The Bad Maharlika and Grand Star RORO Ferries Transformed

It was more than two decades ago when I first became acquainted on a regular basis with the Maharlika ships. This fleet consisted of the Maharlika I, Maharlika II, Maharlika III, Maharlika IV, Maharlika V, Maharlika VI and Maharlika VII. I just used their names with the Roman numerals for consistency because at other times they were also known with the Spanish numerals like “Uno”, “Dos”, “Tres” and so on and so forth. The fleet was basically fielded in the Eastern seaboard routes of the country like Lipata to Liloan, San Isidro or Allen to Matnog, other pioneering Bicol routes which they failed to hold (either too early for the day plus they didn’t know the tactic of subsidizing the buses) like Tabaco to Virac and Bulan to Masbate. Later, they tried the Pilar to Aroroy route where it seems they followed the feasibility study made by three renowned international shipping experts, each of have good Ph.Ds but unfortunately does not know local shipping plus they had a blip in their brains (like if a route has only one motor boat how can it then support a ROPAX?). And so,unfortunately. their data is shot full of holes and so it became a GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out).

Maharlika I

Maharlika I by Edison Sy of PSSS.

They also tried routes outside of the Eastern seaboard like Lucena to Marinduque, Batangas to Calapan and Roxas to Caticlan in support of the buses of their sister companies, the storied Philtranco which was fast becoming a shell of its former self and JAM. The Marinduque route did not last long and fortunately for them the two other routes mentioned lasted even though their buses didn’t last long in Panay island (they recently came back after the dominant bus Dimple Star was permanently suspended because of accidents). Maharlika, for brevity, is a long story of failing ships and failing routes. On the other hand, they have a boisterous and humbug CEO who is so full of himself (well, I won’t be surprised if he is a graduate of the Trump School). Like that resident of the White House, Christopher Pastrana also scored a coup with his later FastCat ships. Who said a bad thing can’t be turned in to a good thing?

When I was sailing with the Maharlika ships, I feel a letdown but this was very well-tempered because I am a grad of the even worse ships of Viva Shipping Lines of Batangas and its two legal-fiction companies. That was more palpable in the Maharlika I and Maharlika II which were fielded brand-news just fifteen years earlier (1982 and 1984) and yet were already worn down and beginning to break down (initially, a fault by the government). I did not know it yet then that Archipelago Philippine Ferries was just chartering those two ferries which were the pride of the government in the past. There is a claim that when the ships were already turning a profit the government one-sidedly changed the terms of the agreement. Whatever, it seems Archipelago Philippine Ferries, Pastrana’s company was just milking the ships out of its last value without care for the future life of the ships and the government was letting them. And to think that in the late 1990s there are even shut-outs (vessels can no longer be accommodated aboard) especially in the Liloan-Lipata route. In the main, Maharlika II was in this route and Maharlika I was in the San Isidro or Allen to Matnog route as they have been from the start.

Maharlika II in Liloan port

Maharlika II by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

After the sister ships Maharlika I and Maharlika II, Archipelago Philippine Ferries and its legal-fiction sister companies like Oro Star and Philharbor Ferries acquired two sister ships from Aki Kisen of Japan in 2000, just after the take-over of the of the first two ships, the Maharlika III and Maharlika IV which had the look of a double-ended ferry. They acquired these to bolster their operations as two ferries is not enough for their routes. The two were built in 1987 and 1993 and so in age they were younger than the first ships but just in the same decade of acquisition they are beginning to look worn down too and beginning to be unreliable. Sometimes there are cases when a ship will not sail for months and there was story of one of these newer Maharlika ships not capable of sailing being ordered towed out by the Port Manager of Liloan by a passing tug because it is clogging up his docking space (I saw that non-running ferry). Have anyone heard of ship’s ramp falling while the ship is sailing? There is a story of that in the Lipata-Liloan route and elsewhere but not necessarily running.

So in the 2000s, the period where I was frequently traveling using the Eastern seaboard route, I was wondering where Maharlika was headed. It seemed it was all a grand name (Maharlika is supposedly a legendary name with our national highway named likewise for that and there was even a Marcos plan to rename our country to “Maharlika” until some historians pointed out that “Maharlika” is of Hindu origin) but no substance or trait to support it. This was also the time when Maharlika was trying new routes which mostly bombed out.

Dapdap port

Grand Star RORO 1 and Maharlika Tres in their Dapdap port by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

Next came to them in 2002 the Maharlika V and almost all failed to after having parts of her former substructure cropped out. She first came to a related company in the Allen-Matnog route as the Christ The King when that route had a surplus of bottoms with many shipping companies competing. Her next reincarnation was as the Mindoro Express but she also did not last long in her namesake island and so she plied a route to Puerto Princesa, Palawan. It was there where she took an excursion in a shallow portion of the sea when it seems she had a fire and possibly she capsized in the fire-fighting effort. A ship owner who is a PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member shot a photo of her in Keppel shipyard in Batangas. When posted to PSSS, an eagle-eyed member thought that if the superstructure of Mindoro Express is cropped then she will look like the Maharlika V. In her permanent route of Liloan-Lipata, nobody knew what happened to her in Puerto Princesa. But even with this background, Maharlika V proved to be reliable for almost a decade. Until she became sickly too and spent two years in a shipyard in General Santos City not being repaired.

In 2003 and 2004, two old ferries from Norway built in the early 1970s came for Archipelago Philippine Ferries which became the Maharlika Seiz and Maharlika Siete. The two have very robust Wichman and Normo engines which are easy to maintain as told to me by a Norwegian ship spotter which happened to inquire to me where and in what condition they are now. Moreover, Scandinavian ships should have very strong hulls, their pride. These ex-Norwegian ships ran well for some time although the first to come, Maharlika Seiz proved to be very slow because of its small engine. They did not last that long, however, not because of the engines but because of the variable-pitch propellers, a common feature in European ships. This kind of propeller makes the engine last longer because of less stress but when that kind of propeller becomes defective it is supposedly a nightmare to repair.

Maharlika Cuatro

Maharlika Cuatro by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

When Phil-Nippon Kyoei, a new shipping company, gave up operations early this decade, Philippine Archipelago Ferries snapped up two of three ships for sale, the Grand Star RORO 1 and the Grand Star RORO 3 which also resembled double-ended ferries. The two were basically fielded in the Allen-Matnog route but the two were never renamed. In a short time though, like the Maharlika ferries the Grand Star RORO ferries looked worn out too. I can’t fathom why for a company having a sister company that deals in paints (CAPP) can’t have enough paint to have the ferries looking good. Well, maybe, that was the Pastrana standard then, the Pastrana way of doing things. And when Pastrana got his first FastCat, he told the spiel that he dreamed of good ferries serving Philippine waters after seeing bad ferries all around. But, the storyteller that he was, Pastrana does not have the gumption to say he was looking at his own ferries.

Liloan ships

Maharlika Cinco and Maharlika Seiz in Liloan Ferry Terminal. From ppavis.com.

When the first FastCat came, some of his ferries are no longer running especially Maharlika I which was just sidelined. They tried to sell that but of course, the government being the owner calls the shots. The sale of this ship to the breakers made the sister ship Maharlika II a better ship and it was in a long time that I saw her in good paint, and faster. It is possible after all some parts were first transferred to the sister. However, as her wont, Maharlika II stalled off Panaon island and the crew failed to start even one engine (well, Maharlika is also used to running on one engine). It is a big question why Maharlika IV which was just nearby did not come to her rescue for several hours until the seas turned rough with the coming of the night (as if they didn’t know this will happen). A story from a former employee says that if Maharlika IV sails and rescues her more questions will be unearthed. It is just so bad for the passengers of Maharlika II, some of who died in Surigao Strait, a busy shipping lane but there is no Coast Guard rescue ship (it has to borrow ferries on the route to effect a rescue) because most of their better ships as just used as port guards and serve as offices and suites of their commanders in the big cities and ports.

The sinking paved way for the fast disposal of the Maharlika and Grand Star RORO ships. Selling them fast will lessen the questions on their shipworthiness and the stoppage of their use will make people forget easy a tragedy happened and anyway they got suspended too. What remained running before the FastCats came in big numbers are the Grand Star RORO ships and so they only got sold later. That was important for them in the Matnog-Allen route when they were not immediately able to secure a berth where their peculiar docking ramp will be placed. Actually for a time they had no running ships in many routes as the early phase-out of their ships were forced unto them. But maybe that played into their hands as people who don’t normally sail fail to get the connection of Maharlika and FastCat.

Uknown

Maharlika Siete by John Carlos Cabanillas of PSSS.

The Maharlika Cuatro and Maharlika Cinco (their naming then) was sold a “neighbor” in Leyte, the Gabisan Shipping Lines. The Maharlika Cinco was retained by the company and this became the Gloria V and the Maharlika Cuatro was sold to Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) of Catanduanes. Meanwhile, the Maharlika Tres was sold to Atienza Inter-island Ferries of Manila but later they also sold this to Regina Shipping Lines. Maharlika Seiz and Maharlika Siete were sold to breakers in Navotas but the custom there is to “display” the ships first in the hope that someone will buy it whole. And it did not help them that world metal prices were low in the past half-decade. Later, the Grand Star RORO 1 and Grand Star RORO 3 were also sold to Regina Shipping Lines. So, in total of the ships not lost or sold to the breakers only one, the Maharlika V is not in the possession of Regina Shipping Lines which then thereby sold their basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. Traffic in Catanduanes is on the big upsurge after all.

Maharlika Tres became the Regina Calixta VIII, Maharlika IV became the Regina Calixta VII, the Grand Star RORO 1 became the Regina Calixta VI, the Regina Calixta III became the Regina Calixta IX and later as the second Regina Calixta IV after the former holder of that name, which was the former Grand Star RORO 2 was sold to Dinagat to become the Cab-ilan of Waters-up MPC. Six of the ships of Regina Shipping Lines were former ferries of Christopher Pastrana who treated them badly and just covered it up in media by being noisy and boastful.

Grand Star RORO 3

Grand Star RORO 3 by Joe Cardenas III of PSSS.

And how are these ferries faring under the care of Gov. Joseph Cua of Catanduanes, the owner of Regina Shipping Lines? Very, very well as Albayanos and Catanduganons know. The superstructures changed now (no, they are not taller) and the paint is good. The interiors changed a lot too. Central to the changed motif is to make the journey as experience although it will only last four hours or less, the usual transit time between Tabaco, Albay and San Andres (the former Calolbon), Catanduanes, a route where Regina Shipping Lines (RSL)has no direct competitor (their competitor holds another competing route, that to Virac, the capital of Catanduanes). Regina Shipping Lines is a pioneer on the route. The ships have an airconditioned sections now that is modeled after a KTV lounge where before these ships under Pastrana have no airconditioned sections. And of course everything is spic and span after a long remodeling in Mayon Docks in Tabaco under the supervision of an SNAME naval architect who happens to be a PSSS member.

