The Ferry Routes of Sulpicio Lines and the Assignments of Its Ships

Among the local liner shipping companies before, it was Sulpicio Lines which was known for an almost unvarying schedules and routes. For nearly 15 years until they were suspended from sailing by MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) because of the capsizing of the MV Princess of the Stars off Sibuyan Island, their schedules were almost the same. The only significant change was when the MV Princess of Unity arrived in the country in 1999 and Sulpicio Lines created an entirely new route for her, the Manila-Cebu-Davao-Dadiangas (General Santos City) route. But this route was permanently gone in 2005. For a time, Sulpicio Lines also gave MV Manila Princess a route similar to the MV Maynilad (Manila-Zamboanga-Davao route). But she did not last as they can never make it engines reliable enough.

With an unvarying route, Sulpicio Lines does not need to advertise in the national and local papers unlike her main competitor WG&A Philippines (later the Aboitiz Transport System or ATS) which always changed assignments and schedules. Passengers know which day there is a Sulpicio ship in their area and what is the hour of departure. They just go to the port as Sulpicio Lines does not practice the online booking system. The only failure would be then was if the scheduled ship is on drydock. However, if a suitable reserve ship is available, Sulpicio Lines will still run the route and schedule. And that was one of the functions of their MV Manila Princess then, to relieve ships going to the drydock.

Princesses

Folio credit: Ken Ledesma

The queen route of Sulpicio Lines was the Manila-Cebu route. This was the route where they field their flagship and that runs twice a week (so that means plenty of interport hours for the ship). Many of her passengers are still bound to the other islands including Mindanao and so they still transfer ships. Some of them do after shopping in SM Cebu or in Colon. Or some leave their belongings somewhere and go to Carbon Market. SM Cebu, Colon and Carbon are all just near Cebu port.

Conversely, some of the passengers of the ship going to Manila are from the other islands including Mindanao. Cebu Port is actually a great connecting port. In a hub-and-spoke model, Cebu Port is the hub and the routes emanating from her as the spokes.

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

In these nearly 15 years, three ships served as the flagship holding the Manila-Cebu route. The first was the MV Princess of the Orient starting in 1993 when she arrived in the country. She replaced the old flagship which was the MV Filipina Princess. However, on 1998, Princess of the Orient sank in a storm off the coast of Cavite. The MV Princess of the Universe then replaced her on the route and she held the route until 2004 when MV Princess of the Stars arrived.

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Going back to a more distant past, it was in 1975 when Sulpicio Lines adopted an exclusive Manila-Cebu route in the mold of MV Sweet Faith and MV Cebu City when it fielded the MV Don Sulpicio came (this ship was more known by her latter name – MV Dona Paz of the sinking infamy). When MV Don Sulpicio was hit by a fire while sailing (and beached), the MV Dona Ana replaced her on the route (this ship was also more known by her latter name – MV Dona Marilyn of the foundering infamy near Maripipi island). When the MV Philippine Princess arrived in 1981 she took over the Manila-Cebu route until MV Filipina Princess displaced her in 1988.

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The next most important route for Sulpicio Lines in this period was the route held by the MV Princess of Paradise, the fastest liner in the country for about a decade or so. She held the Cagayan de Oro route and she sails to that port twice a week. One was a direct voyage and only taking 25 hours for the 512-nautical mile route. On the way back to Manila, she calls on Cebu. Her next voyage in the same week will be a one that will call first in Cebu and Nasipit before going to Cagayan de Oro. From Cagayan de Oro she will do a direct voyage to Manila.

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Photo credits: Sulpicio Lines and Josel Bado

The third most important route for the company during this time was the Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Davao route held by the big and former flagship MV Filipina Princess. This route has rough waters during the ‘amihan’ (the northeast monsoon) but it seems with her sailing ability she was just fit for this route. Being just run once a week she has long lay-overs in Cebu Port especially on her way back to Manila where she stays overnight. These long lay-overs was one of the characteristics of Sulpicio Lines and passengers appreciate this because they are given time to visit relatives and to shop. As for me, I welcome it as it gives me a chance for “free tourism” (as I don’t have to spend to reach the place and if I am already tired and sweaty I can go back to the ship and partake of its free meals, too).

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

The next most important route of Sulpicio Lines after this was the weekly Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas route, a route that does not pass through Cebu but nevertheless calling on three regional centers of trade and commerce. In the Philippines, the routes passing through Iloilo are the next most important after the routes passing through Cebu. Three ships held this route for Sulpicio Lines. The first was the MV Princess of the Pacific. After she grounded on an islet off Antique in 2004 which resulted in comprehensive total loss (CTL), she was replaced by the MV Princess of the World. Later, when she was destroyed by fire the MV Princess of the South held this route. Except for MV Princess of the World, in terms of size, these ships were already a notch below the ships that served the first three routes, an indication of the relative difference of the central routes via Cebu and the western routes via Iloilo. Their speed too is also no longer in the 20-knot range of the ships in the first three routes (except MV Princess of the World).

