The Iloilo-Zamboanga Route

In the past, the Iloilo-Zamboanga route was an important route. Iloilo and Zamboanga are among the top trade and commercial centers of the country for a long time already (in the Top 5 for so long now) and it only makes sense to connect the two for after all, Iloilo is the main commercial center of Western Visayas and Zamboanga is the main commercial center of Western Mindanao (talking of geographical regions and not the political-administrative regions).

The links of the two are not just recent. In fact, the two centers have already been connected for over a century now starting even in the late Spanish rule when sea lanes were already safe and there was already steam power. And before World War II, foreign vessels (mainly British) from Singapore even came to the two cities to trade and bring passengers and mail, too.

The route of the Manila ships going to southern Mindanao in the past goes either via Cebu or Iloilo (which is the western and most direct route). From those two ports and other ports along the way the passenger-cargo ships will then dock in Zamboanga. In the first 30 years after World War II the route via Cebu was the heavily favored one by the shipping companies. After that, the favor turned to Iloilo slowly until Cebu was practically no longer a gateway to southern Mindanao (only Sulpicio Lines did that route in the later decades through the Filipina Princess and the Princess of New Unity).

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The Dona Marilyn as Dona Ana (a former image in Wikimedia)

Maybe the emergence of the fast cruiser liners dictated the shift to Iloilo. If they go via Iloilo, a complete voyage in less than a week’s time is guaranteed. If they go via Cebu, the fast cruiser liners then probably had to go via the eastern seaboard of Mindanao to catch up and complete the voyage in a week’s time (so that a regular weekly sailing can be maintained). But in the eastern seaboard they will miss the cargo and passenger load that is available in Zamboanga port. The small ports of Mati, Bislig or Surigao are a poor compensation for that but the fast cruiser liners might not even have the speed and time to spare to call in any of those ports. Moreover, if the ship intends to call in General Santos City (Dadiangas before), then a western route via Iloilo and Zamboanga is almost dictated. General Santos City’s combined cargo and passengers are simply to big to be left out by a liner going to Davao.

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Credit to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

After World War II, it was the Philippine Steam and Navigation Company (PSNC) and Carlos A. Go Thong & Company (the predecessor company of Gothong Lines, Sulpicio Lines and Lorenzo Shipping) which had passenger-cargo ships from Manila calling on Iloilo and Zamboanga on the way to southern ports. The former even used their best ships, the luxury liners Legazpi and Elcano on that route. Amazingly, the leader Compania Maritima and William Lines did not do the route passing through Iloilo as both preferred to do the route via Cebu to connect to Zamboanga (and Southern Mindanao). Then the situation was reversed in the 1970’s when Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, the successor of PSNC stopped that connection (as they were running out of good passenger ships) and Sulpicio Lines did the route in 1974 after the route became a casualty of the split of Carlos A. Go Thong & Company. Then in 1976, Compania Maritima followed suit and connected also Southern Mindanao via Iloilo and Zamboanga.

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Credit to Gorio Belen

In 1979, with the arrival of the Don Eusebio, Sulpicio Lines introduced the fast cruiser liner type between Iloilo and Zamboanga. Don Eusebio, the latter Dipolog Princess had a Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route. Later her route was shifted to Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas. However, the Dona Marilyn was used to maintain the route ending in Cotabato and when the Cotabato Princess arrived in 1988, Sulpicio substituted the new RORO liner there while the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas route was maintained by the Don Eusebio. In this period, the main rival of Sulpicio Lines which is William Lines bypassed Iloilo as did Sweet Lines, another liner company with a route to as far as Davao.

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Cotabato Princess c. 1988 by Britz Salih

In the early 1990′s, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation made a comeback in Southern Mindanao and their SuperFerry 3 which had a Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route connected Iloilo and Zamboanga. Meanwhile, Sulpicio Lines substituted their new Princess of the Pacific in the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas route while their Cotabato Princess was kept in the route ending in Cotabato (but which is now calling also in Estancia.

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SuperFerry 3 by Britz Salih

When WG&A was created they also connected Iloilo and Zamboanga mainly through their Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route and the trio of SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 5 and SuperFerry 9 (which had about the same cruising speed) mainly held that route when it was still WG&A. When the company began selling liners and it became Aboitiz Transport System other ships subsequently held the route (too many to keep track really as they are fond of juggling ship assignments and they were also disposing ships and buying new ones). At one time there was also a Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga route. It was a wonder for me why the Davao ships of WG&A and ATS don’t normally call in Zamboanga while calling in Iloilo when it is just on the way and the companies use pairing of ships so an exact weekly schedule for one ship need not be met.

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Princess of the Pacific by Britz Salih

When Negros Navigation (Nenaco) started doing southern Mindanao routes in 1998 they also connected the two ports on their separate routes to General Santos City and Davao (the two routes was coalesced later). However, early in the new millennium Negros Navigation abandoned their Southern Mindanao routes but maintained their Manila-Bacolod-Iloilo-Zamboanga route until they had problems of ship availability. The early ships of Negros Navigation in the route were the St. Ezekiel Moreno and San Lorenzo Ruiz. However, it seems the Don Julio started the Iloilo-Zamboanga route for Negros Navigation earlier than the two.

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Don Julio by John Ward

Amazingly a regional shipping line, the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) of Cebu also connected Iloilo and Zamboanga in 1988. This was the Asia Korea (later the Asia Hongkong and now the Reina del Rosario of Montenegro Shipping Lines) which did a Cebu-Iloilo-Zamboanga-General Santos City route (which I say was a brave and optimistic try). They were only able to maintain the route for a few years, however.

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Asia Korea (from a TASLI framed photo)

In the second decade of the millennium, the successor to WG&A, the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) dropped the routes to Davao, General Santos City and Cotabato. Suddenly the route to Zamboanga became threatened because Zamboanga port alone cannot fill 150-meter RORO liners. Not long after this ATS stopped the route to Zamboanga citing threats from the Abu Sayyaf Group (while at the same time their container ships continued sailing to Zamboanga and Southern Mindanao). It seems to me the reason they put forward was just a canard especially since 2GO still calls in Zamboanga. ATS was just losing in the Southern Mindanao route because they have the highest cargo rates in the industry and by this time the passengers were already migrating to other forms of transport like the budget airlines.

It was a debacle for the route since when Aboitiz Transport System stopped sailing it Negros Navigation and Sulpicio Lines have already stopped sailing too for entirely different reasons. Negros Navigation compacted its route system and it had the problem of ship reliability and availability during their period of company rehabilitation while Sulpicio Lines was suspended from sailing in the aftermath of the Princess of the Stars sinking (and they never went back again to full passenger sailing until they quit it entirely). Negros Navigation was still sailing off and on to Zamboanga when they took over ATS.

When the new route system was rolled out after the merger of Negros Navigation and ATS, amazingly the route to Zamboanga was scrubbed out. Later, the successor company 2GO went back to Zamboanga but the ship calls in Dumaguete already and not in Iloilo anymore.

Until now there is no passenger ship that connects Iloilo and Zamboanga. Passengers then have to take the roundabout Ceres bus passing through Dapitan, Dumaguete and it has an endpoint in Bacolod. From there the passengers have to take a separate ferry to Iloilo or via Dumangas. The length and the many transfers means this is a really uncomfortable trip and a disservice to passengers. Maybe the liners have already forgotten they are also in public service and profitability is not the only gauge in shipping.

If there is ever a connection now between the two great trading centers it is just via container ships now.

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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.