The Passenger-Cruiser Shipping Company That Won’t Sink

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It is really true that nowadays a cruiser ship really can’t compete with a RORO ship. Since cargo is the main source of revenue and loading vehicles is the biggest source of revenue, it cannot be overemphasized that the loose cargo loaded on cruiser ships will seem paltry compared to what can be loaded by a RORO ship. The cargo holds of cruiser ships are actually even smaller than that of the car/cargo decks of RORO ships. Plus, a RORO ship can load and unload faster as they can use forklifts while in cruisers it is still mano-mano. I am talking here mainly of overnight ships.

In Cebu, I noticed there are only three ferry companies still operating an all-cruiser fleet – Lapu-Lapu Shipping Lines, Gabisan Lines (and Gabisan has already acquired ROROs which are not sailing yet as of the time of the writing of this article) and South Pacific Transport Company. In Zamboanga, the ratio of cruiser ships to the whole ferry fleet is better as Zamboanga is still a cruiser ship stronghold if Moro boats are included in the count. In all other places of the country, the cruiser ships are a dying breed. They are just following the wakes of the motor boats (the lanchas and batels) into obsolescence and death.

Outside of Zamboanga, there are no more cruiser ships that arrived in the recent years. In Cebu, the last time one was launched was when the former cruiser ship Honey was remodeled to become the Lapu-lapu Ferry 8. Meanwhile, LCTs just keep on multiplying in Cebu and LCTs whether it is just pure cargo or ROPAX are also ROROs.

The three mentioned cruiser shipping companies in Cebu won’t probably sink anytime soon. They are after all the survivors now and all are resilient. But one, the last-mentioned, the South Pacific Transport is the one that will not sink in any event. The reason? The owner of South Pacific Transport is an established shipyard in Tayud, the Fortune ShipWorks which also owns a cargo shipping company, the Fortune Sea Carrier, Inc.

South Pacific Transport has only two ships, the South Pacific and the Fiji – II and both are small cruiser ships. Fortune ShipWorks, the main company, were the builders of the two. The ships have only one route, the Cebu-Bato (Leyte) route and the two ships alternate to maintain a daily voyage. A few years ago, South Pacific Transport tried a route to Cabalian (Southern Leyte) but it did not last long. The van and bus extensions to Cabalian and beyond of the competing ferries to Hilongos can no longer be beaten.

South Pacific was the first one to be built, in 1975. This ferry measures 38.5 meters by 7.3 meters by 2.2 meters with a gross tonnage of 230. Her net tonnage is 115 and the DWT is 300 tons. The passenger capacity is 302 spread over two passenger decks. This ship is an overnight ferry with bunks in just a single Economy class. The amenities are basic but the fare is cheap.

The ship has a raked stem and a cruiser stern with just one mast and a single funnel. The South Pacific is powered by a single Isuzu marine engine of 500 horsepower and the ship has a top speed of 13 knots. The permanent ID of the ship is IMO 8428002 and her Call Sign is DYFQ. She has no MMSI Number.

Meanwhile, Fiji – II came in 1982. She measures 37.9 meters by 6.7 meters by 2.9 meters and her gross tonnage is just 180. The ship has a net tonnage of 111. Her passenger capacity is 300 which is almost the same as that of South Pacific and that is also spread over two decks. The ship as an overnight ferry is also equipped with bunks in a single, no-frills Economy class.

The two ships have similarities in the superstructures and like the South Pacific the Fiji – II has a raked stem, a cruiser stern and a single mast and funnel. However, this ship is equipped by a single 500-hp Cummins engine which gives the same top speed of 13 knots. The permanent ID of Fiji – II is IMO 8426221 and her Call Sign is DUH2039. Like the South Pacific she has no MMSI Number.

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The two ships are still very reliable and still has enough patronage although they are under pressure now by the bigger ship of competitor Medallion Transport, the Lady of All Nations. Two shipping companies can be accommodated by the small town and port of Bato because many of the passengers there are still going to the many other towns of Southern Leyte.

