One of the Magic Elixirs of William Lines and Carlos A. Gothong & Co.

The term “magic elixir” refers to a potion that gives one powers and in modern usage it refers to a sort of magic that was the reason for an entity to rise. In this article I am not referring to something illegal but to one of the reasons for the rise of two of the most storied shipping companies of the Philippines where in their peak were contending for the bragging rights of being the biggest shipping company in the country.

Historically, the Chinese mestizo shipping companies were not as blessed as the Spanish mestizo shipping companies which antedated them in the business. The latter not only had a head start but they also possessed powerful political connections and that was very important then in getting loans from the Philippine National Bank (PNB) which dominated commercial banking then as there was almost no other commercial bank big enough in that time able to finance acquisition of ships. It was also crucial in getting ships from the National Development Corporation and earlier in getting surplus ex-”FS” ships from the Rehabilitation Finance Commission that was awarded as war compensation by the US Government.

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A 1950 ad of William Lines (Credits to Phil. Herald and Gorio Belen)

Of the two companies, William Lines had an earlier start and it was also blessed by political connections – the founder of the company, William Chiongbian happened to be a powerful Congressman who in his run for the Senator missed by one just slot (and his brother was a Congressman too at the same time but in another province). Carlos A. Gothong & Co. had to start from the bottom as it began almost a decade later than William Lines in liner shipping. But later it was blessed by a good strategic relationship with Lu Do & Lu Ym, the biggest copra concern then when copra was skyrocketing to being the Number 1 cash commodity and export commodity of the country.

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The first liner of Gothong & Co. (Credits to Manila Bulletin and Gorio Belen)

In the national liner scene, after its restart right after the end of the Pacific War, the strongest after a generation were the shipping companies that had routes to Southern Mindanao. Left behind were the shipping companies that just concentrated in the Visayas routes like Southern Lines, General Shipping, Philippine President Lines/Philippine Pioneer Lines/Galaxy Lines and other smaller shipping companies to Eastern Visayas, Bicol and the near routes to Mindoro, northern Panay and Palawan. Actually, in my totem pole of national liner companies in 1972, the Top 5 — Compania Maritima, Gothong & Co., Aboitiz Shipping+PSNC, William Lines and Sweet Lines — all have routes to Southern Mindanao.

What made Southern Mindanao the “magic elixir” of William Lines and Gothong & Co. when the latter was not even a liner company in the latter half of the 1940’s and William Lines was behind many shipping companies that preceded them?

In business, there is nothing better barring the illegal than a customer base that simply keeps growing and growing. And that was what Mindanao then was to the shipping companies Southern Mindanao. Before the war the population of Southern Mindanao was small and was practically composed by natives. That was before the government encouraged and assisted the resettlement of people from other parts of the Philippines to resolve what was called then as the “population pressure” (rapidly growing population in an agricultural economy with not enough land anymore to be divided into the next generation and there were no contraceptives yet then and the average number of children was five).

Northern Mindanao after the war already had Visayan migrants as it was just near the Visayas and the Spaniards was able to establish a strong foothold there even in the 19th century. But Southern Mindanao almost had no transplanted population and it is this part of the Philippines that experienced the greatest population boom after the war with what was called by the Moro National Liberation Front as the “colonization” of Mindanao (well, even some politician used the word “colonization” before that became politically incorrect). Where before in the 1948 Census the transplanted population was just a minority in Mindanao, in the 1960 Census the natives suddenly realized they were already the new minority and in the 1970 Census they saw they were beginning to get marginalized (Sultans and Datus who were once Mayors were even beginning to lose the elections).

This population boom, the opening of land for cultivation and the consequent exploitation of the natural resources of Mindanao needed transport and it was not by air (and not by road definitely) but by ship. And by this all shipping companies that were plying the Southern Mindanao routes benefited a lot. Of course shipping companies serving Northern Mindanao also benefited but not to the same extent as the Southern Mindanao shipping companies. And anyway the shipping companies serving Southern Mindanao were the same shipping companies serving Northern Mindanao (with exception of Escano Lines which has also routes to Northern Mindanao but not Southern Mindanao) and so the benefit of those serving Southern Mindanao were double.

If we analyze the biggest shipping company then which was Compania Maritima, most of its ships were assigned to Southern Mindanao. That was also true for the liners of Gothong & Co. (this company has a lot of cargo-passenger ships then to gather the copra for Lu Do and Lu Ym) and William Lines (which assigned 3/4 of its ships in Southern Mindanao early and Gothong & Co. of to 80% in 1967).

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One will wonder how this small ex-“FS” ship sails all the way to Davao

Although William Lines started ahead of Gothong & Co., the latter vaulted ahead of the former in the 1960’s. I think the reason is William Lines relied too much and too long on the ex-”FS” ships and it was only in 1966 when they acquired other types. Meanwhile, Gothong & Co. acquired ships from Europe earlier and in greater numbers. That does not even include the Type “C1A” ships acquired by Gothong & Co. which were big ships and were really ocean-going plus a lot of small ships the likes of lengthened ex-”F” ships and a host of local-builds. In ports of call, Gothong & Co. simply had too many because of the need to gather the copra of Lu Do & Lu Ym which was exporting a lot (and which Gothong & Co. also carried).

For sure, Compania Maritima which was already the Number 1 right after the war also benefited from the growth of Mindanao. However, their subsequent collapse in 1984 at the height of the financial and economic crisis then besetting the country is of another matter. Sulpicio Lines, the biggest successor company of Gothong & Co. also benefited from Mindanao after their creation in 1972 so much so that later it became the biggest shipping company of the country in the 1980’s.

What happened then to the shipping companies started after the war that just concentrated on Visayan routes? Well, by the 1960’s Southern Lines and General Shipping were already gone from the local scene and a few year later Galaxy Lines, successor to Philippine President Lines, the local operation and Philippine Pioneer Lines was also gone. And the smaller shipping companies like Escano Lines, Bisaya Land Transport (this was also a shipping company) were just in the fringe and barely alive in the 1970’s like the shipping companies that just concentrated in Bicol, Samar and northern Panay. That was also the fate of the shipping companies that was concentrating in what is called MIMAROPA today. After the 1970’s practically only batels survived in the last area mentioned.

Meanwhile, Gothong & Co. threatened Compania Maritima for Number 1 before their break-up in 1972. Later with the downward spiral of Compania Maritima, Sulpicio Lines and William Lines battled for Number 1. And when Compania Maritima quit and Aboitiz Shipping Corporation also quit Mindanao, Sulpicio Lines (the biggest successor company of Gothong & Co.) and William Lines further benefited. Actually, no shipping company that did not serve Southern Mindanao ever became one the top shipping companies in the country (that was before a lot of liner companies were culled in the crisis of the 1980’s).

That was the importance of Southern Mindanao for the shipping companies of the country. William Lines and successor of Gothong & Co. Sulpicio Lines ended up the Top 2 in Philippine shipping. Know what? They were the only survivors of the Southern Mindanao routes after all the rest quit (of course, Aboitiz Shipping came back later and there were others in container shipping).

Now, there are no more liners to Southern Mindanao, funny. But, of course, that is another story. The magic elixir dried up?

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The 130-meter Liner

From the start, I always had respect for the 130-meter liner class and maybe my close observation of the SuperFerry 5 which I sailed with many times influenced me. Of course, I have respect for ships of all classes and that is why I don’t gush for a particular class or even type. I always had the tendency to gauge the suitability and to what route the ship is being used. For me, being the biggest or the fastest is not the ultimate consideration. Those things are maybe just for the young anyway.

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SuperFerry 5 by Ramiro Aranda Jr.

A handful of liners that came to our seas exceeded 150 meters in length and some were even over 185 meters in length, the biggest that plied the Philippine seas. Those liners all had gross tonnages of over 10,000 except for the sister ships St. Joseph The Worker and St. Peter The Apostle of Negros Navigation whose gross tonnages were grossly under-declared. The liners over 10,000 gross tons are what were called “great liners” by Frank Heine and Frank Lose in their book, “The Great Liners of the World” and our liners officially over 10,000 tons were listed in that book.

Liners over 150 meters have engines whose horsepower total over 20,000 and for that it is capable of thrusting the ship to 20 knots or over but not much more. It’s design speed might have been slightly over 20 knots in Japan but here they generally just run at 20 knots (well, even a little less now). Very few ships sailed here at 21 knots and over and probably only two did regularly which were the Filipina Princess and the Princess of Paradise, both liners of of the famed and infamous Sulpicio Lines.

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A 157-meter liner (SuperFerry 19 by Aris Refugio)

I can understand 150-meter liners with 20-knot speed if:

  1. it is used in the strongest routes,

  2. it was still the height of passenger demand and that was the situation before the budget airlines and intermodal buses came in force.

The 150-meter liners of old (not the current liners of 2GO) normally had passenger capacities averaging 2,500 persons (with the liners 165 meters and over averaging nearly 3,000 passengers if the putative liners of Carlos A. Gothong Lines are excluded).

However, on a contrary note in passenger capacity, SuperFerry 5 and its sister ship SuperFerry 2 of Aboitiz Shipping had passenger capacities of nearly 2,400 persons average and even the comparable Princess of the Pacific of Sulpicio Lines had a passenger capacity of nearly 2,300. Yes, in maximization especially with four passenger decks the 130-meter liner can nearly match the 150-meter liners. However, they will not run at 20 knots but 17.5 to 18.5 knots is respectable and comparable to the fast cruiser liners that preceded them. In a Manila to Iloilo or a Manila to Cebu leg the difference in travel time is just two hours or less and it is only one hour if the liner can pass under the two Mactan bridges. And one or two hours is not much detectable by passengers especially if the liner departs late anyway.

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Princess of the Pacific by Britz Salih

In combined Manila to Visayas and Manila to Northern Mindanao routes with an intermediate port, both the 150-meter, 20-knot ship and the 130-meter, 18-knot liner can do two complete voyages in a week so there is no difference in their utilization. What the faster liner only adds is only in the number of port hours not sailing or the inter-port hours.. Well, the crew appreciate more port hours if they have a family or a girlfriend there. But then they might not be able to go down the ship earlier because the area they have to clean first is bigger.

But in fuel consumption the bigger and faster liner will consume significantly more fuel. Normally the 130-meter ship is equipped with engines of just 15,000 horsepower or a little more. Now, compare the thriftiness of those engines in fuel consumption compared to a liner with 20,000 or more horsepower.

