The Sweet RORO

Many, when talking about the Sweet RORO of Sweet Lines Incorporated which is pf Bohol origin talk about her technicals and that is not wrong as there is nothing incorrect in admiring the technical merits of a ship especially that of a luxury liner. But to me I also tend to look at the historical position of things and how they interacted as I am also keen on the historical perspective of the ferries when they came and also their roles. After all, ferries make the shipping companies, at least in the early decades of our shipping history. And, it is in the great liners in which shipping companies are identified by the public.

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The Sweet RORO in original livery. Photo by Lindsay Bridge.

The Sweet RORO came to Sweet Lines when from the peak of the company a great slide was already happening them. This came from a probable mistake when in the late 1970’s the company decided they would henceforth just buy small liners. It was a great reversal from the previous mantra of the company that they will bring great liners, the prime examples of which were the highly regarded Sweet Faith and Sweet Home which were former luxury liners even in Europe. Also included in that was the Sweet Grace which was acquired brand-new from West Germany.

That bad decision came when the top liners of the company, the aforementioned Sweet Faith and the Sweet Home were already graying and if analyzed technically were already threatening to quit in a few years time (and they subsequently did). Coupled with that that the former cargo-passenger ship from Europe, the Sweet Bliss, the Sweet Life/Sweet Dream, the Sweet Lord/Sweet Land and the Sweet Love which buoyed the company early on and helped in their rise were also growing old as they were also built in the 1950’s like the Sweet Faith and the Sweet Home and ferries then were not known to exceed 30 years of life as the metallurgy and technology were still not the same as today when ferries normally exceed 40 years of service life here. Spare and surplus parts are easy to find today and CNC milling of parts are already common whereas that was not the case of 40 years ago. When that decision to just acquire small ferries was made the six liners of Sweet Lines from Europe were already approaching 30 years old save for the Sweet Home (but then this luxury liner, the biggest of her time was actually the first to go because of mechanical problems).

The year 1980 came and one of the biggest crisis in local liner shipping came. This happened when a lot of liners were suddenly laid up because the container ships came into full force all at once and suddenly the old passenger-cargo liners no longer had enough cargo to carry and it was actually cargo which is decisive in the profitability of a passenger-cargo ship. Before the arrival of the container ships of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, William Lines, Sulpicio Lines, Lorenzo Shipping Corporation, Central Shipping Corporation (the cargo shipping company of Sweet Lines), Sea Transport Company, Negros Navigation Company and Solid Shipping Lines, it was practically just the passenger-cargo liners which were carrying the cargo in liner routes.

Sweet Home was gone in 1979, sold, and Sweet Faith was also gone the next year in 1980, first laid up then sold to the breakers. The new decade came and Sweet Lines had no ship good enough for the premier Manila-Cebu route which they used to dominate albeit with just a small pull only early in the 1970’s but largely gone as the decade was winding down. What they had left to serve as flagship was the cruiser liner Sweet Grace which was ordered brand-new from West Germany in 1968 but which does not have the speed and the size of the now-dominant fast cruiser liners of that era already.

While Sweet Lines was saddled with such problem William Lines rolled out the half-cruiser, half-RORO Dona Virginia in December 1979 which was the biggest liner in the country when she was fielded and with a speed of 20 knots too like the liner she was replacing, the storied Cebu City which came brand-new just in 1972. Then Sulpicio Lines rolled out the Philippine Princess in 1981 and this liner was nearly as big as the Dona Virginia but not as fast. Sweet Grace was far smaller than the two unlike the flagship Filipinas of Compania Maritima which was nearly as big as Dona Virginia and Philippine Princess although not as fast as the two. Sweet Grace was also much slower than the three, she cannot even be considered as a fast cruiser liner and so for the first time since Sweet Lines raised the bar in the Manila-Cebu premier route in 1970 with the Sweet Faith, this time it found itself as the laggard and outmatched. And that was where the decision to just buy small liners bit Sweet Lines hard.

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Photo from a research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

Having money from the proceeds of the disposals of Sweet Home and Sweet Faith, Sweet Lines was obliged to look for their replacement and it is forced that it should be a good and a big one. They did not disappoint when the former Ferry Ruby of the Diamond Ferry which plies the Osaka to Oichi route came to them in 1982 (but the seller was a third by the name of Dimerco Line SA of Panama and more on that later). The ship was nearly as big as her main competitors at 117.5 meters length and 4,700 gross register tons and at 18 knots design speed she was not giving away much to her direct competition, the flagships of the other liner companies although she was still the slowest at full trot among the flagships. And so what Sweet Lines emphasized was her being a RORO liner and its swiftness in cargo loading and unloading. However, the claim of Sweet Lines that she was the first RORO liner in the country is incorrect as the Sta. Maria of Negros Navigation Company came earlier in 1980. She, however, was the first big RORO liner in the country if the Dona Virginia is excluded.

