A Good Class of Ferry is Going Away Soon

I love speed in ships but maybe not that much and so maybe that is the reason I am not too attached to High Speed Crafts or HSCs. That is also the reason why I tend to look at the size and the engine capacity ratio of a ship and see which is more efficient.

A certain class of ferry which belongs to the great ferries (ferries with at least 10,000 gross tons) caught my attention and respect. While we had many ferries that are in the 150-meter class, that class basically used engines of 20,000 horsepower and more. They were capable of 20 knots locally and even more when they were still new abroad.

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Subic Bay 1

But then there was a class of ferries that arrived here that were in the 160-meter class whose engines were below 20,000 horsepower. They were a little less speedy but they proved to be capable of 18.5 knots locally and in a Manila-Cebu run that meant an additional sailing time of just one more hour. And, of course, in capacity they were a little more than the capacity of the 150-meter ferries.

There were only four examples of this class locally. The fast Princess of Paradise of Sulpicio Lines is not included there and so are the St. Pope John Paul II of 2GO which is the former SuperFerry 12 of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and its sister ship, the Princess of the Universe of Sulpicio Lines and the Mary Queen of Peace of Negros Navigation (which is a shade under 160 meters at 159.5 meters length) for they all packed engines of over 20,000 horsepower.

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Princess of the World by Britz Salih

I am referring here to Manila Bay 1 of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and its sister ship, the late SuperFerry 6 nee Our Lady of Akita and also the Subic Bay 1 and its sister ship the late Princess of the World. Manila Bay 1 had a length of 162.1 meters and 18,000 horsepower from two NKK-Pielstick engines and here she was capable of 18.5 knots early on. The SuperFerry 6/Our Lady of Akita had exactly the same length, engines and speed here.

Subic Bay 1 of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. has a length of 166.5 meters and 19,700 from two Mitsubishi-MAN engines. Her sister ship the late Princess of the World of Sulpicio Lines had the same length and engines but the rated power is only 18,800 horsepower. They are “thinner” at 24.0 meters breadth compared to the 26.4 meters of SuperFerry 6 and Manila Bay 1 and so they were capable of over 19 knots when they were first fielded here.

How insignificant was their speed disadvantage? Well, WG&A paired the SuperFerry 6 and the SuperFerry 10, the former Mabuhay 1 of William Lines in the Manila-Iloilo-General Santos-Davao, Manila-Cebu-Cagayan de Oro and Manila-Zamboanga-Davao routes. And many know that the SuperFerry 10 ran at up to 20 knots.

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SuperFerry 6 (Credits to PAF and jethro Cagasan)

The SuperFerry 6 did not last sailing as she was hit by engine fire off Batangas in 2000 while sailing from Davao and General Santos City and the Princess of the World was also hit by fire in 2005 off Zamboanga del Norte while en route to Zamboanga from Manila and Iloilo. Both did not sink, however and there were almost no casualties.

What lasted long were the two ships of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI), the Manila Bay 1 and the Subic Bay 1. Well, it seems ships not painted well last longer? However, the Manila Bay 1 was also hit by fire in the bridge but the fire was controlled early. The two ships of CAGLI did not sail as ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships) for long as they were suspended by MARINA from carrying passengers because of numerous complaints about long delays in departures and very late arrivals (I was actually a victim of that too when I arrived in Pier 6 at 8pm for a 10pm departure and the ship left at 4:30am and we arrived in Nasipit at night instead of afternoon). From that suspension, CAGLI turned the two into RORO Cargo ships just carrying cars and container vans.

Now those who know shipping knows the replacements of the two ships are already around, the RORO Cargo ships Panglao Bay 1 and Dapitan Bay 1 (which is still being refitted as of the writing of this article in June of 2017). In fact, last April, a member of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) saw the Subic Bay 1 being towed by a tug headed south and probably destined to a South Asian breaker. Manila Bay 1 might be following her soon when Dapitan Bay 1 enters service and if it does, it will be the end of an era of the 160-meter liners with just 18,000 horsepower engines and 18.5 knots of speed locally.

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Manila Bay 1 and her future replacement Dapitan Bay 1

In terms of cargo capacity they are superior to the 150-meter, 20,000 horsepower ROPAXes especially since they are “fatter” which means their breadths were greater. The four might have not looked sleek or modern as they still have the lines of the Japan big ROPAXes built in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (well, they were actually built in that period!). But their interiors, if their brochures are studied, says they were not inferior to the sleeker 150-meter ROPAXes.

It is just too bad that two of the four did not last long (but both were highly praised when they were still in service) and the other two were converted into RORO Cargo ships and that is the reason why the lingering appreciation for them is not high and they are even identified by most as a separate separate class. And I just rue they did not really stand out when to think they could have been great.

So this piece is just a paean to them, a reminder too and also a farewell.

The Super Shuttle RORO 12 and Its New Route

Last April 30, the RORO Cargo ship Super Shuttle RORO12 of the Asian Marine Transport Corporation or AMTC participated in a very notable ceremony, the inauguration of the new Davao-General Santos City-Bitung route. I do not know when was the last time two Heads of State were present in the Philippines for a shipping inauguration. If there was one, it was eons ago. But right after the ASEAN Summit, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia came to Davao City for the inauguration. President Jokowi of Indonesia was even accompanied by her wife, the First Lady of Indonesia Iriana Widodo. I thought wow! that was the importance given on the opening of the route connecting the southern Philippines with eastern Indonesia. And the host of AMTC in Davao City, the Kudos Port was that lucky to have the presence of two Presidents. Wow, how lucky was Mr. Johnny Ng, the owner of the port. The inauguration might be “The Event” of his successful business career.

