When I Sailed With The Filipinas Maasin Again

Recently, I sailed with the Filipinas Maasin of Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) from Masbate when I was going back to Cebu. The truth is I really sought to take her again as I wanted to compare and see what changed with her since I last rode her over a decade ago (and in a different route at that). I really made sure I will be able to take the ship and that even meant cutting my stay in Bicol to just an overnight.

The Filipinas Maasin, over time was offered for sale along with the other older Cokaliong ships but there were no takers and so they just continued sailing. But over the years  Filipinas Maasin got more smokey and significantly slower. And so she was also laid up for long in Ouano yard undergoing refitting starting in 2015 and as we found out she had an engine change. This year, 2017, she was fully back in action for Cokaliong doing various routes.

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Filipinas Maasin being refitted and having an engine change in Ouano. Photo by John Carlos Cabanillas.

This Filipinas Maasin is actually the third Filipinas Maasin as two previous ferries of that name preceded her in the fleet of Cokaliong. The first two were cruiser ships and this is the first Filipinas Maasin that is a RORO (Roll-on, Roll Off) vessel. When she was first fielded she was the biggest ship of Cokaliong then together with her sister ship Filipinas Iloilo and practically the flagship of the Cokaliong fleet. She was then doing the Maasin and Surigao routes which first established Cokaliong Shipping Lines.

The third Filipinas Maasin is a ship built in 1980 as the Utaka Maru, a Japan ferry. She was built by Sanuki Shipbuilding and Iron Works in their Takuma yard. Her external dimensions then were 75.9 meters by 12.5 meters. Her original Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) was 999 tons and her Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) was 250 tons. She was powered by two Daihatsu marine engines of a combined 3,200 horsepower which gave her a top sustained speed of 13 knots when she was still new (this is the design speed).

In 1992, the Utaka Maru went to China to become the Zhong Hai No. 3. But in the same year she was sold to South Korea to become the Car Ferry Cheju No. 3 serving Cheju or Jeju island, a favorite South Korean resort destination. It was from South Korea where Cokaliong Shipping Lines acquired her in the year 2000. This was after their second Filipinas Maasin was sold to Roble Shipping Inc. and was converted into the Leyte Diamond which became a well-known ship in Hilongos, Leyte.

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Filipinas Maasin on her bad day before the engine change. Photo by John Carlos Cabanillas.

The third Filipinas Maasin firmed up the hold of Cokaliong Shipping Lines in Maasin and Surigao, a route which was not competed well by the then regional giant Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC), the regional subsidiary of the merged company William, Gothong and Aboitiz (WG & A) that was basically using the not-so-reliable Our Lady of Guadalupe in the route which was already a graying ship already then. And that was a puzzle to me up to. Did the supporter of CSLI, President Fidel V. Ramos told WG & A to take it easy on Cokaliong? Dumaguete and Dapitan was another route not well-competed by Cebu Ferries and it also gave the chance for Cokaliong to grow when Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was suffering terribly from the onslaught of Cebu Ferries.

It was there in her primary route when I first rode Filipinas Maasin taking advantage of her cheap fare from Surigao to Maasin when I was on the way to Bicol (I declined the lousy Liloan-Lipata ferry, a Maharlika ship so I can ride her). The Filipinas Maasin was a much, much better ship than the Maharlika ship of Archipelago Philippine Ferries but my good ride turned out to be a mistake as arriving midnight in Maasin there was no bus yet to Manila and I just waited in a street corner fending off mosquitoes as I was advised the terminal was dark and empty at that unholy hour (and by the tricycle drivers’ implication unsafe — I believed the tricycle driver for who would turn down a paid ride?). For the Filipinas Maasin trip I did not stay in the Economy accommodation which my ticket indicated but just whiled my time in the restaurant cum lounge which is air-conditioned. Well, until now two Economy tickets from Surigao-Maasin and Maasin-Cebu is cheaper than taking one ticket straight from Surigao to Cebu but they usually won’t sell the Maasin-Cebu ticket in Surigao. I asked why but I did not get any clear answer except that I can sense it is a subsidized ride for Leytenos and they do not want to be taken for the ride (pun intended). I do not know if that cheap fare is also meant to compete with the Liloan-Lipata ferries (well at P325 the Maasin ticket is just P25 over the ferry to Liloan and a bus further on will cost much more).

When the ferry became a Philippine ship there was a change in the external dimensions of the ferry. She is now 81.3 meters by 14.8 meters. In my years of studying the specifications of Philippine ship this is one very rare instance when a ship grew in dimensions! Her Gross Tonnage (GT) is now 2,661 from a Gross Register Tonnage of 999 (now that is honest) and her Net Tonnage (NT) is now 1,684. I have observed that some ships that passed through China had their dimensions and tonnages bloat and maybe that is also the case for the Filipinas Maasin and Cokaliong no longer tried to “downsize” her here.