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Regina Calixta VIII, the former Maharlika Tres by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

The engines were refurbished too and all are very reliable now aside from running even better than their design speed. And to think these are ferries built in the 1980s (five) and 1990s (one). Maybe the top guns of MARINA, the maritime regulatory body should first do an educational tour of the RSL ferries before they deliberate on the proposal to cull the 35-year old ferries. Maybe they can learn a thing or two there. They should also take note too that no steel-hulled ferry ever sank in the route to Catanduanes.

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Aircon accommodation of Regina Calixta VI, the former Gtand Star RORO 1. Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

I was not really surprised by all these happenings to the former bad ferries of Pastrana. Gov. Cua operated very good RSL buses from Catanduanes and Tabaco to Manila. Like the premium bus companies of Bicol they invested in good seats and refurbished their buses before it becomes worn out and are no longer looking good. And that has paid off in passenger loyalty and good words and respect to them. RSL (this is how they are called in Bicol) did these refurbishing even though they have no direct competitor and they are always full that at times their ship has to sail back again as there are a good number of shut-outs. That just shows how they care and greed is not their paramount norm in running their shipping business.

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Regina Calixta VII, the former Maharlika Cuatro. Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

Meanwhile, the only old bad Pastrana ferry not in RSL hands had also be refurbished and re-engined by Gabisan Shipping and is also reliable now except for some hiccups at the start. It looks like the hull might still be okay after re-plating given her stint beneath the waves and the long lay-over in Gensan (well, weakened hull plates can be replaced). The story said from the shipyard there she had difficulty reaching Liloan municipal port where first works was done on her. Now, the ship has a Tourist Class too with decent accommodations. She had had more visits to the shipyards maybe because further repairs might have been needed given the sorry state when Gabisan Shipping first acquired her. Anyway, I give enough credit to Gabisan Shipping for saving her. I thought before she no longer had a chance given her history and condition. Now I wish MARINA can give her more life.

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Regina Calixta VIII (ex-Maharlika Tres) Tourist. Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS.

Meanwhile, for the veterans of the Eastern seaboard, they all know Christopher Pastrana has long been in the Hall of Shame but maybe he is now trying to change that with his FastCats. Well, it is easy when one is given new ships and one looks always good at the start when handed new ships. It is credit to him for his innovate catamaran-RORO design whoever is his benefactor may be but the banks deserve the credit too for opening its purses. His challenge now is how to pay for all of those ships. If he fails it will be the banks which will be holding the empty bag.

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When A Lackluster Shipping Company Became A Successful Motorcycle Company

The Pan-Oriental Shipping Company was one of the shipping companies that rose in Cebu after World War II, one of the replacements of the Cebu shipping companies that did not survive the war. This shipping company was among those who were able to purchase surplus World War II ships tendered by the Philippine Government. These are the ships given to the Philippines by the US to jump start the economy and not among those given as replacement for the ships lost during the war or the ships they ordered scuttled to prevent it from falling into the enemy hands and be used against the Allies. The ships were also atonement for the massive air attacks against the Japanese that practically wiped out many of the infrastructure of Manila.

POS

From the Manila Chronicle  1/13/52. Research by Gorio Belen of PSSS in the National Library.

The Pan-Oriental Shipping Co. started operations in 1948 doing the Cebu-Manila v.v. route. Like some of the other ships then, there were modifications carried out in the superstructure to accommodate passengers (the surplus Army transports were actually not people carriers). It did not have the sophistication, if that term is appropriate, of similar ex-“FS” ships of the major shipping lines.

The first passenger-cargo ship (I am leery of using the world “liner” here) of the Pan-Oriental Shipping was the Oriental that was acquired in 1948 and the name is not a surprise, of course. She was the former “FS”ship FS-318 built by John H. Mathis & Company Shipbuilders in Camden, New Jersey, USA in 1944 for the US Army as its own transport and in the main they were manned by US Coast Guard personnel.

Oriental

The MV Oriental. From the Manila Chronicle  1/13/52. Research by Gorio Belen of PSSS in the National Library.

The Oriental’s Length Over-all (LOA) was 53.9 meters with a Length Between Perpendiculars (LPP) of 50.7 meters and Breadth of 9.8 meters. The Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) of the ship remained at 560 tons even though there were additions to the superstructure. Weighed down by additional metal and for greater stability, her Depth rose from 3.2 meters to 4.3 meters. The ship was powered by two General Motors engines with a total of 1,000 horsepower that gave her a speed of 11 knots.  The permanent ID latter given to the Oriental was IMO Number 5264895.

Pan-Oriental Shipping’s next acquisition came in the next year, 1949, and this was the former “FS” ship FS-350 which was built by J.K. Welding in Yonkers, New York, USA in 1944 for the US Army, too. In the Pan-Oriental fleet she was named as the Occidental. The name is not surprising also.

Occidental

The MV Occidental. From the Manila Chronicle 12/3/53 (the attached date is incorrect). Research of Gorio Belen of PSSS in the National Library.

The Occidental’s external dimensions were exactly the same as that of the Oriental but the Gross Register Tonnage (GRT) is only 558 tons. That was after there were additions to the superstructure (funny, isn’t it?) The ship was also powered by two General Motors engines with a total of 1,000 horsepower that gave her a similar speed of 11 knots.  The IMO Number of the ship was 5260045.

After another year, in 1950, the Pan-Oriental Shipping acquired their third ship which was also another former “FS” ship, the FS-197 which was built by Higgins in New Orleans, Louisiana for the US Army too in 1944. Higgins was the company that designed and built the famous Higgins boat which was used as beach assault craft in World War II. In the Pan-Oriental fleet the FS-197 was named as the Continental.

Continental

The MV Continental. Research by Gorio Belen of PSSS in the National Library.

This ship was a little longer than the Oriental and Occidental at 54.9 meters LOA with an LPP of 51.2 meters and the common Breadth of 9.8 meters of all the FS ships. With additional metal the GRT of Continental went down from 573 tons to 512 tons (so GRT shaving was not a recent phenomenon). The ship is powered by two General Motors engines with 1,000 horsepower on tap giving her a cruising speed of 11 knots. The IMO Number of the ship was 6117935.

The Oriental, Occidental and Continental being all former “FS” ships were all sister ships. The ships were purchased from the Philippine Government through the Rehabilitation Finance Corporation (RFC) which was a predecessor of the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP). As mentioned before, US Government gave it to the Philippines to help the economy recover from the war.

The sole route of the Pan-Oriental ships was Manila-Cebu, v.v. and they stressed cargo rather than passengers. However, as time went by there were already plenty of ships calling in Cebu from Manila as Cebu is an in-port of ships still proceeding to Mindanao.  After all, they have to carry and supply the Cebuano migrants in that land of opportunity but that resulted in the displacements on the natives of the island.

Having a ship with just a sole port of call was actually disadvantageous as it does not maximize the ship. And that was compounded by just a once a week sailing. Competitors, on a once a week schedule with calls in Cebu, Tagbilaran, Dumaguete, Ozamis and Iligan can also do a once a week sailing

In 1954, after six years of operation, the Pan-Oriental Shipping quit the shipping business by selling out altogether lock, stock and barrel. The Oriental and Occidental went to Carlos Go Thong & Co. while the Continental went to Compania Maritima in the end after several transfers. With the sale of the two ships to Go Thong & Co., that company became a national liner company from being just a regional shipping company. Initially, Oriental and Occidental retained their names in the Go Thong fleet. After several years, the Oriental was renamed to the Don Jose and the Occidental was renamed to the Don Francisco. Meanwhile, the Continental became the second Basilan of Compania Maritima. All three had new superstructures in their new companies.

1963-4-29 Everett & Go Thong

From the Philippine Herald. Research by Gorio Belen of PSSS in the National Library.

The Pan-Oriental Shipping Company was owned by Norberto Quisumbing (sounds familiar?). After selling the company he founded Norkis in Mactan island (in Opon, now Lapu-lapu City) which assembles the well-liked and popular Yamaha motorcycles. Everybody knows how successful were the Quisumbings in motorcycles. And that is also true for Go Thong (later Gothong) in shipping and later they spawned the legendary Sulpicio Lines Incorporrated and Lorenzo Shipping Company.

The transaction between Pan-Oriental and Go Thong proved to be a win-win deal for the two companies.

 

The Biggest Passenger-Cargo Ship in the Philippines in the 1930s

The 1930s was a golden era for Philippine passenger shipping. There were a lot of passenger-cargo ships that came and local shipbuilding was also in its peak. We benefited from World War I when demand for abaca, copra and coal went through the roof and it spurred shipbuilding and trading. The development of the internal-combustion engine also greatly helped that.

The Great Depression of 1929 of the US came but did not affect our shipping and shipbuilding, in the main. What were affected were the US producers being competed by our duty-free copra and abaca and so they were in favor of letting the Philippine Islands (that was what our country was called then) go. That was why our “independence missions” then were successful. However, their industrialists continued to covet our mineral resources and protect their industries here.

SS Mayon, Pier 3, Manila, Philippines, preparing to leave for Mindanao and way ports south, August 22, 1933

Copyright: Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Posted by John Tewell.

From small liners with just a few hundred gross register tons and whom about half were wooden-hulled, in the years leading to 1930 many steel-hulled liners of nearly a thousand gross register tons or more came. And for the first time, new-builds became commonplace and it was the La Naviera Filipina (the merged shipping company of the Escanos and the Aboitizes) and De la Rama Steamship that led this charge assisted by the independent Aboitiz & Company, Inc.

For the first time, the highest of the totem pole of local shipping being held by Madrigal & Co. and Compania Maritima was being challenged. It was De la Rama Steamship that had the big ships that could challenge the Top Two. La Naviera, meanwhile, have smaller ships but more numerous and the size was understandable because their route is primarily the Central Visayas and they do not do the southern Mindanao route which needs bigger ships.

However, the biggest passenger-cargo ship in the local routes then did not belong to any of the four if our oceangoing liners which are mainly cargo ships with a few passengers are excluded (those were Madrigal & Co. ships). The honor belonged to the Philippine Interisland Steamship Co. with its liner SS Mayon which was acquired in 1930.  The Dollar Steamship Co. of the US was the leader in bringing about this great liner to our waters.

SS Mayon, loading an automobile for a trip to Mindanao and way ports south, Manila, Philippines, August 22, 1933

Copyright: Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Posted by John Tewell.

The SS Mayon, a brand-new ship was considered the most luxurious of its time that President Quezon even sails with it. Now, I will let the Philippines Herald tell her story:

“Known as the most luxurious ship in the interisland service, the Mayon was built in 1930 by Vickers-Armstrong, Ltd., In Barrow, Great Britain, for the Philippine Interisland Steamship company. She is classified as 100-A1 by Lloyd’s, the highest classification for ships.

A twin-screw turbine ship, she is of 3,371 gross and 1,529 net tons. She is 347.5 feet long, 50.4 feet wide and 16.3 feet deep. She is capable of a speed of 21 knots, and is equipped with refrigerating machinery.

