The Bad Maharlika and Grand Star RORO Ferries Transformed

It was more than two decades ago when I first became acquainted on a regular basis with the Maharlika ships. This fleet consisted of the Maharlika I, Maharlika II, Maharlika III, Maharlika IV, Maharlika V, Maharlika VI and Maharlika VII. I just used their names with the Roman numerals for consistency because at other times they were also known with the Spanish numerals like “Uno”, “Dos”, “Tres” and so on and so forth. The fleet was basically fielded in the Eastern seaboard routes of the country like Lipata to Liloan, San Isidro or Allen to Matnog, other pioneering Bicol routes which they failed to hold (either too early for the day plus they didn’t know the tactic of subsidizing the buses) like Tabaco to Virac and Bulan to Masbate. Later, they tried the Pilar to Aroroy route where it seems they followed the feasibility study made by three renowned international shipping experts, each of have good Ph.Ds but unfortunately does not know local shipping plus they had a blip in their brains (like if a route has only one motor boat how can it then support a ROPAX?). And so,unfortunately. their data is shot full of holes and so it became a GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out).

Maharlika I

Maharlika I by Edison Sy of PSSS.

They also tried routes outside of the Eastern seaboard like Lucena to Marinduque, Batangas to Calapan and Roxas to Caticlan in support of the buses of their sister companies, the storied Philtranco which was fast becoming a shell of its former self and JAM. The Marinduque route did not last long and fortunately for them the two other routes mentioned lasted even though their buses didn’t last long in Panay island (they recently came back after the dominant bus Dimple Star was permanently suspended because of accidents). Maharlika, for brevity, is a long story of failing ships and failing routes. On the other hand, they have a boisterous and humbug CEO who is so full of himself (well, I won’t be surprised if he is a graduate of the Trump School). Like that resident of the White House, Christopher Pastrana also scored a coup with his later FastCat ships. Who said a bad thing can’t be turned in to a good thing?

When I was sailing with the Maharlika ships, I feel a letdown but this was very well-tempered because I am a grad of the even worse ships of Viva Shipping Lines of Batangas and its two legal-fiction companies. That was more palpable in the Maharlika I and Maharlika II which were fielded brand-news just fifteen years earlier (1982 and 1984) and yet were already worn down and beginning to break down (initially, a fault by the government). I did not know it yet then that Archipelago Philippine Ferries was just chartering those two ferries which were the pride of the government in the past. There is a claim that when the ships were already turning a profit the government one-sidedly changed the terms of the agreement. Whatever, it seems Archipelago Philippine Ferries, Pastrana’s company was just milking the ships out of its last value without care for the future life of the ships and the government was letting them. And to think that in the late 1990s there are even shut-outs (vessels can no longer be accommodated aboard) especially in the Liloan-Lipata route. In the main, Maharlika II was in this route and Maharlika I was in the San Isidro or Allen to Matnog route as they have been from the start.

Maharlika II in Liloan port

Maharlika II by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

After the sister ships Maharlika I and Maharlika II, Archipelago Philippine Ferries and its legal-fiction sister companies like Oro Star and Philharbor Ferries acquired two sister ships from Aki Kisen of Japan in 2000, just after the take-over of the of the first two ships, the Maharlika III and Maharlika IV which had the look of a double-ended ferry. They acquired these to bolster their operations as two ferries is not enough for their routes. The two were built in 1987 and 1993 and so in age they were younger than the first ships but just in the same decade of acquisition they are beginning to look worn down too and beginning to be unreliable. Sometimes there are cases when a ship will not sail for months and there was story of one of these newer Maharlika ships not capable of sailing being ordered towed out by the Port Manager of Liloan by a passing tug because it is clogging up his docking space (I saw that non-running ferry). Have anyone heard of ship’s ramp falling while the ship is sailing? There is a story of that in the Lipata-Liloan route and elsewhere but not necessarily running.