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The Filipinas Maasin arriving in Masbate after a 15-hour voyage from Cebu

The General Arrangement Plan (GAP) of Filipinas Maasin is very simple. There are only two passenger decks and the top deck which is on the same level of the bridge is an all-Economy deck with double bunks with mattresses. The lower passenger deck is Economy at the stern and Tourist section and Cabins/Suites at the bow. The latter is ahead of the Tourist section. In the lower deck the restaurant cum lounge divides the higher accommodations from the Economy section. It is a neat arrangement as the higher and lower accommodations both have a direct access to the restaurant. There is a small cubicle that serves as a karaoke room in the restaurant-lounge and together that is a row of video game consoles, both of which seem archaic now (in my ride nobody used the two).

The restaurant serves hot meals with rice and a limited choice of viand plus there is the usual instant noodles, some sandwiches, bread, biscuits, knick-knacks (locally known as chicheria) and a good selection of hot and cold drinks. Not that grand but maybe enough for one not to get hungry. In overnight ships it seems there is no provision for breakfast if a ship’s arrival is beyond 7am unlike in liners from Manila. So a late arrival is sure business for the ship’s restaurant and I wonder if they do it on purpose.

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The Filipinas Maasin is a very clean ship like the other ferries in the Cokaliong fleet. There is no dust or grime and even the floor is very clean that one can almost lie in it. One thing I noticed that changed in Filipinas Maasin is the flooring. The material now is like what they use in buses and it does not need painting. But like in all Cokaliong ships the lower bunks is almost near the floor and for oldies like me I need to use my hand to raise myself up. The plus side is the upper bunk does not seem to be too high.

Another notable change I noticed in the third Filipinas Maasin is the availability now of individual lights and a charging outlet per bunk in the Tourist section (sorry I was not able to check the Economy section as I was already tired with an all-day ship spotting in Masbate). With that the charging of devices is easy which is important nowadays. So I really wonder about the greed of 2GO that charges five pesos per ten minutes of charging time when Cokaliong can give the electricity for charging free. I never noticed any paid charging outlet in Filipinas Maasin.

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Filipinas Maasin Tourist with its big airconditioners

The Tourist section of the ship which was my accommodation was overly cold when they set four big packaged-type air-conditioners at 16 degrees Celsius when the Tourist section is not that big and just half-full. I tinkered with the air-conditioners because otherwise we will all suffer the entire night. They should have set the air-conditioners at full blast only during boarding time. There is no need to chill the passengers when they are already sleeping because their linen and blanket are not enough for that level of coldness. Some of my co-passengers already know that but who said one can’t tinker with the air-conditioners? I always do that when it is too cold for me.

My second ride with the third Filipinas Maasin was okay except that I miss the old cheaper Trans-Asia Shipping Lines fare from Masbate and the ship is slow for the Masbate-Cebu route especially since her departure time is 7pm (I should have taken her arrival of 10:30am in Masbate as a warning and the porters said that was normal arrival time for Filipinas Maasin). The old Trans-Asia Shipping ferries were all faster and arrive earlier than her. The sound of the engines seem okay and the propeller shaft does not make a racket but I just wonder what is the horsepower of her new China-made engines. Maybe she is better kept in the Maasin and Surigao route which is shorter than the Masbate route. But then the people of the two cities might have tired of her already and she can’t go head-to-head with the superior Lady of Love of Medallion Transport which is new and competing with Cokaliong in the Surigao route.

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The Filipinas Maasin after I disembarked from it in Cebu

In Cebu, we arrived some minutes past 9am. Well, it is good as it was already easy to hail a taxi (hard if it is between 6 to 8am). It is also good since we will be approaching Cebu when the sun is already up. But the early-morning smog of Cebu was still around when we passed by Tayud and Mactan Bay (this smog usually stays up to 8am, the product of all the sinugba of Cebu) and so my shots there were lousy especially since some ships are far. Ship spotting from Liloan to Cebu was my second reason why I took the Filipinas Maasin from Masbate.

It is obvious that with her re-engining Cokaliong Shipping Lines intends to keep the third Filipinas Maasin long-term. Well, unless the Department of Transportation of Arthur Tugade favors some shipping companies and culls the old but still reliable old ferries. But as things stand I expect to see the third Filipinas Maasin a long time more. And now she is already capable of sailing up to 12 knots, as the company said.

Well done, Cokaliong, for giving the third Filipinas Maasin a second lease of life. With new engines what will the bashers of old ships say now? The thickness of the hull can easily be proven by the magnetic anomaly detector. I assume the other equipment including the auxiliary engines are still in order (Dynamic Power, your main engine supplier also supplies that). There are lot of surplus parts including that of bridge equipment in the second-hand market, in case some needs replacement. You know that very well also.

So, right now your Filipinas Maasin is a living example on how to nay-say the bashers of old ships. Good!

