OLD and dilapidated sea vessels derisively known as floating coffins that traverse in the country’s nine major sea bodies connecting to the notoriously turbulent Pacific Ocean need to be banned and fast.

The immediate replacement of those old almost ghostly ships would help avert the sea mishaps that perennially happen in our bodies of water resulting to the loss of thousands of lives yearly.

This after a study showed that overcrowding and essentially old (secondhand) sea crafts braving fickle weather and tides were among the major reasons for the 15 major ferry accidents in the Philippines in the years 2000-2012.

The findings were cited in the study conducted by Abigail Golden, of the ecology department of Columbia University for the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association in September 2014, where she analyzed the causes of the disasters.

She said the 15 major sea mishaps resulted in 1,365 deaths or missing persons, with the worst disaster being the m/v Princess of the Stars of Sulpicio Lines with 814 deaths in 2008 when it sailed despite a strong typhoon. 

Sulpicio and other shipping companies involved in sea disasters had since changed names but still used and acquired secondhand (beyond 20 years old) vessels from Japan and other sources, which have otherwise junked them.


Significantly Overloaded

Her study said six vessels in the 16 ferry accidents were “significantly overloaded with passengers or cargo, making them liable to capsize. Nine occurred during stormy weather,  which ranged from brief sudden windstorms or calm seas to the deadly typhoon Fengshen that killed over a thousand on land and sea and lasted more than a week.”

In five cases, the vessels’ crew was reported to be poorly trained in accident scenarios or have failed to help passengers evacuate, she said.

She cited in her study the collision in 1987 of m/v Dona Paz, a passenger ferry with an oil tanker which resulted in the deaths of over 4,000 people—the worst peacetime maritime tragedy in history.

“Stormy weather often plays a large part in maritime disasters. But many Philippine ferries are also old and poorly maintained, and overcrowding is common” she said. 

According to the Philippine Red Cross, the majority of the passengers on the m/v Kim-Nirvana (which capsized in July 2015 after leaving port in Leyte) were of modest means: farmers, fishermen, or “ordinary businessmen.

”More affluent Filipinos can afford to travel by sturdier ships or airplane,” Ms. Golden noted.


5,673 Deaths

Rappler, in a special report in July 2015 said that the 10 maritime tragedies in the country from 1980 to 2013 left a total of 5,673 deaths involving four vessels of Sulpicio Lines, one from Viva Shipping Inc. and one each from William Lines, Aboitiz and 2GO (now all under the umbrella of Negros Navigation, operator of 2Go).

Most, if not all, of these major sea mishaps have remained unresolved—some had cases filed before the courts—but others are gathering dusts in the archives of the agencies tasked to investigate them.

And with summer just around the bend, interisland travels (especially of people from Manila heading for anywhere in the Visayas and Mindanao) for vacation are expected to boom. 

But is the industry fit enough to woo these passengers away from air craft to the vessels?


Maritime safety

Outside of the passage of the Philippine Coast Guard Law (2009) a year after the m/v Princess of the Stars tragedy, much has yet to be done to improve the coordination among maritime agencies in ensuring that they set up and enforce maritime safety standards. 

It is also imperative to put up specialized courts on maritime cases, as most of the previous tragedies have remained unresolved in the courts.

But beyond the regulatory and judicial standards, the government must ensure the climate for private shipping companies to modernize and acquire new fleets that could measure up to the climatic and tidal conditions of the country.


Dangerous Straits

The Philippines has nine major sea systems—all connecting to the turbulent Pacific Ocean. These are the Bohol Sea, Camotes Sea, Celebes Sea, Philippine Sea, Samar Sea, Sibuyan Sea, South China Sea, Sulu Sea and the Visayan Sea.

In addition, there are countless straits between the Philippine islands, principal of which is the San Bernardino Strait (which is notorious among seafarers), the Verde Island Passage both of which permit ocean travel across the northern part of the archipelago.

Also, the Surigao Strait (that allows travel between the Pacific and Bohol Sea in the South) and the Mindoro Strait (lies between Mindoro and the Calamian Group of Islands). There are also five channels north of the country making up the Luzon Strait, separating it from Taiwan and nine gulfs (mostly in the south).


Secondhand Fleets

Knowing the character of these water bodies alone would help the shipping companies determine the technical and structural configuration and strength of the vessels they should deploy in these navigational lanes. 

But if they buy secondhand fleets, there is hardly any room for them to address these requirements since they can only undertake changes in the functional spaces of the vessel.

What all these mean is that newer craft with state- of- the- art (but usable and easy-to-understand and operate) technologies have to be acquired over the junks being sold in the global maritime market.


