It was 14 years ago when my attention was first caught by a sea tragedy. One of the ferries that we use to ride to Mindoro, the Kimelody Cristy caught fire resulting in the loss of lives. When the heat was intense (no pun intended), the Governor of Mindoro Occidental joined those who were condemning Moreta Shipping Lines, the owner of the vessel. It did not matter that they were friends. It also did not matter that Moreta is just an upstart shipping line (and probably undeserving of kicking) trying to break the stranglehold of the combined Viva Shipping Lines/Sto. Domingo Lines/D.R. Shipping who were lording it over the Mindoro routes with predatory pricing and suspected sabotage against competitors. (Well, SuperCat of Aboitiz Shipping Corp. used to keep overnight its catamarans inside a holding pen with underwater extensions and with floodlights and armed roving guards to boot in Calapan, Oriental Mindoro, away from the Batangas City base of the 3 shipping lines of “Don” Domingo Reyes, the supreme warlord of Bondoc Peninsula, Quezon; after all the competitors of the Domingo trio used to have one “accident” after the other). It also did not matter that Kimelody Cristy was the best ship plying the Mindoro route and that the fire was an accident (LPG tanks that are part of the cargo exploded, triggered by welding activities; to the uninitiated, welding activities as part of maintenance work is normally done while a vessel is sailing). Charges of “floating coffin” and “rust bucket” abounded as if all ships that meet accidents are not seaworthy. Accidents are operational hazards. We do not easily call a bus that met an accident a “rolling coffin” nor a plane that crashed as a “flying coffin”. I note that most media people and politicians that make attacks after a marine accident do not ride ships (let’s take away those photo-ops activities of politicians and bureaucrats because that is not real-world sea travel). Moreta became a punching bag maybe because it cannot afford a platoon of high-priced lawyers and PR practitioners.
A few years later the Dona Marilyn sank in a storm in almost the same circumstances as the sinking a few weeks ago of the Princess of the Stars. The Dona Marilyn left Cebu City under a storm Signal # 2 (yes, it was allowed then, when Signal #2 typhoons were stronger than current Signal #2 typhoons) and it intended to proceed to Tacloban City towards the direction of a typhoon that was shortly expected to intensify to Signal # 3. Against the pleadings of some of the passengers, the captain of the ship proceeded reasoning he will seek shelter somewhere if the seas become too rough (one must understand that old captains are veterans of this “seeking-shelter” strategy since they were products of the small ships of the ’60s; the remnants of these ships still ply the Cebu-Bohol routes so one can still see their size or lack thereof and its design). As fate would have it the elements literally tore into Dona Marilyn. The tarpaulin covers of the sides of the ship was not able to contain the rain and wave surge (folks, don’t worry ’cause big ships nowadays have cabins), deluging the inside of the ship causing it to list (to tilt on its side). Even though the passengers helped in baling water, it went to no avail ’cause soon the engine of the ship conked out (one must suspect it became inundated in water). A ship without power in a typhoon is practically a dead ship since it can no longer maneuver. Many lives were lost in that tragedy.
The Board of Marine Inquiry ruled the sinking as “force majeure” (?!!?). Sailing into the storm and it is declared a “force majeure”??? Maybe, as the say, “Tell it to the Marines”! Now with a probe where some congressmen are more content in questioning PAGASA (makes on wonder where their loyalty is; anyway it won’t probably matter in the next elections because their constituents do not ride ships and maybe so because they probably come from Luzon; but I doubt the wisdom in appointing in an investigating body someone who do not ride ships just like the question put forward by the newspaper Malaya editor-in-chief against the DOTC Undersecretary who is the government pointman in the Princess of the Stars tragedy), the investigation might just turn into a blame game. Through the ticket it is still possible to see the canniness of the Sulpicio attacks against PAGASA and its labeling of the accident as an “act of God”. Are the “motions to inhibit” against some independent-minded Board of Marine Inquiry members a prelude to another verdict of “force majeure”?
When the Dona Paz burned and sank in a collision with the tanker Vector (thus putting us on the world map of marine disasters because of the size of the casualty) and Dona Marilyn sank in a storm, the Sulpicio Lines changed the names of its ships from the Dons and Donas to Princesses (as in Princess of the Stars). But it seemed there was no change in their “luck” as the Princess of the Orient and Princess of the Stars sank in storms and the Princess of the World and Philippine Princess both burned (the latter in anchorage). Well, I do not think that “luck” is an essential thing in navigation. If it is then the study of it must be mandated as part of a naval curriculum and degree but it is not.
It was 1995 when I first rode a “Sacrificio” (a.k.a. Sulpicio) ship (yes, it is the monicker of Sulpicio Lines just as “Gutom Shipping” is the monicker of Gothong Shipping Corp. [so Gothong made sure then that its passengers are well fed, but not now]). I noticed a picket line inside the company premises in the North Harbor. “Claimants” (daw) against Sulpicio in the Dona Paz sinking. But porters and cigarette vendors told me they were not legitimate claimants but unscrupulous persons out to fleece Sulpicio Lines with bogus claims. That incident made me think and research. After a few years of riding ships of Dona Paz‘s size during the Yuletide rush, i no longer believe the claim that up to 4,000 passengers died in that accident (the company admitted 1,568). No way that a ship intended for 1,518 passengers will be able to take in more than double its capacity. It is not just a question of passenger space but also the capacity of the ship to take in all those people (folks, meals in local inter-island ships are, in general, free so all of them will want to be fed during meal times). But the bad thing is we became the world record-holder in the number of casualty due to a peacetime ship sinking.