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And the ship Super Shuttle RORO 12 was also very lucky. Imagine all the photos and videos of her not only in media but also the social media. That goes true too to Kudos Port and its owner. Both the ship, the port are now famous and not only in Davao City. And then just past the narrows of Pakiputan Strait, the Super Shuttle RORO 12 met the China PLAN flotilla which is in a world tour and which picked Davao City as the first port of call. I do not know if that is auspicious but what a timing! It seemed a lot of attention was on Davao City that day and Super Shuttle RORO 12 was part of all that.

Viewing, talking of Super Shuttle RORO 12, I always have charged emotions. Many do not know but she is not a new ship in our waters for in 1994 she came to William Lines as the ROCON I. When she came she became the biggest cargo ship in the whole country, bar none. She was then the pride of William Lines and justifiably so. During the time she came, William Lines was in a battle to keep pace with Aboitiz Shipping and Sulpicio Lines which were both ahead of her in container ships before ROCON I arrived.

But when she arrived I had the thought, “Can ROCON I be fit for local routes or is she meant to do Far Eastern routes?” The reason behind that thought is ROCON I was much larger than the container ships in the country which is just about 90 meters or 100 meters in length and ROCON I was 160 meters in length. Even compared to the Ramon Aboitiz and Vidal Aboitiz of Aboitiz Shipping which were built in Ukraine, she was significantly bigger. And I thought “Is ROCON I the William Lines slam dunk a la Filipina Princess and Princess of the Orient of Sulpicio Lines?” When those two grand liners of Sulpicio Lines came in 1988 and 1993m they were much larger than the liners of the competition. And now ROCON I was just like those two.

I noticed the name “ROCON” was a play on the characteristics of the ship which is “RORO” and loads container vans. Before she came most the container ships in the country load and unload “LOLO”, an acronym for “Lift On, Lift Off”. That means in loading and unloading booms are used to lift the container vans. Meanwhile, ROCON I is a true RORO Cargo ship true. There are no cargo booms and container vans are hauled into or hauled off the ship. This means the container vans are aboard trailers that are pulled by prime movers. This system is actually faster in loading and unloading but trailers are an additional capital expense and there can’t be maximization like in LOLO ships where container vans are stacked with practically no wasted space.

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In Europe, the origin of ROCON I, RORO Cargo ships carry all types of vehicles crossing the seas from sedans to trucks to trailers. Since the load are vehicles then ramps are needed as access to the different car levels. Aside from ramps as access to the port, the RORO Cargo ships have car ramps connecting the various level and up to the sun deck. Sometimes lifts or elevators are also used. So even though ROCON I is a big ships in TEU her capacity is only 500. She was certainly not the first container ship with ramps here as the very first container ship of William Lines, the Wilcon 1 has a ramp and operates ROLO which means she has cargo booms at the front and a car ramp at the stern for combined RORO and LOLO loading and unloading. The Wilcon 4 of William Lines also has a RORO ramp and so do the Sinulog of Escano Lines but what really sets apart ROCON 1 is she has no booms and that is actually a leap of faith for William Lines as not much cars and trucks are loaded locally and for a ship to just carry 500 TEUs on 6,500 horsepower, the ratio does not seem to be too good.

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The ROCON I was built as the Mercandian Gigant for Nolis in 1984 by Frederikshavn Vft in Fredirikshavn, Denmark. Her name was already a giveaway to her size and she measured 160.5 meters by 22.3 meters with a gross register tonnage (GRT) of 15,375 tons. In those days those measurent were already very big (nowadays, container ships of over 200 meters are already common). Mercandian Gigant has a design speed of 16 knots from 6,500 horsepower from a single MaK engine. The ship was already equipped with the modern bulbous bow. Of course, she has only a single funnel.

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The lift. The mezzanine is at the background.

Inside the ship has three RORO decks for vehicles plus a mezzanine for cars aside from the top or sun deck which is also used for loading vehicles. Ramps connect the different levels and lifts are also employed. Like most RORO Cargo ships there is a tower at the front which accommodates the crew and the drivers of the vehicles and the bridge at the top. There are cabins for the drivers with its own toilet and bath and there are drawing rooms and a common galley which in layman’s word is the kitchen and restaurant of the ship (the term “galley” comes from the earlier centuries). Drawing rooms are the lounges of the ship and the officers have a separate drawing room. 

In 1995, ROCON I came to the Philippines and William Lines as mentioned before. She really seemed too big then for the route to Cebu. The ship did not sail long for William Lines because the “Great Merger” that produced the William, Gothong & Aboitiz or WG&A shipping company came on January 1, 1996 and she became the SuperRORO 200 in the new company. The next year the ship was sold abroad. And that was one thing I cannot understand about WG&A. They were able to accumulate a few good container ships that do not look like general-purpose cargo ships like the bulk of the Wilcons, Sulcons, Lorcons and Aboitiz Concarriers but instead of maintaining the routes to Hongkong and other ports in the Far East what WG&A did instead was to withdraw from foreign routes and surrender to the foreigners. What happened next was only foreign ships were carrying our container vans with the probable exception of Eastern Shipping Lines. While withdrawing from foreign routes what WG&A did was also to bully the smaller shipping companies in the country and in some cases that resulted in the collapse of the weaker shipping companies.

Of the ships we sold aboard it was ROCON I which first came back and that was completely unexpected as ships sold abroad never come back. The only other ship to come back here was the former SuperFerry 16 which became the St. Therese of Child Jesus of 2GO. So when the former Amirouche came here in 2015 to become the Super Shuttle RORO 12 I was shocked when the IMO Number (which is IMO 8222733) told me she was the former ROCON I. I was able to visit her in AMTC Pier 8 days after she arrived. I asked Yangyang Rodriguez, a high officer of AMTC if she was a former ship here and it seems he played coy with me. But of course IMO Numbers don’t lie and that is the beauty of it. Very easy in tracing a ship but MARINA, the local maritime administrator doesn’t use that because they insist on their own ship identification number which is useless in tracing ships.

