RORO Cargo Ships and Vehicle Carriers Can Be Good ROPAX Liners

In shipping, wherever that be in the world, fuel consumption is a critical factor because it takes up 40% of the operational costs of the ship. Here it might even be higher as our ships are old and our mariner rates are so low and apprentices comprise about half of the crew and they are the ones that pay and not the shipping company. So when fuel prices went really high a decade ago even the Fast ROPAXes of Europe capable of 30 knots slowed down to save on fuel. High Speed Crafts (HSCs) suffered also, had to slow down too and some stopped sailing for they were simply unprofitable even at very high load factors.

We too had been victims of that fetish with speed that in the 1990’s and so, many liners capable of 20 knots, locally, came into the country. The list of this is long and I would list it: Filipina Princess, Princess of Paradise, Princess of the Stars, Princess of the Universe, Princess of the World, Princess of the Ocean and Princess of New Unity, all of Sulpicio Lines; SuperFerry 1 of Aboitiz Shipping; Mabuhay 1 and Mabuhay 3 of William Lines; Our Lady of Lipa, SuperFerry 12, SuperFerry 14, SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 of WG&A; SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21 of Aboitiz Transport System; St. Francis of Assisi, St. Joseph The Worker, St. Peter The Apostle, Mary Queen of Peace, St. Ezekiel Moreno, St. Michael The Archangel and St. Francis Xavier of Negros Navigation. SuperFerry 16 then came back to become the St. Therese of the Child Jesus of 2GO. A total of 26 liners. Now isn’t that too many? And most are 150 meters in length or over and the average passenger capacity is over 2,000 with 3 even breaching the 3,000 mark.

I argue that most proved to be oversized.

That speed came from oversized engines, usually 20,000 horsepower and over which means more fuel consumption and I was not happy with that trend in speed and the trend of upsizing the ships because I know that in the past when liners became bigger than the ex-”FS” ship, many ports with previous connection to Manila were left out because the liners were already too big and their drafts too deep for the small and shallow ports. Then later, the fast cruisers became the new paradigm and more ports have to be left out because to shorten voyage duration the interports were reduced. Gone were the old routes which featured four, five or even six ports of call and with voyages lasting several days.

Those big, fast liners might have been okay when ship passengers were still overflowing when there were still no budget planes and intermodal buses as competition. But that was not okay for the passengers left behind in the abandoned ports. It just created a generation or two of passengers not catered to by ships and grew up not relying on them.

And in the end the liner companies paid dearly for that. Even with advertisements they can no longer be coaxed into riding ships (even if they are painted pink). And that became a disaster for liner shipping when passengers thinned. Too few port calls mean less passengers and cargo – when the ships were already big and guzzling fuel and heavily needing those. And that just helped sink the liner sector of our shipping which has not recovered until now.

I argue that for the passenger loads and cargo sizes now our liners sailing are simply too big and that is the reason why they can’t or won’t call in the smaller ports served by liners until the end of the millennium like Ormoc, Surigao, Tagbilaran, Dapitan and others. It should go down in size and maybe add ports of call and damn if transit times are longer. What is more important is that the ships become fuller so that it will be more profitable. Anyway, those who want fast travel will simply take the budget planes. But still there are still many people which prefer the ships to the planes.

Moreover, the remaining liners now have engines too big to be profitable on marginal routes and smaller ports. I think the engines also have to be downsized. If fuel prices go up once more the liners won’t be profitable again.

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Our Lady of Sacred Heart by Chief Ray Smith

In downsizing and saving on fuel, there is one type of ship that is actually fit for us. These are the former RORO Cargo ships and Vehicle Carriers and we have several  examples of that in the past. Actually for the same size and length, RORO Cargo ships have smaller engines than ships which were ROPAXes from the start. They were not really built for speed but for economy while having a decent speed. And moreover on RORO Cargo ships not much steel has to be added as additional decks.

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Our Lady of Medjugorje by Nat Pagayonan

In the past when liners were not that yet big and fast we had very successful liners whose origins were as former RORO Cargo Ships. I think the most famous of these were the sister ships Our Lady of Sacred Heart and the Our Lady of Medjugorje of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (CAGLI) which both came in 1990. Beautifully renovated, few suspected their true origins. Weighing the amenities of the ship, they were not inferior to liners of their size. And nor in speed although they have engine horsepowers less than the liners of their size.

