A Trip Snafu

I had a trip snafu this New Year which disappointed me for I was not able to meet again the PSSS donor, Jun Marquez. We were supposed to meet in Leyte and he gave the new date, January 3, a reset of our earlier meet that was supposed to happen before New Year.

I had a little trepidation with that date when I knew it because I have to leave Davao on January 2 as the trip to Leyte is nearly a whole day. But January 2 and 3 are normally the busiest travel days for those who took a New Year visit to their loved ones. I knew it will be a little tough but I was more optimistic compared to an overnight ferry which has only nightly departures. In the short-distance Surigao-Leyte route there are several trips in a day and miss one or two, there is a high chance that one can ride the next ferry. And I wouldn’t mind a little delay in Lipata port if it will afford me more ship spotting chances. I had been in 11-hour waits in Liloan port before and so I already know what to expect.

But then a weather disturbance that I have been monitoring thwarted my plans. It developed into a Tropical Depression (TD) and at the current standard of government now, that will mean automatic trip suspensions of ferries and it began in the afternoon of January 1 which lasted until noon of the next day. With a suspension, there will be stranded vehicles and passengers and they will be the priority when trips resume. Higher in priority too are the bus passengers, the truck crews and the driver and passengers of the private cars. Now, I don’t usually take a direct trip as I am used to fractional rides as that is cheaper, faster and more flexible.

Normally, crossing Surigao Strait is already tough under normal circumstances in this time of the year. I have been to overloaded ferries in the past in this crossing when there were no more seats available. But recently, it seems the Coast Guard are already more strict. With a such tightness, me and Jun decided to call off our meet. He would be leaving for Cebu on January 3 too and even before I arrive in Leyte there are no more available ferry tickets to Cebu. With such a situation, I was prepared to take the 3am Ceres bus to Cebu via Palompon and Bogo. Or alternatively, go to Hilongos, take the ferry there to Ubay, Bohol, roll into Tubigon and take the ferry there to Cebu. But being no longer young, I already have doubts if I still have the stamina for extended trips not in a private, air-conditioned vehicle where I can rest well (thanks again, Joe Cardenas for the ride the other Christmas).

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Such snafu reminded me of trips years before where I was more successful in tight circumstances. I remember a December 24 when after visiting my sick mother I arrived in Lipata Ferry Terminal with the Millennium Uno still around as it was held up by the Coast Guard for being overloaded. A stand-off ensued as no one among the passengers wants to get off (who would anyway in a ferry that will be the last to leave that will still deliver the passengers before Noche Buena?).

Of course, they were no longer selling tickets but somebody in the port whispered to me that in the end the Coast Guard will relent and let the ferry sail (but the implication is the Coast Guard commander won’t be signing the clearance). He said I should time it when the commander is set to get off and with the ferry already starting to back off and the ramp is already going up. I know that window. It usually lasts about three seconds long only and my adviser said I should say the magic Bisayan word “hangyo” which translates into a plea. There were two others besides me waiting for that chance also.

And so the commander appeared, his face was of frustration and a little anger but still we said the magic word and he nodded. What a joy! We all made our jump and we all made it. There were a lot of passengers which missed the ferry and they were surprised by our maneuver. Of course, it was not a free ride. They still charged us the fare but so what? The important thing is we had a ride. I arrived at home December 25 at 1am. A little late but it didn’t matter anymore.

I also remember my ride aboard the Our Lady of Merjugorje which was the last ferry that will bring me home before Christmas. I came direct from a delivery in Bicol and I arrived in North Harbor on December 24 at 2am. The ETA of the ship was 5am but when I went to the ticket counter in Pier 6, I was surprised there were about 800 people lined up already. With a passenger capacity of just over 1,300 persons, I knew immediately not all of us can be accommodated.

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The Our Lady of Medjugorje by Albritz Salih

I knew what to do in such circumstances in those times then. I used to leave vehicles for pick-up in the Gothong parking area. I will just look for the Chief Security Officer and leave him the keys of the vehicle. Of course, there should be something for him. Never lost a car that way.

So I went looking for the CSO. I found him alright but he was not the same guy I knew before. Still, I laid to him my problem and need. He said he will talk to someone. By 3am he came back and said I am Priority #1 and asked me the amount for my ticket. Gave it to him plus his Christmas bills too. By 3:30am I had my ticket already and I boarded the ship. In this case I was at home before Noche Buena.

I have less trouble with other routes because maybe I also know how to stay clear of the crunch (and also I know how to check the weather). But in this recent case the date was not my choosing, a weather disturbance occurred and at dates where the crunch was heaviest. I let it pass this time especially since I am faced with a possible stranding in Leyte. And with such tightness I will also lose options to maximize my ship spotting. Normally, I avoid night strait crossings if I can avoid it as shots are limited by the dark. In this case there was also a weather disturbance with rains possibly lessening shot opportunities.

I won’t be going anytime soon. I want a schedule where I can maximize everything including bus spotting as my file of bus photos are now depleted. Usually, I avoid this time of the year when the amihan (northeast monsoon) is at its peak because that means a lot of rain and rain is the bane of good and many photos. Best is the turn of the month to February when the temperature is still cool, it is still lean month for the buses (and so discounts are more available) and the rain is already less.

So, that’s it. I just hope it will be better a month from now.

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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 Trip from Tacloban to Surigao del Sur [Part 2]

When the smaller group of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) members split and said goodbyes in Tacloban bus terminal, I was aware it was already December 13 and it was the PSSS’ 8th anniversary. I dunno if anyone mentioned it but I didn’t coz I do not want to spook anybody since many associate the 13th with bad luck and we were still all traveling. In our drive to Surigao del Sur, I never mentioned to Joe the anniversary because active members remember the PSSS was founded on December 13. Well, the luck of PSSS is still holding, fingers crossed.

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From Surigao City, me and Joe followed the road to going to Butuan. In our short drive in the city I think Joe already had an idea of the lay-out of it since we took the main road going in and another road going out. Along the way we saw some prominent landmarks like the St. Paul College, the Lipata junction, the bus terminal and the airport plus the shuttered Pacific Cement company. If I remember right, what Joe told me this was his first time in Mindanao and I felt pangs of remorse we were not able to invite our two companions we left in Tacloban for I know they haven’t been to this place yet too. But our host in Surigao del Sur knows only two are coming and Joe didn’t want to abuse the hospitality.

