When Polloc Port Lost

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Photo from REZA-ARMM

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

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

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Credits to Philippine Daily Express and Gorio Belen

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

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

1980 1022 Polloc Port

Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Federalism, anyone?

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A Trip to Cebu by a Fast Van and MV St. Pope John Paul II

Once, the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) had a ship spotting meet in Cebu City, the usual venue (since Cebu has the greatest number of ships anyway in the country). I will be undertaking the trip from Davao with a fellow member of the group from Samal. As ship spotters we will be taking the ship and not the plane. We had the choices of Cagayan de Oro, Nasipit or Surigao as embarkation ports but we settled on Cagayan de Oro because our target was the ship MV St. Pope John Paul II and its luxurious Stateroom. We know we will be able to get that room cheap if we book early enough. And we were not mistaken. We were able to get that room at just above the Tourist rate.

The MV St. Pope John Paul II leaves Cagayan de Oro at 10am and if we were lucky that it is on schedule (and during that time 2GO ships were late more often than not) we might still have enough light approaching Cebu port since its ETA was 6pm and so she should be approaching Mactan island when there might still be enough light. We were hoping for some good encounters approaching Mactan.

To be able to board the ship at two hours before departure I estimated we should be able to board a bus at just past midnight in Davao Ecoland terminal. We know we won’t get to sleep much aboard a bus but we planned to make it up aboard the ship since there will still be time to sleep after making a round of the ship taking photos.

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A commuter van similar to what we rode from  Davao to CDO (Photo by Custom Cab)

We went to the bus terminal at 10pm. The bus was our first choice because my companion is afraid of the cheaper and faster commuter van (it is supposedly less safe in case of a collision). We checked the Rural Transit bus inside the terminal. They were using their high-deckers in that stretch of the night and so the fare is P640 instead of P570 (this is aircon fare). My old resistance and animosity against Rural Transit was reawakened. This bus charges high as there is no competition. I came from a deregulated region and I am used to a P500 aircon bus fare for a 380-km Naga-Manila route. The P640 was just for a distance of 320 kilometers.

I told my companion-friend that we check the commuter vans just outside the terminal (it is no longer there now, driven out as having no permit). I asked the rate. It was just P400. I told my companion that with the difference we can buy a lot of food and drinks. And so we decided to take the van but like my old style I told the dispatcher we will take the next van and please reserve the front seats for us.

Our van left at 12 midnight sharp and I was in the front seat. The van was a new Toyota Grandia and the driver is still at his peak years. We made small talk. I always do that and I also mind the quality of his driving. He was competent. There was no over-speeding or reckless driving. He was usually running just in the 100-110kph range but he was serious. No laxing off in the pace. We arrived in Valencia City after exactly two hours. We stopped because a passenger alighted and it was time for some to relieve themselves. The driver waited five minutes in case a chance passenger shows up.

I thought we will be arriving very early. At first thought we will be in Agora of Cagayan de Oro at 6am which is just time enough for breakfast and lounging (as we plan to go to the Macabalan port at 8am). Valencia is already more than halfway of our route. I observed the driver. He is not showing signs of tiredness. The pace was still the same. Our pace slowed a little in Mangima because of the road works but at 3:57am the driver pulled his parking brake lever in Agora terminal and market and we disembarked. I complimented the driver on his driving and gave my thanks and and well wishes. I always do that.

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Agora Market and Terminal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Our trip just took 3 hours and 57 minutes for the 320-kilometer stretch! That was over 80kph average speed! Now suddenly my companion realized that the buses of Mindanao are real laggards for even aircon buses take 7 hours in that stretch (to think half of the Davao-Cagayan de Oro stretch still lacks habitation and vehicles). Well, the drivers of Rural Transit are too fond of meal and coffee stops and once they see 100kph on the speedometer they back off.

We were lucky the Jollibee store in Agora was already opening. I thought swerte, me tambayan. We really need a friendly place to while away a long time. I told my companion we won’t leave the store unless they kick us out because there is no sense in going to the pier early because one can’t enter anyway and the passenger lounge which has only bucket fiberglass seats might still not be open. And I am not even sure if there is air-conditioning. I said our place is way better than the pier and at least there is activity outside.

At 6am, we called a PSSS member in Cagayan de Oro. He joined us at 7am and so it became livelier. We finally left the store before 9am after 5 hours there (and we extended profuse thanks for the hospitality). We thought our time allowance is perfect.

