Roro owners starting to see light
BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - January 29, 2015 - 12:00am

Is there hope to modernize our small roll-on, roll-on (Roro) fleets? One of the more aggressive players in our shipping industry, Arben Santos of Southwest Maritime Corp., taking a leaf from the success of the domestic oil industry’s tanker modernization program, decided to make a decent stab at this challenge.

He says that two years ago, he took a chance by inviting some Japanese naval architects and a specialist Roro architect to the Philippines for the sole purpose of designing an ideal Roro suitable for Philippine waters, existing ports, and rough weather.

Recently, taking advantage of the favorable yen exchange rate, he was able to get a quotation to build this dream Roro at a cost that is economically feasible to local shipowners.

Based on studies and designs initiated by the group headed by Arben, Starlight Ferries – one of the country’s bigger Roro owners with substantial operations at the Batangas port – is now in the midst of modernizing its current fleet. Five new Roros that will be tailor-fit for Philippine operating conditions have been commissioned.

Earlier, another shipping company (Archipelago Philippine Ferries Corp.) had ordered five brand new small Roros for shorter routes. The Roros which were fabricated in China, three of which, we understand, have already been delivered.

For Starlight, the process of replacing its old vessels is expected to start towards the end of the year with the delivery of two units. The complete fleet modernization will happen within six to seven years. It’s a good start to the gargantuan task that many other shipowners are hesitant to do.

Old, unsafe, and substandard

Those who follow this column know that I’ve been crusading for the removal of old passenger and Roro ships that ply our seas. The average age of these ships is 35 years, which is way over the 20 years that Koreans and Japanese deem safe for their inter-island vessels.

Since we import second-hand Roros from Japan and Korea (those that they have banned from plying their waterways because of age restrictions), they are not ideally suitable for the kind of seas and unpredictable weather that we have.

The Philippines has rougher seas, whereas Japan has calmer waters. We also have, on the average, far more harsh weather disturbances that can be deadly when combined with the already challenging sea conditions.

Arben claims that one-meter waves are already potentially dangerous for Japanese Roros that were originally made for sheltered waters similar to Laguna de Bay or Taal Lake. And yet, we risk the safety of passengers by bringing these vessels in open waters connected to the China Sea.

Most Filipino buyers of second-hand Roros also have the dangerous habit of adding another deck to be able to create more room for additional passengers. This, unfortunately, compounds even more the unsuitability of these vessels in rougher Philippine seas.

The resulting imbalance has been recognized in Korea in the aftermath of the sinking of a passenger ferry plying the Jeju Island route. Close to 300 passengers, many of them students, died in the tragic incident.

Maintenance issues

A major reason for the hesitation of local shipowners to buy new ships is the projected economic viability, but Arben says that this can be overcome if there is more weight given to the real cost of aggressive maintenance that is inherent in old vessels.

Second-hand vessels that arrive in Philippine territory very often need a lot of repairs, work that had been “neglected” by their original owners for a couple of years prior to the date when they have to either permanently dock the vessel or sell to new owners where its use will not be restricted by age.

Because there is no academic study that highlights the strict correlation of vessel age with maritime incidents, our local maritime regulator is less aggressive in making a decision to limit use of vessels in Philippine waters based on age.

This is happening despite the fact that the 20-years-old age cap is being observed by many other countries to safeguard their passengers and even shipowners. Even classification societies are known to increase the frequency of their surveys on older vessels to ensure compliance with operating standards.

Sadly, without clear government guidelines to ensurs the seaworthiness of vessels, the value of human lives is not given enough weight when calculating profit and loss.

What to expect from new Roros

On the brigher side, what can we expect from the new Starlight Ferries? We were informed that part of its custom design is the waterproofing of the hull from the car deck to the main deck. This will result in enhanced stability. All doors can be sealed to keep water out during the rainy season.

The new vessels will be fitted with twin-screw propulsion and bow thruster for increased maneuvering response. In addition, they will be fitted with an AIS transponder, GPS navigator with video plotter, BNWAS for watchkeeping monitoring, and Navtex receiver for weather monitoring.

The new Roros will have separate independent ramps for passengers and vehicles. The two dedicated ramps for people will ensure passenger safety. This will be enhanced by CCTV cameras in strategic locations (passenger spaces, passageways, car entrance, and engine room).

There will be three class segregations: first class (air-conditioned with reclining seats and armrest with self-enclosing semi-automatic doors), business class (with air-conditioning, seats with armrests, and self-closing semi-automatic doors), and economy class.

The vessel will be fitted with special rooms, one for breastfeeding mothers, another with beds for passengers with medical conditions, and another with a playpen for children. There will be seats with L-shaped layout also for families.

An elevator will be made available for handicapped passengers, and a helipad has also been incorporated in the design for emergency medevac.

It’s going to be a fine-looking vessel that Filipinos should look forward to and be proud of. Now, if we can get the rest of those overaged Roros to join the bandwagon.

And we need government support to make this happen. Now that’s going to be another story.

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