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Butuan Bay 1 by Vinz Sanchez

It was the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines (when they split from WG&A) which brought in the next batch of RORO Cargo ships for conversion into liner ROPAXes when they acquired the Butuan Bay 1 and the Ozamis Bay 1 in the early 2000’s. But what puzzled me is they forgot how to convert them into beautiful ROPAXes like before and almost everybody that rode them said they were ugly. And that maybe helped doom the return of Gothong Lines into passenger shipping. When Butuan Bay 1 became the Trans-Asia 5 it became a beautiful ship with first-class interiors. Butuan Bay 1 should have been like that from the very start and if it were, the trajectory of Gothong Lines might have been different (of course they had other problems too).

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Ozamis Bay 1 by Mike Baylon

It was the Asian Marine Transport Corporation or AMTC that next brought RORO Cargo ships here for conversion into RORO liners. In their Super Shuttle RORO series, they started with the first three converted in to ROPAXes and these were the small Super Shuttle RORO 1, Super Shuttle RORO 2 and Super Shuttle RORO 3. However, the conversions were also not done well and were not worthy of the beautiful small liners of the past. Were they scrimping too like the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines? Or were they thinking more of the cargo than the passenger revenue?

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Super Shuttle RORO 1 by Fr. Bar Fabella

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Super Shuttle RORO 2 by Nowell Alcancia

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Super Shuttle RORO 3 by Mike Baylon

The next batch of Super Shuttle ROROs which were former RORO Cargo ships or variants from the Super Shuttle RORO 7 to Super Shuttle RORO 12 were all big, all former RORO Cargo ships but all were no longer converted in ROPAXes because maybe the first three of AMTC were not particularly successful. I was able to board all of them and their interiors were all good. The cabins for the vehicle drivers were still in good condition and being used along with ships’ drawing rooms and the good, functional galleys. Some even have gyms. Actually what was only needed is to maybe convert the top deck or another deck into good passenger accommodations. Our shipbuilders were good at that in the 1950’s and 1960’s when refrigerated cargo or cargo-passenger ships from Europe were converted into liners for Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines aside from Compania Maritima.

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Super Shuttle RORO 7 by James Gabriel Verallo

The Super Shuttle RORO 7 and Super Shuttle RORO 8 were the two AMTC ships that were intriguing for me. At 145 and 146 meters length the size is good especially since this is a tall ship with at least 4 RORO decks. The original top sustained speeds are 17 and 17.5 knots from only 6,900 and 7,800 horsepower which is even less than the horsepowers of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart and the Our Lady of Medjugorje which both had top sustained speeds of 17 knots when new and did 16 knots here even with additional metal and age. If 16 knots can be coaxed from the small engines of the two AMTC ships then it might have been enough especially if compared to the speeds the former Cebu Ferries series converted liners are doing now. It will have a good container load with a decent passenger size if one deck is converted into passenger accommodations and the cabins for drivers are used for passengers here. I was hoping AMTC will go in that direction but they did not. It turned out AMTC was no longer interested in liner shipping and was more interested in container shipping and especially the loading of brand-new vehicles destined for car dealers in the south.

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Super Shuttle RORO 8 by Aris Refugio

A design speed or original top sustained speed of 15 or 16 knots might not do because converted here with additional metal and with age already they will probably just run at 13 or 14 knots and that is slow for a liner. 15 knots locally is still acceptable but 16 knots is better as proven by the Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje. But then on the other hand the last time the former Cebu Ferry 2 ran as a liner to Cebu from Manila she was just being made to run at 14 to 15 knots. Does it mean that speed is already acceptable? That will mean a 28 or 29 hour run to Cebu versus the 22 hours of the big liners. But then passing through interports will mask that. Just feed the passengers well. And I always wondered why liners to Cebu don’t pass Roxas City anymore when it is just on the way. Of course the big ones can’t. At least 2GO tried Romblon port with the St. Anthony de Padua (the former Cebu Ferry 2) the last time around. But then maybe small liners shouldn’t be doing the Cebu route.