Amirouche, the last name of the ship was refitted and she became the Super Shuttle RORO 12, the last big RORO Cargo ship so far of AMTC. She did not have a permanent route like the other RORO Cargo ships of the company. Sometimes she would come to Davao.

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Docked off Davao before inauguration

The news came of the planned inauguration of the Davao-General Santos City-Bitung (Indonesia) route. Two weeks before the planned inauguration Super Shuttle RORO 12 was already waiting in the southern Davao anchorage in Pakiputan Strait. She was obviously newly painted. I imagine her interiors were spruced up too. Who can tell if the two Presidents will board the ship together with their First Ladies and other dignitaries? And two days before the inauguration she was already docked in Kudos Port. Maybe top officers of AMTC was already around to make sure all goes well. I am also sure the Presidential Security Group (PSG) checked every nook and cranny of the ship and practically sealed it.

I was surprised by the choice of the Super Shuttle Ferry 12 for the route as she is a big RORO Cargo ship and the route to Bitung is just starting. This route was already in the news for the last four years or so and nothing came out of it. Once I was told the route is already off because, “Bawal ang bigas, bawal ang asukal, bawal ang (cooking oil). E, ano na lang ang ikakarga namin?” There is really a very strong protectionist lobby because if we will follow the zero tariff ASEAN scheme we will be flooded by goods from our neighbors because they are more efficient, their labor and fuel costs are less and so their consumer goods are cheaper. Many Filipinos and even the educated ones don’t know that the prices of our basic goods is well over the world market price. That is why so many Filipinos are poor and they can’t even buy the basic necessities.

Now I wonder what changed that the route is on again. As usual the media is next to clueless. All they can say is the route is a boon to something (basta me maisulat lang). We have talked before to the Purser of Pelita Harapan, a big wooden motor boat that once had a Manado-Davao route. He said we have salable goods to Indonesia and that is what they carry like plywood, construction supplies, flour and Coca-Cola which are all produced in Davao. He said the equivalent goods that come from the industrial area near Jakarta is more expensive because of the distance. There are many Indonesia products that can be traded in Davao but because of quantitative restrictions (QRs) and denial of permits it will treated as “smuggling” here. That is the sad system and wrong understanding of “free trade” here. What they say as “free trade” is actually restricted trade.

The media and bureaucrats say that instead of container vans from Davao going the roundabout way to Indonesia via Manila and Jakarta (Tanjung Priok), the direct route will be cheaper. I don’t know who is fooling whom with that. There is practically no trade between southern Philippines and eastern Indonesia because “free trade” is regarded as “smuggling” and that was the previous viewpoint of Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. He didn’t want cheap rice, oil and sugar from Indonesia (that is why I am asking now what changed). If there was really significant trade that would have been visible in general-purpose ships. But actually it is hard to track them because MARINA cannot implement also the IMO requirement for AIS (Automatic Identification System) which is used track ships.

Actually what might happen is goods meant for eastern Indonesia will use General Santos City and Davao as intermediate ports (both these ports host foreign container ships regularly). So instead of the container vans offloaded in Tanjung Priok which is farther it will be offloaded in the two Philippine ports and supposedly there should be savings in cargo rates (but that is assuming there is enough volume).

I guess AMTC fielded only a big and good ship for the inauguration for pomp and effect. I do not think there is enough volume to sustain the Super Shuttle RORO 12. If needed be, AMTC has the smaller Super Shuttle RORO 14 and Super Shuttle RORO 6 (if it is running) for that.

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Super Shuttle RORO 12 on the way to Bitung

It is funny some are fooled by media that Super Shuttle Ferry 12 will accommodate passengers and some government officials echo that and even cited tourism. But the RORO Cargo ships of AMTC are not allowed to carry passengers. Did something change too in this regard? Bitung is the bigger port in that part of Sulawesi and the bigger city is Manado but its port is small. There was once a Davao-Manado plane but it was discontinued for lack of passengers. Even the Pelita Harapan is gone now and it was a Davao-Manado ship mainly used for cargo (and to repatriate Filipino prisoners in Indonesia). Pelita Harapan can carry cargo but not fuel for sale. Madidiskubre kasi na mura ang fuel sa Indonesia.

I wish Super Shuttle RORO 12 well. But let us just see what will happen to this new trade route.

RORO Cargo Ships and Vehicle Carriers Can Be Good ROPAX Liners

In shipping, wherever that be in the world, fuel consumption is a critical factor because it takes up 40% of the operational costs of the ship. Here it might even be higher as our ships are old and our mariner rates are so low and apprentices comprise about half of the crew and they are the ones that pay and not the shipping company. So when fuel prices went really high a decade ago even the Fast ROPAXes of Europe capable of 30 knots slowed down to save on fuel. High Speed Crafts (HSCs) suffered also, had to slow down too and some stopped sailing for they were simply unprofitable even at very high load factors.

We too had been victims of that fetish with speed that in the 1990’s and so, many liners capable of 20 knots, locally, came into the country. The list of this is long and I would list it: Filipina Princess, Princess of Paradise, Princess of the Stars, Princess of the Universe, Princess of the World, Princess of the Ocean and Princess of New Unity, all of Sulpicio Lines; SuperFerry 1 of Aboitiz Shipping; Mabuhay 1 and Mabuhay 3 of William Lines; Our Lady of Lipa, SuperFerry 12, SuperFerry 14, SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 of WG&A; SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21 of Aboitiz Transport System; St. Francis of Assisi, St. Joseph The Worker, St. Peter The Apostle, Mary Queen of Peace, St. Ezekiel Moreno, St. Michael The Archangel and St. Francis Xavier of Negros Navigation. SuperFerry 16 then came back to become the St. Therese of the Child Jesus of 2GO. A total of 26 liners. Now isn’t that too many? And most are 150 meters in length or over and the average passenger capacity is over 2,000 with 3 even breaching the 3,000 mark.

