Recent Developments in Bicol Passenger Shipping

A Backgrounder

A few years ago, Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) of Batangas entered the Matnog-San Isidro route using the government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal in San Isidro, Samar. Before that the company already plied before the Masbate City-Lucena route but got suspended when their MV Maria Carmela burned just before reaching Lucena and there were protests in Masbate backed up by their politicians. But aside from that route, Montenegro Shipping Lines had a route from Masbate City to Pilar using basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and hybrid LCTs (Pilar port can’t accommodate anything bigger because of its shallowness) and fastcrafts. In that route they were able to outlast the fastcrafts of Lobrigo Lines and the route became their staple and stronghold after they were driven out of the Batangas-Calapan route because the SuperCats there were simply superior than them.

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San Isidro Ferry Terminal

They then entered the Matnog-San Isidro route across San Bernardino Strait using the government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal. I knew it was a creeping move on their part and entry to the San Isidro route is easy since no ferry is using that route ever since Archipelago Philippine Ferries and Philharbor Ferries and Port Services left that port when they built their own port in Dapdap which is much nearer to Matnog than San Isidro. I knew MARINA, the maritime authority will easily grant a franchise since there is no ferry using that terminal and the 50-kilometer restriction has already been lifted by MARINA per Pres. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s instruction. Before, on parallel routes no franchise will be issued if the competing port is less than 50 kilometers away (but it seems that did not apply to the likes of western Leyte ports and the ports of near Dumaguete).

I was not worried for Bicol ferry companies as long as Montenegro Lines is in San Isidro because that route carries a significant penalty in distance as BALWHARTECO port which is being used by the Bicol ferry companies is just 11 nautical miles in distance while the San Isidro port is 15 nautical miles in distance from Matnog Ferry Terminal. I knew Montenegro Lines had to give near parity in rates if they want patronage. And they will have to field a faster ferry which they did and they suffered the fuel penalty. It was obvious that in using San Isidro Ferry Terminal that they are handicapped in competing with the Bicol ferry companies (Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, 168 Shipping Lines and Regina Shipping Lines).

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Dapdap port

But then it happened that the Archipelago/Philharbor operation which operated the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries was tottering they opened up Dapdap port for Montenegro Lines. And that is where I began to worry for the Bicol ferry companies as Montenegro Lines is a big shipping company (they even tout they have the most number of ferries which is actually true) and if transfer pricing was used by the big oil companies and by the bus group Vallacar Transportation Inc. locally then they can engage in price wars and the smaller Bicol ferry companies will suffer. With the move to Dapdap port and with the lessening of Archipelago and Philharbor ferries it is as if those twin companies are giving Montenegro Lines free business. Dapdap port is a little farther than BALWHARTECO port which the Bicol ferry companies are using but the difference in distance is minimal at about 11 nautical miles to 11.5 to 12 nautical miles. Of course, the shipping companies have their regular and locked patrons but there are a lot of non-committed vehicles especially the private vehicles (as differentiated from company vehicles) which pay the full, published rates unlike the regular and locked patrons.

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Jubasan port

A little later when the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) built its own port in Jubasan, also in Allen, for their and their sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation’s use, BALWHARTECO then opened its gates to Montenegro Lines and so the company finally had access to the most advantageous port in Samar (this port is in direct line to the vehicles from Catarman and Rawis). It seems the creeping strategy of Montenegro was finally working. In shipping it is not necessary that a company will get the most advantageous port or route at the start. With patience and resources, better arrangements and opportunities soon open.

Developments and the Current Situation

I was watching what will be the fate of the Bicol ferry companies especially since the long bond and partnership between BALWHARTECO and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the biggest Bicol ferry company was broken with the building of the Jubasan port against the wishes and objection of the owners of BALWHARTECO (this episode almost reached the courts since the owner tried to stop the construction as he was the Mayor of Allen where the ports are located and bitterness was really high). Well, none sank, most even grew and that was a surprise for me.

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Denica ferries in Masbate port

In Masbate, Denica Lines, which was basically only in motor bancas and cargo motor boats before fought back magnificently with the acquisition of the MV Odyssey to be followed by the MV Marina Empress which were just poor discards of other shipping companies. Both suffered engine troubles at the start and Denica Lines had to spend money for the two. Then this year Denica Lines was able to purchase a third basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the MV Regina Calixta II of Regina Shipping Lines of Catanduanes which was already buying bigger ferries. The MV Regina Calixta II is unrenamed as of this moment as changing names is actually not peanuts with regards to MARINA.

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Denica fastcrafts refitting in Pilar port

And last year Denica Lines got two rundown fastcrafts which they are slowly refitting right in Pilar port. So right now or soon, it seems Denica Lines is already ready to slug it out with Montenegro Lines toe-to-toe in the Masbate City-Pilar route. Meanwhile, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and twin company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation is doing roaring business in the parallel Masbate City-Pio Duran route especially since Medallion Transport was driven away from that route after their MV Lady of Carmel sank. The truck loading in that route is so good that Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation bought the LCT Ongpin, lengthened it and fielded it in the route as the LCT Aldain Dowey. And that is aside from two 60-meter ROPAXes they maintain in the route. So if the ferries of Denica Lines and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation in the route from Masbate City to the Bicol mainland is totaled then Montenegro Lines is outmatched already except in the High Speed Crafts segment which competes with the big motor bancas of different companies.

In the Matnog-Samar routes, the Bicol ferry companies are more than holding its own although both has not grown except in frequency. If there was growth it was taken by Archipelago Ferries Corporation which fielded a brand-new FastCat in the Matnog-San Isidro route which is also doing good business. But in terms of net, Archipelago Ferries is not ahead as the business they gained with the fielding of FastCat might not be greater than the business they lost with the disposal of the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries (and they are paying docking fees in San Isidro Ferry Terminal while their own Dapdap port is unused). In my comparisons, I still consider Archipelago and Philharbor as Bicol ferries since they started as such although with the good FastCats now they are trying to erase their connection to the lousy Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries because obviously they are ashamed of their record there.

