The Disproportionality of the Ferry Losses in the Philippines

Many times the question of if our ferries are safe is asked. This is especially true when a ferry has an accident or is lost especially when the casualty count is high. Rather than answering the question straight, if I am asked, I might answer it “it depends” because that is probably the most exact answer to the question anyway but then many will be puzzled by that answer (pilosopo ba?). Read on and you will be enlightened further and maybe your views about the safety our ferries might change.

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Even if a car is new it doesn’t mean it won’t take a dip into the water. Same principle applies with ships. Photo by Zed Garett (happened just today — what a timely photo for my article). Thanks a lot to the photo owner.

But first a clarification. I am purposely limiting this topic to ferries because tackling all the ship types at once will be very heavy and tedious as we have more freighters than ferries and add to that the other types like the tugs, tankers, etc. The ferry losses is the segment that actually raises the hackles of the people of the country who are mainly uneducated on the topic of maritime losses. This relative ignorance is further fanned by our also-uneducated media whose writers and editors cannot even seem to get the ferries’ names right (it seems they are too lazy to verify with MARINA, the maritime authority). Of course, it is well-known that our media is on the sensationalistic side and so oftentimes accuracy, objectivity and balance are lost with that (do these sell anyway?).

Another limitation I also pose here is I won’t include our wooden-hulled passenger crafts in the discussion. Those crafts are really flimsy especially those equipped with outriggers, the motor bancas. This ship type (those are ships because any sea craft having a passenger capacity of 12 is not a boat) lacks the basic safety equipment that even without a storm they can sink like when an outrigger breaks or when the hull develops a leak big enough that water can’t be bailed fast enough. But I would rather not comment on their seamanship or lack of formal maritime education because in my decades of traveling at sea I found that many of them are actually very good in reading the wind and the waves, a nautical skill that is not taught in maritime schools anymore. Also excluded in the discussion are the wooden-hulled lanchas and batels which were formerly called as motor boats which are not called as motor launches.

My topic here is about the disproportionality (or lack of proportionality) of our maritime losses to clarify that our ferry losses are not proportional with regards to the area and to the ship type (the implication is not all sink). Like what I just mentioned earlier, our wooden-hulled crafts especially the motor bancas are prone to losses especially in areas notorious for its dangerous waves like in Surigao. But these sea crafts continue to exist because in many cases these are the most practical crafts for certain routes like the routes to our small islands and islets or the coastal barrios that have no roads (or if taking the roundabout road will take too long). Motor bancas can land even on bare shores which the other crafts can’t do and moreover these can operate profitably on the barest minimum of passengers and cargo something which is impossible in steel-hulled vessels which have engines that are much, much bigger and are heavier.

The liners, our multi-day ships, among our class of ferries are also very vulnerable to losses (a surprise?) and much more than others classes pro rata to their small number. Relative to their small number, we have lost a lot of liners in the past for a variety of reasons – capsizing, foundering, beaching, wrecking, collision, fire, bombing and explosion. And this might come as a surprise to many because in the main it is our liners that are the biggest, these hold the highest of the certificates (and in insurance many have the comprehensive P & I or “Protection and Indemnity”), these have our most experienced and best crewmen supposedly (unlike in smaller ferries where a Second Mate can serve as Captain of the ship) and much pride of its shipping company is riding on them (well, not all, as we had liners that were no more than the average overnight ferry).

But this vulnerability is actually completely true. We lost the SuperFerry 3 (fire in a shipyard in 2000), SuperFerry 6 (fire while sailing in 2000 too), the SuperFerry 7 (fire in port in 1997), SuperFerry 9 (capsizing in 2009), the SuperFerry 14 (firebombing in 2000 but the official report says otherwise). A total of five SuperFerries when only a total of 20 ships ever carried the name “SuperFerry” (it seems it is not a good name?). The St. Thomas Aquinas, the former SuperFerry 2 was lost in a collision in 2013 and the St. Gregory The Great, the former SuperFerry 20 was also lost (taking a shortcut and hitting the reefs and she was no longer repaired and just sold after equipment was taken out). These two ferries were already under 2GO when they were lost. Not included here were the groundings of the Dona Virginia and the Our Lady of Banneux (technically under Cebu Ferries Corporation then but an actual liner) from which they were never repaired and ending their sailing careers).

