It has been seven years since passenger ferry M/V Princess of the Stars set sail on June 21, 2008, only to be swallowed by the turbulent sea made more vicious by Typhoon “Frank.” Around 800 were declared either dead or missing. Only about 20 survived.
Investigators pointed to several reasons for the sinking, but one continues to haunt even those companies claiming to monitor sail conditions before heading out to sea. Princess of the Stars was allegedly a second-hand unit, originally a cargo vessel that was reconfigured for commercial use.
Starlite Ferries Inc. consultant Arben Santos says not one of the roll-on roll-off (RoRo) vehicles plying Philippine waters today is brand new. Some of these second-hand vessels are even as old as 30, he says.
“The problem with our RoRos right now is that some are more than 20 years old. Some firms even add another deck to the second-hand vessel, which was designed for calm waters like in Japan,” Santos says in an interview with the Inquirer.
Santos says RoRo owners choose to buy old vessels because they are cheaper at about $2 million to $2.5 million each. But Santos, who has been with the shipping industry for more than four decades and was responsible for pushing for the modernization of domestic tankers in the country, says the safety of passengers is paramount as more find the need to use sea travel to get to the inner islands of the Philippines.
He says Starlite Ferries, a wholly Filipino-owned RoRo shipping company, has taken on the challenge to change this mindset of vessel owners.
Today, Starlite Ferries’ brand new RoRo vessel, the Starlite Pioneer, will arrive in the country after being assembled at the Kegoya dockyard. It will be officially launched on Dec. 10, before it starts plying the Mindoro-Caticlan route on Dec. 20.
Starlite Pioneer will be the first of five new vessels to be put into local service by the company, financed through loans from the Development Bank of the Philippines and Philippine Business Bank. The four other vessels will be delivered by June 2016.
Santos says Starlite Ferries, headed by his friend and former Philippine Ports Authority General Manager Alfonso Cusi, is spending $10 million for each vessel. He says the firm plans to replace all 11 of its current vessels with new ones.
Santos says the new vessels are “especially designed to ply the rough waters of the Philippines.”
He says the ferries have been given the stamp of approval by the Nippon Kaiji Kyokai, an international nonprofit organization that classifies and certifies sea vessels based on strict international standards.
Compared to older ferries navigating local waters today, Starlite Pioneer and its family of new ferries boast of a speed of 13.5 knots (versus the older ferries’ capability of only 11 knots), which means trips will be faster.
The new ferries also have 2.75-meter gap between the main deck accommodation area and the ship’s railings. The space is meant to accommodate all passengers and crew in times of emergencies. A ferry can carry at least 749 passengers and 21 passenger buses.
Santos says the firm’s move is to kickstart the modernization of the industry by inspiring others to follow suit. He admits it will be hard, but “someone has got to start it.”
“In 2010, I promised President Aquino to do my best in the maritime industry … I promised I would try what was seemingly impossible,” he says. That was when the modernization of the domestic tanker industry began and three years later, the goal was accomplished.
“If I was able to do it for the [tanker industry], why not the RoRos? It comes in your life, when you reach this age (68), that you need something to do for the country,” says Santos, a self-proclaimed “lobbyist.”
But if he were to lobby for something, it’s for the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) to issue a regulation to phase out old RoRos.
“First, they should halt the entry of old ferries … or at least set the maximum at 15 years old. If the [Land Transportation and Franchising and Regulatory Board] can do it with buses, why not with ships?” he asks.
Santos says the Marina earlier implemented Circular No. 2015-04, which put flesh to an executive fiat that was meant to encourage investments in newly constructed ships or brand new vessels. But this is not enough, he says.
He understands, however, the dilemma that Marina may face in case it imposes new regulations. Sea travel “might be paralyzed” especially if companies fail to achieve those new sets of standards, he says.
Besides “with $10 million, a company can already buy around four second-hand vessels at $2 million to $2.5 million each,” he says. But Santos says he has studied the numbers and they are encouraging enough to give Starlite Ferries reason to invest in new ones.
“The figures show the company can still earn even with such a big investment. People will prefer the new ones. The more voyages, then the more income,” he says. He says Starlite Ferries does not intend to increase its fares even with modern facilities onboard.
He also sees bright prospects for the RoRo industry.
“Islands are not serviced by airplanes … By offering these routes, say Batangas to Caticlan, we will be attracting more tourists,” he says.
Santos believes the modernization of the RoRo industry will take some six to seven more years of consistent improvement.
He also believes it will take only one company to change the mindset of both regulator and the industry, and Starlite Ferries may just be what the doctor ordered.