It was a serene drive from the city punctuated by some curves and by some sea views. No meaningful ports really in the area until we arrived in the junction to Surigao del Sur by the progressive barrio of Bad-as which belongs to Placer town. I was surprised there was already a Prince hypermarket there, a Cebu chain. In a barrio no less, when the towns there don’t even have one. I thought the mines might be giving prosperity in the area and the chain bet that junction will soon boom (well, it already looks like a small town to me).

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From there it was a more serene drive. Fewer vehicles, fewer people. We were no longer in the main road, i.e. the Maharlika Highway or AH26 but the road is just as good with even less damage and bumps. We were some distance yet from the sea and small rice fields and low hills dominated the sight. We had a relaxed drive.

Soon, Joe rolled out his GPS map. We were now in an area where I was not familiar with the ports and roads so I can’t give him directions. I told him our first target is the Port of Placer that I have heard before which is named after the town that is still a part of Surigao del Norte (it always enters my mind that there is a port in Placer, Masbate and also in Placer in Surigao del Sur).

Not long after, the sea and then the town came into view. I have the impression of an old town but the progress we saw in Bad-as was not evident here. We made a tour of the town while looking for the protrusion in the GPS map that indicates a finger port. Soon we were running on a road by the sea that is also a docking wharf for the small fishing bancas. That road then led to the actual port which was walled with a gate.

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We paused, a natural reaction but when we entered slowly there was no challenge, just curious looks (maybe they were trying to figure who the big shots were entering the port). That’s the beauty of a port that is not ISPS. In an ISPS (International System of Port Security) port, the guards are generally hostile and visitors are not welcome (they only want people who have official business there).

The Port of Placer surprised me. Offshore there was a tanker (not the Pandacan-type, mind you) but in the port itself there were two Petron truck tankers transferring fuel to plastic drums aboard a motor boat and a big passenger-cargo motor banca (I thought this was illegal but, oh well, we have to be practical). We learned it is destined for a generating plant of an island. The fishing boats inside were bigger and mostly of the basnig type. There were also two motor boats one of which is discharging scrap metal to a truck and the other has drums for fuel also.

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Offshore were islands and islets. Not a surprise since looking at the map this portion of Surigao has many offshore islands. Fishing abounds here and it seems the Port of Placer is one of the recipients. There were fish trucks in the port along with fish brokers. Placer port, though out of the way did not disappoint me. The visit was worth it.

We next passed the small towns of Bacuag and Gigaquit. We had no target ports here. We next rolled into Claver town which was the last town of Surigao del Norte (and soon we understood how it came to be). It was more progressive and I half-expected it having heard of it in the past. The GPS indicated to us a finger port and so we came looking for it. It was small with just a motor boat which seems not to be too active. There was no open sight of the sea. Only mangroves. It was a disappointment. I only took long-distance shots because if we enter the only way out is by backing the car. Not good.

From sea level, the road began to climb and offshore at a long distance we can see LCTs and barges. I forced getting pics but the quality was not good as it was too far for my lens. It turned out I was over-eager. Later, we found out that the mining ports were still ahead of us and I already began to exhaust my supply of batteries (after visiting nine ports already it should have been no surprise). But i rued my over-eagerness.

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As we proceeded, we noticed more and more ships were coming into view and most of those were LCTs and barges with loads that look like brown earth. We can also already see the mining wharves which are mainly causeways built by rocks and earth just bulldozed into the sea (but the biggest in the area, that of Taganito Mining is a pile-type port and it docks bulkers and tankers). The seawater of the area already has a tinge of brown when it was supposed to be blue. We were coming into the mining pollution we have read and seen from the news.

Soon, it was obvious we were nearing a mining community. The mud in the road tells it and what we are meeting now in the road were mostly mining trucks and vehicles. There were also truck depots of the mines along the road and there were also heavy equipment. China brands were almost universally the makes of the rolling stock here, some of which I just seen for the first time in my life.

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Before descending to sea level, it was becoming obvious the mining community we supposed was not just composed of one company but of several distinct companies with it own compounds, gates and wharves. The community was several kilometers long and it already has the feel and flavor of an emerging town. I remembered our member ‘kensurcity’ mentioned to me in a shipspotting meet that Jollibee can open a store in Claver and he said it will thrive. Maybe, this place Taganito was what he was referring to. Well, mining boom towns have magic in terms of glittering metal.

At the center of this community is the legendary Taganito Mining Corporation of the sometimes-controversial Nickel Asia which hit jackpot with the rise of China’s metal needs. There are other mining companies in the area and all are just adjacent one another. One is Adnama Mining Resources and the PSSS is familiar with some of its LCTs that are normally caught by our cameras in Cebu waters.

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When i check the AIS sites, I often see MMSI vessels near Surigao that has Taganito port as the intended destination. It is not a government-owned port, by the way and there are actually many mining wharves in the area each hosting ships with many other ships anchored offshore. We saw about 20 ships in all in the Taganito area (it is actually several barrios) but one needs really long lenses to cover them all well.

Even in the descent to Taganito community (the mining companies are centered in the barrio of Taganito), one is already aware of the exposed rocks at the side of the road which really looked like ores. Slowly, one can also see the stripped mountains and the water run-offs that are brown in color. Ascending after Taganito, it was even more visible and the mining communities also come into view already along with the bays that hosts the wharves. Brown, stripped mountains up high, brown-colored water run-offs and a sea that is turning brown.

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There is no surprise in that because what is being done is plain strip mining (not open pit as there is no pit; the mining companies were just stripping the mountains) just several kilometers from the sea and there are no holding or containment pools. No wonder the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources is now threatening the closure of some of them. It was great shipspotting in that area, there are magnificent views but at the same time one would begin to understand the controversy surrounding the mining in that area.

Leaving the mining area, I began to understand why there was no proper road there before and why Surigao del Sur is cut then from Surigao del Norte then. The area is mainly rocks and it does not have good vegetation and so how much more agriculture? No agriculture, no people. No people, no roads. Then it turned out those rocks are valuable. And so the road connecting the two provinces was built (i was told it was mush before). It looks like a good mining road anyway because most of the vehicles that pass are connected to the mines.

