The M/V Filipina Princess

M/V Filipina Princess © Jonathan Bordon

The liner shipping company Compania Maritima was the biggest in the inter-island routes since 1890. Its reign as Number 1 was largely uninterrupted for 95 years. So, when they quit shipping in at the height of the Philippines’ political and financial crisis in 1985, it sent shock waves in the local shipping industry. But that was nothing yet because before the end of that deadly decade for Philippine shipping, our two biggest ocean-going shipping companies, the Philippine President Lines/United President Lines and Galleon Shipping Corporation also ceased operations. And to think Compania Maritima through its Maritime Shipping Company of the Philippines was our third-ranking shipping company in the overseas routes. That was how bad was our shipping then.

With Compania Maritima out, there was speculation which shipping company would succeed it as top dog. The obvious front runners were William Lines and Sulpicio Lines as the other big one, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, was no longer buying liners but they were the match of the two in container-cargo shipping. William Lines’ top liners then were cruisers. It might not have been really their choice and maybe that was what their Japanese agent were sending them. Meanwhile, until that juncture the new ROROs of Sulpicio Lines were just medium-sized. But for one thing, they were no longer buying cruiser liners. Well, neither did William Lines because it simply did not buy any liners from 1979 until 1987. Maybe that was also a show how bad shipping was then. In any crisis, many sectors and things are affected and that included shipping. Shipping, as many experts will say, is actually a very good barometer of one country’s economic health.

In 1988, at the tailend of our crisis decade for shipping, Sulpicio Lines scored to what was equivalent of a slam dunk, their bold move that they were claiming for themselves the Number 1 position alone. In this year, three big liners arrived for them headlined by the super-big and super-fast Filipina Princess (the two other ships were the sister ships Cotabato Princess and the Nasipit Princess which at 149.1 meters length over-all were almost the length of the sister ships St. Peter The Apostle and St. Joseph The Worker, at 151.5 meters LOA which came later than them; much later too the sister ships St. Gregory The Great, St. Leo The Great, St. Michael The Archangel and St. Francis Xavier also had lengths over-all of just 150.9 meters).

The Filipina Princess measured 180.5 x 26.4 meters, an unheard of size then in local waters and with speeds reaching 26 knots at full trot, she easily beat then the local speed titleholder, the Dona Virginia which was only capable of 21 knots then, at best. The 32,000 horsepower of Filipina Princess from her two Kawasaki-MAN diesel engines were a record that was only tied by Princess of Paradise in 1993 and only beaten by Mary, Queen of Peace in 1997 but that ship was no match for the speed set by Filipina Princess. In fact, no inter-island liner, past or present equaled or beat the speed set by Filipina Princess. Not even by the legendary-for-speed Princess of Paradise. And with a passenger capacity of 2,960, it was also tops in that department. Those were some measures and records how great this ship was when fielded by Sulpicio Lines in 1988. Size (she was the first local liner over 10,000 gross tons), speed, passenger capacity – she had it all then and arguably, she might also have been the best in amenities and service then. I heard of tales before that passing through Mactan Channel and docking in Cebu port, practically all eyes by witnesses were magnetized by her. I can only imagine the scene but I am not really surprised by that.

The response of the competition to the arrival of Filipina Princess was tepid at best. In the same year, Sta. Ana arrived for Negros Navigation but she was only a 107.3-meter ship, not much bigger than the liners of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. Her relative high passenger capacity was only due to the lack of passageways on the sides which also serve as observation deck for the passengers. In the next year, 1989, William Lines fielded the Sugbu, their new liner replacing their highly-regarded Dona Virginia as flagship but she only measured 137.5 meters in length. In 1990, too, the sister ships Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Sto. Nino de Cebu (later she became the Our Lady of Medjugorje) was acquired by Carlos A. Gothong Lines and they were both 123.0 meters in length. In 1989, too, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation finally bought a new liner, the SuperFerry 1 which was 132.4 meters in length. Sweet Lines had no proper response at all and only bought medium-sized ships.

If one will notice, none of the responses of the competition even reached the length over-all of the two other ships brought in by Sulpicio Lines in 1988, the Cotabato Princess and the Nasipit Princess which both measured, to repeat, at 149.1 meters. That was how big a knock-out punch that Sulpicio Lines brought to the liner wars at the tailend of the that crisis decade for shipping. It there was doubt before which was Number 1 in passenger shipping, there was no more doubt after the arrival of the three ships for Sulpicio Lines.

