Can Grief And Distress Be Read?

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

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San Bernardino Strait from BALWHARTECO

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

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

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

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

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Lipata port

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

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

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

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

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Matnog port

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

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

2008 Super Shuttle Ferry 10 @ Lipata 1

Photo by: Gorio Belen

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

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

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

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

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

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The TB of SSF10 on the right

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

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

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

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

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A Brave Short-distance RORO

A few months before they came here, a few in Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) already noticed them in a few ship-for-sale sites. They were sisters ships doing inland routes in China which has a great system of internal waterways based on their great rivers (which we have none). So when they finally came, it is as if the ship spotters were already “acquainted” with them so much so their specifications are already known although they have no IMO Numbers and they are not in the international maritime databases (which rely on IMO Numbers or MMSI Codes at the very least). If not for those ship-for-sale sites, the two would have been practically untraceable especially since the MARINA Database available to the public was not as good as before the fire that gutted the national office of MARINA almost a decade ago. Well, it is not even visible now as of the time of this writing and the last version was still the 2014 version with just a few fields of information.

The riverboat sister ships went to two acquainted Bicol ferry companies, the Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) and 168 Shipping Lines where they were known as the Regina Calixta V and the Star Ferry 7, respectively. Lately, Star Ferry 7 is just called as Star Ferry since the first to carry that name for the company has already been sold to a shipping company doing the Manila-Cuyo route, the J.V. Serrano Shipping Lines.

The external dimensions of the sisters are practically the same and ditto for the superstructure. Their main difference, however, is Regina Calixta V have two engines while Star Ferry 7 is single-engined. Of course, Regina Calixta V is a little faster (her total horsepower is not double that of her sister) but her engines proved troublesome at times, hence her reliability is not that good and there are times she ends up dead in the water. Meanwhile, the single-engined Star Ferry 7 turned out to be very reliable and she was not that much down on speed against her competitors although her total horsepower to gross tonnage and length ratios are lower than all of her competitors.

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With a single engine (which the crew can’t identify before I told him what was its make) and China as her origin, I did not expect her to be very brave as I experienced in one of my trips aboard her on rough seas. But I was not really was not much surprised by her daring because on a previous trip with her I was able to meet her crew in the bridge and I don’t what came to my mind but I asked who is the helmsman on rough seas and the two Captains (yes, that ship has two Captains rotating on shifts) both pointed out to the Chief Mate who showed sign of assent. And I was surprised because without prompting the Captain on duty said in the presence of many bridge crew that his Chief Mate is the best helmsman in the route – the sometimes dangerous Matnog-Allen crossing in San Bernardino Strait where ship at times have to do a dogleg route so it will not be broadsided too much by the waves and the wind. I knew the Captain was not pulling my leg because he showed conviction on what he said and at the same time readable respect to his Chief Mate. The Captain on duty did not grow in the route nor in the more turbulent Bicol waters as he is actually not a Bicolano.

It was a pleasant introduction and the Captain gave me permission to roam the ship and to take pictures and I was even able to tour the engine room. It was clean, organized and I tried to note the makes of engines and equipment there, things I am seeing for the first time because I have not boarded a China-made ferry before. So even in roaming the deck I was more concentrated than usual and trying to note their difference and peculiarities. I found there was none. It is as pleasant as the rest and I would say even better-designed and the workmanship was fine. It looked more airy to me and less confined. Maybe the riverboat design was showing.

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Star Ferry 7 was built in 1994 and it was 2011 when she came to the Philippines. She measures 57.1 in length, 11.9 meters in breadth and 3.0 meters in depth. Those measurements say she is not a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO but of the class next bigger. Her original gross tonnage (GT) was 984 but there was a slight expansion of the roof in the upper deck and so the gross tonnage rose to 1,014 (at least they are honest). I also think they want to reach that figure because in the past 1,000gt ships in Bicol have certain privileges regarding voyage suspensions in inclement weather.

