Some Unfortunate Flagships and Famous Former Flagships (Part 1)

If people think flagships or famous former flagships fare better than the rest of their fleet, well, don’t be too fast in conclusions. Empirical evidence might not support that and these tales might make you wonder and think. This selection is limited to post-World War II ferries. This is also limited to liner shipping companies and the bigger regional shipping companies. For the latter, I limited it to flagships at the moment they were lost.

The TSS Mayon

The Mayon was the flagship of the recomposed fleet of the Manila Steamship Company Inc. after World War II. She was the second ship acquired by the company after World War II (she is a different ship from the prewar Mayon of Manila Steamship Co.). The first was not really acquired but returned. That was the Anakan which was a prewar ship of the company that fell into Japanese hands during World War II and pressed into the military effort on their side. It was fortunate to survive the Allied campaign against Japanese shipping during the war. When the war ended and Japanese ships were surrendered she was returned by the Allies to the company in 1945.

The Mayon was built as the Carabobo in 1923 by the New York Shipbuilding in Camden, New Jersey, USA for the Atlantic and Caribbean Shipping and Navigation of Delaware, USA. In 1938, she was sold to the Northland Transportation Company of Alaska, USA. In 1946, Manila Steamship Co. which was also known as the Elizalde y Compania acquired this ship and she was fielded in the Manila-Iloilo-Pulupandan route of the company. Originally classified as a refrigerated passenger/cargo ship, she had luxurious accommodation because that meant airconditioning and cold drinks were available and those treats were rare in that era. With cabins and lounges, she was considered a luxury liner of her days.

However, on a charter voyage from Jakarta to Manila on February 18, 1955, an explosion and fire hit her and she was beached off the western coast of Borneo island. This incident so shook up Manila Steamship Co. that they withdrew from shipping the same year and they sold all their vessels to other companies except for the very old Bisayas, the former Kvichak which was sold to the breakers. Most of the these sold ships were former “FS” ships. Manila Steamship Co. never went back again to shipping. Elizalde y Compania was one of the biggest companies in the Philippines then and its founder Manuel Elizalde Sr. was one of the richest men in the Philippines during that time and he was known as a financial backer of presidential candidates.

The MV Dona Conchita

This was the first Dona Conchita that was the first flagship of Carlos A. Go Thong & Co. when they were first able to acquire a Manila route after they bought out the Pan-Oriental Shipping Company of the Quisumbing family. The ship was named after the wife of the founder of the company and this was a legendary ship during her time.

The ship was actually not an ex-”FS” ship as many thought. She is actually a former “F” ship that was lengthened by National Steel and Shipbuilding Corporation (NASSCO) in Mariveles, Bataan. Her origin was actually as a sank ship by a storm off Cavite that was bought cheap and salvaged by Carlos A. Go Thong & Co. and re-engined for she had no engines. Her replacement engines were a pair of Gray Marine diesels with nearly double the horsepower of the ex-”FS” ships and so instead of running at only 11 knots she was capable of 16 knots and thus she was able to claim as being the fastest in the Manila-Cebu route then.

This ship then did various routes for the Carlos A. Go Thong & Co. but always her first port of call from Manila was Cebu before proceeding to other ports. During those years there were no dedicated Manila-Cebu ships only (that came during the era of the fast cruisers starting in 1970 with the Sweet Faith of Sweet Lines). Because of that once, a week sailing was the norm then except for the very long routes (i.e. Davao) and the very short routes (i.e. Capiz, Mindoro, Romblon).

When the Dona Conchita got older sometimes she was not sailing. I heard her Gray Marine engines were not that durable compared to the General Motors engines of the ex-”FS” ships. Then on one of her voyages, she caught fire off Mindoro sometime in 1976 or thereabouts. There was no precise way of confirming the dates or exact location as she does not have an IMO Number and therefore she was not in the international maritime databases.

The M/S Don Juan

In 1971, Negros Navigation Company brought out their best  and biggest liner yet, the M/ S Don Juan. The ship was named in honor of Don Juan L. Ledesma, eldest child of Don Julio and Dona Florentina Ledesma, one of the founders of Negros Navigation. M/S Don Juan was a brand-new ship built by Niigata Engineering Company, Ltd. in Niigata, Japan for P13,650,000 from a design of Filipino naval architects. She was the fifth-built brand-new liner of Negros Navigation Company after the Princess of Negros (1962), the Dona Florentina (1965), the beautiful Don Julio (1967) and Don Vicente (1969). This luxury liner became the new flagship of Negros Navigation Company and she was used in the Iloilo and Bacolod routes of the company from Manila. She was fast at 19 knots and she brought an end to the reign of MV Galaxy as the speediest ship in the Manila-Iloilo route.

