Keeping our seas safe
BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - August 20, 2013 - 12:00am

Between these two business aristocrats, there are only polite statements issued to the press. First: that all efforts by both parties at rescue (or retrieval) are being expended to locate about a hundred passengers still missing with the sinking of M/V St. Thomas Aquinas last week off Cebu.

Second, that both are conducting their own respective investigations to determine the reason/s for what happened. This is in preparation for an upcoming official investigation (no word yet as of press time) which will determine also culpability and criminal liability.

So far, more than 30 passengers have been confirmed dead after the passenger ferry, M/V St. Thomas Aquinas, collided with the cargo ship, M/V Sulcon Express 7. Many of those still missing are believed to have been trapped in the ferry as it listed and sank.

The ferry was negotiating the narrow and dangerous Cebu Strait about three kilometers going into the Cebu Port when the collision occurred. Reports surmise that the area of the accident was a location where vessels often have to give way to each other to avoid collisions.

Nothing extraordinarily wrong

Surprisingly, nothing seemed irregular in this latest sea accident – no overloading, no typhoon.

The passenger ferry is an Aboitiz/Negros Navigation vessel now owned by 2GO, branded as 2GO Travel, and a subsidiary of the 2GO Group, a private company owned by the Chinese government through the China-ASEAN Investment Cooperation Fund.

M/V St. Thomas Aquinas was not overloaded. The total number of passengers in the official manifest was 723 passengers and 118 crew members, a total of 841 people, well within the vessel’s authorized capacity of 1,010 passengers and crew.

There was no threat of any weather disturbance when the vessel was making its way to its destination, and the waters of Cebu Straits on that ill-fated night was described as calm.

The captain even had the wits to call out to passengers to abandon ship as the vessel started listing. It seemed there was no shortage of lifeboats or lifejackets: most passengers just didn’t have to time because the sea gobbled the ferry in record time.

2GO is supposedly regarded as one of the most modern shipping fleets in the Philippines, with the largest fleet of inter-island vessels. It changed its name from Negros Navigation in 2012 after the Chinese government took a controlling interest in the company.

Infamous past

M/V Sulcon Express 7, on the other hand, is owned by Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp., the new corporate name of the Go family’s Sulpicio Lines. After a passenger ferry accident in 2008, the company decided to give up transporting people by sea, and instead focus on simply moving cargo.

While this is the first major accident of the PSACC since its change of business name and direction in 2009, it cannot quite shake off the bad karma that came with the sinking of M/V Doña Paz in December 1987, regarded as the world’s worst peacetime sea tragedy that left more than 4,000 people dead.

Before Friday night’s accident, Sulpicio had taken on an infamous reputation for a string of major accidents, including the sinking of M/V Princess of the Stars in 2008 where more than 700 perished. This is considered the fifth and last major passenger ferry accident of the shipping firm.

Human error

M/V Sulcon Express 7 managed to limp to port despite a gaping hole in its steel bow, but still a big relief to its owners considering the seriousness of past sunk ships. Yet, the incident brings to fore the possibility of the only remaining reason for what happened: human error.

Many of the shipping accidents of Sulpicio in the past had been linked to miscalculations by ship captains, either in undermining brewing storms or skirting dangerous coral reefs or noted sandbars.

But of course, we cannot rule out also the possibility of a pilot error on the side of 2GO since the cause of the mishap seems to have been narrowed down to a traffic miscommunication. So this will be an interesting investigation, one that could be kept out of the public’s view since it will involve the big companies’ legal teams.

Modernizing our sea lanes

While the country waits for more news about the ongoing search and rescue/retrieval operations, it becomes even more important for the government to look at modernizing its sea lanes, from port operations to managing the nautical routes.

While the most recent accident did not involve old and unsafe vessels, the local shipping industry has still many aging and wooden-hulled vessels that are best left at port instead of risking the life of Filipinos.

Once again, the country must put more effort in upgrading our sea lanes to serve the needs of an archipelagic nation that is largely dependent on its sea routes to move products and people.

In closing, let me share this ageless editorial of the Wall Street Journal in 1952, about the collision of two ships: “On the sea there is a tradition older even than the traditions of the country itself and wiser in its age than this new custom. It is the tradition that with responsibility goes authority and with them accountability ... for men will not long trust leaders who feel themselves beyond accountability for what they do. ...And when men lose confidence and trust in those who lead, order disintegrates into chaos and purposeful ships into uncontrollable derelicts.”

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