So in the 2000s, the period where I was frequently traveling using the Eastern seaboard route, I was wondering where Maharlika was headed. It seemed it was all a grand name (Maharlika is supposedly a legendary name with our national highway named likewise for that and there was even a Marcos plan to rename our country to “Maharlika” until some historians pointed out that “Maharlika” is of Hindu origin) but no substance or trait to support it. This was also the time when Maharlika was trying new routes which mostly bombed out.

Dapdap port

Grand Star RORO 1 and Maharlika Tres in their Dapdap port by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

Next came to them in 2002 the Maharlika V and almost all failed to after having parts of her former substructure cropped out. She first came to a related company in the Allen-Matnog route as the Christ The King when that route had a surplus of bottoms with many shipping companies competing. Her next reincarnation was as the Mindoro Express but she also did not last long in her namesake island and so she plied a route to Puerto Princesa, Palawan. It was there where she took an excursion in a shallow portion of the sea when it seems she had a fire and possibly she capsized in the fire-fighting effort. A ship owner who is a PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member shot a photo of her in Keppel shipyard in Batangas. When posted to PSSS, an eagle-eyed member thought that if the superstructure of Mindoro Express is cropped then she will look like the Maharlika V. In her permanent route of Liloan-Lipata, nobody knew what happened to her in Puerto Princesa. But even with this background, Maharlika V proved to be reliable for almost a decade. Until she became sickly too and spent two years in a shipyard in General Santos City not being repaired.

In 2003 and 2004, two old ferries from Norway built in the early 1970s came for Archipelago Philippine Ferries which became the Maharlika Seiz and Maharlika Siete. The two have very robust Wichman and Normo engines which are easy to maintain as told to me by a Norwegian ship spotter which happened to inquire to me where and in what condition they are now. Moreover, Scandinavian ships should have very strong hulls, their pride. These ex-Norwegian ships ran well for some time although the first to come, Maharlika Seiz proved to be very slow because of its small engine. They did not last that long, however, not because of the engines but because of the variable-pitch propellers, a common feature in European ships. This kind of propeller makes the engine last longer because of less stress but when that kind of propeller becomes defective it is supposedly a nightmare to repair.

Maharlika Cuatro

Maharlika Cuatro by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

When Phil-Nippon Kyoei, a new shipping company, gave up operations early this decade, Philippine Archipelago Ferries snapped up two of three ships for sale, the Grand Star RORO 1 and the Grand Star RORO 3 which also resembled double-ended ferries. The two were basically fielded in the Allen-Matnog route but the two were never renamed. In a short time though, like the Maharlika ferries the Grand Star RORO ferries looked worn out too. I can’t fathom why for a company having a sister company that deals in paints (CAPP) can’t have enough paint to have the ferries looking good. Well, maybe, that was the Pastrana standard then, the Pastrana way of doing things. And when Pastrana got his first FastCat, he told the spiel that he dreamed of good ferries serving Philippine waters after seeing bad ferries all around. But, the storyteller that he was, Pastrana does not have the gumption to say he was looking at his own ferries.

Liloan ships

Maharlika Cinco and Maharlika Seiz in Liloan Ferry Terminal. From ppavis.com.

When the first FastCat came, some of his ferries are no longer running especially Maharlika I which was just sidelined. They tried to sell that but of course, the government being the owner calls the shots. The sale of this ship to the breakers made the sister ship Maharlika II a better ship and it was in a long time that I saw her in good paint, and faster. It is possible after all some parts were first transferred to the sister. However, as her wont, Maharlika II stalled off Panaon island and the crew failed to start even one engine (well, Maharlika is also used to running on one engine). It is a big question why Maharlika IV which was just nearby did not come to her rescue for several hours until the seas turned rough with the coming of the night (as if they didn’t know this will happen). A story from a former employee says that if Maharlika IV sails and rescues her more questions will be unearthed. It is just so bad for the passengers of Maharlika II, some of who died in Surigao Strait, a busy shipping lane but there is no Coast Guard rescue ship (it has to borrow ferries on the route to effect a rescue) because most of their better ships as just used as port guards and serve as offices and suites of their commanders in the big cities and ports.