Ro-Ro Phase out

Arden Santos, Southwest Maritime Group president/CEO, is strongly pushing for the phase out of old, poorly-designed and ill-maintained roll-on, roll-off (RORO) ships and stopping importation of secondhand vessels (of beyond 20 years old) as one of the solutions to reduce, if not stop, sea disasters.

A veteran in modernization of domestic tankers, Santos pointed out that most RORO ferries in operation were acquired in Japan beyond years of age, sold to Philippine and Indonesian companies.

These secondhand vessels were designed mostly for calm inland waters of Japan, and are not suitable for Philippine coastal waters. They could sail on the placid waters of Laguna de Bay or Taal Lake but are dangerous for use in open bodies of water connected to the South China Sea. 

A one-meter wave can be dangerous to these secondhand vessels,” said Santos.


Below International Maritime Standards

He said instead of buying new ships, local ship owners acquire the cheaper secondhand vessels and retrofit them by adding another deck to accommodate more passengers; hence, bigger profits.  

But adding another deck will further compromise the structural and technical integrity of the vessels.

Santos also pointed out that maintaining these secondhand vessels becomes less economical at some point, and less safe for ferrying passengers.

“The efficiency of the old vessels is just about 65 percent. The remaining 35 percent is spent on maintenance and repairs,” said Santos, who added that most of the Philippine vessels are far below the international maritime safety standards.

The latest surprise inspection by the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) revealed that some ROROs lack the proper safety equipment for passengers, including ill-maintained life boats and insufficient supply of life vests. There were also a few vessels with no sanitary tank to store toilet wastes.

As the demand for nautical connectivity rises, with more reasons that Filipino shipping companies must prioritize on passenger safety, Santos said.


Modern Vessels

In modern vessels, the hulls are waterproofed to enhance stability and fitted with twin-screw propulsion and bow thruster for efficient maneuvering. 

They have AIS transponder, GPS navigator with video plotter, BNWAS for watchkeeping monitoring and Navtex receiver for weather monitoring. 

CCTV cameras have been installed in strategic locations to further ensure passenger safety. The doors can be sealed to keep the water out during the rainy season.

Not only do modern ferries offer comfort and convenience for passengers, but most importantly they focus on the safety and well-being of riders, Santos said.

They are also able to address the tidal and climatic aberrations of the navigational highway.

So far, Starlite Ferries and FastCat started modernizing their fleets. Santos said he hopes the industry would adopt modernization not just because it will be good for business, but more for the comfort and safety of passengers.

“With the new vessels coming in, some ship owners operating old vessels feel threatened. In fact, they lower their fares by up to 40 percent. However, this move has repercussions. Lower fares mean less profit; hence, less funds for the standard maintenance procedures, making the vessels less safe. This is not subjective, but an objective issue. The name of the game is safety,” Santos urged.

Santos strongly believes that there is a minimum price to pay for safety, which is non-negotiable. “Let's not wait for another sea tragedy before we start modernizing our RoRo transport system," he concluded.


Tourism Boost

If more shipping companies modernize, maritime travel will become more popular (over air travel). 

“With its affordability and reduced travel time, more and more tourists, both local and foreign, will look at sea travel as another viable option to visit the beautiful islands in the Philippines,” Santos said.

Philippine tourism will have a much brighter future, with the potentials and development in various areas growing by leaps and bounds. 

Due to efficient inter-island connectivity, tourist arrival in Boracay from 2003 to 2006 jumped by more than 50 percent, while Iloilo enjoyed a 30 percent increase, and Dapitan, rose by 200 percent.

“Since RoRo began its operation, areas along the nautical highway showed huge boost in tourist arrivals as traveling to the different islands of the Philippines has become more convenient and affordable. 

And with the modernization of ROROs, we can expect greater tourism movement in the next years. We also hope that the travel advisories against sea travel in the Philippines issued by other countries would be lifted; hence, more tourists coming,” he added.

“If you think about it, the Land Transportation Regulatory and Franchising Board (LTRFB) sets maximum age limits at 15 years for passenger buses. 

So, it is only right that we do the same with our interisland fleet,” Santos pointed out.

He added that the complete modernization of the RoRo fleet will only be possible if MARINA will issue memorandum circulars that strictly implement the guidelines on international maritime safety standards. 

Said memorandum circulars should state that effective immediately no secondhand RoRo of 5,000 gross tonnage and below, will be allowed to be imported unless it is 20 years old and below and fully classed by an IACS member.

The circulars should also contain a clause that within a reasonable time frame, say 4-5 years, RoRos of 5,000 gross tonnage and below may only be allowed to operate provided that they are not more than 35 years old, fully classed, and covered by adequate insurance acceptable to MARINA.

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