When Liners Were Still Small and Short-legged

After World War II and for a generation after, the Philippines had so many small and short-legged liners. This was dictated by the situation that when the United States replaced our merchant fleet that was destroyed in World War II as was their promise (since they requisitioned our passenger ships then and the others were ordered destroyed to prevent falling into enemy hands), the replacement they gave were mainly small ships that were not even ferries in the first place. Because of that we had very few big liners in the first two decades after the war. The bulk of our liner fleet then consisted of the small ex-”FS” cargo ships of World War II and the many and even smaller ex-”F” cargo ships, many of which were lengthened like the ex-”FS” ships to increase passenger and cargo capacity. Aside from those two types we also had a few ex-”Y” ships, former tankers which were a little smaller than but related to the ex-”FS” ships plus some “liners” converted from minesweepers and PT boats (can you imagine that?). Conversion to ferries of those were the shipping thing after the war much like the conversion of former Army jeeps of the US Army into the “jeepneys” which became a Filipino thing.

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An example of a converted ex-“FS” ship.  Credits to Gorio Belen and Evening News

The term “liners” here is liberally used to describe the multi-day ships then which had more or less definite schedules for departures of arrivals (they were never very prompt then for various reason but they have published estimated times of departures and arrivals). In general, being small they are of no match in terms of accommodations, comfort and amenities to the liners of the past two or three decades and almost all of them did not possess air-conditioning and some are practically single-class ships and just divided into upper deck and lower deck. Thus, they were really different from the luxury liners we take for granted now.

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A converted and lengthened ex-“F” ship. Credits to Manila Bulletin and Gorio Belen

Being small and doing long routes, the small liners had many intermediate ports of call and there were several reasons for that. One is more ports of call means more passengers and cargo and during that time the country’s population was just a fifth of today’s. Another reason is a lot of localities and islands need connections to the national center which is Manila when during that time our road system was still primitive. And another reason is these ships when built were never meant to carry about three hundred passengers and that meant food, water and other provisions can run out and so the ship must be replenished along the way especially since refrigeration of the ships was limited. This was the time when a rule was instituted that passengers must come to port four hours before departure time (and then suffer more wait if the cargo handling is not yet finished – there are important shippers who with one call can make the ship wait for his last-minute cargo). A reason for that rule is the need to make a head count of passengers and add some figure as allowance and from that calculate the provisions that must be carried by the ship. There was even a running joke that the chandler (the supplier) will only then order how many hogs and chicken must be slaughtered.

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Not an ex-“FS” ship but of the same size. Credits to The Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen.

A characteristic these small liners is the paucity of refrigeration. If there is such the capacity was not really meant for the number of passengers already being carried as a passenger-cargo ship because the ship was just a freight ship during the war with a limited number of crew. As such ice chests had to be employed so that the loaded food provisions will not spoil. But then the ship was not really big for all the supplies needed and revenue cargo is the priority in the holds and in the other cargo areas. Water is an important provision that must also be considered since not only the drinking needs of the passengers must be taken into account.

The longest single legs of these ships were from Manila to Cebu, Manila to Tacloban and Manila to Dumaguete, all of which were just short of 400 nautical miles. With a speed averaging 10 knots that meant a travel time of over one-and-a-half days which means five meals have to be served to the passengers. That transit time does not even include additional time in dodging bad weather and in hiding in coves and letting the storm pass if it is strong. But from Cebu, Tacloban or Dumaguete, these liners are still bound for Northern Mindanao or Southern Mindanao and if the final destination is Davao, it is not even half of the way yet. In fuel, however, it might not have been that much of a concern for these ships were capable of crossing long distances in the Pacific Ocean during the war (but with refueling at sea of course).

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A former minesweepers. Still on the way to Surigao and Davao before the accident. Credits to The Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen.

One advantage of being short-legged is the vessels have to call on a lot of ports along their routes. So in that time a lot of small and minor ports are being served and have connections to Manila, the national port. But maybe one had not heard now of Pulanduta port or Gigantes, Looc, Ibajay, Sangi, Anakan, Victoria, Nato, Angas, Tandoc, Mercedes, Larap, Bacuit, Araceli, Caruray, Casiguran, Carangian, Cabalian, Calubian, Kabasalan, Kolambugan, Sipalay,et cetera, when before they had connections to Manila. Aside from those ports mentioned, the liners then will also drop anchors in the various Mindoro ports, in several Panay ports, a few ports in Romblon province , in Marinduque ports, in Masbate ports too on the way to ports in the east or ports farther down south including ports of Mindanao, the so-called “Land of Promise” then to entice people to move there (but it was disaster for the natives and the Muslims as they lost their ancestral lands).

