The China-built LCTs

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

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

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

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Row of LCTs in North Mactan Channel

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

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Cargo RORO LCTs in Carmen port

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

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

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

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Brizu, a container carrier LCT by Ocean Transport

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

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ASC Ashley of Asian Shipping Corporation

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

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Owned LCTs by Roble Shipping

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

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

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

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

The Trip Back to Tacloban From Surigao del Sur

Me and Joe did not stay long in Cortes, Surigao del Sur. It was just an overnight stay, a short visit to a shipmate and his family. The next day we prepared early because it will be a long drive back to where we came from. We wanted to find what ports were there in the five towns we just whizzed by the previous day. Me and Joe also planned to shipspot Taganito again and see if there are accessible ports there. We intended a make-up since the previous day all my batteries gave up while we were there and we were a little rushed up already lest nightfall overtakes us while we were still on the road.

Joe again mounted his a-little-balky GPS map as we will use it again in searching for ports (I realized already then that my plain refusal to use the capabilities of my smartphone is already a negative as I can’t assist Joe). We passed by Lanuza, Carmen and Madrid towns without any signs of a port. It was actually Madrid which interested as more as the owner of the “Voyagers” restaurant which we patronized on the way to Surigao del Sur hailed from that town and the shipmate of Joe was familiar with the surname (he said one of the most prominent families of that town).

We knew there will be a port that we will be visiting in the next town of Cantilan because the previous day we already saw its sign by the highway. Cantilan sticks to my mind because the controversial Prospero Pichay hails from that town and he claimed it was the mother town of that area and I was looking for signs of that. A presence of a port I will not be surprised because that is one of the givens at times if a powerful congressman hails from the place.

We found the road sign alright and it was indicated there the distance is 6 kilometers. Not near, we thought, but we were determined to see what it has because we wanted to see what Prospero Pichay has given his place. We were lucky that the road is already cemented in many places and those not were not muddy. We noticed signs of a fiefdom and we just continued on as the seaview is good. We found the Port of Cantilan which is in Barangay Consuelo.

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It was not a disappointing visit. The view was good with islets near the port and there were vessels but almost all were fishing vessels of the basnig type. I was surprised that one of those was the Clemiluza which I used to see in Cebu before. There were two fish carriers in the port and the total number of basnigs was nearly 10. The port had concrete buildings. I don’t know but the impression I got of the Port of Cantilan was that of a fishport.

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In the next town of Carrascal, the last town of Surigao del Sur going north, there were views of the sea and mines and it was a warning to us that Taganito is not too far anymore. Me and Joe tried a small road that goes to the sea. There was no port. What is noticed is the water by the beach. It is not the normal blue. It is brownish with some relation to muck including the smell. I wondered if there was fish still to be caught there.

We then reached the part which I remembered will show us the mining communities below which is part of the boundary of the two Surigao provinces. There was really no good vegetation and the terrain seemed to be really harsh before. I can sense there was really no good serviceable road here before the mines came. I remembered what the shipmate of Joe said to us the previous night that at his age he has not been yet to Butuan City or Surigao City because he said there was no road then. He said that if they needed something that is not available in Tandag, their capital and next town, they go to Davao (he studied college in Davao City by the way). Now I understand why before the Caraga Region was established, Surigao del Sur was part of Region XI that included the Davao provinces.

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We descended and reached sea level which is an indication the mining community centered in Taganito is already upon us. The bulk of the harsh and mountainous terrain is already behind us. It was the actually the physical boundary of Surigao del Norte and Surigao del Norte (and it confirmed to me what I noticed before that the actual boundaries of the provinces of Mindanao are actually physical boundaries too).

We knew from the day before that there was an indication of an open port in the area and we found it. It is the Port of Hayanggabon, a PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) port and it is still being constructed but it is already usable. It is obvious it is meant to be a RORO port. To where, I can surmise that it would an alternative port for the islands of Surigao del Norte. Bucas Grande island, the third major island off the Surigao coast with the town of Socorro is just offshore and Claver can be its link to the mainland. The Port of Hayanggabon can also be the dock of ships with supplies from Cebu and Manila.

We took photos of the ships in Hayanggabon port and also the vessels offshore (this is one of the characteristics of the Taganito area, the presence of a lot of ships offshore). We roamed the general area. There is a barangay hall that can pass off as a municipal hall in some remote areas of the country. There are also restaurants that is already more modern-looking than the usual roadside stand. One thing noticeable is a lot of mining trucks that were on the move aside from other mining vehicles.