Of course, in cargo the bigger liner will carry more while the 130-meter liner will just carry some 100 TEUs in container vans. But then I observed that even then the ship’s cargo will only be full one way or even not (not much load back to Manila because the provinces do not produce much and grains, copra and sugar are no longer carried by the liners of today unlike before). And the rise of intermodal shipping using the combinations of trucks and basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs chopped up the liner cargo even more. Now the liners of 2GO normally sails with less than a full cargo load and it even has to delay departures for a few hours so more cargo can be loaded.

In passengers the ships even two decades ago when demand was still at its peak only gets full at peak season anyway. In normal months the ship will then be carrying about 2/3 of its capacity. Now they are lucky to have half of their capacity full.

Was the 150 meter liner a mistake? Well, if it was the matter of bragging rights then it might not be. No one wanted to be left behind in size and in speed. And besides Sulpicio Lines and William Lines had their own one-on-one-battle. But the era of 150 meter liners was just short with a window of only about a decade (while ship’s lives here is generally more than double of that). And when it was used on more minor routes I thought it was already a mistake because there is not enough cargo and passengers to sustain them there. And so as it grew older the 150-meter liners slowly became dinosaurs especially when liner passenger demand weakened. Of course now that was masked by withdrawals from routes (and lessening of frequencies) which means these liners are already too big for the average port of call.

That was what happened decades ago when the small ex-”FS” ships  and lengthened ex-“F” ships were no longer around. Many ports and towns lost their connection to Manila because the bigger liners that succeeded them were already too big for those ports plus the depths of the ship and the ports no longer matched.

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St. Therese of Child Jesus by Jonathan Gultiano

And that is why I wondered about the last liner purchases in the country. The ports got bigger than decades ago but there are less passengers now and so Aboitiz Transport System and 2GO just cut off the routes (and it was obvious they were not intent on going back to the more minor routes) because there is not enough cargo and passengers anymore for their 150-meter liners. That is why they left ports and cities like Surigao, Tagbilaran, Dapitan. Cotabato and many others. Well, on another note, they learned that they just needed 90- to 100-meter liners in their Palawan, Romblon and Capiz routes so they just dissolved Cebu Ferries and took its overnight ships and converted them.

I think the 130-meter liner was best for us in most of the main routes. Like what SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 5 and Princess of the Pacific have shown (and by Mabuhay 2 and Mabuhay 5, too, of William Lines, the latter SuperFerry 7 and SuperFerry 9, respectively) they can be modified to up four decks that will have a total of about 2,300 passengers average when demand was still strong. And when it weakened another cargo deck can be created. Or if it came when passenger demand was already falling the number of decks can be limited into three with the passenger capacity no longer in the 2,000 range. Well, later liners fielded in the 2000’s had the sense not to really pack it in.

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Two passenger decks converted into cargo deck (Photo by Mike Baylon)

Now, if only bragging rights did not come into the picture maybe the liner choices might have been more sane.

Adjusted for the weakening of liner shipping in this millennium, I think the biggest liners should just be in the 130 to 140-meter range with just 15,000 to 16000 horsepower and a cruising speed of 18 knots (well, the 150-meter, 22,000-horsepower liners of 2GO just average 19 knots now anyway). There is no more need for passenger capacities reaching 2,000 persons. If there is a mezzanine for cars it should just be retained instead of being converted into passenger accommodations as new cars or passenger vans destined for dealers south are important sources of revenue now for the liners. On more minor routes maybe we should even go back to the 100- to 110-meter liners of the past as augmentation for the 130- to 140-meter liners.

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San Lorenzo Ruiz with 1,426 pax capacity by Rodney Orca

Now that would be more sane.

When the RORO Liners Came to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao

The ROROs (Roll-on, Roll-off ships) first came to the Philippines at the end of the 1970’s and in the 1980’s it began to multiply in Luzon and the Visayas. From the moment the ROROs arrived it was already obvious that they were superior to the cruiser ships and that a new paradigm has arrived and the cruiser ships were already headed to obsolescence. However, the ROROs did not multiply fast in general in the 1980’s because it was a decade of great economic and political crises when the value of the peso plunged and inflation was unchecked. At the height of the crisis of the 1980’s almost no loans were available, few foreign currency was available (that it even lead to the creation of the “Binondo central bank) and the interest rates were skyhigh that it was almost suicide to take a loan especially at foreign-denominated one.

That difficulty was reflected in that the first RORO liners and overnight ferries in the country acquired at the peak of this crisis up to 1986 were small and were generally just in the 60 to 70-meter length class only and barely over 1,000 gross tons. Among the examples of those were the Surigao Princess, Cagayan Princess, Boholana Princess, Sta. Maria (of Nenaco and not Viva Shipping Lines), the Viva Sta. Maria and Marian Queen of Viva Shipping Lines and the many ROROs acquired by Carlos A. Gothong Lines like the Dona Lili, Don Calvino, Dona Josefina, Don Benjamin, Dona Casandra, Dona Cristina and the third Sweet Home of Sweet Lines. The notable exceptions in this period were the Sweet RORO and Sweet RORO 2 of Sweet Lines and the Sta. Florentina of Negros Navigation but the three were not really that big (as in 110 to 120 meters LOA). Many liners shipping companies did not bother to purchase a RORO ship in this period like William Lines, Aboitiz Shipping, Lorenzo Shipping, Escano Lines and the moribund Compania Maritima, the erstwhile biggest passenger shipping company.

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Cotabato Princess c. 1988 by Britz Salih

However, if Luzon, the Visayas and Northern Mindanao already had RORO ships in this period described, Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao did not see a RORO liner until 1988 when Sulpicio Lines fielded the Cotabato Princess in the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route and Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. fielded the Asia Korea (the latter Asia Hongkong and the Reina del Rosario of Montenegro Shipping Lines) on the Cebu-Iloilo-Zamboanga-General Santos City route and that RORO ship is actually 82.8 meters in length which is about the size of small liners then like the Our Lady of Guadalupe which arrived in 1986 for Carlos A. Gothong Lines and was 89.7 meters in length. With the overthrow of the dictatorship in 1986 and the general bettering of the economic conditions starting in 1987 the RORO ships being purchased were beginning to get bigger and more many as the difficulty of lending from banks and the interest rates eased and there was new economic optimism.

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Asia Korea (TASLI photo)

The fielding of RORO liners in Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao was not fast at first. In 1989, the Zamboanga City of William Lines came when it did the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga route before replacing their burned (in the shipyard) Manila City in the Manila-Zamboanga-Davao route. In 1992, the big but slow Maynilad of the William Lines came and replaced the Zamboanga City in that route and the Zamboanga City was given the Manila-Iloilo-Cotabato-General Santos City route instead to battle the Cotabato Princess (with she bypassing Zamboanga port her travel time to Cotabato was shorter).

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Maynilad (Photo credits: William Lines and Britz Salih)

Sulpicio Lines only fielded their second RORO liner in Southern Mindanao when the Manila Princess came in 1992 to replace their cruiser Davao Princess in the Manila-Cebu-Davao route. Actually during that time the only shipping companies with passenger service still remaining to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao were Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines. Such was the effect of the political and economic crises of the 1980’s and the coming of the container ships. Among those who quit Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao then in passenger shipping were Compania Maritima, Aboitiz Shipping and Lorenzo Shipping.

The slowness of the coming of the RORO liners in Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao can be counted this way. In 1992, four years after the first coming of the RORO liners, the southernmost portion of the country only had 4 RORO liners, the Manila Princess and Cotabato Princess of Sulpicio Lines and the Maynilad and Zamboanga City of William Lines (Sweet Lines only had the cruiser Sweet Glory in the route). Well, actually there were not that many liners here compared to the Visayas and Northern Mindanao as most cargo in the region was actually carried by the container ships which outnumber the RORO liners. However, Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao RORO liners were generally bigger than the Visayas and Northern Mindanao RORO liners, on the average.

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Princess of the Pacific (Photo credits: Sulpicio Lines and Britz Salih)

It was starting in 1993 that fielding of RORO liners to the southernmost part of the country accelerated. More RORO liners were actually coming in the country because of the incentives laid by President Fidel V. Ramos. The Princess of the Pacific of Sulpicio Lines came and did the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas route. Aboitiz Shipping came back to Southern Mindanao when they fielded the SuperFerry 1 in the Manila-Iloilo-General Santos-Davao route and their SuperFerry 3 did the Manila-Zamboanga-Cotabato route to the protest of William Lines in the latter which when not resolved resulted in the withdrawal of the liner Zamboanga City and subsequent reassignment of that ship to the Puerto Princesa route. Meanwhile, the super-big former flagship of Sulpicio Lines, the Filipina Princess replaced the Manila Princess in its route and this ship was subsequently assigned to the Manila-Zamboanga-Davao route to compete with the slow but bigger Maynilad.

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Photo credits: Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen

In 1994, the lengthened and rebuilt Sugbu which became the Mabuhay 3 of William Lines did the Manila-Davao-Dadiangas route. In 1995, just before the merger that produced WG&A no more further RORO liners came but Manila Princess was plagued by unreliability and was just being used as a reserve ship.

When WG&A started sailing in 1996 there were heavy changes to the schedules and routes. Early in the merger, the Maynilad was doing the Manila-Dumaguete-Cotabato route and SuperFerry 3 was assigned her old Manila-Zamboanga-Cotabato route. The Dona Virginia was fielded to the Manila-Zamboanga-General Santos City route and competing head-on with the Princess of the Pacific but she was only a half-RORO, half-cruiser. The SuperFerry 6 was doing the Manila-Surigao-Davao route in contest with the Filipina Princess. And the SuperFerry 1 was doing her old Manila-Iloilo-General Santos City-Davao route. There were more RORO liners now and RORO liners that have not been previously assigned to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao reached ports here like the Our Lady of Akita of Gothong Lines which became SuperFerry 6 and the old flagship Dona Virginia of William Lines. It was exciting because new ships coming are exciting and because it is a new experience for the passengers.

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SuperFerry 3 by Chief Ray Smith

Along the years there were constant adjustments in the routes and fielding of ships of WG&A as more RORO liners came to their fleet and some liners were disposed off or were lost. Later, WG&A also turned into pairing of ships to do the same route. But it would be hard to mention here all the WG&A routes and schedules as it often changed and I will just risk accusations of inaccuracies and listing many by month will be too tedious.

There was one more change in the area when Negros Navigation invaded Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao in their desire to become a national liner company and compete toe-to-toe with WG&A and Sulpicio Lines. The San Ezekiel Moreno was assigned the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-General Santos route and competing against the Princess of the Pacific. And the San Lorenzo Ruiz (theirs and not the Viva Shipping Lines ship) was fielded to the Manila-Iloilo-General Santos-Davao route in competition then with the SuperFerry 1/SuperFerry 8/SuperFerry 10 pairing.