Sulpicio Lines is much-lambasted and derided by most of our people but actually they have less losses from their “Princess” and “Don/Dona” series of ships in the comparative period as the existence of the “SuperFerries” of WG&A (William, Gothong & Aboitiz and its successor company Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). However, it is true that in passenger casualties the total of Sulpicio Lines is much, much higher because they have the tendency to sail straight into storms like the revered Compania Maritima before them (in terms of ship losses and not in casualties) and that historical company took a lot of losses from those risk-takings too (and more than even Sulpicio Lines).

From 1996 when the WG&A was formed, Sulpicio Lines only lost the Philippine Princess (fire while under refitting in 1997), the Princess of the Orient (capsizing in a storm in 1998), the Iloilo Princess (fire and capsizing while under refitting in 2003), the Princess of the World (fire while sailing in 2005) and the Princess of the Stars (capsizing in a storm in 2008) and the Princess of the Pacific (serious grounding incident resulting in complete total loss in 2004). That is until they were suspended in 2008 when only one liner was left sailing for them, the Princess of the South which did not sink.

In the comparative period, WG&A and ATS employed a total of 24 liners (the overnight ferries of Cebu Ferries Corporation was obviously not included here are they are not multiday liners). Sulpicio Lines had a total of 22 liners in the parallel period so their numbers are about even. But the ship loss total of WG&A, ATS and 2GO is clearly higher and the public was never made aware of this. Maybe some good PR works while it seems Sulpicio Lines never took care of that and all they knew was feeding their passengers well (unli rice or smorgasbord, anyone?). But then however those liner losses are scandalous in number, by whatever measure. Imagine losing more than one liner per year on the average.

Some of the liners of WG&A and ATS were not SuperFerries in name but but the Our Ladies, the two Cities and a Dona from William Lines had perfect safety records as none of them was ever lost. Now, does the choice of name matter in safety? Or the “lesser” ferries do try harder and are more careful? That discrepancy certainly made me think and it might be worth a study.

Negros Navigation was far safer than the WG&A and Sulpicio Lines losing only the St. Francis Xavier in 1999. Do naming of liners after saints enhance their safety? Conversely, do naming of liners with the qualifier “Super” means the ship will sink faster? Questions, questions. But the lightly-regarded and revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (CAGLI) tops them all with absolutely no losses. Now for a company that sometimes have difficulty painting their ships that is something (while the spic-and-span WG&A and ATS which repaints their liners while sailing tops the losses department). Does it mean it is better not to repaint liners well? I observed in the eastern seaboard that the ships that are not painted well have no losses (until the dumb Archipelago Ferries let its stalled Maharlika II sank into the waves in 2014 without rescuing it and thereby breaking the record – that ship was newly painted when it went under so the repainting might have doomed her?). Well, in my earlier thesis and later in this article I find it funny that the ships which are more rusty does not sink as long as it is not a Batangas ship (ah, the disproportionality again). While those that can always afford new paint like WG&A and successor ATS sink. Is a new coat of paint a sign of danger for the ship? Or is it the P & I insurance that did them in? Funny, funny. Negros Navigation when it was already in trouble and lacks the money already did not have one ship sinking. So the illiquidity which Negros Navigation suffered means more safety? Har, har! Whatever, I want to commend them and top honcho Sulficio Tagud for taking the high road and not just let the ships sink just to collect insurance. And last note, in multi-day liner operations before, Aleson Shipping Lines never lost a ship.

Liners sink at a faster rate pro rata compared to overnight ferries (if the wooden-hulled ferries of the past are not counted) and that is a big puzzle to me. And of course nobody will know for sure because nobody studied that as we don’t have the equivalent of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) of the USA which call in true experts and go in depth why the transportation accidents happened. Is it because while on a voyage the liners are practically running 24 hours a days and systems, equipment and personnel are stressed more? Is it because the ships reach their reliability/cycles earlier in terms of hours of usage like the electrical lines which is a cause of fire? Or are their crew simply more tired and believes that their ships with high certifications are less vulnerable to sinking (as if those certificates will keep the ship afloat)?