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With the developments we saw, it seems the mining companies are doing CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) work. It can be seen in the schools, the school buses, the ambulance and the community lighting. Well, they should. They are earning a lot of money after all. Strip mining near the shore with no tailings ponds with just causeway ports means lower initial capital, lower operational costs over-all and hence more profits.

We did not try entering a mining port. We are almost sure they won’t allow us (they can easily cite the risks and company policy). We contented ourselves with shots from the road. However, I realized that with a vehicle and enough time one can look for vantage places but one needs really long lenses for Taganito as half of the ships are offshore. My 10x zoom was just barely capable for the ships that are docked.

We also took photos of the mining yards, the motor pools, the cuts in the mountain (the strip mines) and almost any other thing connected to their activities that are visible outside. It is seldom that one is near a mining community after all with its activities visible and palpable. Even their equipment is interesting enough. There is even a conveyor belt overhead. But I just wonder with all the heavy loads how long will the road hold before cracking.

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From Claver we sped up already. No more looking for ports and we intended to bypass Surigao City and head direct to Lipata Ferry Terminal. We knew it will be a really late lunch after all the sightseeing and shipspotting. Our target was “Voyagers” restaurant again. We loved the sights, the ambience, the newness and cleanliness plus I can recharge batteries there again, a crucial need in any long-distance shipspotting.

Before going to “Voyagers” we went first to the Lipata Ferry Terminal to know what were our ferry options and to arrange our ride. Of course when one goes canvassing we become an attractive target for the shipping company employees and their runners. There will of course be all the offers and blandishments plus the lies. I was used to that. I actually tried to be the front man instead of Joe because I know I can exude the mien of a veteran.

Actually, our first preference was the FastCat M7 so we can experience a good, new catamaran RORO on that route. Besides our preferred docking port is Liloan as we have been in Benit already on the way to Surigao (so taking a Montenegro Lines ferry again is already out of the options). We also want to shipspot that port from the inside.

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The first ferry leaving for Liloan was the Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping, an old and slow ferry. They lied about a 3-hour running time and said it will arrive in Liloan ahead of the FastCat M7, two obvious lies. Whatever, it will be the FastCat M7 for us. We do not want an old, slow and uncomfortable ferry that has no airconditioning. Joe after a continuous trip from Catarman to Tacloban, back to Catarman then back again to Tacloban and then Surigao del Sur needed an accommodation more than a basic one.

And so it has to be FastCat M7, our original choice. However, it will still be more than two hours from departure. Oh, well, we decided we will just while our time in “Voyagers” and charge my batteries. The Archipelago Ferries man did all the paperworks and we appreciated that (uhm, what a nice rolling cargo service, we thought). He returned with the change and I asked what was paid for. We learned that included already in the total charges was a “Barangay Fee” of 50 pesos.

Me and Joe had a hearty laugh with that. They were able to put one over us. We just explained to the Archipelago guy it is illegal per two Supreme Court final decisions. We let it at that. Me and Joe just wanted to fill in our stomachs, have some rest and enjoy the coziness of “Voyagers”. We already deserve it after over 1,100 kilometers of travel and 3 sea crossings over 4 days (Joe already had 1,400 kilometers over 5 days) and we still have 1 sea crossing and 400 kilometers to go).

We again went to “Voyagers” and they were surprised we were back. We told them they are the best around in Lipata and we like the ambience. Maybe because of that they gave us free halaya. It was delicious. We ordered one as baon but it turned out it was not for sale. “Voyagers” is one restaurant we can really recommend. Very hospitable. It like its settee that is like a sala plus its elevated location which is airy and nice for looking around.

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After two hours of rest we began the embarkation process. It was smooth. FastCat was more professional. I had small talk with some of the hands on the deck. That is where I learned that the Philtranco buses are no longer loaded (one of the reasons for the slack in rolling cargo). It is just the passengers and cargo of the bus and the process is the same in Liloan so in effect the passengers from opposite directions just swap buses. Looks neat but they said the passengers don’t like it.

The FastCat M7 is nice and relaxing. The passenger service and the canteen are good along with the rest of the ship which is new. Our trip is two-and-a-half hours and I was glad it was longer than the Lipata-Benit route as Joe can have more rest. I didn’t have much rest because as usual I was just milling around the ship until it got too dark for taking shots. Before that Benit port was visible and we had a freighter as a companion. By the way, we overtook Millennium Uno just after the midway of the route even though it departed an hour ahead of us.

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It was dark when we disembarked in Liloan Ferry Terminal. Joe parked the car first because I was making a round of the port taking shots and taking stock. There are more controls now but I was still able to get around. It did not change much anyway. However, because of the dark my shots were limited.