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The Tacloban Princess

The Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines, although on a more minor liner route is one ferry that impressed me a lot because she is the only ferry in the Philippines that is under 100 meters in length and yet she has a passenger capacity of over 2,000 persons (2,009 actually) which means dense yet clever packing. With only 8,000 horsepower from two main engines, her passenger capacity to horsepower ratio is tops in the land for liners which means a very high efficiency for me in carrying people. Maybe during the time she was fielded in her Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route the sailing was still good and since this route had never had good container van load, probably Sulpicio Lines just decided to pack it in in passengers. Maybe, too, the bite of the intermodal buses (and trucks) in Eastern Visayas were not yet that big and painful when she was fielded and Sulpicio Lines still had high hopes for the route because in the past the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route was a great route with many liner shipping companies competing including the biggest shipping companies in our seas then like Compania Maritima, William Lines, Aboitiz Shipping and many others which bowed out earlier. Probably, also, Sulpicio Lines which is in a one-upmanship game with its main rival William Lines do not want to suffer in comparison and heckling because some three years before William Lines fielded the first RORO liner in the route, the Masbate I (but not continuously at first) and this ship’s arrival was backgrounded by the infamous loss of their Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban liner which was the ill-fated Dona Paz and they do not want a ship inferior to the Masbate I. The Tacloban Princess was Sulpicio Lines’ direct replacement for that lost ship (because the company stopped sailing liners to Tacloban after the disaster and only used the container ship Sulpicio Container VII to carry cargo but not passenger; maybe the feared a backlash). Maybe Sulpicio Lines felt they needed an impressive ship for their comeback and so they fielded the Tacloban Princess, and it be named after Tacloban City for acceptance of the public. So when she was fielded she was the biggest and the best in the route and obviously Sulpicio Lines wanted to salvage lost pride and prestige. Such was the historical background of the coming of the Tacloban Princess.

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The Tacloban Princess by Daryl Yting

In design and lines, I see a large similarity between the Tacloban Princess and the Manila Princess, another ship of Sulpicio Lines although the latter ship is bigger and was not built by the same shipyard and came two years later than the Tacloban Princess. In Manila Princess, Sulpicio Lines did not try anymore to “fill up” that “vacant area” after the poop deck and so there was no scantling above the stern portion of Manila Princess and container vans and other cargo can be stowed directly in that portion using the stern boom of the ship. In the Tacloban Princess, that “vacant area” or “free area” was fully built-up as a big Economy section and that boosted the passenger capacity of the ship (aside from also constructing passenger accommodations from the bridge of the ship up to the funnels). It seems Sulpicio Lines took care to make that stern section as it was beautifully done and her stern looked more modern than the stern of Masbate I. Looking at the quarter-front of the two competing ships, one can see a lot of similarity they being of almost the same size and built at about the same period and that reflects in the design of the ship. But it seems Sulpicio Lines stress more in the aesthetics of the lines and the superstructure and so the Tacloban Princess looked more modern and better pleasing to the eye. Of course, she would never have the lines and aesthetics of later ships as the bridge and forecastle section of the ship is something that is hard to refit or remodel.

The Tacloban Princess started life as the Shinko Maru of the shipping company Nihon Kaiun KK. She was built by the Fukuoka Shipbuilding Company Limited (Fukuoka Zosen) in Fukuoka, Japan and completed in September of 1970 with the IMO Number 7106243. The ship’s length overall (LOA) was 98.3 meters and her breadth or beam was 19.2 meters and her original gross register tonnage (GRT) was 2,664 tons. Her original load capacity in deadweight tons (DWT) as Shinko Maru was 1,266 tons. In Japan the ferry only had two passenger decks and she had no scantlings beyond the funnels.

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The Shinko Maru from Wakanatsu

The ship was fitted with two small engines much like in the mold of the sister ships Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Lourdes of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated . Her twin engines developed only 8,000 horsepower (it seems these ROPAX ships of about 100 meters in length only has about 8,000 horsepower) but her original sustained top speed was decent at 18.5 knots which was the same as the Gothong sister ships. Here with the added metal and additional age the most that can be coaxed out of her two Niigata engines was only 17 knots but that was already good enough for her size, her route and the general expectation of her shipping era. Actually when she was fielded in the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route she became the fastest liner there and equal to the fastest that sailed there before, the Tacloban City of William Lines.

The Shinko Maru came to the Philippines for Sulpicio Lines in 1990 and she was refitted in Cebu. Another deck was added at the bridge level and after the funnels two and a half passenger decks were added. Since the funnels were near midship, in totality in area of the passenger accommodations of the ferry more than doubled. That system of refitting and the increase in passenger accommodations were the norm of the era much to dramatically increase the passenger accommodations but to the consternation of the Japanese builders and designers but as a general rule they don’t sink or capsize (contrary to what old ship haters with vested interests say now). But the depth and the draft has to increase to maintain stability. Speed however suffers because of the additional steel and the greater draft.

