The Ferry That Won’t Die

A few months ago, out of a sudden, a PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member espied a ship docked in Hilongos port. Even though it was dark he was able to recognize the silhouette since he has already sailed with it in crossing Surigao Strait. It was a surprise to the PSSS community since many thought she was already dead since it has been three years since she disappeared from the Liloan-Lipata route. The last that was heard of her was that she was in a General Santos City shipyard. That time the new FastCats of Archipelago Philippines Ferries were also due to arrive (and it did) and so they have no more need for their old and unreliable Maharlika ferries. In fact, they were also disposing off already their Grandstar RORO ferries which was even a later acquisition of theirs from Phil-Nippon Kyoei.

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Photo credit: Joel Bado

The ferry was the Maharlika Cinco which has long held the Liloan-Lipata ferry route for Archipelago Philippine Ferries. She was actually their most reliable ferry in the route, she was always there as if she had never heard of the two-year rule for mandatory drydocking. Maharlika Dos might be in and out of service like Millennium Uno but Maharlika Cinco will always be there.

If one who doesn’t know her will think she is just another bland ferry then maybe he will be surprised if he will know that this ferry has a colorful history. Maharlika Cinco had actually bounced between routes and owners, has had a trip to the seabed, had her superstructure ripped, etc. Her bounces were actually too fast that international maritime databases has a hard time catching up with her thus it has lots of errors.

This ferry was first known as the Sata Maru No. 3 of Kinkowan Ferry KK and home ported in Kagoshima, Japan. She was supposed to be built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Kobe, Japan but instead she was subcontracted to a shipbuilder that was not well-known, the Tokushima Sangyo in Komatsushima, Japan. Her keel was laid in November 1971 and she was launched in April 1972. She possessed the permanent ID IMO 7205221.

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Photo credit: To the lady in the photo

The ship is a RORO with ramps at the bow and at the stern. She measures 70.9 meters in length over-all (LOA) with a beam of 12.5 meters and a load capacity of 500 deadweight tons. Her original gross register tonnage (GRT) was 997 tons. She has a raked stem, a transom stern with two masts and two side funnels. Sata Maru No. 3 was equipped with two Niigata diesels with a total of 2,600 horsepower giving her a top speed of 14 knots when new.

In 1981, when Kinkowan Ferry quit operation she went to Nankai Yusen KK. A few years later she was sold to Badjao Navigation in the Philippines and she became the Christ The Saviour. Badjao Navigation had a route from Cebu to Samar among others but it was not really successful. Maybe like Newport Shipping that had a route from Manila to Samar she thought that it would be better if they will do a Matnog-Allen route which was growing then. By this time she was already known as the Christ The King. However, ROROs in the route multiplied fast.

Maharlika Cinco

Photo credits: Philtranco Heritage Museum and Dennis Obsuna

In time, Badjao Navigation quit the shipping business and she passed on to Luzvimin Ferry Services of the Philtranco Service Enterprises Inc. (PSEI), an intermodal bus operator with routes from Manila to Visayas and up to Mindanao where she became the Luzvimin Primo. Maybe when Badjao Navigation was still doing the Matnog-Allen route she was just under Provisional Authority (PA) because soon after Luzvimin Ferry Services started operations the ruling shipping company of San Bernardino Strait protested, the Bicolandia Shipping Lines, and pointed out that her competitor has no Certificate of Public Conveyance (CPC) or franchise.

Luzvimin Ferry Services defended itself by saying that their ferries were just meant to carry their buses. The case was first heard in MARINA, the local maritime regulatory body which has quasi-judicial powers but eventually it reached the courts (the higher court even) which held that any ship transporting vehicles must secure a franchise from MARINA. And that was the end of Luzvimin Ferry Services and the career of the former Badjao Navigation ferries in San Bernardino Strait.

In about 1990, Christ The King next found itself in Batangas under a new company, the Prince Valiant Navigation where she was known as the Mindoro Express. When she went to that new area there was also a ruling shipping company there which was even tougher in challenging newcomers and sometimes the challenge is even outside the legal plane. I don’t know exactly why but soon she was doing a route to Palawan. There she sank in Honda Bay near Puerto Princesa port.