Although Maasin is officially the gateway port of the province, in actuality it is Bato and a port north of Bato, the Hilongos port which are the actual gateways of Southern Leyte. The reason is the shorter distance to Cebu plus the presence of the shortcut mountain road from Bato to Tomas Oppus town of Southern Leyte which brings the passengers faster by vans and buses to the towns along Sogod Bay and beyond. This combination of ferry and van actually sunk the ports of Sogod, Liloan and Cabalian which once had direct connections by ferry to Cebu, their main commercial and educational center.

Maybe such characteristic of Bato helps preserve the viability of South Pacific Transport to Bato when the like of Maypalad Shipping which had routes to Sogod and Liloan had already given up a few years ago. The ship to Cabalian has been gone much earlier.

Will South Pacific Transport last? An officer of theirs told me their ships will sail as long as the owners want them to for they have no problem in maintenance as they have their own shipyard. And also implied maybe is the owners have other sources of revenues like the other shipping company.

Will South Pacific Transport junk their cruisers and get ROROs in place of them? Now only the owners of the company can answer that, of course. Whatever, there is no question that they can afford to buy ROROs because as shown in their cargo ships, they can continuously buy additional ones.

I just hope Southern Pacific Transport don’t give up their cruisers and continue to maintain them sailing even for the memories and for history’s sake.

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The Last Stand of Compania Maritima

In the postwar years, Compania Maritima stressed routes going to southern and western Mindanao (because ships going to southern Mindanao dock in Zamboanga first). It was easy for them since they had liners bigger than former “FS” ships, a luxury not available to their competitors and they had more ships (which is needed since the route were long and takes time to come back). That period Compania Maritima was the biggest shipping company in the Philippines and half of their fleet were big ships. In terms of big ships, they then had the most in the country.

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Photo credits: Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen

Most ships running the southern Mindanao routes were former “FS” ships which were once small cargo ships of the US Army in World War II. In those routes, Compania Maritima were using former passenger-cargo ships from Europe and there was a whale of a difference between those and the former “FS” ships. The extra space and speed matters a lot and smaller ships were simply more bouncy in inclement weather or when the monsoons are blowing hard.

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Their competitors William Lines and Go Thong were just using former “FS” ships in the route and in the case of the latter it was even using lengthened ex-”F” ships. PSNC (Philippine Steam and Navigation Co.) meanwhile has mixed ex-”FS” and ex-C1-M-AV1” ships in the southern Mindanao routes. In 1955, when Everett Steamship’s duo of brand-new luxury liners which were sister ships arrived, the Legazpi and the Elcano, PSNC withdrew the former “C1-M-AV1” ships in the Davao route (Everett SS was then operating through PSNC in partnership with Aboitiz Shipping Corporation).

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A former ex-“C1-M-AV1” ship (Photo credits: Phil. Herald and Gorio Belen)

Compania Maritima was dominant in the southern Mindanao routes because their ships were simply bigger, better and faster. Their only worthy competition were the Legazpi and Elcano but still their ships which were former European passenger-cargo ships were bigger than those and has more cargo capacity, an important feature then since more cargo meant more revenue.

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(Photo credits: Phil. Herald and Gorio Belen)

In those routes to the south, Compania Maritima followed what was in vogue or normal then, that is the ships pass so many intermediate ports (as in up to six) and Cebu or Iloilo will be one of them. The ships will then dock in other Visayan ports like Tagbilaran, Dumaguete or Pulupandan or northern Mindanao ports like Cagayan de Oro, Iligan or Ozamis, among others. In the early ’70’s, Sweet Lines pioneered the route through the eastern seaboard of Mindanao. But just the same their ships docked first in Visayas ports.

That was the reason why ships then took nearly two weeks to complete a voyage and two ships had to alternate in serving a route to southern Mindanao so a weekly schedule can be maintained. Most had Davao as end port and some had Gensan as end port. Those still going to Davao usually docked also in Gensan (it was called Dadiangas then). A few ships had Cotabato as the end port (it was actually the Polloc port in Parang, Cotabato).