The Mayon arrived from Glasgow on October 28, 1930, and left on her maiden voyage in Philippine waters six days later. The late Captain Robert Dollar, known as the Grand Old Man of the Pacific, came to the Philippines with Mrs. Dollar to inaugurate the service. Captain and Mrs. Dollar were among the passengers on the maiden voyage of the Mayon to the southern islands.

The Mayon has been used on the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cebu run on a weekly schedule, sailing from Manila on Tuesday afternoon and returning on Sunday morning.”

In metric measure, SS Mayon is 105.9 meters in Length Over-all and 15.4 meters in Breadth.

However, the SS Mayon was not making that much money and Dollar Steamship also has its problems including the death of its founder. To save the ship which was the pride of the Philippine merchant marine, the Philippine Government acquired the ship and assigned it to the Manila Railroad Company and one would ask what is a railroad company doing in shipping.

S. S. Princes of Negros and S. S. Mayon at wharf, Iloilo, Philippines, Aug. 23, 1933

Copyright: Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

Well, the Manila Railroad Company, the predecessor of Philippine National Railways operated ferries to connect the passengers of their Bicol Line to their South (Luzon) Line. The government especially President Quezon has long been beneficent to the Manila Railroad Co. that they and he also allowed it to operate liners. Well, that service was needed also by the people.

In 1940, the nascent Manila Steamship Co. Inc. acquired the SS Mayon. During that time Manila Railroad Company was already beginning to divest from shipping especially since the South Line and Bicol Line of the company was already connected. It is to the Manila Steamship Co. of the Elizaldes that the Ynchaustis transferred their shipping company to fight in the Spanish Civil War as a matter of principle.

I was in wonder retrospectively how come the Philippines was still investing heavily in shipping when World War II was already raging in Europe. We thought that the Japan Empire will be intimidated by the combined American, British and Dutch forces?

And so war came in December of 1941 and we were immediately in crisis especially after the US Asiatic Fleet abandoned us and hied off to Australia. With that the US Army Transport (USAT) otherwise known as the PI Support Fleet was formed with 25 ships, almost all of whom were passenger-cargo ships and they ferried troops, materiel, government personnel, government records, currency, gold, silver and many other things.

The ship Mayon used as Sinulog prop

A drawing of SS Mayon used as prop in Sinulog. Photo b Mike Baylon of PSSS.

This fleet had no air support as US aircraft was also withdrawn from the Philippines and the Japanese invaders had complete control of the sky. SS Mayon’s luck ran out on February 2, 1942 when Japanese warplanes caught her in Butuan Bay. She was strafed and bombed and she sank, a piteous fate for one who was formerly the Queen of our seas.

After the war, in 1946, the Manila Steamship acquired a ferry to replace her with the same name SS Mayon. She was almost as big as the original and had a certain resemblance to her. However, she was not a new ship and was even older than the ship she replaced. But I will stop here now as that ship deserves a separate story.

 

 

Philtranco Always Tried Horizontal Integration

Horizontal integration is the setting up or the acquisition of a company at the same level of the value chain and that is meant to help the company compete. It can be a competitive strategy where economies of scale, more efficiency and increase of market power are the objectives. Companies engage in horizontal integration to benefit from possible synergies. But sometimes the resolution of a problem or a bottleneck prods a company into horizontal integration.

Philtranco Service Enterprises, Inc. (PSEI), the leading bus company in the Philippines then tried this strategy over a generation ago. From running a big fleet of buses from Manila to the southern part of the Philippines up to Davao City, they established their own RORO companies in the San Bernardino Strait crossing that linked Sorsogon and Samar. However, the results were certainly very mixed, to say the least, and controversial.

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The Cardinal Ferry 1. Research by Gorio Belen of PSSS in the National Library.

Since 1979, Philtranco buses (they were still known as Pantranco South then) have been rolling across already to Eastern Visayas via the San Bernardino Strait using the newly-fielded RORO Cardinal Ferry 1 of Cardinal Shipping. Newport Shipping which had ferries and cargo ships from Manila to Samar then followed with their Northern Star and Laoang Bay.

This reaction of Newport Shipping was very understandable as Newport Shipping was not really doing well with their Manila to Samar route and maybe they felt they have to defend their home turf as the owner of Newport Shipping is from Laoang, Northern Samar. They might have also felt that this new intermodal route might kill them in the long term and so they have to join the fun.

"Maharllika 1" Ferry unloading Bus

MV Northern Samar. Formerly the MV Northern Star before she was refitted. Photo by Lindsay Bridge of PSSS.

Before the ROROs arrived it was the motor boats of Bicolandia Shipping Lines (this company has legal-fiction companies like E. Tabinas) which dominated the route across San Bernardino Strait. But with the buses now rolling the passengers no longer have to cut their bus trip to Matnog and they do not take a local bus to Allen, Northern Samar to take the lancha (motor boat). Convenience is what the intermodal system offered. Cargo of the passengers that was once a hassle became less with the bus for it afforded less handling and haggling.

Immediately, there was a surplus of bottoms in San Bernardino Strait as the government-owned Maharlika II (later replaced by Maharlika I whom it replaced earlier) was also plying the official Matnog to San Isidro, N. Samar route. Moreover, the passengers to Eastern Visayas did not immediately shift to the buses especially the passengers to Leyte. They were still content with the liners of Sulpicio Lines and William Lines which had calls in Calbayog, Catbalogan, Tacloban and other ports in Leyte and Southern Leyte. In terms of comfort the bus is actually inferior to the liners which has its own toilets and baths, are equipped with bunks with mattresses and even linen (called “beddings”) plus the meals are free and the rice servings are generous. However, they only call in ports unlike buses which roll through the various towns.

Maharlika I

The Maharlika I. Photo from Edison Sy of PSSS.

In the aftermath of that surplus of bottoms, Cardinal Shipping and Newport Shipping teetered especially when Eugenia Tabinas got into the RORO act starting when she was able to acquire the Northern Star in 1981 which she then renamed into the Northern Samar. Eugenia Tabinas was in a strong position as she dominated the intra-Bicol routes with her motor boats and so she can compete in one of her routes at just break-even.

However, with many buses crossing San Bernardino Strait, Philtranco thought they could save money if they operated their own ROROs where they will always have priority. And so they also got caught in the RORO act (they were still strong then and they have just re-fleeted into Hino) and they thereby acquired the Laoang Bay of Newport Shipping which was renamed into the Black Double. In 1984, this became the Philtranco Ferry 1 of Philtranco Services.

1984 0915 MV Philtranco Ferry I

The Philtranco Ferry I. Research of Gorio Belen of PSSS in the National Library.

It is here that things began to get interesting and lively. Eugenia Tabinas or Bicolandia Shipping smelled that Philtranco was operating without a Certificate of Public Conveyance (CPC) and complained to MARINA, the Maritime Industry Authority which is the country’s maritime regulatory agency and which has quasi-judicial powers. Philtranco countered that since they were only loading their own buses then there is no need for them to get a CPC. Now, if MARINA agrees with that then Philtranco will be the only sea carrier without a CPC and that has great implications.

Along the way, Black Double got unreliable as she was built in 1962 and diesel engines were not yet as reliable (with changes in design and technology that changed in the mid-1960s especially when Daihatsu marine engines became dominant). She was sold to Badjao Navigation and she became the Badjao and she plied a route from Cebu island to Leyte.

While the case was pending (as it reached the higher courts as MARINA quasi-judicial decisions can be appealed in the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court), Philtranco acquired the salvaged Mindoro Express from Prince Valiant Navigation which then became the Christ The Saviour and Christ The King. The RORO became the Luzvimin Primo because she was now under the Luzvimin Ferry Services, the new ferry company of Philtranco.

Mindoro Express ( now Maharlika Cinco )

The Mindoro Express just before she became the Christ The King and Luzvimin Primo . Photo by Edison Sy of PSSS.

In due time (which means a long time), the Supreme Court sustained the ruling of MARINA that a shipping company cannot carry passengers without a CPC and the ferry service of Philtranco stopped. By that time Philtranco was already toppling and it was fast losing its Hino buses.

Philtranco then fell into the hands of transportation mogul Pepito Alvarez who then equipped Philtranco with his new MAN and Nissan buses. Soon, he was able to reach a deal with the administration of President Fidel V. Ramos to operate the already-weak Maharlika ferries which in that time consisted only of Maharlika I and Maharlika II (this one was not in San Bernardino Strait but in Surigao Strait).

After settling in, Pepito Alvarez added the Maharlika Tres, Maharlika Cuatro and Lakbayan Uno (this was later sold to Millennium Shipping). And then the Luzvimin Primo became the Maharlika Cinco. Later, the Maharlika Seiz and Maharlika Siete were also also added to be followed by the Grand Star RORO 1 and Grand Star RORO 3 which came from Phil-Nippon Kyoei. This time Philtranco was already careful about the CPC. In these moves, Pepito Alvarez worked through his protégé Cristopher Pastrana.

Liloan ships

Maharlika Cinco and Maharlika Seiz. Photo from the PPA.

The horizontal integration of Philtranco was not necessarily beneficial for the passengers unless maybe in its early years when the dominant Bicolandia Shipping Lines engaged in what is locally-known as “alas-puno” system of departures when a ferry will only leave if it was already full of rolling cargo (and that was the cause of their downfall later). With that system, the buses and its passengers lose time and it could be in the hours.

But when ROROs bloomed in San Bernardino Strait, horizontal integration became a negative because Philtranco buses have to wait for the ferries (Maharlika ferries were not so reliable and it tried many routes in the country including in Catanduanes, Masbate, Marinduque, Batangas and Panay and so its presence in San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait was actually diluted and trips were few) as Philtranco buses have no freedom to sail in competing ferries.

I was once a passenger aboard a Philtranco bus from Davao. Our driver was driving fast so we can board the morning RORO of Maharlika in their Dapdap port (owned by sister company Philharbor). We arrived at 8:30am only to see the ferry has just left. There was only one Maharlika RORO then there and we waited for its return. Finally, we left Dapdap port at 1:30pm and everybody was so pissed up including the drivers as we saw several ferries leaving the competing BALWHARTECO port ahead of us. If our Philtranco bus had freedom, we would have been aboard the first of those that left BALWHARTECO port and saved several hours of waiting time.

Dapdap port

Grand Star RORO I and Maharlika Tres in Dapdap port. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

The Philtranco driver/conductors also didn’t like that they have no freedom to load the buses in competing ROROs. The reason is they can’t avail of the “rebates” offered by the competing shipping companies. This comes in the form of free ferry tickets that can be sold by the driver/conductors to their passengers. Even if only half the tickets are free that can come up to an average of P1,500 for the driver/conductors in additional income.

When Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the name of the shipping company established by Pepito Alvarez) weakened and they just had a limited number of ROROs running, Philtranco finally allowed its buses to ride the competing ferries as passengers began to shun them. However, when the FastCat ROROs came for Archipelago Philippine Ferries, the Philtranco buses were no longer allowed that again. There was also the experiment where the Philtranco buses were no longer boarded aboard the FastCat ROROs and only the passengers and their cargo were loaded. In that system, a Philtranco bus will be waiting at the opposite port.