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Well, things does not turn out that way. We have to have our tickets xeroxed and there is no xerox nearby. It seems the ticket printed by one’s own computer is only for 2GO’s convenience. And we have to line up. These checking of persons in the terminal is just for the benefit of the Americans. It is not for our safety. If someone will bomb they will bomb anyway. And there are much easier targets like the city halls, markets, plazas and other places of gathering including the church. If I am the bomber the port and its terminal will not be my priority.

We were finally able to board and we knew the departure of the ship will be late as it was already announced before we boarded. There goes our chance of a free ship spotting approaching Mactan and Cebu. We made a tour of the ship taking pictures along the way. Our first respite was our free lunch at the separate restaurant for First Class passengers called “Horizon Cafe”. Not that very inviting. So many trainees (and they chatter). And I commented to Aris that 2GO food is just like hospital food. Just enough for one to remove his hungriness but no feeling of being full as it is not Sulpicio Lines. If we were aboard a Sulpicio ship it would have been smorgasbord since we were in First Class.

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Horizon Cafe

MV St. Pope John Paul II is also tiring to tour. The ship is longer and it has more than two passenger decks. Part of the navigation deck structure is also for the passengers and so it is also open unlike in MV St. Gregory The Great and MV St. Leo The Great where it is fenced off. And part of the upper wagon deck is also for passengers. So practically three-and-a-half decks has to be toured. One thing noticeable though for MV St. Pope John The Paul are the big rooms and other facilities not in use and it is obvious that many cabins are unoccupied.

After lunch and a few more shots we took our rest. Time for some sleep. Our Stateroom has two beds, one big and one smaller and near the door there is a divan fronting the bath. There is a cabinet for clothes and smaller cabinets for stowing away things. And a big mirror. The appointments are really for multi-day voyages. The air-conditioning’s cold was just okay although I wanted it a little cooler. What’s the use of a good blanket anyway?

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Stateroom (on the right is the bigger bed)

We woke up at about 4pm (but I really did not sleep much) and again made a round of the ship. It was cooler already and we know we will be up and about until the ship reaches Cebu. And that is one that fags me out a little since it means two hours of so of milling around and taking shots. As we expected approaching Mactan the light was no longer enough for good shots. The price of being late.

Although there were some disappointments, over-all we enjoyed our ride aboard MV St. Pope John Paul II. The Stateroom for the price we paid was treat enough. The ship was still a good ship, not rundown and it was clean and inviting, the main restaurant had plenty of offerings and the service crew tries a lot. Even the restaurant crew are hard-trying. 

We then disembarked in Cebu International Port. Being dark already the shots are also limited. We made our way outside the port and soon hailed a taxi. We will be staying at Mariners’ Court which we expect will be a good vantage point. It did not disappoint. And nor did the ship spotting tours with the group that happened in the next few days.

The Sea Connections of Camiguin and the Ferries From Balingoan

Camiguin, which is a medium-sized island off the coast of northern Misamis and which lies south of Bohol is a province that was once part of the province of Misamis Oriental before it became a separate province in the 1970’s. Camiguin was once a prosperous island and even more prosperous than Cagayan de Misamis during the first peak of copra and coconut oil during World War I and the period right after that. Maybe the reason was because the sea lanes there was more defensible in the late period of Moro attacks when the Mindanao interior was not yet open and so it became more developed first. And being nearer to Cebu might have also helped.

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Photo by Michael Denne

However, when the interior of Mindanao was opened for exploitation and Cagayan de Misamis bloomed, Camiguin slowly became a backwater. If Camiguin is still known today it’s maybe because of its lanzones which is probably the best in the entire Philippines (I hail from Luzon and I will say it easily beats the Paete lanzones). In recent decades, however, Camiguin’s tourism boomed. It is a destination place now like Siargao and Samal. These are the three islands of Mindanao that glitters in the tourists’ minds (why is it that islands are the tourist meccas?).

Per capita, Camiguin has the most number of ferry crossings in a day next only to Samal. Some islands like Mindoro are sky high in this count but if divided by the population then Camiguin will still be ahead. Of all the other islands maybe only Guimaras can tie with Camiguin in this statistic. I intentionally did not count Mactan because it is an unusual case and there is no RORO connecting it to Cebu. I also omitted Boracay which is also a unique case.