We then proceeded and not long after Joe asked where we can eat. I told him the nearest town with decent eateries is Sogod, the biggest town in the area. So instead of proceeding direct to Mahaplag we turned west in Sogod junction to the town. Nearing the town I was puzzled that past dinnertime there were still a lot of vehicles on the road and there was more near the town and inside the town there was traffic. Turned out it was the fiesta of the town but unfortunately we knew no one there. Sayang. We saw the barbecue plaza of the town and we had dinner there. It was satisfying.

After that was the drive again by the river of Sogod. Each and every time I pass it there seems to be changes because there is erosion andthe river change. We then turned to the left in Sogod junction and I warned Joe that from there it will be all uphill. The rain began coming. I don’t know but I associate that place with rain. Maybe it is because the vegatation is still heavy with a lot of trees and it is watershed area.

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Me and Joe will be running through Mahaplag again because the puppy we were supposed to pick up in Isabel was not available. Sayang. We could have stayed the night in Sogod, had more fun there and ran the picturesque seaside road to Maasin the next day and visit the many ports of Southern Leyte and western Leyte up to even Palompon. It would have been a hell of a shipspotting day.

We reached Mahaplag junction again and it was another disappointment as it was already night and there were no hawkers of kakanin and suman anymore. Me and Joe really wanted to test the rumored “poisoners” of the area, a thing we both laugh at because we knew it is not true. Never had a stomach ache in almost two decades I bought from that place and I am still alive.

Heavy rains pelted us after Mahaplag all the way to Tacloban. Joe was already showing signs of tiredness and the weather was not cooperative. In some sections there were already inches of water on the highway demanding more attention from a tired driver. We finally reached Tacloban near midnight.

We were unlucky because the hotels we went to were all full. Maybe because of the hour? We were wondering. We thought Tacloban was disaster area. We then found one across the Sto. Nino Shrine. It was not cheap but the accommodation was good. We have to settle for it. Joe was already clearly tired. Who would not be after 1,300 kilometers on the road spread over 5 consecutive days?

We retired immediately for the next day we will be looking for the unexplored old ports of Samar. Our main targets were Basey and Victoria ports. Guiuan we deemed was too far already.

[That part I already wrote in a previous article:,,,,]

The Sunset of Tacloban Port

Tacloban City is the regional commercial center of Eastern Visayas and this has been so for about a century now. It has the advantage of a central location and a sheltered port and bay. Its reach weakens, however, in the western coast of Leyte which has its own sea connections to a greater trade and commercial center, the great city of Cebu which has been ascendant in the south of the Philippines since half a millennium ago. 

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As a regional commercial center, it is but natural for Tacloban to have a great port with trade routes to many places. That has been the situation of Tacloban since before World War II and even before World War I. It also does not hurt that Tacloban is the capital of the province of Leyte. In fact, because of her superior strategic location, Tacloban even exceeded her mother town which is Palo which is still the seat of the church hierarchy.

Before World War II and after that, passenger-cargo ships from Manila will drop by first in Masbate, Catbalogan and Calbayog before hooking route and proceeding to Tacloban. Some of these ships will then still proceed to Surigao and Butuan or even Cagayan de Oro using the eastern seaboard of Leyte. Tacloban then was the fulcrum of these liner routes going to Eastern Visayas. That route was much stronger than the routes that drop by Ormoc and Maasin and perhaps Sogod and Cabalian before going to Surigao. The two routes were actually competing (like Ormoc and Tacloban are competing). If the route via Tacloban was stronger it is because Tacloban was the trade and commercial center of the region.

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At its peak, Tacloban port hosted some seven passenger-cargo ships from Manila per week from different liner companies. She also had daily regular calls from passenger-cargo ships emanating from Cebu. There were also some ships that originate from as far as Davao which dropped by Surigao first. Such was the importance of Tacloban port then which can still be seen in the size of Tacloban port and the bodegas surrounding it.

There were many liner companies that called over the years in Tacloban from Manila. Among them were Sulpicio Lines (and the earlier Carlos A. Gothong & Co.), Compania Maritima, General Shipping Company, Philippine Steam and Navigation Company, Philippine Pioneer Lines (and later the successor Galaxy Lines), Escano Lines, Sweet Lines, even the combined Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and Lorenzo Shipping Corporation. When it was still sailing local routes, even De la Rama Steamship served Tacloban. Among the minor liner companies, Royal Lines Inc., Veloso Brothers Ltd., N&S Lines, Philippine Sea Transport and Oriental Shipping Agency also served Tacloban. Not all of those served at the same time but that line-up of shipping companies will show how great was Tacloban port then.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