However, on one voyage from Manila to Bacolod she was struck on the portside by the tanker Tacloban City of the Philippine National Oil Company on the night of April 22, 1980 near the island of Maestre de Campo in Tablas Strait. Such collision proved fatal for the ship and she listed immediately and went down fast. The confirmed number of dead was 121 even though the tanker immediately tried to rescue the passengers of M/S Don Juan and even as other vessels in the vicinity tried to help in the rescue effort too. It is thought many of the dead were passengers of the cabins trapped by buckled doors and those injured by the impact. This incident triggered a mourning in Bacolod as most of the passengers who perished hailed from that place.

The wreck of the ship lies in deep waters estimated to be some 550 meters and so salvage and/or recovery is out of question as far as local resources is concerned. Maybe the RORO ferry Santa Maria, acquired by Negros Navigation Company in 1980 was the replacement of the ill-fated M/S Don Juan. But I am not sure if she was considered a flagship of the company.

The MV Cebu City

The MV Cebu City of William Lines Incorporated was a sister ship of the M/S Don Juan of Negros Navigation Company. She was also built by Niigata Engineering Company Ltd. in Niigata, Japan but her date of build (DOB) was 1972. Having a slightly bigger engine she was slightly faster than her sister since she can do 20 knots. Maybe they purposely ordered a bigger engine so she can battle in speed her would-be main rival, the Sweet Faith of Sweet Lines Incorporated in the prime Manila-Cebu route. Sweet Faith was the fastest liner then in the Philippines since her fielding in 1970. The battles of Cebu City and Sweet Faith both made them legends in Philippine shipping and remembered decades after they duked it out.

MV Cebu City was the second brand-new ship of William Lines Inc. after the MV Misamis Occidental and she was the flagship of William Lines Inc. from 1972. As the flagship, MV Cebu City exclusively did the Manila-Cebu route twice a week and so followed the pattern set by Sweet Faith. She was the flagship of the company up to the end of 1979 when the new flagship of the company arrived, the equally legendary Dona Virginia which was also involved in another tight battle with another flagship, the Philippine Princess of Sulpicio Lines Inc. After she was displaced as the flagship MV Cebu City sailed various routes for the company.

On the night before the morning of December 2, 1994, while hurrying after a late departure from Manila North Harbor, MV Cebu City encountered the MV Kota Suria, a container ship of Pacific International Lines (PIL) near the mouth of Manila Bay before reaching Corregidor island. On a collision course, the Kota Suria asked for the customary port-to-port evasion maneuver. However, MV Cebu City turned to port because maybe she was intending to “tuck in” near the coast, a practice of smaller ships when near then Cavite coast to save on running time. Maybe MV Cebu City thought she had enough clearance but they might have misjudged the speed of the MV Kota Suria. She was rammed by the much bigger MV Kota Suria on the starboard side which caused her to list and to capsize and sink in a short time.

About 145 people lost their lives in that collision. The Philippine Coast Guard later held that MV Cebu City was mainly at fault but Philippine authorities also detained MV Kota Suria (but she later escaped). The wreck of MV Cebu City now lies under about 25 meters of water.

The Dona Paz

The world-infamous Dona Paz was born as the Himeyuri Maru of the Ryukyu Kaiun KK (the RKK Line). She was built by Onomichi Zosen in Onomichi yard in Japan in 1963 and she plied the Okinawa route. In 1975, she was sold to Sulpicio Lines Incorporated. She was refitted and remodelled for Philippine use with the primary intention of increasing her passenger capacity. In Sulpicio Lines, she was renamed as the Don Sulpicio and she was the new flagship of the company starting in 1975.

As the flagship of Sulpicio Lines, Don Sulpicio did the Manila-Cebu route exclusively twice a week. This was the first time Sulpicio Lines did this exclusive assignment and that was following the footsteps of Sweet Lines and William Lines which had flagships doing the Manila-Cebu exclusively. On one voyage in this route on June 7, 1979, she caught fire and she was beached in Maricaban island at the edge of the mouth of Batangas Bay. Her whole superstructure and cargo holds were consumed by the fire.