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MV Dona Ana (Wikimedia Commons)

However, in 1976, the new paradigm, that of fast cruiser liners came also to Mindanao. Bringers of it were Sulpicio Lines with the Dona Ana and William Lines with the Manila City. These fast ships only took three days to Davao compared to the six days of the liners before. These new ships only had one intermediate stop, Cebu for Sulpicio Lines and Zamboanga for William Lines. Fast cruisers of that era meant a ship can do 18 knots sustained. These fast cruisers had prompt departures and usually they will arrive at the posted ETA.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

Aside from the Dona Ana, Sulpicio Lines also introduced small passenger-cargo ships with direct Davao sailings and these ships only took five days for the voyage. In 1978, Sulpicio Lines introduced the fast cruiser liners Don Enrique and Don Eusebio to Southern Mindanao routes. Even with these fieldings, Sulpicio Lines and William Lines maintained their old ships with multiple intermediate ports which took six days and with two ships alternating. But passengers who can’t afford or who don’t want to take the plane suddenly has a faster and more luxurious passage. These moves of Sulpicio Lines and William Lines put a lot of pressure on the other operators.

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Photo credit: Gorio Belen

These new liners of Sulpicio Lines and William Lines, being fast and taking fewer days forced changes in the sailings of the other companies. Sweet Lines then assigned three ships rotating to the Davao route and by using the shorter eastern seaboard route and with just one intermediate port was capable of reaching Davao in 4 days. Sweet Lines cannot match Sulpicio Lines and William Lines because they have no fast cruiser liners (they will try to match in 1983 when they acquired the fast RORO liner Sweet RORO 2).

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Photo credit: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

The combined Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) and Lorenzo Shipping Company tried a new tack. They simply dropped passenger service to Davao and offered direct cargo sailings (hence, their ships can almost match the sailing times of the Sulpicio and William fast cruisers). Aboitiz Shipping Corporation meanwhile had already dropped Davao and Gensan even before and their ships were sailing up to Pagadian only (which they will also relinquish and abandon southern Mindanao). The other liner companies were not involved in this battle like Escano Lines, Negros Navigation and the minor liner companies because they had no southern Mindanao nor western Mindanao routes even before.

Compania Maritima which like the others used doubling of ships to Davao or Gensan also used the approach of Sweet Lines, that is to triple the ships in a Davao route so their sailings time will be reduced to four days. Their ships are faster than Sweet Lines’ but although they pruned the number of intermediate port they really can’t bring it down to just one port (so they are not faster to Davao than Sweet Lines). By this time Compania Maritima was already using their best and fastest ships to the Davao route and their next echelon of ships were also doing the other southern Mindanao routes. With this tactic Compania Maritima had a very thin coverage of their old northern Mindanao and Eastern Visayas routes.

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The Compania Maritima flagship (Photo credits: Evening News and Gorio Belen)

If Compania Maritima thought they can hold fort with this tactic they were sadly mistaken. In 1978, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation boldly came back to the southern Mindanao routes with its container ships, a new paradigm in Philippine shipping and they were offering direct sailings which means no intermediate ports. With that they can offer a faster (than Compania Maritima and Sweet Lines) and more secure shipping of goods with less damage. William Lines and Sulpicio Lines, not to be outdone, matched this new offering of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation the next year and this was followed soon by Lorenzo Shipping Corporation. Not to be left out was the new Sea Transport Company, a pure cargo company which offered direct container services to southern Mindanao even ahead of the national liner majors.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

As mentioned before, Sweet Lines also followed suit with a fast service to Davao with the Sweet RORO 2 in 1983. If Compania Maritima was also strong in Cebu cargo before, by this period the national liner majors also had direct and dedicated container ship sailings to Cebu. Cargo is actually the bread and butter of shipping and since Compania Maritima never invested in container ships in due time they were already badly outgunned. Their competition already had fast cruiser liners and it had containers ships too, both new paradigms that Compania Maritima never possessed and they were still stuck to the old cruisers and old way of sailing.