Mindoro Express ( now Maharlika Cinco )

Photo credit: Edison Sy

It turned out she was eventually refloated and brought to Keppel Batangas shipyard where a shipping owner who later became a PSSS member caught her in cam. This was in late 1991. From his analysis, he thinks the sooty exterior in the starboard side indicated the ship had a fire. He says firefighting water on just one side of a ship can capsize a ship. The ship bore other damages too like a missing port funnel and deformations in the structure.

Mindoro Express ( now Maharlika Cinco )

Photo credit: Edison Sy

Much later, sometime about 2002, a ferry for Archipelago Philippine Ferries turned up in the Liloan-Lipata route to double their unreliable 18-year old Maharlika II. The name of the ship was Maharlika V. To almost everyone including me they thought this was just another ferry that just arrived from Japan. It seems even Philtranco bus drivers did not recognize her (or they were playing poker?). One thing though is she seems a little rusty but I think nobody thought much of it since being a bit rusty was an Archipelago Philippine Ferries trademark. And maybe nobody gave a damn as long as the ship was reliable. After all, the Liloan-Lipata route was home to unreliable ferries until Super Shuttle Ferry 5 appeared on the route.

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Photo credit: PDO-Visayas of PPA

Fast forward to December 2008, the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) was born. With its growing photostream from the members’ contribution, it afforded members (and the world) a view of the different ships from all over the Philippines from ferries to freighters to tankers and tugs and everything in between. A member then contributed a photo of Maharlika Cinco when their family had a vacation in Southern Leyte and they crossed Surigao Strait. That was 2009.

It was here that the PSSS member who caught a photo of Mindoro Express in Keppel Batangas in 1991 realized that if the superstructure of Mindoro Express is cropped then it would look almost exactly the same as Maharlika Cinco and he alerted me. When a collage of the two was posted in PSSS the riddle of Maharlika Cinco‘s origin was solved. The two were exactly the same ship. Later, upon researching, the two ships had identical IMO Numbers and that was the final confirmation since IMO Numbers are unique numbers and only one hull can possess a particular number.

Comparison

Photo credits: Edison Sy and Joel Bado

Maharlika Cinco continued sailing but in this decade her engines were already beginning to get less reliable. Not soon after she disappeared from the route with the last news saying she was in a General Santos shipyard with an uncertain return. With Maharlika Cuatro and a rejuvenated Maharlika Dos (she was regenerated when her sister ship Maharlika Uno went to the breakers), it looked like Archipelago had no more use for her. To me, I no longer expected to see her again. Her metal before she disappeared also seemed to be on the soft side already. Soft metal plus unreliable engines plus no more use to me looked like equal to goodbye.

It was like waking to a stupor when somebody called me from Hilongos to report that discovery of an apparition of a ship in the night. The PSSS member then proceeded to investigate. She would be the Gloria V of Gabisan Shipping which has a Hilongos-Cebu route. Yes, it was a buy one, take one deal. They also acquired the Maharlika Cuatro which stopped operation in the aftermath of the Maharlika Dos sinking. He asked what was the former name of the ship. “Mindoro Express”, they said, as if they can fool the PSSS ship spotter (and our ship spotter laughed). Maybe they were ashamed to admit it was the Maharlika Cinco because Liloan is too near and the ship does not really have a sterling reputation there.

Decrepit Maharlika Cinco

Photo credit: Rex Nerves

They latter admitted a difficult sailing from General Santos City via Zamboanga (they were afraid of the rough waters in the eastern seaboard of Mindanao). The engines failed several times and they had to seek shelter and assistance. The trip took long but finally they made it to Hilongos in one piece. No, sorry, they would not honor a ship tour. It’s understandable.

After some preliminary work, Maharlika Cinco disappeared from Hilongos. From checking, PSSS members said she was not in Tayud, the great shipyard row of Cebu (she is too big not to be noticed from offshore). Then she was discovered in Liloan municipal port. They would finish the refitting there. They brought it over there since in Hilongos she would often be forced to undock if a ship is coming.

Maharlika Cinco

Photo credit: Rex Nerves

Gabisan Shipping intends to sail her in the Cebu-Hilongos route. They say one of the Gloria cruisers will be sold and the Maharlika Cuatro which is in Tayud is for sale. It seems even Gabisan Shipping, a staunch believer in cruisers is also getting aboard now in the RORO bandwagon to Leyte. After all the Cargo RORO and the other ROROs are making a killing. Speculation says she will be spruced up to be able to compete with the Graceful Stars of Roble Shipping.