In the earlier decades and even recently it is known that liners take more chances with storms and maybe because they think they can battle the waves better because they are bigger. There are shipping companies who were known to be more brave (or foolhardy?) in sailing ships when there are storms about and among them the old Compania Maritima and Sulpicio Lines almost surely top the list. Now, however, the field is more level as all Philippine ships are barred from sailing when the center wind of the storm reaches 60kph. And for the smaller ships less than 250gt they are not permitted to sail when the center wind is already 45kph or when the local weather agency PAGASA declares a “gale warning” even though there is no a gale. When the suspensions are in effect better just watch the foreign ships still continue sailing for they are not covered by the suspension and most actually use INMARSAT or equivalent which is just a curiosity in the local maritime world until now when that is already well-established outside of the Philippines (the lousy PAGASA which can’t do localized forecasts seems to be already good for them since it is free while they have to pay for INMARSAT).

Liners also sink faster than short-distance ferries whose sailing durations are all short and whose crews probably know their particular seas and routes more. When to think most short-distance ferries which are always small are captained in the main by Second or Third Mates and whose engine department are headed by Second or sometimes by just Marine Diesel Mechanics who have not even finished college but passed an exam just the same (well, competence in running and maintaining a machine well is not necessarily dictated by diplomas, trust me). Even though liners might be using ECDIS don’t be too sure they will reach their destination better than the lowly short-distance ferry using just what is called as dead reckoning. In truth, ECDIS or whatever better bridge equipment does not guarantee better seamanship or navigation. After all it will not show the wind and wave which only something like INMARSAT can.

So in liners disproportionality already exist. And their international certifications don’t even save them from disasters. So, I advise those who take liners, don’t be very sure and make the necessary precautions like memorizing the different alarms and making sure where your life vests are. And don’t jump to the water too early. Liners are tall and that plunge could hurt you. And when in the water at night tie yourselves together so as not to drift (a whistle is a big help in calling attention if you are drifting). Note the water can be cold at night and hypothermia can set in. Take a selfie too before jumping and upload it. Who knows if it will be your last photo. Your loved ones will sure prize it. Ah, don’t take all I said in this paragraph too seriously.

In overnight ferries there seems to be disproportionality with regards to companies and not to home port (if analyzed pro rata to the size of the fleet which means the size of the fleets are taken into consideration) and to the routes. Well, for practical purposes there are only a few home ports for overnight ferries – Cebu, Zamboanga, Batangas, Manila, Lucena and Iloilo, in that order maybe in terms of sailings (a clarification, there are overnight ships originating from say northern Mindanao but all of those ferries are actually based in Cebu). Analyzing, some overnight ferry companies deserve the Gold Award while some should be suspended from service, maybe.

It must be noted that one of the biggest overnight ferries two decades ago and which dominated the Visayas-Mindanao waters for nearly a decade, the Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC), a subsidiary of WG&A and successor Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) did not lose a single ship ever until it they left Cebu for Batangas and became the “Batangas Ferries” and even there their perfect streak continued. Maybe some of their people need to be recruited by other companies or sent there by MARINA to share the experience. They can lecture on the topic, “On How Not To Sink”. Maybe it is not just with the choice of name that they were safe? Or was it in the livery? The only problem it seems is they did not send their Captains to their liners like the St. Thomas Aquinas who made a dumb mistake trying to test the hardness of the ice-classed bow of the Sulpicio Express Siete.

In the Cebu-based regional shipping companies which are operators of overnight ferries it is probably Lite Ferries who is the Valedictorian having lost no ships even though their fleet is already big. Maybe that will come as a surprise to many but whatever they deserve a big round of applause. Another company whose Captains might need to be recruited by other shipping companies or pry open their secret if there is any. Are they better readers of SOLAS? One thing I am sure though is its owner does not belong to the same fraternity as one former Batangas shipping company owner who threatens mayhem if his ship sinks.

There are other overnight ferry companies in Cebu that could have shared First Honors with Lite Ferries but in a tie-breaker Lite Ferries wins because they have the most ships and not by a small margin at that. Others with perfect records are the defunct Palacio Lines (well, some might argue that that is a Samar shipping company but I digress). Now I can’t understand why an overnight ferry company with a perfect safety record will go under as a company. Seems something is not right. Aside from Palacio Lines there are a lot of there Cebu-based overnight ferry companies that have perfect safety records in terms of having no ship losses. Some of these are still extant and sailing and some have already quit the business (it’s a waste, isn’t it, for them to just go away like that).