For many years there was even a luxury liner rivalry in Tacloban port. This was the battle which featured the Dona Angelina of Sulpicio Lines and the Sweet Rose of Sweet Lines which mainly happened in the 1970s. Sweet Rose was sailing to Tacloban from the late 1960s and was in fact the first luxury liner to that port. The two liners were the best ships then sailing to Tacloban port. The rest, of course, were mainly ex-”FS” ships which was the backbone of the national liner fleet then and there was no shame in that.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

Tacloban port was doing well until the late 1970’s when a paradigm change pulled the rug from under their feet. This development was the fielding of a RORO by Cardinal Shipping, the Cardinal Ferry I that connected Sorsogon and Samar. With San Juanico bridge already connecting Samar and Leyte and the Maharlika Highway already completed, intermodal trucks and buses started rolling into Tacloban and Leyte. In fact, in just one year of operation the intermodal link was already a roaring success with many trucks and buses already running to Manila. Soon other ferries were connecting Sorsogon and Samar including the Maharlika I of the government.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

With this development the irreversible decline of Tacloban port began. It was a slide that never ever saw a reversal because what happened over the years was the buses and trucks rolling to Tacloban and Leyte just continued to multiply without abatement (and the ROROs in San Bernardino Strait also increased in number). Soon the passengers were already filling the intermodal buses and freight except the heaviest and the bulkiest was also slowly shifted to the trucks. Over the years the number of passenger ships to Tacloban slowly declined as a consequence.

In the late 1980’s, when the pressure of the intermodal was great there were still three national shipping lines with routes to Tacloban – Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines. In the early 1990’s. when Sweet Lines quit shipping only the top two shipping lines then where still sailing to Tacloban with the Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines and the Masbate Uno of William Lines. Incidentally, the infamous Dona Paz which burned and sank after a collision with a tanker in December 1987 originated from Tacloban.

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Tacloban Princess by John Carlos Cabanillas

When the WG&A merger came in 1996 the company pulled out the Masbate I from the Tacloban route. The last liners ever to sail the Tacloban route were the Tacloban Princess and the Cebu Princess which alternated in the route. Both belonged to Sulpicio Lines. The liner route from Manila to Tacloban was finally severed when Sulpicio Lines got suspended from passenger service as a consequence of the sinking of the Princess of the Stars when both the Tacloban Princess and the Cebu Princess were sold.

The overnight ferry service from Cebu almost followed the same path and died at almost the same time. The last three shipping companies which had a route there were Roly Shipping, Maypalad Shipping and Cebu Ferries Corporation (which was the successor of CAGLI). But passengers slowly learned that the routes via Ormoc and Baybay were faster and cheaper and the connection was oh-so-easy as the bus terminals of the two cities were just outside the port gates of Ormoc and Baybay. The High Speed Crafts (HSCs) to Ormoc, mainly SuperCat and Oceanjet also made great strides and captured a large portion of the passenger market and it further denied passengers for Tacloban. With the HSCs and overnight ships from Cebu that leave Ormoc in the morning there was no longer any need for Tacloban passengers to wait until night.

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http://www.maritime-executive.com/article/Paralyzed-Philippine-Port-Resumes-Operations-2013-11-21

The last rope for Tacloban port passenger-cargo ships was cut when the new coastal highway from Basey, Samar to Guiuan, Eastern Samar was completed. With that the passenger ships connecting Tacloban and Guiuan had to go as the fast and ubiquitous commuter vans (called “V-hire” in the province) suddenly supplanted them. Trucks also began rolling and some of these were even coming from Cebu via the intermodal.

Now only a few cargo ships dock in Tacloban port. There is still one cargo shipping company based in Tacloban, the Lilygene Sea Shipping Transport Corp. Gothong Southern Shipping Lines meanwhile still has a regular container ship to Tacloban but there are complaints that the rates are high (the consequence of no competition). Whatever, there are still cargoes better carried by ships than by trucks. However, some of the container vans for Leyte are just offloaded now in Cebu and transferred through Cargo RORO LCTs going to several western Leyte ports.

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What might remain for a long time maybe in Tacloban port are the big motor bancas for Buad island in Western Samar which hosts the town of Daram and Bagatao island which hosts the town of Zumarraga. I am not sure of the long-term existence of the other motor bancas for the other Samar towns except for maybe Talalora as more and more they have buses that go to Tacloban and maybe soon the commuter vans will follow. Or maybe even the jeep. The lesson is with roads established the sea connection always have to go in the long term.