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FastCat in San Isidro Ferry Terminal

And Montenegro Lines did not gain either in the Matnog-Allen route as the Bicol ferry companies was able to hold their own relative to them. If there was growth it was taken by the subsidiary of 2GO, the SulitFerry which operates a brand-new ROPAX LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26 and another one or two Cargo RORO LCTs depending on the season. Finally, 2GO discovered what was eating up their container shipping and passenger liner business and decided to compete (“if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”). Lacking enough resources, they started conservatively by just chartering new LCTs from Concrete Solutions Incorporated (CSI), owner of the Poseidon LCTs, whose fleet seems to be ever growing.

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The Poseidon 26 of Concrete Solutions and SulitFerry

In the routes to Catanduanes, there was obvious growth and changes. Initially, the most striking perhaps is the appearance of the two High Speed Crafts (although technically one is already a Medium Speed Craft) of the Cardinal Shipping Lines Incorporated, the MV Silangan Express 1 and the MV Silangan Express 3. I had my doubts early on about the viability of the two but it turned out they were doing okay. One reason maybe is their reasonable fares which is just about one will expect from a Tourist accommodation in a regular ferry and not double the Economy fare like what is charged in other parts of the country. The two HSCs of Cardinal Shipping also run in the hours not served by the regular ROPAX whose schedules are dictated by the arrivals of the buses (which means a morning departure from Tabaco and a noon departure from Catanduanes).

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The Regina Calixta VII (ex-Maharlika Cuatro). Photo by Dominic San Juan

One Catanduanes ferry company and a native of Catanduanes which made a great stride recently was Regina Shipping Lines or RSL. This company has already disposed their basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and instead bought bigger ferries. Part of their new acquisitions were the former MV Maharlika Tres, acquired from Atienza Shipping Lines and the former MV Maharlika Cuatro from Gabisan Shipping Lines. The two double-ended ferries became the MV Regina Calixta VI and and MV Regina Calixta VII in their fleet. The company was also able to acquire the former MV Grand Star RORO 3 which became the MV Regina Calixta VIII in their fleet. Rounding off the fleet is the MV Regina Calixta V which they acquired from China.

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The Regina Calixta VIII (ex-Grand Star RORO III)

The former ferries from Archipelago Ferries and Philharbor Ferries are no longer the sad ferries of Christopher Pastrana, the boastful. All feature Tourist accommodations now (there was none before) with a disco motif and sounds where good videos are played during the trip and all feature good, brand-new seats in Tourist (Regina Shipping Lines was in buses before and they know these things). Even the engines were refitted that the former MV Maharlika Tres is already running faster than her design speed (the maximum speed when new). The owner of Regina Shipping Lines simply opened his checkbook unlike Christopher Pastrana (who opened the checkbook of DBP instead) and the Mayon Docks of Tabaco City forthwith did the make-overs of the former lousy Archipelago and Philharbor ferries derided in the eastern seaboard. Now those ferries are already the favorites by the passengers.

There was also another change in the Masbate ferries. This was when Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) sold their MV Super Shuttle Ferry 19, a double-ended ferry that was off-and-on doing the Bogo-Cawayan route. She was bought by the D. Olmilla Shipping Corporation, refitted also in Mayon Docks and she became the MV Cawayan Ferry 1. She still plies the same route and schedule.

Meanwhile, Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation was able to acquire last summer two former Tamataka Maru ships from Japan, the MV Tamataka Maru No. 85 and the MV Tamataka Maru No. 87 in a buy one, take one deal and the two ferries were refitted in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu (Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is a stockholder in the said yard). The MV Tamataka Maru No.85 is now running the new route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the Liloan-Lipata route across Surigao Strait, an expansion route outside Bicol acquired by the company some two or three years ago. The ship is now renamed as the MV Adrian Jude and she is meant to compete with the MV SWM Stella del Mar of the Southwest Premier Ferries, a new operator in that route using a brand-new ferry similar to and the sister ship of the new vessels of Starlite Ferries of Batangas.

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The Adrian Jude. Photo by Capt. John Andrew R. Lape

The former MV Tamataka Maru No.87 is also ready now, she is already in Bicol and waiting but unrenamed yet according to the last information I received a day ago. She is meant to ply the new route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation from Masbate to Cebu, another new expansion route of the company but the exact route is still being applied for. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is one Bicol company aside from Denica Lines which has shown aggressive growth in the past years.

Meanwhile, it seems Montenegro Lines has lost its aggressiveness. Their fleet size in Bicol is practically the same although they rotate ships especially in the Matnog-Samar route (except for the MV Reina Emperatriz there and the MV Maria Angela in Masbate). Their only addition in Bicol is their new catamaran MV City of Angeles, a High Speed Craft in the Masbate-Pilar route.

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The City of Angeles

I was trying to analyze the lack of zest and the lack of pep of Montenegro Lines in the recent years especially in the context of Bicol shipping. It seems that when their “patron saint” went out of power and was made an enforced guest, Montenegro Lines’ drive faltered. It also seems that the blessings usually going to Montenegro Lines already went to another shipping company and so Montenegro Lines had to scrounge for additional ferries whereas before, they were buying ferries as if the supply of it won’t last (now it is the new favorite which is precisely doing that). Now, i don’t really know how come their blessings went away.

I do not know. Things can always change and it seems Montenegro Lines is no longer that great a threat to the Bicol ferry companies which showed spunk in the recent years except for 168 Shipping Lines, the owner of the local Star Ferry ships which seems to be languishing with no ship additions.

One loss, however, is something that cannot be averted and has long been expected. This is the discontinuance of the LCT to Cagraray island from the Albay mainland across the very narrow Sula Channel which has been a ship shelter for centuries now. A new bridge has been built connecting the fabled island which hosts the well-promoted Misibis Resort, the best resort in Albay province.

But as a whole Bicol ferry shipping was on the rise in the recent years and that is surely a good thing for the region.

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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.

The Matnog Ferry Terminal

The government ports that were built in the 1980’s to connect Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao through the eastern seaboard of the country were not called “ports” but instead were called “ferry terminals”. And so it became Matnog Ferry Terminal, San Isidro Ferry Terminal, Liloan Ferry Terminal and Lipata Ferry Terminal. The four actually had a common design in their port terminal buildings and general lay-outs. The paint schemes are also the same.

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Matnog town had been the connection of Sorsogon and Luzon to Samar even before World War II and it might even been before the Americans came. That situation and importance was simply dictated by location and distance as in Matnog is the closest point of Luzon to Samar. In the old past, that connection to Samar crossing the San Bernardino Strait was done by wooden motor boats or what is called as lancha in the locality.