Among these is the legendary Gabisan Shipping Lines, VG Shipping, Kinswell Shipping, Roly Shipping, Jadestar Shipping, South Pacific Transport and many other smaller shipping lines with just one or two ships (most of these are already gone now but still their perfect records remain). I just don’t know why they can’t catch a break from MARINA as in they are not given special citations and handed more privileges in sailing because after all they have proven they know their stuff in shipping. But no, when MARINA goes headhunting in safety they are lambasted in the same vein as those which had sunk ships as if they are just as guilty. Actually, to set the record straight about half of the overnight ferry companies in the whole Philippines never had any ship losses. This is true even in Zamboanga where Magnolia Shipping Lines, Ever Lines and a lot of other operators with just one or two steel-hulled ferries have perfect safety records. Now, can’t MARINA even for once credit them properly and publish their names because the way I feel at times with media reports and with MARINA statements it is as if all our shipping companies already had sunk ships which is simply not the case. In the liner sector that is true but in the overnight ferry and short-distance sector, combined, most shipping companies never had any ship losses. Don’t they deserve credit and more respect and recognition? But no, they are sunk not beneath the waves but in obscurity and that is one of the purpose of this article, to set the record straight.

In Manila, the old MBRS Lines and its successor Romblon Shipping Line never lost a ship (but the company is dead now anyway, sunk by the intermodal). In Lucena, Kalayaan Shipping Lines might have a perfect safety record too at least in steel-hulled ferries. In Batangas, there are operators of just one or two ferries which have not lost a ship (do they take care not to lose one because that will mean the shutdown of operations?). In Iloilo, did Milagrosa Shipping Lines already lost a ship? In number half of the overnight ferry operators never lost a ship although in the number of ships owned theirs comprise just the minority, to clarify.

It is in short-distance ferries that I noticed a lot more of disproportionalities especially in the recent decades when maritime databases were able to keep track with them (the wooden-hulled short-distance ferries generally doesn’t have IMO Numbers so keeping track of them is difficult but these lanchas or batels were our early short-distance ferries aside from the motor bancas). For this sector or segment I would rather stick to steel-hulled ferries like what I mentioned early on especially since there is no way to track the hundreds and hundreds of motor bancas and their losses which are not even properly reported at times.

There are areas, routes and short-distance companies that have perfect safety records (again, wooden hulled ferries are not included here and that also mean the earlier years). In the eastern seaboard where the typhoons first strike and where it is fiercest the routes and shipping companies there have a perfect safety record ever since the steel-hulled ships first appeared in 1979. This was only broken in 2013 due to the dumbness of a stranger which invaded the Masbate waters (is that part of the eastern seaboard anyway? but Masbate is in Bicol). They withdrew from Bicol after that incident to just sail the more benign Camotes Sea waters. And that is one of the reasons why I was furious at Archipelago Ferries for not coming to the aid of their stalled ship for 6 hours when their good ship was just just two hours sailing away and so the stricken ship slid off the waves (shouldn’t someone be hanged for that?). Because of that the perfect record of the local shipping companies based in the eastern seaboard was broken. I just hope the crewmen of Maharlika Cuatro which failed to respond to an SOS then are not employed in the FastCats now.

Short-distance ferries also does not sink in the Tablas Sea crossings or in the routes to Marinduque from Lucena. However, I do not know what is the curse of the Verde Island Passage that many ships have been already lost there when to think practically the same shipping companies ply the three routes mentioned. To think the Tablas Sea wind and waves could be rougher than that in Verde Island Passage. Did they assign their lousier crews there? Just asking. As they say the proof is in the pudding (and the pudding tastes bad).

I just wonder too about the luck of the Mindanao Sea crossings. The waves there could also be rough and the crossing is longer but none was ever lost among the short-distance ferries running the Dumaguete-Dapitan, Samboan-Dapitan and Jagna-Balingoan routes. Like in Tablas Strait, do the longer route makes the crews more careful? Are the crews there better trained and has better seamanship?