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The Tacloban Princess (edited) by Chief Ray Smith

The maiden voyage of Tacloban Princess was on August 5, 1990 (and with her forthcoming fielding William Lines withdrew their aging and slower already cruiser ship Tacloban City and replaced her permanently with the RORO liner Masbate I. She leaves on Wednesdays at 12 noon for Catbalogan and arrives there 22 hours later and she will depart for Tacloban at Thursdays 1pm and will arrive there at 5pm (which is a little late already for those still needing connecting trips). Departure back to Manila will be Fridays at 12nn and arriving in Catbalogan 4 hours later. The ship will then depart at 6pm and arrives in Manila on Saturdays at 5pm (well, it seems she is fond of late arrivals). The second round-trip voyage of Tacloban Princess within the same week will be a direct one to Tacloban leaving on Sundays at 10am and arriving in Tacloban on Mondays at 1pm. She will then depart Tacloban Monday 4pm (it seems there is really not much cargo if she can leave after only 3 hours in port) and arrive in Manila Tuesdays at 4pm. The Tacloban Princess like her competitor Masbate I was a popular commute to Manila in the early 1990’s when the buses and short-distance ferries were not yet many. Her appeal lies in the free meals and the bunks where one can rest fully. Besides her travel time to Manila is equal that to the bus (if from Tacloban) while being more comfortable and with more amenities than the bus. However, she only had two trips in a week (but then Masbate I also has two trips a week). But then the Cebu Princess, also of Sulpicio Lines still had a Manila-Masbate-Calbayog-Catbalogan-Ormoc-Cebu route then and the Sweet Sail of Sweet Lines also had a Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route then. Beside Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. also tried a Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route (yes, that was how strong this route was then before it was eaten alive by the intermodal system). And so practically nearly everyday there was a ship to Manila and so the appeal of the daily departures of the bus was not that great yet then (I wonder if these competitors realized it then that they were actually “frenemies” but that term did not yet exist then).

In due time, however, the buses and the trucks increased in numbers, they became more ubiquitous with more routes (it was not up to Tacloban mainly anymore but to almost all points of Leyte and Samar islands) and more powerful units (both buses and trucks and the latter segment already had wing van trucks which were built for ease loading and direct delivery). And one strength of the many colorum buses is they know how to search for passengers (they don’t just wait for them to pop up in the terminals). They had the advantage of multiple daily departures and the capacity to pick up or drop by the gates of the houses of the passengers. Plus for those just going to CALABARZON the advantage of taking the bus over the ship is much greater (as in they need not backtrack from Manila anymore). Besides going to or coming out of North Harbor increasingly became more difficult for the passengers compared to the Pasay or Cubao terminals and the Alabang and Turbina pick-up of the buses. I remember then that the buses coming from Eastern Visayas would stop by the eateries before the ascent to Tatlong Eme. There for two pesos one can take a bath from a very strong spring water piped in straight from the mountain and it is so strong one will feel as if he is drowning (but then rinsing takes a very short time only and so the bus need not wait long). Passengers then will arrive in Manila still feeling fresh. Like the ships the Eastern Visayas buses will take in any volume of passenger cargo and will even allot the seats for it for a fee. Passengers will willingly pay for it because getting it to the pier or out will cost money from porters who demands high porterage fees (or from taxi drivers that will demand “special rates”).

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The Tacloban Princess by John Carlos Cabanillas

Before the end of the millennium, however, shipping in Eastern Visayas has already showed signs of distress. The buses and the trucks got more experienced and more organized and additional ferries arrived in the San Bernardino Strait crossing and so more schedules were available. Meanwhile, Sweet Lines and Carlos A. Gothong Lines quit the route and so there were less ships going to Manila. Even before this happened in the Catbalogan/Tacloban route the liners from Manila has already been driven away from Northern Samar and next the Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines has to drop the Calbayog call on the way to Ormoc from Masbate and to think Sulpicio Lines has the reputation of being very gritty in terms of abandoning ports of call. The intermodal buses and trucks were already eating the business of the liners even before the last millennium ended.

At the start of the new millennium the Tacloban Princess was forced to drop the Catbalogan port of call and just make two direct Tacloban voyages in a week. She would leave Manila on Wednesdays at 9am and arrive in Tacloban Fridays at 3pm (which means she slowed down already). She would leave Tacloban on Fridays at 12nn and arrive in Manila on Saturdays at 6pm. Her second voyage to Tacloban would leave on Saturdays at 12 midnight and arrive in Tacloban on Mondays at 6am. She will then forthwith leave Mondays at 12nn and arrive in Manila on Tuesday at 6pm (I never liked these arrivals in Manila; these played right into the hands of the unscrupulous drivers and the holduppers). The Tacloban Princess was then only running at 13 knots and the buses were already faster than her (which normally don’t take more than 24 hours from Tacloban). That was a killer and the end of the line was already showing and only cargo was sustaining her now (plus the diehard ship passengers). But I was already wondering then if the revenues was still enough to sustain her operations but I heard the oldies of Sulpicio Lines are sentimental that they will never really give up on routes (or even of ships).

