Is There Enough Cargo To Move Around?

In the last few years there has been an upsurge in the ships that move cargo. First, that became noticeable with the LCTs that became ore carriers of the black sand mining in a few provinces and particularly in Surigao where opening of mines close to the sea boomed. That happened because of the sudden great demand then of metals in China.

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An aggregates carrier LCT off Taganito, Surigao

Just after the peak of that demand, a fleet of brand-new LCTs built in China appeared in north Mactan Channel. That happened when the demand for metallic ores in China was beginning to wane. And so initially those LCTs especially those owned by Broadway One Shipping and Cebu Sea Charterers were just anchored in the channel. Those LCTs were only known by their numbers but in size those were bigger than the average Philippine LCT. Generally, their powers and speeds were also higher and better.

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Row of newly-arrived LCTs in north Mactan Channel

With nowhere to go these LCTs including those owned by others but also built in China (like the Poseidon LCTs, the Meiling LCTs, those owned by Premium Megastructures Inc., Adnama Resources, etc.) became aggregates carriers and Cargo RORO LCTs and in the latter it challenged in the business then dominated by Goldenbridge Shipping which had a route from Labogon, Mandaue to Hindang, Leyte. Sand is gold in Cebu because of its construction needs and it is not readily available in the island in quantity because of its upraised sea floor origins which meant just a lot of limestone. And so sand is transported from Leyte whose land is volcanic in origin and thus there is plenty of sand and hard rock. Aggregates carrier LCTs go as far as Samar and some also go to Bohol.

The value of Cargo RORO LCTs was highlighted when the super-typhoon “Yolanda” struck and lots of trucks have to move to Leyte and long queues of truck formed in Matnog and Lipata ports and there was also a lot of needed bottoms for trucks crossing from Cebu to Leyte. The LCTs filled this need and suddenly the Cargo RORO LCT segment was here to stay. It challenged not only old LCT operators like Mandaue Transport and Simpoi Shipping but also the overnight ferry companies operating ROROs that Roble Shipping even felt the need to charter LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation (ASC), owner of many LCTs for charter. Now Cargo RORO LCTs connects many islands and it is also a viable transporter now of container vans from Manila to the Visayas and Mindanao, a mode pioneered by Ocean Transport that also started by chartering LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation before acquiring their own China-built LCTs.

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On the left is an LCT of Asian Shipping Corporation chartered by Roble Shipping

I can understand the need and value of LCTs which have proven their uses and versatility recently and that is why it is still continuing to increase in number. But in the same period I also noticed the rise in the numbers of our container ships and general-purpose cargo ships which are mainly freighters on tramper duty. In general that is a surprise for me as I know our local inter-island trade is flat and intermodal trucks have already stolen a significant portion of their cargo and that can be shown in the queue of trucks in many short-distance crossings like in the routes to Panay, the routes to Eastern Visayas and Surigao and Cargo RORO LCTs are used by these intermodal trucks along with short-distance ferry-ROROs. Cargo RORO LCTs are also used by tractor-trailers hauling container vans to serve islands where local container ships are now gone or where the service is weak or the rate expensive. Examples of these are Samar, Leyte and Bohol islands.

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A Cargo-RORO LCT

I have been contacted by a writer doing the history of Delgado Brothers or Delbros which once dominated the Manila ports and which was also involved in shipping then (it was also the first employer of my late father). Delbros happened to by one of the two dominant leasers of container vans locally together with Waterfront and they cannot resolve the problem of flat leasing for several years already and they cannot fathom the reason why. I told her the reason is simple – the intermodal trucks are stealing their business.

But in recent years I have seen our container shipping companies add and add container ships. Most remarkable is Oceanic Container Lines (OCLI) which has the most number of container ships now. Notable too is Philippine Span Asia Container Corporation (PSACC), the new name of the controversial Sulpicio Lines. Lorenzo Shipping and Solid Shipping have also added a few. There are new players which are Moreta Shipping Lines which was formerly in overnight ferries, Meridian Shipping and Seaborne Shipping and these new players are also expanding their route networks. To this might be added Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Incorporated (TASLI) which now has a container ship to Manila.