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I exhausted my batteries after that place and me and Joe began to hasten because our target Cortes town is still a fair distance away and it was already past mid-afternoon. We just whizzed by the towns of Carrascal, Cantilan, Madrid, Carmen and Lanuza. We vowed just to cover them and whatever ports are there on our way back to Leyte and Samar. Then, we finally reached the house of Joe’s shipmate at 5pm which we found to be in a progressive but woody barrio off the main road. Good decision to just whiz by the five towns (and anyway I don’t have batteries anymore). Otherwise, we would be searching a woody, unfamiliar and probably dark place after nightfall.

A seafood fete awaited us and all were fresh catch (we learned the fishermen themselves hawk it house-to-house there). Joe immediately posted a shot of the feast in Instagram with a hashtag of the place. A companion we left in Tacloban immediately noticed it (chismoso talaga ang social media). Maybe he was wondering how Joe, in an area he hasn’t ever run was able to cover a lot of distance in just such a short span of time with a ferry crossing to boot and almost no sleep. I didn’t know why James immediately suspected I was with Joe. Was I missing something;)?

Ah, anyway our luck held. And it seemed we did very fine on the day of the PSSS’ anniversary and Joe was able to prove he was a superb driver. Imagine that distance (350 land kilometers plus the Surigao Strait crossing) and pace (13 1/2 hours) with nine ports and one port complex (Taganito) covered including a meal stop. Who will believe that was possible? I bet James was thinking i was holding the wheel.

[Part 3 will be in the next installment.]

Can Grief And Distress Be Read?

At the turn of the millennium, my parents were already getting old and with it came the inevitable sicknesses. I began visiting Bicol through the intermodal route from Davao. The reasons were varied. One, I found out that it cost only half compared to a trip via Manila. Second, I don’t have mall eyes and it is the countryside view that I enjoy. I even hate more the always-present clouds in a plane trip. Third, I don’t enjoy battling the hassles of Manila. Fourth, I want to learn new places and I am also a fan of buses. Lastly but not least, I am a ship spotter and I wanted to learn more about the ferries of the eastern seaboard.

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San Bernardino Strait from BALWHARTECO

The trips were exacting but I was younger and more eager then. I was not daunted that I don’t know the route well. By that time, I have began to give up on the Philtranco direct bus that I didn’t like. Honestly, as a Bicolano I was not a fan of the bus company as it has failed and abused Bicol for so long. Second, I do not want the long lost hours in the hot ports waiting for the ferries of Archipelago Philippine Ferries, their sister company when one is already tired (Philtranco is tied to the ferries of Archipelago). Sometimes, the bus waits for up to 5 hours for them. Third, in peak season it can be a battle for seats in Naga and then one had to wait for hours for the bus.

Since I was a lifelong traveler, I decided to experiment by using Manila buses to and from Leyte plus the Surigao ride I already knew. At times I ride some local buses, commuter vans and jeeps like those in Bicol, Samar and Leyte. What a fun it is to ride the ugly-looking Samar Bus Lines buses in the bumpy roads of Samar! Or the kamikaze buses to Sogod that freewheel the descents from Agas-agas. And riding the faster Tacloban van to Allen to catch the last St. Christopher bus in Allen, a rotten bus most of the time but they were the ones that specialized then on the “stragglers”, the passengers left by the last Manila bus from Tacloban.

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Those early trips that rely on connections were trials and errors. Early, I didn’t know the windows of the trips in each places (what hour is the first trip and what hour is the last trip). That was when I am forced to stay overnight in dark bus terminals like in Tacloban or even the plaza in Maasin or even wait alone in a waiting shed near midnight in Sogod junction with only mosquitoes for companions. Sometimes, having eateries open at night in a junction was already heaven like in Buray. If I know the schedules well now and the window hours of the trips is because I have learned from the mistakes of my trials and errors in the past.

In the process of all these, I grasped how lousy and how few were the ferry connections then across Surigao Strait. And I learned that in one mistake or one unfavorable bus or jeep connection might mean an 11-hour wait in Liloan port (once what made us miss the ship was a near-fistfight between our driver and another driver!). Or suffer long waits in Lipata port because the ferry was not running. And after all the hours of waiting then not being able to get a seat because the ferry was over its capacity. Lucky then if one will have an air vent for a seat as the stairs were just too dirty. Sometimes I vowed I will bring a carton or a newspaper so I can sit on the deck at the top of the ship.

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Lipata port

It was much better in San Bernardino Strait as there were more ferries there and not once I encounter a ferry that there that was overloaded. Even if it was, it will not be a problem since usually I don’t sit in a Matnog-Allen ferry at day. I just roam around the ship and see the outside view if there is light since the ferry there normally took only 1 hour and 10 minutes to cross. Just milling around is difficult in the Liloan-Lipata route because the ferries there took at least three-and-a-half hours to cross.

The trip going north for me was much better and less tiring because I know when the bus will be leaving the terminal and so I don’t waste time and effort needlessly. In Naga, it was much difficult since one can’t predict the exact arrival of the bus from Manila (and sometime they were delayed if it is rainy or there was some kind of road obstruction or traffic). When it rains it was much more difficult especially since flagging a Manila bus to Visayas was very hard since one can’t immediately read the signboard (it is not lighted). Moreover, Visayas buses were hesitant to stop for one or two solitary passengers which they think might just be destined a few towns away (and this has consequences).

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Well, Visayas buses are not so kind to passengers in Bicol because Bicol bus operators tell them not to take passengers bound for Bicol (when they legally can and anyway Bicol buses ply routes to the Visayas) and if they do they are stoned. There were stretches in Bicol where the driver/conductor will tell the passengers to deploy the shades (these are curtains actually) to avert injury should a stone hit the bus. That is the reason why riding a Visayan bus I don’t speak Bicol nor do I introduce myself as a Bicolano (I say I am a Tagalog which is also true and I will speak Tagalog with the accent of my parents).

One of the trips I remember well was a southbound trip where I started it too tired and very much lacking in sleep plus I was out of sorts. My brother gave me extra money for a plane trip but on the last minute I decided against it and I took the bus from Naga. My trip started at night as usual (because there are no buses from Manila passing Naga to the Visayas during the day). I can’t remember my bus now but we reached Matnog uneventfully sometime midnight and we reached Tacloban about midmorning.

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Matnog port

Usually, if I had a direct Naga-Tacloban bus I will get off in Tacloban and look for a connecting ride to Liloan. I usually do that since it is very hard to time a Liloan or Davao bus from Manila in Naga. I know that in Tacloban there will always be vans for Liloan but these were not many then. So, if there is a Sogod bus leaving immediately I might take a chance on it since van waiting times to fill can take two hours or more then. Or else take the more frequent Hinundayan van and get off at Himayangan junction and take a habal-habal to Liloan.