I don’t know if Compania Maritima ever thought of getting aboard the new paradigms. Whatever, events soon decided things for them. President Marcos’ grip on power was loosening, his health was deteriorating and soon Ninoy Aquino was gunned down in the airport in his return in 1983. Political crisis and financial crisis were soon raging in the land, the peso was sinking very fast and production and trade suffered. Even prime companies were tottering on the edge then because of crushing debt loads when lending from the banks was nearly impossible. In this period, even the local operations of the major car assemblers collapsed – Toyota, Ford, General Motors. Other big companies were closing shop too.

The next year Compania Maritima’s answer to the crisis became known to all. They simply ceased operations too like the motoring majors and soon their dual-citizen owners were on their way back to Spain. Compania Maritima’s ships were laid up but soon they were sold to the breakers one by one. By 1988, none of Compania Maritima’s ships were still existing.

And that was how the old and long No.1 in Philippine shipping ended its life.

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Compania Maritima building in Cebu

The Trans-Asia 5 (ex-Butuan Bay 1)

I first noticed “Butuan Bay 1” in a streamer in San Francisco (Sanfranz) bus terminal early in 2002 when I still usually took the land route from Davao to Bicol through Leyte and Samar. I was puzzled since Gothong was then still part of William, Gothong & Aboitiz (WG&A) shipping company although there were rumors already then that the William and Gothong interests were disgruntled in the merged company. It turned out later than the Gothong family already bought a RORO even before divestment and pay-out from WG&A and fielded that ship in their traditional stronghold Agusan through Nasipit port. I learned later it was the old agent of Gothong in Japan who made the ship available to them. The ship was the first in the re-established Gothong fleet and she came to the Philippines late in 2001.

“Butuan Bay 1” started life in Japan as the “Koyo Maru”, a RORO Cargo ship bearing the ID IMO 8817083. She was built by Iwagi Zosen in the Iwagi shipyard for the shipping company Keiyo Kisen and she was completed in February 1989. Her Length Over-all (LOA) was 114.8 meters and her Breadth was 19.0 meters. She measured 3,864 Gross Tons (GT) and her Deadweight Tonnage (DWT) was 3,376. She was powered by a single Mitsubishi engine which developed 9,600 horsepower (7,061 kilowatts officially) which gave her a service speed of 17.5 knots.

Butuan Bay 1 at Iligan Port ©Josel Niño Bado

In August 2001, she was sold to the Philippines to Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) which then proceeded to add two passenger decks to her located above her two cargo decks. The lower passenger deck was situated on her former top deck which was also a former car deck. Her two RORO ramps located at the port front quarter and at the stern (this ramp swings out when deployed and is of three-piece construction) were retained. Her mid-ship bridge was also not changed and as “Butuan Bay 1” her Gross Tonnage rose to 4,048 and her Net Tonnage to 2,070.

Her first route was Nasipit, of course. However, as more ships were added to the Gothong fleet she was assigned the Ozamis-Iligan route. She was not a very comfortable ship as her reconstruction to a passenger ship was basic. Actually, the conversion of the other ships of the Gothong fleet also followed this pattern. It seems they were like some of the ships that came in the 1960s that were mainly designed for cargo which also carried passengers too. There were a few cabins but it was mainly Economy and Tourist with not much amenities or facilities (she won’t have many Japan originals as she was formerly a RORO Cargo ship). Gothong offered low fares, however.