These lanchas existed until the early 1980’s. Their fate and phase-out was forced by the arrival of the pioneering Cardinal Shipping RORO in 1979, the Cardinal Ferry 1. With the arrival of other ROROs and especially the government-owned and promoted Maharlika I, the fate of the lanchas were slowly sealed until they were completely gone. By this time the new Matnog Ferry Terminal which was a replacement for the old wooden wharf was already completed.

Maharlika I

The Matnog Ferry Terminal is a RORO port with a back-up area for vehicles waiting to be loaded. At the start when there were few vehicles yet crossing and there were only a few ROROs in San Bernardino Strait that back-up area was sufficient. But over time it became insufficient and so additional back-up areas were built twice. Before that the queue of vehicles sometimes went beyond the gate and even up to the Matnog bus terminal/public market. Worst was when there were trip suspensions and vehicles especially trucks snaked through the main streets of of the small town of Matnog.

The Matnog Ferry Terminal is one of the more successful ports of the government. Actually most ports owned by the government do not have enough revenue to pay for the operational expenses like salaries, security, electricity, transportation and communication and for maintenance. The performance and success of Matnog Ferry Terminal is dictated not by the quality of port management but simply by the growth of the intermodal system. From Luzon there is no other way to Eastern Visayas except via Matnog. The intermodal system began to assert itself in the 1980’s until it became the dominant mode of connection to most of the islands in the country.

The Matnog Ferry Terminal has a total of four corresponding ports in Samar, amazingly. These are the BALWHARTECO port, the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, the Dapdap port of Philharbor Ferries, all in Allen town and the San Isidro Ferry Terminal. The first three are privately-owned ports. The government-owned San Isidro Ferry Terminal lost out early to the privately-owned ports because it has the longest distance at 15 nautical miles while BALWHARTECO port is only 11 nautical miles from Matnog. A shipping company using San Isidro Ferry Terminal will simply consume more fuel and it cannot easily pass on the difference to the vehicles and passengers.

The existence of those many ports in Samar showed the increase over the years of the number of ROROs crossing San Bernardino Strait and also the number of vessel arrivals and departures. Currently, on the average, a dozen ferries and Cargo RORO LCTs serve the routes here with the companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation/Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated, 168 Shipping Lines, Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corporation, SulitFerry and NN+ATS involved. The last two mentioned are operations of the liner company 2GO.

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In Samar, all those ferries can be docked simultaneously thereby showing enough docking capacity. In Matnog Ferry Terminal only about five ferries can be docked simultaneously especially since the two new RORO ramps there seems not to be in use. When they built that it was by means of bulldozing rocks into the sea to build a back-up area and those rocks seem to be dangerous to the ferries and their propellers and rudders which means a possible wrong design or construction.

When the government built a back-up area near the Matnog terminal/market, I assumed a true expansion of Matnog Ferry Terminal there. A causeway-type wharf could have been developed there and the docking ferries could have been separated there so there would be less mix-up of the departing and arriving vehicles. Causeway-type wharves like what was successfully deployed by the BALWHARTECO and Dapdap ports. This type of wharf is very efficient in using limited wharf space and it is very good in handling ROROs and LCTs.

Until now the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) insists on using pile-type wharves which is more costly but less efficient. A pile-type wharf is good if freighters and container ships are using the port but freighters do not dock in Matnog but in nearby Bulan port and there are no container ships hereabouts. If there are container vans passing here it is those that are aboard truck-trailers. But many know that if there are “percentages”, the less efficient pile-type wharves will guarantee more pie than can be “shared” by many. And I am not talking of the pie that comes from bakeshops.

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In a causeway-type of wharf the ferries can dock adjacent each other

Matnog Ferry Terminal by its evolution is actually a little bit different now from its sister ports because its wharf has an extention through a short “bridge” like what was done in Cataingan port although this is less obvious in the case of Matnog. The three other Ferry Terminals have no such extensions which is done if the water is shallow and there is enough money like in Ubay port which has an extension that is long and wide enough to land a private plane already (and yet it handles far less traffic than the Ferry Terminals). Almost always the priorities of government in disbursing funds is questionable at best. The budget used in Ubay port would have been more worthwhile if it was used in the shallow Pilar port which has far more traffic and is of much greater importance.

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With lack of RORO ramps it is normal that ferries in Matnog will dock offshore. It is also usual that a ferry will wait a little for a ferry loading to depart before they can dock especially at peak hours. Again, the docking of ferries askew to the port in high tide where there is no RORO ramp still goes on. Matnog Ferry Terminal and the Philippine Ports Authority is really very poor in planning that one will question what kind of data do they input in planning. I even doubt if the idea of a breakwater ever crossed their minds. Matnog is one place where swells are strong especially both in habagat and amihan (it has that rare distinction) or if there are storm signals (and Bicol is so famous for that) or when there is what is called as “gale” warning by the anachronistic weather agency PAGASA (they issue a “gale warning” even if there is no gale; they could have just issued a “strong swell “ warning because it is actually what they are warning about).

In Bicol, Matnog Ferry Terminal has the most number of vessel departures per day if motor bancas are excluded. Matnog’s vessel departures can reach up to 20 daily in peak season with a corresponding equal number in arrivals. In this regard, Matnog Ferry Terminal is even ahead of the likes of Legazpi, Tabaco and Masbate ports and such it is Number 1 in the whole of Bicol. That will just show how dominant is the intermodal system now. And how strategic is the location of Matnog.

A few years ago there was a change in Matnog Ferry Terminal that I was bothered about. Matnog is one port that has a very strong traffic and traffic is what drives income up. But before her term was up Gloria gave the operation of Matnog Ferry Terminal passenger building to Philharbor Ferries. This was also about the same time she wanted to privatize the regional ports of the country with strong traffics like Davao, Gensan and Zamboanga.

Now what is the point of giving the control of a passenger terminal building of a very strong port to a private entity? That port terminal building is actually a cash machine. Imagine about 2,000-3,000 passengers passing there daily in just one direction. Of course Gloria has some debt to the true owner of Philharbor in terms of executive jet services during her term and for providing escape to Garci. Was the deal a payback?