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St. Anthony of Padua by Mike Baylon

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St. Ignatius of Loyola by Mike Baylon

It was Aboitiz Transport System which next brought in RORO Cargo ships for conversion into ROPAXes with their Cebu Ferry 2 and Cebu Ferry 3. Originally these two ships were refitted to be overnight ferries but later when they were transferred out of their Cebu base they were refitted again to become liners. The two are known now as St. Anthony of Padua and St. Ignatius of Loyola under 2GO. Aside from the two, there are other RORO Cargo ships which were converted into ROPAXes but they were not liners but overnight ships. Among these are the Graceful Stars and Oroquieta Stars of Roble Shipping.

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The future Trans-Asia (1) by Mike Baylon

I think there are many RORO Cargo ships around that are about 120-130 meters in length that have a design speed of 18 or 19 knots which can still run here at 16.5 to 17.5 knots and they might just be perfect. I don’t know if that is the case of the Warrior Spirit which recently arrived to become the third Trans-Asia (1) of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. This might be good as a test case. The length of 126.2 meters is perfect and the design speed is 19 knots from twin engines is also perfect. Trans-Asia Shipping Lines has a good record in conversion. But then she will just be an overnight ship but a big one at that. But the coming Panglao Bay 1 of Carlos A. Gothong Lines might not prove to be a test case as she will not be converted to ROPAX, per report.

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Panglao Bay 1 by Mark Ocul

Trying these former RORO Cargo ships for conversion into ROPAXes might be a safe bet. These RORO Cargo ships might be low-risk in acquisition as their purchases might just be above breaker prices. So if it does not make money the worth of metal as scrap might still pay for the acquisition price. In the future Trans-Asia (1) they are even cutting off metal so windows can be made. That is different from the experience of the Cebu Ferries ships were a lot of metal has to be added because decks have to built.

I think it is good time to try acquiring RORO Cargo ships as our future liners. They might turn out to be good bets and worthwhile liners a la Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje.

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I Was Able to Cover The Inaugural Voyage of the Davao-General Santos City-Bitung (Indonesia) Route of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) by Accident

I said by accident because it was not really done based on a plan. As of yesterday I was not even sure on going to Samal because I was wary of the tight security because two Heads of State (President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia) will be in Kudos Port in Panacan, Davao City near the President Duterte office in Davao or what is called as “Panacanang” (the question was how near one can get without some sort of official pass) and I was sure there will be suspension of voyages for some hours. And I thought Aris Refugio, the superb Samal ship spotter will have a better vantage point than me although what he needed might be a superzoom cam.

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Kudos Port by Aris Refugio

What attracted me, however, was the knowledge that there will be plenty of ships around because even yesterday there were already nine ships off Sta. Ana port in what me and Aris call the “South Davao anchorage”. I already noticed the bottling of ships and I was sure it will be more bottled today since three Chinese warships were coming to Davao. I was actually amazed by the coincidence of the inauguration with two Heads of State and the coming of three China warships (were the Chinese ships there for additional security?).

But I decided to go anyway this morning. The Chinese warships were attraction enough and the knowledge of bottled ships was the bonus. I went not for the inauguration because I was not even sure of the schedule or what will happen. I thought the event will be confined to Kudos Port and there was no decent way to approach it when the two Heads of State were there (and it turned out the First Ladies were also there).

I did not go to Sta. Ana Port. In the morning the shots there are lousy because the cam is against the sun. I thought it would be best to cross to Samal because Sasa Port is best covered in the morning as the sun will be behind me. And if there are ships in Pakiputan Strait aside from Sasa Port it will be bonus. Plus if there is some happening in Kudos Port that is visible it will be another bonus.

I got off at Mae Wess Port. The passenger queue was up to the gate. It was hot and humid but since I was there already I waited a little. But somehow I guessed I was in the wrong place and I backed out and went to Km. 11 Port. I thought the queue there is shorter although the boat’s run is further from Sasa Port.

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Start of the inaugural voyage of Super Shuttle RORO 12 with water salute (M. Baylon)

There was also a queue there alright but shorter. After a few minutes I decided to move ahead of the queue to see what was happening in Pakiputan Strait. And I was lucky. The inaugural run of the Super Shuttle RORO 12 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) was just beginning and I have a good vantage point that was not against the sun and was not too far.

There were many tugs accompanying Super Shuttle RORO 12 and they were giving her the “water salute” which means a water spray that is not really aimed at the ship but instead is just a light plume. This ceremony is given by tugs during important departures or arrivals.