I reached Liloan in time for the new-fielded Super Shuttle Ferry 10 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) which was then the best ship in the Liloan-Lipata route. Before boarding and in the bus trip maybe I was not looking too much at myself and I was just preoccupied in gazing the views and in trying to find sleep and peace.

2008 Super Shuttle Ferry 10 @ Lipata 1

Photo by: Gorio Belen

The crew of Super Shuttle Ferry 10 was welcoming unlike the crews of their competitors which nary had time for passengers and treats them like cattle. If one needs anything from them one still has to look for a crewman. Maybe since they are too used to then with overcrowded ferries they would just rather disappear and also to avoid complaints about the congestion and the dirtiness (one can’t see anyone of them take the mop to clean the muddy deck when it is rainy). Or to try to find a seat for passengers unable to find one. Or assist the elderly and pregnant.

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I was looking for a seat among the lounge seats of Super Shuttle Ferry 10 in the Tourist section where I can have the chance of a semi-lying position to sleep when a crewman approached me. “Sir, would you like to take a bath?” I was dumbfounded and astounded. Never in my hundreds of trips aboard ferries have I ever heard such a question. He offered a lounge seat and placed my knapsack there and said to the passengers around, “Let Sir have this seat so he can lie and sleep.” I was doubly astounded. And he nodded to the crewman in charge of checking the Tourist tickets at the door as if to say “reserve this seat for him, don’t let others take it”. And that angel of a crewman led me to a bath in the middle of the Tourist section and guarded it so there will be no intrusion. The bathroom was clean and so was the water. It was one of the most refreshing baths I ever had.

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Bath is in the middle of that structure in the middle of the passenger deck

The crewman led me back to the seat after my bath (I was actually a little numb and so I welcomed the assistance) and said to the effect that “please no one disturb him”. In an instant I was deeply asleep and only a gentle nudge woke me as we were docking in Lipata. I softly thanked the two crewmen and it was thanks from the bottom of my heart. Soon I was looking for a connecting bus to Davao.

Can grief and distress be read in a person? Maybe I was not aware of this before because growing up in a region where we have no relatives, we don’t attend burials. Actually, once when my wife was confined in a hospital I was froze when an employee burst into tears wailing, “Wala na si Sir”. I grew up not witnessing such things or taking care of patients in hospitals when they were already terminally sick.

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The TB of SSF10 on the right

Until now I can only thank from the bottom of my heart that crewman of Super Shuttle Ferry 10 who assisted me and showed me all kindness and assistance I needed then. The trip I was making then happened after the death of my mother.

Was he really able read me? Was there some angel whispering in his ears? Did a senior officer noticed me and gave instructions? I don’t know, I don’t have the answers.

Super Shuttle Ferry 10 was soon replaced in the Liloan-Lipata route and I never rode her again. But in one ship spotting session of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society), we were able to board her in Mandaue Pier 8, the AMTC wharf. Yes, the lounge seat where I lain was still there. The only change was it was already re-upholstered.

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I had goose bumps looking at that seat and at the same time my heart was pounding. I tried to look at the faces of the crew. My angel was no longer there. But whatever, this article is my way of saying thanks to you again. From my heart, I wish you reach far in your career.

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.

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.

Sometimes The Best Way From Davao To Cebu Is Via Baybay

A few years back, I was planning to go to Cebu from Davao. I had already made Cebu to Davao combined land and sea trips via Leyte before that and though more tiring and longer I found out it was more rewarding – in views and photos, in insights and just by the plain experience. With those long trips I am able to talk to people, soak a lot of things and garnet a lot of photos of ships to share with friends and the ship spotting world.

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In my travels through the decades I had always sought new routes, new connections so that my travels will be more diverse. No need really to trod the old routes as I am not for the “safety” conferred by it. I want the new, the unexpected and sometimes I welcome the difficulties. One learns with experimentation and errors. I have had failures and misses that I sometimes had to sleep in terminals or lose hours waiting for the next connection. But I never despair or get upset with that because I try to make it a learning experience. If I can guide people now with their travels, it came from the failures and successes of my experimentation with routes and connections. Of course, one has to read and research so the failures will be less than the successes and so that the experience will be more rewarding. It is always better to be not so dumb with the new places one will pass through.

One attraction of a trip from Davao to Cebu via Leyte is I will be able to ship spot Lipata port again and one of its corresponding ports in Panaon island. In the main I try to pass by Surigao every year or two as to be acquainted with the place again. Surigao is one place that has a tug in my heart because in the many years since I learned the overland trip from Davao to Bicol I found it a nice intermediate point. Actually, the crossing of Surigao Strait is refreshing to me especially the always changing seascape one sees as the ship chugs along. There is also the sight of the “The Saddle”, the volcano that produced the Guinsaogon tragedy, the historic Limasawa island, Nonoc island that is synonymous to nickel and the northernmost headland of Mindanao, the Punta Bilar. And of course the realization that in Surigao Strait one the greatest naval battles in history took place.

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Lipata Port

Panaon island also holds attraction to me that I have sought tales about it. I was able to learn the peculiarity of its copra, its old ports, its original people, the Mamanwas, a dark people of Aeta stock, similar to the original people that once dominated the eastern Mindanao cordillera but who are dwindling now. One will see their relatives in the mountain pass that divide Agusan del Norte and Surigao del Norte and sometimes one will read about them in the news when conflict arises between mining companies and their ancestral domain claims.

Now, don’t people say now that Agas-agas is majestic? Maybe they talk of the new bridge now spanning that chasm. It was a bridge that was the solution put forward by JICA to solve the problem of the always cut road because water from the mountain will always crash through on the way to that chasm in the rainy season, the beginning of a river, hence the name “agas-agas”. With it cut the vehicles from the south will head to Maasin and Bato, Leyte to make the long cut to Tacloban.

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The boundary of Leyte and Southern Leyte, once impenetrable before also have a great attraction to me because I am a nature guy. Though not really a great forest, still the lay of the land and the vegetation attracts me along with the many curves and ascents and descents of the road. How can one forget the old Sogod buses then which just freewheel going down and engage 2nd gear when the rig goes too fast already? The mere swaying of that into the road curves by the ravines is exhilarating (but terrifying to many). I don’t know if they stopped the practice already but I found it heartwarming that in Christmas, the oh-so-few barrios by the there will put Christmas lights by the road. From out of the dark and gloom one will notice at night that the bus is passing a small barrio and it feels welcoming.

