The RORO Cargo Ships of Sulpicio Lines Are All Gone Now

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

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The Our Lady of Sacred Heart by Britz Salih

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

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

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Sulpicio Express Uno by Aris Refugio

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

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

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Sulpicio Express Tres by Aris Refugio

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

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

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Ozamis Bay 1 by James Gabriel Verallo

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

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

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Sulpicio Express Dos as Span Asia 15 by Mike Baylon

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

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

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

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Sulpicio Express Uno not sailing before her sale

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

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

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

Sad to see the three go.

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The Last Liner of Sulpicio Lines

Sulpicio Lines had a journey of being the biggest passenger shipping company in the Philippines to having no more passenger ships in the end, driven by sinkings with great casualties on years ending with “8” which was supposedly “lucky” to the Chinese but which ended up disastrously for them. In 1988, their “Dona Marilyn”, a former replacement flagship as “Dona Ana” sank in a Signal No.3 typhoon in the Samar Sea with the loss of hundreds of lives. In 1998, the “Princess of the Orient”, their flagship sank in a Signal No.3 typhoon off Cavite and again with the loss of hundreds of lives. And in 2008, the “Princess of the Stars”, their flagship and the biggest-ever liner in the inter-island routes, also sank in a Signal No.3 typhoon near Sibuyan island, with great loss of lives too that raised a public and international howl. Topping it all was the sinking of the “Dona Paz”, a former flagship as “Don Sulpicio” after a collision with a tanker near Mindoro where the ship was engulfed by the resulting flames. This happened in Christmas season of 1987 and it was considered by many as the greatest peacetime maritime disaster ever but the knowledgeable know the casualty count in that was greatly just bloated.

This series of great casualties in sinkings and the great howl created by the sinking of “Princess of the Stars” resulted in a suspension of their passenger fleet with strict conditions for their comeback in passenger shipping. From suspension, only two of their passenger ships were able continue regular sailing, one in the Manila-Cebu route, the “Princess of the South” and one in the overnight Cebu-Cagayan de Oro-Nasipit-Jagna routes, the “Princess of the Earth”. This is the story of the last-ever liner of Sulpicio Lines, the “Princess of the South”, an unlikely ship to be the last-ever liner and “flagship” of Sulpicio Lines.

When “Princess of the South” arrived in the Philippines for Sulpicio Lines in 2005, she was not that much heralded, not that highly thought of especially since she was just medium-sized among our liners and middling in speed and accommodations. She came to take over the Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-General Santos route for the company which was long held by the “Princess of the Pacific” but that ship had a serious grounding incident off Panay island in 2004 where she was declared a complete total loss (CTL). Her temporary replacement, the “Princess of the World”, meanwhile, had a fire in 2005 from which she was never repaired again. Another Sulpicio ship that had a route to General Santos City, the “Princess of Unity” also gave up and she was sent to the breakers in 2004 because one of her four engines was already very defective. That was the backgrounder from which the “Princess of the South” was fielded. Maybe it was a little daunting to replace those liners and maybe her name was a reflection of her route.

The “Princess of the South” was known as the “New Katsura” in Japan and she was owned by the Osaka Kochi Express Ferry. She was built by the Naikai Zosen Corporation in their Setoda yard in Japan and she was completed in April of 1981. A steel-hulled ship, she had two masts, two angled funnels and three passenger decks. She had a bulbous stem, a square-end stern and a quarter stern ramp on the starboard side. With a truck deck and a mezzanine for sedans, she was a RORO ship capable of carrying about 100 TEUs.

The “New Katsura” measured 141.3 meters length over-all by 22.7 meters breadth with a gross tonnage (GT) of 6,773 and a deadweight tonnage (DWT) of 3,249 tons. She was equipped with two IHI-SEMT Pielstick engines that had a total of 15,600 horsepower which was enough to give her a top speed of 19.5 knots when new. Her keel was laid down in 1980, that is why her permanent ID was IMO 8017865. Interestingly, she was built near a cargo ship ordered by the Philippine Government which was destined for Galleon Shipping, the “Galleon Agate”.

In coming here in 2005, Sulpicio Lines no longer tampered with the superstructure in her refitting. That time it was already obvious passenger patronage of shipping was already declining and the era of 2,000+ passenger liners was already over and so she had a passenger capacity of just 1,300. Maybe Sulpicio Lines was also rushing then to fill the void to their General Santos City route that they did not even bother to put scantlings at the stern of the ship to increase the cubic capacity of the ship. The cruising speed of the ship here was only about 18 knots which was about average for our liners and that was just about the same as the speed of the liner “Princess of Paradise” which she replaced.

From my analysis of the ship, it seems they converted the mezzanine for sedans into the open-air Economy section of the ship. The stern portion of this deck remained for loading of sedans here (brand-new ones for car dealers down south). The Tourist section was converted from the cabin for truck drivers in Japan. The Economy De Luxe section was on a deck higher of that and it could have been a big cabin for tatami accommodations in Japan. There were a lot of cabins for the Tourist De Luxe in the uppermost passenger deck and it seems those were formerly cabins too in Japan. First Class Cabins and Suites were in the forward section of this deck ahead of the middle of the ship.