The many routes connecting Cebu island and Negros island and Negros island and Panay island are also safe. Hard to find there a short-distance steel-hulled ferry that sank. That is also true for the steel-hulled ferries connecting Masbate island to Cebu island when the distance there is also long for a short-distance ferry and the wind and waves are no less dangerous. What is their secret there? Is it just that Camotes Sea navigators are lousier? With exceptions, of course because Gabisan Shipping surely will not agree.

I could go to the less obscure, short-distance routes. Just the same I will tell you these are also safe. Never heard of a steel ferry going to Alabat that sank. Or to Dinagat and Siargao islands (sure their motor bancas sink). Or the routes to Basilan from Zamboanga. Not even a RORO to Guimaras have sunk or a RORO to Bantayan island. That is also true for the short-distance connections within Romblon island served by steel-hulled ships (the Princess Camille that capsized in Romblon port in 2003 was an overnight ferry from Batangas). No steel-hulled ferry connecting Leyte and Bohol was ever lost too. And that is also true for the route connecting Siquijor to Dumaguete.

So a lot of our short-distance routes and the ferries plying them are actually safe. Who can argue against a perfect safety record? A little rust will not sink ships nor would a non-functioning firefighting pump (and the ship is not in the middle of an ocean anyway). Those are just a little margins that are not that critical. Does not look good to the eye but to a passenger like me it is more important if MARINA enforces their Memorandum Circular that ferries should feed its passengers if the arrival of the ship exceeds 7am. And I am more concerned if the ship is clean especially the rest rooms and if there is clean drinking water. Besides, trust me, our mariners are not that negligent or dumb that they will leave the ramps unclosed and then sail like what some Europeans did.

So are our ferries safe? Yes, it is except for the liners, some shipping companies and some routes and areas. Never mind if they are old. It is not necessarily the factor that will sink ships (a ship if it loses motive power still has the flotation of a barge). It is actually the lack of seamanship that sinks ships (old ship, new ship can both collide or fail to heed the weather). And trust the short-distance ferries on the fringes and don’t underestimate them. The crew won’t let their ships sink if their families, relatives, friends, schoolmates, etc. are aboard. Well, not all. Be a little wary in Verde Island Passage and in Camotes Sea.

Let us be more objective. Our ferries and mariners are not really that bad, contrary to what hecklers say.

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RORO Cargo Ships and Vehicle Carriers Can Be Good ROPAX Liners

In shipping, wherever that be in the world, fuel consumption is a critical factor because it takes up 40% of the operational costs of the ship. Here it might even be higher as our ships are old and our mariner rates are so low and apprentices comprise about half of the crew and they are the ones that pay and not the shipping company. So when fuel prices went really high a decade ago even the Fast ROPAXes of Europe capable of 30 knots slowed down to save on fuel. High Speed Crafts (HSCs) suffered also, had to slow down too and some stopped sailing for they were simply unprofitable even at very high load factors.

We too had been victims of that fetish with speed that in the 1990’s and so, many liners capable of 20 knots, locally, came into the country. The list of this is long and I would list it: Filipina Princess, Princess of Paradise, Princess of the Stars, Princess of the Universe, Princess of the World, Princess of the Ocean and Princess of New Unity, all of Sulpicio Lines; SuperFerry 1 of Aboitiz Shipping; Mabuhay 1 and Mabuhay 3 of William Lines; Our Lady of Lipa, SuperFerry 12, SuperFerry 14, SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 of WG&A; SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21 of Aboitiz Transport System; St. Francis of Assisi, St. Joseph The Worker, St. Peter The Apostle, Mary Queen of Peace, St. Ezekiel Moreno, St. Michael The Archangel and St. Francis Xavier of Negros Navigation. SuperFerry 16 then came back to become the St. Therese of the Child Jesus of 2GO. A total of 26 liners. Now isn’t that too many? And most are 150 meters in length or over and the average passenger capacity is over 2,000 with 3 even breaching the 3,000 mark.

I argue that most proved to be oversized.

That speed came from oversized engines, usually 20,000 horsepower and over which means more fuel consumption and I was not happy with that trend in speed and the trend of upsizing the ships because I know that in the past when liners became bigger than the ex-”FS” ship, many ports with previous connection to Manila were left out because the liners were already too big and their drafts too deep for the small and shallow ports. Then later, the fast cruisers became the new paradigm and more ports have to be left out because to shorten voyage duration the interports were reduced. Gone were the old routes which featured four, five or even six ports of call and with voyages lasting several days.