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San Lorenzo Ruiz by Britz Salih

In the new millennium the RORO liners slowly disappeared from Southern Mindanao and almost too in Zamboanga. Passenger shipping slowly but continuously weakened with the onslaught of the budget airlines (and the intermodal bus too from Davao) whose fares were already in parity with the liners. Soon, even the hoi polloi were also taking the planes and a new generation of passengers deemed the liners as too slow and wouldn’t want to spend two-and-a-half days of their lives cocooned in a liner although they are fed free. The RORO liners soon became for the ship lovers only and for those who feared taking a plane.

In the second decade of the new millennium the Aboitiz Transport System RORO liners to Southern Mindanao disappeared. That was preceded years earlier by the withdrawal of Negros Navigation. Now there are no more liners in Southern Mindanao and in Zamboanga only one liner is left.

Soon RORO liners will just be distant memories in Southern Mindanao.

The P700-Million Peso Mistake

In the old past, the Pulupandan port which is some 25 kilometers south of the capital Bacolod was the main port of Negros Occidental province. It came to be located there because Bacolod has no way to build a deep-water port the because of the shallow slope of its beaches. And for export of sugar, the Negros sugar barons even developed a terminal in Guimaras before the war where foreign ships can dock and load sugar for export.

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From the NENACO Anniversary book

There was not much controversy was found before in Pulupandan being the main port of Negros Occidental. For the short hop to Iloilo the then smaller ferries were able to dock in Bacolod wharf. But for liners to Manila after the war, Pulupandan was the port and even the shipping company founded by Western visayas interests which did exclusive Western Visayas routes, the Southern Lines used Pulupandan port. All liner companies then used Pulupandan port.

Things changed in the 1960’s when Negros Navigation was already “the” Western Visayas shipping company and the company was plotting its rise and it was loaded with political connections. 1960’s was also the decade when from mainly having small and shallow draft ex-FS ships as the primary workhorse for shorter distances, the ships started to get bigger because maybe the population was growing fast and maybe also the economy was also developing because of the population increase (but of course not in a qualitative way – it was still plow and harrow technology of the old ages and mainly tilling of land in individual plots).

For their bigger ships now, Negros Navigation decided to have a new port which turned out to be the Banago port. This port was located in government-owned foreshoreland on a build-operate-transfer (BOT) lease of 50 years.

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Banago port (from “docdoms” in Photobucket)

Banago port was a big success for Negros Navigation. How can it not be when it was located right at the capital and commercial center and Pulupandan is some distance to the south? As a private port, Banago was exclusive to the ships of Negros Navigation as they were the owner and operator of that.

Pulupandan port was then left to decay slowly and get shallow as the years went by. Being near an estuary did not help its case and in any case as the years went by dredging has to be done on ports so the depth will be maintained as silt will naturally accumulate due both to human and natural causes.

The other shipping companies like Sulpicio Lines, William Lines, Lorenzo Shipping and Compania Maritima still used Banago port until the early 1980’s by using the shallow draft ex-FS ships and other vessels of the same size and draft. But in the same decade these types were gone in Pulupandan and there was no way they can still dock their bigger ships there now. And so one by one they abandoned Pulupandan and not even their new container ships called there and Pulupandan completely lost its liners from Manila.

The 1980’s started with Negros Navigation having practical monopoly of shipping to Negros Occidental aside from the occasional small general purpose ship calling in Pulupandan which remained operational and the attempt of Aboitiz Shipping to use Sipalay port in the southern part of Negros Occidental as alternative. So when one has to go to Bacolod by ship (which was much cheaper than the expensive PAL plane then), one then has to go to the nearest negros Navigation ticketing office or booth.

But things never lie still and in the 1990s, the Bacolod Real Estate and Development Company (BREDCO) applied for a reclamation permit with the purpose of building a port. That was subsequently granted and the new BREDCO port slowly began to take shape. When it became operational it was obvious that its design and capacity is much, much superior than the Banago port of Negros Navigation. And that was why I wondered why after so many decades Negros Navigation didn’t care to build a port that is comparable and that they will own forever.

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BREDCO Port (from “docdoms” in Photobucket)

When the merged shipping company WG&A came into being and it wanted to challenge Negros Navigation in its own turf, they had BREDCO which they can approach. BREDCO port served WG&A ships and in an instant the monopoly of Negros Navigation in Bacolod and Negros occidental was suddenly broken. And the competition situation was WG&A had more and better ships than Negros Navigation. If not for the Negrense’s loyalty to Nenaco, WG&A would have pushed Negros Navigation to the brink more rapidly.

In retaliation, Negros Navigation also entered the home turf of WG&A which is Cebu. But they were never particularly successful there as they were like facing three combined shipping companies there especially in cargo and let us not forget that Cebu is also the stronghold of the Number 1 before the “Great Merger” which was Sulpicio Lines. Negros Navigation never really the quality of the great liners serving the Cebu route and so competing there was very tough for them.

Soon BREDCO portwas a roaring success. Not only did it host liners from Manila but also container ships. With the development of the intermodal system, the Bacolod-Dumangas short-distance ferry route took off and not only that the HSC (High Speed Craft) route between Iloilo and Bacolod really took off also and in its wash it even sank the Iloilo-Bacolod short-distance ferries of Negros Navigation which they served since their inception in 1932. By this it was all too obvious that Banago port is no match to BREDCO port in location and in facilities. Well, it was also even able to develop a grain and an oil terminal. They have it all including all the assortment of charges, too to better fund their expansion.

It was obvious then that BREDCO was just a good commercial port and not much more and not even protecting Negros Navigation interests which at the start of the new millennium its fortunes are ebbing fast. Soon Negros Occidental politicians had grumblings against BREDCO to maybe shake up its roost and effect changes. But no dice. BREDCO simply shrugged off all pressures and cases filed. Soon even the Negros Navigation hold on Banago port was gone because their 50-year lease already expired and they have to return the foreshoreland and together with it surrender the port to the government which happened during President Aquino’s term.

When the return of Banago port was imminent, the Negros Occcidental politicians tried to have a government port that will compete with BREDCO. But then all their brain wracking produced just one lousy idea, the re-development of Pulupandan port into a port worthy of regional port standards and for this they committed a budget from the peoples’ coffer of over P700 million. And with that money a new modern port rose in Pulupandan.

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Pulupandan Port (Photo from BizBilla.com)

Which soon turned practically into a “port to nowhere”. No liners came nor container ships. Just few occasional small freighters will come just like before. The government tried to sell it as a connection to Guimaras. After prodding, the Montenegro Shipping Lines responded and fielded a Pulupandan to Sibunag short-distance ferry-RORO. But then that solitary ferry is no match in weight with all the HSCs and short-distance ferry-ROROS using the BREDCO to Iloilo and Dumangas routes. There was simply no way to compete with the much superior location and development of BREDCO port. It was just like developing Cavite port to compete with North Harbor or developing Argao port to compete with Cebu port.

Now there is pressure to develop a new government port in Bacolod to compete with BREDCO. Huh? I thought it was the mantra of government not to compete with private enterprises (by the way, I am not the defender of BREDCO nor do I have any connection with them; it just titillates me to twit government stupidity), Why don’t they just tow the Pulupandan port to Bacolod to save on cost? Now, if that is only possible so the mistake can be corrected. And where was the stupid NEDA (National Economic Development Authority) in all of this when it should have checked well the validity of government projects? Will the proponents and validators of the Pulupandan port project willing to have their necks garrotted?

Now imagine another regional port in Bacolod costing about a billion pesos to build including land to be purchased just to make up for the Pulupundan error and compete with BREDCO!

When one Negros Occidental congressmen questioned that project, the main proponent which is one of the richest men in Congress simply said he will try to have a similar port in another congressional district north of Bacolod and the congressman which questioned was mollified. Well, with “solons” like this maybe it is high time we close Congress and better just save the money.

And that is the P700-million peso Pulupandan mistake which they will try to remedy by throwing good money after bad.

When Polloc Port Lost

Polloc-Port

Photo from REZA-ARMM

Many times a reader will read “Cotabato Port” when it comes to shipping and many of them will think of the great but now conflict-ridden city of Cotabato. They will not realize that the “Cotabato Port” referred to is actually the Polloc port in Parang town in Maguindanao province which is about kilometers from the city. The true Cotabato Port is actually a river port near the mouth of Cotabato River hence it is shallow and can just accommodate small and shallow-draft vessels.

So when ships became bigger, the government decided to develop a new port for Cotabato City but this was not located in the city but in the nearby town of Parang. Actually the port was between Cotabato City and Parang and its name is Polloc port and the national government promoted and supported it well.

1980 0921 Port of Polloc

Credits to Philippine Daily Express and Gorio Belen

In the past, Polloc was a viable port when the roads in the region were still terrible. Sulpicio Lines and Aboitiz Shipping made good sailing there and they even had dedicated passenger-cargo ships and container ships to Polloc port. Sulpicio Lines used the Dona Marilyn (the former Dona Ana) which was a good fast cruiser liner then. They then fielded the RORO liner Cotabato Princess when it arrived and she served the route here well.

Aboitiz Shipping tried this route with a newly-fielded ship here, the SuperFerry 3, smaller that her fleetmates but more fit for this route. When the merged shipping company WG&A was formed a slew of ships served the route including the former William Lines flagship Dona Virginia and a host of ROPAXes including the very well-regarded SuperFerry 1 and SuperFerry 8. The respected sisters SuperFerry 2 and SuperFerry 5 also served Parang port along with the Maynilad. Doesn’t that line-up tells one that Parang port and the Cotabato route was once good then?

1980 1022 Polloc Port

Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen

Of course Parang will not be as strong a port like Dadiangas or what is later known as Gensan. South Cotabato was able to develop agribusiness (think Dole) and a hog industry and that was what supported the port. Cotabato and Parang had no such equivalent especially since the area became conflict-ridden at the approach of the 1970’s and in the aftermath the area sank into a certain degree of lawlessness which is a deterrent for trade, investment and tourism.

When the conflict and lawlessness abated a little, Cotabato and Parang did not rise even though the government tried to pour in money and promoted Parang port especially when the SPDA (Southern Philippines Development Authority) was created. And the support continued under the banner of the ARMM (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao) and it tried to attract Malaysian businessmen and other businesses and promoted Polloc as a free port and ecozone.

