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Was the Princess of the Stars seaworthy, or she-warty?

(Article published in the Aug 20, 2008 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

His office at the Romulo Law Office on the 30th floor of the Citibank Tower was no more than twenty paces from mine, but his alma mater beat me to him.  I was still in the midst of conceiving a plan for him to hold an MCLE-accredited seminar on how to understand the legal maneuverings relating to Sulpicio Lines’s Princess of the Stars now lying capsized at the shores of Sibuyan Islands when the UP College of Law was already signing him up for its public forum scheduled for 13 August 2008.

 Accordingly, with the lot of the non-medal athletes in the Beijing, I stood by the wayside Wednesday last week as UP Law got first crack at Atty. Eduardo F. Hernandez’s lecture on the Legal Liabilities for Maritime Disasters.  But now that UP has claimed its prize and Hernandez’s views are in the public domain, I join in the cheering and the clapping for Philippine admiralty law’s Michael Phelps.

 Hernandez gave his audience many eye-opening, is not conscience-shaking, insights. For example, in the Philippines, he points out, while bus drivers have gone to jail for the deaths in road accidents, not a single ship captain or shipowner has yet been convicted of the crime of multiple homicide thru reckless imprudence, despite the more than 6,000 deaths in maritime tragedies. But Hernandez was most effective when he explored how the legal concept that the ship’s seaworthiness is relative could organize the many facts and figures that had come out in the media on the Princess of the Stars and its ill-fated voyage.

 Whether a ship is seaworthy or not, says Hernandez, is a question that can be answered in relation to the voyage contemplated.  “Crossing the Atlantic calls for stronger equipment than sailing in a small lake.  Sailing into a storm requires a higher degree of seaworthiness of the vessel.”  Thus, it was held by the Supreme Court in Caltex vs. Sulpicio Lines, GR 131166, promulgated 30 September 1999, that “for a vessel to be seaworthy, it must be adequately equipped for the voyage and manned with a sufficient number of competent officers and crew.”  So also, citing Justice Brad Giles of New Zealand in his Shipping Law, Hernandez  explains that to be seaworthy, the vessel must not only be an efficient instrument of transport in relation to the voyage, sufficiently provided with fuel and ballast, but also manned by an efficient crew.   


In addition to being dependent on the interplay of structure, sea, and crew, seaworthiness is also relative as to time.  The time when a ship is to be determined seaworthy, Hernandez points out in conformity with Secs. 113 to 115 of the Marine Insurance Act, is at “the commencement of every voyage.”

 Finally, the responsibility for so determining belongs to the shipowner himself.  The reason is obvious: it is the carrier who is charged with the duty of extraordinary diligence. It is only reasonable that that duty be imposed while the ship is still at port and the owner and his people on shore are in a position take remedial measures, including not permitting the ship to sail, should they find the ship not fit for the particular voyage to be made.

 With these principles explained, Hernandez proceeded to ask some questions, some I heard from him for the first time, others already posed by members of the House of Representatives and of the Board of Marine Inquiry now officially looking into the tragedy.  At the risk of over simplifying, the three component issues of seaworthiness are (a) the condition of the Princess of the Stars at the time it embarked on its journey to Cebu; (b) the current and foreseeable condition of the sea along the way; and (c) the capability of captain and crew to steer the ship under such conditions reasonably foreseen.

 Prudently not pre-empting the current investigations, particularly of the Bureau of Marine Inquiry whose report was reported to have been completed last week and was promised to be released to the waiting public soon, Hernandez did not give answers.  But, by using ernaHHHernandez’ enlightening conceptual framework, any reader of the daily broadsheets can easily come to his own judgment on whether on that fateful evening of June 20, the Princess of the Stars was fit to make the voyage she was unable to finish; the needed facts have all been made bare at the government hearings. In my view, here are some.     

 The Princess of the Stars was an old dame.  She was admittedly built in Japan in 1984 and had seen better days as a ferry boat under the name “Ferry Lilac.”  No longer considered by Japanese law fit to ply her trade in Japan, she was already junk when sold to Sulpicio Lines in late 2003.  At 24 years when she made her final journey, pointed out Hernandez, she was no longer qualified, had a foreign-owned company applied under the bare boat charter law, to fly the Philippine Flag to engage in foreign trade.  Indeed, we impose a higher standard for ships flying the Philippine Flag in their masts when in international commerce than for ships carrying poor Filipino passengers in their cabins in the coarse of local inter island trade.

 Like some aging woman, the vessel underwent a bit of cosmetic lifting. She was modified in 2004 to raise her passengers capacity by 1000. As a cargo vessel, she was a RO-RO, roll in and roll out.  That explains why, like many mestizas of yesteryears still showing up in the society pages, she had a flat bottom that made her, according to Hernandez, “inherently unstable.”  She was overweight, i.e. overloaded, too, when she left port for the last time, by at least 96 tons. 

 Nevertheless, the fat and flat Princess of the Stars boasted of an evaluation last year  by the local unit of Bureau Veritas, said to be an internationally reputed classification society, as not having any major defect, with its hull and machineries in good order.  But the classification was only a provisional one, the work of the local unit still needing to be confirmed by the mother’s unit in Singapore.  The initial provisional certificate, which expired last February, had to be renewed because the Singapore office was too busy with other things. If a classification society cannot give prompt classifications needed to inform us promptly in a definitive way about the fitness of our ships, why is it allowed to offer its services here? That’s my question, not Hernandez’s.

 It was this senior lady that set out for a rendezvous with juvenile typhoon “Frank” in the evening of June 20.  PAGASA said that by 4:00 PM, of that day, “Frank”, the huge dude, was already cavorting at 50 kms south east of Catbalogan, packing maximum sustained winds of 140 kph in his belly and gustiness up to 170 kph.  He was moving west northwest at the speed of 19 kph. Signal No.1 was up in Manila, where the Princess was priming herself; No. 2 in Romblon and Northern Cebu, an area known as the graveyard of many ships; and No. 3 in Biliran Island.  Actually, in Cebu, where the Princess was to disgorge passengers and cargo, the Coast Guard suspended sea travel as early as 7:00 AM. 

 The feisty lady nevertheless sailed out at around 8:00 in the evening, even as the bars of Metro Manila had dimmed their lights bereft of GROs, to meet up with “Frank” in an illicit tryst in the following morning.  It was all over by noon of the 21st.  “Frank” left the Princess of the Stars, lying unladylike on the shores of Sibuyan, her bottom up for everyone one to stare at in the afternoon sun.

          In her deadly trip, she was manned by captain and crew duly licensed by Philippine authorities.  I believe they were the best we’ve got; after all the better ones, said Hernandez, have gone aboard, on foreign ships with better safety and higher pay.  They were very senior; one of them, in charge of the engineering department, was in fact 81 years old. I pray to God that they are all still alive to tell their stories.  Particularly, the 81-year old.  His would surely rival the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.