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A deck loading ship

Another notable addition is Fiesta Cargo and Logistics (this is not the exact name of the company) which operates true deck loading ships. These ships have flat decks like those in LCTs and booms for cargo handling. Aside from this and container ships, the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) also added a few RORO Cargo ships, their forte and choice of transport.

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A RORO Cargo ship

For NMC Container Lines and 2GO there was no noticeable addition although the latter have chartered container ships from Caprotec and they also charter ships from Ocean Transport (or is it Key West?). Hard to say because of the rumored split between the two. Escano/Loadstar meanwhile seems to be exhibiting a decline in their fleet.

In general-cargo ships a few companies showed newly-acquired ones and probably topping the list is Avega Brothers which from chartering ships from Asian Shipping Corporation went on a spree of acquiring trampers that though Manila in origin they regularly anchor ships now in north Mactan Channel. Medallion Transport and Roble Shipping also both acquired a significant number of freighters. Aside from the three mentioned many other shipping companies also added freighters to their fleet.

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Asian Shipping Corporation LCTs in their Mandaue port

Asian Shipping Corporation which specializes in chartering ships and operating barges aside from LCTs needs special mention because of the rate they are adding ships annually. As of last year their fleet total is nearly 200 ships already including the lowly tugs but MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) has noted that they already have the biggest fleet in the country in terms of Gross Tonnage (GT), the traditional method of comparing ship and fleet size and that they have already displaced 2GO from its old Number 1 perch. 2GO temporarily regained the top ranking with their acquisition of the liner St. Therese of Child Jesus but I wonder if they did not slide to Number 2 again with the sale of the liner St. Joan of Arc. For an operator of supposedly “lowly” ships the achievement of Asian Shipping Corporation certainly has to be lauded.

But all of these leads me to the question, “Is there enough cargo to move around?” I know many of the trampers are just carriers of cement and other construction/hardware/electrical materials that they are practically “cement carriers”. Some are “copra carriers”. And these trampers are also carrier of bagged flour of various kinds and also other bagged products like fertilizers and feeds. But our freighters seldom carry rice and corn now unlike in the past. Ditto for cassava – the volume now is small.

Is there really a significant rise in the volume of these products? Maybe in cement and related materials because of the construction boom. But I wonder about the others. Are there other products being carried now? What I know is a lot of grocery items is now carried by the intermodal trucks.

Coal might be big now because of the rise in number of our coal plants. But freighters do not carry that. Other types of fuel are carried by the tankers.

There are incentives now from the government on the acquisition of new ships and it even opened a loan window with the government-owned Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP). Are shipping companies taking advantage of that just to hoard ships?

What I know is shipping rates in the country are high if compared to other countries. That can cover low cargo volume. The most visible show of that are our container ships. Seldom will one see them full or even near that. Well, operating ships is expensive especially since MARINA exactions adds to the cost.

Whatever, newer ships are always good. I just want to see where this would lead. Lower rates? Probably not. Better service? That is hard to measure on cargo ships. More availability of ships? Maybe one can count on that.

Anyway, this article is just meant as an update on one aspect of our cargo shipping.

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A Very Efficient Liner For Me

When I look at and gauge a ferry I do not look only at its size and speed because I am not the “Oooh, aaah” type. I also tend to look at the other attributes of the ship including the efficiency, a quality that can be hard to quantify. But with this attitude of mine I can then appreciate other supposedly “lesser” ships and types.

One of the ferries that attracted me was the vessel Our Lady of Sacred Heart of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated or Gothong for short. She was one of the ferries that brought back Gothong into the Manila route after a hiatus in the aftermath of their split with Lorenzo Shipping Corporation when they just concentrated on Visayas and Visayas-Mindanao routes. At the time of her fielding she might have been the best ship of Gothong. She or her sister ship, the Sto. Nino de Cebu could have been the flagship of Gothong.