Ironically, what doomed Polloc was actually the opening of two new highways, the Narciso Ramos Highway which connected to Malabang, Pagadian and a route to Marawi and Iligan or Ozamis and the paving of the old Sayre Highway which connected the area to Cagayan de Oro via Bukidnon. Where before a shipper will have to wait for the weekly ship, now he can truck his goods to Cagayan de Oro, Iligan or Ozamis and the combination of the three means the availability of daily ships plus a shorter sailing time with a lower shipping cost. And for passengers there are many direct commuter vans now from Cotabato to Iligan and Cagayan de Oro. They can just take the ship there and travel time and costs will be less. Conversely, when they arrive in those ports there will commuter vans waiting for them.

http://www.philstar.com/nation/2015/06/12/1465121/officials-see-rise-polloc-port-bangsamoro-shipping-hub

Now there is no more liner to Parang and cargo ships and container ships are few although the regional government tries to promote it mightily. However, it does not rise because there are simply better alternatives in shipping out cargo or bringing it in. Long-distance cargo trucks from even Cebu already penetrate the area and the main point of departure is Cagayan de Oro. Davao or General Santos City can also be the entry point especially if the goods are from abroad and there is no problem in trucking in the goods to the Cotabato area (talking of the city and not the old province).

The experience is actually what some say that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. It is okay and good to open the Narciso Ramos Highway and the Sayre Highway to connect Central Mindanao to Western and Northern Mindanao but then the unintended consequence is the sinking of Cotabato and Parang port.

I just hope the oil facility invested in by the Malaysians in Parang will somewhat make up for the fall. Hopefully they will allow goods from Singapore to be brought in tariff free under the ASEAN Free Trade Zone (which in Philippine bureaucratic definition means a lot of restrictions since they never care to read the dictionary and there are vested interests hiding behind those restrictions and bureaucrats and politicians protecting them). But then the local Nestle operation will balk because Nestle products from Singapore actually lands cheaper in Zamboanga (and that is even with grease money).

Wither Parang? No, actually I don’t have a good idea. It will be another locality whose fate is dependent on decision makers in Manila even though they don’t know much of local or regional realities.

Federalism, anyone?

The Sulpicio Lines Fast Cruiser Liners

Don Sulpicio (Doña Paz) and Doña Ana (Doña Marilyn)

From the collection of John Uy Saulog

In the era of cruiser liners, not only did they get bigger but they also got faster. So they competed not only in amenities and passenger service but also in shorter cruising times and this was valuable not only in the far ports like Davao but also in the likes of Cebu and Cagayan de Oro. With fast cruisers, the travel time to the likes of Davao went down from three-and-a-half days to two-and-a-half days. It also brought down the cruising time to Cebu to less than a day.

The leading shipping company in the local routes Compania Maritima had been the first in fast cruisers with the fielding of “Filipinas” in the 1968 and the “Mindanao” in 1970. Both were capable of 18 knots and that was the reference speed then in that era to be considered “fast”. As expected, the two, one after the other. were fielded in the long Davao route.

William Lines followed suit from 1970 when they ordered the brand-new “Misamis Occidental” that was also capable of 18 knots. This was soon followed by the legendary “Cebu City” which was capable of 20.5 knots and this was assigned to the premier Manila-Cebu route. William Lines then followed up with four more fast cruiser liners and they had the biggest number of ships in that category. William Lines fielded their 20.5-knot “Manila City” to the Davao route.

Sweet Lines did not really have a fast cruiser except for the first “Sweet Faith” which they fielded in the prime Manila-Cebu route in a fierce competition with William’s “Cebu City”. This liner which arrived from Denmark in 1970 was capable of 20 knots. She had the pair “Sweet Home” (the first) which came in 1973 from Europe too. Sweet Lines dubbed the two as the “Inimitable Pair”. To be able to compete in the long Davao route, what Sweet Lines did was to use the shorter eastern seaboard on the route to Davao. With this tactic, they were also “fast”, so to say.

Negros Navigation also had their share with fast cruiser liners with the “Dona Florentina” and the beautiful “Don Julio”. This was capped by their fastest cruiser then, the “Don Juan” which was capable of 19 knots. A later ship, the “Don Claudio” was also fast at 18.5 knots when she was still in Japan. May I note that the Negros Navigation cruiser liners were not really in direct competition with their counterparts as they were just then in the Western Visayas routes.

The fragments of the Go Thong empire was late in fast cruiser liner segment. Maybe they needed to take stock and consolidate after their split in 1972. Sulpicio Lines entered the fast cruiser liner category just in 1975, the last among the majors which competed in this field. It has to be noted that Carlos A. Gothong Lines and Lorenzo Shipping did not follow in this category and neither did Aboitiz Shipping and Escano Lines. Only Compania Maritima, William Lines, Sweet Lines, Negros Navigation and Sulpicio Lines participated in this competition but actually Compania Maritima did not acquire any more liners, fast or not, after acquiring “Mindanao” in 1970 even though they had many hull losses in the succeeding years.

Folio Dona Paz

Created by Jon Uy Saulog

Sulpicio Lines acquired the “Himeyuri Maru” from Ryukyu Kaiun KK, more famously known as RKK Line in 1975. This ship was built by Onomichi Zosen in Onomichi yard in Japan in 1963. She measured 93.1 meters by 13.6 meters and her cubic volume was 2,602 gross tons. She was powered by a single Niigata engine of 5,500 horsepower and her top speed was 18 knots. Refitted in the Philippines she had a passenger capacity of 1,424. She was given the name “Don Sulpicio” in honor of the founder and she became the flagship of Sulpicio Lines (this was the second ship to carry that name in the fleet). In 1981, after a fire and refitting she was renamed the “Dona Paz”, the second to carry that name in the Sulpicio Lines fleet (the first was an ex-FS ship). A fine ship, she was unfortunately associated with great ignominy later.

In 1976, Sulpicio Lines acquired the sister ship of “Himeyuri Maru” from RKK Lines too, the “Otohime Maru” which was also built by Onomichi Zosen in the same yard in Onomichi, Japan three years later in 1966. She had the same Niigata powerplant of 5,500 horsepower. However, she was rated at 19.5 knots. She was 97.6 meters in length, 13.7 meters in breadth with a cubic volume of 2,991 gross tons. This ship was renamed to “Dona Ana” and together with “Don Sulpicio”, Sulpicio Lines called them the “Big Two”. They were used by Sulpicio Lines in fighting for their stake in the primary Manila-Cebu route. Later, they extended the route of “Dona Ana” to Davao. In 1980, “Dona Ana” was renamed to “Dona Marilyn”. She held the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route of Sulpicio Lines until she was reassigned the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route with the arrival of the “Cotabato Princess”. She held that route until her end.

In 1978, as Sulpicio Lines grew stronger, they acquired from RKK Lines again not one but two ships which were actually sister ships too but bigger than the earlier pair from Ryukyu Kaiun KK. These were the “Tokyo Maru” and the “Okinawa Maru” and again both were built by Onomichi Zosen in Onomichi yard in Japan. The first ship was built in 1969 and the second one was built in 1973. The “Tokyo Maru” had dimensions of 112.2 meters by 15.2 meters and she had cubic measurement of 3,510 gross tons. She was powered by a single Hitachi-B&W engine of 6,150 horsepower which gave her a top speed of 18.5 knots. “Okinawa Maru” measured 111.5 meters by 15.2 meters with a cubic volume of 3,800 gross tons. Her engine was a single Mitsubishi-MAN of 7,600 horsepower which gave her a top speed of 19 knots. Incidentally this engine also powered “Cotabato Princess”, “Nasipit Princess”, “SuperFerry 2”, “SuperFerry 5” and “Cagayan Bay 1”.

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Dipolog Princess and Princess of the Caribbean

Tokyo Maru” was renamed to “Don Eusebio” and “Okinawa Maru” was renamed to “Don Enrique”. When the “Princesses” came into the nomenclature of Sulpicio Lines she became the “Davao Princess” in 1987 because she was actually the Davao specialist. Later, she was renamed to “Iloilo Princess” when she was no longer holding that route (“Filipina Princess” supplanted her in 1993). Her local passenger capacity, as refitted was 1,379. Meanwhile, “Don Eusebio” was renamed to “Dipolog Princess”. She was then sailing the Manila-Dumaguete-Dipolog-Cagayan de Oro-Ozamis route. However, she was not actually calling in Dipolog but in Dapitan port. In her refitting here, her passenger capacity increased to 1,261. Later, she held the Manila-Tagbilaran-Dipolog-Iligan-Cebu route of the company until she was stopped from sailing.

The fifth and last cruiser Sulpicio Lines acquired in this period was the “Naha Maru” which also from RKK Line and she came in 1981. She was bigger than the earlier ships from RKK Line. The ship was built by Onomichi Zosen (again!) in Onomichi yard in Japan in 1972. She measured 130.9 meters by 16.8 meters and she had a cubic measurement of 4,957 gross tons. She was powered by a single Hitachi-B&W engine of 9,200 horsepower, the same type powering “Dipolog Princess” but with more cylinders. She had top speed of 20 knots when new. She was called as the “Philippine Princess” and she became the Sulpicio Lines flagship which means she held the Manila-Cebu route. For a long time, she and the William Lines’ flagship “Dona Virginia” fought in that route. Refitted here, she had a passenger capacity of 1,633.

6934971031_fb4dd73046_z

Photo credit: Philippine Daily Express and Gorio Belen

As a footnote, much later, when cruiser liners were no longer in vogue, Sulpicio Lines acquired another fast cruiser liner. This was the “Ogasawara Maru” of Tokai Kisen which was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Shimonoseki, Japan in 1979. She measured 110.5 meters by 15.2 meters and 3,553 gross tons. She was powered by two Mitsubishi engines totalling 11,600 horsepower and her top speed when new was 20.5 knots. She was known as the “Princess of the Caribbean” here and she came in 1997.

Like the William Lines fast cruiser liners, many of these Sulpicio fast cruiser liners also met grim fates (but in general they lasted longer and that is why the PSSS — Philippine Ship Spotters Society have still photos of them). Everybody knows the fate of “Dona Paz” which collided with a tanker in Tablas Strait on December 20, 1987 that resulted in great loss of lives.

The “Dona Marilyn”, meanwhile, foundered in a typhoon off Biliran on October 24, 1988 on her way to Tacloban from Manila. The “Philippine Princess” was hit by fire while refitting in Cebu on December 5, 1997. She was towed to Manila where she was broken up. The “Iloilo Princess” was hit by another fire while also refitting in Cebu on July 4, 2003. She capsized in port and she was broken up, too.