When analyzed technically, the Sweet RORO is a leapfrog in technology compared to her main competitors which were mainly cruiser liners, the old paradigm. She was already a full-pledged ROPAX (RORO-Passenger) ship unlike the Dona Virginia whereas the Philippine Princess and the Filipinas of Compania Maritima were still cruiser ships . Now these four are all flagships and only four shipping companies were competing seriously in the prime Manila-Cebu route as the others like Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and Escano Lines were no longer in serious contention in that route and the others have practically withdrawn from contention there like Lorenzo Shipping Corporation and Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (but this company later made a comeback in that route). By the way, Negros Navigation Company is not being mentioned here as she was not doing the Manila-Cebu route then.

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Credits to Philippine Daily Express and Gorio Belen

But Sweet RORO might have been too much ahead of her time. Loading vehicles was not yet the wont then in her route (and neither now except for brand-new cars headed for car dealers down south). Container vans were mainly carried by the container ships and at that time there were still a lot of XEUs, the 10-foot container vans which can be handled by forklifts or loaded atop the cruisers at their bow and/or stern. Using chassis for container vans was not yet the standard then and so the full advantage of being a RORO or Roll-on, Roll-off ship was not fully realized when a lot of cargo was still palletized or are still carried loose (however, Sweet RORO had advantage over the others in carrying vehicles and heavy equipment down South). It would be nearly a decade later when the TEUs, the 20-foot container vans will be the new standard in cargo loading and by that time the Sweet RORO was already gone.

The Sweet RORO, the former Ferry Ruby was built by Onomichi Dockyard (Onomichi Zosen) in Onomichi, Japan in 1970 (but Sweet Lines says she was built in another yard) as one of the fast overnight ferries of Japan that bypasses their clogged highways then. She was average in size then (but this is not to disparage her) at 117.5 meters in Length Over-all, 107.0 meters in Length Between Perpendiculars, 20.6 meters in Breadth and 4,619 tons in Gross Register Tonnage. She was 1,943 tons in Net Register Tonnage and 1,477 tons in Deadweight Tonnage. This RORO liner was powered by 4 Kawasaki-MAN V8V 22/30ATL diesel engines with a combined 8,080hp which gave her a top speed of 18 knots which was also average for her size during her time. At that power she would have been more economical in fuel than the other flagships.

The stem of the ship was raked and she had transom stern. She was equipped with ramps bow and aft as access to the car deck. The ship has three decks for the passengers, the uppermost one a local addition (and that deck contained a lobby/relaxation room, the First Class bar and disco plus a game room) and abaft of the funnels is a wide open-air promenade area/sun deck. Aside from First Class and Second Class, a part of her Third Class (now known as “Economy”) is also airconditioned. This is because as-built the ship was fully air-conditioned. Her original passenger capacity as refitted was 1,692, one of the highest then among passenger ships in the country. It was broken down into 148 in 1st Class, 144 in 2nd Class, 400 in air-conditioned 3rd Class and 1,000 in non-airconditioned 3rd Class. The 3rd Class occupied the lowermost passenger deck while the First Class and Second Class accommodations and lobbies were on the deck above that and so it is the middle deck.

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Photo from a research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

Like the Sweet Faith before her, the Sweet RORO plied the premier Manila-Cebu route twice a week with a 22-hour sailing time which means a cruising speed of 18 knots for the 393-nautical mile route which is actually her design speed. It seems the policy of Sweet Lines is sail the ship at design speed because that is what they also did with the Sweet Faith. However, running a ship at 100% usually entails a ship’s not living very long. In 1988, Sweet RORO already had trouble with her engines specifically with her crankshaft as one report said and from that time on she already had difficulty sailing and if she did it is at reduced speed. The next year she was already laid up when she was less than 20 years of age. In 1990, she was sent to India for breaking up, a very short career when her two sister ships was still sailing in Greece up to the new millennium.