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No covered passenger walkway in Matnog

After years of private operation I have seen no improvement in Matnog Ferry Terminal. From what I know the construction of the two new back-up areas were funded by government. So what was the transfer of control of the passenger terminal building all about? They cannot even build a covered walkway from the passenger terminal to the ferries when BALWHARTECO port was able to do that (and both have long walks to the ferry). Does it mean that BALWHARTECO port cares more about its passengers?

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BALWHARTECO covered walk for passengers

Matnog Ferry Terminal could have been a greater port if properly managed and it should have been properly managed and programmed because it is one of the critical ports of the country. It is actually the strongest of the four Ferry Terminals and by a wide margin at that. Now, if only they will plow some of the profits of the port back into improvements of the port. Or shell out money like what they did to Ubay and Pulupandan ports which severely lacks traffic until now even after spending three-quarters of a billion pesos each. Again one will wonder what kind of data PPA used. Did the “figures” come from whispers of powerful politicians? And did they twist the moustache of NEDA Director-General Neri?

Quo vadis, Matnog Ferry Terminal? You should have been greater than your current state.

A Report on the Recent Situation of Bicol Passenger Shipping

When I talk of Bicol passenger shipping that includes those that have routes to Samar for in the main Bicol ships do those route with the notable exception of Montenegro Shipping Lines which are dayo (foreigner) to Bicol but have a base in Masbate port. In the main, I don’t refer to the Cebu-Masbate steel-hulled ferries because those routes are just one of the operations of Cebu shipping companies with the notable exception too of Montenegro Lines which has a national operation of short-distance ferry-ROROs.

The biggest shipping companies in Bicol are the sister companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which are legal-fiction companies of each other. They have combined operations, single crewing and maintenance and their ships rotate within their common routes. The only difference is the ships bought out from the defunct Bicolandia Shipping are all in Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (PSC) and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) is what made Bicolandia Shipping cry, “Uncle!” (which means give up na).

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The twin shipping companies have a total of 10 ROPAX ships plus a Cargo RORO LCT which is a recent acquisition to match that of NN+ATS (more on this later). Their best ship, the beautiful Jack Daniel (no, there isn’t free tasting of the famous drink) was acquired not so long ago and it is almost a fixture in the Masbate-Pio Duran route where her beautiful and luxurious lounge can be fully used and appreciated by the passengers since it is a three-and-a-half-hour route.

SCSC and PSC ply all the Bicol routes except for some parallel routes like the Tabaco-San Andres and Masbate-Pilar routes (more on this later). Which means they ply the Tabaco-Virac, Matnog-Allen (now through their own Jubasan port) and Masbate-Pio Duran routes. They don’t ply the Masbate-Pilar route as their ships are too big for the shallow Pilar port which lies in an estuary. In Catanduanes, it seems they now have a modus vivendi with Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) which now is doing the Tabaco-San Andres route exclusively through Codon port (but that route is not necessarily weaker than the Tabaco-Virac route as buses and trucks going to northern Catanduanes prefer that route because the remaining distance is shorter). Additionally, SCSC and PSC also operate the Liloan-Lipata route (however, after the Surigao quake RORO operations were transferred from Lipata Ferry Terminal to the Verano port of Surigao).

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The new development in Catanduanes shipping is the arrival of a new player, Cardinal Shipping which fielded the High Speed Craft (HSC) Silangan Express 1 which has good schedules and a very interesting fare which is even less than one might expect for a Tourist accommodation in a ROPAX (P320 fare in airconditioned accommodation versus the P230 Economy fare of a ROPAX ship). That is very cheap compared to the fastcrafts of Montenegro Lines in Masbate that charges double of the Economy fare of the ROPAX. The route of Cardinal Shipping is also Tabaco-Codon like that of Regina Shipping Lines or RSL.

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Another ferry was also added to the fleet of Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) when they acquired the former Maharlika Cuatro from Gabisan Shipping which purchased it from Archipelago Ferries. It was in Mayon Docks of Tabaco City last January but as of this writing she is already running as the Regina Calixta VI. RSL now also has an operation in the Batangas-Abra de Ilog route through Aqua Real Shipping and Calixta-III.

Tabaco port is also building an extension again and this is probably the third already. I am thinking, what for? In all my visits there I never saw Tabaco port full and I don’t think port visit is increasing there. There is also not that need for a big back-up area. There are no container vans unloaded there and ships that visit are generally small. To compare now, Masbate port is even busier than Tabaco port and Legazpi port is even their rival in port calls (as they both serve the province of Albay).

I thought before that the refurbishment of Legazpi port was not needed but it seems I was mistaken. There are more ships docking there now and those are bigger than the ones which dock in Tabaco port. For one, when Cebu freighters visit Albay, they use Legazpi port and not Tabaco port because it is nearer from Cebu. And most freighters that use Tabaco are just Bicol ships which are smaller than Cebu ships. I was even surprised by the big, Malaysian coal barge I saw in Legazpi port.

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Like before there are no ROPAXes in Legazpi (as I argued before a population of 100,000 in an island is needed to keep a RORO afloat if there is no strong tourism and Rapu-rapu island does not meet that criteria). Instead it has lots of big passenger motor bancas to Rapu-rapu and Batan islands plus Cagraray island too. The new passenger terminal building of Legazpi looks beautiful and modern. Like in Tabaco, the port and port terminal building (PTB) is open to the public and there is no cloud of suspicion that hovers unlike in ISPS ports. It was just like in the past when ports are just like part of public domain. That openness was the thing changed by this damned ISPS.

With the completion of the bridge from Albay mainland to Cagraray island through the Sula Channel, the old small Michael Ellis LCT to Misibis is now gone. A connecting bridge to an island is always better than a connection by an LCT. Maybe with that Cagraray island will develop faster.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation now have their new Jubasan port completed in Allen, Samar and so they already withdrew from using the BALWHARTECO port, their old port of entry to Samar, to the great disappointment and anger of the owner which nearly resulted into a court battle. I wonder if the judge-son-in-law of the owner was able to make clear to the patriarch that if it is all straight law then they would lose eventually and they might even be vulnerable to counter-suits they being the LGU holders (like a graft counter-charge).