The sinking paved way for the fast disposal of the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ships. Selling them fast will lessen the questions on their shipworthiness and the stoppage of their use will make people forget easy a tragedy happened and anyway they got suspended too. What remained running before the FastCats came in big numbers are the Grand Star RORO ships and so they only got sold later. That was important for them in the Matnog-Allen route when they were not immediately able to secure a berth where their peculiar docking ramp will be placed. Actually for a time they had no running ships in many routes as the early phase-out of their ships were forced unto them. But maybe that played into their hands as people who don’t normally sail fail to get the connection of Maharlika and FastCat.

Uknown

Maharlika Siete by John Carlos Cabanillas of PSSS.

The Maharlika Cuatro and Maharlika Cinco (their naming then) was sold a “neighbor” in Leyte, the Gabisan Shipping Lines. The Maharlika Cinco was retained by the company and this became the Gloria V and the Maharlika Cuatro was sold to Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) of Catanduanes. Meanwhile, the Maharlika Tres was sold to Atienza Inter-island Ferries of Manila but later they also sold this to Regina Shipping Lines. Maharlika Seiz and Maharlika Siete were sold to breakers in Navotas but the custom there is to “display” the ships first in the hope that someone will buy it whole. And it did not help them that world metal prices were low in the past half-decade. Later, the Grand Star RORO 1 and Grand Star RORO 3 were also sold to Regina Shipping Lines. So, in total of the ships not lost or sold to the breakers only one, the Maharlika V is not in the possession of Regina Shipping Lines which then thereby sold their basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. Traffic in Catanduanes is on the big upsurge after all.

Maharlika Tres became the Regina Calixta VIII, Maharlika IV became the Regina Calixta VII, the Grand Star RORO 1 became the Regina Calixta VI, the Regina Calixta III became the Regina Calixta IX and later as the second Regina Calixta IV after the former holder of that name, which was the former Grand Star RORO 2 was sold to Dinagat to become the Cab-ilan of Waters-up MPC. Six of the ships of Regina Shipping Lines were former ferries of Christopher Pastrana who treated them badly and just covered it up in media by being noisy and boastful.

Grand Star RORO 3

Grand Star RORO 3 by Joe Cardenas III of PSSS.

And how are these ferries faring under the care of Gov. Joseph Cua of Catanduanes, the owner of Regina Shipping Lines? Very, very well as Albayanos and Catanduganons know. The superstructures changed now (no, they are not taller) and the paint is good. The interiors changed a lot too. Central to the changed motif is to make the journey as experience although it will only last four hours or less, the usual transit time between Tabaco, Albay and San Andres (the former Calolbon), Catanduanes, a route where Regina Shipping Lines (RSL)has no direct competitor (their competitor holds another competing route, that to Virac, the capital of Catanduanes). Regina Shipping Lines is a pioneer on the route. The ships have an airconditioned sections now that is modeled after a KTV lounge where before these ships under Pastrana have no airconditioned sections. And of course everything is spic and span after a long remodeling in Mayon Docks in Tabaco under the supervision of an SNAME naval architect who happens to be a PSSS member.

39965740_2442421625775926_8069569737534734336_n

Regina Calixta VIII, the former Maharlika Tres by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

The engines were refurbished too and all are very reliable now aside from running even better than their design speed. And to think these are ferries built in the 1980s (five) and 1990s (one). Maybe the top guns of MARINA, the maritime regulatory body should first do an educational tour of the RSL ferries before they deliberate on the proposal to cull the 35-year old ferries. Maybe they can learn a thing or two there. They should also take note too that no steel-hulled ferry ever sank in the route to Catanduanes.