In 1987, Sweet RORO had a change of ownership but she was still sailing for Sweet Lines even then. She again became a Panamanian ship with the Dimerco Line SA which was the seller of her to Sweet Lines and to me that indicates a possibility that she was not fully paid for by Sweet Lines and so the seller re-acquired her. This was also about the same time that the Eduardo Lopingco group entered Sweet Lines and took over the management. With the entry of Lopingco additional ships came to the fleet but it turned out those were just chartered from the Hayashi Marine Company of Japan . Later, court cases arose after the company was not able to pay the charter to Hayashi Marine because court records show money was diverted by Lopingco to other ventures.

I wonder but I know financial troubles and mismanagement are ship killers especially when the needed maintenance of the ship are no longer made. And running ships at 100% power is parts-hungry and can result in damages to the engine in the long term especially when maintenance is not up to date. A report said that re-engining her was suggested to the company but nothing came out of it. This was already the time that the company was already headed on the way down after it seems that the founding Lim family has already lost control of the company if court filings are to be believed.

Whatever, the Sweet RORO was a big success in the Manila-Cebu route as actually Sweet Lines was a favorite of many especially the Bol-anons that until today many still remember her fondly (people are more attached then to their great liners unlike today that is why there were ship legends then including the Sweet RORO while now there is no such sentimentality anymore). However, it puzzles me why didn’t they extend the route to Tagbilaran given it was their origins and the ship had a long lay-over anyway in Cebu (was Tagbilaran port too shallow for her then?).

She was a fine ship ahead of her time. However, the sad part is she did not last long.

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The Convergence, Parallels, Rivalry and Divergence of Sweet Lines and William Lines

For introduction, Sweet Lines is a shipping company that started in Tagbilaran, Bohol while William Lines is a shipping company started in Cebu City after the war while having earlier origins in Misamis Occidental before the war. And like many shipping lines whose founders are of Chinese extraction, the founders of both Sweet Lines and William Lines were first into copra trading before branching into shipping. And long after the two became national shipping lines Bol-anons and people of Misamisnons still have a close identification and affinity to the two shipping companies and in fact were the still the prides of their provinces.

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1950 William Lines ad. Credits to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

William Lines became a national liner company in 1945 just right after the end of the war and almost exactly 20 years before Sweet Lines which was just a Visayas-Mindanao shipping company after the war whose main base is Bohol. The company just became a national liner company when it was able to buy half of the ships and routes of General Shipping Corporation when that company decided to quit the inter-island routes in 1965 after a boardroom squabble among the partner families owning it. And so William Lines had quite a head start over Sweet Lines. Now, readers might be puzzled now where is the convergence.

People who are already old enough now might think the convergence of the two shipping companies, a rivalry in fact, started when Sweet Lines fielded the luxury liner Sweet Faith in the Manila-Cebu route in 1970. That ship raised a new bar in liner shipping then plus it started a new paradigm in Cebu, that of the fast cruiser liner which is more dedicated to passengers and their comfort than cargo and has the highest level of passenger accommodations and amenities. It was really hard to match the Sweet Faith then for she was really a luxury liner even when she was still in Europe. That fast cruiser liner was not just some converted passenger-cargo or cargo-passenger ship which was the origins of practically of all the liners of the postwar period until then.

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Credits to Manila Times and Gorio Belen

Actually, the rivalry of Sweet Lines and William Lines started from convergence. William Lines, in their first 20 years of existence, was basically concentrating on the Southern Mindanao routes but of course its ships which were all ex-”FS” ships then called on Cebu and Tagbilaran first before heading south. Aside from Southern Mindanao, the only other area where William Lines concentrated was the Iligan Bay routes, specifically Iligan and Ozamis, near where the founder and the business of William Lines originated. But in 1966, William Lines started its acquisition of cargo-passenger ships from Europe for conversion here like what Go Thong & Company earlier did and what Sweet Lines will soon follow into. It was actually an expansion as they were not disposing of their old ex-”FS” ships and naturally an expansion of the fleet will mean seeking of new routes or concentration. 

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Credits to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

Sweet Lines, meanwhile, had an initial concentration of routes in the Eastern Visayas as a liner company which was dictated by the purchase of half of the fleet of General Shipping Corporation which consisted of five liners which were all ex-”FS” ships except for the new local-built General Roxas plus the Sea Belle of Royal Lines which was going out of business. But Sweet Lines immediately expanded and was also plying already the Cebu and Tagbilaran routes from Manila, naturally, because their main base was Tagbilaran. Then they also entered the Iligan Bay routes in 1967 and it was even using the good Sweet Rose (the former General Roxas) there which was a heavy challenge to all the shipping companies serving there that were just using ex-”FS” ships there previously. Of course, not to be outdone William Lines later brought there their brand-new Misamis Occidental, their flagship then, in 1970. If William Lines had two frequencies a week to the two ports of Iligan Bay in 1967, then that was the frequency of Sweet Lines too. And if William Lines had twice a week frequency to Cebu and Tagbilaran, then that was also the frequency of the expanding Sweet Lines. Their only difference in 1967 was William Lines had routes to Southern Mindanao while Sweet Lines had none there but the latter had routes to the strong shipping region then of Eastern Visayas while William Lines had no route then there.