I was not sure how far the tugs will accompany Super Shuttle RORO 12. I was not even sure if the RORO Cargo ship will just then go back to port. In the vicinity there were also Coast Guard and Navy ships. It seems they were taking the security of the two Heads of State and other VIPs very seriously.

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The convoy with Super Shuttle RORO 12 (by Mike Baylon)

Then the convoy turned to starboard. The thought that the ship might really sail already crossed my mind. I had to get inside Km. 11 Port because the structure is already threatening to hide the convoy. I asked permission from the Coast Guard and they readily acceded and I had the full use of the wooden port to get good angles. I felt what a lucky day!

As I thought the voyages of the ferries between Davao and Samal were suspended. I thought if I waited in the queue in Mae Wess Port there would be no chance to get aboard its ships and use it as a vantage point. So I silently thanked my lucky stars.

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A motor boat crossed the bow of Super Shuttle RORO 12 (by Mike Baylon)

However, two motor boats from Babak Port crossed the convoy and one just by the bow of Super Shuttle RORO 12. I thought the Coast Guard in Babak Port did a lousy job in making sure that no ships will cross the convoy. By this time some of the tugs were beginning to fall back and there was no longer a water spray.

I noticed the LCTs and double-ended ROROs of Mae Wess were already drifting to Km. 11 Port. They wanted to cross right after the convoy passed. But there were still tugs trailing plus the Coast Guard and Navy ships (well, their base was actually in Sta. Ana Port a few kilometers down south and they probably have to tail Super Shuttle RORO 12).

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A Coast Guard ship tailing Super Shuttle RORO 12 and a tug that has turned back

By the time the ship leveled with Sasa Port, some of the tugs have already stopped or have already gone back. The tug that was accompanying the ship long was the Super Shuttle Tug 1 which also belongs to Asian Marine Transport Corporation. Eventually she also dropped back and so i thought Super Shuttle RORO 12 was really on her way now to her first voyage.

I then decided to take a motor boat to Babak Port to get a longer and a different view of Super Shuttle RORO 12. The crew of MB Ruby gave me a good vantage point when they realized I was covering the event. We also had some tete-a-tete. They were knowledgeable about the inauguration. Funny they were even talking about the snipers providing security to the event.

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Only Super Shuttle Tug 1 still accompanying Super Shuttle RORO 12 (by Mike Baylon)

When I reached Babak Port I had no intention of staying long. I wanted to cross immediately to Kudos Port to do some interviews about what transpired there and I took the DavSam II which has the same owner as Kudos Port. The crew said they were never able to observe the inauguration since it was done under a temporary enclosure and they also can’t get near.

When I landed in Kudos Port I tried to make some interviews with the canteen staff of Kudos Port and with a Coast Guard personnel. Like the crew of DavSam II, they said they also can’t observe the proceedings. And like the crew it seems to them what they noticed first was the water salute. They said the affair started at 9am and security was really tight and they can’t even move from their assigned places. I asked who the VIPs were. They can’t give me an answer.

Then I received a text message from Aris that two Chinese warships have already passed the point opposite Quaco. That point is just a half kilometer from Sasa Port. So finally I knew where Aris was and it seems he was able to cover the Chinese warships more. That was good as we were not duplicating efforts.

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The bigger Chinese warship docking in Sasa port (by Mike Baylon)

So I then hied off back to Km. 11 Port. I knew I will be able to capture the ships there as they are docking and I was not wrong. However, the restaurant ship The Venue of Mae Wess was beginning to spoil the view early. I wanted to go to Mae Wess and ride a ferry to Caliclic but I did not like the queue and I thought Aris will be able to cover it from Caliclic anyway.

No, he ran out of batteries. And we were not able to communicate well because my cellphone battery was very low too. I thought there was still tomorrow to cover the Chinese warships when the passenger volume to Samal is lighter. For sure Aris will be able to cover them docked. So I just went to Sta. Ana Port. The sun is already behind me. There were eight ships off Sta. Ana Port, five of which were not there yesterday.

It was not a bad day. A complete coverage of the inaugural run of the ship to Bitung, Indonesia plus two Chinese warships and an assortment of tugs, enforcement ships plus ferries wallowing for they can’t cross.

Sometimes an unplanned trip turns out better than a planned trip if one’s stars are aligned.