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With the withdrawal of SCSC and PSC from their port, BALWHARTECO invited Montenegro Lines to just use their port exclusively. Before, Montenegro Lines used both BALWHARTECO and the Dapdap port of Philharbor, the sister company of Archipelago Ferries which once operated the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ferries. With the withdrawal of Montenegro Lines from Dapdap port now that port no longer has ferry operations. What is left there are the passenger motor bancas to the island off it which is Dalupiri island.

Before this, Philharbor invited Montenegro Lines to use Dapdap port since Archipelago have sold already their Maharlika ships and was already in the process of disposing their Grand Star RORO ships. If there is no other ferry company that will use the port it will fall vacant since the route allowed by MARINA to the new FastCats of Archipelago Ferries was the Matnog-San Isidro route. Before their withdrawal only Montenegro ferries were still using Dapdap port.

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It seems BALWHARTECO made a good offer to Montenegro Lines. They are known to be flexible and accommodating as their record of the past decades will show. Meanwhile, the Alvarez group which controls Archipelago Ferries, Philharbor and Philtranco is not known for that. They are instead known for quick retreats when subjected to the pressure of competition.

So I was not surprised by the result. Here is the queer situation of a port owner and operator with no ships of their sister companies docking because it is using a different port and a route that is significantly longer (which is the Matnog-San Isidro route). As a change, instead of being a ‘port to nowhere’ the San Isidro Ferry Terminal is now active again (she was active before Montenegro Lines left her for Dapdap and BALWHARTECO ports).

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It seems Montenegro Lines was the winner of the BALWHARTECO-Sta. Clara turmoil. Previously they were using four ferries in the Matnog-Allen route, two in Dapdap and two in BALWHARTECO. Recently they are now just using three ferries. It seems that was enough to have a ferry always on standby in the port which has more traffic (in the day that will be Allen and in the night that will be Matnog).

Another winner in the route is the NN+ATS outfit which is now openly admitted as an operation of 2GO. They are using chartered Cargo RORO LCTs from Primary Trident Solutions, owner of the Poseidon LCTs and now they even fielded a ROPAX LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26. They are operating that LCT under the banner of SulitFerry and the acronym is also “SF”, a reminder of their SuperFerry past before those liners were promoted into saints.

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With the Cargo RORO LCTs, the queue endured by the non-regular trucks in the Matnog-Allen route has come to an end as they are the priority of the Cargo RORO LCTs. These ships does not take in buses with its passengers and so no passenger accommodations are needed. The truck crews are just expected to stay with their vehicles for the duration of the voyage. MARINA is actually too suspicious of Cargo RORO LCTs having areas that can take in passengers on the sly.

The arrival of the Cargo RORO LCTs has affected the dynamics in the Matnog-Allen route. It has definitely taken traffic from the ROPAXes and the weight is significant because the non-regular trucks pay the highest rates. Actually, the rates paid by the regular trucks is heavily discounted and it is not always paid in cash (which means credit).

Another thing, from being second-class citizens the non-regular truck is now king but their loyalty now is on NN+ATS. What a turn-around too. From being largely ignorant of Matnog-Allen route because they were too confident of their CHA-ROs (Chassis-RORO) aboard their container ships and liners, now 2GO is already a player in intermodal route which helped kill their liners.

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It is also good that they use chartered LCTs whose crew is from Primary Trident Solutions. These crews are not graduates of the ‘shooing away’ seminars of 2GO, they have no knowledge of ISPS (and probably they don’t care too) and so like in the past they are very friendly to the passengers which they do not think or treat like potential “terrorists” like what is taught in 2GO seminars.

But even with NN+ATS and SulitFerry around and the concentration of Montenegro operations there, BALWHARTECO port is not too busy like in the past when to think 168 Shipping is still there with its three Star Ferry ships. Really, the weight SCSC and PSC is great especially since they have a lot of trucks and buses under contract.

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The PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) was impressed by the new Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. It was not small and unlike most private ports that will start with portions being unpaved in Jubasan it is a completely paved port. As such it is cleaner having no mud and people and patrons would not find it hard moving around (now one would wonder why after all these decades BALWHARTECO port is still mainly unpaved). They also maintained the slope of the land and so rain water immediately drains into the sea instead of forming puddles. There are a lot of eateries inside and it is a step up compared to what can be found in BALWHARTECO port including the presence of chairs and tables outside the eateries which are good for lounging around and sundowning.

Jubasan port is more orderly and it looks more modern. Maybe with the shipping company being the operator it should end up that way as they have full control. By the way, Jubasan port will also have a lodge like in BALWHARTECO port. The structure is already there, that is the area above the eateries but it is not yet operating when PSSS visited the place. Now I don’t know if they will also have a disco like in BALWHARTECO port. Jubasan port also does not have the so-many hawkers of BALWHARTECO port.

Matnog meanwhile has minimal changes. I thought when they twice reclaimed new land the docking space will improve. It did not. There are two new RORO ramps on the left of the finger port (as viewed from the sea) but when I passed through it twice no ship was using it. Actually the docking space of Matnog port did not increase and on high tide a ship will still try to dock askew in the wharf for lack of docking space. During the late afternoon and evening peak hours not all the ships can dock and it has to undock after disgorging their rolling cargo and anchor offshore.

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I still cannot fathom how the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) inputs ship calls in their planning that they cannot see their docking area is not enough for the number of ships calling. They have two new RORO ramps but they bulldozed rocks beneath it. And so maybe the ships fear damage if they use those. Why can’t they just use the causeway-type of wharf like what is used in BALWHARTECO and Dapdap ports which can dock more ships for their given length of wharf space? The only reason I can see why PPA is too inept in port design is because they really can’t attract qualified people. And to compensate for this lack, their annual reports will be full of praises for themselves and their “achievements”. And now their top honcho says the Makati Car Club will test the RORO system. Now what does Porsche and Ferrari owners know about port design and the RORO system if one is not Enrique Razon? It was not designed for their kind of cars and heels.

Masbate port is actually more impressive than Legazpi or Tabaco in terms of activity. Unlike the two ports which looks semi-fringe in location (as in facing the ocean already), Masbate port is in the center of a nexus and connecting many islands. There are simply more ships there and more types from overnight ferries to short-distance ferry-roros to fastcrafts to motor bancas plus the usual freighters. The new port terminal building is now operating and so there is more try of control now to ensure everybody uses it (this is what I call as “cattle herding”). And I don’t like that system treating passengers not like people but like commodities.