The net tonnage (NT) of the ship is 344 and her passenger capacity is 400, all in sitting accommodations because she is just a short-distance ferry (but a short-distance ferry doing night voyages too and those benches, like those on her counterparts are difficult to find sleep in when the buses cross from Matnog to Allen on midnights). This ship for all its length and gross tonnage is powered by a just single engine with 600 horsepower on tap. The engine’s make is Hongyan and the design speed of the ship is 9.5 knots which is lower than the 11 knots or higher of the competition. In Bicol, rare is the ship with a single engine except for Regina Shipping Lines which has basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs.

What I first noticed about the ship is she has beautiful posts for the chains of her ramp and the superstructure below the bridge is a bit curved and there are visors to the bridge’s windshields. It all contributed to a more modern look along with the sides looking less slab-sided. The scantling of the ship does not extend fully to the stern and there is no box structure at the bow (they didn’t need the extra protection against rogue waves on rivers). The car deck basically can accept only two rows of trucks and sedans in the middle row. Lengthwise, 5 or 6 trucks or buses can be accommodated depending on the length. When I rode on an afternoon, a peak hour of crossing to Matnog, the ramp can’t be fully hoisted up because the deck was a little overfull and they even shoehorned trucks and buses 3 across near the bow. When that happens there is no more space for a person to move between the vehicles even sideways. But that can only be done on gentle weather and side mirrors have to be folded.

My Allen-Matnog trip was uneventful, very normal, even dry except for the hospitality of the crew. But my return trip was anything but uneventful (it’s not dry, it’s not wet; it was very wet). Starting from Naga, it was already raining but not that hard. I felt lucky there were still laborers around because trying to hail a Visayas bus in Naga highway at night is very difficult. But I am amazed that the laborers can identify a bus at 250 meters even by just its lights (maybe years of observation taught them that especially since they have to be ready if that stops). Going east I noticed the rains getting heavier. I don’t know if there was a storm, we Bicolanos don’t care for that unless it is a strong typhoon (in which case preparations have to be done) and LPAs (Low Pressure Areas) are part of Bicol territory. Has been, always been so. In fact, we may have 8 classifications of rain in our vocabulary.

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Since I was not able to hail a bus early and the bus made a long stop-over with meal in Sorsogon City in their own rest stop, we found out in reaching Matnog port that our ferry will be the fourth one to depart that night. I did not mind as long as we don’t depart nearing dawn. The ferries depart one after another anyway after the buses and trucks start arriving and the earliest buses arrive in Matnog just past 9pm. These are the day trip buses. Buses to the Visayas generally depart Manila at day whereas Bicol buses generally depart at night since their routes are shorter and departures are timed that it will arrive in Bicol when there is light already. Meanwhile, Visayas buses generally cross San Bernardino Strait at night because they still have nearly a whole day run to their destinations. Well, the Allen-Tacloban leg alone will already take at least 6 hours and some are still bound for Maasin and San Ricardo which are another 4 hours away.

I also did not mind we were a little late because I was able to board a bus I have a long history of liking, the CUL bus and our bus is not a common unit. I thought it was the usual Nissan PE6 but when I boarded I noticed the different instrument cluster. It was a Nissan PF6, a more powerful version, more respected. They seated me at the front seat and I had a long talk with the kind driver. I complimented his driving precision. It turned out he used to drive for Shell Philippines and you need driving precision to haul its rigs. He left because cellphones are not allowed (now how many times have you experienced before being told in a Shell gas station to turn off your cellphone?).

After a long time in the back-up area of Matnog port, their in-charge said we will be taking Star Ferry 7 and so we boarded. The queer thing is the first three ferries ahead of us, though all already full, refused to sail. They were just anchored offshore. A Captain in the route has the discretion not to sail if he thinks the wind and swells are too strong. There is no need for PAGASA, the Coast Guard or MARINA to tell him that. If a Captain thinks the seas are too heavy he will wait until dawn when the wind will die down a little and begin to shift direction (at dawn it will shift east and thus the wind will be behind him). The passengers will initially get more sleep and then fritter that they will be arriving late but of course there is nothing that they can do.