Butuan Bay 1 at Mactan Channel ©Jonathan Bordon

CAGLI was not so successful in their foray back in shipping. There were still a lot of liners and overnight ferries then and the passenger and cargo traffic was beginning to decline because of the advance of the intermodal transport system and the direct service of regional container ships in regional ports. With basic amenities and facilities and middling passenger service there was no way they can challenge the liners of WG&A and Sulpicio Lines nor the overnight ferries of Cebu Ferries, Trans Asia Shipping Lines and Cokaliong Shipping. Soon their liners were aging fast and this may have manifested in lower maintenance standards. Their ferries concentrated more in cargo and that resulted in big delays in departures (I once asked in Nasipit port about “Manila Bay 1” and the guard told to better take another ferry as he said delays of 24 hours were common).

Butuan Bay 1(future Trans-Asia 5) at Ouano Wharf ©Mike Baylon

On May 15, 2007, while transiting out of Mactan Channel in a southbound direction an explosion in the engine of “Butuan Bay 1” happened and killing three in the engine room. She was towed back to port and she was not successfully repaired. In early 2010, she was sold to Trans Asia Shipping Lines, Inc. (TASLI). Parts were ordered from Japan and her passenger accommodations and its superstructure were completely changed. Her accommodations and facilities standard was then brought to the top overnight ferry standard of TASLI and she was renamed as the “Trans-Asia 5”.

As “Trans-Asia 5” her Gross Tonnage (GT) rose to 4,790 and her Net Tonnage (NT) to 3,257, a little higher because she had additional scantling at the bridge level. Initially, she ran at her original 17.5 knots and there was great joy among ship spotters in her salvaging from a derelict ferry. Her facilities and accommodations were top class and even higher than some liners to Manila. Her front ramp was however removed because it has no role in the Mediterranean-type of docking being employed by Trans Asia Shipping Lines.

Trans-Asia 5 ©Vincent Paul Sanchez

Sailing with “Trans-Asia 5”, one will notice her lounge and atrium which had a nice kiosk cum coffee shop with plenty of sofas, chairs and tables and which exhibited top class photos of the TASLI CEO, the well-known photographer Kenneth Sy. Man, it was simply cool to while away time there. The first class section and its lounge were also top-notch for a ship and more than rivals the great Philippine liners of the past. Even the Tourist from its front and linen desk was impressive including the motif and décor. Each Tourist cubicle for 8 persons had its own TV and each bunk is provided not only with each own reading lamp but also each own dual outlet with. One can charge his cellphone while using the laptop and using the Wifi. Man, what a convenience! It was the best Tourist Class I have seen and even the beddings were topnotch for Tourist.

Trans-Asia 5 Lower Lounge and Coffee Shop ©Mike Baylon

Trans-Asia 5 Upper Lounge ©Mike Baylon

Economy was the usual TASLI dominated by blue color – basic, spartan but clean (the ship went on to win a “Cleanest Ship of the Year Award”). Beddings can be hired and as usual for Philippine ferries the accommodations are a little bit humid and only ventilation is from the sea breeze. But many passengers like it this way and they are used to this including in their own homes. The bonus is in the low fare on selected days of the week.

Trans-Asia 5 tarp ©Mike Baylon

There is the usual Trans Asia restaurant and its version of outdoor “ihaw-ihaw” with tables and chairs. There is also the added service spa and massage.

Trans-Asia 5’s cargo operations were mainly palletized although she carried a few XEU container vans also. However with her three-piece ramp forklifts can move in and out of the ship unlike in other Cebu overnight ferries where pallets are passed to another forklift on the outside or inside. However, her long ramp seems a little foreboding on a rainy, slippery night.

Trans-Asia 5 ©Mike Baylon

TASLI treated “Trans-Asia 5” with care and respect. However, it seems she is really a ship a little out of luck on the engine side. Soon, there were conking of her engines with two very publicized ones where she wallowed for long on the open sea and sparking outcries. MARINA then withdrew her permit to carry passengers and now she just carry cargo to Zamboanga, Masbate, Surigao and Nasipit as a plain cargo ship. Recently, some of her passenger accommodations were already pulled out.

