Department of Toursim Director: “Sea Tragedies Happen Anywhere in the World”

muslim on pump boat philippines

Department of Tourism, regional director, Helen  Catalbas downplayed Sunday’s tragic loss of lives when a Guimaras-bound motorboat capsized in the Iloilo Strait, taking the lives of nine people.  According to the Panay News the DOT Director stated  “sea tragedies happen anywhere in the world.”

Never mind that the latest victim’s body to be recovered, Shine Matta, had two children who also died in the tragedy – five-year-old Mark Real and 10-year-old Luke Shile… “sea tragedies happen anywhere in the world.”

Tell that to the families of the nine souls that lost their lives on the Tawash that fateful Sunday afternoon.


My wife and I received word yesterday from one of our regular porters, Neil, at the Jordan Wharf, that Larry, my friend from the Tawash, was killed when an unsecured passenger bench, like the one depicted below, smashed Larry in the head and rendered him unconscious.unsecured passenger bench hit larry from tawash

Larry was one of the crew members that drowned. He could not swim, according to Neil.

I asked my asawa why in the world Larry couldn’t swim? He was on a pump boat crew.

“He’s not from here,” was her reply.

Meaning, I supposed, that if a person was born on Guimaras, he or she, would probably have learned to swim at an early age. I can’t swim but I was born in a Central Illinois family where no, save my grandfather, knew how to swim. But I never worked on a banca boat crew, either.

And to correct some information that was posted from online sources earlier, Larry was 54, not 59. He also was not the owner, nor was he the captain of the Tawash. His father-in-law owns the Tawash along with another banca boat in Guimaras, the Elaine May.

Regardless,  Larry Abilla was a friend of mine. Always smiling. Always quick to greet me as his “amigo.” Rest in peace, my amigo.Pump Boat Owner Larry Inspecting our Loaded Jeepney on Jordan Wharf in Guimaras


Our porter, Neil, also brought us more troubling news. Larry, along with another crew member, the mechanic, Ruben Gania, also died during the capsizing of the Tawash.

Neil informed us that Ruben Ganian, 61,  was the father of our other regular porter, Joseph. Joseph was understandably not at the Jordan Wharf that day as his father’s body was being transported to Guimaras that day.

It was reported that Ruben Ganian died while attempting to save other passengers. Sadly, Ruben drowned when some panic-stricken passengers held onto him and dragged him down before he could rescue them. My wife and I were deeply saddened to hear this terrible news and are attempting to find out when services for Joseph’s father will be held.


But I have to wonder why, for the past five years, the Coast Guard and the motorized banca boat operators haven’t been enforcing the regulation which requires all passengers to wear life jackets?

If the passengers on the ill-fated Tawash had been wearing their life jackets it’s possible that all of them would still be alive today.

My wife and I were making our first trip to Iloilo City since the capsizing of the Tawash. There was no sign of rain and the wind didn’t seem that blustery until we arrived at the Jordan Wharf where our porter Neil gave us the sad news about Larry and Rubin.

There was an extremely long line at the ticket office and as I headed to see if the local banca boat dispatcher was on duty (who always gave me two tickets), I passed by a Coast Guard official.

I wasn’t surprised to see the local Coast Guard personnel. I was surprised, however, when we were allowed to board our pump boat, the Gebross Uno, and were not given a life jacket by a crew member.

Nine people had just died that past Sunday and still no enforcement of the life jacket rule?

There were life jackets on board but the majority of them were bundled up in plastic behind our seat (see following photo.)

life jackets not unpacked on guimaras pump boat

Here’ s look at the available life jackets on the Gebross Uno at Jordan Wharf in Guimaras.

only a few life jackets available on guimaras iloilo pump boat

I said nothing but wondered why the Coast Guard in Guimaras was allowing this to happen. We were seated behind the life jackets shown above but didn’t put them on. I know. Big mistake especially when the wind kicked up. No water was splashing into the boat (see photo), as has been the case of many a trip down the Iloilo Strait, but I felt hypocritical not wearing a life jacket after complaining about the lack of enforcement of this law.

fairly strong wind blowing

However, as we pulled away from Jordan Wharf in Guimaras, I spotted an incoming pump boat, the Inday Mar, coming in from Parola Dock in Iloilo. I was elated to see that every passenger on the banca was wearing a life jacket. Did this mean the Coast Guard in Iloilo was enforcing the life jacket regulation again? Find out in my next post.