Another area of confrontation of the two shipping companies was the Visayas-Mindanao regional routes. Sweet Lines was long a power then there especially since that was their place of origin. They then relegated there most of the ex-”FS” ships like the ones they acquired from General Shipping and thus in the late 1960’s they had the best ships sailing there. Meanwhile, William Lines which was also a player there also then used some of their ex-”FS” ships which were formerly in the liner routes (William Lines had a few ex-”FS” ships to spare since they bought five of those from other local shipping companies and they already were receiving former cargo-passenger ships from Europe starting in 1966). So by this time Sweet Lines and William Lines were not only competing in Cebu and Tagbilaran and in Iligan Bay but also in the Visayas-Mindanao regional routes.

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Credits to The Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen 

In the late 1960’s the government provided a loan window for the purchase of brand-new liners and among the countries that provided the funds for that was what was known as West Germany then (this was before the German reunification). From that window, the new liner company Sweet Lines ordered the Sweet Grace from Weser Seebeck of Bremerhaven, West Germany in 1968. William Lines followed suit by ordering a brand-new liner not from West Germany but from Japan which turned out to be the Misamis Occidental and this seemed to be taking the path of the expansion of Negros Navigation Company which was ordering brand-new liners from Japan shipbuilders. 

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Credits to Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen

Imagine for William Lines fielding the brand-new Misamis Occidental in Cebu in 1970 only to be upset by the more luxurious and much faster Sweet Faith in the same year. And that was aside from the also-good Sweet Grace and Sweet Rose also calling in Cebu. Maybe that was the reason, that of not being too outgunned, that William Lines immediately ordered a new ship from Japan, a sister ship of the Don Juan, the flagship of Negros Navigation Company but with a more powerful engine so she can top or at least match the speed of the Sweet Faith and that turned out later to be the legendary liner Cebu City. From its fielding in 1972, the battle of Cebu City and Sweet Faith was the stuff of legends (was using blocks of ice to cool down the engine room of Sweet Faith at full trot a stuff of legend?)

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Credits to Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

As background to that, in 1970 with only the brand-new liner Misamis Occidental William Lines had to fend off Sweet Faith, Sweet Rose, also the first Sweet Sail which was a former liner of Southern Lines that was not an ex-”FS” ship but much faster and at times also the brand-new liner Sweet Grace . William Lines had a few converted cargo-passenger ships from Europe calling in Cebu already on the way to Southern Mindanao then but Sweet Lines had the same number of that also. If William Lines found aggressiveness in ship purchases from the mid-1960’s, Sweet Lines turned out to be more aggressive that in a short period of less than a decade it was already in the coattails of William Lines over-all and even beating it to Cebu, the backyard of William Lines. That was how aggressive was Sweet Lines in their initial ascent as a national liner company. And would anyone believe that in 1970 Sweet Lines was no longer using any ex-”FS” ship in its national liner routes, the first national liner company to do so (when other competitors were still using that type well in to the 1980’s)? So their ad their they were modern seems it was not a made-up stuff only.

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A former cargo-passenger ship from Europe using the eastern seaboard of Mindanao route. Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen

But that was not even the end of the expansion of Sweet Lines which the company penetrated the Southern Mindanao, the bread and butter of William Lines (note: Compania Maritima, Gothong & Co. and Philippine Steam Navigation Co. were stronger there having more ships) using the eastern seaboard of Mindanao, a route that William Lines do not serve. It is actually a shortcut, as pointed out by Sweet Lines but there are not many intermediate ports that can be served there to increase the volume of the cargo and the passengers (and so Sweet Lines passed through more ports before heading to Surigao and Davao). Besides, the seas of the eastern seaboard are rough many months of the year and maybe that was the reason why Sweet Lines used their bigger former cargo-passenger ships from Europe rather than using their small ex-”FS” ships (in this period their competitors to Davao were still using that type).

