OCCIDENTAL MINDORO, Philippines – The storm reduced the boat into a playground – 7 tons of mangled wood and metal split by a crack that ran down the center of its hull. Children turned the boat's toppled masts into monkey bars, played hide-and-seek in its sand-littered hull, and rested atop its cabin under the sunless sky.
It was November 14, 2019, several days after Typhoon Quiel hit the town of San Jose in Occidental Mindoro.
The boat rested on a wasteland by the sea that smelled of salt and refuse. The name F/B Pengyou, in white letters, was scrawled across its blue-coated frame. It's a gift from China – a donation of the Shanghai Jucheng conglomerate to the 22 fishermen of F/B Gem-Ver who almost died in a collision with a Chinese vessel in the West Philippine Sea.
Pengyou, friend in Mandarin, carried the hope for a second life after the near-death experience of Gem-Ver’s fishermen, when their boat was rammed by a Chinese ship in the West Philippine Sea in June 2019. For the Shanghai Jucheng Group, the donation was an opportunity to stop the bleeding in Philippine-Chinese relations.
But what the Gem-Ver men expected to be a new vessel turned out to be a scrappy hand-me-down. Pengyou was unfit for a return trip to Recto Bank (Reed Bank) in the West Philippine Sea, and its sorry state added to the irritants that made the Gem-Ver crew drift apart.
“If they wanted to give us something, they should have called us to look for a boat in good and sturdy condition that we could have used immediately. Something that doesn’t need a lot of spending for repairs,” said Junel Insigne, the former captain of Gem-Ver. “The fees would be huge if we tried to fix Pengyou, even bigger than Gem-Ver’s.”
Rappler returned to San Jose in November 2019, traced the boat’s origin, and found that Pengyou was a Batangas fishing boat that had been used for at least 14 years prior to its turnover to Gem-Ver’s men. While the money to purchase the boat indeed came from the Shanghai Jucheng Group, the donation was initiated by the office of Duterte’s special envoy to China, media personality Ramon Tulfo.
The Chinese company’s Filipino representatives bought Pengyou without seeking the advice of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) or consulting its beneficiaries, the Gem-Ver fishermen.
“It’s shameful for BFAR, that [this] transaction happened. The right person should have done the inspection to see if the boat can be used in deep waters,” said Elizer Salilig, the regional director of BFAR Mimaropa Region.
The recycled boat is just one in a thread of instances where top government officials fell short in their effort to assist the fishermen in the aftermath of the most dramatic moment at sea between the Philippines and China.
Rappler learned, for instance, that former agriculture secretary Emmanuel Piñol promised to hold a multimillion-peso fundraiser for the boat’s fishermen and owners – but Piñol resigned in June last year and the promise was forgotten.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also once guaranteed to help the fishermen and the boat owners file demands for compensation from the Chinese, but he did not move the process forward.
On the day we met him, Roderick delos Reyes, captain of Barangay San Piro, Balayan, Batangas, stumbled out of the barangay hall conference room at mid-morning, face flushed as karaoke music blared. A burly 50-year-old man with sunburnt skin, De Los Reyes watched over a swath of coastal land in the town of Balayan.
Twenty years ago, he was the captain of a boat sailing monthly to the West Philippine Sea. After retiring, he followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and took the task of leading Barangay San Piro, a village of over 3,500 people. And then, on his 6th year in government service in 2019, Delos Reyes became a millionaire overnight for selling a 14-year-old family boat.
The boat was Pengyou.
Delos Reyes sold the boat at least a month before it was turned over to Gem-Ver fishermen in September. Men from a neighboring village brought him the news that a buyer was in town, looking for a fishing boat. Delos Reyes just happened to have recently put his boat on the market, with an ideal selling price of P3 million ($58,711).
Living in a community where 90% of its residents fished, Delos Reyes was hoping to sell the boat fast. But weeks passed without a buyer and Delos Reyes was already losing money to keep the boat in good condition.
It was then that two men who identified themselves to be working with the family of former Quezon City representative Maite Defensor arrived in Balayan with an offer to buy the boat for P1 million ($19,570). Delos Reyes took it. “I guess everything has a discount,” he said.
“It was purchased by the men of Defensor. The ones who bought it were those who were going to donate – those, who were they – the Chinese?” Delos Reyes said. Defensor confirmed the boat was purchased with money from Shanghai Jucheng and cost “more or less” P1 million ($19,570), without minor repairs.