This liner had a small First Class restaurant called “The Good View”. It was no longer as opulent as the First Class restaurants of our past great liners and it was just small. Here the usual smorgasbord eat-all-you-can treat of Sulpicio Lines applied. The Second Class restaurant for the Tourist passengers was just about okay in size but its furnishings were better than the First Class restaurant. This had the name “Mandarin Sky” which to the uninitiated might sound as the higher class restaurant. The Economy restaurant called “The Terrace” was an open-air dining place at the stern that seemed a little small too and so queues formed. It had simple tables and benches but being laminated it looked more presentable. It was also here where the ordinary crew members dine. Like the previous Sulpicio Lines tradition, it was “rice-all-you-can” here which means “unlimited rice”. The ship also had a canteen that operated from dawn to midnight and it is located near the partial-deck for the sedans. It was always full of passengers because that was where the charging stations for cellphones were located.

This ship was one of the few among local liners that had an escalator. This leads to the main lobby cum front desk area. Near that was a bar-lounge and behind that was the Second Class restaurant. The ship had many lounges but that did not include the First Class and Second Class restaurants (because it was closed when not meal time) except for the Economy restaurant which was always open. There was also a playground in the sun deck and that top deck also served as a promenade/observation deck although its area was rather small. This was because of the new ISPS rules governing ship security. And so the bridge and the side of the crew accommodations at the top were no longer accessible by the public.

Other amenities included a chapel and a wishing well, if the those can be called as amenities. However, they served as welcome attractions and actually the chapels seats were a good way to have a seat if one got tired in the sun deck as they were just adjacent. There were also a spa and a beauty parlor for relaxation and grooming needs. Below the escalator there were videos and an arcade for games. Over-all, taking a walk around the ship was not really tiring (and one can’t say that about our great liners of the past). One reason is the passenger areas did not really extend much further than the funnels of the ship and hence the passenger decks were rather short.

Her original route was Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas (General Santos City) which she sailed once a week. Her departures and arrivals were:

MANILA

TUESDAY

10:00 AM

ILOILO

WEDNESDAY

5:00 AM

ILOILO

WEDNESDAY

3:00 PM

ZAMBOANGA

THURSDAY

5:00 AM

ZAMBOANGA

THURSDAY

5:00 PM

DADIANGAS

FRIDAY

5:00 AM

DADIANGAS

FRIDAY

6:00 PM

ZAMBOANGA

SATURDAY

6:00 AM

ZAMBOANGA

SATURDAY

4:00 PM

ILOILO

SUNDAY

6:00 AM

ILOILO

SUNDAY

12:00 NN

MANILA

MONDAY

7:00 AM

That was a schedule that had plenty of lay-overs which was good for the engines which can then rest and be checked. The crew and the passengers can then make visits or even make “free tourism” (tour the city where the ship is docked). She was successful in that southern route and her size was just fit. And by the way, she was almost the same size as the “Princess of the Pacific” (137.5 meters x 20.2 meters) that she replaced there but that ship has a far higher passenger capacity than her at 2,286. Incidentally, these two ships had the same engines although the SEMT Pielstick engines of the “Princess of the Pacific” were made by NKK (Nippon Kokan KK) of Japan.

She suddenly stopped sailing this route when Sulpicio Lines got suspended after the capsizing of the “Princess of the Stars” in June of 2008. She was then just in her third year of sailing in this route. When Sulpicio Lines was partially allowed to sail again, she was transferred to the Manila-Cebu route to take the place of the “Princess of the Stars”. Passenger patronage of ships had already declined then in general but Sulpicio Lines was hit harder. It seems only those who understood her were still sailing with her and so maybe a smaller ship with a smaller engine made more sense.

As a come-on, her fares were very low. If purchased direct from the company, the Saver (Economy) class was just P867, Saver Plus (Economy Deluxe) was P967, Tourist was P1,067, Tourist De Luxe was P1,167, Cabin w/o T&B was 1,267, Cabin with T&B was P1,367 and the room rate for Suite was P3,135. In Cebu, the terminal fee and the aircon shuttle bus chartered by Sulpicio Lines were even free. But when I sailed with her in 2014 I felt sad. I can feel an era was closing and there was no glee in the crew and they were no longer young. I heard “Princess of the South” was for sale and the crew knows it. It was an open secret that Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation (the new name of Sulpicio Lines) was getting out of passenger shipping.

I heard there were negotiations between a Cebu regional shipping company and Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation for the possible purchase of the “Princess of the South”. In the end, to the sadness of many, the deal fell through and “Princess of the South” was instead bought by Bangladeshi ship breakers. Subsequently, she left Cebu simply as the “Princess” one day in October of 2014. Her demolition began in Chittagong on November 9, 2014.

A few months after she was sold, Sulpicio Lines or PSACC was forever barred by the maritime regulatory agency MARINA from sailing passenger ships. The then-Secretary of the Department of Transportation and Communications expressed hope some others will enter the liner industry. But to knowledgeable observers they know that is an empty hope.

As the Americans say, “the medicine was too strong that it killed the horse”.