And so, in 1972, William Lines entered the stronghold of Sweet Lines, which it dominated, the port of Tacloban which the company was not serving before. Was that to repay the compliments of Sweet Lines entering their Iligan Bay bastion and their ports of Cebu and Tagbilaran plus the foray of Sweet Lines in Davao? William Lines entered Tacloban alright but it was a tepid attempt at first by just using an ex-”FS” ship (maybe they just want to take away some cargo). Their main challenge in Tacloban will come three years later in 1975 with their fast cruiser liner Tacloban City, only the third of its type in William Lines after the liners Misamis Occidental and Cebu City and that maybe shows how itching was William Lines in returning the compliments. Or showing up Sweet Lines.

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Where were the other leading national liner companies in this battle of the two? Regarding Gothong & Company, I think their sights were more aimed at the leading shipping company Compania Maritima plus in filling the requirements of strategic partner Lu Do & Lu Ym which was scooping all the the copra that they can get. Actually, the Go Thong & Company and Compania Maritima both had overseas lines then. Meanwhile, the Philippine Steam Navigation Company (PSNC) and plus Aboitiz Shipping Corporation (revived as a separate entity in 1966 after the buy-out of the other half of General Shipping Corporation) and Cebu Bohol Ferry Company, a subsidiary of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation which are operating as one is competing neither here or there as it seems they were just content on keeping what was theirs and that the interests of Everett Steamship, the American partner of Aboitiz in PSNC will be protected and later cornered when the Laurel-Langley Agreement lapses in 1974. Plus Aboitiz through the Cebu Shipyard & Engineering Works were raking it all in servicing the ships of the competition including the lengthening of the ex-”FS” and ex-”F” ships of their competitors (plus of course their own). Their routes are so diverse and even quixotic that I cannot see their focal point. It is not Cebu for sure and whereas their rivals were already acquiring new ships they were moored in maintaining their so-many ex-”FS” ships (they had then the most in the country). Also in owning Cebu Shipyard & Engineering Works they were confident they can make these ships run forever as they had lots of spare parts in stock and maybe that was through their American connection (not only through Everett Steamship but the Aboitizes are also American citizens). Besides, in Everett Steamship they were also in overseas routes and having overseas routes plus domestic shipping was the hallmark of the first tier of shipping companies then aside from having more ships. In this first tier, the Philippine President Lines (PPL) was also in there but later they surrendered their domestic operations.

Meanwhile, the greatest thrust of Gothong & Company it seems was to serve the needs and interests of Lu Do & Lu Ym but it was a strategic partnership that brought Gothong a lot of dividends so much so that before their break-up in 1972 they might have already been ahead of Compania Maritima in the inter-island routes with all the small ships that they are sailing in the regional routes aside from the national routes. Gothong & Company as might not be realized by many is actually a major regional shipping company too and with a bigger area than that served by Sweet Lines and William Lines for they were operating a lot of small ferries whose primary role is to transport the copra of Lu Do & Lu Ym, the biggest copra and coconut oil concern then in the country and carrying passengers is just secondary. In the Visayas-Mindanao routes, the Top 3 were actually Go Thong & Company, Sweet Lines and William Lines, in that order maybe. From Cebu, Go Thong had small ships to as far as Tawi-tawi and the Moro Gulf plus the eastern seaboard of Mindanao and Samar. Sweet Lines, however was very strong in passenger department.

In the early 1970’s, many will be surprised if I will say that the fleets of William Lines and Sweet Lines were at near parity but the former had a slight pull. And that was really a mighty climb by Sweet Lines from just being a major regional shipping company, a result of their aggressiveness and ambition. Imagine nearly catching up William Lines, an established shipping company with loads of political connection (think of Ferdinand Marcos, a good friend of William Chiongbian, the founder) and topping the likes of whatever General Shipping Company, Southern Lines and Escano Lines have ever reached. Entering the late 1970’s, Sweet Lines (and William Lines) were already beginning to threaten the place of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation (including the integrated Philippine Steam Navigation Corporation) which will drop off a lot subsequently after they stopped buying ships after 1974.