In the longest route to Davao these small liners will pass by Cebu, Tagbilaran, Dumaguete and Zamboanga ports before heading to Celebes Sea for Cotabato, Dadiangas or Davao. These might even drop by Iligan, Ozamis or Pulauan first. Using the eastern seaboard of Mindanao the liner could have already dropped anchor in Masbate, Catbalogan, Tacloban, Surigao and maybe even Mati or Bislig. Some will pass by Iloilo or Pulupandan ports and Cagayan de Misamis or Iligan ports before going to Southern Mindanao while still passing through some other ports along the way. That was one reason why Surigao was a very important port as it was a critical stop-over then (the next leg if Mati is still a long way to go and especially if it is direct Davao). When to think Surigao was very far from the size of Zamboanga City. That city also functioned as a critical stop-over like Dumaguete. In the longest route then to Davao the most number of interports called before Davao in a route was ten. It will then take over a week before the liner reach Davao and one week was the usual transit time to Davao.

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Not and ex-“FS” ship but of the same size. Credits to Evening News and Gorio Belen

If one had the inclination these long voyages with many stop-overs also afford “free tourism” since the liner will be spending many hours on the intermediate port because of the slow cargo handling then and there will be time to roam the port city (that was what my late father used to do then). The stops then were really long compared to now as the cargo was not yet containerized and only a single boom handles all the loading and unloading aside of course from the backs of the porters. On the other hand for those prone to seasickness these long voyages are simply torture especially if during the monsoons when the weather is acting up. Summer travel doesn’t afford relief, however, as there is no air-conditioning on board, in the main.

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As can be gleaned from the photo there is no air-conditioned section. An ex-“FS” ship. Credits to Gorio Belen and the newspaper.

In those days the position of the Purser was important for he decides what supplies must be purchased along the way and by how much and he has the authority how much will be charged for the cargo loaded along the way. This is the reason why this position is filled by trusted men of the shipping owner. Nowadays, liners with their available big cargo space including refrigerated container vans and freezers plus big pantries is just basically loaded now in Manila and Cebu and if there is a local purchase then it must probably just fish or some vegetables which are cheaper than in the provinces than Manila or Cebu. With strong communication, too, now the tendency is to centralize everything unlike before (there is now what is called as the “commissary”) and so the Purser of the liner, if it still exist is no longer as important as before.

There were really a lot of these small and short-legged ferries then. The biggest reason is when there were no container ships yet these passenger-cargo ships were the main carriers of cargo then, too. So, all in all, some 60 converted ex-”FS” ships sailed our seas and approximately the same number of ex-”F” ships were also sailing. Plus there maybe two dozen small ships of the other types as liners too. So the small liners of the past might be some 140 ships in total or maybe the number will even reach 150 liners. Some of those, however, were primarily used only in the regional routes. But isn’t that number amazing?

But 25 years or a generation after these small liners came and dominated the local waters the fast cruiser liners began arriving in force and it was a paradigm-changing arrival. The main selling point of these fast cruiser liners was their speed. To maximize that selling point and the utilization of the ships that meant reducing travel time to Davao to three days which means a lot of interports had to be stricken off from the routes. Being bigger too that meant the small and shallow ports (and most of which still featured wooden wharves) can no longer be served by them. And so these small ports along the way lost their connection to Manila like the ports I listed earlier which people might no longer know now but had connections to Manila before when the liners were still small and short-legged.

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A fast cruiser liner but the interports are not shortened yet. Credits to Evening News and Gorio Belen.

And then in less than a decade’s time after the fast cruiser liners began arriving another paradigm-changing shift happened in local shipping when the first local container ships appeared in our waters. These container ships have a faster turn-around time than the small and short-legged liners because like the fast cruiser liners these just called on a few interports and sometimes there is even none. With the safety and security offered by the container vans and faster cargo handling soon the death knell to the old small and short-legged liners was sounded and in a few years they were practically gone from our waters.

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The first container ship in local waters. Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen.

But if there was a sector that lost with all these advances in speed and size it has to be the small and shallow ports along the way which lost their Manila connection. Some retained their Manila connection for a time but declined in importance like Romblon, Masbate, Catbalogan, Tacloban, Surigao, Tagbilaran and Pulupandan. Those that lost their Manila connection just look and wave at the ships passing their place. As replacement, regional and sub-regional ports had to be developed like Batangas, Lucena, Pilar, Matnog and later the intermodal system linking the islands had to develop, too.

But as a whole our number of regularly-scheduled ships dropped in number because the ships got bigger and the faster ships had more total voyages in a year. Actually, even the first generation container ships were bigger than the small and short-legged liners. Now their equivalent in size are just the bigger among our intermodal short-distance ferry-ROROs which connect our near islands and is the carrier of the intermodal trucks and buses like those which cross from Batangas to Mindoro, those which cross from Mindoro to Panay, those which link the eastern seaboard of the country, those which link Bicol, Masbate and Cebu and those which link the different Visayan islands, etc.