Although the competition might desire to match Sulpicio Lines, acquiring second-hand great liners from Japan was not as simple as a wish granted. The main reason was even in Japan there are so few liners of that size. And they are only offered for sale if and when their successors have already arrived. It will then take five more years before the competition had a ship approximating the size of Filipina Princess in their fleet. So in a sense, the acquisition of Sulpicio Lines of the three ships and especially the Filipina Princess can be considered a master stroke that simply swept the competition. After the arrival of the three there was no longer a debate who is Numero Uno in passenger shipping.

The Filipina Princess was known as the Ferry Akashia in Japan and she was owned by Shin Nihonkai Ferry. This ferry company was one of the long-distance ferry companies sailing fast ROROs in Japan. During that time Ferry Akashia was built, Japan was experiencing an economic boom and her highways cannot cope with the cargo traffic. The solution discovered in the late 1960’s was to field fast, long-distance ferry-ROROs that will load trucks among others. The sailings they did was just overnight runs. This solution proved popular not only for the trucks but also for the commuters since they will arrive fresh. And so Japan fielded faster and ever bigger ferry-ROROs in the long-distance routes.

Ferry Akashia was built by Kanda Zosensho in their Kure yard in 1973. She carried the permanent ID IMO 7313858. She measured 11,210 gross tons in Japan with a deadweight tonnage (DWT) of 4,173 tons. She had a bow mast and a stern cargo boom which also served as the stern mast. This ship had ramps at the bow and at the stern, the traditional ramp design then. She had a snout-like structure at the bow which was distinctive-looking. Inside it were additional accommodations for the crew and it also housed the winches of the ship. At the navigation deck she had a big false funnel at the center which housed a restaurant. It also functioned as an observation and promenade deck.

In 1988, when her replacement New Akashia arrived for Shin Nihonkai Ferry she was sold to Sulpicio Lines. In refitting and renovation, a deck was added and her gross tonnage rose to 13,705 and she had a declared net tonnage of 8,448. Amazingly, even just her NT was already bigger than all of the existing liners in 1988! Fittingly, she became the Sulpicio Lines flagship and displacing the old flagship Philippine Princess which was their flagship for seven years.

The ship as refitted and remodeled here had only three passenger decks. The stern of the ship including all those that can be reached by the cargo boom was free of passenger areas. That was the period design of Sulpicio Lines and this was exhibited too in Cotabato Princess, Nasipit Princess and Manila Princess (but not so in Tacloban Princess which had a different design). To ease loading and unloading, Filipina Princess also had a starboard side ramp. In Pier 12 of Manila North Harbor with its finger port Filipina Princess can be loaded and unloaded simultaneously from three accesses, the side ramp, the cargo boom and via the stern ramp.

Filipina Princess was probably the first liner in recent decades which offered a special suite, a feature offered only later by the very top tier of our great liners. They called this the Owners’ Cabin and it was only offered in the Manila-Cebu route. However, to many’s dismay, this Owners’ Cabin was not available for mere mortals. It was only issued to the blue-chip Chinese-Filipinos of Cebu known to the management and owners of Sulpicio Lines or to the family and relatives of the owners of Sulpicio Lines.

This ship was probably the liner that offered the most number of accomodation classes among our passenger liners with nine in all. Aside from the Owners’ Cabin, also offered were Suite for 4, Cabin for 4, Cabin for 2 w/o Toilet & Bath, Tourist de Luxe, Tourist, Special Tourist, Economy de Luxe and Economy. I noticed this ship had many cabins and actually that was the hallmark of the big and great liners of the period when many with means still took the liners including their families. These were in the forward parts of the ship and it is distinguished by a row of doors. That portion of the ship was quiet unlike the big rooms of the Tourist and Economy where the chatter is almost constant and there is a regular bustle and movement.

Like the general classification of the period by all big liners, the restaurants were in three classes. The biggest were for those in the Economy classes and it has the minimum fare. Even with simple meals, all will have full stomachs because of the Sulpicio Lines tradition always offering unlimited rice. The middle-level restaurant is for those in the Tourist classes. Here the fare is better and real china and crystal glasses are used. The best restaurant and course is for those in the Cabins and Suites. Here, smorgasbord was the order of the day as in eat-all-you-can and as in Sulpicio Lines tradition they will always replenish the trays and one can eat for a whole two hours if he wants and if he can. I have found in Sulpicio Lines that the extra food and fare in their First Class restaurant plus the other amenities more than compensates for the extra passage charged. Of course, the service is higher too and the smiles are wider.