Philtranco 1833 and 1710

Philtranco buses that disembarked from a FastCat. Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS.

Now, Philtranco’s fleet is whittled and it is already far from its number in the 1980s after they re-fleeted from Leyland to Hino. And the tables turned already. It is so-many FastCats that needs them now and not the other way around.

Now, did you know that founder A.L. Ammen tried horizontal integration too?

The Remnants of the Galleons

1924 Mulle de la Industira

The nearest representation of shipping of about a century ago that I know.

If I would ask the question what was the second-biggest shipbuilding area in the Philippines a century ago, I am almost sure nobody can give the right answer. I think almost all will say that the answer is Cebu. But actually, there was an area that was ahead of Cebu in shipbuilding then and that was Sorsogon and maybe all will wonder how can that be when Sorsogon is no longer heard in shipbuilding today. Now, maybe you are tickled enough already.

I want to give a historical background first. During the Spanish rule when Mexico was not yet independent from Spain, the Spaniards ran a galleon trade between Islas Filipinas and Mexico where goods from China were sent in that country and a portion of that was further sent to Spain. A successful voyage was immensely profitable but many also failed to reach Mexico because the ships were hit by storms or armed vessels of the British caught them. Galleons had to be continually built as most voyages were one-way trips to the misfortune of the indio sailors who were mostly shanghaied.

The biggest galleon-building areas then were in Bicol and Cavite. In Bicol, the Spaniards established ten shipyards, the biggest of which was located in Magallanes, Sorsogon. But actually, the whole of Sorsogon Bay was involved in galleon-building as the activity of the bay is just like one as it was not as diversified as the activity in Manila Bay then. Except that there is a mouth, Sorsogon Bay is just like one shallow saltwater lake.

And besides, early in Spanish rule, Sorsogon Bay played a route in the communications of the Spanish regime. You see, the province of Ibalon then (the combined Albay and Sorsogon of today) connected to Iloilo rather than to Manila because it is easier to connect to that because in the age of sails, the direction of the monsoons has to be respected and so regime ships from Iloilo land in Sorsogon Bay on the way to Castilla, Sorsogon. When the current province of Albay was first explored by the Spaniards in the 16th century, the point of entry was Sorsogon Bay but then they started from Cebu.

It seems that shipbuilding by shipwrights spawned by the galleon trade lived long that a century later after the galleon trade stopped the people in Sorsogon Bay still know how to build wooden-hulled ships well so much so that ship owners all over the country still ordered wooden-hulled ships from Sorsogon.

To compare, 31 locally-built ships of 44 gross register tons and over were built around Manila Bay (that means Manila, Rizal, Cavite and Bataan) from a century ago and earlier. 44 GRT is about 25 meters in Length and 5.5 meters in Breadth and that was the size that is already of significant size for me then when the ships and the population were still small As a comparison, the smallest of the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs is about 25 meters in length.

Of that size, 15 were built in Sorsogon Bay, about half of that built in Manila Bay but Sorsogon Bay is not even half of the latter in size, population and importance and it has no industries unlike Manila which is the national capital. Cebu was just in third place with a measly seven ships built and Iloilo was even trailing Cebu as a shipbuilding area. Almost all these ships were wooden-hulled.

The ships of at least 44 GRT built in Sorsogon Bay were the Pilar (b. 1914, 251grt), R. Melliza (b. 1889, 181grt), San Vicente (b. 1919, 176grt), Victoria (b. 1886, 136grt), Aurora (b. 1918, 134grt), Ventura (b. 1884, 129grt), Tabi (b. 1918, 89grt), Luz (b. 1920, 80grt), Amarillo (b. 1887, 70grt), Rafaela II (b. 1920, 69grt), Luna (b. 1915, 64grt), Cascante (b. 1896, 61grt), Ormoc (b. 1919, 56grt), Olite (b. 1897, 56grt) and the Mari (b. 1913, 55grt). Most of the 15 ships were powered by gasoline engines. The towns where they were built were Sorsogon, Donsol and Pilar. Donsol once built galleons too.

Among the 15, the Pilar, R. Melliza and Ventura became liners from Manila with the first and third owned by the Rio y Olabarrieta shipping company which had routes from Manila to Palawan and as far as the town of Balabac at the southern tip of the province. Meanwhile, the R. Melliza of Isidoro Goliman Limquiaco had a route from Manila to Bicol and later to Cebu.

A century ago, the two biggest ship owners then in Cebu that were engaged in regional shipping were the Aboitiz and Escano families and they were precisely those which ordered ships from Sorsogon with Escano being the leader. In all likelihood, those two intertwined families whose fortune was built then in abaca might have discovered the abaca of Sorsogon.

The Victoria and the Ormoc were owned by the Escano family while the Aurora was owned by the Aboitiz family. Meanwhile, three of the ships in the list were owned by the Lizzaraga Hermanos, the biggest regional shipping company in Western Visayas then (it was not yet De la Rama SS). Those were the Cascante, Olite and Pamplona. So it looks like that the acceptance of the Sorsogon-built ships were far and wide and one might have even went to Zamboanga, the Luna.

Now, Sorsogon is no longer heard in shipbuilding and probably the primary reason for that is what is being built now are steel-hulled ships and Sorsogon Bay is not an industrialized area and so the materials needed to build ships like steel and acetylene are not as available there. Plus in the immediate postwar years, electricity is not common and shipbuilding is a big consumer of that.

Whatever, I just want people to know that once and for several centuries Sorsogon was great in shipbuilding.

Maasin Port Is An “Anomaly” And So Is The City

Maasin City as a provincial capital of Southern Leyte is an ”anomaly” but this is in no way meant to insult it and its people. But there is no other provincial capital in the country where the capital is the last and furthermost locality. And that becomes a problem for the people of its towns on the other end like San Ricardo and Silago. They would have to spend several hours on the road just to reach their capital should they need a transaction there. And funny, to reach Maasin faster, even public vehicles go back through Bato in the neighboring  Leyte province to take the mountain road that starts at Bontoc town because it is shorter and travel time is faster. Going back, many take the same road too.

Donna Simon

Maasin port by Donna Simon

Maasin port became an anomaly too because of that road. Ferries from Cebu would rather dock in Bato or Hilongos port in Leyte rather than Maasin port and its vehicles and the shuttles (called “boat service” when the ferries are not boats) will also take the Bato to Bontoc road. But the national government through the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) will always give priority to Maasin port because it has the designation as a provincial port even though the de-facto ports of entry now of Southern Leyte are the Hilongos and Bato ports in Leyte province.

Those two mentioned ports were so deadly especially with an extension like shuttle buses for passengers and a shortcut to Bontoc via Bato. The two killed the overnight ferries to Sogod, Liloan and Cabalian (or San Juan) especially those of ill-fated Maypalad Shipping (pun intended). Those ports have no chance as their ferries arrive near noon while ferries In Hilongos and Bato aided by shuttle buses can deliver passengers in those towns before breakfast. And the over-all fare is even lower because land fares are much cheaper than sea fares. Moreover, going to Cebu they would have just to wait for the shuttles instead of taking a local commute to the port and no transfers are needed.

Even Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) which has been loyally serving Maasin port (it was a bread and butter of the company in its earlier years) cannot increase its frequency to the city as its passengers now are just from Maasin and the towns between Maasin and Bontoc. In rolling cargo, unless they do some sacrifice they cannot match the rates of the ROROs serving Hilongos and Bato because the distance of the two from Cebu is shorter.

There is even no hope now of a fielding a RORO to the ports of Sogod, Liloan and Cabalian because in rates it can never compete with the Hilongos and Bato ROROs whose rates will be much lower because of the much shorter distance. Sogod, Liloan and Cabalian might be a little far but a car or a truck can easily roll to that and the fuel consumed will be much less compared to a RORO rate. Plus the total time will be way shorter. No way they can really win.

I do not think this situation will change in the future because one can’t change geography.  And thus one thing that could have boosted Maasin, that of being a good port of entry is really not around. Maasin could also not be a port of entry from Surigao like in the old past when ports were lacking because it is the farthest locality of Southern Leyte from Surigao.

In my wandering thoughts , I cannot even understand why Maasin became the capital of Southern Leyte when Sogod is the center point of the three “tentacles” of the province – the series of towns to Maasin, the series of towns to Silago and the series of towns to San Ricardo at the tip of Panaon island. Sogod could have been the commercial town of the province but a direct ship to Cebu hampered that, I think. Now, so-many intermodal trucks roam Southern Leyte already.

In the old past, liners from Manila also came to Maasin, Sogod and Cabalian. But those days are long gone now and will never come back again. Intermodal trucks from Manila have already cobbled up many of the cargo to the eastern seaboard of the country so much so that the old great port of Tacloban is diminished now.

And that also diminished Maasin port. Especially since the Palawan Princess of Sulpicio Lines which called on the port before is also gone now. Whatever, long live Maasin!

Philippine Passenger-Cargo Shipping During The Commonwealth Era And On The Eve Of The Pacific War

Even before the advent of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935, the Filipino ship owners (this the more proper term as there are American shipping companies operating in the Philippines then as they are free to do so as we are a colony of the US and thus part of their territory) began gearing up for the time when the American steamers will be supplanted by them. It is always the hope of top local businessmen and industrialists of colonies that when independence came that they will replace on top the businessmen and industrialists of their former masters. This was actually their hope also when we were still under Spanish rule, one of the reasons why many of the elite favored the Revolution against Spain. As they say, it is but just natural. And that is one reason why they were for independence for they expect to benefit.

Before the Commonwealth Era began, the biggest shipping companies were Madrigal & Co. and Compania Maritima, the latter with Spanish origins and connections. The two were mainly based in Manila and were about equal in size but direct comparison is not easy as Madrigal & Co. had pure cargo ships in the foreign trade whereas Compania Maritima concentrated on the inter-island passenger-cargo shipping. Compania Maritima was the biggest at the start of the American time but Vicente Madrigal, who has a reputation for Midas touch caught up starting in the time of World War I as the coal and vegetable oil market boomed because of the war and Vicente Madrigal had heavily invested in both. He had the country’s biggest coal mine then in Batan island in Albay. Besides, he was also in the primary export commodity then which was abaca and which also boomed during the war.

Madrigal & Co. had five ships over 110 meters in length (and those will not look small even today) and such size was few in those times. Their biggest, the Don Jose measured 159.6 meters x 20.0 meters and had a GRT (Gross Register Tonnage) of 10,893 tons (and this is in SuperFerry range). The fleet of Madrigal & Co. was even bigger before the Commonwealth era as Vicente Madrigal was forced to send big ships to the breakers and also sell a few to other shipping companies in the aftermath of the economic downturn  and its effect on shipping during the Great Depression of 1929 in the US. That provoked a protectionism in that US that also made easier the passage of the independence acts sought by Filipinos as the US farmers were feeling the effect of tariff-free imports from the colonies. The claim of the Madrigal scions that once they were the biggest in shipping in the country is certainly true because their big businesses boosted their shipping. Many shipping owners then ventured into shipping because they have goods to move and they want certainty in bottoms and preferential rates, of course. And moreover, ships are also big status symbols.

