There have been legendary liners that sailed the Philippine seas and one of those was the “Dona Virginia” of William Lines, one the biggest shipping lines in the country then. she was named after the owning family matriarch, Dona Virginia Chiongbian. She succeeded another legendary liner of the company, the “Cebu City”, as the flagship of the fleet when she arrived in December of 1979. She was then just a 6-year old liner.
There have been other “Virginias” in the William Lines fleet before her but this was the first and only time the word “Dona” was used on a William ship and that could be a sign of company’s regard for the ship. “Dona Virginia” arrived at a time when the biggest shipping company then plying local routes, the Compania Maritima, was beginning to flounder and it was already shaping out that William Lines and Sulpicio Lines will be engaged in a race for the distinction of being the #1 shipping company of the country in the 1980s.
Photo from Gorio Belen
Soon enough, with the weight of her arrival, the rival Sulpicio Lines was forced to respond and in 1981, the well-regarded and legendary-in-her-own-right “Philippine Princess” arrived in the Philippines and soon the two great liners was duking it out in the most important route in the country, the Manila-Cebu route which was the arena of flagship dogfights in the past. The rivalry of “Dona Virginia” and “Philippine Princess” almost rivaled the intensity of the great flagship battle of the 1970’s, the fight between the “Sweet Faith” of Sweet Lines and the “Cebu City” of William Lines.
The “Philippine Princess” cannot beat “Dona Virginia” in outright speed as the latter was capable of 20 knots sustained and even higher if needed while the former can only do 19 knots sustained. Outside of sheer speed the two flagships competed in amenities, passenger service, in food and in punctuality. Whatever the outcome, it has to be acknowledged that the two flagships were the best liners for the most part of the decade until 1988 when the “Filipina Princess” of Sulpicio Lines arrived.
Dona Virginia Interior-Gorio Belen
Excepting the cargo-passengers liners that sailed mainly in the overseas routes, when “Dona Virginia” arrived she was the longest ever local liner ever then if not the biggest. She was 143.5 meters over-all and she beat the record of the liner “Mindanao” of Compania Maritima which had an over-all length of 134.6 meters. However, her Gross Tonnnage is not that high as she is not a tall or wide ship which could be an indication she was built for speed. Her superstructure and lines shows a traditional cruiser design but she was actually equipped with a quarter RORO ramp at the stern which can handle cars and 10-foot container vans moved by big forklifts. Technically then, she was one of the earliest ROROs in the country.
The ship “Dona Virginia” first came to life as the “Shin Sakura Maru” of the Japanese shipping company Oshima Unyu (Oshima Transportation). She was the second ship to come from that Japan line to William Lines after the well-regarded liner “Tacloban City” which came in 1975. “Shin Sakura Maru” was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in their Shimonoseki yard in 1973 and she has the IMO Number 7314096. Her Length Between Perpendiculars (LBP or LPP) was 127.0 meters and her Beam was 16.9 meters with a Depth of 6.5 meters. Originally, she measured 4,990 Gross Tons (GT) and her Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) was 2,910 tons. She was powered by two Mitsubishi diesel engines of 16,800 horsepower total or 11,768 kilowatts that gave her an original service speed of 22.5 knots. She had an original passenger capacity of 973 in two passenger decks.
Having the cruiser lines and design of the era she had a cargo boom at the bow which also handled container vans aside from other cargo. Having a car ramp at the stern she was actually a ROLO ship (Roll On, Lift Off), a hybrid kind of ship. She was the first liner in the country capable of RORO operations. Her container cargo capacity was 75 TEUs (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units) besides loose and palletized cargoes and sedans.
She had a single center funnel and three masts. In the Philippines her basic superstructure was basically left unchanged but additional passenger accommodations were added. Her first declared passenger capacity when she first sailed was 1,600 and amenities consisted of the following:
•1 elegant suite (matrimonial or twin beds) with private toilet & bathtub
•26 first-class cabins with private toilet and shower (4 or 2 occupants per cabin)
•3 spacious, modern restaurants with modern decor and service comparable to fine hotels
•A fully-equipped executive conference room for special groups
•3 snack bars
•Royal steward service
•Video cassette color movies on giant screens
•Spacious stairways and promenade decks
•Full air-conditioning all throughout
•The most advanced navigational and safety equipment
She operated in the era when liner shipping was still at its height and air travel was still expensive and so there were still a lot of passengers and big liners were expected to have large passenger capacities. Not long after, when the economy picked up her passenger capacity was bumped to 2,122 persons in three passenger decks from Suite Class to the traditional Economy with Cabins, Business and Tourist Classes in between.
Williams Lines’ M/V Dona Virginia-Photo from Gorio Belen
When the new flagship of William Lines “Sugbu” arrived in 1989 she was relegated to other prime routes and often adjusting because of the arrivals of the ROPAX (RORO-Passenger) liners for the company and the losses of several of their cruiser liners. When the “Mabuhay” series of ROPAX liners of William Lines was already complete “Dona Virginia” found herself doing the Manila-Dumaguete-Ozamis-Iligan route twice a week. Even after two decades of sailing she was still capable of 19 to 19.5 knots service speed and some marveled she can still nearly keep up with the bigger liners that came after her.
When the merger of William Lines, Gothong Shipping and Aboitiz Shipping materialized to form the new company William, Gothong and Aboitiz (WG&A) she was not renamed as the cruisers of the merged fleet were not renamed (she was basically viewed as a cruiser). She became a fleet mate of her sister ship “SuperFerry 11”, originally of Gothong Shipping ferry which later became the “Our Lady of Banneux”. In the merger, she basically sailed the new route Manila-Dumaguete-Cotabato (which is actually in Parang, Maguindanao). In that route she sustained a grounding incident near Dumaguete which curtailed her sailing.
Since cruisers were viewed with disfavor in WG&A because of the low container cargo capacity and the longer cargo handling time, many knew she will not stay long in the fleet although she was not one of the eldest in the merged fleet. She was among the liners offered on for sale on and off by WG&A as the company was trying to eliminate “surplus” capacity. Unlike the former William Lines cruisers “Tacloban City” and “Iligan City” she found no ready local buyers because she was too big for the overnight ferry operators.
In the big disposal of ships by WG&A in the year 2000 (which included container ships) in preparation for the divestment and pay-off of the Gothong family, the “Dona Virginia” was among the ships sold to China breakers and she was reportedly broken up in January of 2001. In two more years, her former owner William Lines also divested from WG&A. Now “Dona Virginia” is just a memory for the older breed of ship passengers, an example that belonged to the glory days of our liner shipping which is gone now.