I can go on with what I remember with the route. Those are some of the things why a route to Leyte is always an attraction to me. I want to experience it again and besides I want to visit a ship spotter in Baybay, someone who knows a great deal the ferries of Leyte in the past and so I wanted to have a chat with him. He was also once assigned to Bicol in an abaca trading firm, an oldie at that and for one who was always attracted in crops and trading I also wanted to have sharing with him. I have lost track of the the abaca trade in actuality (as opposed to figures) and I know it has a revival of sorts (recently, news say there is a shortage of abaca fiber). And besides he teaches at Visayas State University which was once known as VISCA, a highly-rated college in agriculture (#4!) but few knows that. I always had an attraction for agriculture and crops.

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I did research on the timetables and decided the 9pm Philtranco bus from Davao Ecoland terminal will best suit my travel needs. I predicted it will be in Mahaplag junction (some call it a “crossing” but it is actually a junction) just before noon the next day and from there Baybay will be a short distance away (24 kms). Just in time for lunch and if I am lucky I can have a meeting with Mervin Soon and be free part of the afternoon to roam Baybay and then take the cheap night ferry to Cebu which will serve as my first rest.

Being a Bicolano I am not a great fan of Philtranco as it disappointed us a lot in the past even when it was still Pantranco South. I got a ticket in their booth and promptly went back to complain. Yes, the sly charging to the passengers of the rolling rate of the bus was there in the ticket. I made my point and they issued me a new ticket and refunded me P50. They knew they were talking to someone not dumb.

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I viewed the bus. A relatively new Daewoo BF106, a Hino RK derivative, the front-engined version. It is non-air and it will be the first time I will be riding it so I welcomed the chance to assess it. Not good. If the Hino RK platform is not respected in Luzon this was a worse version. Stiff, not too compliant platform and the suspension hisses as lot. The windows rattle too. I thought the old Leyland Albions of Pantranco South was better. But of course they were not powerful, runs slow compared to today. Well, time passes. What I mean is technology improves. The upholstery is low-class too. The edge of the headrests were fraying from being used as hand support of the passengers when getting on and off.

We made some fast clip. It was a night trip and except for designated stops where they have a pick-up, the bus just rolled into the night. That is why I recommended before for Davao passengers to just use the Manila buses in going to Leyte rather than riding the slow Bachelor buses that hugs the terminals a lot and which is hard to sleep on because of that (passengers and vendors rustling every now and then and the bus will turn on its interior lights at every terminal). If a Manila bus from Davao can reach Tacloban in 16 hours or so, it will take a Bachelor bus nearly a day to reach the same place. I am talking of the transit times then.

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Vultures of Benit

Our bus reached Lipata port at sun-up which was just in time for the 6am Montenegro Lines ferry (it leaves anything but 6am sharp). Got off the bus, made a roam of the port and took shots, absorbed the atmosphere, made observations. Why would I queue with the rest of the bus passengers? That’s dumb. They will let you in the ferry even without ticket (just be prepared for the ticket inspection). And besides, it was never the job of the ferry people to check if one has a terminal ticket.

I headed next to the ferry and boarded. I wanted to take shots and talk to some crewmen. Met a kind engineer who offered me to partake breakfast on the bench near the door to the engine room. After some talk I asked if I can visit the engine room. I ask for this before the ferry sails because that is more difficult to ask when the engine is already running and besides that it will be too noisy then.

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Mahaplag junction

The engine room of Maria Lolita was very clean, tidy, well-organized. I noted the Yanmar engine, its dials and then the auxiliary engines, etc. When my back was turned, the main engine started. I asked what time we were leaving? The oilers said “Now!”.

No time to get tickets anymore. Just made small talk, asked questions on the oilers regarding the engine and engine performance. The noise was bearable, the vibration acceptable. I know the inspection of tickets will be fast since Benit port is just about 1 hour and 15 minutes only. When I knew the coast was clear I headed up first to the car deck and then to passenger deck. I met the kind engineer and he had the smile na “Nakalusot ka!”. I just smiled back. At the passenger cabin there were quizzical looks from some of the bus passengers. It meant, “Where have you been? We thought you were left in the port.” A ship spotter maiiwanan sa pantalan?

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Maria Lolita is a double-ended RORO with two heads or bridges. But only one bridge is being used and she does not sail like the usual double-ended RORO (which means she still turns around). With one bridge not used I was able to roam and inspect it closely. One thing I noticed is the view is good and it looks modern.

Maria Lolita has only one passenger deck and in the center is the airconditioned Tourist and outside of that on the sides is the Economy. The passenger capacity is only moderate. But she is relatively fast for its size. The vessel is still relatively new by Philippine standards.

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Baybay City

The bus made a meal stop in Benit. By 8:30am we were already rolling out of the port. The vultures of Benit are still there by the gate demanding the illegal exaction from the hapless but clueless passengers who should not be charged anyway as the Supreme Court has already decided such LGU exactions are void and illegal. Well, I bet even our lawyers and judges pay those illegal exactions. I guess that is how “enlightened” we are as a people.

The climb to “The Saddle” soon began. It should have been a magnificent sight of the sea but the growth and undergrowth is thick. It is not a long climb and soon came the slow descent. We were rolling now in the straight and flat roads of Panaon, not first class but good enough. There are only a few vehicles and the sea is almost always on sight. The towns looked small (until I found out later that Pintuyan poblacion was not in the highway when we were invited by its Mayor).

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Soon we reached Liloan bridge, the short bridge spanning the very narrow Liloan Strait that looks more like a river but it actually divided Panaon island from Leyte island (and the northern part of Liloan town to its southern part). Again the road was mostly straight and traffic very light. It is heavy in coconuts fronds as Panaon is coconut country). We passed by Himayangan junction which leads to Silago and the towns by Cabalian Bay and which is dominated by the volcano Mt. Cabalian. Sogod junction appeared with its beer slogan “So good, ayos na ang kasunod” that was already decades old. I always wondered as a boy ano yung kasunod. Maybe it is the only place in the country that that ad slogan is still used.

