The Philippine Star

The last typhoon of the year, Nina (known internationally as Nock-Ten), knocked out more roll-on, roll-off (RoRo) vessels than had been reported in the media. Focus had been on MV Starlite Atlantic, which had sunk off the Batangas coast by strong waves on its way to port to seek shelter from the storm.

In the aftermath of Typhoon Nina, a total of 15 RoRos were reportedly damaged as each were battered by big waves and strong winds while trying to seek safe haven at the port of Batangas. Of these, seven were over 30 years old, the oldest being MV Ocean Queen 9 (44 years old).

Typhoon Nina is what one may describe as the now normal type of tropical storm that visits the country. It had maximum winds of up to 175 km/h near its center, and gusts of up to 215 km/h, according to the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) in one of its bulletins.

Most exposed to typhoons

PAGASA says that the Philippines gets about 19 tropical cyclones a year, of which six to nine make landfall. Being an archipelago in the West Pacific, the Philippines is regarded as one of those most exposed to typhoons.

And we have indeed seen some of the strongest and fiercest of them, and may even have a few more of these bad types in the future. Typhoon Haiphong in 1881 was believed to have killed up to 20,000 people. In November of 2013, parts of the Visayas were devastated by Super Typhoon Yolanda (internationally codenamed Haiyan). The wettest known tropical cyclone was in 1911, which dropped over 2,210 millimeters of rainfall in three days in Baguio City.

Unsuitable old second-hand sea vessels

So where does this all lead to? Once again, the Philippine government needs to give more attention to ensuring that the sea-going vessels of the country are fit to take on the responsibility of ferrying our countrymen as they journey from one island to another.

There are currently over 250 sea-plying vessels registered with the Department of Transportation that carry an average of 70,000 passengers a day. The sad part of this is that over 60 percent of those allowed to ferry passengers and cargo are over 30 years old, and three of them are over 50 years old.

Too great a risk

The risk to our people is just too great, especially since these old vessels are less adept at meeting the challenges of the strong gusty winds that whip up waves at sea that even modern ships have a tough time trying to surmount.

Facts show that majority of RoRo vessels used in the Philippine waters are second-hand and imported from Japan, and as such were designed for the calm inland waters of that country. Definitely, this is not suitable for Philippine coastal waters where one-meter waves can pose huge risks to these vessels and their passengers and cargo.

Some of the ship owners even add another deck to accommodate more passengers; this also further affects the vessel’s stability – even in calm waters, and without any storm.

Roadmap for safer inter-island sea travel

This problem has persisted because the Philippines continues to have regulations that do not conform to international safety standards. Our regulators have often acceded to the pleas of ship owners to relax safety rules in favor of economics.

Many ship owners, especially the older ones, contend that they would not be able to serve the Filipino sea-going public if they would be forced to buy vessels that conform to international standards, especially the rule about maintaining a vessel’s age.

However, in view of extreme old age of most of Philippine ships and RoRos, the cost of maintaining them already makes operations uneconomical. More importantly, they became bigger risks to the safety of their passengers and cargo.

Urgent action needed by MARINA

Bringing sea travel in the Philippines up to world standards can be done without going through any legislative rigmarole. Should the government or its regulator, in this case, the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA), start putting the safety of Filipinos first, all it needs is to issue several pertinent guidelines.

These by itself could form the essence of a shipping roadmap, and one that could be expanded to become something similar to the Comprehensive Automotive Resurgence Strategy of the automotive industry in the Philippines.

First and foremost, there should be a plan to bring down the maximum age of our sea-going vessels. It could take as long as five to 10 years, but what is important is that a plan is set into action to assure Filipinos that they and their children will be travelling safely in future.

Upgrading safety makes economic sense

Several enlightened ship owners have already taken this position and imposed on themselves a timeline to convert their old ships to newer, or even brand new vessels that likewise conform to international standards and are fitted for the rough and tumble of Philippine seas.

These shipping companies also believe that there is economic sense in keeping their vessels at the required age set by international maritime laws, while still being able to churn out a profit without unduly risking the lives of their crew and passengers.

We may not be able to become a ship-making hub for the region in the future, but better ships would certainly help improve the quality of travel for our countrymen, and become a boon to the tourism industry and both local and foreign travellers.

Will MARINA finally do right

Hopefully, one day, with improved RoRos and similar passenger vessels serving the public, we may also dream of seeing less expensive inter-island mobility that can bring products and services across islands at a lower cost.

Businessmen, and even the ordinary passengers who resort to using RoRos to get to different parts of the archipelago, have consistently complained of the high fees that need to be paid every time whenever they enter a seaport. Sometimes, the cost has become even higher than what airports charge their passengers.

But that, my dear readers, deserves its own space in a future column. For now, let’s hope that this will be the year when MARINA will finally, after doing its consultative stakeholders’ rounds, be enlightened to do what is right.

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