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The Tacloban Princess by Chief Ray Smith

During that time I was wondering if it is better for Sulpicio Lines to just transfer the Tacloban Princess on another route (and just leave the Cebu Princess and the Palawan Princess on the eastern seaboard routes). I thought Sulpicio Lines was a little wasteful on ships in that part of the country when the handwriting on the wall was already very obvious – that the end I nearing. I thought they could have replicated what Gothong Lines and William Lines did then and combined the Ozamis and Iligan routes (that meant the Cebu Princess will take the Masbate and Tacloban plus the Ormoc routes). Of course if she is transferred she will be up against superior ships of WG&A which with the disposal of their 16-knot ships has none sailing at less than 17.5 knots (but then the Dipolog Princess serving Iligan was also inferior during that time already). But then I know that move could send the Dipolog Princess to the breakers (but by then the comparative Iloilo Princess was lost by fire and she could have taken in its Puerto Princesa route). But then why not swap her with the bigger and faster Princess of the Ocean which was just being used in the overnight Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route? I thought her lack of speed could be hidden there like the Our Lady of Good Voyage. She will be competing with that ship and she is near-parity in size, speed and accommodations. But then Sulpicio Lines was just using the probably more than equal Princess of the Earth in the Cebu-Nasipit route where the big but unreliable Nasipit Princess stayed for long. Sometimes I can’t get the logic of the fielding of ships of Sulpicio Lines. They could have swapped Tacloban Princess for Princess of the Earth and the latter could have been sent to the Palawan routes and she would have been more competitive there to the Aboitiz Transport System (the successor company of WG&A) ferries.

I also thought she could have been swapped with the faster Princess of Carribbean since the Tacloban route does not have much cargo (and the cargo capacity of the Princess of the Caribbean is limited being a cruiser ship). She could then make a three times a week voyage to Tacloban and a modus vivendi could be sought with Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) to also field a fast cruiser (like if they did not sell the Our Lady of Naju) so a six times a week sailing to Leyte could be made (the point of departure could also be Ormoc and the route will be shorter and shuttles could be employed to bring the passengers to and from Tacloban and Maasin; and container vans will be hauled too). But I knew even then such idea is too farfetched as ATS was simply too proud and blind and will rather give up an area as big as a region rather then fight the intermodal buses and trucks (and it is just easier to blame everything to the budget airlies but that palusot will not fly in Eastern Visayas as everybody knows the passengers went to buses and not to the airlines).

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The Tacloban Princess by John Carlos Cabanillas

Later on, the Tacloban Princess had bouts of unreliability, I heard, and sometimes she can’t be seen and the Cebu Princess will make a Manila-Masbate-Tacloban route with a diversion to Cebu. Sometimes it will be the Tacloban Princess making that route and Cebu Princess will be out (it seemed then it was only the ancient Palawan Princess which was always ready to sail the eastern seaboard routes). That time Sulpicio Lines doesn’t advertise much in the papers like before and so monitoring was more difficult. Whatever it can be seen that Sulpicio Lines was making great effort to retain the Eastern Visayas ports of call (and Masbate too) against the relentless onslaught of the intermodal buses and trucks (and almost alone). I heard also then that after a long furlough Tacloban Princess’ engines were being rehabilated. Sulpicio Lines does not easily give up on ships. Well, if they can retain the Palawan Princess and the Dipolog Princess that came in the 1970’s and were obsolete cruisers then why not the better Tacloban Princess? Their antiquated Palawan Princess, to think, was still doing a Leyte route when that ship was built in the 1950’s and was the only liner left without airconditioning.

But one incident and factor dashed all the hopes for the Tacloban Princess. Of course, Sulpicio Lines did not expect another incident on the scale of the Dona Paz tragedy will happen and this time it will doom the entire passenger shipping of the company. Their flagship Princess of the Stars sank in a storm in 2008 and in the aftermath of the reactions Sulpicio Lines was suspended from passenger shipping and in order to get back, stringent conditions were demanded by MARINA (the regulatory agency Maritime Industry Authority) from the company. In the early days of the suspension (which was killing to the mechanical viability of the ships), Sulpicio Lines decided to sell ships to raise cash and among the victims were the Tacloban Princess along with the highly-regarded Princess of Paradise and Cotabato Princess (and in this sense, the Cebu Princess and Cagayan Princess were luckier as they went to Roble Shipping and not to the breakers).

The Tacloban Princess was bought by a Tayud shipyard in Cebu for breaking as we heard. World metal prices was still high then and no shipping company was shopping for a liner as the liner industry was obviously on the way down already because of the growing shares of the budget airlines, the forwarding companies and the intermodal trucks and buses. However, while in the shipyard the Tacloban Princess caught fire and was reduced to charred metal. The incident just made her chopping faster.