While the First Class passengers have their own lounge, the restaurant in the false funnel, the area by the front desk, the other restaurants and the poop decks serve as common lounges for all. During the night the poop deck cum lounge emerge on its own when all kinds of drinks including hard drinks can be ordered along with various knick knacks and short orders. Many while the hours here until past midnight and actually this is the part of the ship that is liveliest during the night. The meal times, the lounging and the whiling of time in the various lounges and that poop deck are some of the experiences a ship passenger can experience that is not available in plane flights or in the buses.

Filipina Princess plied only two routes ever in her whole career here that spanned twenty years from 1988 to 2008. As the Sulpicio Lines flagship, she did the Manila-Cebu route twice a week. She left Manila every Tuesday at 10am and every Friday at 8pm. On her return trip, she departed Cebu every Wednesday at 8pm and every Sunday at 10am. At her fastest she will take less than 18 hours for the route, a full two hours faster or more than any ship on that route. And that, I heard was exhilarating for passengers but too short for that extra meal at times.

When the bigger (but not faster) Princess of the Orient arrived for Sulpicio Lines in 1993, the Filipina Princess was displaced to her only second route ever, the Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Davao route. She plied this route just once a week. This route is known for heavy seas during the amihan (Northeast monsoon) but with her size, low height and designed stability she took the swells in the eastern seaboard of Mindanao with aplomb. After all, as a ferry running the heavier seas off Honshu, the main island of Japan, the swells are even rougher there.

In this route, she left Manila every Sunday at 10am and she arrived in Cebu on Monday every 7am or earlier. After several years, her speed has already been restricted and she even lost the speed crown to the Princess of Paradise which can sail up to 23 knots. She left Cebu every Monday at 11am and arrived in Surigao on Mondays at 6pm. Actually, at full trot she can do that leg in six hours. She left Surigao at 10pm, same day, and she arrived in Davao every Tuesday at 2pm. She will have a long lay-over in Davao and will leave on Wednesday at 4pm and she arrived on Surigao every Thursday at 11am. She then leaves Surigao at 1pm and arriving in Cebu at 7pm, same day. The ship will then have an overnight lay-over in Cebu port.

For those with relatives in Cebu this is a chance to make visits. For those who have nowhere to go, the merriment in the poop deck was also as good. She will then leave Cebu Friday at 10am.That means there is enough time to buy pasalubong in Carbon or Colon district or the dried fish market in Taboan. The ship then will arrive in Manila evert Saturday at 7am or earlier and she will have an overnight lay-over there. For the crew who have families or relatives these overnight lay-overs in Manila, Cebu and Davao were good chances to get off the ship and make visits. That was one feature of Sulpicio Lines scheduling then, the long lay-overs and that was good both for the crew and the passengers. It was also good for the engineers because they have time to sort things in the engine department.

As the years advanced, Filipina Princess had some minor adjustments in her second route in terms of the hours of departures and arrivals. But one thing I noticed is she really never lost much speed. Even later in her career she was still capable of 20 knots except when she has some kind of mechanical trouble. Sometimes, she sailed at less than that speed because feeding two giant engines take a lot of fuel. I remember this was also the problem of Mary, The Queen which has bigger engines than her.

One day, the world came crashing down for Filipina Princess. As a result of the capsizing with gross loss of life of their new flagship, the Princess of the Stars, all the ships of Sulpicio Lines were suspended from sailing. That was June of 2008. Together with most ships of the Sulpicio Lines fleet, Filipina Princess anchored in Mactan Channel, awaiting for news if the restrictions imposed on them will abate. Later, she was tied up in the Sulpicio Lines wharf in Pier 7 in Mandaue, Cebu together with other ships of the fleet especially the Dipolog Princess and the Princess of the Caribbean.

In 2011, after three years of waiting, Sulpicio Lines finally lost hope. A new administration has taken over Malacanang and the hated top dog of MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency, was already gone and yet, obviously, there was no change in the restrictions imposed on them. Maybe the publish backlash was simply too great for a more lenient treatment of them. And landlubbers do not really have any understanding of shipping. So, Sulpicio Lines (already renamed to Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation) sold their five of their mothballed liners (four have been sold earlier) and only retained two that were sailing.

One night, the favorite time when liners sold to breakers leave, Filipina Princess quietly slipped out of Mandaue quay on her way to India. She was simply towed as crewing her will just mean more expenses to the breakers. For that voyage, she was simply declared as a “barge”. She then found herself after a two-week voyage in Alang, the ship-breaking capital of the world. That was on August 28, 2011. She stayed offshore a while but on October 4, 2011 she was finally beached for breaking.

Her final transaction price was $360/ton (that is computed in lightweight tons). The price will come out to only about about $3.5 million dollars for the whole ship. Cheap.

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