The “Dipolog Princess” was the only survivor of the five. She was among the Sulpicio Lines ships suspended as a consequence of the capsizing of the “Princess of the Stars” in a typhoon in June of 2008. She never sailed again and she was just anchored in Mactan Channel and later moored at the Sulpicio wharf in Pier 7 in Mandaue, Cebu. Together with the “Princess of the Caribbean” she was sold to China breakers and she was demolished in Xinhui, China by Jiangmen Yinhu Ship Breaking Company on January 2011.

Now, even Sulpicio Lines is no more.

The First “Great” Merger: The Failed Saga of WG&A and CFC

When WG&A was formed it was ostensibly to combat the entry of foreign shipping companies on local inter-island routes. That was the time of many so-called “deregulation” initiatives of Fidel V. Ramos. But even then I had doubts about this as an cabotage law was in effect in the Philippines. Cabotage effectively prevents foreign shipping companies from plying local routes. And to repeal it an act of Congress is needed and I heavily doubted then that the Philippine Congress will go along with that.

It is generally accepted that it was Aboitiz Shipping that proposed this big merger. Rumors had it that the biggest shipping company, Sulpicio Lines, which was also Cebu-based was also invited but it refused and preferred to go it all alone.

The merger brought together the second, third and fourth-biggest shipping companies in the Philippines reckoned by passenger and cargo operations out of a total of five long-distance liner companies (but may I note which is in fourth place might be disputed by Negros Navigation). It had the effect of lowering the number of long-distance passenger shipping companies from five to three.

The merged company and its subsidiaries were the biggest shipping combine that ever existed in the Philippines in terms of fleet and in terms of route network. It significantly brought to that Visayas-Mindanao and intra-Visayas routes and High Speed Craft(HSC) operations. For the former, the Cebu Ferries Corp. (CFC) was formed and for the latter SuperCat was retained.

Brought into the merger were the following ferries (including their former routes):

WILLIAM LINES INC.
Mabuhay 1 (Manila-Cebu and Manila-Iloilo)
Mabuhay 2 ((Mnl-Surigao-Butuan-Tagbilaran-Mnl and Mnl-Tagbilaran-CDO)
Mabuhay 3 (Manila-Davao-Dadiangas-Manila and Manila-CDO-Iloilo-Manila)
Mabuhay 5 [after a few voyages permanent fielding overtaken by merger]
Dona Virginia (Manila-Dumaguete-Ozamis-Iligan v.v.)
Maynilad (Manila-Zamboanga-Davao)
Masbate I (Manila-Masbate-Catbalogan-Tacloban)
Zamboanga City (Manila-Puerto Princesa v.v.)
Tacloban City (Manila-Batan-Dumaguit-Dipolog v.v.)
Iligan City (Cebu-Iligan v.v.)
Misamis Occidental (Cebu-Ozamis v.v.)
Mabuhay 6 [unfinished]

CARLOS A. GOTHONG LINES INC.
Our Lady of Akita (Manila-CDO-Butuan v.v. and Manila-Cebu v.v.)
Our Lady of Medjugorje (Manila-Dumaguete-Ozamis-Iligan-Cebu v.v.)
Our Lady of Sacred Heart (Manila-Roxas-Palompon-Isabel-Cebu v.v.)
Our Lady of Lourdes (Manila-Dumaguit-Palompon-Cebu v.v.)
Our Lady of the Rule (CDO-Cebu v.v. and CDO-Jagna v.v.)
Our Lady of Naju (Cebu-Ozamis v.v.)
Our Lady of Fatima (Nasipit-Cebu v.v. and Nasipit-Jagna v.v.)
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (Iligan-Cebu v.v. and Iligan-Dumaguete v.v.)
Our Lady of Guadalupe [reserve/unreliable; formerly Cebu-Surigao v.v.]
Our Lady of Lipa (Cebu-CDO v.v.)
Dona Cristina (Cebu-Tacloban v.v. and Cebu-Palompon v.v.)
Dona Lili (Cebu-Surigao v.v. and Cebu-Maasin v.v.)
Don Calvino [reserve/unreliable; formerly Cebu-Iligan v.v.]
Our Lady of Akita 2 [unfinished]

ABOITIZ SHIPPING CORP.
SuperFerry 1 (Manila-Iloilo-GSC-Davao v.v. and Manila-Iloilo v.v.)
SuperFerry 2 (Manila-Cebu-CDO v.v.)
SuperFerry 3 (Mnl-Zamboanga-Cotabato v.v. w/ Boracay (summer) and Mnl-Dumaguit-Roxas v.v.)
SuperFerry 5 (Mnl-Cebu-Iligan-Dumaguete-Mnl) and Mnl-Dumaguete-CDO-Cebu-Mnl)
Elcano (was not used; obsolete/unreliable; supposedly not brought by ASC to the merger)
Allowing for database inaccuracies, the following cargo ships were brought to the merger:

CARLOS A. GOTHONG LINES INC.
Our Lady of Peace (112.9m x 18.0m, 17kts, b. 1974)
Our Lady of Hope (99.0m x17.3m, 17kts, b.1979)

ABOITIZ SHIPPING CORP.
Aboitiz Concarrier V (69.0m x 10.9m, b. 1968)
Aboitiz Concarrier XIV (71.0m x 10.9m, 13kts, b. 1965)
Aboitiz Superconcarrier I (115.1m x17.3m, 14kts, b. 1970)
Aboitiz Superconcarrier II (102.0m x 16.3m, 12.5kts, b. 1970)
Aboitiz Superconcarrier III (105.5m x16.3m, 12.5kts, b. 1976)
Aboitiz Megacarrier 1 (139.7m x 19.3m, 14kts, b. 1975)
Aboitiz SuperRORO 100 (108.2m x20.0m, 16kts, b. 1983)

WILLIAM LINES INC.
Wilcon II
Wilcon 4
Wilcon 5
Wilcon VI
Wilcon VII
Wilcon 8
Wilcon 11
ROCON I

Excluding HSCs which were just beginning to arrive in the Philippines, the combined fleet of WG&A was nearly 50 vessels, slightly more than double the fleet of Sulpicio Lines, previously the biggest shipping company in the country.

SHIP TRANSFORMATIONS AFTER THE MERGER
Mabuhay 1 became SuperFerry10
Mabuhay 2 became SuperFerry 7
Mabuhay 3 became SuperFerry 8
Mabuhay 5 became SuperFerry 9
Mabuhay 6 became Our Lady of Good Voyage
Our Lady Akita became SuperFerry 6
Our Lady of Akita 2 became SuperFerry 11 (and later the Our Lady of Banneux)
Masbate I became Our Lady of Manaoag (in 1998)
Misamis Occidental became Our Lady of Montserrat (in 1997)

VESSELS TRANSFERRED TO CEBU FERRIES CORP.
Our Lady of Lipa (later transferred to WG&A)
Our Lady of the Rule
Our Lady of Lourdes
Our Lady of Fatima
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel
Our Lady of Guadalupe
Dona Cristina
Dona Lili
Don Calvino
Misamis Occidental
Our Lady of Good Voyage (later)
Maynilad (later and also renamed Our Lady of Akita 2)
Our Lady of Banneux (later)
Our Lady of Manaoag (later)

Like all mergers and acquisitions (M&A), the terms “synergy”, “rationalization” and “streamlining” was bandied about as if these terms are positive terms in business. But soon these words brought chills to the rank and file because the sum of the 3 words is actually only one — “chopping block”. This is the field of bean counters where shipping passion is simply thrown out of the window.

Immediately, the Aboitiz Jebsens system was adopted. That means relying on bigger, faster ROROs and short in-port hours which equates to high utilization of ships. That called for good ship engines, a field of expertise of the now-renamed WG&A Jebsens. That system, however, also meant the death knell for the cruiser liners as their cargo booms meant long in-port hours and their having no car decks means low capacity for container vans.

The new style was to put all cargo in container vans and all container vans are mounted in trailers. For fast handling, tractor heads from trucks were no longer good enough. Only dedicated, automatic prime movers with the capability to raise the trailers were used. Calls on in-between ports generally were only 2-3 hours and ships don’t stay overnight at the farthest port of call of a voyage.

With so many ROROs sailing high hours per week (with some ships sailing 145.5 hours out of a 168-hour week), WG&A was confident it could sell less-efficient and slower ropax and container ships without affecting capacity and frequency. Soon some of the vessels were already for sale.

VESSELS SOLD SOON AFTER THE MERGER
Tacloban City (cruiser)
Iligan City (cruiser)
Dona Cristina (slow, small RORO)
Don Calvino (slow, small, unreliable RORO)
Dona Lili (slow, small RORO)
Wilcon 6 (old cargo ship)
Aboitiz Concarrier V (old cargo ship)
Aboitiz Megacarrier 1 (big, modern container ship)
Aboitiz SuperRORO 100 (big, modern container ship)
RoCon I (big, modern container ship, the biggest in the country)

VESSELS OFFERED FOR SALE BUT NOT SOLD THEN
Dona Virginia (cruiser liner)
Maynilad (big but slow RORO liner)
Zamboanga City (ROLO liner)
Our Lady of Naju (cruiser)
Masbate I (slow, small RORO)
Our Lady of Montserrat (cruiser)
SuperRORO 300 (former Our Lady of Hope, container ship)

With WG&A Jebsens managing the fleet, the merger upgraded the amenities, cleanliness and passenger service of the ferries. But initially all meals were for sale; vehement protests from patrons thereafter forced WG&A to backtrack. It was also claimed that safety standards improved as the whole fleet is now internationally-certificated. However this was not reflected in lower hull-loss rates. Ironically, it was the lesser Our Ladies (and not the SuperFerries) which proved to be unsinkable.

WG&A and CFC practiced branding. Branding is good in the sense that it promises consistent quality and service. On the other hand branding also utilizes ads and promotions. If that results in better market share then it should be good. Otherwise it only means higher level of costs. And higher costs are a threat to marginal routes and to less-efficient ships.

Initially, even with a fifth of their fleet sold (and with only one additional ship coming, the SF12 and while losing the SF7 to fire), WG&A was able to offer more frequencies because of the higher utilization of ships. But almost no new ports of call were added except for Bacolod. And probably the only significant new routes were the Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Davao (which passes through the eastern seaboard of Mindanao), Manila-Ormoc-Nasipit, Manila-Dumaguete-Cotabato and Manila-Cebu-Zamboanga-General Santos/Davao routes.

It was Cebu Ferries that added more new ports of call and routes (like Cebu to Dumaguit, Roxas City, Bacolod, Dumaguete, Larena, Jagna and Camiguin and Cagayan de Oro to Dumaguete) which in turn put a lot of pressure on the other Cebu shipping companies. CFC ships were faster than the competition and as former liners they simply outclassed the rest in terms of amenities and service.