Where did the divergence of the two very comparable shipping companies began? It began from 1975 when William Lines started acquiring the next paradigm-changing type of ships, the surplus fast cruiser liners from Japan which Sweet Lines declined to match but which the rising successor-to-Gothong Sulpicio Lines did. At just the start of the 1980’s with the success from this type of ship William Lines and Sulpicio Lines were already jostling to replace the tottering Compania Maritima from its top perch. It seems Sweet Lines failed to realize the lesson that the former cargo-passenger ships from Europe and the brand-new Sweet Grace and the good Sweet Rose fueled their rise in the late 1960’s and that the acquired luxury liners Sweet Faith and Sweet Home continued their rise at the start of the 1970’s. And these former cargo-passenger ships from Europe also propelled Gothong & Company and William Lines in their ascent. Why did Sweet Lines stop acquiring good liners? Was there a financial reason behind their refusal to join the fast cruiser phenomenon? Well, they were not the only ones which did not join the fast cruiser liner bandwagon.

The biggest blunder of Sweet Lines was when they declared in 1978 that henceforth they will just acquire small RORO passenger ships. I do not know if they were imitating Sulpicio Lines which went for small ROROs first (but then that company had fast cruiser liners from Japan). That might have been good for their regional routes but not for the liner routes. And to think their luxury liners Sweet Faith and Sweet Home might already conk out anytime because of old age (yes, both were gone in two years). And so for a short period Sweet Lines have no good liners for Cebu, the time William Lines was fielding their Dona Virginia, the biggest and fastest liner when it was fielded and Sulpicio Lines was fielding the Philippine Princess. What a blasphemy and turn-around! In 1970, just ten years earlier, Sweet Lines was dominating William Lines in the Cebu route. That was a miscalculation from which Sweet Lines never seemed to recover. From fielding the best there, Sweet Lines suddenly had no horse. And so the next chapter of the luxury liner wars in the premier Manila-Cebu route was fought not by William Lines and Sweet Lines but by William Lines and the surging Sulpicio Lines. In just a decade’s time Sweet Lines forgot that it was modernity in ships and aggression in routes that brought them to where they were.

1980 Dona Virginia

Credits to Daily Express and Gorio Belen

When Sweet Lines acquired the Sweet RORO in 1982 to battle again in the Manila-Cebu route it was as if they imitated the strategy of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) to go direct into the RORO or ROPAX paradigm and bypass the fast cruiser liners altogether (but then where was CAGLI in the totem pole of liner companies even if they bypassed the fast cruiser liner stage?). But by then their former cargo-passenger ships from Europe were already failing and will very soon be gone. The net effect was the Sweet Lines liner total was regressing even though they acquired the Sweet RORO 2 in 1983 to pair the Sweet RORO. The reason for this is its former cargo-passenger ships from Europe were already in its last gasps and the small ROROs were never really suited for liner duty except for the direct routes to Tagbilaran and Tacloban. If studied it can be shown that when a liner company stops at some time to buy liners sufficient in numbers and size then they get left behind. This is also what happened to Compania Maritima, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and Escano Lines, the reason the fell by the wayside in the 1980’s). And that is what happened to Sweet Lines just a little bit later and so its near-parity with Williams Lines which surged in the 1970’s and 1980’s was broken. And that completed their divergence.

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Credits to Philippine Daily Express and Gorio Belen

In the early 1990’s, Sweet Lines will completely fail and stop all shipping operations, in liners, regional shipping and cargo operations (through their Central Shipping Corporation) and sell their ships with some of the ships sadly being broken up (a few of their ships were also garnished by creditors). Meanwhile, William Lines was still trying then to catch up with Sulpicio Lines that had overtaken them through a big splash in big and fast ROPAXes in 1988.

Sweet Lines benefited in the middle of the 1960’s with the quitting of General Shipping and Royal Lines. Later, William Lines, Sulpicio Lines and Sweet Lines benefited with the retreat of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation in the late 1970’s. In the next decade, William Lines and Sulpicio Lines benefited from the collapse of Compania Maritima in the crisis years at the tailend of the Marcos dictatorship. Sweet Lines did not benefit from that because they were not poised to because of their grave error in 1978.

When Sweet Lines collapsed in the early 1990’s it seems among those which benefited was the revived Aboitiz Shipping Corporation which was helped in getting back to the liner business by Jebsens of Norway (think SuperFerry). Well, that’s just the way it is in competition. It is a rat race and one can never pause or stop competing as the others will simply swallow the weak.

Container Ships Also Sink Our Liners

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

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

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

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

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

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

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

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

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

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

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

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

1979-sep-wilcon-i-iv

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

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

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

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

Superferry 12

Photo by Edison Sy

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

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

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

Lorcon Dumaguete assisted by tugs

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

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

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

LCT Raenell

A Cargo RORO LCT by Asian Shipping Corporation

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

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

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