Manila, May 13, 2002 (STAR) Maritime experts bewailed yesterday the local trend to focus on roll-on, roll-off (ro-ro) vessels in transporting people and goods between and among the country’s more than 7,100 islands, saying it could turn out to be more costly in terms of lives and jobs.

The experts said the trend would be counter-productive and contrary to the efforts of the national government to create jobs and modernize because ro-ro vessels have gained the fearsome reputation of being unstable at sea.

Many of the country’s ships were built 40 to 50 years ago and have merely been refitted and renamed many times over to conceal the fact that they are from the "Jurassic" age, they added.

For example, the Doña Paz, owned by Sulpicio Lines, was originally the Himeyuri Maru which was built in 1963 and sold to Sulpicio Lines in 1975 when it was renamed Don Sulpicio, according to industry old-timer Victor Crisostomo.

On June 5, 1979, the ship caught fire after a major refit and was renamed Doña Paz, which has gained the notoriety of bringing more than 4,000 people to their graves in the world’s worst maritime tragedy on Dec. 20, 1987 when it collided with an oil tanker off Mindoro.

At the time Doña Paz went down, Sulpicio Lines was presided by Vicente Gambito, now shipping consultant for the Coalition for Shipping and Ports Modernization, which is pushing for the use of ro-ro ferries.

But even the ro-ro ferries plying the islands are old vessels with questionable stability.

"When the ro-ro ferry was built in the late 1970s," top naval architects in England said at a symposium in London following the 1994 sinking of a ferry that claimed 910 lives, "designers were unaware of the real pressures which heavy seas could exert on the bows of even bigger ships."

British marine safety expert Alan Graham reported at the symposium on ferry safety at the London-based Royal Institute of Naval Architects that standards of stability required on ro-ro vessels built before 1990 were inadequate.

Studies conducted on ro-ro ferries also showed that cargo consumes a lot of space, non-uniformity in cargo dimensions makes arrangements difficult, fulcrum or balance problems make them prone to accidents, their dual function of carrying passengers and cargo puts the safety of passengers at risk and they pose traffic problems, especially if the port is in a densely populated area.

The recent tragedy that struck the M/V Maria Carmela of Montenegro Shipping Lines points up the safety problems that arise when people are cargo are put together.

In the April 11 ferry fire that claimed more than 72 lives, a survivor claimed seeing a man throw a lighted cigarette into a load of dried coconut, raw material for vegetable oil, that was stored on the vehicle deck of the vessel.

Other reports said sacks of copra near the ship’s smoke stack sparked the fire. The global trend is actually containerization and the use of modern, fast-moving equipment actually reduce cargo-handling time drastically.

Such modern ports are now operational and some more are being set up in different parts of the country.

Unfortunately, the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) said, many local shipping companies are not properly equipped to take advantage of the modernization of the cargo moving industry.

A top executive of a local shipping company admitted during a national shipping congress that while the Philippine shipping industry was mapping out plans to be at par with the global maritime community, other maritime nations are already way ahead and are already looking toward another phase in modernization, the information technology revolution.

"Our shipping industry is not part of the revolution that is happening abroad," said WG&A president and chief executive officer Enrique Aboitiz Jr. "It is tired and old."

If the shipping industry and authorities continue on insisting that ro-ro vessels be the focal point of the industry, passengers and cargo plying the archipelago would likely grow tired and old, too.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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