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

After the four come the relatively minor ships and routes of Sulpicio Lines (although the route held by MV Cotabato Princess does not look minor). And I will start first with that. MV Cotabato Princess held the Manila-Estancia-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route. Actually, the liners from Manila does not dock in Cotabato Port which is a shallow river port. Instead, they dock in Polloc Port in Parang, Maguindanao, a significant distance away. This route has long lay-overs, too. Since there are plenty of marang, durian and lanzones in Zamboanga, enterprising passengers will bring in those fruits and sell to the passengers while sailing. It will be sold out by the time the ship is docking in Manila. So that there will be no restrictions they will also give the crew and the captain their shares. Estancia, meanwhile, is known for its abundant fish supply.

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

The next most important route after this was the weekly Manila-Dumaguete-Ozamis-Cebu route. Upon reaching Ozamis, the ship still goes to Cebu and comes back the same day in the evening after the arrival. In this way, the Sulpicio Lines ship also serves as a Visayas-Mindanao overnight ship but she has only a few passengers in this role. Since this route was a chopped version of the former route that still calls on Cagayan de Oro (dropped when MV Princess of Paradise arrived), she has two overnight lay-overs in Dumaguete which was nice. Adventurous passengers use that chance to roam the famous Dumaguete Boulevard. Two Sulpicio ferries served this route. The first was the old flagship MV Philippine Princess. When she burned in 1997 (in a drydock), the MV Princess of the Caribbean replaced her. Both ships are cruisers.

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I do not know the next most important route of Sulpicio Lines. All were weekly and all seems not to be priority routes. Here, the older and lesser ships of Sulpicio Lines were concentrated.

I might start with the near-parallel route of where MV Princess of Caribbean served. Incidentally, they depart Manila simultaneously. The ship on this route was the MV Dipolog Princess and from Manila it goes first to Tagbilaran, then Dipolog (actually Dapitan) before proceeding to Iligan and Cebu and she will retrace the route. Like the MV Princess of Caribbean she was also assigned an overnight Visayas-Mindanao route. She has even less passengers in this role. She has also long lay-overs but not overnight ones. This ship and route functioned as the ride of the Bol-anons in Lanao to their home province. This was not actually a strong route as the voyage takes too long and the ship was no longer at par with the good standards of the era. Many in Lanao just take the ferry to Cagayan de Oro and take the bus. That was also true for passengers from Manila.

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Photo credit: Joe Cardenas

I would rather next discuss the route to Palawan before discussing the routes that hook eastward. Sulpicio Lines has also the route to Puerto Princesa via Coron. It was the MV Iloilo Princess that was assigned there. But if there is a vacancy in the other routes, the ship has the tendency to leave Palawan and substitute. MV Iloilo Princess was also not that reliable as her engines were balky and I heard that only one chief engineer, the most senior, had a good feel for her engines. When MV Iloilo Princess burned in a shipyard in 2003 there was no replacement on the route any longer.

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Photo credit: Gorio Belen

The next route was a route that has permanence. It was the “longest” route in the company which means it had the most ports of call, a type which was a remnant of the routes of the past when express liners were just few, the roads were still bad and shipping companies try to call on most ports possible for increased revenues. This was the Manila-Masbate-Calubian-Baybay-Maasin-Surigao route. This was even the chopped version (it was up to Butuan in the old past) so it might be a surprise to some. Calubian was a port of call because of the emotional attachment of the owners to it (they started somewhere near there) although it has lost all significance. The MV Palawan Princess mainly held this route after she was displaced in the route to Ozamis. It had no airconditioned accommodations and the general arrangement plan was much like an ex-FS ship although she was bigger. She was the oldest liner then (not really a liner but a passenger-cargo ship). Her alternate was the much better MV Surigao Princess. But she cannot hold the route for long because of problematic engines. Too bad because though small her accommodations are up to Suite level (what a contrast with MV Palawan Princess). MV Surigao Princess was gone in 2003 when she was broken up.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

Surigao Princess

Photo credit: Edison Sy

The next route and ship were remarkable because they were able to hold on to the route when her era was already over because of the coming of the intermodal transport. The route was the Manila-Masbate-Ormoc-Cebu route. No, you can’t buy a Manila-Cebu ticket for this ship. You would have to pay extra for the Ormoc-Cebu leg which functions as an overnight route (in the MV Princess of the Caribbean and MV Dipolog Princess one can’t also ask for a ticket up to Cebu from Manila). There were long lay-overs too in Masbate and Ormoc. Even when the intermodal was already ruling, the MV Cebu Princess still soldiered on in this route because Sulpicio Lines simply won’t send ships to breakers as long as it was still capable of sailing.