Tacloban port is improved now. Improving the port eases port operations but it will not make the ships come back contrary to what the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) and the government say. It is cargo and passengers that make the ships come to a port but if there are other and better transportation modes that are already available then cargo and passenger volumes drop and sometimes it becomes uneconomical for the ship to continue operating.

So I really wonder what is the point in developing a port in the nearby town of Babatngon as an alternative to Tacloban port. Have the Philippine Ports Authority ever asked who wants to use it? It is not surprising however as the PPA is the master of creating “ports to nowhere” (ports with practically no traffic) especially in the time of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who was so fond of those (for many “reasons”, of course).

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Ormoc Port by John Luzares

In the past two decades the PPA always touted Tacloban port. For maybe they are based there. There was a denial that actually Ormoc port was already the main gateway to Leyte and it is no longer Tacloban port. Recently however, there seems to be an acknowledgment of the real score — that Ormoc port has actually been the de facto gateway already. The government is now developing Ormoc port and it is good that the PPA vessel arrival and departure site already covers it.

Whatever and however they try, it cannot be denied that the sun is already setting in Tacloban port. It is no longer the same port it used to be in the past because of the intermodal assault changed things.

Like they say, things always change.

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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WHEN IS A RORO VIABLE?

This article was originally posted on the old PSSS Website, and is reposted for archive purposes. No changes are made, including grammatical changes.

Written by Mike Baylon

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ROROs (Roll On, Roll Off ships) have long been viable as connectors of our major islands in the last three-and-a-half decades. All our big and medium islands have been connected already along with a few minor islands. One major factor for this was the completion of good roads in the major islands. With good roads the vehicle density then correspondingly shot up.

With good roads the cargo jeeps, trucks and the buses rolled along the new intermodal sea lanes. The sedans, AUVs and pick-ups soon followed. The booming of trucks was helped by the entry of surplus units in the free ports while financing for buses became easier with the availability of more money during the economic recovery. Versatile and fast wing van trucks also arrived and these became serious competitors to container shipping especially since they can depart daily and at any hour and need not queue in the North Harbor. Refrigerated trucks, too, revolutionized how we moved goods from place to place and they carried a variety from sea foods to processed or fresh meat to fresh produce and fruits.

M/V Odyssey loading a wingvan truck. ©Mike Baylon

RORO connection from Luzon to Samar and Leyte up to Mindanao immediately became successful and later connection from Luzon to Mindoro and Panay became  viable too. RORO connections between the main Visayan islands of Leyte, Bohol, Cebu, Negros and Panay also took off early. Soon there came also the connection of Negros and Bohol to Mindanao. In later years we also saw RORO connections to Alabat, Marinduque, Masbate, Catanduanes, Palawan, Cuyo, Guimaras, Bantayan, Siquijor, Camiguin, Siargao, Samal, Olutanga, Basilan and Jolo islands and the Romblon, Calamian, Camotes and Tawi-tawi groups of islands.

A privately-owned port. Click to open full-size to better appreciate the details. ©Mike Baylon

Not too long ago there was a push to connect smaller islands by RORO with MARINA  offering “missionary route” status to entrants. Along with a host of incentives, this status conferred to entrants exclusivity in the route and other and protection from entry of competitors in nearby connections up to a distance of 50 kilometers away. MARINA even produced feasibility studies made by foreign shipping experts with doctorate degrees but who have no knowledge of local shipping to support this project. But alas, as expected their recommendations bombed as in the ROROs stopped sailing and transferred routes because as they say in analytics it is “garbage in, garbage out”.

This way of thinking was exacerbated by a Ph.D thesis of someone who has no knowledge of shipping who did a paper on the state of competition in the Philippine shipping industry. The basic thesis was the assumption that if in a route there are only one or two competitors then “there is lack of competition”. The lady never thought some routes can barely support a ship and years later many routes she thought “lacks competition” are actually already gone or the shipping company or companies serving then are already bankrupt or defunct now. In actuality, one thing the so-called local “experts” in shipping and the government do not understand is the short-distance ROROs are actually eating up the market of the liner and even the overnight ferry sector including container shipping.

A law professor who has no background in shipping who headed a maritime agency also pushed LCTs (Landing Craft Transports)to connect small islands and coastal barrios in the interest of safety. This never really took off as motor bancas can land anywhere while LCTs can’t in the main (they still need wharves) and passengers and traders prefer point-to-point service rather than a single LCT covering many coastal barrios and minor islands that will result in delay. Nor did the lady lawyer understand that coastal island or small island people travel at dawn especially if they have catch to sell and if there is no passenger-cargo motor banca then fishing bancas will do the trip and they will not wait for an LCT that will still drop by many points. Maybe she also didn’t know that motor bancas are faster than LCTs in cruising speed. She maybe did not reckon also that LCTs consumed much more fuel than a motor banca and so what will be a viable route for a motor banca might not be so for an LCT. Finally, an LCT will cost in the mid-8-figure money while a motor banca will cost much less than a million and if a trader has mid-8-figure money he would probably not be living in a coastal barrio or a remote town.