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Actually, they can simply sell a ticket to anyone who wants to buy, passenger or not, like in Zamboanga port. With so many buses boarding their port terminal building is not sufficient (now tell me when did PPA learned how to input numbers). If the old system where buses simply park somewhere in the port and soon board afterwards was enough why try to force down the passengers down the bus so they will pass through the passenger terminal building when it does not have enough capacity anyway even in airconditioning? If terminal fee is all they want then they can just put in a table by the ship ramp. An explanation: bus passengers here already have their ferry tickets issued by the bus conductor so actually they do not need to queue as the buses offer free ferry tickets to their passengers. If the buses can be efficient why can’t the PPA? The reason is simple – they are a government entity.

What I noticed is it seems more passenger motor bancas are now using the Masbate municipal port cum fish landing area. Actually it has the advantage that it is just near the integrated bus, jeep and van terminal of Masbate City. The passenger motor bancas for Burias can also be found here. If I may have a suggestion, it is better if the passenger motor bancas just dock by the integrated terminal. Nothing beats that. If only they will see what is logical (but they might lose the votes of the cargadores and the tricycle drivers).

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The Masbate-Pio Duran route is now stronger compared to the Masbate-Pilar route in terms of RORO operation. It is actually the shorter route to Manila and it can accommodate bigger ships whereas Pilar can only accommodate basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. Medallion Transport has withdrawn from this route as a fall-out of the sinking of their Lady of Carmel. SCSC and PSC was the big winner in this and they now have made permanent two of their biggest ships in this route which have length of over 60 meters versus the 30 meters plus of the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs of Pilar.

In the Masbate-Pilar route, Denica Lines now has two ROROs that are running simultaneously and they were able to create a late departure from Bicol (or is it an early one?) when they created an early evening Pilar-Masbate schedule. Denica Lines also have two fastcrafts for refitting now that is moored in Pilar port. Obviously, they want to get a slice of the pie of the MSLI fastcraft business. If they price it like the Silangan Express to Catanduanes then MSLI will be forced to cut their high fares.

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In Pilar, I noticed they now have a Pilar-Mandaon passenger motor banca running. Plus they have pre-dawn departures now from Pilar for three destinations – Masbate City, Aroroy and Mandaon (Mandaon is a gateway to Romblon). They were able to expand Pilar port but its operation is just still like a municipal port as there is no good port lighting (are their charges for the ROROs and passengers not enough?). By the way, the ROROs from Pilar start earlier now. Good for those with still long land travel still remaining in Masbate island.

As before there are a lot of passenger motor bancas in Masbate port going to Pilar, Ticao island, the west bank of Masbate Bay. But maybe the Baleno bancas are gone because there is a van going there now up to Aroroy. The passenger motor bancas are still fighting even though it is already the era of the ROROs and the buses and the trucks aboard them. With no porterage and running at hours when there is no RORO they are still surviving. Well, the buses dictate the schedules of the ROROs and so I can’t see them running 24 hours as the buses have only certain hours of departures from Masbate and Manila.

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Some things of note. One, the Super Shuttle Ferry 19 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation has been sold and Olmillo Shipping has taken over the Bogo-Cawayan route. A new development too in this area was the fielding of Island Shipping of a ROPAX LCT in the Hagnaya-Cawayan route. The MSLI ferry is still running the Bogo-Cataingan route and ditto for Lapu-lapu Shipping that runs the Cataingan-Cebu route. In the future, however, the Bogo and Hagnaya ferries will most likely transfer to the new Maya RORO port because it is simply nearer to Masbate. Meanwhile, the big passenger- cargo motor bancas running between Masbate and northern Cebu are still running and their business not threatened after the initial cut made by the arrival of the ROROs.

Recently, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines don’t have a ship anymore to Masbate from Cebu, a victim of their lack of ferries. Cokaliong Shipping Lines has not fully filled up the slack and it has only a once a week Cebu-Masbate sked but they are always fielding a new good overnight ferry of theirs in the route. Meanwhile, for a year now Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) doesn’t have an operation anymore to Masbate since their SuperShuttle RORO 3 had engine problems. It has been over a year since 2GO withdrew their liner that passes through Masbate on the way to Ormoc and Cebu. Can’t really beat the intermodal buses and trucks now and as the saying goes if one can’t beat then join them and so they already had that NN+ATS in the Matnog-Allen route.

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Burias motor banca arriving in Pasacao

In other Bicol routes, passenger motor bancas still connect Burias island to Pasacao and Pio Duran while Ticao island has passenger motor bancas sailing to Bulan and Masbate ports. Masbate is also connected by passenger motor bancas from Cataingan to Calbayog in Samar and to Roxas City in Panay from Balud and Milagros and to Romblon from Mandaon. Caramoan through Guijalo port also has passenger motor banca to San Andres in Catanduanes through the Codon port. San Miguel island is connected by passenger motor bancas to Tabaco port.

And that above is what comprises Bicol shipping all in all. Not tackled here are the minor routes served by small passenger bancas that go to small islands that does not have a municipality and to coastal barrios which has no roads.

[Written based on January 2017 data.]

The Developments in the San Bernardino Strait Routes When the PSSS Visited in December of 2016

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Photo of Jubasan port by James Gabriel Verallo

I was able to visit the area twice, actually, the first one with the official PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) tour-meet and the second one in my private tour with Joe Cardenas, the PSSS member from Catarman (so he was a native of the area). I stayed longer the second time because I wanted to do some interviews in the ports of Allen and in the ships there (which I was able to do).

My first visit to the San Bernardino Strait area happened with the big group of the PSSS (the Philippine Ship Spotters Society). Joe Cardenas provided the car, a very good one and James Verallo provided the gas money. We were eight in the group including an American guest of Chimmy Ramos. He was Tim Alentiev, a retired B747 pilot from Seattle. Others in the group were Raymond Lapus from Los Banos, Nowell Alcancia from Manila. Mark Ocul from Ozamis and yours truly.

On the first day on the way to Allen, the first port of Northern Samar we visited was the San Isidro Ferry Terminal. It was already getting late in the afternoon when we reached the port as we came all the way from Tacloban and have visited already the ports of Catbalogan, Calbayog and Manguino-o. We were not able to start early because me and Mark’s ship from Cebu, the Oroquieta Stars of Roble Shipping departed four hours late because of the company’s Christmas party.