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Photo by Travis Break

Camiguin’s main connection to the outside world to the town of Balingoan in Misamis Oriental. Once, it has two ports having connection to that port, the Guinsiliban and Benoni ports but lately only Benoni still has a connection to Balingoan. Besides the Balingoan connection, Camiguin also has a daily connection to Jagna town in Bohol which is served by Asian Marine Transport Corporation. Its ferries leave Balbagon port in Mambajao in the morning and the return trip will be after midday and arriving again in Mambajao in the late afternoon.

Asian Marine Transport Corporation also has a weekly Cebu-Mambajao connection leaving Cebu Friday night and arriving Saturday morning which will then depart Mambajao Sunday night. The Camiguin connection to Cebu is no longer strong because people of Camiguin already treats Cagayan de Oro as their commercial and trading center. In this way, Camiguin really belongs to Mindanao.

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Kalinaw and Yuhum by Bemes Lee Mondia

The Jagna-Mambajao connection is stronger. The proof is a daily connection can be sustained. The reasons are many. For some the Cebu-Bohol-Camiguin-Balingoan connection is the best way to get a vehicle across as the overnight ferries connecting Cebu and Cagayan de Oro do not stress that and thus rates are high. For Bol-anons in Mindanao this is an alternate way to visit their province. And there is maybe enough trade and people crossing between the two islands. The two islands actually had been connected for so long already.

There are many ferries connecting Balingoan and Benoni ranging from basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs to steel-hulled motor launches. The trips start from dawn and lasts up to dusk with an interval of about an hour or even less. The crossing times vary slight with about an hour or less being the normal. Fares are on the cheap side, just like a bus and so people from both directions just cross either to take a vacation or from the other side to make pasyal or laag in Cagayan de Oro and shop and visit. Many families in Camiguin also have sons and daughters studying in Cagayan de Oro.

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Royal Princess by Bemes Lee Mondia

Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) is the strongest ferry serving the route to Balingoan. Usually their Super Shuttle Ferry 1, Super Shuttle Ferry 6 and Super Shuttle Ferry 9 alternates in the route. All are basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs. ROROs are superior in this routes as there are a lot of vehicles crossing and rolling cargo earns much more than passenger revenues. It seems the coming of AMTC practically sealed the fate of the old but once fine cruisers of Camiguin, the Camiguin Oro and Jagna Oro which both belonged to Sea Jade Express which are both gone now. Also gone were the cruisers of Tamula Shipping.

Among the locals fighting AMTC are Philstone Shipping Corporation, Davemyr Shipping and Hijos de Juan Corrales. Philstone is the strongest of the three with three ferries, the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs Kalinaw and Yuhum and the small cruiser Royal Princess. Meanwhile, Davemyr Shipping operates the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO Dona Pepita. Hijos de Juan Corrales operates the ancient but still good motor launch Hijos-1, the longest-serving steel-hulled ferry in the route.

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Dona Pepita by Joel Bado

The ferries of Camiguin in the south are all small. Maybe because of the small population it is the only size that can be maintained there without the passengers waiting too long for the vessel to depart. However, small size also has its negative. In a strong swell that sometimes visit the strait separating Camiguin from Mindanao, when hit broadside these ferries suffer along with the passengers. This is true when there is a storm somewhere or when the monsoons are acting up or simply when the barometer is low and the wind is blowing hard.

Before, Camiguin also had High Speed Craft (HSC) connections. Pioneer was the Paras Sea Cat which had a daily Cagayan-Mambajao-Jagna route. Oceanjet also tried a Balingoan-Benoni-Jagna route. The two quit and both did not come back. Maybe they found out that the demand for premium service to Camiguin is highly seasonal. For a very short route, the locals do not take too much to the HSCs which has double the fares for so little a time-saving. Ironically, it was Oceanjet which was the buyer of the Paras Sea Cat.

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Hijos-1 by Janjan Salas

So aside from the ferries from Jagna and Cebu, Camiguin has 8 ferries on the south side connecting to Balingoan. Not a bad number for an island of Camiguin’s size and population.

Camiguin is not a backwater anymore.

