#Journeyto30 Between a storm and the deep blue sea
Epi Fabonan III (The Philippine Star) - June 26, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The waters around Romblon are among the most treacherous in the Philippines.

Tablas Strait, between the province’s biggest island and Oriental Mindoro, was the site of the 1987 MV Doña Paz tragedy, the world’s deadliest maritime disaster in peacetime history. Seven years earlier, in 1980, the strait was also witness to the collision of the MV Don Juan and oil tanker MT Tacloban City.

It could be said that its tempestuous waters is caused by its unfortunate location at the intersection of several bodies of water – the Verde Passage in the north, Apo Passage in the west and Cuyo Passage in the south — that bring the waters of the West Philippine Sea and the Sulu Sea into the Sibuyan Sea.

It is also well within the typhoon belt. Cyclones that form in the Pacific and pass through Northern Samar or Bicol Region are likely to pass over the province. Just recently, the tiny islands of Banton, Simara and Sibale in the northern part of the province were devastated by Typhoon Lando.

For superstitious Romblomanons there is an alternative explanation: the presence of Lolo Amang and his Golden Ship, Romblon’s version of Davy Jones or the Flying Dutchman that lures maritime vessels to their untimely deaths. During the early 20th century, locals even believed he existed as unscrupulous people would collect tribute in order to appease the enchanting yet terrorizing figure.

The legend of Lolo Amang has led paranormal experts to dub the province’s waters as the Romblon Triangle, akin to the Bermuda Triangle.

Nature, superstition or whatnot, the seas around Romblon surely court disaster. It is no wonder that in 2008, the province became the setting once more of another deadly maritime disaster. At the height of Typhoon Frank’s devastation of Central Visayas in June that year, among the ships caught in its path was the MV Princess of the Stars, a 23,000-ton passenger ferry owned and operated by Sulpicio Lines.

One of the country’s largest interisland ferry companies at that time, Sulpicio Lines had been involved in several maritime disasters, including the MV Doña Paz tragedy and the 1988 sinking of the MV Doña Marilyn.

Despite the fact that Typhoon Frank had already made landfall in Samar on June 20, the Philippine Coast Guard allowed the ferry to sail for Cebu City – albeit on an alternate route to avoid the typhoon – because it was deemed large enough to withstand the sheer force of the typhoon. It was supposed to cross through Romblon in order to reach Tañon Strait, skirting the cyclone that was forecast to pass by the Bicol Region.

But, the following day, the typhoon suddenly changed course, passing through Masbate and Romblon. The ferry, which had barely reached the Jintotolo Channel between Masbate and Panay, turned back but was overwhelmed by huge waves off San Fernando town in Sibuyan Island and capsized.

Of the ship’s 862 passengers and crew, only 48 survived, while 67 were confirmed dead and 747 remain missing.

The maritime disaster was a blow to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose administration had worked on developing the country’s “nautical highway” through a series of ferry connections and new ports. It blew open the operational lapses of the Philippine Coast Guard and, more importantly, the damning safety record of Sulpicio Lines.

The Board of Maritime Inquiry found the ferry company most liable for the disaster and ordered it to indemnify the victim’s families with an ample financial assistance for burial and other costs.

The disaster brought the company to its knees. It eventually changed its name to Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corp., abandoning passenger service in favor of cargo transport, but was again involved in another maritime mishap in 2013.

But the disaster didn’t just affect the families of its victims. The townsfolk of San Fernando, Romblon were also crippled by the ship’s sinking after it was confirmed that it was carrying tons of endosulfan, a toxic chemical used as agricultural fertilizer.

In the months after the disaster, the fisherfolk of San Fernando could not fish because of fear that the chemicals have contaminated fish stocks in the area. Throughout the period that the ship was being salvaged to safely retrieve the dangerous cargo as well as other bodies, they lived on government relief; their boats and nets rendered useless until salvage operations were completed.

Interisland shipping in the country remains largely unregulated and unsafe for passengers and affected communities alike. Many of the ships that ply the country’s waters are secondhand vessels from Japan or China and are not fit for our country’s treacherous seas.

Our very own Coast Guard remain deprived of ample boats to be able to patrol our periphery and respond immediately during maritime disasters.

Its limited number of personnel, who are paid meager salaries, become prey to shipping companies and boat operators who bribe their way into sailing for profit even in unsafe conditions.

Unless drastic measures are done in an institutional level to professionalize and improve safety standards in the industry, ferry passengers will always be caught between a storm and the deep blue sea.

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