Author: The Kano

POST AUTHOR: "THE KANO." Dave DeWall, "The Kano", is the Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of "Philippines Plus" in publication since August 2009. He is also the CEO of Lizard Poop Productions and author of the best-selling guide book "The Philippines Expat Advisor." Dave moved to the Philippines in July 2009 from Central Illinois with his lovely wife of over 19 years, "The Sainted Patient Wife." The couple reside in a rural province in Western Visayas, Guimaras. The small island province is said to have the sweetest mangoes in the world. They do not have any children but are the proud owners of eight active canines, including a Belgian Shepherd called "Killer" "Killer" has bitten five people in the last two years along with one goat and a carabao. "Killer" doesn't like strangers. Or goats. Or carabaos.

20 thoughts on “Department of Toursim Director: “Sea Tragedies Happen Anywhere in the World”

  1. This is what’s wrong with the people working in the government no empathy at all for the masses. It shows how stupid she is to be holding that position.

    1. I agree with you 100%, Gezel. I’m dumbfounded by the insensitivity of this Director. Nine people died and all she can do is try and spin this so it doesn’t hurt her precious tourism department? Unbelievable.

  2. All the rules in the world wont make pumpboats safe.
    Iloilo-Guimaras needs a properly designed boat.
    Pumpboats are still fine for transporting cargo
    What would an emergency drill look like to evacuate a pumpboat? No one could even devise a theoretical way to get children out of a packed boat completely tied in with trapel

  3. What can one really say? Its a real tragedy Dave, and I commensurate with you on the loss of your friends. Is it really the CG Fault though? In my opinion it is more of a cultural anomaly. Regardless of enforcement or not, here we are just days after a tragic accident your boat was full, life jackets were easily available and no one put them on? Why not? Why would they have to be told? By our (American in your case and mine) we would just board, see the jackets, grab and put one on without being told. You can have all the laws, regulations and ordinances in the world, but if folks just routinely ignore them what can They do? We have all lived here long enough to know that even if someone stands there, forces them to put them on, as soon as the boat leaves the dock, most will simply take them off? I know that since we live here we are close to the problem (to close sometimes) but this type of behavior occurs all over the third world. Just watch a u-tube about trains in India, guys hanging on to the roof. Examples could go on and on. It is really a crying shame, but it all comes with living in our own “paradises”.

    1. The more information I gather on this tragedy, Scott H, the more I feel it could fall into the “Act of God” category. The squall that took down the Tawash came up suddenly. Sure, the Coast Guard, in hindsight, probably should have shut down the boat traffic all day, not just the morning. And yes, the boat operators should have had the passengers wear their life jackets, as the law prescribes. Actually, when the life jacket rule was enforced when we got here six years ago, no one was allowed to take their life jackets off while in transit. The pump boat crews were strictly enforcing that regulation at the time. I have no clue as to why it hasn’t been enforced the past five years.

  4. Far be it for me to sound like a conservative but my state was one of the first to pass a mandatory seat belt law. You can imagine the howls that came up. “How dare the government interfere with my God given right to die in my beloved car.” People still choose not to buckle up and the law is enforced haphazardly. So it doesn’t surprise nor even offend me that the Philippines doesn’t force people to wear their life jacket. As long as there is a jacket available for me to wear (if I choose to) I would be OK.

    As to the misfortune that befell your friend, I would imagine crew members would never wear life jackets, feeling they restrict their ability to do their work.

    It’s a tragedy but I don’t think people can ever be forced to do what’s good for them.

    1. Well, DaveW, that’s one of the things I love about the Philippines. There MIGHT be laws on the books that make the average Filipino (or expat) safer, but the laws, such as wearing life jackets on a pump boat and wearing a helmet when riding a motorcycle, are often ignored. I’m all for an individual’s right to choose as long as it does not endanger anyone else.

  5. RIP Larry, Ruben, and all the victims of this tragedy.

    Just curious…How long is the journey between Guimaras and Iloilo? If weather was bad and one didn’t want to chance the trip on a pump boat, are there larger vessels that make the trip?