About 298 kilometers away, in Barangay San Roque, Occidental Mindoro, the men of Gem-Ver got word they were to receive a new boat from a Chinese group. The boat, they were told, would finally take them back to Recto Bank, ending months without income.
The men imagined what trips in a new boat would be like, as Gem-Ver remained dry-docked for repairs on the shores of San Roque. They pictured cutting through waters in a boat made of steel, returning to the same spot in Recto Bank where Gem-Ver fished for over 15 years. Only this time, they would be in a boat that was bigger, stronger, and could keep them safe.
Pengyou was far from it. As it was anchored in its homeport of Barangay San Piro, it looked miserable: faded rope, chipped paint, scratches all over, and a hull that looked too weak to sail the high seas.
“How should I know what happened? When that boat was destroyed, it was no longer with me,” Delos Reyes said.
Pengyou had seen better days. Over a course of 14 years, the boat took Delos Reyes’ men from Batangas to Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea.
F/B Marck Paolo, with official number 04-0001890, was one of 8 fishing vessels owned by the Delos Reyes family at the peak of their fishing business. Delos Reyes recounted all-too-familiar instances when his men ran into the steel ships of the Chinese. “All their boats had smaller rubber ones that came to you if you got too close," Delos Reyes recalled, matching the stories of fisherfolk in Zambales and the Mindoro region.
Delos Reyes said Chinese men in uniform would gesture with their hands and shoo them away. “It was a long time ago, but back then, the Chinese were already there,” he said.
Built in August 2005, it was 17 meters long, 1.6 meters wide, and 1.5 meters deep. It had 3 masts, 4 cycles, 6 cylinders. It carried a different name, Marck Paolo – after Delos Reyes’ son who was 3 years old when it was built.
Despite having to fish in waters with foreign boats, Marck Paolo completed its voyages to the West Philippine Sea each month – until Delos Reyes discovered his captain sold the boat’s catch in Palawan and used the money to fund drinking sprees with his crew.
Angered by the deception, Delos Reyes fired his captain and was no longer interested in finding a new one. Instead, he decided to sell Marck Paolo.
Delos Reyes believed the boat could still be used in high seas for 10 more years. Fading paint and creaking planks, he said, were only normal.
The search for the gift began in the office of Ramon Tulfo. He was just 10 months into his job in June 2019 as President Rodrigo Duterte’s special envoy to China when the sinking of Gem-Ver emerged as the biggest crisis to hit the two countries’ “golden age” of relations.
According to his executive assistant Karen Alvarez, Tulfo was in China in July when he met up with Xue Chengbiao, chairman of the Shanghai Jucheng Group, a Chinese company with a multibillion investment in the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority.
“He mentioned the Recto Bank incident and Chairman Chengbiao offered help for the victims. The special envoy suggested to replace the sunken boat," Alvarez told Rappler in a text message.
The Shanghai Jucheng Group, however, was a neophyte investor in the Philippines, so it turned to its liaison in the country to help them deal with the process of donation: former congresswoman Maite Defensor, who has been representing the Shanghai Group in their investments here.
Maite is the sister of incumbent Quezon City 3rd District Representative Mike Defensor, a longtime ally of former president Gloria Arroyo and her former environment and natural resources secretary. Mike Defensor is also a member of the ruling PDP-Laban party. The MV Defensor Law Office, headed by their father Matias Jr, has been representing the Chinese company in its investments since 2019 and Maite has become its most trusted mediator.
To look for a boat to donate to the Gem-Ver fishermen, Defensor said she tasked a trusted aide, Gary Nicandro, who in turn sought the expertise of a Navotas shipbuilder named Waldo Punongbayan.
Gary and Waldo searched for a boat in Navotas and Cebu but couldn’t find one they wanted. They were scouting for a vessel that was at least “comparable” if not better than Gem-Ver. They found themselves looking in Batangas, scouring the town of Lemery before reaching Balayan, where they found Delos Reyes who was by then selling Marck Paolo.
Marck Paolo was far from brand new. It was also smaller than Gem-Ver, which measured 19 meters long, 1.8 meters wide, and 1.7 meters deep before its sinking.
But there were simply no new boats for sale in the country, said Defensor and Nicandro, so they bought Marck Paolo in August and hired Balayan fishermen and carpenters to refurbish it.