Sulpicio Lines and Negros Navigation responded by adding ships. Sulpicio Lines basically kept to their old routes (except for the new Manila-Cebu-Davao-Dadiangas route) but Negros Navigation which previously concentrated only in Western Visayas has to venture in a lot of new routes and ports of call because their fleet more than doubled in a span of a few years. But then by sailing to Cebu, Nenaco also opened their former exclusive port of Bacolod to competition and they lost more than they gained.

This period right after the merger, the late 90s, was probably one of the best in Philippine passenger shipping. Competition was fierce, choices were many and there were a lot of newly-fielded ships. There were more shipping companies in the past but the ships of the 90s were far better than the ships of the earlier periods. In major ports there were nearly daily departures from all the liner companies combined.

But they say good times never really last. But I didn’t expect that the decline will be that soon, that fast, that continuous and what will be left is just the rump of the biggest-ever shipping company in the Philippines.

The first hint of trouble that I detected was when I noticed that WG&A was not properly assessing the threat, challenge and development of the intermodal system in Eastern Visayas which was then growing by leaps and bounds.

If Fidel V. Ramos had a deregulation program in shipping he also had a deregulation program in the bus and truck sectors. As deregulated area, bus companies can now ply Eastern Visayas routes with just a temporary operator’s permit. Soon a lot of buses were plying the Samar-Leyte-Biliran routes. Then the dominant short-distance RORO company in the Matnog-Allen route lost the case to protect their missionary status and new players entered that route ensuring that the ROROs needed will always be there. Long-distance trucking also developed with the loosening of the restrictions in the importation of surplus trucks. And with the advent of radial truck tires long-distance trucking became easy.

WG&A’s response was to withdraw from the Samar-Leyte routes except for the adjacent ports of Ormoc, Palompon and Isabel which actually comprises just one route. But soon under pressure from the buses these were lost too including the port of Masbate City which was also part of this route. Soon the islands of Masbate, Samar, Leyte and Biliran were lost to the intermodal trucks and buses.

Eastern Visayas was a signal victory for the intermodal system which was based on long-distance truck/bus plus the short-distance RORO ship. Wins by the challengers tend to have a multiplier effect. They become stronger, bolder and more confident. If the ship can be beaten in one area then nobody can pooh-pooh anymore that they will not be beaten in the next area of confrontation. And the next challenge probably happened before the WG&A has fully internalized their loss and it happened when they were in relative disarray.

A related development at this time was that WG&A’s new routes failed to stick and only the Bacolod route was able to survive. The new CFC routes also failed to pan out and were being abandoned one by one. One contributory factor for CFC’s retreat is fuel cost. The amenities and service of their ships might have been higher as those were former liners but as former liners it is also the reason why their engines are bigger and consume more fuel. Soon WG&A/CFC were selling ships. This was the second set of disposals and it happened at about the turn of the millennium. Also disposed in this period were at least six catamarans including vessels that came from mergers in the High Speed Craft (HSC) sector (the mergers with the Sea Angels of Negros Navigation and Waterjet).

At the same proximate time, it was already the strategy of WG&A to sell old and inefficient cargo ships and just let the ROROs liners carry the container vans. They then went for bigger ROROs later with twin cargo decks, the reason for the purchases of the SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18.

The next challenge did not come from the intermodal. Rather it was the withdrawal of the Gothong family from the merger except for one scion. Soon the Gothong family re-entered the shipping business and re-established Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (but they were not particular successful). Not long after this development the Chiongbian family (of William Lines) also withdrew from the merged company. But they did not re-enter the shipping business. Let it be noted, because it is important, that all the merged shipping companies independently retained their cargo forwarding businesess. For the Chiongbian family it was the Fast Cargo Transport Corp.(FCTC) and Gothong Cargo Forwarding Corp.(GCFC) for the Gothong family.

One can speculate that the sale of 10 vessels in 2000-02 (including those withdrawn from routes and old container ships) might somehow be connected to these withdrawals. When the company also took out a big loan in this period ($18.6 million) it might also have a relation to this state of affairs. Before the end of 2002, Aboitiz had already bought out its former partners. But it will still be later that the company will be renamed Aboitiz Transport System (ATS).

The next challenge came from the intermodal again. In 2003, the Western Nautical Highway opened and buses, trucks and jeeps were able to roll down to Panay island via Mindoro and Batangas. Soon the shipping routes and shipping companies serving Panay were under great pressure. Again, WG&A chose to withdraw (from Dumaguit and Roxas) and just tried to hold on to Iloilo port.

The opening of the Western Nautical Highway and the consequent withdrawal from routes, the withdrawal of the Chiongbian family and the need for new ROROs provoked a massacre of ships in this period as about 15 ships were disposed in the years 2003-06, both from WG&A and CFC, both ROPAX and container ships. It must also be noted that six catamarans were also sold in this period. WG&A was lucky that at this time world metal prices were peaking. If it hastened the disposal of ships I can say it is probable. Let me state that in the late 1990’s when all three families were still in WG&A, the company did not sell to the breakers, in general. In the first half of the first decade of the new millennium WG&A sold heavily to the breakers especially when world metal prices were peaking.

Attracted by the doubling of world metal price in 2007, WG&A then sold their prized ferries Superferry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 to foreign liner companies.In the process they earned a windfall. But this is not without cost as they suddenly lacked the ships needed to carry the container vans. As a stopgap measure WG&A chartered 3 container ships, the “Myriad”, “Markella” and “Eponyma”. They then also converted SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 9 and SuperFerry 12 into twin-cargo-deck ROPAX ships. Later the subsidiary cargo company 2GO was formed and the chartered ships were returned one by one.

At about the same time, in 2007, a very ominous development took place. Aboitiz partnered with MCC Transport of Singapore, the Asia subsidiary of the A.P. Moller – Maersk Group, the biggest container shipping company in the world and formed the MCC Transport Philippines (MCCTP). Since it met nationality rules, it was able to ply local routes and the ships invested by Maersk were given special permits by MARINA.

If the chartered ships of ATS and the ships of 2GO were a step up over local competition, the ships that came from MCC Transport were still another further step ahead in terms of size, speed and efficiency. MCCTP acted as feeder to MCC Transport which now dominates the Asia container routes. Together with the coming of more regional container ships (after APL) with direct foreign routes (like MELL, PIL, RCL and others), this completely undermined one important bread and butter of local container shipping which is the transshipment of foreign container vans. ATS and subsidiary 2GO cargo operations might have been affected by this but as a group Aboitiz is safe because they are also on the side of the winners through MCCTP.

After the sales of the four of the biggest and most modern SuperFerry ships in 2007, the fleet of ATS/CFC no longer grew. New ships have come like SuperFerry 20, SuperFerry 21, Cebu Ferry 1, Cebu Ferry 2 and Cebu Ferry 3. But ships have also been sold, lost or laid-up like SuperFerry 9, Our Lady of Medjugorje, Our Lady of Good Voyage, Our Lady of the Rule, Our Lady of Mount Carmel and SuperFerry 19.

With only six ships sailing, ATS ports of call were already down to half compared to its peak and in half of these ports the frequencies were down to once a week. CFC ports of call were also down to half and its fleet is less than a third of what it had before. CFC changed its website and no longer claimed it was the biggest Visayan shipping company (which is just a reflection of the truth). The Sulpicio Lines fleet was already bigger than the combined ATS and CFC fleets. If cargo ships are counted, Sulpicio’s fleet was almost double the combined ATS, CFC and 2GO fleets.

In 2008, KGLI-NM, the holding company owning Negros Navigation made an offer for Aboitiz Transport System. When the bank financing the take-over bid asked for more collateral the bid collapsed. This take-over bid was news for a long time because of the significance and it dragged. It was here that ATS propagated the canard that shipping is losing to the budget airlines and it obscured the fact that cargo is the lifeblood of shipping. Ironically it is this same year that regional container ships in Philippine ports multiplied. And not once did I notice Aboitiz discussing its shares in MCC Transport Philippines. But at least the Aboitiz group was frank enough to admit that the business of power generation attracts them more and that they are already heavily investing in it and if ATS is sold it will be one of their primary investment areas.

In 2010, with the assistance of the ASEAN-China Fund, Negros Navigation Company was finally able to secure the deal to buy Aboitiz Transport System and its subsidiaries especially Cebu Ferries Corporation, SuperCat and 2GO, the forwarding company. At its end as an Aboitiz company, ATS, CFC and 2GO had only 9 ROPAX ships and 2 cargo ships sailing which is not any bigger in gross tons than the company it merged in WG&A even if the SuperCats are counted. So in effect that means the bigger William Lines and Gothong sank without any replacement.

Aboitiz always says around that it has already gotten out of shipping and the maritime industry. But they completely obscure the fact that they are still in MCC Transport Philippines (MCCTP) and they completely own now the former Aboitiz Jebsens (renamed back when the Gothong and Chiongbian families withdrew from WG&A). The former Abojeb is in crewing and manning and that is one of the five recognized sectors of the Philippine maritime industry as defined by the government. MCCTP is already in expansion after Aboitiz sold Aboitiz Transport System. [Recently, Aboitiz clarified that some of their family members are engaged in MCCTP.]

Now, Negros Navigation Company owns Aboitiz Transport System and NENACO even retained the name and the brands. It will be a matter of time before it will be evident how big a bag they are holding.

The “great” merger of 1996 started out with a bang, lofty words and promises. It exited with just a whimper. But along the way it sank two great liner companies (William Lines and Gothong) and took down with it the liner industry.

The Ten Ships From Europe That Vaulted Go Thong To No.1 Before The Break-up in 1972

In the 1960’s, Carlos A. Go Thong & Co., as it was known then. was able to latch their sail to a new commodity crop that will soon rise as the Number 1 commodity crop in the Philippines. That commodity crop was copra and its downstream product coconut oil. In the world this was the decade when coconut oil will displace animal oil (lard) as the primary cooking oil. The Philippines will become the Number 2 producer of copra in the world and the Number 1 exporter. Lu Do and Lu Ym will become the biggest aggregator of copra in the Philippines in that decade and its partnership with Go Thong and its subsidiary for international routes Universal Shipping with bring the two to the highest of heights in the trade of this commodity crop.

Go Thong will have many small ships with small passenger capacities or even none plying distant and out-of the way ports to load copra all over the Visayas and Mindanao. In many ports where they load copra, Go Thong will usually have big bodegas just for copra. In Iligan City, it was big as a city block and right there near the port and part of the city proper. All these copra will go to Lu Do and Lu Ym in Cebu and a portion of it will be milled into coconut oil, both crude coconut oil and refined coconut oil (this is what we buy from the supermarket and stores). The coconut oil and copra (mainly the latter) will be loaded in Universal Shipping vessels to be shipped to Europe (mainly West Germany) and the Far East. Other tankers, both foreign and local will also load coconut oil in the Lu Do and Lu Ym jetty in Cebu that is now partially enclosed by the SRP road.