The Ferry Routes of Sulpicio Lines and the Assignments of Its Ships

Among the local liner shipping companies before, it was Sulpicio Lines which was known for an almost unvarying schedules and routes. For nearly 15 years until they were suspended from sailing by MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) because of the capsizing of the MV Princess of the Stars off Sibuyan Island, their schedules were almost the same. The only significant change was when the MV Princess of Unity arrived in the country in 1999 and Sulpicio Lines created an entirely new route for her, the Manila-Cebu-Davao-Dadiangas (General Santos City) route. But this route was permanently gone in 2005. For a time, Sulpicio Lines also gave MV Manila Princess a route similar to the MV Maynilad (Manila-Zamboanga-Davao route). But she did not last as they can never make it engines reliable enough.

With an unvarying route, Sulpicio Lines does not need to advertise in the national and local papers unlike her main competitor WG&A Philippines (later the Aboitiz Transport System or ATS) which always changed assignments and schedules. Passengers know which day there is a Sulpicio ship in their area and what is the hour of departure. They just go to the port as Sulpicio Lines does not practice the online booking system. The only failure would be then was if the scheduled ship is on drydock. However, if a suitable reserve ship is available, Sulpicio Lines will still run the route and schedule. And that was one of the functions of their MV Manila Princess then, to relieve ships going to the drydock.

Princesses

Folio credit: Ken Ledesma

The queen route of Sulpicio Lines was the Manila-Cebu route. This was the route where they field their flagship and that runs twice a week (so that means plenty of interport hours for the ship). Many of her passengers are still bound to the other islands including Mindanao and so they still transfer ships. Some of them do after shopping in SM Cebu or in Colon. Or some leave their belongings somewhere and go to Carbon Market. SM Cebu, Colon and Carbon are all just near Cebu port.

Conversely, some of the passengers of the ship going to Manila are from the other islands including Mindanao. Cebu Port is actually a great connecting port. In a hub-and-spoke model, Cebu Port is the hub and the routes emanating from her as the spokes.

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

In these nearly 15 years, three ships served as the flagship holding the Manila-Cebu route. The first was the MV Princess of the Orient starting in 1993 when she arrived in the country. She replaced the old flagship which was the MV Filipina Princess. However, on 1998, Princess of the Orient sank in a storm off the coast of Cavite. The MV Princess of the Universe then replaced her on the route and she held the route until 2004 when MV Princess of the Stars arrived.

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Going back to a more distant past, it was in 1975 when Sulpicio Lines adopted an exclusive Manila-Cebu route in the mold of MV Sweet Faith and MV Cebu City when it fielded the MV Don Sulpicio came (this ship was more known by her latter name – MV Dona Paz of the sinking infamy). When MV Don Sulpicio was hit by a fire while sailing (and beached), the MV Dona Ana replaced her on the route (this ship was also more known by her latter name – MV Dona Marilyn of the foundering infamy near Maripipi island). When the MV Philippine Princess arrived in 1981 she took over the Manila-Cebu route until MV Filipina Princess displaced her in 1988.

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The next most important route for Sulpicio Lines in this period was the route held by the MV Princess of Paradise, the fastest liner in the country for about a decade or so. She held the Cagayan de Oro route and she sails to that port twice a week. One was a direct voyage and only taking 25 hours for the 512-nautical mile route. On the way back to Manila, she calls on Cebu. Her next voyage in the same week will be a one that will call first in Cebu and Nasipit before going to Cagayan de Oro. From Cagayan de Oro she will do a direct voyage to Manila.

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Photo credits: Sulpicio Lines and Josel Bado

The third most important route for the company during this time was the Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Davao route held by the big and former flagship MV Filipina Princess. This route has rough waters during the ‘amihan’ (the northeast monsoon) but it seems with her sailing ability she was just fit for this route. Being just run once a week she has long lay-overs in Cebu Port especially on her way back to Manila where she stays overnight. These long lay-overs was one of the characteristics of Sulpicio Lines and passengers appreciate this because they are given time to visit relatives and to shop. As for me, I welcome it as it gives me a chance for “free tourism” (as I don’t have to spend to reach the place and if I am already tired and sweaty I can go back to the ship and partake of its free meals, too).

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

The next most important route of Sulpicio Lines after this was the weekly Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas route, a route that does not pass through Cebu but nevertheless calling on three regional centers of trade and commerce. In the Philippines, the routes passing through Iloilo are the next most important after the routes passing through Cebu. Three ships held this route for Sulpicio Lines. The first was the MV Princess of the Pacific. After she grounded on an islet off Antique in 2004 which resulted in comprehensive total loss (CTL), she was replaced by the MV Princess of the World. Later, when she was destroyed by fire the MV Princess of the South held this route. Except for MV Princess of the World, in terms of size, these ships were already a notch below the ships that served the first three routes, an indication of the relative difference of the central routes via Cebu and the western routes via Iloilo. Their speed too is also no longer in the 20-knot range of the ships in the first three routes (except MV Princess of the World).

