Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated Is Still Fighting Back

When the original shipping company Carlos A. Gothong & Company broke up in 1972, one of the successor companies was Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (CAGLI or Gothong Lines) owned by the scions of the founder Don Carlos A. Gothong. It was eclipsed early by Sulpicio Lines Incorporated which was owned by the once operations manager of the mother company. And then its operation and fleet even got smaller in 1980 when Lorenzo Shipping Corporation of Lorenzo Go and two other siblings went their separate way (this company was later sold to the Magsaysay Shipping Group but later the scions of Lorenzo Go founded the Oceanic Container Lines Incorporated which now has the biggest number of container ships in the country which has the “Ocean” series).

Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. again became a significant national liner company in the 1990’s when again they built a fleet of liners starting in 1986 and more significantly in 1987 when they acquired the sister ships Our Lady of Fatima and the Our Lady of Lourdes. The sister ships Sto. Nino de Cebu (the later Our Lady of Medjugorje) and the beautiful Our Lady of Sacred Heart, both acquired in 1990 cemented their national liner position and the big liner Our Lady of Akita, acquired in 1993 declared their intention to play in the big leagues.

The rising company got absorbed when they acquiesced to the creation of big merged shipping company WG & A (which stood for William, Gothong and Aboitiz) in late 1995 and that included their small fleet of RORO Cargo ships and also their Visayas-Mindanao overnight ferries. In this merged company their main representative to the Board of Directors was Bob Gothong who was close to the Aboitizes and not the eldest Bowen Gothong.

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Butuan Bay 1 by Vinz Sanchez

While Bob Gothong never veered from the Aboitiz orbit (take note it was Aboitiz Jebsens which was in charge of the operations fleet maintenance of WG & A), the other siblings of Bob Gothong were not satisfied with the state of things in the merged company and in 2001 they asked out and the process of divestment began. Even before the divestment was completed the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated already had the Butuan Bay 1 ready to sail the Manila-Cebu-Nasipit route which was considered lucky for them and where they were very strong in cargo historically. Instead of being paid in ships, the Gothong siblings were paid in cash (while Bob Gothong remained with WG&A) and for this to happen a lot of WG&A ships, both ROPAX and container ships had to be sold to China ship breakers for cash.

With the proceeds in the divestment that did not include Bob Gothong, the Gothong siblings led by Bowen Gothong acquired the big Manila Bay 1 and Subic Bay 1 in 2003 and 2004, respectively which were as big as their old Our Lady of Akita which burned in 2000 as the SuperFerry 6. The two was followed by the Ozamis Bay 1, also in 2004 and by the Cagayan Bay 1, the sister ship of SuperFerry 2 and SuperFerry 5, in 2007. At its peak the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated had a total of 5 ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships) plus a valuable wharf in the new reclaimed land in Mandaue adjacent the Cebu International Port or Cebu Pier 6. But though they had five ferries, the revived CAGLI was only able to regain a limited presence in the Visayas-Mindanao routes which were once dominated by them together with the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Incorporated.

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The revived Gothong Lines did not prove to be very successful. When they re-entered liner shipping, many passengers were already leaving the liners and they were going to the budget airlines and the intermodal buses using short-distance ferry-ROROs. Cargo was also shifting too to the intermodal system because of the high container rates and the hassles of hauling container vans to the Port of Manila from road congestion to criminality and to the rampant mulcting of the so-called “authorities”. In those years it seemed there was a surplus of bottoms which meant excess ships, a possible result of liberalization and incentives programs of President Fidel V. Ramos.

Gothong Lines then became notorious for late departures and arrivals because they gave preference to cargo which earns more than carrying passengers and they were actually never strong in the passenger department. Repeated complaints led the maritime authority MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) to suspend their permit to carry passengers. With that happening Gothong Lines simply converted their ROPAXes into RORO Cargo ships just carrying container vans and vehicles.

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With weakness in this business too, soon Cagayan Bay 1 and Ozamis Bay 1 soon found themselves laid up in the Gothong wharf in Mandaue and Butuan Bay 1 was sold after an engine explosion and it became the Trans-Asia 5 of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Incorporated (TASLI). So in the recent years it was only Manila Bay 1 and Subic Bay 1 which were sailing for Gothong Lines and it seemed the two was enough for their limited cargo and routes. However, as RORO Cargo ships they were inefficient because of their big engines. But even then Gothong Lines were offering discounts and cheap rates in general which only showed how overpriced are container rates in the country. Recently, Cagayan Bay 1 and Ozamis Bay 1 were sold to the breakers but their hulls are still in the Gothong wharf in Mandaue as of the writing of this article.

Many speculated what will happen next to Gothong Lines with two inefficient and obsolescent ships and some were even asking if they will soon cease operations as their two ships were already clearly old and might even be too big for their routes. For me, I always look at their wharf which they retained and I know it is very valuable in terms of market value. Actually, the container shipping company established by their brother Bob Gothong, the Gothong Southern Shipping Lines Incorporated (GSSLI) does not even have an equivalent although it is the more progressive and booming company.

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Panglao Bay 1

Recently, two RORO Cargo ships arrived in the Gothong wharf one after another and they were still relatively new by Philippine standards. These are the Panglao Bay 1 and the Dapitan Bay 1 and from the look of things they are the replacements of Subic Bay 1 and Manila Bay 1. Actually, some three months ago as of the writing of this article, the Subic Bay 1 was already pulled by tugs and it seems here destination is a ship breaker somewhere in South Asia. That happened when the Panglao Bay 1 was already sailing for them. It is speculated that the Manila Bay 1 will be disposed of when Dapitan Bay 1 will already be sailing. In reality, it is possible she already has a buyer now.

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The Panglao Bay 1 was built in 1995 and her external dimensions are 128 meters by 22 meters with a Gross Tonnage (GT) of 5,930 in cubic volume and a cargo capacity of 4,946 tons in Deadweight Tonnage (DWT). Meanwhile, the Dapitan Bay 1 is officially a Vehicle Carrier and was built in 1992 and has the external dimensions 145 meters by 21 meters and has a cubic volume of 7,073 tons in GT and a DWT of 4,485 tons. This ship has different specifications depending on the maritime database. Whatever, these two ships are already the ships of Gothong Lines for the future and they look like worthy replacements for the Subic Bay 1 and Manila Bay 1 though they are a little smaller (but the engines are smaller too which is a plus). But then Gothong Lines might have already studied their cargo capacity needs and concluded that the sizes of the two fits them just right.

And so Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. is still fighting back. That is good news as they are the bearer of one of the most storied names in Philippine shipping history.

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The 150-meter RORO Liner Class Might Not Really Have Been Fit For Philippine Waters

When the Filipina Princess of Sulpicio Lines, all of 180 meters length arrived in our shores in 1988 it was really a wow! moment. There has never been a liner really like her before and she beat the 4,000 plus gross tons ships, the biggest liners then by a wide mile by her 13,500 gross tonnage. In length she was about 50 meters longer than the previous record holder, the Dona Virginia of William Lines. And she was no slouch, not the slightest bit as she can sail at 26 knots full trot and thereby smashing to smithereens the old record of 20 knots variously run by Sweet Faith, Cebu City and Dona Virginia.

I mentioned Filipina Princess not because she was a 150-meter RORO liner but because I think she was one seminal reason why the greatest liner class appeared in Philippine waters and these were the 160-meter and over liners. To a sense the lesser class of 150-meter liners was a consolation class since 160-meter liners are rare and easier to procure were the 150-meter liners. The Filipina Princess “pushed the boundary” and combined with the reasons of pride, one-upmanship and bragging rights, the other shipping companies felt the pressure to match her. And soon shipping companies serving the Manila-Cebu route had the greatest of our liners in the 160-meter class and over.

