Thank heavens there is John B Lacson Foundation Maritime University (JBLFMU or simply, John B). In the Gobi desert that is Philippine maritime education, it’s an oasis. Most of the other 94 nautical academies are legitimised diploma mills. We dare say that John B is the best of the lot, the first and only one thus far to gain university status. Our opinion was strengthened in late January when we were in Bacolod City some 490 kilometres south of Manila to serve on the panel of judges for the school’s model cadet for 2011.

Although we’ve been to the city a couple of times, this was our first visit to the Bacolod unit of John B, which has two campuses in its home base in Iloilo City on neighbouring Iloilo island. Bacolod is highly urbanised with a total population (as of 2007) of 499,497. But the place is laid-back, a bit staid and even dreary. The city folks we encountered spoke and moved about languidly, as though time didn’t exist or at least ticked away very slowly. We found the same unhurried provincial atmosphere inside the John B campus.

There was no bantering, no loud talking amongst the male and female students. They all seemed, in fact, prim and proper until they started cheering out loud for their representatives when the programme kicked off. In comparison, the cadets of state-run Philippine Merchant Marine Academy on the main Philippine island of Luzon look military-smart. But that’s because the PMMA is run like an army camp. The students there spend much time on drills, using real M-14s instead of dummy rifles. We’re not sure if this stress on physical discipline will mean that you’ll have good ship officers.

We do know that John B students can hold a candle to the best from other maritime academies. There were nine contenders for this year’s model cadet, three from each university unit. Two are non-scholars, the rest being on foreign-sponsored cadetship programmes. This gives credence to a claim made by Dr Mary Lou Arcelo, chairman of John B’s Board of Trustees: the university standards are such that, overall, the non-scholars perform as well as the scholars, sometimes even outdoing them.

What impressed us the most was the contestants’ ability to express themselves, responding as best they could to the questions they picked at random from a box. A few spoke better English than some of the manning executives we’ve met in Manila. We were tempted, though, to give zero out of 20 points to one lad who said he wouldn’t jump ship in the US to live happily ever after with the woman he loved. Why wouldn’t one jump ship in the name of love? But we are too much of a romantic, and this young man clearly had been taught how to value career and company regulations. So we gave him a 15.

It came as no big surprise when it was finally announced that Ace Alvarado, a Jo Tankers scholar at John B’s Bacolod unit, had won the title. Capt Luis Evidente has been doing a splendid job as administrator of JBLFMU-Bacolod. Since he assumed the post in 2008, the 8-hectare campus – the youngest of the three John B units – has been undergoing rapid development and now boasts an enrolment level of 3,600-3,900 in spite of the stringent entrance qualifications. Capt Evidente himself has been a model for the cadets.

The son of a physician, Capt Evidente is an articulate old salt with an equal passion for seafaring and teaching. He received his first foreign command from Malaysia’s MISC Berhad at the age of 29, eventually racking up a sea service that included 17 years as master and stints as supervisor for newbuildings at various Japanese shipyards. During leave periods, he taught at John B until he joined the school as full-time instructor in 1998. Thence followed various academic posts, notably as head of John B’s Competency Assessment Center and later on as director of its training centre.

The man is really something. Entrusting him with the Bacolod unit was an enlightened move by Dr Arcelo and the school management. ~Barista Uno

NOTE: This article has been edited. The original had stated that the Model Cadet title went to Ronnie Ticdalan, a Norwegian Shipowners Association scholar from JBLFMU-Bacolod. We apologise for the mix-up. In any case, all nine contenders were winners in a real sense.