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The FastCat M9

Though late, it was just perfect as the FastCat M9 of Archipelago Ferries has just docked and was beginning to disembark passengers and vehicles. This catamaran RORO is the only regular user of the government-owned port and without it it would have been an empty visit save for the lone regular beer carrier which happened to be also docked and unloading that day. For some in the group it was a first experience to see short-distance ferry-ROROs in action.

We did not stay long and we hied off fast to the next port which was the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping. This port is a new development of the company and was built against the opposition of the Mayor then of Allen, Northern Samar which happened to be the owner of BALWHARTECO, the old dominant port in the area. It is a modern port, very clean and orderly, spacious and with lots of eateries that is more decent than the usual carinderia. There is not that mell of vendors and the hubbub one usually associates with ports that are not ISPS (International System of Port Security).

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From Jubasan, we passed by the Dapdap port of Philharbor. We did not enter the port any more and just viewed it from outside as we knew there were no more operations there as related company Archipelago Ferries was using San Isidro Ferry Terminal instead of their own port and the Montenegro Lines vessels transferred to BALWHARTECO when Sta. Clara Shipping and sister company Penafrancia Shipping left it for their own port.

We next visited BALWHARTECO port when dusk was setting in. We did not tour the port any longer as we decided it will be more worthwhile the next day when there is light. In the original plan, we should have stayed for the night in the lodge of BALWHARTECO (and do some night shipspotting for those still interested) but Chimmy suggested that it might be better to stay in Catarman where there might be better accommodations and food. The group agreed as anyway Joe and Nowell are headed for Catarman as the latter has an early morning flight back to Manila.

The bonus of the Catarman sleep-over was we were able to see Catarman, the town, and see off Nowell to the airport. Maybe except for me and Joe, nobody in the group has been to Catarman before and visiting it was an added treat. On the way back there a bonus shipspotting too because we made short tours of Caraingan and Lavezares ports. The first is the main inter-island port of Northern Samar and the second is the gateway to the destination being slowly discovered which is Biri, an archipelago offshore Northern Samar.

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Star Ferry II

Because of these extra tours and the need to secure first in Catarman a good bus ride for the members heading back to Manila, we were not able to cross early to Matnog. Even our tour of BALWHARTECO was peremptory and it was mainly just part of the effort to cross to Matnog. Still, it was enough as a ferry not yet leaving is a very good vantage point for shipspotting and the Reina Olimpia of Montenegro Lines proved to be that. The encounters with other ships in San Bernardino Strait added to the shipspotting prize.

We were not able to cross ahead of the bus and so the Manila-bound members have to board the bus immediately in Matnog. That in itself already shortened the Luzon part of the tour. When the bus rolled off, a member shouted to me (seems it was James) that the ramp of the Don Benito Ambrosio II of Penafrancia Shipping was already being raised. I looked at the bridge and I saw Capt. Sacayan, a friend of PSSS and I don’t know what reflex pushed me that I blurted out, “Capt, pasakay” and Capt. Sacayan immediately ordered the lowering of the ramp to the surprise of his deck hands. The Sta. Clara “Angels” (the three beautiful ladies in charge of arranging the passages of company-account trucks and buses) asked if we have a ticket and I pointed to Capt. Sacayan and from lip reading I think Capt. Sacayan said, “Oo, sa akin.”

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The Don Benito Ambrosio II by James Gabriel Verallo

I told my remaining tour mates not to wait for the ramp to land as I don’t think it would lest the ship incur the penalty of another docking and so we hopped on the ramp that was still a foot above the wharf. And from there we went straight to the bridge where Capt. Sacayan warmly welcomed us and turned on the airconditioners to full. We were sailing “Bridge Class” like in the Reina Olimpia on the crossing to Matnog. But the letdown was Mark failed to taste the “Bicol Express”. However, the free ride on the bridge with its unmatched viewpoint more than made up for that.

We disembarked in the new Jubasan port where we took our dinner and whiled some time trying to soak the atmosphere of the port. Funny, but our car was parked in BALWHARTECO, our point of departure earlier where our group had an incident with the LGU collectors of “illegal exactions” as we call it in PSSS for it is actually against Supreme Court decisions and DILG memorandum circulars. I wondered if Joe was worrying then for his car.

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The Nathan Matthew in Jubasan port (by James Gabriel Verallo)

After getting the car in BALWHARTECO we tracked back to Tacloban. It was uneventful as it was already night and it was just me and Joe keeping on the conversation.

I visited again the San Bernardino Strait area after the trip to Surigao del Sur where I accompanied Joe. This time my focus was BALWHARTECO and it is there where me and Joe separated, he headed back to Catarman and me on the way to Bicol but with an Allen stop-over. Night has set in when we parted ways and I stayed in the lodge of BALWHARTECO as I planned to do interviews the next day.

If there was still sunlight on our first visit to Allen, my second one was all rain and it was heavy with winds and so the swells were up, of course. But as Joe noted it was just the usual amihan (northeast monsoon) weather (with regards to this kind of weather, Joe and me are pretty much in agreement and so with typhoons). Good the Coast Guard in the area were not as praning (kneejerkish) as their counterparts in Cebu so they were not as trigger-happy in voyage suspensions. And to think the ferries that time in BALWHARTECO were barely able to hold position while docked even while ropes were already doubled. Some even anchor offshore to avoid damage to their hull.

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The Star Ferry 7 in the rain

In the next morning when the rain was still light I managed to find the oldest living porter of Allen who was in his 80’s and who had been a porter since 1943. He is the father of the caretaker of the lodge and from him I was able to get the history of the private port of Allen owned by the Suan family which owns the present BALWHARTECO. I was also able to get the ships of the past in the area from the time of the motor boats (lancha) including the motor bancas which then connected Allen and Calbayog for then there was no road connecting the two localities.

It was a funny interview as the old man was speaking in Allen Waray which I found I can understand 95% by using my knowledge of the different dialects of Bicol including what was then known as Bicol Gubat and Bicol Costa which are now no longer classified as part of the Bicol language. The Bicolanos and the Pintados share the same seafaring history in the past and maybe this was the reason of the close association of the languages of Bicol, Masbate and Samar including the Balicuatro area of Samar where Allen is located.