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One effect of that is the thought that 150-meter RORO liners are “fit” to serve the main secondary routes and ports like Iloilo, Cagayan de Oro, Zamboanga, General Santos City and Davao. And therein lies my question. This might have been true when we lacked liners in the second half of the 1980’s and first half of 1990’s. This was the time when demand and travel was going up since our economy was recovering from the greatest economic crisis since World War II. And this came from the deadly-for-shipping decade of the 1980’s (specifically its first half) when a lot of liner companies went under and we consequently lost a lot of liners. Add to that that the former backbone of our liner fleet, the ex-”FS” ships were going one by one to the breakers as they have already hit 40 years of service and were already clearly obsolete and having reliability problems already.

Our first response then was to acquire liners in the 100-meter and 110-meter class. Many of the latter actually were maxed in passenger capacity up to 2,000 persons and over and it can fill it then for simply there was really a lot of passengers as our liner companies and liners were practically halved if compared to the baseline year of 1980. So then getting 120-meter, 130-meter and 140-meter liners in the early 1990’s was understandable. The passenger capacity did not really increase by much in these liners but the available passenger areas definitely increased along with the amenities that soon they were marketing these as “floating hotels” and Aboitiz Shipping Corporation even have the position “Hotel Manager” aboard the ship, a professional one and not really a mariner. The “Hotel Manager” was in charge of all things related to serving passengers from the cabins to the bunks and “beddings” down to F&B (food and beverage) and the general cleanliness of the ship including the T&B (toilet and bath). Once upon a time that job when it was still simple was just handled by the ship Purser who also purchase the goods needed by the ship but when the “floating hotels” came that was centrally purchased already and needs of the ship was just replenished in port and decided by a shore-based shipping department which were not mariners in general. This time graduates of hotel and restaurant management were beginning to penetrate the liner industry and more and more passenger service were no longer the responsibility of what was derisively called as “mga tagamasahe ng bakal” (literally, “masseurs of steel”).

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Hotel Manager’s office

A 135-meter or 140-meter ship was already capable of accommodating over 2,000 passengers plus about 100 TEUs of container vans. Wasn’t that enough as capacity for the secondary liner ports? Well, apparently the shipping companies did not think so. Not maybe out of capacity but out of speed. You see, in the main, the 130-meter and 140-meter liners were only capable of sustained cruising speeds here of 17.5 to 18 knots. In the main too, it was only the 150-meter, 20,000-horsepower liners which were capable of 20 knots sustained. That time with the fetish on speed when the fuel was not still that expensive (there was no 9-11 World Trade Tower attack yet which provoked the unending wars of the USA in the Middle East and Afghanistan which raised fuel prices), it is as if 20 knots is already de regueur on the primary and secondary routes. 130-meter and 140-meter liners (and some 120-meter liners too) generally has only 13,500 to 16,800 horsepower so they can’t really run at 20 knots. If there were 120-meter, 130-meter and 140-meter RORO liners also capable of 20 knots the reason is because they have engines of 20,000 horsepower too. Examples of these were the SuperFerry 1, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ezekiel Moreno, Princess of the Ocean and the Our Lady of Lipa. It is really the total horsepower that produces the speed.

Then from 1995, when the liberalization and ship importation program of President Fidel V. Ramos was already in full swing, a lot of 150-meter, 20,000-horsepower RORO liners and over came and it went on up to the next decade. And the tail end of this binge was the arrival of the four sister ships which became locally known as SuperFerry 20, SuperFerry 21, St. Michael The Archangel and St. Francis Xavier which were 150.9 meters in length and equipped with 25,200-horsepower engines and capable of cruising speeds of 20 knots here except for the St. Michael The Archangel. But were they really necessary?

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St. Michael The Archangel by Jonathan Bordon

The answer might not lie in Sulpicio Lines. They acquired their last liner in 2004, the Princess of the Stars, the biggest-ever ferry to sail here but she was just a statement of the company that they want the biggest and the best liner for maybe the replacement Princess of the Universe to the lost Princess of the Orient was not good enough to be the absolute best, a distinction Sulpicio Lines really wants for themselves alone. Previous to this their last purchase was the Princess of New Unity in 1999. In this ship and the Princess of the Stars, Sulpicio Lines did not try to max the passenger capacity any longer and both were sub-2,000 passengers in capacity. It seems Sulpicio Lines read earlier than the other shipping companies the weakening of passenger demand with the coming of the budget airlines and intermodal buses. But they were strong in cargo which was really where the bulk of the income of the liner companies come from. Imagine a revenue of P17,000 from a 20-footer to Davao in 1995 when an Economy accommodation only gives them about P850 and they still have to provide three square meals a day for at least two-and-a-half days, bunks, hotel services and security to the passengers while they only have to lift and roll the container vans.

Negros Navigation’s purchase of 150-meter RORO liners also did not last long because they soon found themselves with more ships than routes and passengers. It was actually WG&A and later Aboitiz Transport System which purchased many 150-meter (and over) RORO liners. It is from them that one will think that liners below 150 meters are already passe but it seemed they never knew that.

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SuperFerry 15 by ‘superferry crew’

In the early 2000’s Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) also felt passenger demand on liners were already weakening. That is why with the acquisition of the SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 they did not try anymore to max the passenger capacity and instead they let it that TEU capacity is high with the creation of two-level wagon decks as they called them. Aboitiz Transport System was then stressing express cargo and it was the SuperFerry liners that can fill that role and not their container ships which can sail at barely over half the speed of the SuperFerries. Their system was so good that forwarder companies like LBC was using their container vans to move parcels and cargo that were declared as “air cargo” and charged as such (well, they also roll express vans – trucks that roll in the road, that is). With their reliance on SuperFerries, WG&A, the predecessor company of ATS did not invest anymore in newer container ships. What it did was actually to sell their better container ships and so the SuperRORO series of container ships became history.

So WG&A and Aboitiz Transport System (successor company to WG&A) continued to acquire 150-meter RORO liners when ship passenger ridership was already weakening. They might have reason — the express container van trade. But mind you, the freight rates of WG&A and Aboitiz Transport System was actually higher than competition for they can promise shorter delivery time and short enough for forwarder companies with express parcel services to use and deceive customers. It were no longer the passengers the reason for this but the cargo.

When Aboitiz Transport System opportunistically sold SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 when ship prices were high suddenly, Aboitiz Transport System then had to charter container ships (which can’t run 20 knots) and converted three of their other liners to have two wagon decks, the SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 9 and SuperFerry 12 and so their passenger capacities were also halved (actually more than halved) along with the passenger amenities and space. By this time Negros Navigation was into a court-administered recovery program and just running a few liners after their bout of illiquidity and soon Sulpicio Lines was practically out of passenger shipping along with the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI), MBRS Lines and Moreta Shipping. Aboitiz Transport System had the narrowing (not wide) liner shipping industry practically for themselves except for some resistance from Negros Navigation.

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St. Francis Xavier by John Carlos Cabanillas

Now 2GO, the merger of ATS and Negros Navigation which happened when the latter bought out the former, operates an all-150 meter and 160-meter liner fleet after they sold their older liners (and there is no other liner company left). All can sail at 20 knots or close to 20 knots if needed except one plus the former Cebu Ferries overnight ships which are just used on short routes. Even with passenger capacity of just over 1,000 on the average most of the time they can’t fully fill up these 150-meter liners and nor in cargo as their second wagon decks are practically empty most times except for a few sedans.