Compania Maritima grew big right at the start of the American period by buying out Spanish-era shipping companies especially Reyes y Cia (this is pronounced as “Compania”) and the MacLeod & Co. which divested from shipping but retained their business interests in the country which centered on trade distribution. After that, its next period of growth started in the mid-1920s and continued up to 1935 when its ship acquisitions stopped suddenly. Being Spanish citizens also then they might still have been observing how they will be affected by the coming independence of the country that will happen after ten years of a Commonwealth period which is the preparatory and training period for independence and where Filipinos will hold high places in government already. But then also they might have been affected by the looming Spanish Civil War and the unrest before that. The ships of Compania Maritima from 1924 to 1935 formed the big part of their fleet which was overtaken by the Pacific War which commenced on December 7, 1941.

The most notable of the other fleets then in the Commonwealth Era were the related shipping companies La Naviera Filipina Inc. and the Aboitiz & Co. Inc. The first was actually a partnership of the Spanish-derived Escano and Aboitiz families which were both in the primary export crop then that was abaca which has great use then in shipping. It was the Escano family which sponsored the coming of the Aboitiz family to the Philippines from Spain, according to their history and both were based in Leyte and Cebu and also spanning those two important islands. The sizes of the two fleets were about equal in number to Madrigal & Co. and Compania Maritima but their ships were were a little smaller. However, nearly all of their ships were brand-new. If their ships were not that big, the reason was they were not doing the long Southern Mindanao route that needed big liners.1938 0416 mv Don Esteban_De la Rama Steamship Co ad
Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library.

Next with about half of the ships of the “Big Three” came next the De la Rama Steamship Co. Inc. which was owned by a leading businessman of Iloilo and a Senator of the Commonwealth at that. Browsing over its ads, one might have the impression that it was the leading shipping company of its time. However, the maritime databases do not support that as their fleet was not that big although they have regional operations (but then Escano and Aboitiz also had ships connecting Cebu and Leyte that are not in the maritime databases). It had five brand-new ships and some were big, ocean-going liners. Their inter-island ferries were luxurious, it was promoted well and was touted to be the best in their class (and maybe that is where the impression “leading” came from).

De la Rama Shipping, like the La Naviera Filipina is a shipping concern that bet big in the Commonwealth Era and in the coming independence and that was shown by their acquisitions of brand-new ships like what La Naviera and Aboitiz & Co. did. From basically being regional shipping companies of a decade before, the two had ambitions of being leading national liner shipping companies and that was good then for Philippine shipping. And wouldn’t it be good if the two leading shipping companies had competition including in the oceangoing routes? Truly the anticipated coming of independence perked up the shipping sector then

Next in rank came the Manila Steamship Co. Inc. of the Elizalde y Cia which had about the same number of ships as De la Rama Steamship. However, their ships were not new. Like Madrigal & Co. and Compania Maritima, they have ships in the 60- to 90-meter range because like the two just-mentioned companies, they have long routes and that means up to Kingking which is the modern Pantukan in Davao del Norte located at the apex of Davao Gulf and that is about 850 nautical miles in distance from Manila. Travel to Davao Gulf takes up to two weeks, one-way, as there are many ports of call in a voyage. Woe to the passengers if the accommodations are “cattle class” but I wonder if the tale is true or if it is a joke that at the end of the voyage they say many of the male passengers are already on the last hole of their belts. But in truth, many of these ships were already luxurious for their time in terms of accommodations, amenities and service and were divided into different passage classes as in those were not all-economy ships (a note to put it in context, the last liner of that type was the Palawan Princess of Sulpicio Lines Inc. which was also in the 80-meter class and was actually popular with the passengers in most of her career here). The Elizalde y Cia shipping company actually originated with the Ynchausti & Co. shipping concern which divested when they got heavily involved in the Spanish Civil War and the unrest before that.

After those majors come a slew of small liner companies with one or a few vessels and maybe the most notable among them with more vessels were Rio y Olabarrieta, a shipping company which connects Palawan and Mindoro to Manila and the government-owned Manila Railroad Co. (MRC), the forerunner of the Philippine National Railways (PNR) of today which had to operate ferries to connect its Bicol Line to their South (Luzon) Line but ended up operating liners as well (and the reason was President Quezon loved the MRC very much). These small liner shipping companies were about twelve or so in number and among them were Tabacalera (the short name of the Compania General de  Tabacos de Filipinas, a Spanish-derived company) which was once a big shipping company (and was still a leading tobacco company then), the Gutierrez Hermanos of Bicol (and supposedly related to the Gutierrezes of movie fame), Negros Navigation Co. Inc., Smith Navigation Co., the J. Garcia Alonso of Bicol, m/s Palawan Inc., United Navigation Inc., Visayan Transportation Co. Inc., E. Lopez (which was in Southern Lines Inc. after the war) and even the Philippine Government (yes, the government was also in shipping then).

1924 Mulle de la Industira

A 1924 photo but Muelle de la Industria, the primary local port then would still look similar to that in 1935. Credits to the photo owner.

A digression. If Bicol was well-represented in the shipping companies before the war (Madrigal & Co. among them), the reason was the primacy of the abaca (also called as “Manila hemp”) then as the leading export crop and Bicol dominates in the production of that crop plus the fact that Legaspi Oil, the leading exporter of copra then was based in Bicol (this was before Lu Do, Lu Ym of Cebu grabbed that distinction with the help of Carlos A. Gothong & Co.). The main source of coal then was Batan island and that is just a few nautical miles from Legazpi. As the saying goes, there are ships when there is cargo and it is not the other way around. Moreover, Legazpi  port (incorrectly spelled as “Legaspi” then) was supported in the movement of goods from the Bicol Valley (read: copra and abaca) because of the localized Bicol Line there of the Manila Railroad Co. which extended for most part from Pamplona town (later in Sipocot) to Legazpi and from Tabaco town (where the abaca of Catanduanes lands and Tabaco is the trading center of copra of the neighboring areas – Tabaco’s product then was abaca and not tobacco) to Legazpi. The Manila Railroad Co. has a spur line to Legaspi port and Legaspi Oil which had a separate port. [In this paragraph is the reason why my father volunteered to transfer to Legazpi. But he did not anticipate that soon abaca and coal will fade into insignificance.]

This liners list does not include the regional shipping companies and among those the most numerous were in Cebu connecting the other Visayas islands and Mindanao (the northern part). Where before in the early American period when Iloilo was bigger than Cebu and held the title “Queen City of the South” because of sugar and its connection to Singapore and when Cebu was considered “insignificant” for shipping by a 1908 almanac (that was when Legaspi port was as prominent as Cebu). The opening of northern Mindanao enabled Cebu to overtake Iloilo not only in shipping but in over-all prominence thereby grabbing the title “Queen City of the South” from Iloilo to the eternal consternation of the Ilonggos).

The ships of the regional shipping companies were small compared to the multi-day liners as those were basically overnight ships and the most numerous were actually the wooden-hulled motor boats which are called as lancha in various parts of the country. Most of the bigger regional ships were just in the 30-meter class in length and most were below 200 gross register tons. Among the most prominent Cebu-based regional shipping companies were Eutiquio Uy Godinez, the Cebu Navigation Co, the Visayan Stevedore Transportation Co., the Insular Navigation Co. and Maria P. Asuncion Garianda. In Iloilo, probably the most prominent were the two Lizarraga shipping concerns. In Zamboanga, it was the Francisco Barrios Jr. shipping company. In Manila, the big equivalent of them was the Teodoro R. Yangco shipping company which dominated Manila Bay and beyond and once claimed to be the biggest shipping company in the Philippines.

Amazingly, the progenitor of the postwar dominant Go Thong and Sweet Lines shipping lines after the war were still not prominent then. Well, in war some rise and some fall and some never even came back.

In our book, I will be more detailed. This is just an introduction.

When Eastern Visayas Ports And Shipping Were Still Great

Growing up I heard tales from my late father how great Tacloban port was. He told me about its importance, its physical dimensions, the location, the size of the bodegas outside it and even its relation to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I had the idea that Tacloban was the greatest port east of Cebu and my father told me that no port in the Bicol Region compares to Tacloban port and not even his beloved Legaspi port (that was the spelling of it then before it became “Legazpi”). He told me Tacloban port will not fade because the Romualdezes were in power in Leyte and everybody knows the relation of that clan to Ferdinand Marcos then (still a President, not yet a dictator). Ironically, my father was later proven wrong not because of politics but because of a paradigm shift in shipping that he was not able to anticipate (when the intermodal trucks and buses sank Eastern Visayas shipping).

So I always wondered what made Tacloban port click then. From my father, when I was still young, I got to learn what is a regional trade center, a regional capital, the importance of the two and it so happened that Tacloban happened to be both. The city by Cancabato Bay was really the dominant market east of Cebu City, bar none. My father always drilled me about cash crops and commodities and how it impacted or shall we say how it shaped shipping. He told me the government can always build ports and send ships to a port by inducement but he said if there is no cargo it won’t last as he stressed cargo makes shipping and not the other way around. Now, how many in government knows that maxim? Definitely not Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who loves “ports to nowhere” a lot!

taclooban

Tacloban port. Photo by Gerry Ruiz.

My father was very aware of the shift of the primary cash crop from abaca to copra in the 1950’s and its impact on shipping. In high school, I saw that with my own eyes. Proud, wealthy families in our province which grew rich on abaca handicrafts and trading suddenly became more modest in living. I saw how their bodegas became empty and how the abaca workers suffered. At the same time, I also saw how busy the private port of Legaspi Oil became. Legaspi Oil, an American firm, was then the biggest copra exporter of the country.

Our old man also told me about San Pablo City and how desiccated coconut and coconut oil milling made it one of our earliest cities. He also related me when I was in high school that Laguna was no longer the king of coconut. Leyte was the new lord and I understood by inference how that will boost Tacloban port, its shipping and the city itself.

With PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) co-founder Gorio Belen’s research in the National Library I had more flesh of what my father was telling me when I was young. Tacloban was a great port of call in the 1960’s and 1970’s and that was visible with the frequency of ships there and the quality of its ships. Definitely it cannot match Cebu or even Iloilo but it was not far behind the latter. And to think the latter had ships calling that were still going to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao (Cotabato, Dadiangas and Davao). Tacloban also had ships still going south to Surigao, Butuan or even Davao but it was not that many. What Tacloban had were ships calling in Catbalogan or Masbate before steaming further. There were also ships calling in Tacloban first before heading for Cebu.

Entering the ’60’s, Iloilo had 10 ship calls weekly while Tacloban had 7. That was when Cagayan de Oro only had 4 ship calls per week from Manila but Butuan and Surigao both had 6 each. Won’t you wonder with those figures? Well, Cagayan de Oro only became great when it became a gateway to Southern and Central Mindanao with the improvement of the highways. That will also tell one how Tacloban, the gateway to Eastern Samar then, stacked up to other ports. Catbalogan is also not far behind because in the main the ships that called on Tacloban also called on Catbalogan first to maximize passenger and cargo volume.

