be the better ships of Palompon, a parallel route where Cokaliong Shipping and Medallion Transport have ferries better than what can be found in Ormoc and are even cheaper. The tough opposition can also be found in the many nondescript ports in Leyte being used by the Cargo RORO LCTs like the GGC Port and the IDHI port along with the the Hindang Port used by Goldenbridge Shipping. A report to me said there is even a new unidentified port 27 kilometers south of Ormoc being used by the Cargo RORO LCTs. And of course Bato, Hilongos and Pingag, Isabel have more than a fair amount of rolling cargoes and passengers. Cebu-Ormoc is also a bread and butter route of the High Speed Crafts which are known to adjust fares to boost ridership.

I am really interested to watch how this will play out. They might see a dogfight soon.

Photo Credits:

Jefferson Provido [Starlite Pioneer]

Ralph Russell Abesamis [Starlite Eagle and Starlite Saturn]

starlite-eagle-and-starlite-saturn