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

After the four come the relatively minor ships and routes of Sulpicio Lines (although the route held by MV Cotabato Princess does not look minor). And I will start first with that. MV Cotabato Princess held the Manila-Estancia-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route. Actually, the liners from Manila does not dock in Cotabato Port which is a shallow river port. Instead, they dock in Polloc Port in Parang, Maguindanao, a significant distance away. This route has long lay-overs, too. Since there are plenty of marang, durian and lanzones in Zamboanga, enterprising passengers will bring in those fruits and sell to the passengers while sailing. It will be sold out by the time the ship is docking in Manila. So that there will be no restrictions they will also give the crew and the captain their shares. Estancia, meanwhile, is known for its abundant fish supply.

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

The next most important route after this was the weekly Manila-Dumaguete-Ozamis-Cebu route. Upon reaching Ozamis, the ship still goes to Cebu and comes back the same day in the evening after the arrival. In this way, the Sulpicio Lines ship also serves as a Visayas-Mindanao overnight ship but she has only a few passengers in this role. Since this route was a chopped version of the former route that still calls on Cagayan de Oro (dropped when MV Princess of Paradise arrived), she has two overnight lay-overs in Dumaguete which was nice. Adventurous passengers use that chance to roam the famous Dumaguete Boulevard. Two Sulpicio ferries served this route. The first was the old flagship MV Philippine Princess. When she burned in 1997 (in a drydock), the MV Princess of the Caribbean replaced her. Both ships are cruisers.

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I do not know the next most important route of Sulpicio Lines. All were weekly and all seems not to be priority routes. Here, the older and lesser ships of Sulpicio Lines were concentrated.

I might start with the near-parallel route of where MV Princess of Caribbean served. Incidentally, they depart Manila simultaneously. The ship on this route was the MV Dipolog Princess and from Manila it goes first to Tagbilaran, then Dipolog (actually Dapitan) before proceeding to Iligan and Cebu and she will retrace the route. Like the MV Princess of Caribbean she was also assigned an overnight Visayas-Mindanao route. She has even less passengers in this role. She has also long lay-overs but not overnight ones. This ship and route functioned as the ride of the Bol-anons in Lanao to their home province. This was not actually a strong route as the voyage takes too long and the ship was no longer at par with the good standards of the era. Many in Lanao just take the ferry to Cagayan de Oro and take the bus. That was also true for passengers from Manila.

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Photo credit: Joe Cardenas

I would rather next discuss the route to Palawan before discussing the routes that hook eastward. Sulpicio Lines has also the route to Puerto Princesa via Coron. It was the MV Iloilo Princess that was assigned there. But if there is a vacancy in the other routes, the ship has the tendency to leave Palawan and substitute. MV Iloilo Princess was also not that reliable as her engines were balky and I heard that only one chief engineer, the most senior, had a good feel for her engines. When MV Iloilo Princess burned in a shipyard in 2003 there was no replacement on the route any longer.

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Photo credit: Gorio Belen

The next route was a route that has permanence. It was the “longest” route in the company which means it had the most ports of call, a type which was a remnant of the routes of the past when express liners were just few, the roads were still bad and shipping companies try to call on most ports possible for increased revenues. This was the Manila-Masbate-Calubian-Baybay-Maasin-Surigao route. This was even the chopped version (it was up to Butuan in the old past) so it might be a surprise to some. Calubian was a port of call because of the emotional attachment of the owners to it (they started somewhere near there) although it has lost all significance. The MV Palawan Princess mainly held this route after she was displaced in the route to Ozamis. It had no airconditioned accommodations and the general arrangement plan was much like an ex-FS ship although she was bigger. She was the oldest liner then (not really a liner but a passenger-cargo ship). Her alternate was the much better MV Surigao Princess. But she cannot hold the route for long because of problematic engines. Too bad because though small her accommodations are up to Suite level (what a contrast with MV Palawan Princess). MV Surigao Princess was gone in 2003 when she was broken up.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

Surigao Princess

Photo credit: Edison Sy

The next route and ship were remarkable because they were able to hold on to the route when her era was already over because of the coming of the intermodal transport. The route was the Manila-Masbate-Ormoc-Cebu route. No, you can’t buy a Manila-Cebu ticket for this ship. You would have to pay extra for the Ormoc-Cebu leg which functions as an overnight route (in the MV Princess of the Caribbean and MV Dipolog Princess one can’t also ask for a ticket up to Cebu from Manila). There were long lay-overs too in Masbate and Ormoc. Even when the intermodal was already ruling, the MV Cebu Princess still soldiered on in this route because Sulpicio Lines simply won’t send ships to breakers as long as it was still capable of sailing.