LCT being built. Currently LCT St. Brendan. ©Mike Baylon

What makes a RORO route successful? I think the main determinants in this are the number of population and economic activity of the island including tourism. This is assuming there is no competitor route halving patronage or parallel routes dividing the market.

The magic number needed for viable RORO operation, in my observation, is between 50,000 and 100,000 and depending too on economic activity and tourism. There are some islands which have a population of 100,000 but cannot support a RORO and examples of these are Polillo and Dinagat islands. Located in far-flung places, there is really not that much economic activity in those islands. Meanwhile, the similarly-sized Siargao island in the same place as Dinagat can support a RORO because of its tourism.  The island-provinces of Guimaras, Siquijor and Camiguin which all have about 100,000 in population are able to support ROROs especially being independent provinces there is more money from the national government pouring in. if the tourism is stronger like in Camiguin (where the abundance of lanzones does not hurt) then there are more ROROs. Population in Marinduque, Palawan, Catanduanes and Masbate is even bigger. And Jolo island, the main island of the province of Sulu and Bongao island, main island of Tawi-tawi, both have populations well in excess of 100,000.

Lipata Port. Click to view full-size. ©Mike Baylon

Samal, Bantayan and Camotes, all islands which are not provinces, all have 100,000 people and tourism too especially in the first and the second have an egg industry. The population of Tablas is even bigger. Romblon island have ROROs because it is still a gateway to the province, the capital is there and it is the gateway to the nearby Sibuyan island. Romblon island might just have have a population of 40,000 but combined with Sibuyan’s nearly 60,000 the magic number of 100,000 is reached. It is also in this sense why Calamianes can support ROROs. The island group’s population might not reach 90,000 but it has tourism, fish and it is an intermediate point to Palawan and Cuyo.

That brings us to the peculiar cases of the islands of Alabat, Cuyo and Olutanga. Alabat island has a population of just 45,000. Maybe it is the tourism and economic activity which buoys up the place to merit a RORO. Cuyo group of islands has a population of about equal to Alabat and not much short of 50,000 too. Originally cruisers and motor boats (“batel”) served the route and operators maybe just used a RORO as a substitute for a cruiser. Montenegro Shipping, which serves the route from Iloilo and Palawan, likewise has no cruisers.

M/V Catalyn-E ©Mike Baylon

Olutanga island, meanwhile, which has about the same population of Alabat and Cuyo is just very near the mainland. Besides it is the Provincial government which owns and operates the LCT connecting the island as a public service. And that brings us to the case of the small islands of Sibutu and Simunul which have an LCT too. Same case, it is the Provincial Government which owns and operates the LCT. And by that what I imply is the service is not a strictly commercial service. The case of Cagraray island in Albay is somewhat similar. The operator of the classy resort Misibis Bay fielded an LCT so that vehicles can cross – for more patronage. It didn’t hurt that the resort owners were already LCT operators previously (but the LCT is already withdrawn now as the bridge connecting the island is already operational).

Among island-municipalities it is only Samal (which is a city) that I know can support a RORO. All others cannot, historically, so it is puzzle to me why the previous administration pushed for ROROs in these places and it even built ports with RORO ramps to support that (well, that administration was infamous for building “ports to nowhere”).

Caliclic Wharf ©Mike Baylon

Can islands with two towns without much economic activity support a RORO? I have not seen it in the cases of Burias, Buad (in Samar) and Dumaran (in Palawan) islands. Lubang island with two towns was able to support a RORO before but with the advent of motor bancas in a competitor route from Nasugbu, Batangas, the RORO lost. It remains to be seen if Atienza Shipping will be successful in reinstating the RORO there. It might be if Lubang is used a midway point to a longer route.

Ticao island with four towns and a population of over 50,000 cannot support a RORO. There is also no RORO now to the Batanes. There is also no RORO doing coastal barrio routes like in the southern Bicol coast which has no road or in the Samar Sea linking the island-towns there.  That is also the case in the many small islands between Basilan and Jolo and the Babuyan islands in Cagayan and the Polillo group of islands. MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) should really do empirical studies first before pushing for RORO routes and not just hypothesize from their air-conditioned offices.