The last liner route of Sulpicio Lines was a route that changed, was cropped within the period I am discussing (the other I mentioned that were cropped were cropped before this period). This was the route of the MV Tacloban Princess. Originally, she had a twice weekly route to Tacloban with one of that passing by Catbalogan. But with the loss of passengers and cargo to the buses and trucks, they dropped Catbalogan. For a time she even stopped sailing the Tacloban route (just too many buses here and also trucks especially trucks going back to Manila looking for a load). There was a time Sulpicio Lines combined her route with the route of MV Cebu Princess. Sulpicio Lines simply does not give up on a route and area. And that characteristic was the one lost by Philippine shipping (and that was irreplaceable) when they went out of ferry business because the other competitor was known for dropping routes in a minute because bean counters ruled there.

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Photo credit: John Carlos Cabanillas

Aside from these liner routes, Sulpicio Lines also had dedicated overnight ferry routes and ships. For the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro overnight route they used two ships. The first was the MV Cagayan Princess. But when the competition heated up in this route they fielded the new liner MV Princess of the Ocean. After she was assigned there, nobody can outgun Sulpicio Lines in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro overnight route in size and speed (well, even in the prestigious and premier Manila-Cebu route, Sulpicio Lines does not want to be outmatched).

And for the Cebu-Nasipit overnight ferry route, they have the MV Nasipit Princess at the start. But she does not sail in most days as its engines were really bad. When MV Princess of the Ocean was assigned in the Cagayan de Oro overnight route, the MV Cagayan Princess was assigned the primary duty in the Nasipit overnight route. In 2005 the MV Princess of the Earth came and she relieved the MV Cagayan Princess which was then brought to a new route, the overnight ferry route to Naval, Biliran. The Nasipit (Butuan in Sulpicio Lines parlance) overnight ferry route was one overnight route that Sulpicio Lines dominated in this era as the competition was inconsistent (sometimes there were ships, sometimes there were none).

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In 2008, Sulpicio Lines was suspended from sailing in the aftermath of the MV Princess of the Stars tragedy. Three ferries, the MV Cebu Princess, the MV Cagayan Princess and the MV Tacloban City were sold off immediately to raise cash (and I knew then that the routes that hooks eastward and the most threatened by the intermodal will be finally lost). A few ships were allowed to sail thereafter but MV Cotabato Princess quit soon. Meanwhile the Sulpicio Lines fleet languished in Mactan Channel.

One by one the laid-up ships were sold to the breakers starting with the MV Princess of Paradise and MV Palawan Princess. This was followed by the MV Cotabato Princess. I guess they were trying to raise cash for settlement and other expenses by these disposals and also to amass cash for the purchase of new cargo ships. They had then two ships sailing, the MV Princess of the South which was holding the Manila-Cebu route and the MV Princess of the Earth which was sailing the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route with a diversion to Nasipit twice a week.

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There were five ships then in Mactan Channel and in their wharf in Pier 7 in Mandaue. These were the MV Princess of the Universe, the MV Filipina Princess, the MV Princess of the Ocean, the MV Princess of the Caribbean and the MV Dipolog Princess. It is as if Sulpicio Lines was still waiting for a favorable turn of events in the greatest crisis of their company when public opinion was very much against them. But in one fell swoop they sold the five laid-up ships to the breakers. Maybe for emotional reasons the departures happened in the night.

Laid up three years those ships already deteriorated especially they were in sea water. Every year not used the budget needed to get them going again mounts. And the hope that the government and MARINA will relent on restrictions seemed to have evaporated. Being politicians, they would rather feed off on uninformed public opinion. Having no understanding of the maritime industry, they did not know they were killing the already threatened liner sector. Along this time PSACC (Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation – the new name of Sulpicio Lines) reached the decision to just concentrate on container shipping.

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In 2014, Sulpicio Lines sold their last two ferries, the MV Princess of the Earth and lastly, the MV Princess of the South. Now they are gone from passenger shipping. And when PSACC had already sold their last liners, MARINA withdrew their passenger license. Funny.

Ironic but the government is now encouraging entrants to this sector. But definitely there would be no takers as the viability of liners has changed and they have killed the most interested and most loyal shipping company in this sector. As the saying goes, “The medicine was too strong that it killed the horse”. That is what they did to Sulpicio Lines. The company will still survive in cargo shipping but the dedicated sea passengers have no more liners to sail with. Sad.

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