This is simply a ferry that wouldn’t die and I don’t know if she has a charm embedded in her hull. If she will survive now, I just hope the MARINA plan which is fanned by some politicians and columnists that 35-old ferries will be retired will not snuff out her life. Finally.

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It Is a Dogfight Now in the Surigao-Leyte Routes

In the early days there was only one RORO route connecting Surigao and Lipata across Surigao Strait and this was the Lipata-Liloan route using Lipata Ferry Terminal and Liloan Ferry Terminal. There was an earlier route using Surigao port and Liloan municipal port (run by Cardinal Ferry 2 of Cardinal Shipping) but that was in the earliest years and was gone in due time when the Ferry Terminals were built. And there was that really old routes using motor bancas to link Surigao to San Ricardo and Cabalian which are existing until today. And if Dinagat is considered still a part of Surigao then there is still a motor banca connecting that to Liloan.

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In the 1990’s, the RORO crossing between Lipata and Liloan was languid. At its worst there were only two trips each day and that happens in the off-peak season or when some ferries are hit by mechanical troubles or was in the drydock. This crossing then between Surigao Strait was known to be the base to some of the lousiest ferries in the country but to their credit they do not sink. Empirically, as has been noted in the Philippines there is no correlation between lack of maintenance and sinking. It really depends on the seamanship.

The Maharlika ferries then connecting Lipata and Liloan was known to sail even if only one of two of its engines is running. And Maharlika Dos will just stop sailing if its two engines were not running anymore and then clog Liloan Ferry Terminal. And to think this was a ferry built just the decade before. It even seems then that Maharlika Cinco was more reliable when to think she already had an excursion to the bottom of the sea in Coron as the Mindoro Express.

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The Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping was no more reliable then being very old already and there were instances she simply conks out and is not heard for months. Many will then surmise she was cut up already and when many think she was gone she will reappear suddenly. I was not too surprised by the performance and lousiness of these ferries because I had already observed the pattern that this was an affliction of many Marcos transport companies. Maintenance is lousy and there is no management to speak of if based on management books.

Three trips then in a day in one way was just enough for the traffic. Two trips is bad especially if one arrives in an off-hours because that will mean hours of interminable wait. Baddest is if one just misses a ship. That happened twice to me when I missed the 12nn ship in Liloan and I have to wait for the next trip which was 11pm. Mind you there is really nothing to go to, nothing to do in Liloan and the nearest semi-urbanized town Sogod is more than 40 kilometers away. There was also no cellphone signal then there in Liloan. There were also many times I reached Liloan in late afternoon and the next ferry was still that 11pm ferry because the 5pm ferry is missing.

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There are not many vehicles crossing then yet and the only buses crossing were the Philtranco buses to and from Manila (it was Pantranco South earlier). The long-distance trucks still have to discover this route then. Most trucks crossing then were Mindanao trucks that have goods to sell north.

Slowly the traffic grew. There were even those that bring their vehicles to Manila so they will have a car there. And slowly the trucks from Manila began using this route as well as the trucks that have a commerce between Southern Mindanao and Cebu. The Bachelor buses also started their route to Tacloban and Ormoc.

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Photo Credit: Bemes Lee Mondia

That then proved that the old ferries of the route – Maharlika Dos, Maharlika Cinco and Millennium Uno were inadequate. The first challenge and the first improvement was the arrival of the Super Shuttle Ferry 5 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) which arrived in the late 1990’s. The Super Shuttle Ferry 10 replaced it later. Along the way, Asian Marine Transport Corporation also rotated other ferries there.

The fielding of a lone AMTC ferry was just enough to fill up the needed lack of ferries in the route especially since Maharlika Dos and Millennium Uno never had sustained periods of reliability. It was also welcome since it was cleaner, faster and had an airconditioned accommodation plus it did not smell.

Things changed when Benit port at the southern tip of Panaon island was built by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, she who is wont for duplicate ports. However, Benit is not a simple duplicate port since its crossing distance is much shorter and so at the very start it was a threat to Liloan like when Allen displaced San Isidro port in Samar.