Trans-Asia 5 Tourist Hallway ©Mike Baylon

She has been put for sale but with the dearth of passenger shipping companies in the Philippines finding takers for her will be tough unless the bidder is a breaker and TASLI is one shipping company not fond of that kind of people and always trying to fit a soft landing spot for their old ferries. However, there will always be the fear that she can go the way of the TASLI ferries “Trans Asia” and “Asia China” because of her size, i.e. too big for regional, short-distance ferry companies, hence, candidate for the breakers.

“Trans-Asia 5” is still faithfully toiling. But for how long and in what direction, no one can be sure of that.

More Trans-Asia 5 Photos by Mike Baylon: CLICK HERE

Katrafar Shipping Lines

Katrina-II of Katrafar Shipping Lines ©Mike Baylon

The Katrafar Shipping Lines, an operator of Moro boats in the Zamboanga-Jolo and Bongao routes, is unique in the sense that it is probably the only Moro boat shipping company that still have regular schedules (aside from the related ship Karmina) after a lot of contemporaries like A. Sakaluran were already gone. As such they are still entitled to docking space and operation in the Zamboanga PPA port while most Moro boats were already relegated to different Baliwasan wharves like Tres Marias, PHIDCO and PMS. Moro boats are the name that Philippine Ship Spotters Society use to denote wooden-hulled ships of distinct Moro design usually found in western Mindanao (and southern Mindanao before) that are related to the Arabian ‘dhow’.

M/V Katrina 5 ©Mike Baylon
Katrafar Shipping Lines is now just composed of three gold-liveried Moro boats, the Katrina II, Katrina III and Katrina V after the first of the series, the Katrina IV caught fire off Tawi-tawi Island on July of 2007. Katrafar boats carry mainly copra in her cavernous hold from Jolo and Bongao and the heat it generates in a closed hold is a fire risk, the reason passenger-copra carriers now install industrial fans aside from water sprays to cool the copra. The Katrina can carry double sacks of copra in the mid-hundreds up to the high hundreds, the reason why unloading extends up to the afternoon after her early morning arrival. Carried also at her bow are cargoes that should be separated like sea products and even animals. From Zamboanga they are loaded with groceries, dry goods, the occasional hardware supplies and drinks. All loading are done ‘mano-a-mano’ by true porters (as distinguished to ‘porters’ who try to welsh cargo from passengers while charging high rates). Here a sack might only pay P5 or so but there is cargo aplenty and it needs a gang of porters to handle her load.
Katrafar uses the quay near the covered bodega of the Zamboanga International Port which is by the main port road. They occupy the same length of berth reserved for the cruiser ferries of Zamboanga. Like the cruisers Moro boats also need side docking for their specific kind of cargo handling (as in unloaded through the side) as they were not designed for stern docking like the ROROs.
Katrina III with her load of copra ©Mike Baylon
Katrina II docked sideways at Zamboanga ©Mike Baylon

Like other Moro boats the Katrinas are not equipped with bunks and instead they use folding tarpaulin cots and if these are arranged side-by-side perpendicular to the length of the ship starting from the sides and going to the center if more passenger berths are needed. Since passenger space and amenities are more restricted they charge less than the Zamboanga steel-hulled ferries and they can afford this since their fuel consumpation is lower. At times they even lead in discounting and the fare can really get low as is P175 for the 93-nautical mile Zamboanga-Jolo route. Now consider that 55-nautical mile or so Cebu-Leyte ferries can already charge P400 for economy bunks. Like the Zamboanga cruiser ferries the Katrafar ships leave at night and they reach Jolo or Zamboanga, their main route in the early morning which is the preferred arrival time of the passengers.

Folding Cots of Katrina III ©Mike Baylon

A relic of the past, it seems Katrafar will still not go away anytime soon. There is always room for budget carriers that offers simple, no-frills passage. And if ever they lose patronage they can still go to the Baliwasan wharves and become cargo-passenger ships which prioritizes cargoes over passengers. The worst and final scenario is they will be used as barter ships and become mainstays of Varadero de Recodo and Varadero de Cawit.