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Catbalogan port. Photo by Joe Cardenas of PSSS.

In the 1960’s, it was air-conditioning that already defined what is a luxury ship and Tacloban was among the first that had a ship with air-conditioning beginning with the MV Sweet Rose in 1967 (and she served Tacloban for long) and the MV Sweet Grace in 1970. Both were liners of Sweet Lines and they were good ships with good service (I first heard that phrase from my late father, funny). And that was when other great shipping companies still did not have that kind of ship (and that will also tell how great Sweet Lines then). Even the great port of Cebu still had plenty of ex-”FS” ships then which was the basic kind of liner then. And that will give one a view of how important Tacloban port was in those days.

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The MV Gen. Roxas which became the MV Sweet Rose. Philippine Herald photo. Reseach by Gorio Belen in the National Library.

A little of history. Right after the war, two shipping companies fought it out in the main Eastern Visayas ports of Tacloban and Catbalogan. These two were the old shipping company Compania Maritima which was of Spanish origin and the General Shipping Company (GSC) which were formed by former World War II military aides coming from distinguished Filipino families that were part of the comprador bourgeoisie. At one time, GSC had more ships to the two ports with three while Compania Maritima only had two. Another old shipping company, the Escano Lines also fought in the Tacloban route. Unlike the two, the ships of Escano Lines still went on to Surigao and Butuan which were their stronghold.

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MV Leyte. Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

There were some smaller shipping companies too in the route like the Philippine Sea Transport, Veloso Lines, Corominas Richards Navigation and the Royal Lines. Among the single ships that also called in the two ports were the M/S Leyte Lady and M/S Lady of Lourdes. In the mentioned shipping lines, converted “FS” and extended “F” ships were the types calling in the two ports. Among that type that served long in the route (but not continuously) was the MV Leyte of Compania Maritima and I mentioned that because that was notable.

In 1955, Everett Steamship through the Philippine Steamship and Navigation Company (PSNC), a joint venture of Everett and Aboitiz entered Catbalogan and Tacloban with the quixotic route Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban-Bislig-Davao-Dadiangas-Cebu-Manila. They used two brand-new liners alternatingly, the MV Legazpi and the MV Elcano. Those two were the first brand-new liners used solely in the local routes (to distinguish them from the big De la Rama Steamship liners that soon ended up in ocean-going routes).

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

The MV Legazpi and MV Elcano were sister ships and fitted what was soon emerging as the new luxury liner class in the country (but the two were not at par with some of the luxury ships before especially the De la Rama Steamship liners which were lost in the war). If one has the money the route was a good way to tour the country and is a direct way to Southern Mindanao without going first to Cebu (because normally a passenger need to go there first from Eastern Visayas to take a connecting voyage). It was a nice route but sadly it did not last long because from the eastern seaboard route its route was shifted to the route rounding Zamboanga (I guess the reason was there was more business there and the seas were not so rough).

In the early ’60s, the Philippine Pioneer Lines, a subsidiary of the Philippine President Lines (PPL) also tried the Catbalogan plus Tacloban route. When they stopped sailing, their successor shipping company Galaxy Lines continued sailing that route but they did not last long when they folded operations as a company. The two companies used ex-“FS” and ex-“AKL” ships from the US Navy.

When General Shipping Company stopped local operations to go ocean-going in the mid-60s (and that provoked a break within the company), one of the companies which acquired half of their fleet and routes was the upstart Sweet Lines which was trying to follow the path of Go Thong & Company in trying be a national liner operation from a regional operations by acquiring an existing national liner shipping company which is quitting business. The other half of General Shipping fleet went to Aboitiz Shipping Company which then was revived as a shipping company separate from PSNC (and maybe the reason was the coming termination of the so-called “Parity Rights” in 1974). However, it was the PSNC that was used as the entity to re-enter the Tacloban but just using an ex-”FS” ship, the MV Carmen which came from the General Shipping Company and renamed.

At this time, however, the dominant shipping company in the Tacloban and Catbalogan route/s was already Compania Maritima (it was also the biggest shipping company then in the Philippines) after their main rival General Shipping exited the local shipping scene. The company had three ships assigned there, two of which were ex-”FS” ships including the aforementioned MV Leyte.

The year 1967 marked a change in the Tacloban and Catbalogan route. For the second time after the short-lived fielding of the luxury liners of PSNC the route had luxury liners again and two were competing against each other. The notable thing was they both came from General Shipping and both were local-builds by NASSCO (National Shipyards and Steel Corp., the current Herma Shipyard) in Mariveles, Bataan. These were the former second MV General Roxas which became the MV Sweet Rose and the former second General Del Pilar which became the third MV Mactan of Compania Maritima.

However, the two were not fast cruiser liners. This category was already multiplying in the country with the fielding of the 17.5-knot brand-new cruisers of Negros Navigation Company, the MV Dona Florentina in 1965 and the MV Don Julio in 1967. This was preceded by the MV President Quezon of the Philippine President Lines which later became the MV Galaxy of Galaxy Lines which was first fielded in 1962. A note, however, the earlier MV Don Julio of Ledesma Lines which was an overpowered (by putting a submarine engine) ex-”FS” ship can also be classified as a fast cruiser liner and it also served the Leyte route shortly as the MV Pioneer Leyte of Philippine Pioneer Lines.

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The earlier MV Don Julio which became the MV Pioneer Leyte. Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

In this tight market, a small shipping company serving Bicol and Northern Samar also tried a Catbalogan and Tacloban route. This was the Rodrigueza Shipping Corporation which was already feeling the effects of the Philippine National Railways in Bicol regarding the movement of cargo. However, two Chinoy shipping companies that will dominate Philippine shipping in a decade-and-a-half’s time were still not represented in the route. The two were William Lines and Sulpicio Lines (which was not yet existent then). The mother company of Sulpicio Lines which was Carlos A. Gothong & Co. was also not in this route at this time. They will come in two years time, however, with the fielding of the first MV Don Enrique which was a lengthened former “FS” ship. You know they tended to start quietly.

Many ex-”FS” ships or even smaller ships were battling in the Catbalogan and Tacloban routes after 1967. Many will battle for there is cargo and copra was so strong then (exports to the US, Japan and Germany when we had 44% share of the world’s exports) not only in Tacloban but also in a way in Catbalogan which was synonymous with fishing before overfishing caught up with them. In this era, imported rice does not yet go direct to the provincial ports and Eastern Visayas is a rice-deficit region and Cotabato and other parts of the country sends rice to it through trans-shipment. Many other grocery and hardware items also come from Manila to the region as Eastern Visayas was not an industrial region.

In the luxury liner category, however, the MV Sweet Rose of Sweet Lines and the  MV Mactan of Compania Maritima started their battle. This was actually a very even battle because the two were sister ships but the third MV Mactan was faster at 16 knots to the 13.5 knots of the MV Sweet Rose because she was fitted with a bigger engine. Compania Maritima fielded the MV Mactan here because the MV Sweet Rose was overpowering their MV Leyte which was just a lengthened ex-”FS” ship. In a few years, however, the MV Mactan will sink in a storm and MV Leyte will come back in the Eastern Visayas routes.

Leading into the next decade, the 1970’s produced significant changes. Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, the successor to PSNC abandoned their Catbalogan and Tacloban routes and just concentrated in Western and Southern Leyte which was their origin (it had lots of copra too). Morever, the rising William Lines was already present and two successor companies of Go Thong & Company, the Sulpicio Lines and Carlos A. Gothong Lines+Lozenzo Shipping Corporation (two shipping companies with combined operations before their split in 1979) were also plying the Catbalogan and Tacloban routes but they were just using ex-”FS” ships. The old partner of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation before the war, the Escano Lines also left Tacloban but maintained Catbalogan as a port of call as long as their MV Rajah Suliman was still capable of sailing.

In the stead of the lost minor shipping lines of the region like Veloso Lines, some minor shipping companies were also doing the route. Among them were N&S Lines and NORCAMCO Lines which were actually Bicol and Northern Samar shipping companies. The two were looking for routes near their turf because of lost passengers and cargo from the opening up of the Maharlika Highway. Well, although Maharlika Highway was not yet fully paved, the trucks were beginning to roll to Bicol and maybe somehow they have already seen the handwriting on the wall. Rodrigueza Shipping, also a Bicol shipping company stopped sailing the route.

Soon, however, Sulpicio Lines upped the ante and fielded a liner with size, air-conditioning and service that will challenge the MV Sweet Rose and MV Mactan. This was the MV Dona Angelina which was a former refrigerated cargo ship in Europe. That type of ship, when converted here as a passenger-cargo ship will automatically have the availability of refrigeration and air-conditioning. At 13.5 knots design speed, she can match the pace of the MV Sweet Rose but not of the MV Mactan. The MV Dona Angelina was the second ship of Sulpicio Lines in the route.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

In response, Sweet Lines brought in their former flagship into the route, the MV Sweet Grace which was acquired brand-new from West Germany in 1968. She has the speed of 15.5 knots but she was not bigger than MV Dona Angelina or even the MV Dona Vicente (that later became the MV Palawan Princess) which was assigned also to the route. Competition was really heating up in 1974 and I remember this year was the peaking of copra prices just before its great fall.

Things were really heated up because next year Sulpicio Lines brought in their new flagship MV Don Sulpicio on its way to Cebu which means a Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban-Cebu route. Can you imagine that? If former flagship and current flagship will battle in this route then that means Tacloban and Catbalogan were very important ports then. And to think the later well-regarded MV Dona Vicenta also practically debuted on that route. Well, copra was still then a very important crop. In fact it was our primary cash crop then. By the way, the flagship MV Don Sulpicio was the later infamous MV Dona Paz and she came from Tacloban and Catbalogan on her last voyage.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library.

In the heat of this competition, it was actually the old dominant Compania Maritima that was wilting. Their MV Mactan foundered in 1973 and there was no good replacement available and so the old ship MV Leyte was left shouldering alone and she was already badly outgunned by the ships of Sulpicio Lines and Sweet Lines. In the 1970’s there was no way a former “FS” ships can match the new liners that came from Europe. They simply were bigger, faster and had more amenities.

When the MV Don Sulpicio was assigned the exclusive Manila-Cebu route to join the two-way battle there of MV Cebu City and MV Sweet Faith, the good MV Dona Vicenta replaced her in the route and teamed up with the MV Dona Angelina. In 1976, however, William Lines fielded a very worthy challenger, the namesake of Tacloban which was the MV Tacloban City and she held the Catbalogan and Tacloban route for a long, long time. At 17.5 knots design speed she can match the best of Sulpicio Lines and Sweet Lines. Aside from speed she can also match in size, accommodation and service.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

And so in this year several ships that can be classified as luxury lines were battling in the route. That was an indication how important was that route. As a note, however, the MV Sweet Grace was reassigned by Sweet Lines to other routes especially since their luxury liner MV Sweet Home was no longer reliable. Meanwhile, the shrinking former nationally dominant Compania Maritima no longer fielded a second ship since they were already lacking ships because they no longer acquired a ship since 1970 despite a rash of hull losses.