Maybe in the future when economic activity rises and the disposable income of the peoples there improve significantly our island-towns and other small islands might have a RORO of their own. But until that happens it will still be the motor bancas which will do the job and that might still be for a long while.

Motor Bancas of Surigao. Click to view full-size. ©Mike BaylonBASI

The Maharlika Sisters

MAHARLIKA 1. ©Grek Peromingan

“Maharlika I” and “Maharlika II” were two sister ships commissioned by the Philippine government in the 1980’s to connect the Maharlika Highway from Aparri to Zamboanga via RORO (Roll On, Roll Off vessel). “Maharlika I” was fielded in the Matnog-San Isidro, Samar route to connect Luzon and the Visayas while “Maharlika II” was fielded in the Liloan, Leyte-Lipata, Surigao City route to connect Visayas to Mindanao.

While the two vessels were built from the same ship plan of Japanese design, it was intended that one will be built in Japan with Filipino engineers observing the process so that the second one could be built in a Philippine yard with the experience gained. The idea was to get the moribund government-owned shipyard in Bataan to get going again. Japanese soft loans were used to build the ships which part of the “Philippine-Japan Friendship Highway” package that also included funds to build the likes of the San Juanico Bridge and the RORO ports along the route.

1983 1108 Maharlika II Maharlika 2 Launch ©Gorio Belen

“Maharlika I” was built by Niigata Engineering in their Niigata yard and was completed on January of 1983. Meanwhile, “Maharlika Dos” was built in the Mariveles yard of Philippine Dockyard and was completed on July of 1984. Philippine Dockyard was the former NASSCO (National Shipyard and Steel Corporation) which built the ferries “General Roxas” and the “Governor B. Lopez” in 1960 and 1961 (incidentally those two were the last ferries built by that shipyard before the Maharlika Dos).

As RORO vessels, the sisters were equipped with ramps at the bow and at the stern as she was designed without the need for the ships to still turn around. Their bow ramps were of the more complicated “visor” type where the bow of the ship has to swing up first before the ramp can be deployed. The stern ramps were of the conventional two-piece design. In later years the bow ramps were no longer in use (“visors” are additional maintenance items).

Maharlika Dos with open visor door. ©Edison Sy

The two sisters were not of identical dimensions as the “Maharlika I” was longer at 66.3 meters versus the 60.0 meters of the Maharlika Dos. They shared the same beam of 12.5 meters but the Gross Tonnage (GT) of “Maharlika I” was higher at 1,971 tons versus the 1,865 tons of “Maharlika II”. The two had the same twin Niigata diesel engines that produced a total of 3,200 horsepower and giving them a service speed of 14.5 knots using two screws.

Between the two, “Maharlika I” has the bigger passenger capacity at 524 with “Maharlika II” having a capacity of 417. There were no attached passenger ramps to the two. When the ships dock a movable ramp was attached to the ship which is not fastened safely most of the time. Cargo capacity, meanwhile, was 14 trucks or buses and more if combined with smaller vehicles.

Maharlika I stern. ©Edison Sy

Initially, it was the Philippine government that operated the sisters starting in 1984. In the late 1990s the two, however passed on to the control of the twin company PhilHarbor Ferries and Archipelago Ferries. The two were no longer in pristine condition then as they aged fast, a process “normal” for government-owned equipment. The decline was, however not reversed and soon the two were no longer reliable. They were operated even with only one engine running that lengthened considerably the sailing times. Interviewing a crew member, he told they just clean and repaint the parts and put it back rather than replacing it as called for in preventive maintenance. I have seen the two not sailing because two engines are busted.

In  passenger service, there was really none to speak of and the Maharlika sisters were not even clean and tidy. There was a foul smell especially in the toilets and it smells of the sweat in the air-conditioned section. Overloading, too, was rampant especially in the peak seasons when ferries in the route were still few. Sometimes I feel lucky having an air vent for a seat. It beats the muddy stairs anytime and it is airy, at least.

Maharlika II at Lipata Port ©Mike Baylon

For a country like the Philippines which has a hundred ferries that are 40 years old and above that are still sailing right now, the sisters did not live long lives. “Maharlika I” was deemed “BER” (Beyond Economic Repair” before the first decade of the new millennium was over and they tried to sell it for scrap. Initially, that went for naught as somebody questioned the move and “Maharlika I” was just moored in San Isidro, Samar. Eventually, she was broken up in Navotas in 2010 after sailing less than 25 years.