I argue that most proved to be oversized.

That speed came from oversized engines, usually 20,000 horsepower and over which means more fuel consumption and I was not happy with that trend in speed and the trend of upsizing the ships because I know that in the past when liners became bigger than the ex-”FS” ship, many ports with previous connection to Manila were left out because the liners were already too big and their drafts too deep for the small and shallow ports. Then later, the fast cruisers became the new paradigm and more ports have to be left out because to shorten voyage duration the interports were reduced. Gone were the old routes which featured four, five or even six ports of call and with voyages lasting several days.

Those big, fast liners might have been okay when ship passengers were still overflowing when there were still no budget planes and intermodal buses as competition. But that was not okay for the passengers left behind in the abandoned ports. It just created a generation or two of passengers not catered to by ships and grew up not relying on them.

And in the end the liner companies paid dearly for that. Even with advertisements they can no longer be coaxed into riding ships (even if they are painted pink). And that became a disaster for liner shipping when passengers thinned. Too few port calls mean less passengers and cargo – when the ships were already big and guzzling fuel and heavily needing those. And that just helped sink the liner sector of our shipping which has not recovered until now.

I argue that for the passenger loads and cargo sizes now our liners sailing are simply too big and that is the reason why they can’t or won’t call in the smaller ports served by liners until the end of the millennium like Ormoc, Surigao, Tagbilaran, Dapitan and others. It should go down in size and maybe add ports of call and damn if transit times are longer. What is more important is that the ships become fuller so that it will be more profitable. Anyway, those who want fast travel will simply take the budget planes. But still there are still many people which prefer the ships to the planes.

Moreover, the remaining liners now have engines too big to be profitable on marginal routes and smaller ports. I think the engines also have to be downsized. If fuel prices go up once more the liners won’t be profitable again.

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Our Lady of Sacred Heart by Chief Ray Smith

In downsizing and saving on fuel, there is one type of ship that is actually fit for us. These are the former RORO Cargo ships and Vehicle Carriers and we have several  examples of that in the past. Actually for the same size and length, RORO Cargo ships have smaller engines than ships which were ROPAXes from the start. They were not really built for speed but for economy while having a decent speed. And moreover on RORO Cargo ships not much steel has to be added as additional decks.

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Our Lady of Medjugorje by Nat Pagayonan

In the past when liners were not that yet big and fast we had very successful liners whose origins were as former RORO Cargo Ships. I think the most famous of these were the sister ships Our Lady of Sacred Heart and the Our Lady of Medjugorje of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (CAGLI) which both came in 1990. Beautifully renovated, few suspected their true origins. Weighing the amenities of the ship, they were not inferior to liners of their size. And nor in speed although they have engine horsepowers less than the liners of their size.

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Butuan Bay 1 by Vinz Sanchez

It was the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines (when they split from WG&A) which brought in the next batch of RORO Cargo ships for conversion into liner ROPAXes when they acquired the Butuan Bay 1 and the Ozamis Bay 1 in the early 2000’s. But what puzzled me is they forgot how to convert them into beautiful ROPAXes like before and almost everybody that rode them said they were ugly. And that maybe helped doom the return of Gothong Lines into passenger shipping. When Butuan Bay 1 became the Trans-Asia 5 it became a beautiful ship with first-class interiors. Butuan Bay 1 should have been like that from the very start and if it were, the trajectory of Gothong Lines might have been different (of course they had other problems too).

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Ozamis Bay 1 by Mike Baylon

It was the Asian Marine Transport Corporation or AMTC that next brought RORO Cargo ships here for conversion into RORO liners. In their Super Shuttle RORO series, they started with the first three converted in to ROPAXes and these were the small Super Shuttle RORO 1, Super Shuttle RORO 2 and Super Shuttle RORO 3. However, the conversions were also not done well and were not worthy of the beautiful small liners of the past. Were they scrimping too like the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines? Or were they thinking more of the cargo than the passenger revenue?

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Super Shuttle RORO 1 by Fr. Bar Fabella

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Super Shuttle RORO 2 by Nowell Alcancia

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Super Shuttle RORO 3 by Mike Baylon

The next batch of Super Shuttle ROROs which were former RORO Cargo ships or variants from the Super Shuttle RORO 7 to Super Shuttle RORO 12 were all big, all former RORO Cargo ships but all were no longer converted in ROPAXes because maybe the first three of AMTC were not particularly successful. I was able to board all of them and their interiors were all good. The cabins for the vehicle drivers were still in good condition and being used along with ships’ drawing rooms and the good, functional galleys. Some even have gyms. Actually what was only needed is to maybe convert the top deck or another deck into good passenger accommodations. Our shipbuilders were good at that in the 1950’s and 1960’s when refrigerated cargo or cargo-passenger ships from Europe were converted into liners for Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines aside from Compania Maritima.

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Super Shuttle RORO 7 by James Gabriel Verallo

The Super Shuttle RORO 7 and Super Shuttle RORO 8 were the two AMTC ships that were intriguing for me. At 145 and 146 meters length the size is good especially since this is a tall ship with at least 4 RORO decks. The original top sustained speeds are 17 and 17.5 knots from only 6,900 and 7,800 horsepower which is even less than the horsepowers of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart and the Our Lady of Medjugorje which both had top sustained speeds of 17 knots when new and did 16 knots here even with additional metal and age. If 16 knots can be coaxed from the small engines of the two AMTC ships then it might have been enough especially if compared to the speeds the former Cebu Ferries series converted liners are doing now. It will have a good container load with a decent passenger size if one deck is converted into passenger accommodations and the cabins for drivers are used for passengers here. I was hoping AMTC will go in that direction but they did not. It turned out AMTC was no longer interested in liner shipping and was more interested in container shipping and especially the loading of brand-new vehicles destined for car dealers in the south.