Fighting all the way in courts is a grim battle for the families of the victims. Searching the Net, it seems it takes more than 20 years before a final decision is reached at the Supreme Court level (so probably the idea of the Chief Justice to set up a maritime accident court makes sense). And I think if the reasoning of the Sulpicio Lines is it’s a force majeure then probably it will reach the highest Court if one intends to claim to claim the full extent of damages against Sulpicio Lines.
On other hand, I also bemoan the knee-jerk reaction of government functionaries that mandated that under Signal #1 ships irregardless of size cannot sail. It will just create a lot of stranded passengers. Passengers will lose, bus companies, truck companies and shippers will lose. The only winners will be the vendors and eateries in the port terminals. Now I wonder what kind of economics is that. It only betrays the ignorance of land-bound people in government who regulates ships but do not ride ships. It is not even proven at this point nor will it ever be proven that laxity in regulations led to the Princess of the Stars‘ sinking. Maybe it was just plain recklessness combined with poor navigation and making the passengers and shippers pay for this is just a lot of hassle and pure lack of common sense (well, I forgot our government was never ever known for good common sense).
I do not see in these modern times why sailing restrictions for sea vessels are still governed by the typhoon signal when in my experience for sea people including fishermen the more important measurement is the wave level. All we hear at the forecasts disseminated by the media is the wind speed measured in kilometers per hour and typhoon direction and speed when also part of the forecast is the wave height which is far more important when one is at sea especially during the night. Also I wonder why PAGASA is now the de facto final arbiter in the sailings when everybody knows the level of forecast of PAGASA is just at the province or island/island group level. It cannot define in real-time a local weather condition like if it is still safe to cross San Bernardino Strait or Lagonoy Gulf or Ticao Pass/Black Rock Pass (in the Net, several weather forecasts and satellite pictures are always available and in real-time). A re-tooled Coast Guard might be able to do a better job since its units are scattered in all the ports (after all, they are tasked with clearing the sailings of the vessels) and they can visually see the roughness of the sea and gauge the strength and direction of the wind (and I thought in earlier times there were coast watchers). Comparing it to air travel, it is still the local airport and the Air Transport Office (ATO) that declare the airport closed for landings and take-offs, not PAGASA.
In the last typhoon (“Frank”), PAGASA forecasted wave heights of 10-14 feet while other international weather agencies forecasted wave heights of up to 18 feet (in general, PAGASA’s wind speed and wave height forecasts are lower than the international weather agencies’ forecasts). Does anybody need a translator how strong a sea is that? And wave heights of up to 10 feet are sometimes forecast in Mindoro waters even when the storm is still in Samar, especially during the southwest moonsoon period when the seas are rougher. With the advent of cell phones and the the general availability of phones, the government should make clear to all localities how strong the waves are when there is a typhoon so as to prevent the sinking of fishing boats which are also part of the sea casualties in a typhoon (in the last typhoon over 20 fishing boats sank resulting in over 1,100 dead and missing which is higher than the Princess of the Stars‘ casualty, aside from a few cargo ships sunk). Preventive measures should be done because for all the hullabaloo about conversion to GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress Signal System), the simple truth is that our Coast Guard personnel will not venture out to sea under storm conditions just to save your ass. Remember it was fishermen in small fishing boats who were first on the scene of the Princess of the Orient sinking because as one said in an interview he simply cannot bear the sight of a lady being swamped by big waves. Does one need to be reminded who were first on the scene of the Princess of the Stars‘ sinking?
In the final analysis, to put things in the proper perspective especially for those who don’t travel by ship, the chances of getting killed in a road accident is still far higher than getting killed in a ship accident although the chances of getting killed in a plane accident is much slimmer than both.
[To be fair to Sulpicio Lines, let it be said that its main competitor WG&A (the SuperFerries) with about the same number of ships has about the same rate of mishaps in the same period. SuperFerry 6 burned off Batangas and SuperFerry 7 burned in anchorage. SuperFerry 14 burned off Corregidor (not due to Abu Sayyaf according to Malacanang but everybody knows the truth and this is probably a true case of force majeure if acts of sabotage are such). SuperFerry 12 was involved in a collision with San Nicholas (a wooden-hulled ship locally called a batel) in Manila Bay resulting in the sinking of the latter. To this total, the collision and sinking of Cebu City (a William Lines ship) in Manila Bay just before the merger of 3 major shipping companies that resulted in the creation of William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) should also be include since this happened after the Dona Paz and Dona Marilyn sinkings. WG&A and its passengers are just more fortunate that these mishaps produced far less casualties than the Sulpicio Lines mishaps.
Does anybody want a safer trip? Then maybe sail via Negros Navigation Company. It has no comparable mishaps during the same period and I do not know how they managed that feat though it is only a third of the size of either Sulpicio or WG&A. Luck, perhaps? Or is it a matter of naming the ships after the saints (as in St. Peter The Apostle and San Paolo)?]
(The writer has sailed in more than 120 long and short voyages in over 65 different vessels in the last 14 years. Ship is his favorite mode of transport in going to Luzon. He has been a passenger aboard 7 different Sulpicio ships covering some 15 voyages.)