After that I knew the hard climbs will begin when the bus will just alternate between 2nd and 3rd gears and be down to 1st in some stretches. I was busy watching the scenery, taking shots if possible when the bus swung to a parking area. It was the Agas-agas rest area of the DPWH. The bridge is just nearby but the bus didn’t slow down when we passed through it. Maybe the driver is also too full of its sight it he doesn’t care anymore (anyway, bus drivers are not tourist guides). More climbs and descents, curves and turns and soon we were in Mahaplag junction with its empty gas station and lots of vendors. It was just past 11am. So far our transit time was still just 14 hours. The comparative Bachelor bus will just be entering Surigao transport terminal (that is why I don’t use the “Express” in their name because that is blasphemy against the true express buses and as I said before when a bus company has the name “Express” it is sure as hell that it is a slow bus).

I partook some of the offerings of the vendors and downed it with two bottles of soft drinks. I was hungry, I was dehydrated. I always wondered about all the rumors and warnings that the food in Cuatro de Agosto barrio is “poisoned”. All the years I have always bought there and I did not even had the slightest stomach ache. I also wonder about the reputation of Buray, the old junction to Eastern Samar. I have eaten there. Now where were the supposed “poisoners” of the place? If one listens to all these tall tales a fearful person will form the idea that Eastern Visayas is the land of “poisoners”. Well, in Tacloban terminal they will even offer free tikim of their moron. I have not heard of a complaint there that they were poisoned.

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Then the vendors were even kind enough to wait for a van for me and talk to the driver if I can be accommodated (it was a hot day). Soon I was on the descents to Baybay and then to its rice plains (Baybay is known for rice and maybe that is part of the reason why VISCA is there). Finally, I had a signal in my Sun cellphone and notified Mervin. He won’t be available till past noon but we will have lunch together. I didn’t mind as I can have a visit to Baybay transport terminal again. Nice to lounge there and I taste the offerings there too. I am a kakanin person.

I soon met Mervin for the first time. He was still very healthy then, the type who had a very understanding mother. He took me to a seaside ihaw-ihaw restaurant (it’s no longer there now). Had a good view of Baybay port and soon we were talking about ships especially the old ones. He knows some of the shipping scions being classmates with them in Sacred Heart School and he knows their stories. We also talked about TAG Fiber. Yes, he knows Bicol abaca.

We parted at mid-afternoon and I had the reign of Baybay again. Enough time to soak it up, observe the movements, gawk at their kind of vehicles. They have double-tire jeeps and that goes to Abuyog town passing by Mahaplag.

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It rained in the late afternoon and early evening making access to the port difficult. The walk is a little long and it is uncovered. I took the Rosalia 3. I prefer these old ships especially the local-builds. They are a little bit unlike the ex-Japan ferries and I am interested in their history. The Lapu-lapu fare is cheap. P300 for economy and P400 for tourist (I heard that even got lower because of tightening competition). It was bunks tejeras in economy, bunks also in Tourist. It was reasonably clean and the aircon is cold enough with free beddings. The rain gets in a little in the economy. Rain in Baybay is driven by the wind.

I made a tour of the ship even that night but I vowed I would linger in the morning to get a fuller and clearer view and throw questions. Sure enough I was among the last to wake up and get off the next morning. I was able to explore the ship and heard some Lapu-lapu Shipping tales. Rosalia 3 is small but she is actually a fast ship. Later, we learned she has three engines and is of fishing vessel origin. Now, isn’t that nice to know?

I also made a tour of the nearby ships. I really make the most when I am inside the port because once outside it is very hard to get in and visit the ships because of ISPS (International System of Port Security). In its book, everyone should be treated as a “potential terrorist”. It was made by some who graduated in Praning School.

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Soon the sun was beginning to get hot. Time to go. As usual because of ship spotting I leave the port tired as I will max everything as long as I have the strength.

That is me as a ship spotter.

Trip Summary:

An ordinary bus plus free ferry, then a cheap van and a cheap ferry, that was why I was able to reach Cebu cheaper than if I had taken a bus to Cagayan de Oro and rode the Trans-Asia ferry. Actually, even if I had paid for the ferry fare, the route via Baybay is still cheaper. Imagine that! In the map, the route will look more circuitous and it has two sea crossings (but that meant more ships can be caught by a ship spotter). But those sea crossings are cheaper than the much longer sea crossing through Mindanao Sea.

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The Sister Ships “Maria Felisa” and “Maria Vanessa”

The Maria Felisa and the Maria Vanessa are true sister ships which means both came from one, single hull design. Additionally, the superstructures of the two look very similar and this is not always the case for sister ships (like the cases of the Our Lady of Banneux and Dona Virginia, the SuperFerry 2/5 and Cagayan Bay 1, the Surigao Princess and St. Kristopher of Viva Shipping Lines and many other cases). Incidentally, the two were built by different shipyards and three years apart and yet they look almost identical.

The Maria Felisa was built in 1983 by the Nakamura Shipbuilding and Engineering Works in Yanai yard as the Ferry Sumoto. Meanwhile, Maria Vanessa was built in 1986 by Naikai Zosen Corporation in Onomichi yard in as the Ferry Shinawaji. Both had identical external dimensions at 57.4 meters length over-all (LOA), 53.3 meters length between perpendiculars (LBP), a breadth of 13.0 meters and a depth of 4.1 meters. The gross tonnages (GT) of the sister ships are nearly identical too with the Maria Felisa at 1,018 and the Maria Vanessa at 1,019. Their gross register tonnages (GRT) in Japan were not identical with the Maria Felisa at 955 tons and the Maria Vanessa at 960. Locally, the net tonnages (NT) stood at 609 for Maria Felisa and 610 for Maria Vanessa. The deadweight tonnages (DWT) of the two in Japan were not close at 394 tons for Maria Vanessa and 349 tons for Maria Felisa. Locally, it was disparate too especially since Maria Vanessa‘s rose to 482 tons.

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However, though nearly identical, the passenger capacities of the two sisters are not close. Maria Felisa’s is 398 and Maria Vanessa‘s is 440. Maybe the difference came from the benches built in the superstructure side of the outside passageways of Maria Vanessa which are vulnerable to rain coming from the bridge deck. The sister ships have identical powerplants with twin Yanmar Marine diesels with a total of 3,600 horsepower which gave an identical top speed of 15.5 knots when new. And maybe this identical powerplants were part of the reason why the two were paired in the same route. They can share spares, the engine hands can share knowledge in maintenance and trouble-shooting and the ships can benefit with the many advantages that commonality can bestow.