Those big, fast liners might have been okay when ship passengers were still overflowing when there were still no budget planes and intermodal buses as competition. But that was not okay for the passengers left behind in the abandoned ports. It just created a generation or two of passengers not catered to by ships and grew up not relying on them.

And in the end the liner companies paid dearly for that. Even with advertisements they can no longer be coaxed into riding ships (even if they are painted pink). And that became a disaster for liner shipping when passengers thinned. Too few port calls mean less passengers and cargo – when the ships were already big and guzzling fuel and heavily needing those. And that just helped sink the liner sector of our shipping which has not recovered until now.

I argue that for the passenger loads and cargo sizes now our liners sailing are simply too big and that is the reason why they can’t or won’t call in the smaller ports served by liners until the end of the millennium like Ormoc, Surigao, Tagbilaran, Dapitan and others. It should go down in size and maybe add ports of call and damn if transit times are longer. What is more important is that the ships become fuller so that it will be more profitable. Anyway, those who want fast travel will simply take the budget planes. But still there are still many people which prefer the ships to the planes.

Moreover, the remaining liners now have engines too big to be profitable on marginal routes and smaller ports. I think the engines also have to be downsized. If fuel prices go up once more the liners won’t be profitable again.

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Our Lady of Sacred Heart by Chief Ray Smith

In downsizing and saving on fuel, there is one type of ship that is actually fit for us. These are the former RORO Cargo ships and Vehicle Carriers and we have several  examples of that in the past. Actually for the same size and length, RORO Cargo ships have smaller engines than ships which were ROPAXes from the start. They were not really built for speed but for economy while having a decent speed. And moreover on RORO Cargo ships not much steel has to be added as additional decks.

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Our Lady of Medjugorje by Nat Pagayonan

In the past when liners were not that yet big and fast we had very successful liners whose origins were as former RORO Cargo Ships. I think the most famous of these were the sister ships Our Lady of Sacred Heart and the Our Lady of Medjugorje of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (CAGLI) which both came in 1990. Beautifully renovated, few suspected their true origins. Weighing the amenities of the ship, they were not inferior to liners of their size. And nor in speed although they have engine horsepowers less than the liners of their size.

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Butuan Bay 1 by Vinz Sanchez

It was the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines (when they split from WG&A) which brought in the next batch of RORO Cargo ships for conversion into liner ROPAXes when they acquired the Butuan Bay 1 and the Ozamis Bay 1 in the early 2000’s. But what puzzled me is they forgot how to convert them into beautiful ROPAXes like before and almost everybody that rode them said they were ugly. And that maybe helped doom the return of Gothong Lines into passenger shipping. When Butuan Bay 1 became the Trans-Asia 5 it became a beautiful ship with first-class interiors. Butuan Bay 1 should have been like that from the very start and if it were, the trajectory of Gothong Lines might have been different (of course they had other problems too).

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Ozamis Bay 1 by Mike Baylon

It was the Asian Marine Transport Corporation or AMTC that next brought RORO Cargo ships here for conversion into RORO liners. In their Super Shuttle RORO series, they started with the first three converted in to ROPAXes and these were the small Super Shuttle RORO 1, Super Shuttle RORO 2 and Super Shuttle RORO 3. However, the conversions were also not done well and were not worthy of the beautiful small liners of the past. Were they scrimping too like the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines? Or were they thinking more of the cargo than the passenger revenue?

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Super Shuttle RORO 1 by Fr. Bar Fabella

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Super Shuttle RORO 2 by Nowell Alcancia

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Super Shuttle RORO 3 by Mike Baylon

The next batch of Super Shuttle ROROs which were former RORO Cargo ships or variants from the Super Shuttle RORO 7 to Super Shuttle RORO 12 were all big, all former RORO Cargo ships but all were no longer converted in ROPAXes because maybe the first three of AMTC were not particularly successful. I was able to board all of them and their interiors were all good. The cabins for the vehicle drivers were still in good condition and being used along with ships’ drawing rooms and the good, functional galleys. Some even have gyms. Actually what was only needed is to maybe convert the top deck or another deck into good passenger accommodations. Our shipbuilders were good at that in the 1950’s and 1960’s when refrigerated cargo or cargo-passenger ships from Europe were converted into liners for Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines aside from Compania Maritima.

