Southeast Asia has many islands, with Indonesia having the most at around 17,000. The Republic of the Philippines has 7,641 islands with only 2,000 being inhabited, most not yet named and many without sealed roads.
Whilst a beautiful place, the Philippines suffers from its location in the Pacific Ocean, which is subject to several severe typhoons each year. Being on the Pacific Rim it has also suffered several severe volcanic eruptions.
Both being developing countries, the majority of inter-island travel is by ferry. There are many ferry companies operating within SE Asia with over 3,139 ferries running per week between the Indonesian islands. Thirty Filipino ferry companies operate 150 ferries in Philippine waters. The largest ferry company in the Philippines is 2GO which took over SuperFerry, SuperCat and Cebu Ferries in 2013 which operate more than 30 routes around the islands.
“Many passengers’ names will not be on the manifest”
The beautiful scenery, including volcanoes, tropical rainforests, beaches, mountains, and thousands of species of animals, birds and plants means that there is so much to see and do in the Philippines, with many tourists traveling by ferry. It is reported that in 2019 more than 40 million passengers were carried on ferries in Philippine waters.
Most of these vessels carry cargo, so tend to be Ro-Ro vessels, which form part of the Philippine Nautical Highway System. Ro-Ro ferries have a main vehicle deck with bow and/or stern doors to permit cargo on trailers to be driven onto the vessel. Ro-Pax vessels also have upper decks that provide passenger accommodation. These vessels are designed to carry trucks and commercial vehicles but are also used frequently by car and bus traffic whilst boarding many foot passengers. The system of Ro-Pax vessels links the islands into the western, central and eastern nautical highways.
It is generally safe to travel by ferry in the Philippines, but there are big differences between the various types and sizes of ferries. There have been 25 significant ferry accidents involving loss of life since 1980. In 2017 a ferry carrying 251 people capsized in stormy seas off the east coast of Polillo. Local fisherman and rescue boats saved more than 200 of those on board, but at least four people died with seven never found. One of the problems with inter-island ferry services is that they have far too many people packed onto them, well above the limits imposed by the maritime authorities. Consequently, many passengers’ names will not be on the manifest making it more difficult to assess casualties during a disaster, with resulting spurious statistics.
Freight and passenger fares are limited by market and economic forces. Most ferries are very old second-hand Japanese ferries for which there are no spare parts left on the planet so that they either have to recondition or make new parts. The low fares they must charge mean that money for maintenance is also in short supply.
“I noticed that the sideshell plating had been welded but not closed up”
Statistics show that 98 per cent of Philippines ferries operate domestically, with 99 per cent of fatalities occurring on them. Safety comes low down on the list of priorities for owners, with financial implications taking priority. Some ferry operators have a “captive audience”, and often a monopoly, so there is no incentive to improve their facilities and operations. If there is competition on routes, the deciding factors for the passengers are usually the schedule and passenger facilities, not safety. There is a misconception that ferries do not need similar life-saving and fire-fighting appliances as those on ocean-going vessels, but the fatalities from ferry disasters speak for themselves.
Ferries do not come under the Paris or Tokyo MOUs as they do not trade internationally. This means that most of them do not undergo Port State Control Inspections so that they not appear on the Equasis web site, meaning there is little incentive to improve. Whilst they are subject to annual flag state inspections, these are really a joke. The surveyors/inspectors get paid US$500 to carry out a full condition survey so that are not going to do a fully comprehensive inspection.
In the mid-1990s your author carried out P&I condition surveys on the various ferries and cargo vessels around the Philippines, including for WG&A and Cebu Ferries. Every year a list of defects as long as your arm was issued. The following year the list of defects would be the same with several more added. It was clear that owners were doing nothing to address the defects. The P&I Clubs continued their cover so that they had no incentive to improve. One of them had a significant fire despite such risks being identified during several inspections.
I remember joining one of the Cebu Ferries vessels for an inspection during an overnight trip. I walked down the car deck and found a 0.6-metre-high by 10cm gap in the side shell around midships just above the main deck and the waterline. I noticed that the sideshell plating had been welded but not closed up. Various vehicles were also unsecured on the vehicle deck. Had this deck flooded there would have a similar disaster to that of the Herald of Free Enterprise, which capsized moments after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge on the night of March 6, 1987, killing 193 passengers and crew.
The captain joined the vessel just before sailing and off we sailed. An hour after leaving port I took him down to the car deck and showed him the gap which nobody had noticed. Thankfully, the weather was kind and they had something to block it up! Despite reporting this, there were no consequences.
Introducing a star rating
There have been some attempts to improve the ferry tonnage by introducing younger vessels. The Philippines Fast Ferry Corporation (PFFC) introduced 13 newer fast catamarans in various locations around the islands. They eventually shed most of their vessels as the passengers could not afford their higher fares and were not in that much of a hurry.
The question needs to be asked: how has this state of affairs been allowed to exist? It is clear that weak enforcement of maritime safety regulations is a clear contributor. So, how are ferry safety standards in SE Asia going to be improved?
There is clearly a need to establish a system similar to that for bulk carriers and tankers similar to RightShip, where vessels are scored on their condition. Such a system would operate closely with the governments of maritime nations, Classification Societies and P&I Clubs. There would clearly need to be a core of appropriately trained and experienced inspectors, a reporting system and database.
The RightShip star rating system is the way to go with one star the lowest rating and five stars the highest. The general public would more easily understand this because of hotels, restaurants, etc, being graded that way. Unlike bulkers and tankers, any ferry rating system would depend considerably on public acceptance and pressure. Public relations would be an important factor with a lot of “naming and shaming” required at the start of the process.
It is suggested that the star rating of countries, companies and individual ferries would permit passengers to know in advance whether they are boarding a ferry operated by a prudent owner.
Having a highly visible “seal of approval” and score would be a move in the right direction. Such a seal could be a big green tick over the profile of a blue or red ferry and a number representing their star rating. Further PR would be required to highlight the dangers of sailing on a non-rated vessel and advantages of sailing on a star-rated vessel.
It is likely that such a scheme would be a combination of RightShip, Equasis and TripAdvisor, where all relevant information is freely available to stakeholders, the key input being the feedback from passengers on the ferry company’s performance.
Another way to improve ferry safety would be to remove the owners’ ability to limit their liability, but that’s another story…
Mike Wall has been a marine educationalist for more than 50 years, writing training modules and books on various shipping technical subjects. Mike has also been a marine surveyor and consultant for more than 30 years, operating his own company in New Zealand, Fiji and Hong Kong. Due to his qualifications and experience he has been appointed to carry out many varied investigations and to give expert opinions. He is also an accredited mediator.