Ferry Boat Accidents – A Norm in the Philippines?

Scores of people die each year from ferry boat accidents in the Philippines, an archipelago of over 7,100 islands, which holds a poor record for maritime safety. Just over the last couple weeks, it has been reported that three ferry boats capsized in the Central Visayas, all related to bad weather.  From what I could decipher from several reporting agencies is that the death toll had risen to 31.

Most of the deceased passengers were from two ferries that capsized within minutes of each other due to strong gusty winds and large waves off the coast of Guimaras and Iloilo provinces in the southern Visayas.  A third capsized ferry in the Iloilo Straight that was carrying no passengers also succumbed to heavy weather and all four crewman were rescued.

Another Ferry Capsizes!

During this time of year, the Southwest Moonsoon, or the “Habagat” as it is known here in the Philippines, is usually responsible for generating seasonally-heavy monsoonal rains, strong thunderstorms and large waves across the central and northern archipelago. There are supposed to be succinct, precautionary maritime measures taken during periods of bad weather where the Philippines Coast Guard places restrictions on commercial shipping activities when the weather turns sour. We have personally be the victims of travel delays when ferry boat crossings were cancelled or suspended during periods of heavy weather. This is most common when traveling during periods of Storm Signal issuance by PAGASA, specifically during tropical storms and typhoons.

During the rainy season (Habagat) however, the Coast Guard sometimes appears to not be in total control of maritime safety enforcement as many smaller transport ferry companies are allowed to skirt regulations and make their own [not so smart] decisions when it comes to operating in marginal weather conditions. It is never a good thing when the almighty Peso dictates taking such a high amount of risk to life and property. This is overly obvious when a third ferry was allowed to get underway nearly three hours after the two other ferries above overturned in bad weather.

 

Sinking passenger ferry
All three ferries were motorized, wooden-hulled boats that ferry cargo and passengers back and forth between islands.
A few days before these mishaps, a much larger ferry boat burned at sea off the coast of Zamboanga in the Southern Philippines from a fire that started in the engine room. Three persons perished in this accident including a 1 year-old child. Weak enforcement of safety regulations, badly maintained boats, and overcrowding are three big reasons for the Philippines’ poor maritime safety record.
What baffles me the most is that the government is quick to suspend school classes and work due to heavy rains and inclement weather, but the much more dangerous activities, like shipping and bussing of passengers are allowed to continue.
Unsecured pallets of concrete!

I remember my wife and I taking a 12 hour overnight ferry boat trip back in 2014, from Cebu City to Calbayog City (Samar). We had been underway about 6 hours and it was about 2am. I was having a hard time sleeping due to the increasing abeam seas. Put me on a Navy ship and I would sleep like a baby, even in much heavier seas, but on a Philippines sailing vessle… well, not so much.  Anyway, I got up and took a little stroll around the ship, eventually finding my way down into the cargo hold bay where I discovered hundreds, if not a thousand sacs of concrete loosely stacked over 7 feet high on large pallets. There were no straps, ropes, chains or any other observable method of securing such a top heavy load.  They weren’t even shrink wrapped. Even though it was a heavyload, it was not a stable load. A few big rolls of the ship could have easily caused this heavy load to shift – and who knows then what could have happened. Other ferries have capsized due to the shifting of cargo. If anyone has ever watched ferry boats here being loaded with trucks and busses, you will have observed that they load them from the centerline outward. This is done to keep the boat from listing (leaning) either to port or starboard during loading. It is also because these generally top-heavy, shallow draft vessels can have critical ballasting issues. Looking at the load of concrete made me realize that this obviously incompetent crew took an ignorant and uneccesary risk because they felt the weather was ‘good enough?’ In my opinion, they were just too damn lazy to follow proper cargo shipping safety procedures.

About 20 typhoons and storms batter the Philippines each year, making this archipelago nation that much more succeptible to maritime incidents due to the reasons mentioned above. When you take any boat or vessel to any point in the Philippines, you should always consider the risks involved, whether it be the weather or the condition of the vessel. The Philippines’ Maritime Industry Authority (Marina), is the agency of the Philippines government under the Department of Transportation responsible for integrating the development, promotion and regulation of the maritime industry in the Philippines. Note that according to regulations, even small banka operators are supposed to be governed by an “Authority to Operate” which refers either to the Certificate of Public Convenience (CPC), Provisional Authority (PA), or SpecialPermit (SP) issued to a domestic ship operator to engage in domestic shipping. In short, ALL passenger boat capitans are supposed to be licensed… just as are people operating motor vehicles on the highway, and most expats know all too well the problems with the LTO!

The bottom line here – Risk management falls upon you. Don’t count on the government regulations or industry professionalism to keep you safe.

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