If they operate these 150-meter liners on smaller cities and ports it will result in operational losses and that is the reason why they pulled out of lesser ports like Surigao, Tagbilaran, Dapitan, etc. The 150-meter liners were too big for them and they can’t assign the former Cebu Ferries vessels there because they are too small, the distances are too great and they lack the speed of liners and are better suited to the routes they are currently assigned to. That is the disadvantage of 2GO not having liners in intermediate range like the 120- or 130-meter liners before. And that is the misfortune of passengers and shippers in the lesser cities and ports. They now have to have alternate ways to travel or ship and they were given free by ATS and 2GO to the budget airlines and intermodal buses and trucks. Otherwise, some became passengers of the overnight ships and the short-distance ROROs for a connecting voyage to Cebu.

I wonder why 2GO kept on insisting on 150-meter liners with two cargo decks which they can’t fill. They are basically paying the penalty of the 25,000 horsepower of these ships when they can’t also fill the passenger bunks. 2GO can’t even cite the speed of these ships now because their voyages are almost always late in departures as they give priority to cargo and their cargo handling in port is no longer as fast as before and they are a little fond of midnight cargo handling where operations are more dangerous and slower.

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Panglao Bay 1 by Mark Ocul

Can’t they see that their 150-meter liners with such gross horsepowers are passe already? Those are no longer fit for the times, in my eyes. Moving 1,000 plus passengers can be done by lesser liners as shown before with maybe just half of the 25,000 horsepowers of the 150-meter liners. With more modern transmission, 10,000 horsepower engines will already do now and its speeds will just equal the 18 knots these 150-meter liners are doing now. In my mind, the Panglao Bay 1 and Dapitan Bay 1, new Cargo RORO ships of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. would have been fit if employed by 2GO and modified like the coming third Trans-Asia (1) of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, Inc.

I just hope the coming new management of 2GO (I can’t discuss any other liner company as they are the only surviving now) will focus well on their liner need and come up with better-fitting liners and with a mix that will make them cover more ports and routes and in a more efficient manner.

The San Lorenzo Ruiz of Negros Navigation

This article is about the liner San Lorenzo Ruiz of Negros Navigation and not the short-distance ferry-RORO of Viva Shipping Lines of Batangas. It was just a wonder from me how come MARINA allowed the use of the same name for two different ROROs when that is not normally allowed. And so because of that some people became confused especially if they have not seen the two liners. Actually one won’t see them at the same time because they have different ports of calls and routes. The nearest the two will be near each other was if they were at the same time in Verde Island Passage between Batangas and Mindoro when they are crossing each other’s path as the Viva Shipping Lines vessel is a Batangas to Mindoro ferry and the Negros Navigation ferry uses the strait on the way to the Visayas and Mindanao.

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The San Lorenzo Ruiz by Marlon Griego and Nowell Alcancia

The San Lorenzo Ruiz is one liner I like for its economical design because it is much like the SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 5, Mabuhay 2, Princess of the Pacific, Princess of the South, Our Lady of Banneux and Cagayan Bay 1. The class they are in have the length of between 128 to 143 meters (or roughly the 130-meter class) with engines between 15,000 to 16,000 horsepower and with a design speed of about 20 knots and a local speed here of about 18 knots after the addition of metal in the superstructure and the passing of nearly two decades of service. This class has the capacity of some 100 TEUs of container vans which is about enough for the local routes. The class’ speed, capacity and amenities are adequate too for a liner and passenger accommodations don’t have to be so maximized unlike the 110-meter liners. This class has definitely more speed too than that class although they don’t have the 20 knots here of the 150-meter liners with 20,000 horsepower engines but their fuel consumption is definitely less. This class is actually what is perfect for the routes that are not serving Cebu, the country’s premier city and port south of Manila.

The speed differential between an 18-knot liner and a 20-knot liner is really not that great. Going to Cebu and rounding the eastern side of Mactan island, the latter will have a transit time of 21 hours and the former will have a transit time of about 22 hours. At 17.5 knots, the SuperFerry 2 and SuperFerry 5 also can do it in 22 hours because they need not use the eastern seaboard of Mactan for the reason that they can pass under the two Mactan bridges because they have folding stern masts. To me it was even a puzzle why so many of our liners were in the 150-meter class with 20,000 or so horsepower and 20 knots. In terms of container capacity the difference is not great since their breadth is just about the same of the 130-140 meter lines. But 15,000 to 16,000 horsepower is much less than 20,000 to 22,000 horsepower in terms of fuel consumption. Well, actually at the height of fuel prices a few years ago the 2GO itself downgraded the engine speeds and consequently the ferries’ speed to save on fuel. Few really run at 20 knots nowadays and that just proves that 20 knots was really never necessary.

The ROPAX ship San Lorenzo Ruiz of Negros Navigation was built by Nipponkai Heavy Industries Co. in Toyama, Japan in 1973 as the Al Nasl of the Taiheiyo Enkai Ferry KK of Nagoya, Japan with the IMO Number 7302093. The ship was 132.1 meters in length over-all with a length between perpendiculars of 124.0 meters. Her breadth was 22.7 meters with an original gross register tonnage (GRT) of 6,844 tons and an original deadweight tonnage (DWT) of 2,480 tons. The ferry was powered by two IHI (Ishikawa Heavy Industries)-built Pielstick engines developing 8,000 horsepower each for a total of 16,000 horsepower and that gave the ship a design speed of 19.5 knots. Her specifications wer actually very near that of the sister ships SuperFerry 2 and SuperFerry 5 which measured 138.6 meters by 22.1 meters and was powered by two MAN diesels built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries with a total of 15,200 horsepower and a design speed of 19 knots.

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Ebino of Nippon Car Ferry by ‘hunterdosaemon’

Although twin-engined, the ferry was equipped by a single, center funnel with the stern mast atop it and she had a distinctive bridge that is slanted forward from the top to have a better lower view. She had one full passenger deck plus two passenger-half decks at the front. Al Nasl has a sister ship, the Argo and they sailed the Nagoya-Nachikitsuura-Oita route of Taiheiyo Enkai Ferry, a route from the main island of Honshu to the Kyushu island in the south. In 1976, however, the ship was sold to Nippon Car Ferry and she held the route to Ebino city in Kyushu island and thus she was named as the Ebino. As the ferry to Ebino this ship had a passenger capacity of 695 and about 500 lane-meters in rolling cargo space.

In 1996, the Ebino came to the Philippines to be the San Lorenzo Ruiz with the Mary Queen of Peace, another former Nippon Car Ferry ship. Maybe the connection started with the San Paolo which arrived for Negros Navigation three year earlier and which was another ship from Nippon Car Ferry. In the Philippines, a partial scantling up to the funnel was added in the navigation deck to hold the Economy class. The passenger capacity of the ship in the Philippines was 1,426 persons only as Negros Navigation chose to not massively change the superstructure of the ship anymore. Because many of the Japan features were retained she had the reputation of having good interiors. Of course with 3,911 in net tons she had plenty of space for passengers. However, although scantlings were added the gross tonnage of the ship went down to 6,051 but her deadweight tonnage rose to 2,995 tons. For cargo handling, the ship only had a stern ramp. Many however, said the lines of the ship was beautiful and I agree with that.

The San Lorenzo Ruiz was used by Negros Navigation in opening their Manila-Iloilo-General Santos City-Davao route. In this route she was in competition with the SuperFerry 1/SuperFerry 8/SuperFerry 10 team-up of WG&A which was a mean line-up of former flagships and gives up nothing to her in amenities and facilities but were a little superior to her in speed. They actually share the same route exactly but where the WG&A line-up can do 20 knots the San Lorenzo Ruiz can only do 19 knots at most. But I wonder why in a Negros Navigation advertisement she was declared sailing at 19.5 knots, her design speed. It might have been possible but that means running at 100% engine speed and that is a killer for a 23-year old ship (later she developed a reputation for being “slow”). She had only a declared passenger capacity of 920 passengers in the advertisement (versus the declared 1,426 in MARINA files and a later 1,850 from another source) but her declared cargo capacity was 140 TEU, higher than the normal 130 to 140-meter ROPAX. That means she retained the partial cargo deck at the “B” level supporting the observation that her conversion here was really not much. Probably, the passenger capacity was only right as they were new in the General Santos City and Davao route. On the other, being new the container capacity might have been high. Just the same, her size might have been just perfect in a newly-developed route.