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After boarding the ferry, the driver of the CUL 0040 bus invited me to just stay in the bus. It is a privilege usually not accorded to a passenger. I was grateful and this was not the first time I was extended such an invite. That means I can lie flat and sleep at the seats across the aisle (easy for me as that is a Bicolano specialty of the ages past when few ride the bus in storms). The driver will turn on the airconditioning for a while and so it is like sleeping in an airconditioned soft bunk unlike the passenger upstairs who will be trying to find sleep in all positions of discomfort and with humidity from all the people around (later my co-passengers will ask where was I as they thought I was left in Matnog because they didn’t see me upstairs).

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Then came the announcement we will be the first to sail. The driver and me looked at each other. There was a little disbelief as we thought we will also wait for near-dawn. The driver nodded at me, a sign we are buddies. We will look out for each other if there was danger. The very least of that is to wake up one and/or warn if one felt there was imminent danger (well, like water sloshing on the deck or the ferry listing).

I noticed from the bus windows that our ferry turned on all its lights including the two searchlights ahead. Then four able-bodied seaman in ponchos and with long flashlights took up posts on the four corners of the vessel in driving rain (I pitied them; I hope they gave them a shot or two of gin or rum). They and the searchlights were look-outs against rogue waves. All the vehicles were fully lashed and with ropes across the roofs. There were chocks, front and back, on all wheels. All were protection against vehicles moving or sliding in case a rogue wave strikes. If there is one that will hit the ship and move the vehicles, we will list and that could be the beginning of a terrifying goodbye. The searchlights are needed so the helmsman will be able to read and time the swells. I can picture him, the Chief Mate – big man, big torso which muscles as if conditioned by gym training, heavy boots (he told me he needs that for footing), very good stance as if he can simply whirl the helm if needed. I can also imagine him demanding that the windshields be polished dry (or maybe like the driver of CUL 40 he has shampoo and cigarette leaves for the windshield) and commanding reports from the look-outs on the side of the bridge wings.

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I told the driver of CUL 0040 that we have the best helmsman in San Bernardino Strait. That seemed to reassure him a little. Soon we were asleep, no more small talk. No need to keep awake, we will not be of any help in keeping the ship more safe and if there is an emergency we will need the extra strength. But I am always awakened. The ship at times fall about by more than a meter and we can feel in our body (so that means the difference of the crest and the trough of the swell might be some five feet). Sometimes it feels the ship suddenly stopped. Timing the swells and we are pushed back ( orwas the propeller nearly sticking out of the water?). At times the direction of the ship seems to change suddenly and we will twist and the hull will creak. I will look out of the bus window. The look-out near us was still there, immobile. So I know we are still safe and I will go back to sleep. The ship was merely just suffering a little from the sea.

After two hours (the normal San Bernardino crossing is 1 hour, 10 minutes), I noticed looking out of the bus window that the sky was beginning to get light. The wind has died down a bit and the rocking of the ship is less. I can glean the Samar land mass in the dark. I know we were already safe although we are still at sea. The look-outs are still there. If only I can offer them coffee but I had none; maybe their teeth were already chattering from the cold. It was still raining but not as fierce as before. Soon there was the cables running and screw reversing followed by the grinding sound of the ramp against the causeway-type wharf. The docking was a little hard but I don’t blame our helmsman. Maybe his muscles are already tired and hurting from over two hours of battling the sea. I noticed our transit time took double than the usual.

With that voyage my respect for Star Ferry 7, her helmsman and her bridge and engine crew increased by not only a notch. She might just be a China ship, a riverboat at that but on that night she and her helmsman simply humbled the Japan-made ships of her competitors.

After the voyage, I knew in my heart and I am well-convinced that the reputation of the Chief Mate-helmsman of Star Ferry 7 was fully deserved.

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