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Super Shuttle RORO 8 by Aris Refugio

A design speed or original top sustained speed of 15 or 16 knots might not do because converted here with additional metal and with age already they will probably just run at 13 or 14 knots and that is slow for a liner. 15 knots locally is still acceptable but 16 knots is better as proven by the Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje. But then on the other hand the last time the former Cebu Ferry 2 ran as a liner to Cebu from Manila she was just being made to run at 14 to 15 knots. Does it mean that speed is already acceptable? That will mean a 28 or 29 hour run to Cebu versus the 22 hours of the big liners. But then passing through interports will mask that. Just feed the passengers well. And I always wondered why liners to Cebu don’t pass Roxas City anymore when it is just on the way. Of course the big ones can’t. At least 2GO tried Romblon port with the St. Anthony de Padua (the former Cebu Ferry 2) the last time around. But then maybe small liners shouldn’t be doing the Cebu route.

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St. Anthony of Padua by Mike Baylon

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St. Ignatius of Loyola by Mike Baylon

It was Aboitiz Transport System which next brought in RORO Cargo ships for conversion into ROPAXes with their Cebu Ferry 2 and Cebu Ferry 3. Originally these two ships were refitted to be overnight ferries but later when they were transferred out of their Cebu base they were refitted again to become liners. The two are known now as St. Anthony of Padua and St. Ignatius of Loyola under 2GO. Aside from the two, there are other RORO Cargo ships which were converted into ROPAXes but they were not liners but overnight ships. Among these are the Graceful Stars and Oroquieta Stars of Roble Shipping.

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The future Trans-Asia (1) by Mike Baylon

I think there are many RORO Cargo ships around that are about 120-130 meters in length that have a design speed of 18 or 19 knots which can still run here at 16.5 to 17.5 knots and they might just be perfect. I don’t know if that is the case of the Warrior Spirit which recently arrived to become the third Trans-Asia (1) of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. This might be good as a test case. The length of 126.2 meters is perfect and the design speed is 19 knots from twin engines is also perfect. Trans-Asia Shipping Lines has a good record in conversion. But then she will just be an overnight ship but a big one at that. But the coming Panglao Bay 1 of Carlos A. Gothong Lines might not prove to be a test case as she will not be converted to ROPAX, per report.

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Panglao Bay 1 by Mark Ocul

Trying these former RORO Cargo ships for conversion into ROPAXes might be a safe bet. These RORO Cargo ships might be low-risk in acquisition as their purchases might just be above breaker prices. So if it does not make money the worth of metal as scrap might still pay for the acquisition price. In the future Trans-Asia (1) they are even cutting off metal so windows can be made. That is different from the experience of the Cebu Ferries ships were a lot of metal has to be added because decks have to built.

I think it is good time to try acquiring RORO Cargo ships as our future liners. They might turn out to be good bets and worthwhile liners a la Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje.

The RORO Cargo Ships of Sulpicio Lines Are All Gone Now

When Sulpicio Lines acquired big (by local standards) RORO Cargo ships in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I thought they were hoarding some ships that can be later converted in ROPAX (RORO-Passenger) ships in the mold of what Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) did when they were able to come up with the beautiful Our Lady of Sacred Heart and the Our Lady of Medjugorje which were former RORO Cargo ships in Japan (and none would have thought that were their origins) and sister ships. I do not know what truly were their plans but if that was their intention then events soon overtook them when in the new millennium the bottom fell out of passenger liner shipping when budget airlines and the intermodal buses and trucks drew away passengers and cargo from the liners. This was shown when passenger capacities of the newly-fielded liners went down in the new millennium to 2,000 from 3,000 plus before and “carferries” that came had their two cargo decks just retained.

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The Our Lady of Sacred Heart by Britz Salih

The RORO Cargo ships of Sulpicio Lines I am talking about were the ships known as Sulpicio Express Uno, Sulpicio Express Dos and Sulpicio Express Tres. The three, if compared to the sister ships of CAGLI which went to WG&A were a little bigger and a little faster although all were single-engined which is the mark of cargo ships including RORO Cargo ships. If they have been converted into ROPAX ships they would have been as big as SuperFerry 1, SuperFerry 2 and SuperFerry 5 although a little slower.

The first of the three to come here was the Sulpicio Express Uno which arrived in 1997. This ship was the former Hokuto in Japan and she was built by Shin Yamamoto Shipbuilding in Kochi yard, Japan in 1980 with the ID IMO 8005733. Hokuto measured 129.9 meters by 20.0 meters with an original gross register tonnage of 4,176 tons and she had a service speed of 17 knots. This RORO Cargo ship has a bridge at the front and cargo ramps at the quarter-bow and at the quarter-stern, all features that will be very good had she been converted into a ROPAX ship.

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Sulpicio Express Uno by Aris Refugio

The second of the three to come here was the Sulpicio Express Dos which arrived here five years later in 2002. This ship was known as the Hokuo Maru in Japan and she was built by Shin Kurushima Hiroshima Dockyard Company in Akitsu, Japan in 1988 with the ID IMO 8817265. Her external measurements were 136.0 meters by 20.0 meters with a gross tonnage of 4,433 with a service speed too of 17 knots. She too had a bridge at the front with a cargo ramps at the quarter-bow and at the stern. She looks much like the Sulpicio Express Uno in the superstructure. With the same breadth I even wonder if she and Sulpicio Express Uno were actually sister ships. Even the placements of their ramps were the same.