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San Lorenzo Ruiz by Britz Salih

On the Sulpicio Lines side, she was competing with the Princess of the Pacific in the General Santos City route, a ship with almost the same size as her and almost the same horsepower and powered by twin Pielstick engines also. In the Davao route she was up versus the super-big and fast Filipina Princess whose amenities might not as impressive as her being an older ship in terms of fielding here. Like other Negros Navigation ships her higher accommodations have many variations from Suite to Single Suite to Admiral Suite, Deluxe Cabin, Business Class to Tourist Class, Travelers Class and Tatami Class. I like the Tatami Class because I like to sleep on the floor (with mattress) and I can lie with my shoes on and use my knapsack as mattress and not worry about them getting stolen. I hate sleeping in upper bunks and good that the Tatami Class don’t have them.

After two years Negros Navigation withdrew from the Davao route and just used one ship and modified the route of the San Ezekiel Moreno to Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-General Santos City-Davao (that ship had a Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-General Santos City route before). The San Lorenzo Ruiz then did the Manila-Iloilo-Ozamis-Iligan-Manila route and Manila-Dumaguete-Tagbilaran-Manila route within the same week. I thought this were very good routes for the San Lorenzo Ruiz as it combines near ports without backtracking and two complete voyages are completed in week which means a high efficiency in the use of the ship. But of course, the giant WG&A have heavy presence in those ports of call and Sulpicio Lines is also serving those ports also but the exact routes of the ships of Sulpicio Lines and WG&A varies with that of the San Lorenzo Ruiz. In Iligan and Ozamis, the San Lorenzo Ruiz was up against the SuperFerry 2/SuperFerry 5/SuperFerry 9 team-up of WG&A and all three of those were about the same dimensional size and engine size of her and so it was probably an even match even in amenities. She was also against that team-up in Dumaguete. In the Tagbilaran and Dumaguete combined route she was up against the SuperFerry 3 and she has a big advantage over this ship in speed, in paper as that ship only has 9,300 horsepower in total. In Tagbilaran she was also up against the Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje pairing of WG&A and again she had great advantage in speed and even in amenities aside from the space. She was also superior in everything over the Princess of the Caribbean of Sulpicio Lines in Dumaguete and Ozamis (or the Iloilo Princess which subbed in 1998) and much more superior over the old cruiser Dipolog Princess in the Tagbilaran and Iligan route of Sulpicio Lines.

Since the San Lorenzo Ruiz was not competing here versus liners with 20,000 horsepower she then just tried to match the speed of the competition which was about 17.5 knots for the Dumaguete route and 17 knots for the Tagbilaran route and that was probably a wise decision. Versus the smaller ROPAXes of 2GO which has small engines, the SuperFerry 3, Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje there was no chance that she can be outsped. I thought then she had a chance in the old Dumaguete-Ozamis-Iligan-Tagbilaran quadrant, a favorite of many ships in the past from the time of ex-”FS” ships and even before. In those routes she was also the local connection of the near islands there.

But then she lost over time. In shipping, it is not just the edge or the parity of the ship that matters. Even more important is the cargo which is the bread and butter of shipping. Now, the old ones also have advantage even in the passengers because of the familiarity including in the schedule. When the new millennium arrived it was already the whole company that was in trouble. They simply had too many ships from loans and there were not enough revenues and the dancing porters and free porterage plus bus links were not enough to do the trick. Soon, Negros Navigation was dropping routes and ports of calls as they found it unprofitable. The time they entered those new routes and ports was the time the country had too many liners, the product of over-expansion during the time of President Fidel V. Ramos who gave incentives for the acquisition of new ship including loans from the then government-owned Philippine National Bank. It was also the time that the true intermodal system, the combination of the long-distance trucks and buses plus the short-distance ferry-ROROs were making great advances and taking away passengers and cargo from the liners. And then there was also the budget airlines which was sucking passengers from the liners as they were already offering fares in parity with the liners.

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The San Lorenzo Ruiz by Rodney Orca

Soon, the liners of Negros Navigation was being garnished by creditors including the Tsuneishi shipyard in Cebu. Manny V. Pangilinan of Metro Pacific and Smart Telecommunications entered as a white knight and infused money and talked to the creditors and a court-mandated rehabilitation program was put in place. One result of the reorganization that ensued was that Negros Navigation was forced to hold on only to routes that were making money for them and these were basically their old routes before their big expansion from the mid-1990’s. With such a decision, liners have to be sold and many were then subsequently offered for sale by ads. However, here were no local takers and when this happened only shipbreakers from other countries are interested and in the end many of the liners of Negros Navigation ended up with the breakers including those ships transferred to Jensen Shipping. San Lorenzo Ruiz was acquired by Bangladesh breakers and in 2008 she was broken up in Chittagong.

And that was the sad end of one liner I admire.

The RORO Cargo Ships of Sulpicio Lines Are All Gone Now

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

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The Our Lady of Sacred Heart by Britz Salih

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

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

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Sulpicio Express Uno by Aris Refugio

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

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

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Sulpicio Express Tres by Aris Refugio

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

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

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Ozamis Bay 1 by James Gabriel Verallo

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

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

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Sulpicio Express Dos as Span Asia 15 by Mike Baylon

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

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

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

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Sulpicio Express Uno not sailing before her sale

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

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

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

Sad to see the three go.

Container Ships Also Sink Our Liners

In the past, before 1980, there was no conflict between the our liners and the container ships. First, container ships did not exist before the late 1970’s. Second, before that time, general cargo ships were not many as it is our liners that were mainly carrying the inter-island cargo that should be transported fast and were not in bulk. That was the reason why even though our production and the number of people were not yet as high like today, there were so many liners existing with as high as 90 liners at its very peak.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In the early 1970’s, the Sea Transport Company came into existence. What was notable for this new company is they offered regular express cargo service to Mindanao which means a direct service and aside from loose cargo, their ships were able to carry small container vans which were non-standard as in they were offering 8-foot containers which they themselves designed (it was rectangular in shape). In due time, they also shifted to standard container vans and they fielded pure container carriers.

In 1976, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation converted one of their general cargo ships, the P. Aboitiz into a container carrier. Conversion like this was not difficult because only some internal structures need to be modified so a container van can be slot in and that also means modifying the holds and the hatches. The grabs of the booms also have to be modified by a bit so it can handle a container van.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In 1978, containerization was already in full swing when Aboitiz Shipping Corporation added more container ships and William Lines Incorporated followed suit. The next year, in 1979, Sulpicio Lines Incorporated also joined the bandwagon to be followed in the next year by Lorenzo Shipping Corporation which had already split from its merger with Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc (CAGLI). Negros Navigation Company also joined this new paradigm in 1980. In 1981, Sweet Lines Incorporated also followed suit but they used their old company name Central Shipping Corporation. Among the major liner companies then, it was only Compania Maritima which did not join this new paradigm.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

These new container services offered direct sailings as in there were no intermediate ports. With direct service, the container ships might be a little slower than the liners (except for the fast cruisers) but their transit times were not worse than the liners (except to Cebu) because they don’t lose time in an intermediate port or ports. With the speed, convenience, security (no pilferage), lack of damage and contamination, soon the shippers were already shifting en masse to the new container services.