And so in 2009 Tacloban Princess was already dead, killed by the aftermath of the sinking of the Princess of the Stars. Maybe if she was just the size of an overnight ship she might have survived like the Cebu Princess and Cagayan Princess.

Selling under pressure just kills ships.

The Well-Travelled MV Asia Japan, the Third

The MV Asia Japan, the third to carry such name in the Trans-Asia Shipping Line, Incorporated (TASLI) fleet is the Asia Japan most would likely remember. But she was already the third to carry such name in the Trans-Asia fleet as two previous cruiser ships named Asia Japan came before her in the Trans-Asia fleet Shipping Line. The third Asia Japan I am describing here is a RORO (Roll-on, Roll-off) ship and not a cruiser ship like the first two to carry that name. Her company, the Trans-Asia Shipping Line, Incorporated is a regional shipping company based in Cebu that is sailing Visayas-Mindanao routes.

The first Asia Japan was the former Ishu Maru from Kyushu Yusen of Japan with the IMO Number 5164459. She was built in 1957 and she came to the Trans-Asia Shipping fleet in 1975. This ship was later sold to Roble Shipping Incorporated where she became the second Guada Cristy of that company. The second Asia Japan, meanwhile, was the former Nankai Maru from Nankai Kisen of Japan with the IMO Number 7130191. She was built in 1956 and she came to the Trans-Asia Shipping fleet in 1974 where she was first known as the Solar before she became the second Asia Japan (Trans-Asia Shipping Line Incorporated was first known as Solar Shipping Line Incorporated). This ship was later sold also to Roble Shipping Incorporated where she became the first Guada Cristy. She was wrecked in 1990, the reason why there became a second Guada Cristy.

The second Asia Japan was sold by Trans-Asia Shipping Line Incorporated in 1988 when the third Asia Japan was purchased by the company from Ise Bay Ferry or Ise-wan Ferry. This Japanese company sold this ship, their Atsumi Maru because their brand-new Atsumi Maru was already delivered to them. Incidentally, this successor Atsumi Maru also came to the Philippines in 2007 to the fleet of Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated (MSLI) where she is known as the Maria Oliva.

The earlier Atsumi Maru was built by Naikai Zosen Taguma Works in Taguma, Innoshima, Japan in 1973. She is steel-hulled ship with a raked stem and a transom stern, two masts and a single passenger deck. A RORO ship, she has a bow ramp and a stern ramp and a single car deck. She has an over-all length of 64.0 meters, a length between perpendiculars of 60.3 meters and a maximum breadth of 13.1 meters. Her original Gross Register Tons (GRT) was 990 and her Deadweight Tonnage (DWT)was 403 tons. She is equipped with 2 x 2,000hp Daihatsu engines which propelled her to 16 knots on two screws. In the Philippines, her probable sister ships are the late Starlite Voyager of Starlite Ferries Incorporated (though their bows are different) and the Reina Timotea of Marina Ferries, the legal-fiction sister company of Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated.

When Atsumi Maru arrived in the Philippines in 1988 to become the third Asia Japan, another deck was added to her to increase the passenger capacity. She was also converted into an overnight ferry with bunks. With that, her Gross Tonnage rose to 1,302 with a Net Tonnage of 359 and her Deadweight Tonnage also increased to 443 tons. Her new passenger capacity was 454 persons in a three-class configuration – Cabin, Tourist and open-air Economy. She had a good restaurant, a bar-lounge, a lobby and a front desk. This Asia Japan already had a Hotel Department aside from the Deck Department and Engine Department, one of the first regional ships to have such distinction. Maybe that has a connection to its first route Zamboanga which I will discuss later. For easier docking this ship is also already equipped with side thrusters at the bow. She also had a cargo ramp at the port side and two passenger ramps at the stern and another ramp at the port side.

Her first route was the Cebu-Dumaguete-Dipolog-Zamboanga route. This was still the time when big Cebu regional shipping companies Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, George & Peter Lines and the Zamboanga-based Aleson Shipping Lines were still giving much importance to the Cebu-Zamboanga connection via Dumaguete (this was later downgraded by the opening of the Dapitan-Dumaguete RORO connection). It was amazing then that a new ship like the third Asia Japan will be fielded to this route when Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was still using their older overnight ferry-cruisers in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route which was the premier Visayas-Mindanao route.

Later, the third Asia Japan was also fielded in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route when Trans-Asia Shipping Lines began selling their old overnight cruisers in the early 1990’s. But with the arrival of the new and bigger RORO series of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines – the Trans-Asia (1) in 1993, the Asia Philippines in 1994 and the Asia China in 1995, Asia Japan was relegated to the secondary routes of the company like Cebu-Iloilo. Very soon the Visayas-Mindanao overnight ferry wars which was started with the creation of the big Cebu Ferries Company started and Trans-Asia Shipping Lines had to reserve her best and biggest ferries to the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro premier route. This was also marked by the withdrawal of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines in the Cebu-Zamboanga route and just sticking to cargo there with the Asia Pacific. The coming of the more superior Lady Mary Joy (1) of Aleson Shipping Lines practically closed the door to them in Zamboanga (this Aleson ship is different from the current Lady Mary Joy 1 of the company). Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was immediately under siege by the much bigger Cebu Ferries Corporation as they bore the brunt of the offensive of that subsidiary of the giant William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) shipping line.