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Photo by Chief Ray Smith

The Our Lady of Sacred Heart was a former RORO Cargo ship in Japan which means a ship geared to loading vehicles crossing the islands and taking in just the drivers and the crews of the vehicles, primarily and so the passenger accommodations is limited and the amenities are not that complete. RORO Cargo ships are more of the utilitarian type. She had a sister ship which also came here into the fleet of Gothong, the also-well-regarded Our Lady of Medjugorje (the rebuilt former Sto. Nino de Cebu which caught fire) which looks like her.

What I noticed about the Our Lady of Sacred Heart was the small size of its engine compared to its size and passenger capacity. She only packs a single Mitsui engine of 8,000 horsepower which was even less that of her sister ship’s 9,000 horsepower. Yet she was capable of 16 knots here which was decent already compared to the other liners of her time (which was around 1990) that were also small. Yet that kind tried to pack it her in passenger capacity and were carrying small engines too and were just running at 16 knots to 17 knots too like the SuperFerry 3 of Aboitiz Shipping, the Tacloban Princess and Manila Princess of Sulpicio Lines, the Zamboanga City of William Lines and San Paolo and Sta. Ana of Negros Navigation. To that class, the Our Lady of Sacred Heart belonged together with her sister ship. Among the ships mentioned, the Our Lady of Sacred Heart has the smallest engine together with the Tacloban Princess but the latter ship was smaller than her. Now imagine a ship with just 8,000 horsepower carrying 1,903 passengers with probably about 90 TEU of container vans. In passenger plus container van to engine horsepower ratio, she might have been tops in this metric or index. That for me is efficiency.

What were the origins of this ship? The Our Lady of Sacred Heart, colloquially known as “OLOSH” was built in Japan in 1978 by Mitsui Shipbuilding in Osaka, Japan for the Kuribayashi Kinkai Kisen shipping company. She was originally named as Shinsei Maru with the IMO Number 7718589 and her original dimensions were 112.5 meters by 18.0 meters with an original gross register tonnage of 3,149 tons and a deadweight tonnage of 3,295 tons. This ship has a deep draft and her depth was 12.3 meters.

In 1979, however, this RORO Cargo ship was lengthened to 123.0 meters with a length between perpendiculars of 115.0 meters and her gross register tonnage rose to 3,511 tons. However, she retained her original design speed of 17 knots. RORO Cargo ships were never designed to have big engines like the 146.0-meter Super Shuttle RORO 7 has only 6,990 horsepower, the 145.0-meter Super Shuttle RORO 8 has only 7,800 horsepower and yet their designed speed were 17 and 17.5 knots. Well, even the bigger Super Shuttle RORO 11 and Super Shuttle RORO 12 which are both over 160 meters have engines of only 7,900 and 6,500 horsepower, respectively, and they can do 15 and 16 knots. Such is the efficiency of a RORO Cargo ship.

In 1990, this ship together with her sister came to the Philippines for Carlos A. Gothong Lines and she was forthwith converted into a RORO-Passenger ship or ROPAX in Cebu. Additional passenger decks and accommodations were built and she became a three-passenger-deck liner. Her gross tonnage rose to 4,388 with a net tonnage of 2,237 and her deadweight tonnage was revised to 4,120 tons. In speed, however, she was down to 16 knots because of the additional metal and she had over a decade of sailing already.

She then had her passenger capacity raised to 1,903 persons which was a little outstanding for me, initially. However, I noticed the smaller Tacloban Princess has a passenger capacity of 2,009 and the 138.6-meter SuperFerry 2 has a passenger capacity of 2,643. Meanwhile, the 107.3-meter Sta. Ana has a passenger capacity of 2,106 and the 117.1-meter Zamboanga City has a passenger capacity of 1,875. And so I thought the passenger capacity of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart was plausible even though the passenger capacity of her sister ship was only 1,330 persons.