10394525_832715566746548_491663509710069833_n

Aircon accommodation of Regina Calixta VI, the former Gtand Star RORO 1. Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

I was not really surprised by all these happenings to the former bad ferries of Pastrana. Gov. Cua operated very good RSL buses from Catanduanes and Tabaco to Manila. Like the premium bus companies of Bicol they invested in good seats and refurbished their buses before it becomes worn out and are no longer looking good. And that has paid off in passenger loyalty and good words and respect to them. RSL (this is how they are called in Bicol) did these refurbishing even though they have no direct competitor and they are always full that at times their ship has to sail back again as there are a good number of shut-outs. That just shows how they care and greed is not their paramount norm in running their shipping business.

27072368_2090296857655073_6732986054520354879_n

Regina Calixta VII, the former Maharlika Cuatro. Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

Meanwhile, the only old bad Pastrana ferry not in RSL hands had also be refurbished and re-engined by Gabisan Shipping and is also reliable now except for some hiccups at the start. It looks like the hull might still be okay after re-plating given her stint beneath the waves and the long lay-over in Gensan (well, weakened hull plates can be replaced). The story said from the shipyard there she had difficulty reaching Liloan municipal port where first works was done on her. Now, the ship has a Tourist Class too with decent accommodations. She had had more visits to the shipyards maybe because further repairs might have been needed given the sorry state when Gabisan Shipping first acquired her. Anyway, I give enough credit to Gabisan Shipping for saving her. I thought before she no longer had a chance given her history and condition. Now I wish MARINA can give her more life.

68912245_513883816087778_7181579893262516224_n

Regina Calixta VIII (ex-Maharlika Tres) Tourist. Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

Meanwhile, for the veterans of the Eastern seaboard, they all know Christopher Pastrana has long been in the Hall of Shame but maybe he is now trying to change that with his FastCats. Well, it is easy when one is given new ships and one looks always good at the start when handed new ships. It is credit to him for his innovate catamaran-RORO design whoever is his benefactor may be but the banks deserve the credit too for opening its purses. His challenge now is how to pay for all of those ships. If he fails it will be the banks which will be holding the empty bag.

Philippine Passenger-Cargo Shipping During The Commonwealth Era And On The Eve Of The Pacific War

Even before the advent of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935, the Filipino ship owners (this the more proper term as there are American shipping companies operating in the Philippines then as they are free to do so as we are a colony of the US and thus part of their territory) began gearing up for the time when the American steamers will be supplanted by them. It is always the hope of top local businessmen and industrialists of colonies that when independence came that they will replace on top the businessmen and industrialists of their former masters. This was actually their hope also when we were still under Spanish rule, one of the reasons why many of the elite favored the Revolution against Spain. As they say, it is but just natural. And that is one reason why they were for independence for they expect to benefit.

Before the Commonwealth Era began, the biggest shipping companies were Madrigal & Co. and Compania Maritima, the latter with Spanish origins and connections. The two were mainly based in Manila and were about equal in size but direct comparison is not easy as Madrigal & Co. had pure cargo ships in the foreign trade whereas Compania Maritima concentrated on the inter-island passenger-cargo shipping. Compania Maritima was the biggest at the start of the American time but Vicente Madrigal, who has a reputation for Midas touch caught up starting in the time of World War I as the coal and vegetable oil market boomed because of the war and Vicente Madrigal had heavily invested in both. He had the country’s biggest coal mine then in Batan island in Albay. Besides, he was also in the primary export commodity then which was abaca and which also boomed during the war.

Madrigal & Co. had five ships over 110 meters in length (and those will not look small even today) and such size was few in those times. Their biggest, the Don Jose measured 159.6 meters x 20.0 meters and had a GRT (Gross Register Tonnage) of 10,893 tons (and this is in SuperFerry range). The fleet of Madrigal & Co. was even bigger before the Commonwealth era as Vicente Madrigal was forced to send big ships to the breakers and also sell a few to other shipping companies in the aftermath of the economic downturn  and its effect on shipping during the Great Depression of 1929 in the US. That provoked a protectionism in that US that also made easier the passage of the independence acts sought by Filipinos as the US farmers were feeling the effect of tariff-free imports from the colonies. The claim of the Madrigal scions that once they were the biggest in shipping in the country is certainly true because their big businesses boosted their shipping. Many shipping owners then ventured into shipping because they have goods to move and they want certainty in bottoms and preferential rates, of course. And moreover, ships are also big status symbols.