Now only a few will remember our small and short-legged liners which dominated our seas in the first 25 years or so after the end of World War II when our merchant fleet was born again. None of it exists now even as a museum piece.

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THE “PORTS TO NOWHERE”

In the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS), “Ports to Nowhere” are ports that have no ships or have no meaningful traffic. In the whole country, there might be 200 or so such ports if useless municipal ports are included. Mar Roxas, by his department’s reckoning counted over a hundred. He counted ports whose meager revenues was not even enough to cover the operational costs. This was what the author of this article meant when he first used the term “ports to nowhere” many years ago even before the creation of PSSS. He equated “ports to nowhere” to ports whose incomes cannot cover the salaries of the personnel, the transportation and communication costs, security costs, electricity and let alone the maintenance of the ports. Usually, these are the ports that have no regular calls. Fishing bancas are not counted as usually they are not charged any docking fees and are just accommodated as a matter of courtesy.

Tubod Port ©Mark Ocul

In the past our towns had municipal ports and it was mainly fishing bancas which used them. In the coastal towns that have no roads then, these ports also hosted passenger-cargo motor boats. Whatever, many municipal ports then were no more than fish landing areas and were not suitable for steel-hulled ships. Most are of pile-type and many have piles made of timber and even the wharf floor is made of wood. Slowly as the ports were modernized concrete piles and wharf were used. Concrete was more durable as they did not rot unlike timber and wood.

Gradually, over time, some ports were extended and usually those ports that have connections to major cities were given priority. Some of these were considered district ports and these were usually deeper and some were sheltered. During the end of the 1960’s, regional ports were declared and they were improved and expanded so they can handle foreign and bigger ships.

Tabaco Port, a regional port ©Dominic San Juan

Ironically, after the build-up of ports, the downward slide of our shipping started. This started with the fall of abaca fiber to nylon fiber. Suddenly one of our major export crops fell and once upon a time this was the most major crop being traded from the 1880s up to the 1950’s. This was followed by the downturn in the ‘70s of the export of metallic ores due to the emergence of the plastic industry. In the same decade the trade and exploitation of our forests declined because the precipitous fall of our forest cover already showed its effects. Then in the early 1980’s, the trade and export of copra and coconut oil began to decline. Substitute edible oils appeared in the world market and coconut oil mills sprouted in the regions and ironically it was the government which pushed for this. So, one after another, the major crops being shipped declined.

The final nail came in the 1980’s with the policy that any shortfall in cereals (as in rice and corn) will simply be imported and in sufficient quantities so that the price can be depressed or brought down. This policy was even extended to the manufacture of animal feeds and so manufacturers can just import corn, soybeans and green peas. Suddenly, crops being traded between the regions were supplanted by imports being brought by foreign ships direct to regional and private ports ports and bypassing Manila entirely.

Nasico Eagle ©Mike Baylon

When the instant snack sector boomed in the 1980s local shipping did not benefit. This is so because the ingredients for the instant snack were coming direct from abroad to the regional ports. The snacks ingredients were actually imported animal feeds like yellow corn, powdered potato and greens peas. They can import those for “chicheria” use here since the animal food grade of the US for these commodities is even higher than our local grade, ironically. All of these factors depressed shipping and this sector never fully recovered after the ravages of the great financial crisis of the 1980’s.
With the decline of our commodities, the so-many foreign shipping companies that have ships calling in our country slowly pulled out from the 1980’s. The log ships and ore ships also stopped calling in the same decade. What replaced that in effect was our export of workers and domestic helpers but they ride the planes and not the cargo ships.


1979 Manila Bulletin Shipping Schedule ©Mike Baylon

The final nail in the coffin for shipping was the emerging dominance of the intermodal transport system especially with the arrival of the surplus and wing van trucks in the 1990’s. This was coupled with incentives which made it easy for bus operators to acquire new units. This was amplified by the great drive of industrialist Pepito Alvarez who pushed new buses with financing to the operators. Meanwhile, incentives were also laid out for shipping and many used this to acquire short-distance ROROs. And so suddenly there were enough ROROs to connect the near islands. By this time vehicles were already rolling as the major roads were already concreted including in Mindanao.

Balicuatro Port Buses ©Mike Baylon

When our national fleet was getting smaller both in ferries and in cargo ships the government through the Philippine Ports Authority held on to the completely wrong mantra that “if ports are built then ships will come”. They and their booster Aquilino Pimentel compared this to roads that when built even ahead of time will slowly have traffic. This is so because people will migrate along the route, people will try to take advantage of the land and forest and also, many roads are actually shortcuts.