Along the way with this trading in Europe, Go Thong was able to meet a broker or agent that promised them ten used European cargo-passenger ships that can be used in Philippine waters. In the middle of the 1960’s there was already a need for new liners in the inter-island routes as the population has already increased, the economy has already grown since 1945 and Mindanao was undergoing fast colonization (hence there was a need for ships to load people and cargo). At this time there were no more available former “FS”, former “Y”, former “F”, former PT boats and minesweepers and former “C1-M-AV1” ships from the US. Japan has no great supply yet of surplus ships as they were still in need of them to fuel their economic boom which was called the “Japan miracle”, their process of rising from the ashes of World War II to a great economic power of the world. It was only Europe that can provide the liners we needed then in the mid-1960’s.

These ten passenger-cargo ships for Go Thong along with a few local acquisitions and one from Japan vaulted a shipping company that was relatively late in the liner scene (they became a liner company only in 1954 with the launching of the lengthened ex-”F” ship Dona Conchita) to Number 1 in the very early 1970’s. They overtook the erstwhile leader Compania Maritima which was already then steadily losing ships through maritime accidents in what seemed to be a death wish. Aboitiz Shipping Corporation was then in the process of taking over the Philippine Steam Navigation Company (PSNC), their partnership with Everett Steamship. It had as many ships approximately but most of those were ex-”FS” ships whose size and quality cannot match with the new ships of Go Thong from Europe. Some of those have airconditioning and refrigeration because they were once refrigerated passenger-cargo ships in Europe and those were generally faster. Aboitiz Shipping through Everett Steamship had three good ships ordered new from Japan in 1955, the Legazpi, Elcano and Cagayan de Oro but Go Thong had more ships with airconditioning especially since they were able to acquire the former Gov. B. Lopez from the defunct Southern Lines which became the first Dona Ana.

The ten passenger-cargo ships from Europe which were fueled by the copra trade were the following:

The Gothong which was acquired from Cie Cherifienne d’Armament in 1963 whose first name was Cap Gris Nez. Later she was known as the Dona Pamela. She was built by Solvesborgs Varvs & Reden in Solvesborgs, Sweden in 1950. She measured 88.8 meters by 12.4 meters with a Gross Register Tonnage of 2,347 tons and Net Register Tonnage of 1,272 tons after modification. Her Deadweight Tonnage was 2,317 tons. She was powered with a single Atlas engine which gave her a top speed of 14 knots when new. Take note the US war-surplus ships usually ran only at 11 knots. She went to the fleet of Sulpicio Lines Inc. after the break-up in 1972.

The first Don Sulpicio which was acquired from Rederi A/B Samba in 1964 whose original name was the Colombia. Later she was known as Dona Gloria. She was built by Ekensberg in Stockholm, Sweden in 1947. Her measurements were 85.9 meters by 11.6 meters by 10.0 meters. The ship’s Gross Register Tonnage was 1,759 tons with a Net Register Tonnage of 1,079 tons. The Deadweight Tonnage was 2,235 tons. She was powered by a single Atlas engine of 2,000 horsepower which gave her a top speed of 13 knots when still new. She went to the fleet of Sulpicio Lines Inc. after the break-up.

The Tayabas Bay which was acquired from Liberian Navigation Company SA in 1965 which was first known as the Tekla. Later she was known as the Don Arsenio. She was built by Helsingor Vaerft in Elsinore, Denmark in 1945. She measured 110.0 meters by 14.0 meters by 8.7 meters with a Gross Register Tonnage of 2,306 tons and her Deadweight Tonnage was 4,197 tons. She was powered by a single Helsingors Jernskib engine which gave her a top speed of 14.5 knots when new. This ship was first used in the international routes. She went to the fleet of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. after the break-up.

In 1966, two big sister ships came which were used in the international routes. These were war-surplus former US ships but acquired from European owners.

The Manila Bay, a sister ship of Subic Bay which acquired from from A/S J. Ludwig Mowinckels Rederi in 1966 was first known in Cape Pillar in the US Navy is a Type” C1-A” cargo used used for convoy duty during World War II. She was built by Pennsylvania Shipyard in Beaumont, Texas, USA. Her measurements were 125.7 meters by 8.3 meters and her Gross Register Tonnage was 5,158 tons and her Deadweight Tonnage was 6,440 tons. She was powered by a single Westinghouse engine of 4,000 horsepower which was good for 14 knots when new. This ship was bigger and faster than the Type “C1-M-AV1” ships of which the other local shipping companies have in their fleet then. She was broken up in 1973.

The Subic Bay, the sister ship of Manila Bay was acquired from O. Lorentzen in 1966. She was first known as the Cape St. George in the US Navy fleet and like Manila Bay she was built by Pennsylvania Shipyard in Beaumont, USA but in the year 1942. She had the same external measurements as Manila Bay but her Gross Register Tonnage was a little lower at 5,105 tons and but her Deadweight Tonnage was the same. She had the same powerplant and top speed as the Manila Bay. She was broken up in 1973.

The Dona Rita which was acquired from Cie de Nav Mixte in 1967 was first known as the Tafna. She was built by Lorient Arsenal in Lorient, France in 1949. She measured 95.3 meters by 14.0 meters and she had a Gross Register Tonnage of 2,063 tons and her Deadweight Tonnage was 2,147 tons. She had just a single engine but her top speed when new was 15 knots. She went to the fleet of Lorenzo Shipping Corporation after the break-up in 1972.

1967-6-8-go-thong-ns

The Dona Helene which was acquired from Cie Generale Transatlantique in 1968 was originally known as the ship Atlas. Later she was known as the Don Alberto. She was built in 1950 by the Chantiers et Ateliers de Provence in Port de Bouc, France. She measured 95.4 meters by 14.0 meters by 8.5 meters and her Gross Register Tonnage was 2,317 tons. Her Net Register Tonnage was 957 tons and her Deadweight Tonnage was 2,267 tons. She also had a single engine, a 3,000-horsepower Sulzer and her top speed when knew was 13 knots. She went to the fleet of Sulpicio Lines Inc. after the break-up.

In that same year 1968, two sister ships were acquired from Norddeutscher Lloyd.

The Don Lorenzo which was acquired from Norddeutscher Lloyd in 1968 and was first known as the Liebenstein and was a sister ship of Don Camilo. Later she was known as the Dona Julieta. She was built in 1951 by Bremer Vulkan in Vegesack, West Germany. Her measurements were 105.1 meters by 14.2 meters by 8.7 meters. The ship’s Gross Register Tonnage was 2,353 tons, her Net Register Tonnage was 1,275 tons and her Deadweight Tonnage was 3,175 tons. She carried 411 passengers. The Don Lorenzo was powered by a single Bremer Vulkan engine of 3,800 horsepower and she was fast at 16 knots top speed when new. She went to the fleet of Sulpicio Lines Inc. after the break-up.

The Don Camilo was also acquired from Norddeutscher Lloyd in 1968 and was first known as the Liechtenstein. She was the sister ship of Don Lorenzo which was also known as Dona Julieta. She was also built in 1951 by Bremer Vulkan in Vegesack, West Germany. She had the same external measurements as her sister ship. Likewise, their dimensional measurements – GRT, NRT and DWT were also the same. She had the same 3,800-horsepower Bremer Vulkan engine which was good for a fast 16 knots when new. This speed was the same as the luxury liners then running the inter-island water. She went to the fleet of Sulpicio Lines Inc. after the break-up.

The second Don Sulpicio was acquired from H/f Eimskipafelag Islands in 1969. She was first known as the Dettifoss and she was a refrigerated passenger-cargo ship and hence she had refrigeration and airconditioning and was a modified version of a luxury ship. She was in effect the flagship of the company from 1969 to 1975 when the third Don Sulpicio came and she became known as the Don Carlos Gothong. She was built in 1949 by Burmeister & Wein (yes, the B&W) in Copenhagen, Denmark. She measured 94.6 meters by 14.0 meters and her Gross Register Tonnage was 2,918 tons and her Deadweight Tonnage was 2,700 tons. She was powered by a single B&W engine and her top speed was fast at 16 knots when new. She went to the fleet of Sulpicio Lines Inc. after the break-up.

In 1972, one more ship arrived from Europe which became the Dona Angelina. She was the former Touggourt from Cie de Nav Mixter like the like the Dona Rita. She was also built by Provence in Port de Bouc in 1950. Her measurements were 91.4 meters by 14.0 meters and her Gross Register Tonnage was 2,696 with a Net Register Tonnage of 1,600. Her Deadweight Tonnage is 2,269. She had a Loire engine of 3,000 horsepower that gave her a design speed of 13.5 knots. Dona Angelina went to Sulpicio Lines after the break-up in 1972.

Now, i don’t know why the total is 11. Maybe Dona Angelina is not part of the ten-ship deal as she came three years later than that burst in 1963 to 1969. All were bigger and faster than ex-”FS” ships, even those lengthened ones and they were generally in the size of the former “C1-M-AV1” ships but faster. 

 In this period, Go Thong also acquired other ships from local sources. They took over the former Dona Aurora of the Maritime Company of the Philippines (the international line of Compania Maritima) in 1965 and she became the Sarangani Bay. She was used in the international routes like when she was under the Maritime Company of the Philippines.

In 1966, Go Thong acquired the Gov. B. Lopez from Southern Lines, the only luxury liner of their fleet and which has airconditioning and refrigeration. This became the first Dona Ana. This ship was a local-built by NASSCO in Mariveles, Bataan and she went to Lorenzo Shipping Corporation after the break-up.

Also in 1966, Go Thong acquired the Don Amando from Northern Lines. This was the former Tomokawa Maru from Japan built by Kawasaki Shipbuilding Corporation in Kobe, Japan. In the Go Thong fleet, she was first known as the Dona Hortencia before she became known as the Dona Paz (this is an earlier Dona Paz and not the infamous Dona Paz which was formerly the Himeyuri Maru) in the fleet of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc.

A grand total of 15 ship additions from 1963 to 1972 and actually 14 from 1963 to 1969, probably the fastest addition of liners in Philippine shipping history! Including minor ships in out-of-the-way routes, by 1972 Go Thong had already a fleet of more than 30 vessels including cargo ships with more than 20 of those being passenger-cargo ships. This was the biggest fleet then with more than the total of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and PSNC which only had over 20 vessels. Actually, even in 1970, the start of the new decade they already had the biggest fleet in the inter-island waters. Not included in the comparison was the bigger Philippine President Lines which was in ocean-going routes and its rise was fueled by something else.