Compania Maritima grew big right at the start of the American period by buying out Spanish-era shipping companies especially Reyes y Cia (this is pronounced as “Compania”) and the MacLeod & Co. which divested from shipping but retained their business interests in the country which centered on trade distribution. After that, its next period of growth started in the mid-1920s and continued up to 1935 when its ship acquisitions stopped suddenly. Being Spanish citizens also then they might still have been observing how they will be affected by the coming independence of the country that will happen after ten years of a Commonwealth period which is the preparatory and training period for independence and where Filipinos will hold high places in government already. But then also they might have been affected by the looming Spanish Civil War and the unrest before that. The ships of Compania Maritima from 1924 to 1935 formed the big part of their fleet which was overtaken by the Pacific War which commenced on December 7, 1941.

The most notable of the other fleets then in the Commonwealth Era were the related shipping companies La Naviera Filipina Inc. and the Aboitiz & Co. Inc. The first was actually a partnership of the Spanish-derived Escano and Aboitiz families which were both in the primary export crop then that was abaca which has great use then in shipping. It was the Escano family which sponsored the coming of the Aboitiz family to the Philippines from Spain, according to their history and both were based in Leyte and Cebu and also spanning those two important islands. The sizes of the two fleets were about equal in number to Madrigal & Co. and Compania Maritima but their ships were were a little smaller. However, nearly all of their ships were brand-new. If their ships were not that big, the reason was they were not doing the long Southern Mindanao route that needed big liners.1938 0416 mv Don Esteban_De la Rama Steamship Co ad
Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library.

Next with about half of the ships of the “Big Three” came next the De la Rama Steamship Co. Inc. which was owned by a leading businessman of Iloilo and a Senator of the Commonwealth at that. Browsing over its ads, one might have the impression that it was the leading shipping company of its time. However, the maritime databases do not support that as their fleet was not that big although they have regional operations (but then Escano and Aboitiz also had ships connecting Cebu and Leyte that are not in the maritime databases). It had five brand-new ships and some were big, ocean-going liners. Their inter-island ferries were luxurious, it was promoted well and was touted to be the best in their class (and maybe that is where the impression “leading” came from).

De la Rama Shipping, like the La Naviera Filipina is a shipping concern that bet big in the Commonwealth Era and in the coming independence and that was shown by their acquisitions of brand-new ships like what La Naviera and Aboitiz & Co. did. From basically being regional shipping companies of a decade before, the two had ambitions of being leading national liner shipping companies and that was good then for Philippine shipping. And wouldn’t it be good if the two leading shipping companies had competition including in the oceangoing routes? Truly the anticipated coming of independence perked up the shipping sector then

Next in rank came the Manila Steamship Co. Inc. of the Elizalde y Cia which had about the same number of ships as De la Rama Steamship. However, their ships were not new. Like Madrigal & Co. and Compania Maritima, they have ships in the 60- to 90-meter range because like the two just-mentioned companies, they have long routes and that means up to Kingking which is the modern Pantukan in Davao del Norte located at the apex of Davao Gulf and that is about 850 nautical miles in distance from Manila. Travel to Davao Gulf takes up to two weeks, one-way, as there are many ports of call in a voyage. Woe to the passengers if the accommodations are “cattle class” but I wonder if the tale is true or if it is a joke that at the end of the voyage they say many of the male passengers are already on the last hole of their belts. But in truth, many of these ships were already luxurious for their time in terms of accommodations, amenities and service and were divided into different passage classes as in those were not all-economy ships (a note to put it in context, the last liner of that type was the Palawan Princess of Sulpicio Lines Inc. which was also in the 80-meter class and was actually popular with the passengers in most of her career here). The Elizalde y Cia shipping company actually originated with the Ynchausti & Co. shipping concern which divested when they got heavily involved in the Spanish Civil War and the unrest before that.