It is a completely different thing in ports and shipping because the correct mantra is “ships come when there is something to load”. In the eastern seaboard of Mindanao, Samar and Luzon there were a lot of ports before and many were privately-built. Those ports existed because they were trying to exploit the forests and the mines then. When the forest was gone and when metallic ore trade fell those many ports suddenly became disused and became “ports to nowhere” and slowly they dilapidated. Ports dilapidate faster than roads because of the weathering action of the winds and waves and of the sun. Add to that our many typhoons that damage ports especially since we don’t construct breakwaters.

An example of wrong advanced preparations was the 12 fish ports that Luis Villafuerte was able to wangle for Bicol from Ferdinand Marcos in 1983-84. Those were supposed to be dual-use ports as in other ships can also use them. When the ROROs came 25 years later the ports were already damaged and dilapidated. If only bureaucrats and politicians open their closed eyes they should easily see that empirically and historically their mantra is completely wrong.

Old Port of Pio Duran, Albay ©Mike Baylon

One of the reasons for the rise of “ports to nowhere” is building or improving of ports is used as political patronage to show a local politician “was able to wangle a project”. Of course, in the corrupt Philippines almost all public works have percentages for the pockets of powers-to-be which are euphemistically called as “S.O.P” and that is a very great incentive. National powers meanwhile give that in exchange for political support. The worst excesses of this syndrome were in the previous administration which needed all the support it can buy to stave off impeachment. And the gall of it all was the contract with a French company using soft loan to acquire pre-fabricated ports to be built especially in our eastern seaboard which no longer has shipping! This is a very classic example of a “ports to nowhere” mentality. That lady responsible for that was also wont to transfer national ports to LGUs in exchange for political support and votes. As rightly observed by the next administration those ports deteriorated fast because there was no maintenance and were just being used as milking cows.

Bato Port ©Mike Baylon

The good development is the current dispensation reversed the policy of “ports to nowhere” creation and even took back some ports “donated” to LGUs and it also canceled the contract with the French company even under threat of a court case. The current administration is actually judicious with building new ports reasoning we have more than enough. And that is true because the truth is there are even more private port and this mushroomed after the incentive given by Marcos in the early ‘80s. These port can also handle ship commercially, a policy upheld by the Supreme Court when it was challenged by the PPA.

There is also another set of factors that speed up the creation of “ports to nowhere”. When the ships grew in size, both the ferries and the cargo ships, suddenly many old district ports can no longer accommodate the bigger ships for lack of depth. Also when containerization came the old wooden wharves were no longer able to handle the higher weight. Express ferries and container ships also came and so many intermediate ports were left behind. And finally, highways sprouted throughout the country. Towns that were reachable only by ships before now have roads. Because of that many routes both for passenger and cargo ships disappeared. That is part of the reason why so many shipping companies of the past are gone now.

To summarize, it was the retreat of shipping which first created the “ports to nowhere”. Subsequently this was exacerbated by a wrong and corrupt push from Malacanang for selfish motives full not only of political motives but also to build private fleets. With no more largesse to touch these recent times, these fleets fast growths suddenly slowed in the current dispensation when before they were buying ships as if there is no tomorrow.

Tagpopongan Port ©Aristotle Refugio

Ports to nowhere are just a big waste of taxpayer’s money. It is just like throwing billions of money to the wind. And the madness has not even completely stopped. They still completed ports like the Pulupandan port which cost P700 million and it has almost no traffic since 30 years ago. 24 kilometers north of that, they want to build a port in Bacolod for the same price because of just some politician’s pique at the successful private port operator BREDCO. To get one congressman to support that, another congressman offered that congressman to build a port in her district some two dozen kilometers to the north of Bacolod. When further down the road in Sagay, another port was just recently completed.

In Bislig, the port of PICOP was still operational and yet the government still built a new port. And soon after, another port was built which they promptly closed down because there was no traffic. In Samal, they also completed a port which is not even worth as a palay or corn drying area now. We must really be a country of mad people. And I marvel at the gall of politicians and bureaucrats and at the stupidity of “goalkeeper” NEDA. Recently, I read that improvement in the port in Tandoc, Camarines Sur was finished. Amazingly, there is no actual road to the place and access to that is via a motor banca. It seems the “goalkeeper” was just looking at some imaginary roads in the map and doesn’t even know how to pay for a satellite images to check if there really is a road. It can only be one of two things for NEDA – outright dumbness or corruption too. With such a distant and remote place with few inhabitants, who would dare ships through there when the port of Pasacao is nearer to the main commercial and population center?

Lawigan Port, Bislig ©Janjan Salas

Wastage and corruption are big banes to our country. In shipping that primarily manifests in the “ports to nowhere”.