The last liner route of Sulpicio Lines was a route that changed, was cropped within the period I am discussing (the other I mentioned that were cropped were cropped before this period). This was the route of the MV Tacloban Princess. Originally, she had a twice weekly route to Tacloban with one of that passing by Catbalogan. But with the loss of passengers and cargo to the buses and trucks, they dropped Catbalogan. For a time she even stopped sailing the Tacloban route (just too many buses here and also trucks especially trucks going back to Manila looking for a load). There was a time Sulpicio Lines combined her route with the route of MV Cebu Princess. Sulpicio Lines simply does not give up on a route and area. And that characteristic was the one lost by Philippine shipping (and that was irreplaceable) when they went out of ferry business because the other competitor was known for dropping routes in a minute because bean counters ruled there.

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Photo credit: John Carlos Cabanillas

Aside from these liner routes, Sulpicio Lines also had dedicated overnight ferry routes and ships. For the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro overnight route they used two ships. The first was the MV Cagayan Princess. But when the competition heated up in this route they fielded the new liner MV Princess of the Ocean. After she was assigned there, nobody can outgun Sulpicio Lines in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro overnight route in size and speed (well, even in the prestigious and premier Manila-Cebu route, Sulpicio Lines does not want to be outmatched).

And for the Cebu-Nasipit overnight ferry route, they have the MV Nasipit Princess at the start. But she does not sail in most days as its engines were really bad. When MV Princess of the Ocean was assigned in the Cagayan de Oro overnight route, the MV Cagayan Princess was assigned the primary duty in the Nasipit overnight route. In 2005 the MV Princess of the Earth came and she relieved the MV Cagayan Princess which was then brought to a new route, the overnight ferry route to Naval, Biliran. The Nasipit (Butuan in Sulpicio Lines parlance) overnight ferry route was one overnight route that Sulpicio Lines dominated in this era as the competition was inconsistent (sometimes there were ships, sometimes there were none).

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In 2008, Sulpicio Lines was suspended from sailing in the aftermath of the MV Princess of the Stars tragedy. Three ferries, the MV Cebu Princess, the MV Cagayan Princess and the MV Tacloban City were sold off immediately to raise cash (and I knew then that the routes that hooks eastward and the most threatened by the intermodal will be finally lost). A few ships were allowed to sail thereafter but MV Cotabato Princess quit soon. Meanwhile the Sulpicio Lines fleet languished in Mactan Channel.

One by one the laid-up ships were sold to the breakers starting with the MV Princess of Paradise and MV Palawan Princess. This was followed by the MV Cotabato Princess. I guess they were trying to raise cash for settlement and other expenses by these disposals and also to amass cash for the purchase of new cargo ships. They had then two ships sailing, the MV Princess of the South which was holding the Manila-Cebu route and the MV Princess of the Earth which was sailing the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route with a diversion to Nasipit twice a week.

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There were five ships then in Mactan Channel and in their wharf in Pier 7 in Mandaue. These were the MV Princess of the Universe, the MV Filipina Princess, the MV Princess of the Ocean, the MV Princess of the Caribbean and the MV Dipolog Princess. It is as if Sulpicio Lines was still waiting for a favorable turn of events in the greatest crisis of their company when public opinion was very much against them. But in one fell swoop they sold the five laid-up ships to the breakers. Maybe for emotional reasons the departures happened in the night.

Laid up three years those ships already deteriorated especially they were in sea water. Every year not used the budget needed to get them going again mounts. And the hope that the government and MARINA will relent on restrictions seemed to have evaporated. Being politicians, they would rather feed off on uninformed public opinion. Having no understanding of the maritime industry, they did not know they were killing the already threatened liner sector. Along this time PSACC (Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation – the new name of Sulpicio Lines) reached the decision to just concentrate on container shipping.

