The MV St. Pope John Paul II

The MV St. Pope John Paul II which was fielded locally in May of 1996 is now the longest sailing liner in the Philippines. There are many ferries locally which have sailed longer than her but they are not liners. That is not the only claim to fame of the MV St. Pope John Paul II as she is also the biggest and longest among our remaining liners. In all of her 20 years of sailing the local waters and inter-island routes she has been very, very reliable and she has lost nary of her speed. From 20 knots when newly fielded, she can still do 19 knots today. I noticed that when I rode her that her vibration is still okay and she is still not very smoky.

MV St. Pope John Paul II was known in Japan as the New Miyako and she had a sister ship named New Yamato. They were the top ships then of Hankyu Ferry, one of the Japanese long-haul ferries. As a note, “Miyako” and “Yamato” are legendary names in Japan and that is actually a sign of their status. The New Yamato was built in 1983 and the New Miyako in 1984 and both came to the Philippines but though sister ships their superstructures were not really very identical when they were fielded here. Hankyu Ferry disposed of the sister ships at the same time and the New Yamato went to Sulpicio Lines as the Princess of the Universe and the New Miyako went to William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) as the SuperFerry 12.

In Japan, the sister ship were known as “car ferries”. This was the successor class to the “cruiseferries” built in the 1970’s which were luxurious as they were meant to attract passengers. When ridership weakened because the Japanese were already taking other forms of transportation, the new design of long-haul ferries stressed on taking trucks. This can be seen in the original design of New Yamato and New Miyako which featured two car decks at the lower decks of the ship. The upper two decks for passengers were not shabby by Japan standards but they were not as hotel-like as the “cruiseferries” of the 1970’s, some of which came to the Philippines like the Princess of the Orient and the Mabuhay 1.

The New Miyako was built by Kanda Shipbuilding Company in their Fujiwara yard in Japan. She was actually launched in December of 1983 but her completion took until January of 1984. Her permanent ID is IMO 8217051. She measures 173.0 meters in length over-all, 165.3 meters in length between perpendiculars, 28.8 meters in width and 14.3 meters in depth (that’s deep!). Her original Gross Register Tonnage was 11,914 tons and her DWT was 5,009 tons. She then had two car decks but only one passenger deck with some passenger facilities in the top deck including in the false center funnel. That was the meaning of a Japan “carferry” in the 1980’s.

This ship has a bulbous stem and a transom stern and the usual two masts. Being twin-engined, she has two side funnels. She is powered by a pair of Mitsubishi-MAN diesel engines totalling 24,000 horsepower and her design speed was 21 knots (that means her current speed of 19-19.5 is remarkable because that is not far off from her design speed years ago!). Originally, she was provided with car ramps at the bow and at the stern. However, on refitting, a pair of quarter-ramps were fitted, on the bow and at the stern at the starboard side. An inside ramp connects the two car decks (not elevators unlike in others which is more cumbersome). The ship has a capacity of over 200 TEU but in Japan she mainly carried trucks. In lane-meters, her capacity is about 2,000. The ship’s route is from Shikoku to the Kansai region of Japan.

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In refitting to a passenger-ferry for Philippine use, one level of her car deck was converted into two levels of passenger accommodation. Hence, the ship became a a three passenger-deck ship when she was fielded here. Her local passenger capacity then rose to some 2,800 passengers. This was the time when local passenger liners can still pack it in and had to turn away passengers during peak seasons.

The passengers had access through wing-type passenger ramps on the starboard side. The ship being tall and the highest classes on the top level, boarding would have been an exercise for many passengers except that the ship has an escalator. Like other local liner designs, that led to the front desk/information counter and a lobby. The ship had many levels of accommodation with Suite being the highest followed by Stateroom, First Class Cabin, Tourist, Economy Deluxe and Economy in descending order. Being big, the ship had many walkways, lounges and promenade areas including the sundeck. There were many shops and it even had a wading pool. Restaurants were also segregated into classes as in three, the usual, but the kiosks, stores and bars were for all.

After fielding in May of 1996, SuperFerry 12 displaced the SuperFerry 6 (the former Our Lady of Akita) in pairing with SuperFerry 10 (the former Mabuhay 1) on an exclusive Manila-Cebu route. She was doing it with three round trips a week indicating she was considered a flagship. Later, even SuperFerry 10 was displaced from exclusively holding that route and SuperFerry 12 then alone held that route exclusively for WG&A (of course other W&GA ships also call on Cebu headed south or headed north but not Manila-Cebu exclusively). And so she became the sole flagship of the combined fleet, my assumption. In Manila and Cebu she would often see her sister ship Princess of the Universe and sometimes they are docked adjacent to each other in Cebu International Port (but not in Manila as they have different ports there).

In 2000, SuperFerry 1 and SuperFerry 8 were pairing with each other and SuperFerry 6 and SuperFerry 10 were pairing each other in doing many routes including those that pass in Cebu. But maybe that was the last stable year of her company WG&A and upheavals soon followed and this can be seen even in their top ships. In that same year SuperFerry 6 burned near Verde Island Passage off Batangas. SuperFerry 14 came that year and in effect was the replacement of SuperFerry 6 but she was blown up by terrorists in 2004 (the government denied that but nobody believed them including the maritime databases and international shipping sites). SuperFerry 10, meanwhile, was sold to China breakers in 2003.

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The years starting from 2002 were critical for the company WG&A as partners William and Gothong divested. As a result of that, ferries and cargo/container ships have to be disposed to pay off the former partners. Even the subsidiaries Cebu Ferries Corporation and Philippine Fast Ferry Corporation (the company holding the SuperCats) were affected by that. With a smaller fleet, WG&A then had to reduce routes and frequencies and drop ports of call. That also happened in their subsidiary ferry companies especially Cebu Ferries Corporation. Those were the years the company was looking for its future direction.