The last of the three RORO Cargo ships of Sulpicio Lines to come was the Sulpicio Express Tres which also came in 2002. This ship was known as the Honshu Maru in Japan and she was built by Imabari Zosen in Imabari yard, Japan in 1989 with the ID IMO 8817071. She measured 128.5 meters by 20.4 meters and her gross tonnage was 4,695 and she had a service speed of 17 knots too. The ship also had a quarter-bow ramp and a stern ramp. Her difference though from the other two RORO Cargo ships of Sulpicio Lines was in having the bridge amidship. A position of the bridge amidship was not really a disqualification if she was intended for conversion into a ROPAX ship as shown by some local examples here like the Butuan Bay 1 of CAGLI although it might look a little ungainly.

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Sulpicio Express Tres by Aris Refugio

The three were almost of the same size and they had the same service speeds coming from single engines that average 10,000 horsepower which is a little bigger than the engines of the CAGLI sister ships. As built, all had two car decks. If converted all could have had one single cargo deck and three passenger decks with probably a passenger capacity of about 1,500. Like the CAGLI sister ships they might have had a service speed here of 16 knots or maybe a little better. They will be little slower than most big liners then but still acceptable and comparable to some of the newer but slower liners like the SuperFerry 3 of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and the San Paolo of Negros Navigation Company. Well, the service speed here of Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje was also 16 knots so that was acceptable.

One intriguing comparison I saw was with the Ozamis Bay 1, also of CAGLI. This former RORO Cargo ship that was converted into a ROPAX ship has external measurements of 130.3 meters by 20.0 meters with an original gross register tonnage of 4,545 tons which are almost the same as the three Sulpicio Expresses. I even wonder if she was a sister ship of Sulpicio Express Uno and Sulpicio Express Dos. However, her bridge was amidship and she was not converted beautifully. Hence, she did not look good and her passenger capacity was small at 601 persons. However, since she had 13,400 horsepower on tap she had a higher design speed at 19.5 knots.

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Ozamis Bay 1 by James Gabriel Verallo

The three Sulpicio Express ships were not converted into ROPAX ships and so they just served as RORO Cargo ships and doing what a container is doing except that she takes in container vans RORO (Roll on, Roll Off) in trailers compared to the LOLO (Lift On, Lift Off) method of the regular container ships. The three were in the container van trade and were never used to take in vehicles that were crossing the islands. But being faster the three really deserved a new series in Sulpicio Lines that is apart from the old Sulpicio Container (Sulcon) series of cargo ships.

In such method of carrying container vans, the three RORO Cargo ships became inefficient compared to the regular container ships. One, using trailers which are called “chassis” in the trade is additional investment and expense (and that also includes the trailer caddies). Second, unlike the regular container ships the RORO Cargo system of stowage takes more space as the container vans can’t be stacked one atop the other with no space in between the container vans. The loading and unloading might have been faster but all types of container ships here don’t really rush from port to port. Moreover, the engine sizes of the RORO Cargo ships are significantly larger than the regular container ships for the same length. They might have been faster but as mentioned before they don’t really rush as having enough cargo really takes time because there are simply too many bottoms. So the speed advantage is just negated.

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Sulpicio Express Dos as Span Asia 15 by Mike Baylon

When they were not converted into ROPAX ships, I was even wondering what was the reason Sulpicio Lines kept them for too long, in my view. Well, of course, Sulpicio Lines has no penchant for selling ships and especially to the breakers for as long as it still has economic value. Their only consolation then was they had the fastest cargo ships hereabouts (before the arrival of the faster RORO Cargo ships of Asian Marine Transport Corporation or AMTC).

Two of the three still passed to the new name of Sulpicio Lines, the Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation (PSACC) where the Sulpicio Express Dos became the Span Asia 15 and the Sulpicio Express Tres became the Span Asia 16 in 2013.

The three was a good view when they are in port or near the port. They were bigger than the regular container ships, they were taller and they look different and even their long cargo ramps seem to be an attraction. Maybe a few even had in their minds that the superstructure is near that of a ROPAX ship (and they were not wrong).

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Sulpicio Express Uno not sailing before her sale

When Sulpicio Lines began selling their passenger ships in the aftermath of the sinking of their Princess of the Stars and began buying container ships in their place, I somehow felt that the three RORO Cargo ship will also go somewhere down the line. With the size of the new container ships of Sulpicio Lines, it was obvious they were going for efficiency. They were no longer competing for the biggest or the fastest like before. Some container ships of Oceanic Container Lines were even bigger than theirs.

In October of 2013, the oldest of the three, which had already reports of engine trouble, the Sulpicio Express Uno was beached and broken up in in the ship-breaking capital of the world which is Alang, India. Then, in November of 2015, the Sulpicio Express Dos and Sulpicio Express Tres were broken up in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The two did not even reach 30 years of age and there were not yet reports of engine troubles from them. Sulpicio Lines just wanted to change ships for more efficiency and they had to go, sadly.

Now, the new Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation (PSACC), the new name of Sulpicio Lines doesn’t have a RORO Cargo ship anymore. All they operate and all they have now are smaller container ships that are just fit for the container demand on them.

Sad to see the three go.

It Seems They Are Beginning To Fear The Cargo RORO LCTs Now

Once upon a time, in the early days of connecting islands, LCTs had a place as exemplified by Millennium Shipping in the 1970’s and the LCTs connecting Mactan island and the islands of Samar and Leyte. But as it moved into the 1980’s and the 1990’s, it was the short-distance ferry-ROROs that began connecting the islands like in San Bernardino Strait, in Surigao Strait, in Verde Island Passage, in Guimaras Strait, in Tanon Strait, in Bohol Strait, across Camotes Sea, in Basilan Strait and in Panguil Bay. LCTs began losing favor then and some of the reason might be psychological. There was a belief then that LCTs were “less safe”.