Maria Felisa has the permanent ID IMO 8300676 while Maria Vanessa‘s is IMO 8608963. The Call Sign of Maria Felisa is DUE2171 and that of Maria Vanessa is DUE2170. The closeness of the call signs also indicate the closeness of their arrival and registration and it could have even be on the very same day in 1984. Now that suggests only one agent brokered their sale to Montenegro Lines. The two ships have no MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) Codes which means they are not trackable by AIS (Automatic Identification System).

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The sister ships are RORO (Roll On, Roll Off) ships with two ramps (at the bow and at the stern) leading to a single car deck. The bow is protected as it has a rectangular box with the docking equipment mounted on its roof. In the stern, the scantling is not full and so the car deck is not protected against rain and strong waves. There are three car lanes with small vehicles shoehorned in tight spaces in the car deck outside the three main car lanes. The sister ships might have a true total of 170 actual lane-meters of rolling cargo space because of that.

Maria Felisa and Maria Vanessa have only one solitary passenger deck and a bridge deck accessible to passengers but there are no seats or scantling there for passengers and so it just functions as a viewing deck. Both ships have two masts and two funnels at each side. The original Japan passenger accommodation which is airconditioned serves as the Tourist section and benches were built at the stern and sides and these are the Economy sections. The spaces for the Economy is actually too little. The small canteen is located inside the Tourist section but it has only a few quickie offerings.

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The two sister ships are very much connected with Surigao and Southern Leyte as they were the primary ferries used by Montenegro Shipping Lines, Inc. (MSLI) to open the Benit (San Ricardo, Leyte) to Lipata (Surigao City) route which was a new route connecting the two provinces and two island groups (Visayas and Mindanao). This route is about 65% shorter than the old route of Liloan-Lipata and so it immediately became a success as the transit time is shorter and the rates cheaper (but much more expensive per nautical mile than the competing Liloan-Lipata route and so Montenegro Lines profits more and that calls the question again when did MARINA ever learned how to compute rates).

With a size bigger than a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the sister ships proved just fit for the requirements of the route. And with a speed faster than a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO that became an added boon as at full trot they can cover the entire 13-nautical mile distance in one hour if the time spent for docking maneuver is subtracted (the docking maneuver add minutes as the Surigao Strait has strong current and the sisters always have to turn as they always do stern docking). Compare that to the 3 to 4 hours of the ferries in the rival Liloan-Lipata route, the additional land distance of 41 kilometers no longer matters much as that can just be covered in one hour.

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The two ships have 4 hours between sailing on the average but that schedule can quicken if there is more load and on the other hand, cancel or shall we shall “retreat” a schedule is the load is not enough. That usually happens on lean months and during the dead of the night. Actually, these 24-hour sailing which Montenegro Lines is too accustomed to especially in Batangas-Calapan is too tiring to the crew and even the cleanliness suffers at times especially when loading starts as soon as unloading is complete (and that is a common occurrence especially during peak seasons).

One thing that helped Montenegro Lines and the sisters ships be immediate successes in the Benit-Lipata route was the 5-year exclusivity enjoyed by Montenegro Lines because they were also the operator of Benit port. That has recently lapsed and it remains to be seen what will be the further development. One thing that bars newcomers is the small docking space of Benit which is only good for only one ship at a time. However, the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) is expanding the port including its back-up area. There is also a talk of a new port in San Ricardo. One weakness of Benit port is it is too much exposed to habagat (southwest monsoon) waves and winds.

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Whatever, the size and speed of Maria Felisa and Maria Vanessa are just fit for the route and even if competitors come, there might be enough load for everybody as the load in this route is continually expanding with more trucks crossing as the intermodal is already fast shortcircuiting the traditional container shipping. Buses crossing are also increasing but it is the traffic of the private cars which is growing faster as Filipinos have already discovered the benefit of using their own vehicles in going home for a visit or vacation. Or even true touring. But as newcomers they don’t understand that it is not a “first come, first served” system as the regulars have already booked loadings that have already been arranged before.

One weakness of the sister ships, like the weakness of many Montenegro Lines ships is the lack of passenger accommodations. Montenegro Lines is always loath to add scantlings and passenger seats and since they load many buses (hence, many passengers), sometimes it becomes overloaded and passengers just seat themselves wherever they can and that includes the floor, the stairs and the air vents. Additionally, many just stand or mill around during the entire trip. This is true during the peak season when people attend fiestas in their hometowns and become ship passengers without being passengers of the buses to Manila, Tacloban or Ormoc. Analytically, the sister ships should better have another passenger deck or else extend the current passenger deck but I bet Montenegro Lines will not go that route being on the cheapskate side compared to other shipping lines of their size.

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The sister ships are still very reliable and I think that will remain so because the owner Montenegro Lines is very good in maintaining old ships. They might be transferred to another route or rotated but I guess one or both will again come back to the Surigao Strait route.

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Photo Credits: Mike Baylon

The Second Lite Ferry 10

I call this ship the second Lite Ferry 10 because there was an earlier one to bear that name in Lite Shipping Corporation which is more commonly known as Lite Ferries. The first Lite Ferry 10 was a small double-ended RORO which was used in the Cebu-Tubigon route. She was the former Ferry Ezaki No. 11 of the Ezaki Land and Sea Transport of Japan and she came to Lite Ferries in 2009. Subsequently, this ship was sold to Medallion Transport Inc. where she became the Lady of Miraculous Medal and used in the Masbate-Pio Duran, Albay route. Maybe she was sold by Lite Ferries because her passenger capacity is limited and maybe also because Ocean King I became available and was more fit for the needs of Lite Ferries.

The second Lite Ferry 10 was the former Ocean King I of Seamarine Transport Inc., a new Cebu shipping operator then. This was a new company started only in 2009 and they were only able to acquire two ships for their fleet. As a new company in the Camotes Sea/Bohol Strait area that was a little crowded, the company was not able to stabilize a route. Among the other routes they tried was the Liloan-Lipata route which was also crowded especially since there is a competing parallel route, the Benit-Lipata route held by Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. or MSLI. The first RORO ship they tried in this route was their Ocean King II. However, in a few months of sailing, that ship met an accident and capsized (but not sunk) in Benit port. To hold on to the route and since she has no other good route, Seamarine Transport Inc. transferred Ocean King I to the Liloan-Lipata route.