Aboitiz Transport System (ATS), the successor to WG&A, when its partners divested had a new series of ships, the SuperFerry 15, 16, 17 and 18 that started started arriving from 2002 to 2004 that tried to replace many of the ships sold or lost. ATS then had a new philosophy that their ROPAXes would have to carry a significant volume of their container vans and that is their reason why they didn’t invest in container ships anymore. The new series of SuperFerries, being “carferries” also in Japan did not have their car decks reduced anymore (it just retained the double car decks). This time the weakening of ship passenger demand was already being felt by the whole shipping industry and hence there was no more desire to remodel liners with passenger capacities of well over 2,000 persons.

With the move to acquire those 4 liners with dual car decks, Aboitiz Transport System was initially able to cover their lack of container ships (well, not really as that provided a window of opportunity to competitors). But with the sharp rise and the doubling of world metal prices in 2006, Aboitiz Transport System was attracted to sell SuperFerry 15, 16, 17, 18 for a tidy profit and only the return of SuperFerry 19 (the former SuperFerry 8 that was re-engined) from Papua New Guinea mitigated that loss. But with the selling of the four, suddenly Aboitiz Transport System was lacking container ships and so they resorted to chartering.

During this period, the passenger volume of Aboitiz Transport System was continuously dropping because of the rise of the budget planes and the intermodal buses. With the coming of the budget airlines, there was already a parity in fares and so passenger felt there was no longer need to “lose” two days in a ship even though they are fed in the voyage. What Aboitiz Transport System did as response was a two-birds-in-one-stone solution – create an additional wagon deck from the two lower passenger decks of SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 9 and SuperFerry 12 and so the three were converted again. The new look of the three was not beautiful to many including me.

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Along this way when they already lacked ships and passenger patronage was also dropping, SuperFerry 12 became a Manila-Cebu-Cagayan de Oro ship doing a twice a week voyage. And she has been on that route until now. There is now no more dedicated Manila-Cebu ship for a decade now, the first time it happened since 1970 when the Sweet Faith of Sweet Lines arrived.

The SuperFerry 12 did not really become a one-passenger-deck ship again. Part of the uppermost deck for the crew quarters was converted to accommodate passengers and part of the forward section of the upper wagon deck has to be converted too so passenger capacity will not drop too much (the SuperValue or open-air Economy of the ship is located there). It was a good move. There is not much of a perception of lack of passenger space like what one will feel in SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21 especially since she is a long ship. But some of the amenities and space were obviously gone.

This ship still has many cabins and it has a hard time filling those in many voyages. There is a lower MegaValue section (airconditioned accommodations but with economy meals) but the bigger MegaValue section is seldom used. There is really not much passengers anymore these days and if needed instead of opening that section and cleaning it afterwards it would be easier to upgrade some passengers to Tourist. However, the Stateroom and Suite of the ship are still treats especially if one gets tickets ahead of time when it is cheap (it has to be purchased on room and not individual basis). Staterooms and Suites are superior to First Class Cabins in that it only accommodates two passengers in true beds like in a hotel (not bunks) and there is a sala and cabinets. Of course the space is much wider. Get it if you can especially the honeymooners. It is the nearest to a hotel and the meals are free and you get to get to places.

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MV St. Pope John Paul II has a big cafeteria which serves the Economy and Tourist passengers. After meals, this cafeteria also serves as the main lounge of the ship, a corner to while away the time, a place where knick-knacks, merienda and drinks can be bought 20 hours a day and there is even a bar but nowadays few patronize that. At night a band will perform, a way for the ship to increase its revenues (well, so do making it the main lounge of the ship as passengers passing time also buy) and also to serve fun. For those too loath to venture in that area and would rather lay down most of the day then merienda and drinks are vended on trolleys and these will pass by many times in the day and among their offerings is benignit (the Visayan ginataan) which is prepared right in the ship. First Class passengers meanwhile have their own small restaurant in a lower corner of the ship but it is not an eat-all-you-can affair and servings are not big.

The ship has many viewing areas including the sun deck. MV St. Pope John Paul II has the advantage of not having fully enclosed sides. However, the lobby is small but it has a piano that is not being used. There are also other facilities of the ship not being used like the conference room and the spa but the beauty salon is still functional. But sailing with liners now I feel they were not as happy as two decades ago. By the way, the escalator is still there and it leads straight to a statue of the namesake and to the front desk and lobby. And of course, the service crew is on pink, the color of 2GO. Vibrant color but liners were more vibrant way back then. Can’t fault them though for trying.

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The wagon deck of the ship is almost invariably not full. That is what I observed on the usage of the dual-cargo deck 2GO liners. Usually the upper wagon deck is practically not used. And so they can even afford to put up a basketball court there for the crew. But why not for the passengers too? And maybe add a badminton court or volleyball court too and perhaps a ping-pong table too? Nah, the ever-straight MARINA won’t let that because that has been declared a cargo area. So maybe they should just attract truckers and trucks with low rates rather than have it empty. Sayang. It will pay more than vending food inside the ship. But then that might jeopardize their high container van rates.

The MV St. Pope John Paul II is still a reliable ship bravely soldiering on in the face of the decline of liner passengers. She still looks beautiful sans the slanted windows of the cargo deck. The ship is still the longest and biggest in the fleet of 2GO. At 20 years she is already a fixture in her route and I hope they will take care of her well so she continues to sail and sail and sail.

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