The Sweet Lines Ships That Went to Viva Shipping Lines

Sweet Lines was a Central Visayas shipping company of Bohol origin so Bol-anons were rightly proud of her. It also had a cargo liner company (which means fixed routes and schedules) named Central Shipping Company aside from cargo ships too in the Sweet Lines fleet. Sweet Lines started from Visayas-Mindanao routes till they graduated to liner shipping. They were able to do that by acquiring half of the fleet and franchises of the General Shipping Company which moved out of passenger liner shipping in the middle of the 1960’s. From such move, Sweet Lines was able to get routes and ships to Manila.

For a generation Sweet Lines did well in liner shipping. They had all the trappings and signs then of a successful liner company including Japanese agents and big liners. One thing that distinguishes them from competition was that they have a strong Visayas-Mindanao shipping then, as a result of their origins (long before Lite Ferries they dominated Bohol routes). In this regard, they were comparable to Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) after the complete split of the original Go Thong shipping company when Lorenzo Shipping Company parted ways with them. However, Sweet Lines was stronger than them and they had true national presence while CAGLI didn’t have that after 1978 since it was Lorenzo Shipping Company which held the Southern Mindanao routes after their final split. Besides, Sweet Lines had its own cargo shipping company which even dabbled in Asian routes for a while. In passenger shipping, they were even ahead of Aboitiz Shipping Company but the latter had a strong cargo and containerized operation which was ahead of Sweet Lines and Central Shipping.

It seems Sweet Lines did not survive well the crisis decade of the 1980’s. I am one of those which did not foresee their fall. There were some distant nasty rumors then but I found it hard to believe as there are always unfounded rumors in shipping. But then they did not acquire great liners at the start of the 1990’s when even Aboitiz Shipping Company (which had a reputation before of not buying decent liners) also bought theirs when the new administration in Malacanang of President Fidel Ramos laid out incentives for shipping purchase and modernization. That was only then when I began to have the feeling they were sliding, a feeling I got before when the old liner shipping company Escano Lines went out of passenger shipping.

When I was in Mindoro I tend to watch liners passing by. That was my pastime and it was really such a great sight and pleasure for a ship lover. There, I already noticed the liners of Sweet Lines were already being outgunned by the new and newer great liners of the competition. The passing Sweet Lines vessels were generally older, smaller and slower compared to the competition and I was not the only one who noticed that.

Sometime in 1994 I heard from dock hands in Mindoro that the brown ships of Sweet Lines seem not to be passing by. On that place, we actually didn’t know the reason why. Cebu is far from Mindoro, there is no connection between the two places as the Cebu ships just pass by without calling. Later, we heard the news that Sweet Lines stopped sailing but it was more of an unconfirmed news. A few speculated they might have just dropped their Manila route.

One day, I think it was in the month of September, I arrived nighttime in Batangas port. I noticed three brown ships tied at the far end of the quay. I asked what ships were they (it was actually dark – Batangas port was not yet developed then). The porter told me those were Sweet Lines ships sold to the Viva Shipping Lines (VSL). We were hurrying as the last bus going to Manila at 11pm is leaving so I just thought I will see them again when I come back to Batangas.

At that time, Viva Shipping Lines was the dominant shipping company of Southern Tagalog (there was no separate region of MIMAROPA yet). It had two sister legal-fiction companies, the Sto. Domingo Shipping Company and DR Shipping Company. Together, all three operated over thirty vessels including wooden motor boats called the “batel” in that area. They were so dominant the other shipping companies feared them. Below-the-belt and bullying tactics were routinely ascribed to them also. As to financial muscle, nobody doubted they were capable of buying three moderately-sized second-hand ferries.

Actually, the three vessels from Sweet Lines fit exactly the ship size needed by Viva Shipping Lines. The three vessels were also badly needed and in fact after they were fielded Southern Tagalog routes still lacked ships. That was how deep were our shortage of bottoms then in the short-distance routes when the new short-distance RORO mode was already beginning to fly. This shortage was actually the result of the calamitous decade of the 1980’s for shipping when we lost so many shipping companies, so many ships including the retirement of the former “FS” ships.

The Viva Shipping Lines had two base ports – Batangas and Lucena – and they had routes to various ports of Mindoro, the Romblon islands, Marinduque and even far-off Masbate. Their wooden motor boats (the batel) also had routes to the various island-towns in the Sibuyan Sea and to Occidental Mindoro. They also had semi-scheduled routes to Burias island and to various ports in the the southern coast of Bicol from Bondoc Peninsula in Quezon province. From Bondoc Peninsula their motor boats ranged up to Marinduque and Lucena. The origin of Viva Shipping Lines was actually Bondoc Peninsula, specifically Villa Reyes in San Narciso, Quezon.