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It was actually only Maayo Shipping and Tri-Star Megalink which bucked the trend in those decades before the change of the millennium by still using LCTs as passenger-cargo carriers. To some extent, Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) can also be counted here before the start of the new millennium. Among the the most notable operator of passenger-cargo LCTS in this millennium are Lite Ferries and Starhorse Shipping Lines. Of course, LCTs also connected Samal island, Guimaras and Olutanga islands but I would rather exclude it here as they were very short connections like the connection across Sula Channel of Albay to Cagraray island.

LCTs as means of transport are slow and slower than short-distance ferry-ROROs. Their passenger accommodations are also very basic and small and can be uncomfortable. They were never really meant to be people carrier unless one is talking of the hybrid Korean LCTs (like the Ma. Angelica Grace, Reina Banderada, Reina Justisya and Star San Carlos among others) which have more comfortable passenger accommodations and even airconditioning plus bigger engines which afford speeds higher than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs.

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I do not know which started the trend of using LCTs for vehicles mainly with not much intent to carry passengers. The most significant I noticed that had an operation like this was Golden Bridge Shipping of the Lua family (owner of a tramper company and Oceanjet) which has its base in Cansaga Bay and had a route to Hindang, Leyte. Early on they were known as Socor Shipping. Of course, Mandaue Transport also had a route from Mandaue to Tagbilaran and Simpoi Shipping had a route from Carmen to Ormoc.

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There were also LCTs that were used not for rolling cargo but as container van carriers. Ocean Transport chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation for this purpose which was copied by others until they were able to acquire their own LCTs. But of course, transit time from Manila to Cebu can take up to 4 days but container vans won’t protest unlike passengers. Some Asian Shipping Corporation LCTs were also chartered to load container vans from Manila to Cagayan de Oro.

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These operations are of course Cargo RORO operations. The only difference is instead of using Cargo RORO or RORO Cargo ships, LCTs are used. That is why I termed these LCTs as “Cargo RORO LCTs”.

Starting in 2012, LCTs from China began appearing in great number in Mactan Channel and the biggest owners were Cebu Sea Charterers, Broadway One Shipping, Concrete Solutions/Primary Trident Marine Solutions and Royal Dragon Ocean Transport. The first two simply had numbers as names of the LCTs. The third one was the owner of the Poseidon LCTs and the last one was the owner of the Meiling LCTs. Asian Shipping Corporation also bulked up their LCT fleet. Supposedly, these LCTs which were called “deck loading ships” in China will be used to transport ores from Surigao to China.

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However, two major happenings intervened. One, the need of China for ores declined and in November of 2013, Typhoon “Yolanda” wreaked havoc in Eastern Visayas. In the aftermath, in the need for relief and rehabilitation of the region, trucks and trailers have to cross. This happened during a time that the long-distance trucks were already running via Eastern Visayas as substitute for the ship-borne container vans and many of these are still destined for Mindanao.

Immediately, mile-long queues of trucks formed in the ports of Matnog, Allen, Liloan, Benit and Lipata leading to loud protests. MARINA then allowed the temporary use of LCTs which became de facto permanent until today. Meanwhile, there was also a great demand for bottoms to be used by trucks across Camotes Bay. Suddenly, the moored “deck loading ships” in Cansaga Bay was crossing Camotes Bay, San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait. Cebu Sea Charterers and the Poseidon LCTs slowly begans Cargo RORO LCT operations together with the Adnama LCTs (many more were used in Surigao and elsewhere). Roble Shipping meanwhile chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation which they replaced when they were able to acquire their own LCTs.

There was also an upsurge in LCT demand to Bohol and some old LCT began plying routes. Feeling their grip threatened, Lite Ferries bought them all lock, stock and barrel aside from buying additional LCTs. Meanwhile, Cebu Sea Charterers invaded other routes like the Carmen-Ormoc, the Dumangas-Banago and the Tuburan-Escalante routes. Suddenly, the lowly LCTs which became Cargo RORO LCTs looked menacing. Even the pioneer Golden Bridge Shipping which had queues even before “Yolanda” feels threatened now.

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How did this come to be? One reason is at the start, the overnight ferry companies crossing Camotes Sea did not give due regard to the rolling cargo or vehicles. They were too content in their successful palletized and loose cargo operations and they underestimated the need of the rolling cargo. At the start only Golden Bridge Shipping, Simpoi Shipping and Asian Marine Transport Corporation were servicing them. It seems Lite Ferries saw the need earlier than their fellow overnight ferry companies. Well, they are strong in rolling cargo operation in Bohol and is even dominating it.

Secondly, in terms of rates none can beat the Cargo RORO LCTs. They might be slow but in terms of rates they are far cheaper than the overnight ferry companies as in they can give rates that are cheaper by 40%. Well, they don’t need to invest in passenger services and accommodations and they have small engines compared to overnight ROROs. Now they even carry container vans not in trailers to Leyte from Cebu superseding the container ships that used to call in Leyte ports from Manila.

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That is always the danger brought by Cargo RORO LCTs, the low rates. Now feeling they can’t beat it, the overnight ferry companies are beginning to acquire their own LCTs. Lite Ferries is so well ahead in this game but Roble Shipping is already following suit. Medallion Transport seems not to be that worried yet because compared to other they saw immediately the need for rolling cargo operations and were not too dependent on palletized and loose cargo operations. After all they started in short-distance ferry-RORO operations and so they might have had a better understanding of rolling cargo from the start.

The old ROROs better adjust now. From what I heard even the big Asian Shipping Corporation which has the most number of ships in the Philippines is joining the fray. It seems they might have already tired of just chartering LCTs.