Built as an overnight ship and much bigger than Ocean King II, Ocean King I was a little of an anomaly in that route which has the characteristics of the short-distance ferry route although ferries run even at night. But some tired passengers actually appreciated her because she has an airconditioned Tourist section with bunks aside from also having bunks in Economy. The only problem was the 3-hour cruising time was not really enough to enjoy those accommodations or to wake up really refreshed after being already more than 24 hours on the road. The only other complaint was that the airconditioned accommodation was too cold. She was the only overnight ferry in that route connecting Leyte and Surigao.

Aside from the bunks, there is one feature that truckers and bus drivers appreciated in her that was not present in the other ships sailing to Lipata, whether from Liloan or Benit. Ocean King I was equipped with three-piece hydraulic ramps. So whatever the situation of the tide the vehicles have no problem loading or unloading. And besides having a three-piece hydraulic ramp means the ship moves less when the swells are active.

She was then holding the morning route from Liloan to Lipata and she goes back to that same port from Lipata in the afternoon and she will have a night lay-over in Liloan port. Her Economy fare was P300 but I can’t understand why people balk at the P400 Tourist fare. Maybe that was a little high compared to Camotes Sea routes if the distances are factored in (36 nautical miles versus an average of 55 nautical miles in the Cebu-Leyte routes and the most a Tourist fare there will be P500 and there are Economy fares that are only P300). But fares are really high in the eastern seaboard because they make the passengers pay unwittingly the cost of the discounts they give to the buses and the trucks which regularly cross (the suki). Ocean King I, however, had the disadvantage then that its Economy section is hot because the superstructure fully encompasses the ship. That superstructure was an inheritance from her design in Japan.

Ocean King I and Lite Ferry 10 was known as the Ferry Yamato in Japan and she was owned and operated by the Kochi Sea Line. This ship was built in Japan by Miura Shipbuilding Company in their Miura shipyard in 1987. She then measured 63.0 meters by 12.0 meters with a Gross Tonnage (GT) of 1,020 nominal tons and a loading capacity of 423 tons which was measured in Deadweight Tonnage (DWT). She was equipped with two Niigata marine diesels with a total of 3,200 horsepower shafted to two propellers and her original sustained top speed was 16 knots. She had a unique design. Being thin, she look long and not only that. Her superstructure in the forward stern section were very low but she has a very high bridge. She does not look like the ordinary ship from Japan.

She was refitted and converted in Ouano wharf in Mandaue. An additional deck was built and after that she already look more like a regular ship. However, her bridge still stood out. The front added section became the Tourist section of the ship. The rear of that held the Economy section and in between the two is a very small kiosk which also masqueraded as the “front desk”. She still looked sleek with her long and sharp bow. Passenger walkways were added on each side of the ship but still there is a very long passenger ramp at the stern.

She was actually already a beautiful ship especially with her raked funnels. She had a declared passenger capacity of 452 persons and her Net Tonnage (NT) rose to 679 nominal tons. However, her declared length her rose to 72.0 meters. Now, even though her superstructure gained in size her Gross Tonnage remained at 1,020 nominal tons. Of course this is a concession from MARINA, the local maritime regular for maybe “considerations”. And so the “magic meter” was applied. However with the added weight and the engines not that healthy anymore, all she can do locally was 13 knots maximum.

After two years in the Liloan-Lipata route she was pulled out. Maybe she was not earning especially since her engines are a little big. Her schedules were not really favorable too. A mid-morning departure from Liloan means most vehicle from afar have not yet reached Liloan. And a 1pm departure from Lipata means too that most vehicles crossing the Surigao Strait have not yet reached Lipata. While her car deck is bigger than most in the route, many of the trucks and buses crossing Surigao Strait was already contracted by the other ferries in the route. It is a suki-suki system with with the suki held by heavy discounts.

Like the Bachelor bus pays only P800 then when the advertised rate is P8,000. This is so because, rightly or wrongly, the passengers still pay for the ferry fare and that can be more than P8,000 worth. This is the system in almost any short-distance route that loads buses – they charge the buses low since the passengers still pay. Actually the buses don’t really pay anything because the bus ticket fare actually has hidden charges which I found out because I can computer the fare by the kilometers. That means they charge additional fare when the ferry was actually not running land kilometers because it is crossing the sea. Philtranco also does this and they gave me another ticket when I protested. But as they defended, “You don’t have to carry your baggage anymore”.

Ocean King I then tried some Cebu-Leyte and some Cebu-Bohol routes. We suggested to the Captain a Cebu-Palompon route (this was before Medallion Transport discovered this route; as a note, she withdrew too early in Liloan-Lipata route; in not a long time there was already long queues of trucks there). Then Lite Ferries chartered her for the Cebu-Tagbilaran route. Later, the arrangement went into a direct sale and she became the second Lite Ferry 10. As Lite Ferry 10, her route extends now up to Siquijor and Plaridel in Misamis Occidental.

Not long after acquiring her, Lite Ferries brought her in Tayud, Cebu for another conversion and refitting. Two passenger deck were added to her and her tall bridge deck now has a passenger deck. Her superstructure was cut and more “windows” appeared on her superstructure and those were slanted in a beautiful way and so now she looks sleekier. With that her Economy section is no longer as stuffy.

Her Gross Tonnage should have come up with an additional deck. But her Gross Tonnage actually went down to 999. Her Net Tonnage is now 679 nominal tons. Her length went back 63.6 meters with a depth of 4.0meters. With those changes her passenger capacity which should be over 700 persons by now. Maybe Lite Ferries also did those alterations so she will have a Cabin class that was not available before.

She is probably the most beautiful ship of Lite Ferries as viewed from the outside. She is also one of the biggest. The only one clear-cut bigger than her is Lite Ferry 8 which was once a Negros Navigation liner. Although her Captain as Ocean King I admitted her engines were not that strong anymore, he was really referring to the speed and not to reliability as she is still a a very reliable ship. Engines getting grey and weak is actually not that much of a problem anymore as surplus and brand-new replacement engines are already readily available in the market. In fact in the Lite Ferries fleet, the Lite Ferry 5, the Lite Ferry 8 and the Lite Ferry 20 were recipients of the re-engining treatment.

This is one ferry that will still last long and she is a beauty to watch. She will turn out to be a good buy for Lite Ferries.