When the Our Lady of Sacred Heart was fielded, she might have been the most beautiful ship of Gothong, externally. One striking features of hers is the long and high quarter-stern ramp which seemed to suggest she can dock in any kind of wharf, low or high. And for those who will notice, she seemed to be missing one smokestack or funnel (since she has only one engine and no false funnel was built). She also have no openings after two-thirds of her length early on.

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Taken from a website that cannot be remembered now. No copyright infringement intended.

In Gothong, the Our Lady of Sacred Heart did the unlikely discovery of the company, the unseemly Manila-Roxas City-Palompon-Isabel-Cebu route. Later this route was extended to Ormoc City. At first I cannot get the connection between Capiz and Leyte and yet she was successful there. It seems that for a long time already, the western Leyte area has been neglected by the other shipping companies and only fielded old and obsolete liners there. Actually her ports of call there are substitutes too for Tacloban port and Ormoc port aside from being a connection to Biliran province. And to think there is even a bus from Ormoc to San Ricardo, the southernmost town of Southern Leyte and so the ship even seemed to be a connection to Southern Leyte. In those times the earlier Manila liners to Leyte have been gone already.

The Our Lady of Sacred Heart was the best liner going to Leyte during this time and also probably the best liner too to Capiz. She was doing the western Leyte route until the “Great Merger” that created WG&A came in 1996. When that happened I had some fear for the Our Lady of Sacred Heart as the merger created surplus ships including container ships and even the Zamboanga City which came here only one year before was offered for sale. I know it was the older cruiser ships of WG&A that was more vulnerable but I was worried about the lack of speed of this ferry. At that time 16 knots seemed to be slow already as there was already a lot of ships capable of 17.5 knots and over and there was no way to coax more speed out of the ship with her single small engine.

Besides, I am not sure if WG&A really appreciated her route. Actually the company modified the route as soon as the merger happened – Roxas City was dropped and instead Masbate was substituted. Beyond that I also know the intermodal buses and trucks presented a deadly challenge to the ships calling in Leyte ports. I know that if passengers in Samar can shift from the ferries to the buses then it is highly possible that can also happen in Leyte and there is no reason why not. Daily departures and pick-up by their gates without going through the hassles in the port was a very big selling point of the buses. Meanwhile, for factories and shippers in CALABARZON (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon), trucking in their products is easier, faster and less expensive than in hiring a container van that will fight the traffic and the various illegal exactions in Metro Manila.

In due time as I expected WG&A gave up on the western Leyte route early in this century and just “donated” its freight and passengers to the trucks and buses (when WG&A gives up on routes, do they realize that money, effort and even careers were spent before creating that route?). Maybe WG&A don’t know as it was Gothong that created the route. And then this period was also the period where they experimented on a Manila-Ormoc-Nasipit route to make use of two bigger ferries (the former Maynilad and the former SuperFerry 11 which were already known as Our Lady of Akita 2 and Our Lady of Banneux) and maybe WG&A thought that new route is a substitute route for western Leyte but then they also gave up on the route soon after. During that ti period, the Our Lady of Sacred Heart was also doing a Sunday overnight route from Iligan to Cebu and she was very popular there as she was much better than the ships that formerly served the route like the Iligan City, the Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Our Lady of Manaoag)

Soon, the Our Lady of Sacred Heart found herself back in her old route of Roxas City in conjunction with the port of Dumaguit and essentially doing an overnight route. But then not too long after the “master of retreat” WG&A also gave up on this route when the buses and trucks started rolling to Panay island with the creation of the new Roxas, Oriental Mindoro to Caticlan, Malay link. And with that WG&A sold ships again to the breaks but fortunately for the Our Lady of Sacred Heart she was not yet among the unlucky ones. When that happened the Our Lady of Sacred Heart might have been at the bottom already of the new company Aboitiz Transport System, the successor company of WG&A and she was then just a little ahead of her sister ship, the Our Lady of Medjugorje. I thought then already that she was a lucky girl. It looked later that Aboitiz Transport Company or ATS was reserving her for the Palawan route which is not exactly a long route and so it suited her and there was no competition anymore when the Sulpicio Lines ferry, the Iloilo Princess burned and Negros Navigation was already headed into financial crisis and had ships seized by creditors. And so the lack of speed of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart didn’t play to her disadvantage.