The former congresswoman claimed that once the boat was set, a “strong” monsoon in September damaged it, leaving a deep crack in its hull. The Balayan fishermen wanted to fix the boat before the turnover ceremony on the same month, but Defensor said the Gem-Ver fishermen insisted on fixing the boat themselves after they saw it.
Maite Defensor denied negligence in the purchase. She also disputed claims by Delos Reyes that the boat was already broken before the monsoon hit. She pointed to the boat’s Maritime Industry Authority-issued safety certificate, which indicated that its structure, machine, radio, and “life-saving appliances,” among others, had complied with the government’s safety standards.
But the safety certificate was issued on December 6, 2018, after the boat was inspected on October 27, 2018. Findings of the inspection were meant to last only for a year. In this boat’s case, its safety certificate expired on October 29, 2019, just 5 weeks after it was turned over to the Gem-Ver fishemen on September 22.
After the turnover, the fishermen requested for additional money for food and fuel in sailing Pengyou back to Occidental Mindoro. Shanghai Jucheng, through Defensor, gave the fishermen P44,000 ($861), which covered the cost of three 600-liter drums, 4 gallons of gear oil, one drum of oil for the boat’s machine, a tool set, 4 pump belts, and a stove.
All that was left to give the fishermen was a net and the amount provided was enough to seal the boat’s crack, as far as Defensor was concerned. “I was informed of the crack. But I was informed it was easy fix. They can fix it on their own. It (Pengyou) crossed the open sea, meaning to say it (the crack) wasn’t a big deal,” Defensor said.
Once home, Junel produced a list of 15 essential expenses to repair Pengyou for its maiden voyage to Recto Bank, which included the following: 114 pieces of bamboo, 20 plastic drums to hold potable water, two rolls of 600-meter ropes, styrofoam to store fish, a cooking stove, a gas tank, lumber, fishing gear, and money to rent a bulldozer to haul the ship to the water.
The total amounted to nearly P1 million ($19,570).
Shocked at the cost, Defensor chose not to relay the request to Shanghai Jucheng’s officials. She said she was too “embarrassed” to ask for more. She also considered the request obsolete after the typhoon in September wrecked the boat.
Defensor said that Tulfo or Shanghai Jucheng shouldn’t be blamed for Pengyou’s bad shape. The typhoon, she stressed, was beyond their control.
“It’s as though you already gifted someone, yet you’re still criticized,” Defensor said. “They should just be grateful that someone gave them a boat.”
The buyer’s version of how Pengyou reached its sorry state clashed with what the boat seller had to say about it.
According to Delos Reyes, the boat was damaged by the sun, not bad weather. Because the boat was anchored for days without being turned over, two pieces of plywood nailed together split under the heat, resulting in a crack in the middle of its hull. This wouldn’t have happened, he said, had this been given to the Gem-Ver fishermen sooner.
Prior to this, Delos Reyes spent weeks refurbishing the fishing vessel. He tied new bamboo stakes on the outriggers, changed the lights that topped the masts, and applied a fresh coat of paint. Over Marck Paolo, he inscribed “Pengyou.”
When the repairs were complete, Delos Reyes pumped out water that gathered at the bottom of the boat daily to prevent any damage to its interior. “I didn’t want to be blamed for not taking care of the boat,” he said.
But the turnover was delayed. Delos Reyes said the organizers were waiting for presidential-aide-turned-senator Bong Go to confirm his attendance at the event. When the organizers set the final date on September 22, Delos Reyes and his men were left with no time to fix the crack in the boat.
Upon the arrival of the Gem-Ver fishermen in Batangas, Delos Reyes told them the boat could not yet sail to Recto Bank. “I told them not to take it far out to sea yet because it needed to be fixed,” he said.
Tulfo took pride in the donation, noting that this would readily address the Gem-Ver fishermen’s woes. “Pengyou will replace the F/B Gem-Ver which sank in the collision three months ago,” Tulfo wrote in one of two columns for the Manila Times that heralded Pengyou. In the first column dated September 17, Tulfo said Bong Go was going to attend the turnover ceremony. In the second, published a day before the turnover on September 21, he left out Go’s name.
Bong Go did not attend the ceremony. As the fishermen of Gem-Ver gathered at the Batangas Port, each of them knew at first glance that Pengyou was an inadequate replacement.
Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi himself, the same Cabinet member who said the Recto Bank ramming just resulted in a scratch, was surprised to see an old boat during the turnover ceremony. “What will they do with a boat if it doesn’t have fishing gear?” BFAR’s Salilig recalled Cusi as saying on the morning of the turnover.
Too far in to refuse, the men of Gem-Ver accepted the boat and gave their thanks.
After they arrived in Mindoro, Gem-Ver’s fishermen were once again left to themselves.
Unable to use Pengyou, most of them turned to fixing Gem-Ver, as it held more promise of carrying them back to Recto Bank. But former captain Junel wanted to use Pengyou as the repairs went on. While Pengyou couldn’t go as far as Recto Bank, it could anyway be used in nearby excursions.
Junel used Pengyou with his selected Gem-Ver crew in at least two trips – one for carrying tables and chairs for the local government in exchange for P12,000 ($235), and another for a family expedition to a nearby island.
Gem-Ver’s owners, the Dela Torres, saw the exploits as acts of betrayal and banned Junel and his trusted men from returning to Gem-Ver.
With Pengyou slipping away as an option, rebuilding Gem-Ver also began to take its toll on its owners.
By October 14, 2019, Gem-Ver owner Felix dela Torre had already dug too deep into his own pockets to fix the boat. Filipino-Chinese businessmen gave them P1.2 million ($23,480), but they were only halfway done with repairs and had already spent P1.9 million ($37,177).
Desperate, Dela Torre remembered that they could demand payment for damages from the owner of the Chinese ship that rammed Gem-Ver. He sent a text message to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
“Good day again sir Lorenzana. I am asking again for help from you if the owner of the Chinese vessel could add to what the P1.2 million ($23,480) the Fil-Chi gave…My savings are already gone,” Felix said in a text message at 4:24 pm on October 14.
Lorenzana replied at around an hour later at 5:20 pm: “Mr Dela Torre, I referred that to the Ambassador of China. What he wants is that you file claims for damages. I don’t know why you did not file. You should coordinate with our foreign affairs department so they can help you with how to do it. I’ll ask who can help you so that they could help you.”
The defense chief advised Felix not to ask for “too much” that their claims would be “unbelievable.”
“I am not hoping for much. I also do not know where and how I can file. This is why I reached out to you,” Felix texted back, to which Lorenzana just replied with “Ok.”
The Dela Torres and the fishermen of Gem-Ver have not been able to file a complaint for one reason: they don’t know how.
Without a government official to help them, Felix and his men went on with patching up Gem-Ver as they waited for assistance. Dela Torre said he never got a call from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) or any non-governmental legal assistance group.
Sought for comment, Lorenzana told Rappler in a text message: “I have not followed up on this. But the last time I got in touch with the DFA I was informed that they will liaise with the Chinese about the demand for compensation.”
Another Duterte Cabinet member promised, but failed to deliver help. Former agriculture chief Piñol holed himself up at the police-guarded Dela Torre home on June 19, days after the Recto Bank incident, and promised them P2 million ($39,134).
But Piñol resigned 8 days later. He was replaced by William Dar, who has not raised any direct effort to assist the Gem-Ver fishermen in his meetings with BFAR. In a text message to Rappler, Dar said Piñol “did not transfer any” turnover notes after he resigned.
Five weeks after he quit, Piñol was appointed by Duterte to head the Mindanao Development Authority. The promised fund-raising never happened.
And President Rodrigo Duterte continued to enjoy friendly relations with China.
Over two months since Gem-Ver’s fishermen were abandoned at sea, the owner of the Chinese ship involved in the ramming publicly apologized in a statement released on the same day Duterte arrived in China for his 5th state visit on August 29. The Chinese owner urged the Philippines to claim damages for losses related to the sinking of Gem-Ver, which the administration has not done.
Despite all this, the hard labor of Gem-Ver’s men paid off.
By November, the men were back on their feet, the boat was back in the water, and on the 23rd of the month, Gem-Ver took its maiden voyage to the West Philippine Sea since the sinking.
But yet another tragedy struck, when Typhoon Ursula hit their town of San Jose on Christmas Day, flattening huts, toppling electric poles, and turning boats upside down, including Gem-Ver.
The Dela Torres and the fishermen do not know how much work is needed to fix the boat once more. What they know is that they will do this, again, on their own. – Rappler.com
*P1 = $51.15