The M/S Santa Florentina. Image by Edison Sy
The earliest ROROs (Roll-on, Roll off ships) in the Philippines, except one (the MV Don Jolly) and outside of early LCTs, were actually short-distance ferry-ROROs. That trend was started by Cardinal Shipping when they fielded the MV Cardinal I in the Matnog-Allen route in 1979. In that route, she carried vehicles and not palletized or break-bulk cargo. Hence, she was utilized as a true RORO. This is important to note because there are claims to fielding ROROs earlier but they might have been used in palletized or break-bulk operations or might not be true liners.
Negros Navigation and CAGLI (Gothong) had claimed to fielding the first RORO liner in the country but their first ones only arrived in 1980. Actually, though the two companies are both claiming first, they might have been beaten by Lorenzo Shipping which acquired the MV Don Jolly in 1976. A small RORO, doubts can be entertained if she is a true liner. One thing sure, though, is she was a multi-day ship, a characteristic of liners, as her route was Manila-Calubian-Palompon-Cebu (Manila-Calubian alone already takes a whole day). However, there were still no container vans then and she was doing palletized and break-bulk cargo handling. In 1979, Lorenzo Shipping sold this ship and she became the Cardinal II of Cardinal Shipping where she was utilized in true RORO operations in the Surigao-Liloan-Maasin route.
If MV Don Jolly is not a true RORO liner then Sulpicio Lines might also have a like-claim in being first when it fielded the ramp-equipped and third-named MV Don Carlos in 1977. This ship was formerly a vehicle carrier in Japan, hence she had a car deck. However, she did not load vehicles nor container vans there. That time Sulpicio Lines also do not yet have container vans or trailer caddies. Containerization was actually still two years away for the company then. The use of the ramp of MV Don Carlos was to make easier the loading of cattle, carabao and hogs which were major shipments then of General Santos to Manila, the ship’s route. From Manila, she carried heavy equipment (like bulldozers and graders) and trucks to be sold or utilized in Mindanao.
Speaking of true liners, William Lines can also claim they were ahead of Negros Navigation and Gothong in deploying a RORO liner. Their flagship MV Dona Virginia which arrived in the waning days of 1979 had a small ramp which can be used for forklifts and sedans. An XEU (10-foot container van) can actually be handled in that ramp through a forklift. Also, the first container ship of William Lines, the MV Wilcon I which arrived in 1978 is actually a ROLO Cargo ship (Roll on-Lift Off) which means she is also equipped with a ramp aside from cargo booms. She has passenger accommodations and she takes in passengers legally but doubts can be raised if she is a true RORO liner.
Negros Navigation was slightly ahead of Gothong in fielding a RORO liner with their MV Sta. Maria (she is still sailing and she is the current MV Lite Ferry 8). However, the claim of Alfred Gothong that they were the first to see the potential of ROROs is probably true as they acquired two RORO liners in 1980, the MV Don Calvino and the MV Dona Lili. They followed that with another spurt when they bought three more ROROs in 1982-83. These were the MV Don Benjamin, the MV Dona Casandra and the MV Dona Conchita (the third to carry the name in Gothong). Then they added another two more in 1985-86, the MV Dona Cristina and the MV Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Negros Navigation, meanwhile, was able to add the MV Sta. Florentina in 1983, their second RORO liner and one that was in the 100-meter class.
Sweet Lines might have been a little late in fielding RORO liners among the majors but they made the same spurt in 1982-84 when they acquired the MV Sweet RORO, MV Sweet RORO 2 and MV Sweet Home. Actually, Sweet Lines have the distinction of being the first company to field a 100-meter RORO liner, the MV Sweet RORO, a legendary ship among Bol-anons.
Sulpicio Lines was a little late in the RORO liner trend. It is maybe because they just acquired two 100-meter cruiser liners in 1978 which was followed by another in 1981. However, this company made their own RORO acquisition spurt in 1982-83 when they acquired three RORO liners, the MV Surigao Princess, the MV Boholana Princess (then known as the MV Cagayan Princess) and the first-named MV Butuan Princess (which was the later MV Cebu Princess and currently the MV Joyful Stars of Roble Shipping).
It will be after the EDSA 1986 uprising when long spurts in acquiring RORO liners became the trend in local shipping (those which did not follow this eventually sank). By that time, all (except Madrigal Shipping) knew already that it was the wave of the future and that cruiser liners were already obsolete because they were not really designed for containerization, the new dominant paradigm in cargo handling. By the end of the decade, acquiring cruisers already raised eyebrows. In next decade. the ROROs have practically taken over the liner class and the cruisers were just relegated to secondary routes. Now there are no more cruiser liners and the RORO liners have completely triumphed.