In the split of 1972, 16 ships went to the new Sulpicio Lines Inc. Most of these were liners and it included 6 of those 10 ships (two, the Manila Bay and Subic Bay might have been retained by Universal Shipping until their break-up). Compania Maritima had a grand total of 19 ships in 1972.

Even with the split, Sulpicio Lines Inc. started with still one of the biggest fleet in the country at probably third rank in grand total. They did not start at the bottom (and will soon rise to Number 1 again).

That was the rise of Go Thong then which was real fast by any measure.

don-lorenzo

Photo Credits: Gorio Belen, Philippine Herald, Philippine Ship Spotters Society

When SuperCat Ruled The Waves

SuperCat as a brand of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation started in the summer of 1994 in the Batangas-Calapan route with the fielding of the SuperCat 1. She was not the very first High Speed Craft in the route as Bullet Express 1 beat her by a day. However, SuperCat immediately made a very big splash and impact. It was super-fast compared to the local ferries and would only take 45 minutes for the 24-nautical mile route when other ferries in the route normally took 2.5 hours. And being a catamaran it made a lot of visual impression. She was also very comfortable considering there no airconditioning in any of the ferries in the route. There was also a smooth and true passenger service. I myself was there in Batangas port when the SuperCat 1 was formally launched and it was impressive.

Bullet Express 1 was also outclassed, overwhelmed and very soon it quit the route because they can’t match SuperCat and they went to the Visayas. Meanwhile, the old kingpin of the area, the Viva Shipping Lines immediately purchased two second-hand fastcrafts of Japan origins from the Sun Cruises of Manila to say they also have a fast one. It charged cheaper but they were not as fast as they took one hour for the route.

However, in about 4 months time, SuperCat 1 met a mishap and was wrecked on the western side of Verde Island soon after MARINA ruled she should take that route (before she took the route east of Verde Island and between the “Mag-asawang Pulo”). She hit an underwater obstacle and the superstructure completely deformed. There were suspicions of sabotage but the investigation ruled it was an accident. Whatever, Aboitiz had already sensed High Speed Crafts (HSCs) will be successful in the Philippines since SuperCat 1 had good patronage and many were impressed. Well, it was peak season when she came (a summer when many are going home) and the Batangas-Calapan route really lacked bottoms then and no ferry there had airconditioned accommodations and good service.

Aboitiz immediately sought a replacement to the wrecked SuperCat 1 and within months a new one arrived in the route and this was named the SuperCat I. Many thought this was a repaired version of SuperCat 1 but actually this was a different ship. Since Aboitiz thought High Speed Crafts will be successful in the Philippines and wants to jump the gun on the others, so to say, it partnered with a Macau operator of High Speed Crafts and the company Universal Aboitiz Inc. was born. In a short time, catamarans started arriving for SuperCat and Aboitiz fielded them to different routes. Aside from the Iloilo-Bacolod route, it based catamarans in Cebu for different routes to the near islands like Leyte (Ormoc), Bohol (Tagbilaran), Negros (Dumaguete) and it even had far routes like Surigao (via Maasin) and it has an extension to Dapitan in Zamboanga del Norte.

With this move for partnership with the Macau concern, Aboitiz was the first in the Philippines to have many High Speed Crafts and in the process they overtook Bullet Express which was backed by combined Zamboanga-Malaysia concerns. In just the years 1995 and 1996, eight catamarans arrived for Universal Aboitiz and they practically swamped their competitors which were also new to High Speed Crafts. These were the Sea Angels of Negros Navigation Company and Waterjet Shipping Company. With Bullet Express, Viva Shipping Lines (and its legal fiction companies Sto. Domingo Shipping and DR Shipping), Royal Ferry, Florinda (RN High-Speed Ferries), Oceanjet (Ocean Fast Ferries), Sea Cat (ACG Express Liner) and a half-dozen other minor operators in the mix, very soon it became a veritable dogfight in the High Speed Craft world here as in matira ang matibay (only the strong will survive).

Not long after, the Sea Angels and Waterjet both gave up and merged with SuperCat. That will happen as there were just too many High Speed Crafts for the passengers willing to pay their higher fares which were double or so the regular ferries. With that suddenly SuperCat had 13 high-speed cats, the SuperCat I, SuperCat 2, SuperCat 3, SuperCat 5, Supercat 6, Supercat 7, SuperCat 8, SuperCat 9, SuperCat 10. The St. Raphael and St. Gabriel of the Sea Angels became the SuperCat 11 and SuperCat 12, respectively and the Waterjet 1 and Waterjet 2 became the SuperCat 17 and SuperCat 18, respectively. These were just too many for some 5 profitable routes (Batangas-Calapan, Cebu-Ormoc, Cebu-Tagbilaran, Cebu-Dumaguete and Iloilo-Bacolod (I am not sure if Cebu-Dapitan is really profitable) and to think the competition has even more High Speed Crafts than SuperCat (though admittedly not as good).

Except for SuperCat 6 and SuperCat 10 which were smaller and not that fast, all the other SuperCats had 2 x 2,600hp MTU engines with two waterjets as propulsion and all were capable of 38 knots, a speed not reachable by propeller-driven High Speed Crafts because of the phenomenon called “cavitation”. All of them were true sister ships and all were built in Singapore but by different manufacturers. All had aluminum alloy hulls for light weight. While the catamarans from Macau were not brand-new (but still very good), the former Sea Angels and Waterjets arrived here brand-new. All were built by Kvaerner Fjellstrand and were all true sister ships (together with the Stella Maris of Grand Seaways that also came here too). The rest that came from Macau were built by FBM Marineteknik.

In 1999 and 2002, the trimarans TriCat 50 and TriCat 2 also joined the SuperCat fleet. Later the tricats were renamed the SuperCat 2001 and SuperCat 2002. Both also had 2 x 2,600hp MTU engines with twin waterjets but being bigger their speed were a little lower at 36 knots. The two were true sister ships and they were the biggest ever High Speed Crafts that plied Philippine waters. Aboitiz, being a partner in FBM-Aboitiz (FBMA) which built them in Balamban, Cebu surely would have had to purchase one of their products even just for showcase purposes.

This was the time that SuperCat completely ruled the waves. They were the fastest, they were the most comfortable, they had the best passenger service and they have the best booking system. They even had the best, owned passenger terminal in Cebu port (which was shared with WG&A and Cebu Ferries Corporation ferries). In speed it was only the Weesam Express (1) and Weesam Express 5 of SRN Fastcrafts which can give any semblance of challenge but still the MTU-powered SuperCats were slightly faster. They dominated the High Speed Crafts routes and even bullied the opposition a bit (well, isn’t that what alpha dogs are supposed to do?).

But speed has its cost which is higher fuel consumption. And waterjets might give better speed especially at ranges where propellers begin to lose efficiently because of “cavitation” but waterjets also needs more maintenance. The dirty waters of our ports can easily clog them especially since many people just throw their trash in the water and the rivers that empty into the sea also contains garbage and these can be sucked by the waterjets. And one fouling costs money and moreover it throws a monkey wrench on the schedules, trips are lost and tempers and the patience of passengers are tested.

With the merger with Sea Angels and Water Jet, SuperCat actually found themselves with many excess catamarans especially since it was already found out then that the routes where one can field High Speed Crafts are limited since many others do not have enough patronage. The successor company to Universal Aboitiz, the Philippine Fast Ferry Corp. soon realized that. There was also the late realization that their catamarans were overpowered and that waterjets are actually not too well suited for local waters. Soon SuperCat began selling their MTU and waterjet-powered catamarans. And slowly they began buying High Speed Crafts that were not that powerful, not propelled by waterjets and some were actually not catamarans but fastcrafts which are monohulled vessels. Their first non-MTU, non-waterjet HSC, the Supercat 20 was actually a fastcraft.

Soon all their MTU and waterjet-powered catamarans and trimarans (which are triple-hulled vessels) were gone and sold abroad. One of the factors that forced them was the steady rise of the world oil prices starting in 2001. They then had a mix of catamarans and fastcrafts which were equipped with propellers. Their next favorite powerplant after MTU was the Caterpillar brand. With those changes, the SuperCats became just a fast as the competition and there were Weesam Express fastcrafts which invaded the Visayas that can already beat them in raw speed.

They were also not so as numerous as before as SuperCat slowly pruned down the number of units because of over-competition. Moreover, their parent company WG&A was split asunder and had to sell ferries to pay for the shares of the partners that were divesting. And the paring down of vessels included that of SuperCat too. With that situation the number of SuperCat HSCs shrank by a half and they no longer had showcase units which will show they have the best High Speed Crafts. Along this way the company’s name was changed to SuperCat Fast Ferry Corporation.

So, once at the apex of the High Speed Craft field, their rule of the waves slowly vanished in the new millennium. They then just became one of the few survivors of the High Speed Crafts wars here where most HSC companies sank. They initially still had a slight lead though but then their controlling stockholders, the Aboitiz family got more interested in the power generation industry and tried to sell the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS), the successor of WG&A. This was consummated later and SuperCat became a brand of 2GO under Negros Navigation Company.

With the number of units not growing and getting older, SuperCat slid further and the mistake of acquiring SuperCat 36 and SuperCat 38 did not help. Currently their best units are just the sister ships St. Jhudiel and St. Braquiel, the former SuperCat 30 and SuperCat 32, respectively. Though still using SuperCat as a brand since that is already an established brand, their High Speed Crafts have already been renamed to saints in the tradition of Negros Navigation Company. And yet this did not arrest the slide of SuperCat and they have HSCs whose engines that are already getting tired.

In this situation, Oceanjet began their challenge for the top of the High Speed Craft field. The company embarked on continuous addition of vessels to their fleet with their own-assembled fastcrafts and by acquisitions of the High Speed Crafts by the competition that quit the HSC field. And before the middle of this decade, Oceanjet or Ocean Fast Ferries already overtook SuperCat in sheer number. And then they were also overtaken in speed and newness by Oceanjet which aside from assembling their own fastcrafts also continuously changes the tired engines of HSCs in their fleet.

Most people including the tourists have no idea of these developments. Many think, wrongly, that SuperCat is still on top. They do not know that SuperCat is now just a shadow of its former self that once ruled the waves. However, Super has ordered two new HSCs in Austal Balamban recently but I doubt if it can overtake Oceanjet and rule the waves again.

[Photo Owner: Masahiro Homma]