After those majors come a slew of small liner companies with one or a few vessels and maybe the most notable among them with more vessels were Rio y Olabarrieta, a shipping company which connects Palawan and Mindoro to Manila and the government-owned Manila Railroad Co. (MRC), the forerunner of the Philippine National Railways (PNR) of today which had to operate ferries to connect its Bicol Line to their South (Luzon) Line but ended up operating liners as well (and the reason was President Quezon loved the MRC very much). These small liner shipping companies were about twelve or so in number and among them were Tabacalera (the short name of the Compania General de  Tabacos de Filipinas, a Spanish-derived company) which was once a big shipping company (and was still a leading tobacco company then), the Gutierrez Hermanos of Bicol (and supposedly related to the Gutierrezes of movie fame), Negros Navigation Co. Inc., Smith Navigation Co., the J. Garcia Alonso of Bicol, m/s Palawan Inc., United Navigation Inc., Visayan Transportation Co. Inc., E. Lopez (which was in Southern Lines Inc. after the war) and even the Philippine Government (yes, the government was also in shipping then).

1924 Mulle de la Industira

A 1924 photo but Muelle de la Industria, the primary local port then would still look similar to that in 1935. Credits to the photo owner.

A digression. If Bicol was well-represented in the shipping companies before the war (Madrigal & Co. among them), the reason was the primacy of the abaca (also called as “Manila hemp”) then as the leading export crop and Bicol dominates in the production of that crop plus the fact that Legaspi Oil, the leading exporter of copra then was based in Bicol (this was before Lu Do, Lu Ym of Cebu grabbed that distinction with the help of Carlos A. Gothong & Co.). The main source of coal then was Batan island and that is just a few nautical miles from Legazpi. As the saying goes, there are ships when there is cargo and it is not the other way around. Moreover, Legazpi  port (incorrectly spelled as “Legaspi” then) was supported in the movement of goods from the Bicol Valley (read: copra and abaca) because of the localized Bicol Line there of the Manila Railroad Co. which extended for most part from Pamplona town (later in Sipocot) to Legazpi and from Tabaco town (where the abaca of Catanduanes lands and Tabaco is the trading center of copra of the neighboring areas – Tabaco’s product then was abaca and not tobacco) to Legazpi. The Manila Railroad Co. has a spur line to Legaspi port and Legaspi Oil which had a separate port. [In this paragraph is the reason why my father volunteered to transfer to Legazpi. But he did not anticipate that soon abaca and coal will fade into insignificance.]

This liners list does not include the regional shipping companies and among those the most numerous were in Cebu connecting the other Visayas islands and Mindanao (the northern part). Where before in the early American period when Iloilo was bigger than Cebu and held the title “Queen City of the South” because of sugar and its connection to Singapore and when Cebu was considered “insignificant” for shipping by a 1908 almanac (that was when Legaspi port was as prominent as Cebu). The opening of northern Mindanao enabled Cebu to overtake Iloilo not only in shipping but in over-all prominence thereby grabbing the title “Queen City of the South” from Iloilo to the eternal consternation of the Ilonggos).

The ships of the regional shipping companies were small compared to the multi-day liners as those were basically overnight ships and the most numerous were actually the wooden-hulled motor boats which are called as lancha in various parts of the country. Most of the bigger regional ships were just in the 30-meter class in length and most were below 200 gross register tons. Among the most prominent Cebu-based regional shipping companies were Eutiquio Uy Godinez, the Cebu Navigation Co, the Visayan Stevedore Transportation Co., the Insular Navigation Co. and Maria P. Asuncion Garianda. In Iloilo, probably the most prominent were the two Lizarraga shipping concerns. In Zamboanga, it was the Francisco Barrios Jr. shipping company. In Manila, the big equivalent of them was the Teodoro R. Yangco shipping company which dominated Manila Bay and beyond and once claimed to be the biggest shipping company in the Philippines.