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Super Shuttle RORO 7 by James Gabriel Verallo

The Super Shuttle RORO 7 and Super Shuttle RORO 8 were the two AMTC ships that were intriguing for me. At 145 and 146 meters length the size is good especially since this is a tall ship with at least 4 RORO decks. The original top sustained speeds are 17 and 17.5 knots from only 6,900 and 7,800 horsepower which is even less than the horsepowers of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart and the Our Lady of Medjugorje which both had top sustained speeds of 17 knots when new and did 16 knots here even with additional metal and age. If 16 knots can be coaxed from the small engines of the two AMTC ships then it might have been enough especially if compared to the speeds the former Cebu Ferries series converted liners are doing now. It will have a good container load with a decent passenger size if one deck is converted into passenger accommodations and the cabins for drivers are used for passengers here. I was hoping AMTC will go in that direction but they did not. It turned out AMTC was no longer interested in liner shipping and was more interested in container shipping and especially the loading of brand-new vehicles destined for car dealers in the south.

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Super Shuttle RORO 8 by Aris Refugio

A design speed or original top sustained speed of 15 or 16 knots might not do because converted here with additional metal and with age already they will probably just run at 13 or 14 knots and that is slow for a liner. 15 knots locally is still acceptable but 16 knots is better as proven by the Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje. But then on the other hand the last time the former Cebu Ferry 2 ran as a liner to Cebu from Manila she was just being made to run at 14 to 15 knots. Does it mean that speed is already acceptable? That will mean a 28 or 29 hour run to Cebu versus the 22 hours of the big liners. But then passing through interports will mask that. Just feed the passengers well. And I always wondered why liners to Cebu don’t pass Roxas City anymore when it is just on the way. Of course the big ones can’t. At least 2GO tried Romblon port with the St. Anthony de Padua (the former Cebu Ferry 2) the last time around. But then maybe small liners shouldn’t be doing the Cebu route.

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St. Anthony of Padua by Mike Baylon

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St. Ignatius of Loyola by Mike Baylon

It was Aboitiz Transport System which next brought in RORO Cargo ships for conversion into ROPAXes with their Cebu Ferry 2 and Cebu Ferry 3. Originally these two ships were refitted to be overnight ferries but later when they were transferred out of their Cebu base they were refitted again to become liners. The two are known now as St. Anthony of Padua and St. Ignatius of Loyola under 2GO. Aside from the two, there are other RORO Cargo ships which were converted into ROPAXes but they were not liners but overnight ships. Among these are the Graceful Stars and Oroquieta Stars of Roble Shipping.

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The future Trans-Asia (1) by Mike Baylon

I think there are many RORO Cargo ships around that are about 120-130 meters in length that have a design speed of 18 or 19 knots which can still run here at 16.5 to 17.5 knots and they might just be perfect. I don’t know if that is the case of the Warrior Spirit which recently arrived to become the third Trans-Asia (1) of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. This might be good as a test case. The length of 126.2 meters is perfect and the design speed is 19 knots from twin engines is also perfect. Trans-Asia Shipping Lines has a good record in conversion. But then she will just be an overnight ship but a big one at that. But the coming Panglao Bay 1 of Carlos A. Gothong Lines might not prove to be a test case as she will not be converted to ROPAX, per report.

Panglao Bay 1

Panglao Bay 1 by Mark Ocul

Trying these former RORO Cargo ships for conversion into ROPAXes might be a safe bet. These RORO Cargo ships might be low-risk in acquisition as their purchases might just be above breaker prices. So if it does not make money the worth of metal as scrap might still pay for the acquisition price. In the future Trans-Asia (1) they are even cutting off metal so windows can be made. That is different from the experience of the Cebu Ferries ships were a lot of metal has to be added because decks have to built.

I think it is good time to try acquiring RORO Cargo ships as our future liners. They might turn out to be good bets and worthwhile liners a la Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje.

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

MS GEN LIM

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.

1971 MV Samar

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.]

ELCANO (3)

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.]

Princess of the Orient(SLI)FS

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.