Friday Feature

By Emme Rose S. Santiagudo, Correspondent

WHEN AUTHORITIES lifted the suspension of motorboat operations between Iloilo City and the island province of Guimaras last Tuesday, they cited “passengers” as the main consideration for the decision.

They were referring mainly to about 10,000 people from Guimaras who cross every morning to Iloilo City and back later in the day, based on data from the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

“I am really thankful because the operation is finally back,” said 42-year old Richard G. Galvez, who lives in San Lorenzo, Guimaras and works in Iloilo City.

Mr. Galvez, in an interview last Tuesday, said the long line — reaching up to a kilometer at certain times of the day — for the roll on-roll off (RoRo) boats that were the only option during the more than one-week motorboat suspension forced him to just spend a straight week in Iloilo.

The suspension was implemented following the Aug. 3 sea mishap at the Iloilo Strait wherein three motorboats capsized and 31 people died.

But regular commuters are not the only ones who heaved a big sigh of relief when pump boat operations resumed.

The boat operators, ambulant vendors, and traders were also glad to have their livelihood back.

Pump boat crew member Edlin F. Sambon said they have been stuck at the Parola Wharf in Iloilo City since the suspension.

“We have been grounded on the wharf since last week and now that the operations are back, we are really thankful,” the 40-year old Mr. Sambon said in Hiligaynon.

Based on data from the Guimaras Provincial Tourism Office, there are 104 pump boats registered in Guimaras, grouped into four cooperatives: Buenavista Development Cooperative, Buenavista Motorbanca Owners and Sailors Association, Association of Buenavista Ferry Service Providers Incorporated , and the Jordan Motor Banca Cooperative.

The Buenavista local government and the Department of Social Welfare and Development distributed food assistance to affected boat owners and workers last week.

Ambulant vendor Ricarido L. Paz, meanwhile, said his income from selling peanuts to motorboat passengers on the Iloilo side is enough to cover daily needs.

“We had no income for one week since the trips were suspended. My income in my small business is already enough to cope with our daily needs,” said the 34-year old.

A Guimaras-based trader, who asked not to be named, said “pump boats are absolutely convenient.”

“Many of them running simultaneously back and forth. They are the best answer to solve the transportation problem without undue burden (to commuters). Cost is good, frequency is good,” said the businessman who makes the Iloilo-Guimaras trip three to four times a week.

Motorboats make the crossing for about 15 (Jordan wharf) to 25 (Buenavista) minutes, and the fare is P15 per person. In comparison, passengers taking the RoRo pay P35 each.

“However, there needs to be smart engineers who can understand it’s economic impact,” he added.

Transportation Secretary Arthur P. Tugade, during his visit to the island last Aug. 7, discussed possible immediate and long-term changes in the sector with local officials.

“We need to revisit, amend, and get rid of the policies that are not applicable on today’s weather and sea worthiness. We are looking now at the possible changes of the design and ergonomic of the motorboats,” Mr. Tugade said.

Several survivors of the accidents have said that weather was good when they left port, but were suddenly hit by strong rain and wind.

Cecilia Fenis, mother of 18-year old Maria Rycille who was among the 31 casualties, said her daughter’s last text message to her was: “Huo. Wala naman ah. Indi man gid mabalod (Yes, the waves seemed calm).”

The text was in response to the mother’s message asking: “Wala gabalod? (Is the sea calm?).”

Ms. Fenis was expecting her daughter to be on her way home to Guimaras from a school-related activity at the University of San Agustin, where she was studying.

Commodore Allan T. Dela Vega, PCG commander for Western Visayas, said they are strictly implementing the new policies imposed by the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) on motorboats.

“In PCG, our role is to enforce these guidelines. We will make sure that all the guidelines will be met,” said.

MARINA-Western Visayas Regional Director Jose A. Venancio Jr., for his part, said they have already suspended a few motorboats that refused to follow the new protocols.

These conditions include: wearing of life jackets by passengers throughout the trip, loading of only 75% of the approved carrying capacity of the vessel, overhead tarpaulins/canvass should be rolled up or removed, and fitting the vessels with distress signal equipment. Trips will also be allowed only “from sunrise to sunset” and subject to weather conditions.

Meanwhile, vessels of FF Cruz Shipping Corp. will continue to ferry passengers alongside Montenegro Lines, and the Ocean Jet fast craft, for those who would rather not be part of the motorboat economy.

Mr. Tugade said moving forward from the tragedy, “There are a lot of things that need to be considered, from the idea of bringing RoRo vessels or fast crafts, phasing out the wooden hull, the improvement of ports, and the needed finances. As we feel sad about what happened, we have to look forward and learn our lesson, so that a situation like this will not happen again.”