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Photo by Jorg Behman. Credit also to John Luzares.

It seems the last route of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart might have been the combined Coron and Puerto Princesa route from Manila. By that time she has signs of oncoming problems with reliability and that is deadly for a single-engined ship (well, if the engine can’t be restarted then a replacement ship would have to be brought in or else tickets have to be refunded and passengers simply get angry with that. Besides, the Aboitiz Transport Company was already cutting on routes and that includes her subsidiary Cebu Ferries Company which are doing the Visayas-Mindanao routes. With the pressure of the intermodal system which relies on buses and trucks plus the short-distance ferry-RORO like in Batangas and Matnog, the Our Lady of Sacred Heart has no more short route to go and Palawan was her last possible stand as she cannot be fielded on longer routes like Mindanao or compete in major ports and routes as she is not a SuperFerry. She might have been an efficient ship but she was never meant for long routes nor for major routes. With the addition of the SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18, the lesser SuperFerry 1, SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 5 and SuperFerry 9 have to go to lesser routes and that included the Palawan route. It was the end of the line for the “lucky” (until then) Our Lady of Sacred Heart.

I was just wondering why she and her sister the Our Lady of Medjugorje were not sent to the Visayas-Mindanao routes of the Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC). They could have competed with the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines pair of Asia China and Trans-Asia (1) in the Cagayan de Oro route (and shift their Our Lady of Good Voyage in another route). Actually, the Trans-Asia pair (and sister ships) were smaller but were utilizing engines even bigger than than the ATS pair at 10,400 horsepower each (and the Trans-Asia pair were older too by Date of Build). Maybe Aboitiz and Cebu Ferries does not want a sister ships to sister ships battle? In speed, the former Gothong sister ships can still match the Trans-Asia sister ships (if they were inferior it will not be by over 1 knot and that doesn’t matter much and they can just depart earlier). Was that the reason why they chickened out? In amenities they can match the highly-regarded Trans-Asia pair.

I can see some incongruence here because Cebu Ferries Corporation decided to retain their older and smaller ferry Our Lady of the Rule when that venerable old Gothong Ferry has a same but not identical 8,000-horsepower engine (but twin) when the Our Lady of Sacred Heart was even faster (and definitely more good-looking). But by this time it seems Aboitiz was already bent on shifting to the Cebu Ferries series which might have been faster later because they are smaller ships (their average horsepower was just about the same of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart). On the average that series was shorter than the Our Lady of Sacred Heart by 35 meters. Maybe they do not need the extra capacity as Cebu Ferries Corporation was already weakening in cargo because they charge the highest rates and they were not that proficient in palletized operations which is the norm in the intra-Visayas and Visayas-Mindanao routes. Maybe also there was also the decision already that the Cebu Ferries Corporation will just compete in a few Visayas-Mindanao ports and routes as the company was already outmaneuvered by the competition especially from Cokaliong Shipping Lines Incorporated (CSLI) and Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Incorporated (TASLI) which are good in taking in shippers and making them stick.

The near-equivalent of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart, the Our Lady of Good Voyage also outlasted her. This ship has just 400 horsepower less than OLOSH but she is smaller at 109.2 meters and her passenger capacity is only at 1,076 at her bridge is already near mid-ship. She was also among the smaller liners with small engines but she was fielded later although by age she is almost the age of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart and her engines were not much that better. In accommodations she might have even been less than the Our Lady of Sacred Heart.

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Photo by “suro yan”

Unlucky this time, in late 2005, the Our Lady of Sacred Heart found herself on a lonely, one-way voyage to face the cutters of the Bangladesh shipbreakers and the ship was broken up in early 2006. She was only 28 years old then, young by the age of ferries of today. That only means she died before her time.