In 1979, the death knell of Catbalogan and Tacloban ports was sounded clear although few realized it at that time for there was no concept of intermodal shipping before. This was the fielding of MV Cardinal Ferry I of Cardinal Shipping to span the San Juanico Strait and buses and trucks to and from Manila immediately rolled the new highways of Samar and Leyte. By this time copra as the primary cash and export crop of the country was already receding fast in importance because the export market was already shrinking due to the rise of what is called as substitute oils like corn oil, canola oil and sunflower oil.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

It was not Catbalogan and Tacloban which were first swamped by paradigm changes but the other ports of Samar like Laoang, Victoria and Calbayog (which I will discuss in another as these ports are more connected to Bicol and Masbate). The fall of Catbalogan and Tacloban ports will happen much later when copra has almost lost its importance. This was also the time that Manila oil mills has already been sidelined too by the rise of new oil mills in the provinces (and the government actually promoted that).

Although sliding now, for a time it looked like Tacloban and Catbalogan ports will hold on to the onslaught of the intermodal. One reason for that was in the crisis decade of the 1980’s it was the Top 2 Sulpicio Lines and William Lines that were still battling there and for sure none of the two will budge an inch. That was the decade when so many shipping companies quit business altogether (and that was most of our liner companies) and actually no shipping company was left unscathed.

In the late 1980’s, Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) made a comeback in national liner shipping but it did not enter Tacloban or Catbalogan. Instead, they called on the Western Leyte ports of Palompon, Isabel and Ormoc before proceeding to Cebu and it was actually a very successful route for them. Also, the Madrigal Steamship came back to passenger shipping with good luxury liner cruisers (which were already obsolescent as it was already the  time of ROROs or Roll-on, Roll-off ships) and it had a Manila-Romblon-Catbalogan-Tacloban route.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

However, this was not a long plus to Eastern Visayas liner shipping because in the early ’90s the venerable Sweet Lines and Escano Lines quit passenger shipping and although the latter still had cargo ships their presence were already receding in the region. And then the Madrigal Steamship did just last a few years and quit their passenger shipping also. There were no other entrants in this period to the region except just before the end of the millennium when the MBRS Lines of Romblon, seeking new routes entered the San Isidro port in Northern Samar. However, they also did not last long.

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MV Our Lady of Sacred Heart in Ozamis port. Jorg Behman photo. Credits: John Luzares

When the “Great Merger”which produced the shipping company WG&A happened in 1996, they did not add a new ship and just altered two routes a little. Actually, what happened is they even pulled out a ferry from Carlos A. Gothong Lines and just left one which was mainly the MV Our Lady of Sacred Heart (WG&A is a shipping company which changed route assignment every now and then). However, one of their ships which was passed on to their regional subsidiary Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC) tried a Manila-Ormoc-Nasipit route using the MV Our Lady of Akita 2 which was the former MV Maynilad. Although successful, she did not last long because she grounded in Canigao Channel and was never repaired.

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Credits to Toshihiko Mikami and funikichemurase

The last two liners to serve Catbalogan and Tacloban were the MV Masbate Uno of William Lines and WG&A and the MV Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines which had identical routes. The MV Cebu Princess also spelled the latter ship when she was down for repairs. When the MV Masbate Uno left as the the MV Our Lady of Manaoag of Cebu Ferries Corporation she was briefly replaced by the MV Our Lady of Naju in the Tacloban route.

Catbalogan and Tacloban finally had no liners left when Sulpicio Lines was suspended from passenger operations in 2008 when their MV Princess of the Stars sank in a typhoon and the MV Tacloban Princess was sold to a local breaker. That suspension also meant the end of the old MV Palawan Princess of Sulpicio Lines serving the ports of Calubian, Maasin and Baybay in the island of Leyte. That also meant the end of the Manila-Masbate-Ormoc-Cebu route of the MV Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines. The WG&A also abandoned Tacloban and just tried to hold on to their Palompon/Ormoc route

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Photo by John Cabanillas of PSSS.

In a short time, however, the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) which was the successor to WG&A also abandoned their Western Leyte routes too. However, for a time ATS came back and served Ormoc with the Manila-Romblon-Ormoc-Cebu route using the MV St. Anthony of Padua but that did not last long.

Now there are no more liners to Eastern Visayas and only oldtimers remember when its ports and shipping were still great. What the millennials know now are the intermodal buses and the so-many trucks in the many ports of Allen, Northern Samar.

Times have changed. The paradigm changed, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The MV Eugene Elson

The MV Eugene Elson of Penafrancia Shipping Corporation of Bicol is one of the oldest ROPAXes (Roll-On, Roll-Off Passenger ship) still sailing in Philippine waters but she is still very reliable and well-appreciated. As a 1965-built ROPAX from Japan she has the looks and lines of the small ROPAX of that era which means she is a little chubby in looks and not that angular like the MV Melrivic Seven of Aznar Shipping which was also built in 1965. However, those looks do not detract from her primary purpose and mission which is to ferry passengers and rolling cargo (i.e. vehicles) safely and reliably.

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Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS

This ship’s usual route is Tabaco, Albay to Virac, the capital and main port of the small island-province of Catanduanes. Tabaco City is the gateway to the province and the size of MV Eugene Elson is just right for that route as there are almost no ferries that is 50 meters in length there (except when there rotations due to drydocking). And also there are no 30-meter ferries in that route out of respect for the waves in the sea between the two provinces and besides single-engine ferries are not liked there, for safety and maneuvering reasons. So the MV Eugene Elson with its two engines and screws fits the bill well there too.

The MV Eugene Elson is a RORO ferry built by Hashihama Zosen of namesake city Hashihama in Japan where their yard is located. As said earlier, she was built in 1965 but her IMO Number is already 6601517 (in those days the first two digits of the IMO Number indicate the year the ship was built but that is not the case anymore nowadays). She was completed in December of 1965 and completion date is the date when the ship is already equipped and ready to sail. Her external measurements are 41.7 meters in Length Over-all (LOA), a Registered Length (RL) of 38.5 meters and a Length Between Perpendiculars (LPP) of 37.5 meters. The ferry’s Breadth is 14.6 meters locally although in Japan it was only 12.5 meters (the first one might be the more accurate one). Her Depth is 3.0 meters. As a whole she is not a big ship and a ship that is only a little larger than a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO (by the Philippines Ship Spotters Society definition) which in general is only 30 meters or so in length and sometimes even shorter.

In Japan, her Gross Tonnage (GT) was 526 (tons is no longer affixed in GT) but locally it was only 488. Her declared Net Tonnage (NT) which is the usable space of the ship for passengers and cargo is 118 which is rather suspiciously low. The ship’s Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) is 138 tons and she has a passenger capacity of 484 persons, all in sitting accommodations. The MV Eugene Elson is actually the smallest ferry in the fleet of the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (PSC) which was the successor company to the defunct Bicolandia Shipping Lines which used to own her. However small, this ferry still has two passenger decks with an airconditioned Mabuhay Class.

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Photo by Dominic San Juan of PSSS

The ship’s hull material is steel. She has one mast, two funnels and two RORO (Roll-on, Roll-off) ramps for ingress and egress of vehicles but the bow ramp is also the one used by the passengers for the same purpose as ferries in Bicol do not have separate passenger ramps (the stern ramp of this ship seems to have been welded shut already). The bow ramp of this ship is extended to better cope with low tide conditions. This ferry has a raked stem (which was what was usual in the era) and a transom stern (which is still what is common nowadays).

The MV Eugene Elson is powered by two Daihatsu marine engines with a total output of 1,100 horsepower. This is sufficient to propel her at 11.5 knots when new but nowadays she just chugs along at about 10 knots, the reason she takes four hours for her route which is less than 40 nautical miles. That is not a shame as most ferries in the route have about the same sailing time although some are faster than her.

Our group, the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) is familiar with this ship as once the group has already toured her when she was drydocked in Nagasaka Shipyard in Tayud, Cebu and the master then, Captain Jun Benavides was gracious and hospitable enough to let us roam his ship and use her as a ship spotting platform (yes, passengers can reach the roof of this ship which is also the Bridge deck). Of course, he had also shared plenty of stories to us. We whiled our time there savoring the cooling breeze of the late afternoon until it was time to go for daylight was soon dimming.

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Photo by James Gabriel Verallo of PSSS

This ship, when newly-built was first named as the MV Shimotsui Maru of the Kansai Kisen K.K. of Japan In 1976, under the same name, she was transferred to Kansai Kyuko Ferry K.K. Then in 1984, before her 20th year (the time Japan begins replacing its old ferries), this ferry came to the Philippines as the MV San Agustin of May-Nilad Shipping, a Manila ferry company that was always short in routes. Later, she became the MV Eugenia of Esteban Lul.

After a short time, this ship was transferred to Eugenia Tabinas of E. Tabinas Enterprises under the same name MV Eugenia. I just wonder about the relationship of Eugenia Tabinas and Esteban Lul. E. Tabinas Enterprises and Bicolandia Shipping Lines which are synonymous and the same is headquartered in Tabaco, Albay. These dual companies took over the ships and operations of the pioneering Trans-Bicol Shipping Lines which was then just operating wooden motor boats or MBs then which otherwise were called as lancha in the region.

During its heyday, E. Tabinas Enterprises/Bicolandia Shipping Lines was the dominant Bicol shipping company and had routes from all the relevant Bicol gateways, i.e. Tabaco, Matnog and Bulan (which are both in the province of Sorsogon and Masbate. However, in 1999 a new shipping company with deeper pockets appeared in the critical Matnog-Allen, Samar route. This is the Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation (SCSC) which challenged the claimed “pioneer” status of Eugenia Tabinas’ shipping companies. “Pioneer status” supposedly confers exclusivity to a route.

Eugenia Tabinas and Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation fought initially from MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority), the Philippines’ regulatory agency in shipping and then all the way to the Supreme Court. When Eugenia Tabinas finally lost she offered a lock, stock and barrel sell-out to her enemy which was accepted and so she forever bowed out of shipping. This was the reason why MV Eugenia was transferred not to Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation but to the Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which was created specifically for the take-over of E. Tabinas Enterprises and Bicolandia Shipping Lines. This take-over and hand-off happened in 2006 and from then on the twin companies Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation were already the dominant shipping companies in Bicol (and until now).

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MV Eugene Elson in older livery in Virac port. Photo by Edsel Benavides

Under Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, all the former ferries of Eugenia Tabinas were renamed (except for the sunk MV Northern Samar) and so the MV Eugenia became the MV Eugene Elson. In the fleet of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation which has combined operations, she is the smallest in terms of Gross Tonnage and Length. But she is not the smallest ever ROPAX to operate in Bicol as there were and are a few that are even smaller than her.