In the liner crisis of 1980 when many liners were deactivated and laid up, it seems the main cause of that was the emergence and immediate success of the container ships and container shipping. Maybe the liners suddenly found they don’t have enough cargo and hence they can’t maintain the old sailing schedule and from the outside it looked like that suddenly there was a “surplus” of bottoms (actually the liners complained of that).

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In December 1979, the first RORO liner, the Dona Virginia of William Lines came. This RORO and those that came after her were capable of carrying container vans especially the XEU or 10-foot container vans that can be loaded aboard by the big forklifts. Soon even the fast cruiser liners were also carrying container vans atop their cargo holds especially at the bow of the ship. Some can also carry container vans on a platform in the stern.

Locally, I did not see a new paradigm take hold as fast as container shipping. The ROROs even took longer to be the new paradigm. In containerization, there was even a rush to convert general cargo ships into container ships. All the “new” container ship of Lorenzo Shipping Corporation were converts at the start. The other container shipping companies bought general cargo ships from Japan and converted them into container carriers. Our first container ships looked like general cargo ship unlike the modern container ship which does not look like general cargo ships (and nor can they handle loose cargo).

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In just a little over a year William Lines had 5 container ships (Gorio Belen research in the National Library)

The emergence of the RORO liners even pushed containerization faster as that new kind of ferry is ready-made not only for vehicles or rolling cargo but also for container vans, wheeled in atop chassis (which means atop trailers) or not (if not wheeled then big forklifts “wheeled” them in). There were not yet reach stackers in the early years of our containerization to handle the container vans.

In the 1980’s and the 1990’s, the liners can still hold off the container ships. The reason was there were no budget airlines yet (Philippine Airlines fares then were really stiff) and there were no intermodal buses yet in the bulk of the islands (it was only strong in Eastern Visayas, their pioneer area). And liners can still pack in the passengers (even up to “overloading” or overbooking point) because people has already learned how to travel and there was a great push for migration to Metro Manila (which later led to the overcrowding of this metropolis).

However, when budget airlines and the intermodal buses came in droves, the passengers of the liners dropped. The 2,000 to 3,000 passenger capacity slowly became “too big” and hence the national shipping companies no longer fielded liners with capacities such as this in the new millennium. Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) also tried to reduce passenger capacity and increase cargo capacity by converting some of their liners to have two decks for rolling cargo like what they did in SuperFerry 12, SuperFerry 9 and SuperFerry 2.

Superferry 12

Photo by Edison Sy

Can the liners compete with container ships when the passenger demand dipped? The answer is a plain “No way”. Liners usually have more than three times the horsepower of a local container ship (and it is single-engined which means less spare parts are needed) and yet the local container ship usually have three times the container capacity of a RORO liner. This even became more pronounced when the regime of high oil prices came in the first decade of this millennium. Per fuel prices alone, the container ships can carry each container van much cheaper than what a liner can.

Container vans also do not need the amenities needed by the passengers. Moreover, it does not need the service expected of the passengers which need to be fed and be given more than decent accommodations plus some entertainment. Because of that, the crewing needs of a liner is far higher than that of a container ship. All of those means more expense of the part of the liner company. Besides, a RORO liner is more expensive than a container ship for the same size and its insurance is higher.

Ever since the 1980’s, even when the passenger demand was still great, the national shipping companies were earning more from cargo than their passengers. That is true even today when 2GO admits that almost 70% of their revenues are from cargo (and to think under their roof is SuperCat which widens the passenger revenues). Definitely their investment for liners is greater than their cargo ships. Maybe it was only loyalty to their passengers and passenger shipping why they were not quitting this segment. Maybe it is also because of inertia which means just keeping doing the old things.

Lorcon Dumaguete assisted by tugs

If we look at the recent years we can see that for every liner acquired at least 7 container ships were acquired and this is even a conservative estimate. If we look at the last 10 years starting from 2006, only 11 liners came to our shores and that includes the 3 Cebu Ferries, two of which are still used as overnight ships although already converted into small liners. Meanwhile, MARINA registered 80 or more newly-arrived container ships in the same period. These are the container ships of Oceanic Container Lines, Sulpicio Lines/Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation, Lorenzo Shipping Corporation, NMC Container Lines, Solid Shipping Lines, Negros Navigation/Caprotec Corporation/2GO, MCC Transport Philippines (MCCTP), Moreta Shipping Lines, Meridian Cargo Forwarders, Seaview Cargo Shipping Corporation, Escano Lines/Loadstar Shipping Company and West Ocean Lines and Transport acquired in the last ten years. Now how many container lines is that compared to a sole passenger liner company?

There are few liners sailing now and all are under just one company which is 2GO (since Romblon Shipping Lines has already quit). Meanwhile, container ships are still mushrooming and more container shipping companies are joining the field. Even 20 years ago there were already more container ships than liners. Now the container ships are already outstripping the liners in number. And the trend holds true year after year.

The question is why? Well, the simple answer is the shipping companies won’t invest in liners as it does not make sense. More revenues can be earned from container shipping at less investment with less hassles from regulations and supply needs (like the food needed by the passengers). So why would they enter passenger liner shipping? Better “pets” like containers vans rather than people like the passengers who can raise a ruckus and if the ship sinks then goodbye to all the advertising and service spent for the goodwill. If a cargo ship sinks, the uneducated public and the media almost won’t mind at all.

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A Cargo RORO LCT by Asian Shipping Corporation

If cargo is the bread and butter of shipping it will now go to the container lines because they can actually offer the lower shipping rates. If not it will go to the intermodal trucks which has even lower rates. And arriving now recently are the Cargo RORO LCTs which carry container vans (even from Manila) like those of Roble Shipping Incorporated, Ocean Transport and Asian Shipping Corporation. This new paradigm can offer even lower rates than the container ships.

Sometimes it looks like liners are already passe. But I don’t want them to go because I prefer them over planes and the intermodal buses are sometimes too tiring especially those who are no longer young.

Will the liners survive? Now, that is one question I would not like to answer.

Shouldn’t We Be Downsizing Our Liners Now?

In the ten years after the end of World War II, the bulk of our liners were ex-”FS” ships with a sprinkling of former “F” ships, former “Y” ships and former small minesweepers of the US Navy which were even smaller ships. The first-mentioned ship was only 55 meters in length. Passenger capacity then of 200-300 were normal. The built capacity was not too high as our population was still small then with a little over 20 million people and besides, the country and the economy were just beginning to recover from the devastation of the Pacific War

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An ex-“FS” ship (Photo credits: Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen)

In the next decade after that, there came the lengthened former “FS” ships which are over 60 meters in length with three decks. Passenger capacities then rose a bit. The lengthening of ex-”FS” ships, which was still the dominant liner type then was a response to the growing capacity need because the population was beginning to increase and trade was also on the rise. In 1960, our population already rose to 27 million.

In this period, there were no other sources yet of new liners as the European market was not yet discovered except by Compania Maritima and practically there were no surplus ships yet from Japan. It is true that we then already had some big ships mainly in the form of ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships which were US surplus from the war and former European passenger-cargo ships in Compania Maritima’s fleet. These big liners (by Philippine standards) averaged some 100 meters in length.

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An ex-“C1’M-AV1” ship (Photo credits: Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen)

In passenger capacity, however, those big liners then were not even double in passenger capacity compared to lengthened ex-”FS” ships. It was normal for them to have cargo holds in the bow and in the stern of the ship with the passenger accommodations in an “island” at the middle of the ship or amidship. Those big liners normally had only about 500 persons in passenger capacity.