Against expectation Sulpicio Lines had her repaired but the repairs took nearly two years. Meanwhile the Dona Ana, the later Dona Marilyn took over as flagship of the company and did the Manila-Cebu route until the new flagship of Sulpicio Lines arrived, the Philippine Princess. After repairs, in her refielding in 1981, Don Sulpicio was already known as the Dona Paz. Maybe the renaming was done to avoid reference to her previous tragedy. There were also changes in her superstructure after the repair.

After her refielding, the Dona Paz was assigned to the Manila-Tacloban and Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban routes of Sulpicio Lines. However, on one voyage from Tacloban and Catbalogan she was involved in a collision with the tanker Vector on the night of December 20, 1987. The fuel of the tanker exploded and both vessels were engulfed in fire. There were only 26 survivors in the collision and there was a claimed 4,386 dead and that was affirmed by the clueless and out-of-jurisdiction Supreme Court. That was big enough to place the Dona Paz as the worst peacetime maritime tragedy in the whole world. However, the official casualty according to the Board of Marine Inquiry placed the number of dead at only 1,565 but that was what can be only counted and might be an underestimation too.

The casualty figure was clearly bloated because the Governor of Northern Samar then, Raul Daza had people sign up claims against the company and the number from his province was about 2,200. That was an impossibility since passengers from that province going to Manila generally take the bus already and that was cheaper and faster. Going to Catbalogan is actually going farther and the limited number of buses then going from Catarman to Catbalogan can only take hundreds at most. It was clearly a con game by the Governor in a scheme to bilk Sulpicio Lines. Imagine a passenger total greater than those from Leyte and Western Samar when the ship did not dock in Northern Samar! The ship was clearly overloaded but the casualty figure was really artificially bloated.

Much later the Supreme Court completely absolved Sulpicio Lines from liability in the tragedy. It was on a technicality because Vector had an expired license when it sailed. The Dona Paz wreck lies between Marinduque and Dumali Point of Mindoro near the town of Pola. The distance of it from Marinduque is twice its distance from Mindoro.

The Dona Marilyn

The Dona Marilyn was the first known as the Dona Ana in Sulpicio Lines Incorporated and she is actually a sister ship of Dona Paz. She arrived in 1976 for Sulpicio Lines and they were the first fast luxury cruiser liners of the company and so they were advertised by Sulpicio Lines as the “Big Two”. As mentioned before, as Dona Ana she replaced the then Don Sulpicio as the flagship when it caught fire in 1979 and she fulfilled that role until the Philippine Princess arrived in 1981.

The Dona Marilyn was born as the Otohime Maru in Japan. She was also built by Onomichi Zosen for Ryukyu Kaiun KK (the RKK Line) in 1966 for the Okinawa route. When she was sold to Sulpicio Lines in 1976 there was no change of flagship designation although she is the newer  and ship. She was instead fielded in the Manila-Cebu-Davao express route of the company. Maybe she was sent to that more stressful (for the engines) route because she had the newer engines. Incidentally, the engines of the two sister ships were identical but Dona Ana was rated faster than Don Sulpicio and that might be the second reason why she was assigned the long Davao route.

In 1980, the ship was renamed as the Dona Marilyn. In 1981 when the new Philippine Princess arrived she was assigned not assigned again her old Davao route because Sulpicio Lines had two new fast cruisers that came in 1978 and one of that, the Don Enrique (the future Davao Princess and Iloilo Princess) was already holding that route. She was then assigned to the new Manila-Estancia-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route of the company.

In 1988, the new Cotabato Princess arrived and she was relieved from that route and she was assigned the route vacated by the loss of the Dona Paz, the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route and Manila-Tacloban route. On October 23, 1988 while there was a typhoon brewing, the Typhoon “Unsang”, Dona Marilyn tried to hightail it to Tacloban when the storm was already off the coast of Samar island on the way to Bicol. “Unsang” was a fast-gaining storm in strength and the ship being new in that area maybe did not know how fast the seas there can become vicious in so short a time (even squalls there can be dangerous for smaller crafts). The ship was swamped by the seas that gained strength from Signal No. 2 to Signal No. 3 and she listed and capsized some 5 nautical miles off Almagro island which is part of Western Samar. Only 147 people managed to survive the tragedy and some 389 people perished.

[There is a coming Part 2]

[Photo credit of MV Don Sulpicio: Times Journal and Gorio Belen]

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