The third Asia Japan sailed many secondary routes for Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. Before the end of the old millennium the assignments of the fleet got quaky with the losses of the Asia South Korea (grounding and sinking) and Asia Thailand (fire) with no clear replacement. Not long after, this the RORO Asia Singapore, the Second, was also sold to F.J. Palacio Lines. Later, the third Asia Japan was assigned to the Cebu-Masbate route of the company. She was a big success there as that route of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was practically a monopoly. And Masbatenos were not disappointed at her appointments especially since she was a former Cebu-Zamboanga ferry, a route which takes about a day with its two stop-overs. In routes such as this, the passengers’ comfort and sustenance needs are greater than that of a simple overnight ferry.

Once, I booked a ticket from Cebu to Cagayan de Oro hoping to catch either the Trans-Asia (1) or Asia China. Lo and behold, when I reached the waterfront what I saw waiting for us was the Asia Japan. I actually grumbled and said we are entitled to a discount as our fare was supposedly on that superior-than-her sister ships. I can accept the third Asia Japan as a Cebu-Masbate ferry as there was none better than her in that route (her reliever Asia Brunei was just as good) but the Cebu-Cagayan route is littered with superior overnight ferries that was at or near the level of Manila liners like the Princess of the Ocean, the Our Lady of Good Voyage, the Our Lady of the Rule and the Dona Rita Sr.

I was disappointed. The aircon was not strong and the restaurant was no longer as good as before. Maybe her best Hotel Department crewmen were already assigned to the better overnight ferries of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. And then I was furious that when I woke up we were still just at the entrance of Macalajar Bay and still distant from Cagayan de Oro. Other passengers were already impatient and I even saw one flash the pumping arm sign to the bridge which is a universal sign of “Hurry up!”. Passengers in this route were used to daybreak or even dawn arrivals which were needed by passengers still travelling 300 land kilometers or over by buses or commuter vans like me.

Soon, some were groaning they were already hungry. I was, too. I know that by MARINA rules they should have fed us breakfast but there was no decent breakfast to speak of even if one was willing to pay. It was a personal disaster to me as I was a diabetic. We finally reached Cagayan de Oro port and to a man I know all were disappointed. They should never have substituted Asia Japan in that route because it will just be a disaster for the goodwill and reputation of the company like what happened. I asked of the speed and a crewman grimly admitted she can just do 10 knots then, best. Use that in a 134-nautical mile route with a departure of 8PM and no breakfast; it does not need coconuts to foresee the consequences. I thought they should just better stick Asia Japan to the 110-nautical mile Cebu-Masbate route where the expectations of the passengers is not so high. In an afterthought, yes, I also realized she has been sailing for nearly nearly twenty years already and it seems time has not been very kind to her engines.

Not very long after that Asia Japan was seen by members of the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) to be just laid up in the Ouano wharf in Mandaue, tied up. It was intriguing the members especially since the fleet of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was very thin for its routes. Already gone were the Asia Brunei, Asia Hongkong which were both sold and soon Asia Malaysia was gone, too (she capsized and sank off Iloilo). And there was the third Asia Japan just lying around there. That time, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines cannot even serve her Nasipit route and just a single ship from two was serving her Iloilo route.

Once, on a visit to Ouano wharf, we were able to ask the in-charge of the ship her state. He told us third Asia Japan was sold by Trans-Asia Shipping Line to Key West Shipping Line Corporation which were operators of tugboats and partner then in the West Ocean Lines & Transport Incorporated operating container ships. We saw some works being done and the in-charge told us the ship will be used for a Cebu-Zamboanga run. That was intriguing as she was a former Cebu-Zamboanga ship and neither Key West Shipping Line Corporation nor West Ocean Lines & Transport Incorporated have operated ferries before. I am not even sure if they were holders of a franchise (CPC) in that route but in case it will be a welcome development since there was just one ferry left in the Cebu-Zamboanga route, the Zamboanga Ferry of George & Peter Lines and she was already very slow then.

Soon the little works we observed in Ouano wharf stopped and the next thing we knew was she was already in Nagasaka Shipyard in the shipyard row of Cebu in Tayud by the Cansaga Bay and bridge. We thought then further works will done there especially since the in-charge in Ouano admitted to us that the third Asia Japan doesn’t have strong engines anymore. Then me and a fellow ship spotter were able to board the ship and meet her new officer-in-charge, Engr. Rey Bobiles, the naval architect of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation, a Bicol shipping company. It was a surprise and a further intrigue!