It seems parts from “Maharlika I” were transferred to “Maharlika II” as initially “Maharlika II” ran well after “Maharlika I” was sold. But soon it seems her old disease caught up with her once again and her sailing time for her 38-nautical mile route went up to 4.5 hours again which signified she was again running on one engine. She will depart one hour ahead of “Super Shuttle Ferry 18” and yet that ship will catch up with her midway into the Surigao Strait.

Maharlika 2 ©Mike Baylon

THE LARGE MOTOR BANCAS OF SURIGAO

In the Philippines, Surigao is the greatest haven or center of the Large Motor Banca type of vessel. This is because of the many islands in the area which are not yet well-developed for steel-hulled vessels that cost more to operate aside from needing a much, much bigger investment at the start. Passengers and traders also prefer the Large Motor Banca because of its ubiquity and the type can dock in the most basic of landing areas. Among Large Motor Bancas in the country the Surigao design is the most beautiful and most luxurious in the country.

©Mike Baylon

The Large Motor Bancas of Surigao serve the Dinagat and Siargao islands mainly along with some Surigao City islands especially Nonoc Island and the Bucas Grande Island. These islands have about twenty towns while Nonoc island, though not a town has the biggest nickel mine in the country. Although there are main ports of entry to the islands with steel-hulled ferries to Dinagat and Siargao (and two fastcrafts, too) the Surigao Large Motor Banca continues to thrive as the type goes straight to the individual towns or even to the barrio. There is also a big volume of passengers and cargo as Surigao City is still the main market and recreation area of the islands. From the islands, harvest of the sea and land is carried (like copra and other crops) along with the passengers and going back groceries, dry goods and other supplies are carried. Other uses of the Surigao Large Motor Banca are to serve as supply ships of the mines in the area and also as pilot/tender boats.

Valencia Nickel 4 ©Mike Baylon

There are also Large Motor Bancas that connect San Ricardo town in Southern Leyte to Surigao City. Historically the southern tip of Panaon island has been linked to Surigao City because it is nearer than the Leyte centers of commerce. There is also the longer-distance Cabalian to Surigao City Large Motor Bancas which show that once Surigao Strait and Cabalian Bay is just one economic and demographic area.

Cabalian-Surigao LMB ©Mike Baylon

A further proof of this phenomenon are the Large Motor Bancas that connect Liloan town in Panaon island direct to Dinagat island. Today they also connect to the buses coming from Manila. The buses arrive in the late afternoon and these Large Motor Bancas sail at night. The bancas then from Dinagat will connect to the buses leaving Liloan for Manila in the morning. However, most of the banca passengers will still be locals.

Seahorse Express, a Dinagat-Liloan LMB ©Mike Baylon

These ferries usually have a length of about 20 to 30 meters and a breadth of two to three meters. Some have VIP accommodation on a second deck where the pilot house is also located. That section is reserved for local officials, businessmen, other dignitaries and close relatives. Some have a full second deck and these are the bigger ones. Passenger capacity of 50 is the low end with some reaching up to a hundred. Gross Tonnage can range from 20 to 50 and Net Tonnage from 10 to over 20. Large Motor Bancas here generally have cushioned seats, one of their difference to the Large Motor Bancas of other areas.

Nickel Cruiser 2 ©Mike Baylon
Valencia Nickel 4 ©Mike Baylon
Many of this craft-type have walkways outside the boat and this design affords benches that extend from one side to the other side The walkways not only facilitate movement of passengers but it also eases cargo handling. In fact, that walkway can also serve as additional cargo stowage area.
As bancas this type is wooden-hulled and is usually equipped with bamboo or wooden outriggers with bamboo or fiberglass floats. The outriggers not only balance the boat but with crew as counterweight atop it prevents the banca from keeling over and breaking its outriggers in a strong crosswind and swell.
Libjo Nickel ©Mike Baylon

In strong winds and swells the Large Motor Banca cannot and generally do not sail. So it is not unusual if it is already morning and yet they are still not around the Surigao Boulevard, their main landing area and none is leaving. If weather is fair they start arriving in Surigao before dawn and they leave before lunch with the last leaving just past lunch.

Lineup of Large Motor Bancas at Surigao Blvs. ©Mike Baylon
Engines are generally sourced from surplus trucks but power is adequate and many can beat the normal 11 knots of the steel-hulled Basic Short Distance Ferry.
The downside of the Large Motor Banca is its vulnerability to big waves as attested by the near-yearly capsizing of boats here. Outriggers can break as this part of the country has one of the stronger seas and winds can suddenly shift when rounding the islands especially since we no longer have coast watchers.
Vulnerable or not the utilitarian value of the Large Motor Banca cannot be denied so it looks like for a long time they will still be around and in service in the sea around Surigao.
©Mike Baylon