IF you were a reporter in the late 1970s and paid by the column inch, the best place to be was the maritime beat. If you were restless and hungry enough, the maritime beat offered a broad expanse of people, events and issues to cover. One day, you had to report on cargo tonnage for the coastal (interisland) trade. On some days, you might be at one of the piers of the Manila North Harbor, the major domestic seaport, to cover the maiden voyage of an old, international cargo carrier converted into a passenger vessel — now called a “modern, luxury vessel” in the press release of the interisland shipowner. All of these meant column inches, and survival, for the near-to-starving young reporter.
There was not much action at the Manila South Harbor, the international seaport, the reportage focused on the containerized cargo measured by TEUs, or 20 equivalent units. International sea travel — except for the cruise liners and US naval ships that dock at the port — was almost non-existent. But when big events break out there, they were really big. Like a refugee vessel of Panamanian registry with hundreds of passengers from the former South Vietnam – and with nowhere to go. The MV Tung An, skippered by a Filipino ship captain whose first name was Hercules, dropped anchor off the Manila South Harbor in the late 1970s and generated international news coverage.
But the place where stories never failed to dry up, if the reporter paid by the column inch just knew how to translate them into short news pieces that the editors would always print, was the central communications office of the Philippine Coast Guard within the South Harbor compound. Almost daily, the dozens of coast guard stations across the archipelago reported of missing pump boats and fishing boats, presumably all gobbled up by the treacherous sea. These were telegraph-style dispatches distinctive for their brevity and lack of emotion .
A maritime reporter, if he had a sense of things, would learn one thing from such coverage. The sea was a vast graveyard of poor people on frail boats. Death at sea was a daily story for poor people who fished on inadequate outrigger boats and who did island-to-island commutes on bigger but nonetheless still inadequate wooden, outrigger motorized boats.
We are now in the 21st century. What has changed?
Some things never change, despite the oft-repeated promise from our leaders that “change is coming.” The sea still kills with regularity. Those killed on sea mishaps today are no different from those killed in sea mishaps in the 1970s: fishermen on outrigger boats and interisland commuters on outrigger boats. In the age of bitcoin and apps, in the context of a transport revolution that is working on unmanned aircraft, flying cars and the conquest of Mars, the Everyman in the Philippine coastal areas still commute between islands on frail, rickety boats that the treacherous sea sink with regularity.
That the sea, in short, remains a vast graveyard for poor Filipinos on frail outrigger boats.
An archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, by normal suppositions, had to make maritime travel and transport its first policy priority. Along with its fishery sector. Because much of the commercial and transport concerns of the archipelago are maritime in nature. Because it is the dictate of geography, in which most trade and commercial policies are rooted.
Yet the stark realities point to one thing. The balangay or balanghay described in the chronicles of Pigafetta in the 16th century are not much different from the structure, architecture and the make-up of the outrigger boats, the motorboats called M/B Chi-chi and Jenny Vince, which capsized off Iloilo and Guimaras provinces on Saturday (August 3), drowning at least 31 people in the suddenly treacherous sea. The two puny, light-material boats ferrying the Everyman just had no defense against a wave surge. Survivors of the two mishaps recalled frantic and desperate screams for help from the drowning passengers.
When you look at things objectively, this harsh truth immediately sinks in. The ferry travel between the two provinces of Iloilo and Guimaras (and much of the country), and this is the 21st century, is served by overloaded motorboats barely removed in engineering and architecture from our balangay of the 16th century.
When you look at the modern ferry boats and catamarans used by our neighboring Asean countries for short-distance sea travel, you want to weep in frustration. Our own ferry system has the look and feel of the 16th century.
In the late 1980s, former NEDA director general Arsenio Balisacan, then a UP professor, wrote about the uncompetitive structure of the local shipping industry. In that paper, Balisacan called for the end to the “rent-seeking” in the sector to hasten its modernization.
In 2015, a so-called Manila Statement was drawn up at the end of an International Maritime Organization-sponsored conference in Manila on interisland sea travel. The Manila Statement recommended guidelines for safe interisland travel and called on the maritime countries in attendance, the Philippines included, to do more in the area of ensuring interisland commuting in the Southeast and East Asian maritime setting.
Today, we are supposed to have an P8-trillion Build, Build, Build, which would partly modernize the maritime sector.
The tragic reality in our vast seas is still this: Interisland travel and much of the coast-wise fishing are done in puny, wooden boats not far removed from the balangay of the 16th century. No wonder the sea is a mass graveyard swallowing mostly poor fishermen and the poor interisland commuters with treacherous regularity.