Yes, the third Asia Japan was renamed into Strong Heart 1, a show she was really transferred to the Key West Shipping Line Corporation as all the names of the vessels of the company starts with “Strong” like Strong Will, Strong Devotion, Strong Desire, Strong Dignity, Strong Bliss, etc. No, she will no longer be sailing for Zamboanga as she has already been sold to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and will become a Bicol ferry. It turned out that Trans-Asia Shipping Line sold her to Key West Shipping Line Corporation to settle fuel debts dacion en pago. I suddenly realized the connection. Trans-Asia Shipping Line was also intending to sell Trans-Asia 3 because “she consumes too much fuel”. It seemed believable at first glance because she has 2 x 4,500 horsepower engines. Then an investigation with the proper authorities commenced and it turned out Trans-Asia Shipping Line was simply a victim of a fuel scam as in fuel pilferage, a scourge of our local transport fleet. It happens even in the tankers, in the fishing fleets, in land tankers and in trucks.

Strong Heart 1 stayed very long in Nagasaka Shipyard with few works being done. She simply became the office of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and clearing house for the new crew recruits of the company and dormitory at the same time. She can stay in the shipyard long because Sta. Clara Shipping Company and her sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation are stockholders in Nagasaka Shipyard. Actually, vessels of the companies were withdrawn from the servicing of Mayon Docks Incorporated in Tabaco City in Albay and transferred to the care of Nagasaka Shipyard. Bicol ships also owned by the related stockholders of the two companies were also being transferred to the care of Nagasaka Shipyard. Nagasaka Shipyard was the former Villono Shipyard before the change in the ownership structure (Engr. David Villono, the founder is still the head of this shipyard).

While in the shipyard engine parts were ordered fabricated in Japan. When that arrived in 2014, serious restoration work was done on Strong Heart 1 which was already renamed to Nathan Matthew. Since she has lain untended in sea water for several years she was already rusty and when walking around one has to be careful not to fall in the weak deck plates and stairs. It was even raining at times inside some portions of her already. So, she was stripped to metal by sandblasting, her weak hull and deck plates were replaced and her engines were repaired.

A portion of her superstructure in the aft of the second deck was removed too since it was thought her space for passengers as a short-distance ferry will be enough since she will simply be fitted with sitting accommodations. With this, her gross tonnage was reduced to 1,030 nominal tons and her net tonnage was also reduced to 357 nominal tons. Her passenger capacity increased to about 800, however. So the rumor and the wish that she will still be an overnight ferry in the Liloan-Lipata route never materialized. Drivers and passengers in that route wished there will be a replacement of the Ocean King I in that route since when they arrive from Manila or Luzon they are already badly in need of an accommodation where they can lie down and sleep.

Upon finishing works in Nagasaka, the Nathan Matthew was first fielded in the Masbate-Pio Duran, Albay route. I don’t know if they want to tickle the Masbatenos but for sure many there will be many there who will recognize her even if she was already converted to a short-distance ferry, even though the bow ramp has changed and even though they chopped off part of the second passenger deck and even though the name has changed. Even with alterations, I noticed passengers really familiar with a ship still recognize them even after a long absence. Nathan Matthew won’t be an exemption.

She did not stay long there in that route, however. In not a long time she was transferred to the new Liloan, Southern Leyte to Lipata, Surigao route of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. The company has long been a holder of a franchise (formally Certificate of Public Convenience) in that route but it is only now that they had a ship that can serve there. Right now, Nathan Matthew is the biggest ship in that route especially since the Archipelago Ferries Philippines Corporation ships (the Maharlika Dos, Maharlika Cuatro and Maharlika Cinco) are already gone in that route.

There, Nathan Matthew is directly competing with the newly-fielded FastCats of Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the obsolescent Millennium Uno of Millennium Shipping and the Cargo RORO LCTs chartered by NN+ATS which is aimed against the truck congestion in that route (also for really heavy load like earth movers and trailers capable of carrying that). However, that route is slowly being squeezed by the shorter Benit, San Ricardo to Lipata route held by Montenegro Shipping Lines Incorporated (MSLI). Now it seems a new port will be built in San Ricardo, S. Leyte and if that will materialize that might be the end of the Liloan-Lipata route.

In won’t mean the end of Nathan Matthew, however, as she might simply be transferred to the new San Ricardo route. Otherwise, she can also be fielded in the other routes of owner Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (making her more well-travelled). It won’t be much of a burden for them because her owners are known also for having deep pockets, relative by Bicol standards. They are even operating their own port now in Allen, Northern Samar.

Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation is known for taking care well of old ships. They are actually allergic to breakers, to put it in another way. And with the support of Nagasaka Shipyard, this refurbished ship looks like it still has a long way to go. With the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation officers and crew steeped and trained in the dangerous swells of San Bernardino Strait I don’t see her suffering the fate of the capsized and sank Maharlika Dos in Surigao Strait, knock on wood.

Long live then this well-travelled ship!