Amazingly, the progenitor of the postwar dominant Go Thong and Sweet Lines shipping lines after the war were still not prominent then. Well, in war some rise and some fall and some never even came back.

In our book, I will be more detailed. This is just an introduction.

The MV Eugene Elson

The MV Eugene Elson of Penafrancia Shipping Corporation of Bicol is one of the oldest ROPAXes (Roll-On, Roll-Off Passenger ship) still sailing in Philippine waters but she is still very reliable and well-appreciated. As a 1965-built ROPAX from Japan she has the looks and lines of the small ROPAX of that era which means she is a little chubby in looks and not that angular like the MV Melrivic Seven of Aznar Shipping which was also built in 1965. However, those looks do not detract from her primary purpose and mission which is to ferry passengers and rolling cargo (i.e. vehicles) safely and reliably.

Eugene Elson 1

Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS

This ship’s usual route is Tabaco, Albay to Virac, the capital and main port of the small island-province of Catanduanes. Tabaco City is the gateway to the province and the size of MV Eugene Elson is just right for that route as there are almost no ferries that is 50 meters in length there (except when there rotations due to drydocking). And also there are no 30-meter ferries in that route out of respect for the waves in the sea between the two provinces and besides single-engine ferries are not liked there, for safety and maneuvering reasons. So the MV Eugene Elson with its two engines and screws fits the bill well there too.

The MV Eugene Elson is a RORO ferry built by Hashihama Zosen of namesake city Hashihama in Japan where their yard is located. As said earlier, she was built in 1965 but her IMO Number is already 6601517 (in those days the first two digits of the IMO Number indicate the year the ship was built but that is not the case anymore nowadays). She was completed in December of 1965 and completion date is the date when the ship is already equipped and ready to sail. Her external measurements are 41.7 meters in Length Over-all (LOA), a Registered Length (RL) of 38.5 meters and a Length Between Perpendiculars (LPP) of 37.5 meters. The ferry’s Breadth is 14.6 meters locally although in Japan it was only 12.5 meters (the first one might be the more accurate one). Her Depth is 3.0 meters. As a whole she is not a big ship and a ship that is only a little larger than a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO (by the Philippines Ship Spotters Society definition) which in general is only 30 meters or so in length and sometimes even shorter.

In Japan, her Gross Tonnage (GT) was 526 (tons is no longer affixed in GT) but locally it was only 488. Her declared Net Tonnage (NT) which is the usable space of the ship for passengers and cargo is 118 which is rather suspiciously low. The ship’s Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) is 138 tons and she has a passenger capacity of 484 persons, all in sitting accommodations. The MV Eugene Elson is actually the smallest ferry in the fleet of the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (PSC) which was the successor company to the defunct Bicolandia Shipping Lines which used to own her. However small, this ferry still has two passenger decks with an airconditioned Mabuhay Class.

Eugene Elson bridge

Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS

The ship’s hull material is steel. She has one mast, two funnels and two RORO (Roll-on, Roll-off) ramps for ingress and egress of vehicles but the bow ramp is also the one used by the passengers for the same purpose as ferries in Bicol do not have separate passenger ramps (the stern ramp of this ship seems to have been welded shut already). The bow ramp of this ship is extended to better cope with low tide conditions. This ferry has a raked stem (which was what was usual in the era) and a transom stern (which is still what is common nowadays).

The MV Eugene Elson is powered by two Daihatsu marine engines with a total output of 1,100 horsepower. This is sufficient to propel her at 11.5 knots when new but nowadays she just chugs along at about 10 knots, the reason she takes four hours for her route which is less than 40 nautical miles. That is not a shame as most ferries in the route have about the same sailing time although some are faster than her.