Actually, when the European passenger-cargo ship Tekla came in 1965 to become the Don Arsenio of Carlos A. Go Thong & Co., she was then already tops in the Philippines in passenger capacity at about 700 persons. To think Go Thong has the tendency to maximize and pack it in and that ship was already 110 meters in length and one of the biggest in the country. [Well, liners of the 1990’s of that length already had more than double of that in passenger capacity.]

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Elcano by suro yan

In the middle of the 1960’s, big ships from Europe started to arrive for Go Thong and William Lines and also for Compania Maritima which had been buying ships from Europe right after the end of the war. These shipping companies had the long routes then which extended up to southern Mindanao which had many intermediate ports. Hence, big capacity matters to them. PSNC (Philippine Steam and Navigation Company) which also had routes to southern Mindanao was using ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships or if not they were using their luxury liners Legazpi and Elcano which were 87 meters in length (the two were sister ships).

It was the pattern that as the years went by the ships got bigger and its passenger capacities rose. That was a function of our country’s population increasing and hence also its trade because more population needs more commodities and goods. I am actually interested in the trivia which liner first had a 1,000 passenger capacity but right now I don’t have that data. Maybe that ship emerged sometime in the 1970’s.

In 1970, we already had a population of 37 million. And one change was Mindanao was already colonized, its population was growing fast and its new people had to connect to the rest of the country because this time most of the population of Mindanao were no longer native-born as in they were migrants from other parts of the country.

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Don Sulpicio  (Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library)

One benchmark in capacity was the Don Sulpicio which became the Sulpicio Lines flagship when she came in 1975. She had a passenger capacity of 1,424 (this could be the latter figure after refitting from a fire). But her sister ship Dona Ana has a bigger net tonnage and might had a bigger passenger capacity especially since her route was Davao while Don Sulpicio‘s route was only Cebu. The Don Sulpicio later became the infamous Dona Paz which supposedly loaded 4,000 plus passengers (guffaw!)

These two ships were only in the 90-meter class but one thing that changed with the arrival of the cruisers that were not formerly cargo or cargo-passengers ships is that they had full scantling already so the passenger accommodation stretches from the bridge to the stern of the ship. And one more, the liners became taller with more passenger decks and it is even up to bridge or navigation deck.

Of course, their spaces were not as big as the big 1990’s liners. Riding a 1970’s liner, one would find that all the spaces are “miniaturized” from the size of the bunks to the spaces between the bunks, the tables and the restaurants and the lounges. They were simply a different beast than their counterparts two decades later where spaces and amenities were really ample.

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Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library

In the early 1980’s, passenger capacities of over 1,000 was already commonplace with the biggest liners in the 110 and 120 meter class and with some featuring four passenger decks already. Actually as early as 1979 with the arrival of the sister ships Don Enrique and Don Eusebio which were southern Mindanao specialists, their capacities already touched 1,200 and yet they were only in the 110 meter class. The two were the latter Iloilo Princess and Dipolog Princess, respectively.

Actually, passenger maximization was already the game then as even 70-80 meter liners built in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, both cruisers and ROROs, already had capacities averaging 800 or so persons. These were the pocket liners in the 1980’s when the former smallest, the lengthened “FS” ships were already bowing out. In 1980, the country’s population already reached 48 million. With the development of the roads even the people of the interior were already traveling.

1980 Dona Virginia

Photo credits: Daily Express and Gorio Belen

On December of 1979, the first ship to reach 2,000 in passenger capacity arrived. This ship was the flagship Dona Virginia of William Lines. It was also the longest liner then in the country with a length of 143 meters, the longest then in our ferry fleet. And to think the Dona Virginia was not even a tall ship.

In 1988, further bigger liners arrived in the country. The Cotabato Princess which was also a southern Mindanao liner also reached 2,000 in passenger capacity. Its sister ship Nasipit Princess also had the same capacity. Both were 149 meters in length. But the new champion was the very big Filipina Princess which had a passenger capacity of over 2,900. This great liner had a length of 180 meters.

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In the 1990’s, liners of 2,000-passenger capacity or a little less became commonplace. The liner with the biggest ever capacity that existed here was the Princess of the Orient with a passenger capacity of 3,900. It was the longest-ever ship that sailed here at 195 meters. Other ships of this era that had passenger capacities of over 3,000 were the Princess of the Universe and the Princess of Paradise. Both were over 165 meters in length. All the ships mentioned from Cotabato Princess up to Princess of Paradise were liners of Sulpicio Lines.

Even with these high capacities of 2,000 and over the liners were able to pack it in in the 1990’s. I was once a passenger of the Princess of the Paradise on a Christmas trip when all bunks were taken (maybe if there were vacancies it was in the cabins). I also had a same experience on a June trip aboard the Our Lady of Akita (the latter SuperFerry 6) and the crew had to lay mattresses in the hallways because the ship was overbooked. And that ship have a passenger capacity of over 2,600. [Maybe we were technically not “overloaded” as there might have been vacancies in the cabins.]

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Princess of the Orient from Britz Salih

But things began to change in the new millennium. Maybe there was already a surplus of bottoms because there was a race then to acquire liners in the term of President Fidel V. Ramos as it was encouraged and supported. But budget airlines also came along with the intermodal buses. The demand for ship bunks began to slacken and the liners can no longer pack it in like before.

This trend was reflected in the liners fielded starting in 2000. Among the liners of the new millennium only SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 reached 2,000 in passenger capacity and just barely. And to think they are 174 meters in length. The new liners of Aboitiz Transport System already had two wagon decks instead of four passenger decks. But on a look-back the two wagon decks were also not fully loaded.

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Photo credit: port of douglas

The liner acquisitions of Sulpicio Lines in the new millennium both did not reach 2,000 passengers in capacity. Not even the very big Princess of the Stars, the Philippines’ biggest liner ever. So even Sulpicio Lines recognized that passenger demand was already declining. But unlike Aboitiz Transport System (ATS), they did not convert liners to have two cargo decks. Well, unlike ATS, Sulpicio Lines have many container ships to carry the container vans.

After 2005, only Aboitiz Transport System, Negros Navigation and latter 2GO still acquired liners (excepting Romblon Shipping Lines). None had a passenger capacity that reached 2,000. Some even had passenger capacities of less than 1,000. Most had two wagon decks that does not get full.

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SuperFerry 21 by Nowell Alcancia

If liners can no longer get full in passengers and in container vans then what is the use of acquiring liners of 150 meters length and with over 20,000 horsepower? It is useless. Liners should have lower horsepower now because fuel is the number one expense in shipping. There is also no use now running them at 19 or 20 knots. The overnight ferries have shown the way. Even though their ships are capable of higher speeds they just use economical speed now. No more racing.

Actually, the new overnight ships like what Cokaliong Shipping Lines is acquiring could be the new liners. These average 80 meters in length. Or maybe ships a little bigger than those could be acquired. And that will be like the former Cebu Ferries that were pulled out from the Visayas-Mindanao routes. Their length averages 95 meters. The engine power of all of these are all not topping 9,000 horsepower and yet they are capable of 17-18 knots if needed and that was the range then of many liners in the 1990’s.

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Our Lady of Lourdes by Ray Smith

I think the new size paradigm of the liners should just be about 100 meters maximum with a horsepower of 10,000 or less and a speed of no more than 18 meters. That will be like the smaller liners of the late 1980’s like the Our Lady of Fatima and the Our Lady of Lourdes of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (CAGLI) which were 101 meters in length and had 8,200hp. The Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines in that era was 98 meters in length had engines of 8,000hp total. Yet, all three were capable of 17 knots here.