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In 2014, Sulpicio Lines sold their last two ferries, the MV Princess of the Earth and lastly, the MV Princess of the South. Now they are gone from passenger shipping. And when PSACC had already sold their last liners, MARINA withdrew their passenger license. Funny.

Ironic but the government is now encouraging entrants to this sector. But definitely there would be no takers as the viability of liners has changed and they have killed the most interested and most loyal shipping company in this sector. As the saying goes, “The medicine was too strong that it killed the horse”. That is what they did to Sulpicio Lines. The company will still survive in cargo shipping but the dedicated sea passengers have no more liners to sail with. Sad.

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The Princess of Paradise

In the liner history of the Philippines, there have been ships that were remembered for their sheer speed. One such liner was the “Princess of Paradise” of Sulpicio Lines which was the “Speed Queen” of liners from 1993 until the early 2000s. She was capable of over 21 knots sustained and bursts of up to 23 knots. In the Manila-Cagayan de Oro route her 25 hours transit time for the 513 nautical miles distance was unsurpassed and neither was her time of 19.5 hours for the Manila-Cebu route from 1993 (although the record holder here was the “Filipina Princess”, also of Sulpicio Lines, which was capable of up to 25 knots when she was still new here). She might also be the record holder for the Cagayan de Oro-Cebu and Cebu-Nasipit routes which she can do in just a little over 6 hours each.

Many simply remember “Princess of Paradise” for her speed and not knowing she also stands out in other areas among liners. I was a frequent passenger of “Princess of Paradise” and one of the things that impressed me with her was her abundance of amenities and facilities. She probably has the most number of decks among liners that were usable for the passengers with six. She had four full passenger decks plus a weather deck that also serves as a promenade area which also has a playground. The sixth deck was a dance floor and kiosk at the car deck and that unique location was accessible either by stairs or by elevator. In size, she was actually one of the biggest and longest liners to sail our seas.

Princess of Paradise ©Sulpicio Lines Website

One of the prominent features I found in the “Princess of Paradise” was the restaurant for the Economy Section passengers. It was very big which the size of several basketball courts was. It could seat over 500 but since “Princess of Paradise” has a huge passenger capacity, several meal schedules have to be held and priority is by bunk number. Until this day, I can still remember the long lines that form in that restaurant (and the roving steward calling passengers for meals by going around and ringing a bell like those used by ice cream vendors). But passengers can live up with the queue and I guess part of the reason was the tasty meals of Sulpicio Lines which was combined with its unique offering of “unlimited rice”. As long as one has a big tummy capacity one will never go hungry in a Sulpicio ship.

The meals for Tourist Class passengers were served in the big theater-restaurant which was never filled because of its sheer size. It was a nice place, dignified in ambience and not cheap-looking. To me it looks like the area also served as a ballroom in the past with its chandeliers and high ceiling. It was also “unlimited rice” here and waiters rove around asking if one wishes for additional rice. Soup and dessert were always provided and refills of the former were free. Meanwhile, the meals for First Class passengers were served in a smaller restaurant at the uppermost passenger deck which also served as bar and disco. Here the meals were smorgasbord as in “eat all you can”. One can take a whole bowl of salad and the waiters will refill it with a smile. I have always felt the meals alone in First Class were already worth the half the fare if the voyage was via the longer Cebu and Nasipit route.

First Class Restaurant ©Wakanatsu

Aside from the lobby and the foyer above it, the “Princess of Paradise” also has many areas where passengers can while the time and shoot the breeze. One of that was located near the First Class restaurant which was called the “Garden of Eden”. As the name suggests it has a garden setting with tables and artificial trellises to keep out the sun but like in a garden setting raindrops will fall if rain is pouring. There was also a promenade area near the bow and there was a library on the way to that. The outside passageways are also favorite hanging-out places for many passengers. Additionally, the Economy restaurant also doubles as a tambayan or hang-out area. There was also a game room, a beauty parlor, a gift shop, magazine and book for rent corner and many kiosks aboard the ship. The lobby itself is wide with cozy sofas. And there was also the “Lillium Lounge” for upper class passengers.

For entertainment the bar near the theater-restaurant was open as long as there were still customers and I have seen it at times still going strong at 4am in the morning. The theater-restaurant also serves as a night entertainment place after dinner time (the tables were actually different from those used during meals). On half of the times I was aboard there was a live band with singers. To request a song one passes a paper with a bill folded but this was optional. While the night entertainment is going on waiters will be prowling for orders and serving. What I noticed aboard ships is even though hard and mixed drinks are served there is no unruliness. If one gets too loud the hissing of other patrons was enough for all to be reminded of proper decorum.