Our group, the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) is familiar with this ship as once the group has already toured her when she was drydocked in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu and the master then, Captain Jun Benavides was gracious and hospitable enough to let us roam his ship and use her as a ship spotting platform (yes, passengers can reach the roof of this ship which is also the Bridge deck). Of course, he had also shared plenty of stories to us. We whiled our time there savoring the cooling breeze of the late afternoon until it was time to go for daylight was soon dimming.

Eugene Elson

Photo by James Gabriel Verallo of PSSS

This ship, when newly-built was first named as the MV Shimotsui Maru of the Kansai Kisen K.K. of Japan In 1976, under the same name, she was transferred to Kansai Kyuko Ferry K.K. Then in 1984, before her 20th year (the time Japan begins replacing its old ferries), this ferry came to the Philippines as the MV San Agustin of May-Nilad Shipping, a Manila ferry company that was always short in routes. Later, she became the MV Eugenia of Esteban Lul.

After a short time, this ship was transferred to Eugenia Tabinas of E. Tabinas Enterprises under the same name MV Eugenia. I just wonder about the relationship of Eugenia Tabinas and Esteban Lul. E. Tabinas Enterprises and Bicolandia Shipping Lines which are synonymous and the same is headquartered in Tabaco, Albay. These dual companies took over the ships and operations of the pioneering Trans-Bicol Shipping Lines which was then just operating wooden motor boats or MBs then which otherwise were called as lancha in the region.

During its heyday, E. Tabinas Enterprises/Bicolandia Shipping Lines was the dominant Bicol shipping company and had routes from all the relevant Bicol gateways, i.e. Tabaco, Matnog and Bulan (which are both in the province of Sorsogon and Masbate. However, in 1999 a new shipping company with deeper pockets appeared in the critical Matnog-Allen, Samar route. This is the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) which challenged the claimed “pioneer” status of Eugenia Tabinas’ shipping companies. “Pioneer status” supposedly confers exclusivity to a route.

Eugenia Tabinas and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation fought initially from MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the Philippines’ regulatory agency in shipping and then all the way to the Supreme Court. When Eugenia Tabinas finally lost she offered a lock, stock and barrel sell-out to her enemy which was accepted and so she forever bowed out of shipping. This was the reason why MV Eugenia was transferred not to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation but to the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which was created specifically for the take-over of E. Tabinas Enterprises and Bicolandia Shipping Lines. This take-over and hand-off happened in 2006 and from then on the twin companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation were already the dominant shipping companies in Bicol (and until now).

Eugene Elson Virac

MV Eugene Elson in older livery in Virac port. Photo by Edsel Benavides

Under Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, all the former ferries of Eugenia Tabinas were renamed (except for the sunk MV Northern Samar) and so the MV Eugenia became the MV Eugene Elson. In the fleet of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which has combined operations, she is the smallest in terms of Gross Tonnage and Length. But she is not the smallest ever ROPAX to operate in Bicol as there were and are a few that are even smaller than her.

As mentioned before, the Tabaco-Virac route along Lagonoy Gulf is her main route now, a route known for rough seas during the amihan (northeast monsoon) season as that route is exposed to the open sea. But even  though small, she proved capable for that route although once a bus lain to her side even though lashed from the top when a rogue wave hit her in the bow. In the said route she would leave Tabaco port at daybreak and arrive in Virac at mid-morning. She would then depart Virac port after lunch and arrive in Tabaco at about 5pm and lay over in Tabaco port for the night. It is the buses’ schedules that dictate such departure times and buses and its passengers are the priority loads of the MV Eugene Elson like the other ROPAXes based in Tabaco. Nowadays, she always leave full as so many buses and trucks already cross to Catanduanes from the Bicol peninsula.

Eugene Elson top lash

Over-the-top lashing is de rigueur in the Catanduanes route

All in all, the MV Eugene Elson had a successful career and it seems she is destined for many more years of sailing (well, unless MARINA loses its mind and cull old ships as that has been their threat for many years already). Barring that scenario, I hope she still sails and sails and sails. And keep the record as the oldest sailing ferry  in Bicol.