In the eastern seaboard, I heard the Cargo RORO LCTs are already the favorites of the truckers. As they say money talks. Price point as decision point is simply too easy not to miss. Everybody wants savings.

To me, it is no longer a question if the Cargo RORO LCT sector will take a slice of the pie. The question is how much. From container ships to liners to overnight ships to short-distance ferries, all are threatened. They will not be overwhelmed but they must be prepared to share the pie with the Cargo RORO LCTs. By how much, now that is the guessing game. All I know is the Cargo RORO LCT rates are simply unbeatable. And that might be sending shivers now down the spine of the competition.

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And I dare say this development is good. Rolling rates are simply too high in the Philippines because the regulatory agency MARINA never learned how to compute rates. It is as if fuel and distance are never really factored in.

Rolling cargo rates of the LCTs across Camotes Sea is now lower than RORO rate across Surigao Strait. How did that happen?

The Super Shuttle RORO 12

The Super Shuttle RORO 12 of the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) is one of the biggest Cargo RORO ships in the country. It is notable not for its size alone but also for the fact that she is a balikbayan which means she was once a Philippine ship, was sold abroad and came for the second time. The only other ship here that has the same reputation is the St. Therese of Infant Jesus of 2GO which was the former SuperFerry 16 of Aboitiz Transport System.

Super Shuttle RORO 12 first came to the country in 1995 when she was then known as the ROCON I of William Lines Inc. She was the biggest cargo or container ship in the country then if flag of convenience ships (FOCs) are excluded. In gross tonnage, she was even bigger than the Princess of the Orient of Sulpicio Lines Inc., the biggest liner then in the country although the latter is longer.

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When William Lines Inc. acquired the ROCON I I think it was their answer to the purchase of the Ukraine-built and brand-new Ramon Aboitiz and Vidal Aboitiz of Aboitiz Jebsens which were also big Cargo RORO ships then by local standards. William Lines has been in the receiving end in the liner one-upmanship with Sulpicio Lines in the recent years then and maybe they were not willing to be on the receiving end of another shipping company and so getting the biggest Cargo RORO ship is maybe their way to restore pride somehow. Well, when the ROCON I arrived in Cebu she really turned heads especially since she is markedly tall.

ROCON I was built as the Mercandian Gigant for Per Henriksen. She has the ID IMO 82227333 and the MMSI Code 341028000. She was built by Danyard A/S in Frederikshavn, Denmark in 1984. Of steel hull she has two masts, one deck and two ramps at the stern. She has a total of three vehicle decks plus a sun deck which is also a car deck. The lowermost car deck is accessed by lowering a movable ramp. The main vehicle deck has a mezzanine at the front.

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This ship measures 160.5 meters by 20.7 meters by 12.3 meters in L x B x D. Her gross tonnage is 14,410 and the net tonnage is 6,014. The deadweight tonnage of the ship is 9,200 tons. The ship is powered by a single MaK engine of 6,500 horsepower. With the help of a bulbous stem, the ship was capable of 16 knots when new. At over 2,500 lane-meters, she is a power-efficient ship. I mean the cargo carrying capacity versus horsepower is high.

After arriving in 1995, this ship did not serve long with William Lines because on the first day of the next year the “Great Merger” in Philippine shipping materialized which produced the shipping company William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A). In the combined fleet of WG&A she was known as the Super RORO 200. However, with so many container ships in the company and its stress on carrying express container vans in its ROPAX liners, the Super RORO 200 was soon put up for sale along with the SuperRORO 100 and SuperRORO 300. In 1997, she was bought and she became the Caribe Merchant of Crowley Maritime and she did Caribbean routes.

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She subsequently became known as the Amirouche and flagged in St. Kitts and Nevis. In 2014, Asian Marine Transport Corp. (AMTC) purchased her from Nolis and she was conducted to the Philippines by a local crew. On arrival her first refittings were done in AMTC’s wharf in Pier 8 in Mandaue, Cebu before she was brought to Subic for the final refitting and sea test. Funny that not many still recognized here after 20 years. Doubly funny, the AMTC exec I asked if she was a local ship before seemed to have played poker with me.

Locally she carries both vehicles and container vans, both wheeled and not. Container vans are the primary cargo of the ship and the not-so-many cars she carries are mainly brand-new vehicles destined for car dealerships in the South. Locally, she does not carry truck and sedans with its drivers like in Europe. She is also not authorized to carry passengers, a restriction on local Cargo ROROs which are treated as cargo ships by MARINA.

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The ship has a medium-sized functional bridge with an attached navigators’ room. Behind the bridge and below are the cabins for the officers and the crew along with the galley (the ship’s kitchen), mess (the ship’s restaurant) and the officers’ lounge. These are all housed in the ship’s tower.

Currently the ship serves the company’s Manila-Cebu-Zamboanga-Davao-General Santos City route which is AMTC’s longest route. The schedule of departures and arrivals are most of the time approximates as the company adjusts for the volume of cargo so technically she is not a cargo liner in the strictest sense of the term. Locally, the long-distance Cargo RORO ships of the company are governed to 12 knots and speeds up only if needed.

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I have visited this ship twice and it looks like she is still in good shape. By local standards her age is not that old and MaK engines are a trusty make. Since many of the Cargo ROROs of AMTC are sourced from Europe the majority of their Cargo ROROs are actually engined with MaKs. Engineers who have worked abroad have experience with this engine make and they are many. Notably, among the big Cargo ROROs of AMTC, Super Shuttle RORO 12 has the least power but she is not the slowest.

I hope this Cargo RORO serves AMTC well. This time around maybe she deserves a longer stay in the country and I hope she will be appreciated more.

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Photos by Aris Refugio and Mike Baylon