    1. 15-20 minutes, Larry. There are no alternatives for making the journey. At Jordan Wharf in Guimaras we actually have the largest motorized banca boats to make the trip. At Buena Vista Wharf in Guimaras, a smaller boat makes the journey and you have to virtually “walk the plank” to get on it.

  6. Dave,
    Hopefully it will be the last time. But you and i know it probably won’t be. If some boats enforce it, it will be one step in the right direction.

  7. I am a long time viitor of your site and did purchase an e-book from you a couple years ago. I must comment. During my visits over the years especially a first or second trip to Davao at the Waterfront. My now wife had friends and sister and her son at hotel pool. Everything fun and nice day. I play with kids and relax. I started to do some laps, my wifes nephew about 6 at the time jumped in after me in deep end. I grabbed him and as I got to stairs a hotel worker jumped in also….I was obviously being watched because its a quiet place no one around…after a few tears and a lot of talk between wife, sister and hotel staff, it ruined the day. The kids are excited to be with me but some how I was expected to take care of them. To find out, many filipinos cant swim. There was a flood in my wifes Barangay and a child died. I was in manila hotel in last year. There was a group of pre teens and younger kids in pool…about 6 or 8. As I relaxed on lounge a young boy in shallow end of pool started to struggle…(just stand up!!!) the group was around him and did nothing… I jumped in at same time a hotel attendant did. I was at a beach resort on Samal. It was later in day, I was dressed for evening. Every morning I would do my swim out to border logs floating. Outside our place of stay I saw a group gathering on beach. Everynight kids and family gather on beach for overnight stays. I asked what going on. Beyond the border between shipping lane and Davao was large tire inner tube and someone was missing. I didn’t hear or see anyone doing anything. I told my wife I am going in. As I started getting clothes of and determine my path. Swim out or run to the log border and follow it out. I even said to my wife its far and not a good idea for me to go in….a few minutes passed…I told my self I cant stay and watch as I made my move… a jet ski from a resort down beach went to rescue. The Filipino fell asleep in tube! It amazes me how so many cant swim. I am from Illinois also but grew up swimming. Dave, being from Central Illinois no excuse. We have many rivers and lakes. I also learned swimming and survival in water in the Navy. It amazes me on a island Filipinos many cant swim. As for the nephew. He was immediately enrolled in swimming!

    1. Thanks for purchasing my e-book, Bret. When I revise the book for 2016 I will include a new chapter on personal safety covering the issues you mention in your comment.

      I never learned to swim in Illinois though my Father and Grandfather occasionally took us out fishing. We had no life jackets and my Father never learned to swim, either. I never gave it much thought growing up. When I married my American wife (who divorced me after nine months) I tried to float in her family’s swimming pool. I couldn’t even float. Now in my early 60’s, I have no desire to learn how to swim and have no doubt I would have been dead if we had been on the pump boat last Sunday afternoon. I’m ready to meet Jesus but would prefer to do so by dying in my sleep.

      While I talk about “common sense” in my e-book, I don’t always practice it. Not wearing a life jacket and not learning how to swim would fall into the category of not practicing what I preach.

  8. the few times on boat trips there they made me where one on a swim trip around Samal island or over to Samal. I was annoyed because of heat and with arm reach I am okay and I can float or swim. Making everyone sit with large rescue orange vest will never happen. Its crew of bots and training. Its also the people and families traveling responsibility to know and act.

    1. It does get hot with the vest on, Bret, and we did have to wear them when we arrived in Guimaras over six years ago. The pump boat crews were strictly enforcing that regulation and were making everyone on the boat wear one. If fact, if a passenger refuses to wear a life jacket, the regulations allow them to escort that person off the boat before taking off.

  9. Sorry of your loss. Making everyone wear a large orange vest everyday in communities in that its a way of life will not happen there. A better response would be to be sure boat crews are trained in safe practices and when traveling with public give a quick “inflight show” of what to do. Like I said though, many cant swim or teach there children and many will do nothing or panic

    1. Thanks, Bret. The regulations in fact require the boat crew to demonstrate how to wear the life jacket before taking off. But I’ve never seen that happen in over six years of living here and probably never will.

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