From the father and son pair, I was able to get referrals to old mariners in the area and I visited one in his home and the other one in his ship. Both came from Virac and first became crewmen of the Trans-Bicol Shipping Lines, the predecessor of Bicolandia Shipping Lines in operating motor boats (lancha) which connected the Bicol island-provinces and Samar to the Bicol mainland. The latter is actually the Chief Engineer of the Star Ferry II of 168 Shipping and this provided a bonus because we were able to have a discussion about the oldest RORO sailing in Philippine waters that is not a Navy ship and is not an LCT.

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I stayed a day more in BALWHARTECO because peak season caught me suddenly on a Friday afternoon and it was very difficult to get a ride with the sustained strong rains which produced landslides in Victoria town thus throwing the bus schedules into disarray (few were really coming). It was a nice courtesy stay which afforded me more opportunities to shipspot (and also do bus spotting) and to observe in general.

I absorb things fast even on limited time and even without asking too many questions. I just retrieve files in my head and add what I saw new, what changed and other observations. And from that I have a new mental picture of the port and area I visited. A two-day stay in Allen is a boon for observation and absorption of the movements and patterns in the area.

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After two nights, I tried to wangle a trip to Matnog where I planned to take a local bus to Naga. There was no hope in hitching a ride with the buses from the south because of the landslides and anyway all that arrive in Allen were full and it was sellers’ market and even the colorum vans to Manila were having a field day (they were charging fares from Catarman while waiting for passengers in Allen).

It wasn’t easy booking a crossing as the combination of rough swells and high tide plus the strong wind delayed dockings. Even with tickets, we passengers feared cancellation of voyages by the Coast Guard anytime given the wind and seas prevailing. After a long wait onboard, we finally all heaved a sigh of relief when we were given clearance to sail.

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The LCT Poseidon 26 of might have been the first to sail after the lull of sailings from Allen but she takes 2 hours for the 11-nautical mile route since her cruising speed is only 5-6 knots. She is a new ROPAX Cargo LCT and although her accommodations are all-Economy it is good, spacious and the seats are individualized with a row of industrial fans at the sides. Passengers are also allowed to visit the bridge which is a boon. She is sailing for NN+ATS or 2GO under the name SulitFerry.

We landed in Matnog at past mid-afternoon and the port was crawling with passengers and vehicles when normally such hour was already dead hour for the Matnog to Allen sailing. That is what usually results from voyage suspensions even though it is only for a few hours because everything piles up. I did not tarry at the port because I feared that I will be left  by local buses leaving Matnog if I did not hurry up. Being left by the last trip would probably mean staying the night in Matnog. But like Mark, I ended up not being able to tour Matnog port. I tried to make up for this by touring the market and terminal area of Matnog and trying to take shots of the port from there.

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What did I learn new in the San Bernardino Strait routes? Well, maybe the biggest development was the opening of the Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping. That meant the break of Sta. Clara Shipping (and its sister company Penafrancia Shipping) and BALWHARTECO, a long partnership that benefited both greatly. Well, maybe some things really have to end but I feared the parting of ways weakened both but only time can tell that.

With the break, BALWHARTECO which was crowded and very busy in the past suddenly had a slack and maybe that is the reason why they invited Montenegro Lines to concentrate all their ships there thereby emptying the Dapdap port of Philharbor. Meanwhile, Jubasan port is just serving Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping. One advantage of that is they have full control and so everything is orderly.

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A Cargo RORO LCT

The second biggest development in the strait crossing might be the emergence of Cargo RORO LCTs that takes on only trucks. One or two of them sail depending on the season plus there is a ROPAX Cargo LCT, the LCT Poseidon 26. These are operated by NN+ATS or 2GO and the LCTs are chartered from Primary Trident Solutions. The ferry is being billed as SulitFerry. Though brand-new and nice, it is cheaper than the rest. The drawback is its cruising speed is slow. Their ticketing office hands, however, are nicer than the rest and are better trained. It showed.

With the fielding of the Cargo RORO LCT and the ROPAX Cargo LCT, the long queues of trucks which were legend in the past seemed to have disappeared. These trucks are actually the “non-priority” ones which means they are not priority because they has no prior arrangements with the shipping companies. Trucks were singled out because buses which have passengers and fixed schedules always had the higher priority and so these trucks get shunted out.

The LCTs of NN+ATS definitely took rolling cargo from the other companies. Some seem to overstate it but hard figures will show there are usually ten short-distance ferry-ROROs by Sta. Clara Shipping, Penafrancia Shipping, Montenegro Lines, 168 Shipping, Regina Shipping Lines in the strait plus the catamaran RORO of Archipelago Ferries. Two or three LCTs were added in the route so it was a significant increase but not by much.

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Dapdap port

Another notable development in the strait was the closing of the Dapdap port of Philharbor. It seems it was not able to weather the rearrangements brought about by the opening of Jubasan port. It is ironic that its sister company Archipelago Ferries is instead using the San Isidro Ferry Terminal (but maybe that is what their franchise demanded). Maybe if the Grand Star ROROs were not disposed off it might still be operating. However, the motor bancas to the island off it are still there.

Meanwhile, Matnog Ferry Terminal has added two ramps plus an expansion of the back-up area but one of its ramps is now just for the use of FastCat which need a specific mechanism wherein to attach their catamaran ROROs. With four ramps available (and I doubt if all are usable) plus a docking area without ramp (which is only good if the tide is not low), one would wonder how it can possibly cope with the twelve vessels or so operating in the strait especially in the hours that the buses and trucks are concentrated in Matnog.

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Reina Emperatriz and BALWHARTECO port by James Gabriel Verallo

Me, I always have questions and doubts about the ability of the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) regarding port planning and design. BALWHARTECO and Jubasan ports are clearly better than Matnog Ferry Terminal in its capacity to absorb ships. Imagine there are four ports on Samar side while there is only one in Sorsogon side. Maybe the town of Matnog should just develop their own port so capacity will be increased and they will have revenues at the same time.

San Bernardino Strait is one of the most important crossings in the country as it is the main connection between Luzon and the Visayas on the eastern side. It is used by a lot of buses and trucks plus private vehicles 24/7 and a lot of people move through it. In that way alone it is already fascinating to me.

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The Nathan Matthew and ship spotters of PSSS (by James Gabriel Verallo)