The Leyte-Surigao Crossing Is Heating Up

Just after Super-typhoon “Yolanda” in 2013, long lines of trucks formed in the Surigao Strait crossings connecting Leyte and Mindanao when the relief and reconstruction efforts were in full swing. I thought it was just a temporary phenomenon brought about by the typhoon destruction but the truck queues persisted after that (but the buses were not affected by that in the main because bearing passengers they always have the highest priority in boarding short-distance ROROs). Cargo RORO LCTs requested by the government helped in transporting trucks months after the super-typhoon passed until the situation more or less returned to normal.

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LCT sent by Asian Shipping Corporation to the Typhoon Yolanda relief effort (Photo by ASC)

But further developments showed there was really increased vehicle traffic already in the Liloan-Lipata and Benit-Lipata parallel routes that connect Leyte and Mindanao. So in the recent years the Surigao Strait saw more short-distance ferry-ROROs sailing the north-south direction. These included new players plus a dedicated Cargo RORO LCT plying the route and carrying trucks. With such there is a palpable increase in the sailing frequencies between Leyte and Surigao.

The once-oldest ferries in the route, the Maharlika ferries are now gone after the sinking in 2013 of its Maharlika Dos off the southwest tip of Panaon island when its engines conked out and she was swamped by waves when no help came after she drifted for hours. Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the owners of the Maharlika series then stopped operations until they were able to bring their new catamaran-ROROs which are part of the FastCat series.

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Now these new type of ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships) hold different time slots. Even with just a single ferry which is currently the FastCat M7, it can do three round trips in a day with its superior speed (17 knots) and favorable passenger and shipper response. The FastCat is gaining popularity in the route by offering the same rates but employing a brand-new craft with the best passenger service in the short-distance routes together with the legendary 2GO liners. They are practically the horse to beat there now from being derided in the past because of the lousiness of their Maharlika series.

FastCat still uses the Liloan-Lipata route even though Lipata port was damaged by an earthquake in 2016 which forced other ships to use the other port of Surigao City which is Verano port. This is the port that caters before to the passenger ships from Cebu (there are no more liners from Manila) and freighters plus different crafts to Dinagat, Siargao and various small islands off the Surigao mainland.

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Benit port and MSLI ferry

Giving them stiff competition because it enjoys a short route are the ferries of Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) which uses the Benit port exclusively to sail the Benit-Surigao route. Normally, this shipping company deploys two big short-distance ferry-ROROs in the route and these are usually the sister ships Maria Felisa and Maria Vanessa. The Benit-Surigao route is only a little over a third of the Liloan-Lipata route but the MSLI rates are only a little less than Liloan-Lipata rates and so MSLI enjoys greater profitability than competition and I wonder why MARINA allows the shipping company to prey on the passengers and vehicle owners when I thought they are the maritime regulatory agency (and they are regulating what and are they for the shipping owners or for the passengers and shippers?).

A newcomer on the route is the Southwest Premier Ferries which is using a brand-new ferry, the SWM Stella del Mar which is a sister ship of the new vessels of Starlite Ferries of Batangas. This company promised several trips in a day but I wonder how they can live up to that if they don’t have enough rolling cargo as many of the vehicles there are already locked to their competitors (well, they can offer discounting to attract the clientele of competition). Southwest Premier Ferries is just a few months on the route.

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Photo from Scoopnest.com

A Bicol shipping company has also invaded the route, the Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. which rotates some of their bigger ships in the route and sometimes it uses a ferry of its legal-fiction company Penafrancia Shipping Corp. As of the time of this writing they are using the ship King Frederick but with two ferries from Japan being refitted right now in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu, it is probable that one of the two might be assigned to their Liloan-Surigao route to better handle the challenge of the new ferries in the route.

Another old shipping company still plying the route through Liloan and Surigao is the Millennium Shipping Inc. which uses its old and slow Millennium Uno, a ferry with over half a century of sailing experience. At several times in the past this ferry was thought by observers to be already gone only to rise again like a phoenix and one of the recent episode was when they voluntarily stopped sailing after the hot eyes that came with the sinking of the Maharlika Dos (she has her own deficiencies after all). When the ruckus died down the ship quietly went back to sailing with some cosmetic changes and engine improvements so that from 4 hours plus she can now sail the 38-nautical mile distance in a little over 3.5 hours.

