The Philippine Navy ships BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PS-16) and BRP Davao del Sur (LD-602) are eager to sail homeward, a voyage that would complete an approximated 10,000-nautical mile mission to the Middle East.
BRP Ramon Alcaraz is a Gregorio del Pilar-class offshore patrol vessel of the Philippine Navy while BRP Davao del Sur is a Tarlac class landing platform dock. The two ships, carrying the Naval Task Force (NTF) 82, were sent to Oman in the middle of January to help in the repatriation of Filipinos affected by the conflict in Iran early this year. The two navy vessels served as a sea-based platform for the NTF 82, which is part of the Joint Task Force PAGPAULI activated and tasked to process and facilitate the repatriation of displaced OFWs.
“This ship has been to Hawaii before, but that was for an exercise. We had our worries at first, but we were reassured by our own capability and that of our ship. The support of our President, our Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and the leadership of the AFP and the Philippine Navy were also there,” said BRP Davao Del Sur’s Commanding Officer, Navy Captain Homer Gonzalez, citing the vessel’s participation in the Exercise Rim of the Pacific alongside BRP Alcaraz’ sister ship, the BRP Andres Bonifacio, in 2018.
The vessels were headed to a potential warzone, sailing through unfamiliar waters. But for Navy Captain Francisco Luis Laput, the Commanding Officer of BRP Alcaraz, every great achievement is challenged by the unknown.
“It was a long time at sea. Apart from the external risks, the challenge is that sooner or later our sailors would be nervous and will have doubts. That is natural when in the open ocean and we were in our long maiden voyage. But we were eager to accomplish our mission and we remained focused on the horizon,” said Captain Laput.
Though the confrontation, which started in the killing of an Iranian top general, and some saw as the start of a full scale war between the US and Iran, has since scaled down, the dangers that the crew faced were ever present, being onboard two grey ships in international, but nonetheless foreign waters.
(Overseas Filipino workers in the Middle East, have since settled down and chose to remain in place when the conflict de-escalated.)
Then there is the COVID-19 pandemic, which posed the threat of spreading a highly contagious and deadly disease in a confined space. The two ships set anchor in Cochin, India on May 6 to pick up essential medical supplies from India and bring back Filipinos that were stranded when India’s borders closed.
India has over 50,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization.
But with stringent measures to maintain the safety of all those on-board, BRP Davao Del Sur with BRP Ramon Alcaraz set sail with 19 civilians and ten tons of essential cargo, including 200,000 pieces of face masks.
Unfortunately, a few hours after departing from Cochin on May 7, BRP Alcaraz’s main engine room caught fire, delaying a long-awaited return trip for the two ships. Though the fire lasted only 10 minutes and power has since been returned to the engine, the vessel had to return to Cochin port on its own propulsion and await further inspection before determining the next course of action. Two sailors also sustained injuries, one of them was airlifted to a burn treatment facility of the Naval Southern Command Naval Hospital of the Indian Navy for proper monitoring and treatment.
“We are thankful for the prompt support and assistance of the Indian government through the Indian Navy in providing us proper facilities to conduct needed emergency repairs as well as a medical facility for our injured sailors. This is on top of the assistance already provided earlier to our contingent,” AFP Vice Chief of Staff and Commander of JTF PAGPAULI VAdm Gaudencio Collado Jr said.
The different ordeals, the homesickness, and the delay caused by the fire were not enough to sink the crews’ morale, according to NTF 82’s Commander, Marine Colonel Noel Beleran.
“The troops are very happy and in high spirits since this event serves as another milestone for our Navy that we can already transcend across the deep waters of Indian ocean or the Arabian Sea,” Colonel Beleran said earlier.
For now, the BRP Davao Del Sur was cleared to continue its voyage back to Manila and complete their mission while BRP Alcaraz undergoes repair in India. But the voyage that passed through the Andaman Sea, Bay of Bengal, and the Arabian Sea is the first for the Philippine Navy and mirrors its enhanced capability as a credible navy.
“We were able to show our readiness to respond to the needs of millions of Filipinos abroad and we proved that the Philippine Navy is now capable of sustaining operations in the open seas. It also paved the way and expanded the country’s naval diplomacy,” VAdm Collado Jr said.
The accomplishment of the two vessels is also a victory for the AFP, which had embarked on a journey to modernize its capabilities to respond to the threats to our country’s sovereignty.
“The AFP Modernization Program, though considered modest in comparison to other countries, has propelled the Navy as a regional force. More than anything, the crew of BRP Davao Del Sur and BRP Ramon Alcaraz are now teeming with foreign voyage experience and pride. Faced with our own challenges at home, their successful tour in the Middle East is a huge boost in our morale as we continue to surmount this pandemic together,” AFP Chief of Staff General Felimon Santos Jr said.
Armed Forces of the Philippines