Maybe another and probably better paradigm were the former Our Lady of Medjugorje and the Our Lady of Sacred Heart also of CAGLI. Both were former RORO Cargo ships in Japan but were beautifully refitted here. Both were 123 meters in length but only had 9,000 and 8,000 horsepower, single-engined. The passenger capacity of the two even averaged over 1,500 passengers. They might not be too speedy at about 16 knots but we have to be practical and have to scale back. In amenities and space, the two were good. The former SuperFerry 3 of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation is also a good model. At 118 meters, 9,300 horsepower, 16 knots she was a credible liner then with a passenger capacity of 2,000 . All the quoted speed were when they were already running here when they had additional metal and the engines were no longer new

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Our Lady of Medjugorje from Britz Salih

But technology has improved and for the same engine horsepower a ship can be faster. Take for example the Trans-Asia 3 of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Incorporated. At only 9,000 horsepower and 110 meters in length, she is still capable of 18 knots here.

If liners are smaller with smaller engines then maybe weaker routes abandoned might be viable again. I think Aboitiz Transport System and 2GO had to scale back on routes because their liners and its engines were too big for the weaker routes. They tried to shoehorn a 150-meter liner in the like of Tagbilaran. No liner of that size did a Tagbilaran route before. Like even at the peak of passenger shipping no shipping company sent a liner of that size to Roxas City.

But government also has to help. Maybe, one possible step maybe is to limit the number of container ships. There might be too many of them sailing already. It is growing at a rate much ahead of our trade and production growth. So it simply diminishes the capability of a liner to be viable.

In the past before 1978, our cargo is being carried by the passenger-cargo ships. That was the reason why there was so many liners then as in over 60 in total and even 90 in the 1960’s when ships were smaller and ex-”FS” ships still dominated. What happened next is while our inter-island container fleet is growing, our liner fleet was also growing smaller because cargo is also being carried by the container ships.

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Research by Gorio Belen in the National Library

On the same route there is no way a liner can carry cargo cheaper than container ships. For the same length the container ships have much less smaller engines, the acquisition cost is much less, insurance is smaller and crewing is much smaller too and there is less regulation. Of course, they are slow. But let upon liners in competition they can practically sink the liners. I heavily doubt if our government functionaries understand this relationship and history.

It might be anti-competitive but if the government does not intervene I think our liner sector will sink and be wiped out. One possible intervention even is to decree that vehicles can only be carried by the liners. This will be added revenue for the liners. Or that liners should have fuel that is cheaper. Of course some will balk at that and suspicions of fuel diversion will always be aired. But good controls can be put in place. Unless we as a people is really that corrupt and bribable.

As it is, 2GO is profitable now when the world market prices of oil plummeted. But then one thing that worries me is their fares on the average are not lower than the budget airlines and the intermodal buses. With longer time of travel they cannot compete with budget airlines in the long run. And with frequencies that are not daily the passengers will not really wait for them.

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Maybe we should go back to this size

If the government wants the liner sector to stay it cannot just be verbal encouragement. Press or praise releases and promises are also next to nothing. There should be concrete steps and a program if they really want to save this sector. But is there anybody in government high enough that really understands this sector?

The government can put out all the verbal encouragement for other entities to enter this sector but I don’t think those who know shipping will enter this segment as things stand now. Downsizing is maybe one step that can arrest the downslide of passenger liner shipping.

Ports Served By Liners That Lost To The Intermodal Buses

Once, there were ports that were served by the liners of the national shipping companies in the postwar years. Liners from Manila sailed to these ports and the length of their calls or service already exceeded a century. Now, there are no more liners to these ports and instead intermodal buses are the ones now moving their passengers.

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Among the ports I am referring to are San Jose in Occidental Mindoro (called Mangarin in the past), Culasi port in Roxas City (called Capiz in the past); Dumaguit (or New Washington), Batan, Malay (more popularly known as Caticlan now), all in Aklan; Lipata port in Culasi, Antique, San Jose de Buenavista in Antique. The list also includes Masbate; Laoang, Carangian (or San Jose) and Allen in Northern Samar; Calbayog and Catbalogan in Western Samar; Tacloban, Calubian, Palompon, Isabel, Ormoc and Baybay in Leyte; Maasin, Sogod and Cabalian in Southern Leyte. The list would also Tagbilaran in Bohol and Surigao City. Yes, the list is really long. And that is not even 100% complete.

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Tacloban port

How come our good liners with true passenger service and free food lost to the simple bus where there is no service and food is not free? When many of our liners were hotel-like. The simple reason is simply frequency and ubiquity. Buses leave daily while liners don’t. Buses have several trips in a day, both at night and day and in a wide span of schedules and so people have a choice. They also have a choice from several bus lines.

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I first had a glimpse of their magic of the nearly 15 years ago. I was aboard a bus from Maasin to Manila. The first trip then of the bus was 2am. I noticed that whenever and wherever the bus will see bags in the road without people around, our bus will stop, blow its horn and the passenger/s will appear from the house. Yes, there was no need to wait in the dark suffering from the cold and mosquito bites. The bus will simply stop for you. In Eastern Samar 18 years ago, a relative of the passenger rode the bus in Borongan and stopped the bus in a house in a barrio. Turned out the lady passenger has not yet finished her bath. Well, our bus driver simply turned off the engine to the laughter of all and we all waited and when the lady boarded there were cheers and more laughter. Are those ease and leaning backward possible in a ship? Simply no.

So whenever and wherever a bus begin crossing the straits I noticed they will simply kick out the liners from Manila. This first happened in Samar in the 1980’s. This was followed by Mindoro and Panay in the 2000’s. Masbate, Leyte, Bohol and Surigao soon followed suit. Practically it is only Negros and Cebu islands and northern  and western Mindanao that are immune from the buses from Manila.

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Intermodal buses in Masbate port

In the examples I gave I made sure it was the buses that torpedoed the liners and not the budget airlines. In those examples I am pretty sure most of the passengers transferred to the intermodal buses because if one checks the frequency of the airlines when there were still liners and today one will notice that the frequency increases of the airlines were modest while the intermodal buses grew by leaps and bounds. That is very clear in Panay. That is very clear in Eastern Visayas and Masbate. That is also true in Surigao, Bohol and Mindoro (maybe in Bohol many make a transfer to a Cebu plane).

I think the liners never knew what hit them. Probably they can not believe that they passengers will move from bunks to seats that taxes the butt and hurts the back. Their liners have toilets and baths and buses don’t have that. They have free food, good service (they have stewards and attendants), functioning restaurants, lounges and areas where passengers can mill around. There are even spas, discos and chapels. Yet the passengers exchanged them for seats where once can barely move. Sounds improbable, isn’t it? But that happened and not only in one place.

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And to think the bus fares are not even significantly cheaper, if it is. And there are ancillary costs like food, terminal fees, payment for using the comfort rooms of the terminals and eating places. And the perilous and embarrassing case of a sometime traveler’s diarrhea.

I once asked a lady seatmate in a bus (they are more inconvenienced as unlike males they need a true CR) from Surigao why. She said she likes the views when the bus runs, that she likes reaching places she had never been to before. Yes, on a liner you only see the sea, the seascape and some ports.

The bus passengers don’t even need to go to the ports and there be charged unfairly by the porters. And on the return trip they can stop the bus right by their gate (is there a convenience greater than that?). No need for porters again and relatives will be waiting by the gate since there is SMS now. And also in many cases the trip of the bus is shorter than the voyage of the ship. Many also think there is more risk in traveling in a ship. Courtesy of the highly-publicized sinkings like the Dona Paz and the Princess of the Stars.

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Even in places like Davao the intermodal bus was also a factor. That was also true in Iloilo and maybe Gensan also.

Those are the things that torpedoed the liners. Maybe the shipping companies never knew what hit them. Their belief is the budget airlines tripped them. That cannot be proven empirically in a lot of places. Maybe their pride is simply too high they cannot admit a lowly bus beat them.