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Added to that mix of ships is a Cargo RORO LCT, the GT Express I of GT Express Shipping which was once connecting Negros and Panay islands through the Banago-Dumangas route. This LCT actually uses the Liloan municipal port which once had overnight ships to Cebu and not the Liloan Ferry Terminal. The two ports are just a kilometer apart in a very small bay. As a Cargo RORO LCT, the GT Express 1 can only take in trucks.

One shipping company that is gone now in the route is Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) which stopped their sailing when they found themselves lacking ferries because of mechanical failures on their other ferries. It is a loss and a perplexity because they fielded in the route the first decent ferry when all that was available 15 years ago were the lousy Maharlika and Millennium ferries. I don’t think they will come back in the route because they still lack short-distance ferry-ROROs.

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Verano Port of Surigao City

So right now 6 different ROROs ply the routes across Surigao Strait from 5 different shipping companies and total of about a dozen voyages in a day with a capacity for over 200 assorted vehicles each way excluding motorcycles plus a passenger capacity of more than 4,000. Such is the available capacity now on the route which is a far cry from that of a decade ago when shut-outs happen.

One reason from the increased demand in the route is Surigao Strait became a favorite crossing point of vehicles to or from Cebu of vehicles not only from CARAGA Region but also from Southern Mindanao as Northern Mindanao is not a viable entry for the rates there are very high. This is aside from the fact that that strait is the old crossing point of buses and trucks coming from Luzon and going to Mindanao.

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“The Saddle” dominates the view of the Surigao Strait crossings

The competition in the route might be heating up for now with some threatened over-capacity but in a few years, with the growth in traffic being shown by the route then maybe more ships and frequencies will again be needed. Actually there is a report that a new port will be built in San Ricardo east of Benit and it will be connected to the eastern coastal road being built in Panaon island that will bypass the mountain pass called “The Saddle” which gives some trucks problems because of the inexperience now of drivers in mountain passes.

Maybe by then there will also be more routes across Surigao Strait in the future. More is merrier and normally that redounds to the benefit of the passengers and shippers if only MARINA will do its job. Let us see it then.

The China-built LCTs

It seems that just like in buses, in due time China-made LCTs might rule our waves just like China-made buses are now beginning to rule the Luzon highways. The process will not be that sudden though because ships last longer than buses and it is much more costlier to acquire ships. We too have that attachment to our old ships and we don’t suddenly just let them go. But then who knows if some crazy people try to cull our old ferries? I am sure many of the replacements of them will be Cargo RORO LCTs and ROPAX LCTs from China. They are simply that cheap and the terms are good. One thing sure though is the replacements will not be local-built ships. Local-builds generally cost much more than China-builds and the price of the ship is a key decision point.

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A Meiling LCT a.k.a. deck loading ship

A decade ago, China-built LCTs were practically unknown in the country as we were building our own LCTs in many shipyards around the country. Then the first palpable show of LCTs happened early this decade was when a lot of brand-new LCTs suddenly appeared and anchored for long in North Mactan Channel waiting for business. Some of these were rumored to be destined for the mines of Surigao which was then booming. That area already had China-owned and -built LCTs to carry ores to China just like some other provinces which allowed black sand mining had China-owned LCTs docking. But then here, I am talking of China-built LCTs that are locally-operated or owned. However, the Surigao mining boom when world metal prices spiked a decade ago because of China demand was one of our key introduction to China-built LCTs.

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Row of LCTs in North Mactan Channel

Then the demand for ore of China suddenly weakened and so those brand-new China-built LCTs that showed in Mactan Channel owned by Cebu Sea Charterers (of the renowned Premship group), Broadway One Shipping and Concrete Solutions Incorporated went into regular cargo moving. Later, the two companies plus others like Primary Trident Solutions (owner of the Poseidon series of LCTs), and Adnama Mining Resources which also acquired China-made LCTs went into Cargo RORO LCT operations like the Cebu Sea Charterers which meant conveying rolling cargo or vehicles between islands. The Cebu to Leyte routes was the first staple of the Cargo RORO LCTs. Cargo RORO LCTs were also fielded in the key Matnog-Allen and Liloan-Lipata routes to ease backlogs of trucks waiting to be loaded. They became the augmentations to short-distance ferry-ROROs in heavily crowded routes during peak season or when there are disruptions after typhoons.