Princess of Paradise Facilities ©Gorio Belen

My most memorable night there was when a female singer who was based in Japan for many years asked to sing for the crowd and she was really very good and impressive. The hat was overfull of bills and she simply gave it to the band and the singers which were ecstatic with that. She did not take any explaining that she sang for the Japanese for years and really just wished to sing for her kababayans and she serenaded us for two solid hours with the introduction, “Para sa mga kababayan ko”.

“Princess of Paradise” started life as the “Hiryu” in Japan. She was launched on June of 1974 and completed on December of 1974. Her builder was Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and she was built in their Shimoneseki yard. She measured 166.7 meters length over-all (LOA) with a moulded breadth of 22.0 meters. Her original gross register tonnage (GRT) was 8,156 and her deadweight tonnage (DWT) was 2,947. She was equipped with two Mitsubishi-MAN diesel engines of 32,000 horsepower which gave her an original speed of 25 knots. She had two controllable pitch propellers (CPPs). In 1985, she was sold to China where she became the “Jian Zhen”. In 1993, she came to the Philippines to Sulpicio Lines.

Hiryu(future Princess of Paradise) ©Wakanatsu

“Princess of Paradise” was equipped with two vehicle ramps, one at the front quarter and one at the rear quarter, both on the starboard, allowing her loading and unloading operations at the same time. She had a RORO capacity of 129 TEUs and 79 cars. Her new Gross Tonnage (GT) was 14,162 and her Net Tonnage (NT) was 4,927. She had a Depth of 13.2 meters making her a very stable ship and I can attest to that that she is barely affected in Panay Gulf even though the wind is blowing hard on her port side.

As a Sulpicio liner, additional decks were added to her and her passenger capacity was increased to 3,259 persons. Her accommodation classes were divided into Royal Suite, Suite, First Class Cabin, Cabin w/o T&B, Tourist de Luxe, Tourist, Economy De Luxe and Economy. All were air-conditioned except for the Economy. The suite and cabin classes were entitled to the smorgasbord first class dining. The Royal Suite, however, were not for the mere mortals and were reserved for the rich Chinese of Cebu. Several times I tried to book that on the first morning of the two-weeks-before reservation window only to be told each time, “Fully booked”.

Princess of Paradise Folio ©John Michael Aringay

For the record, “Princess of Paradise” was just one of three liners ever in the Philippines that had a capacity of over 3,000 persons (the other were “Princess of the Orient” and “Princess of the Universe”). She was also just one of three liver ever in the country that had engines of over 30,000 horsepower (the others were “Mary Queen of Peace” and “Filipina Princess”).

Her route ever since she was fielded was Manila-Cagayan de Oro-Cebu-Manila-Cebu-Nasipit-Cagayan de Oro-Manila every week. She was one rare liner which did just one route on her entire service in our seas. In the early 2000’s, she had some engine troubles and after repair she was no longer as fast as before and her speed was exceeded by some of the newly-fielded liners but not by much.

Her liner days suddenly ended on June of 2008 when the flagship “Princess of the Stars” of her company capsized in a strong typhoon resulting in a hideous casualty count. With the tremendous public uproar, all the liners of the company were subsequently suspended from sailing and tough conditions were attached for the company to continue passenger operations. In this development, “Princess of Paradise” never sailed again and was just laid up in Pier 7 in Mandaue together with other ships of the Sulpicio Lines fleet.

Princess of Paradise at Cebu Pier Siete ©Aristotle Refugio

One night late in 2009 she quietly disappeared from her Mandaue anchorage. Many hopefully thought she was just in a shipyard somewhere for refitting. But time passed and she was never seen again. Much later, the confirmation came that she was broken up in Xinhui, China on December of 2009.

“Princess of Paradise” was part of the carnage of Sulpicio liners in the aftermath of the loss of the “Princess of the Stars” and the subsequent suspension of the Sulpicio liners. This incident lowered by nearly half our liner fleet and many routes were lost in the aftermath which were never restored again. As of today, there are no more Sulpicio passenger ships left.

Princess of Paradise at Mactan Channel ©Wakanatsu and Toshihiko Mikami