If liners want to make a comeback they should do a real study why the passengers walked away. But I still doubt if they can really beat the intermodal bus. They are simply too ubiquitous.

The Cruel Loss of the Southern Mindanao Liner Routes

Talking here of Southern Mindanao ports, I am not only referring to Gensan (General Santos City) and Davao but also of Zamboanga and Cotabato which are technically Western Mindanao and Central Mindanao ports. But once the four were all closely interrelated as the routes through them are inter-connected. This connection also goes all the way to Iloilo port which was the intermediate port then of the Southern Mindanao liners.

In the late 1990’s, Davao had six liners to Manila per week which was about the same number Gensan and Zamboanga had. Cotabato had less as in only about two or three as it was not as big as the three other cities. Cotabato port, by the way, is actually the Polloc port in Parang, Maguindanao, a nearby town and not the river port in the city which is too shallow for liners.

I cannot believe that in just over a decade’s time from that all four ports will lose their liner connection to Manila or to Iloilo and Cebu. To think that since the Spanish times all had steamers from Manila with the exception of Gensan which was not yet existing then. Zamboanga has one ship a week now to Manila but several years ago she also lost her liner to Manila. The intermediate port of her liner now is Dumaguete and not Iloilo any more.

The slide first started when Negros Navigation Company (NENACO) shrunk operations due to financial difficulties. Among the routes they abandoned early were their routes to Southern Mindanao (but they held on to the Zamboanga route). The frequency they held was never filled up. Among that could be added to the early loss here was when Aleson Shipping Line of Zamboanga also dropped their liner route when they sold their Lady Mary Joy (not to be confused with the current Lady Mary Joy 1 which is a different ship) to the breakers because its run was not profitable.

But the big slide came when Sulpicio Lines got suspended in 2008 after of the floundering of the Princess of the Stars in a typhoon which drew international and local outcries. In the aftermath of that, stringent regulations were laid out for Sulpicio Lines in order for them to come back to passenger shipping. Only two liners were maintained by Sulpicio Lines after that and they withdrew from all routes in Southern Mindanao (among many other routes too).

I was saddened and worried by the departure of Sulpicio Lines. I know the passenger liner segment of shipping was weakening already as budget airlines and the intermodal buses were getting stronger but Sulpicio Lines is not the ordinary shipping company that will immediately withdraw from routes as soon as that route is no longer showing profit. It was one resilient liner that was actually needed then to shore up the weakening passenger liner sector.

I was apprehensive even then of that development because the only remaining liner company in Mindanao which is governed by bean counters is very fast in junking routes and in selling liners to breakers. Even when they fielded the SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21, my apprehensions were not quelled especially since I know they are fast weakening in container shipping because they have the highest rates and new challengers with lower rates are already around and challenging them.

And I was not mistaken in that apprehension because in just over a year they withdrew from Davao but still temporarily retained Gensan. But in about one or two years’ time again they withdrew from Gensan, Cotabato and Zamboanga. With that withdrawal the Iloilo-Zamboanga route was also eliminated.

At about that time, the buses for Manila leaving Ecoland terminal in Davao grew in number. It was not just Philtranco anymore but PP Bus came and soon the so-called “colorums” followed. It was not just the budget airlines that benefited from the withdrawal of the liners.

Davao was at least more fortunate because there are many Manila flights to it and there are plenty of intermodal buses to Manila. Gensan and Cotabato was not that fortunate because even though they have planes to Manila they do not have buses to Manila. Now some people are simply afraid to take flights and some do not have the identification papers needed to board planes. Some are too terrified to enter an airport because they fear losing their way around (well, I found out there were even people who do not know how to order in Jollibee) and also be exposed as stupid barrio folks. They may not really like the buses but they dislike the plane even more.

So some Cotabato folks would take the bus to Davao and transfer to the Davao-Manila bus. People from near Cotabato City also has the option to take the commuter van to Marawi-Iligan so they can take the ship there. Some can also opt for the commuter van for Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte and from there they can connect to Ozamis which both has a ship and a plane. Well, people from Davao or Cotabato province also take the bus or commuter van to Cagayan de Oro where there is also a plane and a ship.

But what kind of cruelty is that of forcing people to travel long land distances in order to catch a ship? Maybe to ameliorate that the only liner company offered tickets to Manila which included a bus ticket of Rural Transit of Mindanao to Cagayan de Oro for a ride that is 320 kilometers from Davao.

With the loss of the Southern Mindanao liners, people also lost their transport for the intermediate routes like Davao-Zamboanga, Gensan-Zamboanga and Cotabato-Zamboanga. Also lost was the intermediate route Iloilo-Zamboanga. Taking a ship then was cheap, relaxing and one disembarks freshened (after taking a bath) and probably fed and ready for the next trip. Now one has to take the plane or the very long bus or commuter van ride.

There is a Davao-Zamboanga plane but it is more expensive than the Tourist class of the former liners. There is no Gensan-Zamboanga or Cotabato-Zamboanga plane as of the present. There is a Zamboanga-Iloilo plane but not daily and it is more expensive than the former liners. Saying it is more expensive does not even include the airport terminal fee nor the airport transfer expenses.

From Zamboanga, people now take the cruel route of a Rural Transit bus up to Bacolod which takes over a day. Mind you the ordinary bus has no comfort room nor meals on board and one is tossed around for that length of time. So the meals are extra expense (it is automatically included in the ticket of Sulpicio Lines). I tell you that ride is backbreaking and it is hard to sleep because at every terminal the bus will stop, open its lights, vendors will board or hawk and there is the general shuffling of people coming up and going down. One also had to look if his luggage is already being taken down by other people.

I also take the very difficult bus-commuter van-bus ride from Davao to Zamboanga and it is backbreaking too and lasts nearly a day if via the Narciso Ramos Highway of Lanao del Sur. The trip is longer and more expensive if it is via Cagayan de Oro. All these alternatives to the ship I am mentioning are all more expensive and the wear to the body is maybe twenty times that of the ship. One reaches his destination fagged out, dehydrated, hungry and stinky.

The Gensan-Zamboanga land trip is no less arduous than the Davao-Zamboanga land trip. Look at the map and one can see the distance is almost the same. If it is via Cagayan de Misamis the distance is even greater. It is only Cotabato-Zamboanga which is a little nearer but the distance is still about 450 kilometers and the waiting time for the commuter van to leave is long as it is basically alas-puno. There is a certain minimum number of passengers before a van will leave (it will cancel the trip if filling up takes too long or the minimum is not reached). And mind you those commuter are not even airconditioned. And in the Pagadian-Zamboanga stretch, the Rural Transit bus is oh-so-slow because there is no competition. Expect up to 12 hours for a 280-kilometer route.

This is the cruel condition left to the passengers when the only remaining liner company in Southern Mindanao jilted and left them. There was a merger again later between the last two liner companies which produced 2GO but still the liners did not return and there is no hope on the horizon that they will return.

Now if only MARINA will relent and allow again some cargo or container ships to take in passengers again that will be better but I don’t see it happening. All they know is to say they are open for new liners companies applying but entering the liner business is too unattractive for all the shipping companies. There are more regulations, more investments needed including in service people and supplies, passenger can balk at delayed arrival or of anything in the service if it is below par. And if there is an accident, for sure, the press and the social media will be baying at their door.

If MARINA knows anything about liner shipping and the plight of Southern Mindanao passengers they should even encourage Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) to take in passengers because their Cargo ROROs need no modifications to carry people. But does MARINA really know anything about passenger liner shipping? They didn’t even understand that with their too strong restrictions on Sulpicio Lines they will be killing a liner company and that there won’t be a replacement anymore.

Now that is the sad fate of us Southern Mindanao passengers.

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