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At the start, nobody plied a route to Benit. Maybe the incumbent ships of the route didn’t want a change because after all they can charge more in the longer route. But that proved shortsighted.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo then gave the operation of the port to Montenegro Shipping Lines, her favorite shipping company. Maybe to forestall any loss she made it a buy one, take one deal. She also gave the operation of the very profitable Matnog port to Montenegro Lines! As they say in the Philippines, iba na ang malakas!

Montenegro Lines then proceeded to operate a Lipata-Benit route. Suddenly, the former pliers of the Lipata-Liloan route found they have been outflanked. The crossing time to Benit is just over a third of theirs. And woe to them, the Manila bus companies which had a route to Liloan extended their route to San Ricardo (which has jurisdiction over Benit). But don’t think the Manila buses goes to Benit port. They don’t. One still has to take a 2-kilometer habal-habal ride to the port.

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Montenegro Lines made a killing in the Benit route. Their rates are almost the same as the Liloan rates and yet they only travel 3/8 of the distance. If that is not tubong-lugaw, I don’t know what is. The passenger fares are also much higher per nautical mile than the Liloan fares. And ever since from then the ridership and load of the Liloan ferries have been on the decline. There was even a time when all buses – Philtranco, Bachelor and the various colorum buses were taking the Benit route.

Then came the Typhoon Yolanda tragedy. With the surge in relief and rehabilitation efforts suddenly there were complaints of mile-long queues of trucks. It was not only because of Yolanda. By this time the forwarders and shippers have found that sending a truck especially a wing van truck to Mindanao is cheaper than a container van and it arrives earlier. This was also the time too when Manila port congestion and Manila traffic became issues and the forwarders and shippers found it was better to send a truck down south than try to beat the traffic and congestion in Manila. And the benefit is double if the origin is LABAZON (CALABARZON without Cavite and Rizal). By the time the cargo is loaded in a container ship in North Harbor the comparative truck will already be making deliveries in Mindanao.

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And so MARINA approved the fielding of Cargo RORO LCTs which was designed to take in the trucks and its crews. Supposedly it does not take in passengers but it seems there are exceptions. The people call it “2GO” there because the operator is NN+ATS. The Cargo RORO LCTs are just chartered but they are the brand-new China LCTs which are called “deck loading ships”.

Along this way, AMTC lost its route service because they lacked ships and they pulled out the Super Shuttle Ferry 18 so it will retain its Roxas-Caticlan route. Sta. Clara Shipping/Penafrancia Shipping then appeared in the Liloan-Lipata route. I thought there was an equilibrium already.

But lo and behold! the much anticipated and already announced FastCats of Archipelago Philippine Ferries (which were also the owner of the lousy Maharlika ships appeared) and they brought not one but two new catamaran FastCats which are faster and has higher rolling capacity than the old ferries in the route. They might have really been entitled to two since previously they had two ships there but one already sank, the Maharlika Dos and the others were sold, the Maharlika Cuatro and Maharlika Cinco (the first was a replacement for the latter).

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Lately, it seems FastCat pulled out one of its crafts but is still sailing 3 round trips a day (or at least two on weak days). And being fast and new it is pulling in the vehicles. Meanwhile, the Cargo RORO LCTs are suctioning the trucks as it is the cheapest transit available. With those two developments even Montenegro Lines in Benit is affected. But more affected are the other ferries in Liloan that they now resort to “callers” in the junction leading to Liloan port. How fortunes change! In the past just when a ship is arriving there was already a queue of vehicles for them.

Added to the fray is Millennium Shipping which is not quitting yet. The Grandstar RORO 3, previously of Archipelago Philippine Ferries appeared and it is using the Liloan municipal port. Reports say it is Millennium Shipping that is operating it already aside from their Millennium Uno.

Times have changed. Where before three or four trips a day seemed adequate it seems there are about 15 trips a day now but not all are full. The way I sense it with the Cargo RORO LCTs and FastCat it is already a dogfight now and there might even be an excess of bottoms already.

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Photo Credit: Joel Bado

Well, that is good as the public might benefit. However, I have doubts as I noticed MARINA never ever learned how to compute rates even in light of cheap fuel. I wonder if fuel consumption is ever factored in their rates.

I just wonder if AMTC and Ocean King I are thankful they are no longer in the route.