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Cargo RORO LCTs in Carmen port

The old overnight passenger-shipping companies of Cebu more than noticed the emergence of the Cargo RORO LCTs and felt its threat to their trade and so they also joined the bandwagon in acquiring China-built LCTs. Roble Shipping first chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation before buying their own and those were China-made LCTs. However, it was Lite Ferries that made a bet in acquiring new China LCTs to be converted into passenger-cargo LCTs after some modifications. Outside of Cebu the shipping company 2GO, under the name NN+ATS and brand “Sulit Ferries” chartered China-built LCTs from Concrete Solutions Incorporated, which are the Poseidon LCTs for use in their Matnog-Allen route.

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A ROPAX LCT operated by Sulit Ferries (LCT Poseidon 26)

Meanwhile, LCTs were also tried by Ocean Transport & Key West Shipping as container ships. When they started they also chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation like Roble Shipping. They were successful in using LCTs as container ships and they were always full (and maybe to the chagrin of the CHA-RO messiah Enrico Basilio). This mode might be a no-frills way of moving goods through container vans but it is actually the cheaper way as LCTs are cheap to operate. Later, Ocean Transport & Key West Shipping also acquired their own LCTs with the blessings of Asian Shipping Corporation. Ocean Transport & Key West Shipping might have been successful in showing a new mode of transport but the self-proclaimed “shipping experts” never took notice of them nor studied their craft and mode.

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Brizu, a container carrier LCT by Ocean Transport

Asian Shipping Corporation (ASC) which really has a lot of LCTs for charter and probably with the most number in the country started by building their own LCTs right in their yards in Navotas just like some other smaller shipping had their LCTs built in Metro Manila wharves. Asian Shipping Corporation have not completely turned their back of own-built LCTs but more and more they are acquiring China-built LCTs which come out cheaper than local-builds. Shipbuilding on the lower technology level like LCT-building is at times can also be viewed too as selling of steel and China is the cheapest seller of steel in the whole world. Their engines and marine equipment are also on cheap end.

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ASC Ashley of Asian Shipping Corporation

Another big operator of China-built LCTs that must be noted is the Royal Dragon Ocean Transport which owns the Meiling series of LCTs. Many of their LCTs can be found in Surigao serving the mines there. Right now, China-built LCTs are already mushrooming in Central and Eastern Visayas but in other parts of the country they are still practically unknown except in Manila or when passing by or calling. Ironically, it might actually be a typhoon, the super-typhoon “Yolanda” which devastated Leyte that might have given the China LCTs a big break because they were used in Leyte and in the eastern seaboard routes (in San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait) when there a big need for sea transport after the typhoon and their potential was exposed. The super-typhoon also showed the need for Cargo RORO LCTs separate from short-distance ferry-ROROs.

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Owned LCTs by Roble Shipping

Ocean Transport of Cebu, as stated earlier, now also have their own China LCTs to haul container vans from Manila after initially chartering from Asian Shipping Corporation. The same is true for Roble Shipping which initially chartered Cargo RORO LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation for Cebu-Leyte use. Now other Cebu passenger shipping companies are also beginning to acquire their China LCTs. And that even includes Medallion Transport. Actually there are so many LCTs now from China that don’t have a name but just sports a number (i.e. LCT 308, etc.). But among Cebu overnight ferry companies, it is actually Lite Ferries who is betting the biggest on China LCTs that carries passengers too after some modifications.

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PMI-3, a Cargo RORO LCT of Premium Megastructures Inc.

In the following years I still see a lot of China-built LCTs coming and that will include LCTs that have provisions for passenger accommodations. If the government cull the old (but still good) ferries, I bet that type will suddenly mushroom especially in the short-distance routes. But of course it will not have the speed nor the comfort of the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROS. But who knows if that is actually the wish of some decision-making foggy old bureaucrats who don’t ride ships anyway? They will just be giving China yards and engine makers a big break. And a final note – LCTs from China are also called as “deck loading ships”. So don’t get confused.

Now let us just see how these China imports grow in size and importance.