As mentioned before, the Tabaco-Virac route along Lagonoy Gulf is her main route now, a route known for rough seas during the amihan (northeast monsoon) season as that route is exposed to the open sea. But even  though small, she proved capable for that route although once a bus lain to her side even though lashed from the top when a rogue wave hit her in the bow. In the said route she would leave Tabaco port at daybreak and arrive in Virac at mid-morning. She would then depart Virac port after lunch and arrive in Tabaco at about 5pm and lay over in Tabaco port for the night. It is the buses’ schedules that dictate such departure times and buses and its passengers are the priority loads of the MV Eugene Elson like the other ROPAXes based in Tabaco. Nowadays, she always leave full as so many buses and trucks already cross to Catanduanes from the Bicol peninsula.

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Over-the-top lashing is de rigueur in the Catanduanes route

All in all, the MV Eugene Elson had a successful career and it seems she is destined for many more years of sailing (well, unless MARINA loses its mind and cull old ships as that has been their threat for many years already). Barring that scenario, I hope she still sails and sails and sails. And keep the record as the oldest sailing ferry  in Bicol.

The Sweet RORO

Many, when talking about the Sweet RORO of Sweet Lines Incorporated which is pf Bohol origin talk about her technicals and that is not wrong as there is nothing incorrect in admiring the technical merits of a ship especially that of a luxury liner. But to me I also tend to look at the historical position of things and how they interacted as I am also keen on the historical perspective of the ferries when they came and also their roles. After all, ferries make the shipping companies, at least in the early decades of our shipping history. And, it is in the great liners in which shipping companies are identified by the public.

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The Sweet RORO in original livery. Photo by Lindsay Bridge.

The Sweet RORO came to Sweet Lines when from the peak of the company a great slide was already happening them. This came from a probable mistake when in the late 1970’s the company decided they would henceforth just buy small liners. It was a great reversal from the previous mantra of the company that they will bring great liners, the prime examples of which were the highly regarded Sweet Faith and Sweet Home which were former luxury liners even in Europe. Also included in that was the Sweet Grace which was acquired brand-new from West Germany.

That bad decision came when the top liners of the company, the aforementioned Sweet Faith and the Sweet Home were already graying and if analyzed technically were already threatening to quit in a few years time (and they subsequently did). Coupled with that that the former cargo-passenger ship from Europe, the Sweet Bliss, the Sweet Life/Sweet Dream, the Sweet Lord/Sweet Land and the Sweet Love which buoyed the company early on and helped in their rise were also growing old as they were also built in the 1950’s like the Sweet Faith and the Sweet Home and ferries then were not known to exceed 30 years of life as the metallurgy and technology were still not the same as today when ferries normally exceed 40 years of service life here. Spare and surplus parts are easy to find today and CNC milling of parts are already common whereas that was not the case of 40 years ago. When that decision to just acquire small ferries was made the six liners of Sweet Lines from Europe were already approaching 30 years old save for the Sweet Home (but then this luxury liner, the biggest of her time was actually the first to go because of mechanical problems).

The year 1980 came and one of the biggest crisis in local liner shipping came. This happened when a lot of liners were suddenly laid up because the container ships came into full force all at once and suddenly the old passenger-cargo liners no longer had enough cargo to carry and it was actually cargo which is decisive in the profitability of a passenger-cargo ship. Before the arrival of the container ships of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, William Lines, Sulpicio Lines, Lorenzo Shipping Corporation, Central Shipping Corporation (the cargo shipping company of Sweet Lines), Sea Transport Company, Negros Navigation Company and Solid Shipping Lines, it was practically just the passenger-cargo liners which were carrying the cargo in liner routes.

Sweet Home was gone in 1979, sold, and Sweet Faith was also gone the next year in 1980, first laid up then sold to the breakers. The new decade came and Sweet Lines had no ship good enough for the premier Manila-Cebu route which they used to dominate albeit with just a small pull only early in the 1970’s but largely gone as the decade was winding down. What they had left to serve as flagship was the cruiser liner Sweet Grace which was ordered brand-new from West Germany in 1968 but which does not have the speed and the size of the now-dominant fast cruiser liners of that era already.

While Sweet Lines was saddled with such problem William Lines rolled out the half-cruiser, half-RORO Dona Virginia in December 1979 which was the biggest liner in the country when she was fielded and with a speed of 20 knots too like the liner she was replacing, the storied Cebu City which came brand-new just in 1972. Then Sulpicio Lines rolled out the Philippine Princess in 1981 and this liner was nearly as big as the Dona Virginia but not as fast. Sweet Grace was far smaller than the two unlike the flagship Filipinas of Compania Maritima which was nearly as big as Dona Virginia and Philippine Princess although not as fast as the two. Sweet Grace was also much slower than the three, she cannot even be considered as a fast cruiser liner and so for the first time since Sweet Lines raised the bar in the Manila-Cebu premier route in 1970 with the Sweet Faith, this time it found itself as the laggard and outmatched. And that was where the decision to just buy small liners bit Sweet Lines hard.

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Photo from a research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

Having money from the proceeds of the disposals of Sweet Home and Sweet Faith, Sweet Lines was obliged to look for their replacement and it is forced that it should be a good and a big one. They did not disappoint when the former Ferry Ruby of the Diamond Ferry which plies the Osaka to Oichi route came to them in 1982 (but the seller was a third by the name of Dimerco Line SA of Panama and more on that later). The ship was nearly as big as her main competitors at 117.5 meters length and 4,700 gross register tons and at 18 knots design speed she was not giving away much to her direct competition, the flagships of the other liner companies although she was still the slowest at full trot among the flagships. And so what Sweet Lines emphasized was her being a RORO liner and its swiftness in cargo loading and unloading. However, the claim of Sweet Lines that she was the first RORO liner in the country is incorrect as the Sta. Maria of Negros Navigation Company came earlier in 1980. She, however, was the first big RORO liner in the country if the Dona Virginia is excluded.

When analyzed technically, the Sweet RORO is a leapfrog in technology compared to her main competitors which were mainly cruiser liners, the old paradigm. She was already a full-pledged ROPAX (RORO-Passenger) ship unlike the Dona Virginia whereas the Philippine Princess and the Filipinas of Compania Maritima were still cruiser ships . Now these four are all flagships and only four shipping companies were competing seriously in the prime Manila-Cebu route as the others like Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and Escano Lines were no longer in serious contention in that route and the others have practically withdrawn from contention there like Lorenzo Shipping Corporation and Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (but this company later made a comeback in that route). By the way, Negros Navigation Company is not being mentioned here as she was not doing the Manila-Cebu route then.

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Credits to Philippine Daily Express and Gorio Belen

But Sweet RORO might have been too much ahead of her time. Loading vehicles was not yet the wont then in her route (and neither now except for brand-new cars headed for car dealers down south). Container vans were mainly carried by the container ships and at that time there were still a lot of XEUs, the 10-foot container vans which can be handled by forklifts or loaded atop the cruisers at their bow and/or stern. Using chassis for container vans was not yet the standard then and so the full advantage of being a RORO or Roll-on, Roll-off ship was not fully realized when a lot of cargo was still palletized or are still carried loose (however, Sweet RORO had advantage over the others in carrying vehicles and heavy equipment down South). It would be nearly a decade later when the TEUs, the 20-foot container vans will be the new standard in cargo loading and by that time the Sweet RORO was already gone.

The Sweet RORO, the former Ferry Ruby was built by Onomichi Dockyard (Onomichi Zosen) in Onomichi, Japan in 1970 (but Sweet Lines says she was built in another yard) as one of the fast overnight ferries of Japan that bypasses their clogged highways then. She was average in size then (but this is not to disparage her) at 117.5 meters in Length Over-all, 107.0 meters in Length Between Perpendiculars, 20.6 meters in Breadth and 4,619 tons in Gross Register Tonnage. She was 1,943 tons in Net Register Tonnage and 1,477 tons in Deadweight Tonnage. This RORO liner was powered by 4 Kawasaki-MAN V8V 22/30ATL diesel engines with a combined 8,080hp which gave her a top speed of 18 knots which was also average for her size during her time. At that power she would have been more economical in fuel than the other flagships.

The stem of the ship was raked and she had transom stern. She was equipped with ramps bow and aft as access to the car deck. The ship has three decks for the passengers, the uppermost one a local addition (and that deck contained a lobby/relaxation room, the First Class bar and disco plus a game room) and abaft of the funnels is a wide open-air promenade area/sun deck. Aside from First Class and Second Class, a part of her Third Class (now known as “Economy”) is also airconditioned. This is because as-built the ship was fully air-conditioned. Her original passenger capacity as refitted was 1,692, one of the highest then among passenger ships in the country. It was broken down into 148 in 1st Class, 144 in 2nd Class, 400 in air-conditioned 3rd Class and 1,000 in non-airconditioned 3rd Class. The 3rd Class occupied the lowermost passenger deck while the First Class and Second Class accommodations and lobbies were on the deck above that and so it is the middle deck.

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Photo from a research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

Like the Sweet Faith before her, the Sweet RORO plied the premier Manila-Cebu route twice a week with a 22-hour sailing time which means a cruising speed of 18 knots for the 393-nautical mile route which is actually her design speed. It seems the policy of Sweet Lines is sail the ship at design speed because that is what they also did with the Sweet Faith. However, running a ship at 100% usually entails a ship’s not living very long. In 1988, Sweet RORO already had trouble with her engines specifically with her crankshaft as one report said and from that time on she already had difficulty sailing and if she did it is at reduced speed. The next year she was already laid up when she was less than 20 years of age. In 1990, she was sent to India for breaking up, a very short career when her two sister ships was still sailing in Greece up to the new millennium.

In 1987, Sweet RORO had a change of ownership but she was still sailing for Sweet Lines even then. She again became a Panamanian ship with the Dimerco Line SA which was the seller of her to Sweet Lines and to me that indicates a possibility that she was not fully paid for by Sweet Lines and so the seller re-acquired her. This was also about the same time that the Eduardo Lopingco group entered Sweet Lines and took over the management. With the entry of Lopingco additional ships came to the fleet but it turned out those were just chartered from the Hayashi Marine Company of Japan . Later, court cases arose after the company was not able to pay the charter to Hayashi Marine because court records show money was diverted by Lopingco to other ventures.

I wonder but I know financial troubles and mismanagement are ship killers especially when the needed maintenance of the ship are no longer made. And running ships at 100% power is parts-hungry and can result in damages to the engine in the long term especially when maintenance is not up to date. A report said that re-engining her was suggested to the company but nothing came out of it. This was already the time that the company was already headed on the way down after it seems that the founding Lim family has already lost control of the company if court filings are to be believed.

Whatever, the Sweet RORO was a big success in the Manila-Cebu route as actually Sweet Lines was a favorite of many especially the Bol-anons that until today many still remember her fondly (people are more attached then to their great liners unlike today that is why there were ship legends then including the Sweet RORO while now there is no such sentimentality anymore). However, it puzzles me why didn’t they extend the route to Tagbilaran given it was their origins and the ship had a long lay-over anyway in Cebu (was Tagbilaran port too shallow for her then?).

She was a fine ship ahead of her time. However, the sad part is she did not last long.