Later, I was asked in Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) what happened to the ships sold by Sweet Lines to Batangas and what happened to them. This got me interested again in the three brown ships I saw in Batangas and to which I have sailed with the the subsequent years.

The three ships were of moderate size in the Sweet Lines fleet but in Viva Shipping they were already among the largest. The three were the Sweet Pride, the last ship ever acquired by Sweet Lines, in 1991; the Sweet Pearl, acquired in 1989; the Sweet Marine, acquired in 1988. They became the Viva Penafrancia 5, the Viva Penafrancia 3 and the Viva Penafrancia 8, respectively. Later, the Viva Penafrancia 5 and Viva Penafrancia 8 became very well known in Batangas and Calapan.

Sweet Pride was originally the Seikan Maru No. 5 of Higashi Nippon Ferry in Japan. She was built by Taguma Zosen in Innoshima, Japan in 1968 with the ID IMO 6908254. She measured 68.0 meters x 14.2 meters and 1,500gt with 2 x 1,300hp Daihatsu engines and 15.5 knots in speed. As Viva Penafrancia 5, she had a sitting passenger capacity of 900.

Sweet Pearl was originally the Ashizuri of Sukomo Kanko Kisen KK in Japan. She was built Usuki Tekkosho in Usuki, Japan in 1971 with the ID IMO 7126009. She measured 69.7 meters x 13.6 meters and 1,275gt with 2 x 2,000hp Niigata engines and 16 knots in speed. As Viva Penafrancia 3, she had a sitting passenger capacity of 802.

Sweet Marine was originally the Taikan Maru No. 3, also of Higashi Nippon Ferry in Japan. She was built by Shimoda Dockyard Company in Shimoda, Japan in 1968 with the ID IMO 6829197. She measured 60.0 meters x 12.8 meters and 913gt with 2 x 750hp Daihatsu engines and only 11 knots in speed. As Viva Penafrancia 8, she had a sitting passenger capacity of 762. This ferry was the sister ship of Asia Brunei (now Grand Unity of Navios Lines and formerly Blue Water Princess 2 of Blue Magic Ferries), Asia Indonesia (now Grand Venture 1 of Navios Lines) and Filipinas Dapitan of Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. I just wonder if in Batangas they realize that the ships of Navios Lines were sister ships of a ferry they once knew as Viva Penafrancia 3.

In the Sweet Lines fleet, the three were overnight ferry-ROROs and they were relatively big for that role in those days. In Viva Shipping Lines the three were converted to and became workhorses in the short-distance ferry routes of the company. In general, the three were not used for the overnight routes of Viva Shipping Lines.

The Viva Penafrancia 5, Viva Penafrancia 3 and Viva Penafrancia 8 all had successful careers in Viva Shipping Lines. Moreover, the three also became tools in the shipping wars for the continued dominance of Viva Shipping Lines in Southern Tagalog. When the three came for the company in 1994, Viva Shipping Lines still had complete dominance in the region. That was the time there was still lack of bottoms in the Southern Tagalog routes.

However, before the end of the last millennium there were already so many ferries in Batangas. Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) was growing fast along with the new entrant Starlite Ferries Inc. There was also a slew of smaller shipping companies trying their luck in the area. The overcrowding was also exacerbated by the fast arrivals in the area of the High Speed Crafts (HSCs), both the catamaran and the fastcraft type and they had their own wars too. The area soon degenerated in a dog-eat-dog world or as the Tagalogs would say, “Matira ang matibay”.

As they said, no thing lasts forever. And events revealed that it was Viva Shipping Line which was “hindi matibay” (but of course, “patron saints” have their darlings too). In the early 2000’s, Viva Shipping Lines hit rock, so to say and they were in trouble. Maybe aside from “patron saints”, passenger resentments might have also tipped the scales. They gradually quit sailing and as they did that they left their ships in anchorage in Batangas Bay, in Lucena (they have a shipyard there) and in their original base of San Narciso, Quezon. They then put up their ships for sale.

In 2003, Viva Penafrancia 8 was sold to a Ernesto V. Mercado, a ship breaker followed by Viva Penafrancia 3, also to the same breaker in 2004. Meanwhile, Viva Penafrancia 5, the most regarded of the three was laid up in Elfa Shipyard in Navotas, Metro Manila. She might not be there now and she might have gone to the shipping heavens, too.

And that was the career of the three Sweet Lines ships that went to Viva Shipping Lines. They all died before their time not because they were not good. It was their companies that was not good enough for them.

Note: There was another Sweet Lines ship that went to Viva Shipping Lines in 1988, the second and Japan-built Sweet Faith, the ex-Hakodate Maru No. 11. She became the San Lorenzo Ruiz in Sto. Domingo Shipping Company. This transfer had no connection with the collapse of Sweet Lines, Inc.

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