The MV Manila City

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

William Lines, from their very start and even when their fleet was not yet big always stressed the Southern Mindanao routes, a stress that was even over that of their stress in Northern Mindanao. They have their reasons and it might be economic. Maybe the political came later. It is known that Mr. William Chiongbian, the owner and founder was for a long time a Congressman of Misamis Occidental and was even Governor. Panguil Bay and Iligan Bay was the only consistent stress of William Lines in Northern Mindanao. In Southern Mindanao his brother James Chiongbian was a Congressman for long time of the southern portion of the old Cotabato province.

In Southern Mindanao, for decades William Lines maintained the Manila-Cebu-Tagbilaran-Dumaguete-Zamboanga-Dadiangas-Davao route and even early the company devoted six ships of their fleet in that route to maintain a thrice a week departure from Manila. Even when the former passenger-cargo ships from Europe arrived, William Lines simply plugged it in those routes in place of the former ex-”FS” ships. Later, that basic route had variations like dropping Tagbilaran in one or two of the schedules or inserting Iligan in that schedule or going first to Davao than Dadiangas.

When the era of fast cruiser liners arrived with only one intermediate port in the route, William Lines acquired and fielded the fast cruiser MV Manila City in the Manila-Zamboanga-Davao route in 1976. This was actually the second MV Manila City in the Wiliam Lines fleet after the first MV Manila City which was an ex-”FS” ship. Later the second MV Manila City dropped anchor in General Santos City on the way back to Manila. Gensan was the base of Mr. James Chiongbian and the passenger and cargo of Gensan are too big to ignore when it was just on the way.

The MV Manila City was first in competition with the fast cruiser liner MV Dona Ana (later MV Dona Marilyn) of Sulpicio Lines which was augmented later by the fast cruisers MV Don Enrique (later MV Davao Princess and MV Iloilo Princess) and MV Don Eusebio (later MV Dipolog Princess) in 1978. These Sulpicio ships were doing the Manila-Cebu-Davao route. The MV Manila City was faster but she was doing the longer route. All of them were capable of completing the whole route in just a week. Later, in 1979, the Dona Ana was pulled out from the Davao route and she was placed in the twice a week Manila-Cebu route when the flagship of Sulpicio Lines, the MV Don Sulpicio was hit by fire near Batangas while on a voyage.

For 15 long years from 1976 until her death in 1991, the MV Manila City was the only fast cruiser of William Lines in the Southern Mindanao route and she had to contend with the MV Don Enrique and MV Don Eusebio of Sulpicio Lines. For most of this period the MV Manila City was augmented by the other cruisers of William Lines including the former passenger-cargo ships from Europe. Two of them, however, the MV Davao City and MV Zamboanga tried a direct route to Davao. The MV Dumaguete and MV General Santos City also did a Manila-Zamboanga-Davao route. The late 1970’s was no longer an era of too many intermediate ports. Even Sulpicio Lines was also in this new trend in this era.

From 1979, however, William Lines also joined the new paradigm and bandwagon which was containerization. The new container ships made direct sailings with no intermediate ports like a direct route to Davao or General Santos City. With that there was less need to send passenger-cargo ships to Southern Mindanao. However, the MV Manila City continued on its old route and sailed faithfully.

The MV Manila City was a ship built in 1970 by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in its main yard in Shimonoseki, Japan. Her original name was MV Nihon Maru. She was young when she was sold to William Lines in 1976 at only 6 years of age and use. Her former owner in Japan was Mitsubishi Shintaku Ginko and her ID was IMO 7005798.

The ship’s external measurements were 106.3 meters by 14.0 meters by 6.2 meters and her original gross register tonnage was 2,998 tons. She had a maximum speed of 20.5 knots when new from her twin Mitsubishi engines that totaled 8,800 horsepower (this was high at its time and actually the highest for the local liners from 1976 to 1980). So she was actually bigger and as fast the flagship MV Cebu City of William Lines. She was dubbed as the “Sultan of the Sea” by William Lines.

In the Philippines, the MV Manila City had a gross tonnage of 2,961 with a net tonnage of 1,648. The ship had the highest gross tonnage in the William Lines fleet before the arrival of the MV Dona Virginia. She had a passenger capacity of 1,388 which is again higher than the flagship MV Cebu City. The ship was billed as fully air-conditioned. It seems in the 1970’s this was already the standard for a luxury liner (of course they also touted the passenger service and the food plus the entertainment).

As advertised:”The ship is equipped with the latest navigational and life-saving equipment including self-lighting lamps, an automatic signal transmitter and the latest in compasses and radars. It is fully automated, with the engine room controlled from the bridges.” (From Times Journal, September 24, 1976).

The ship had a raked stem and a cruiser stern. She had two masts, two side funnels and three passenger decks. She had an observation deck atop her bridge which is accessible by passengers. Her loading capacity in Deadweight Tons was 3,766 tons which was higher than the DWT of MV Cebu City.

The MV Manila’s first schedule was:

LV Manila, Wednesday 10AM
AR Zamboanga Thursday 2 PM (18.3 knots average speed)
LV Zamboanga Thursday 12 MN
AR Davao Friday 5 PM (18.3 knots average speed)
LV Davao Saturday 9 PM
AR Zamboanga Sunday 2 PM
LV Zamboanga Sunday 12 MN
AR Manila Tuesday 4 AM

In later years, the departure of MV Manila City from North Harbor changed. At one time she also dropped anchor in Odiongan before proceeding to Zamboanga. This was in the late 1980’s when William Lines was maximizing its routes by dropping by on additional ports in Panay and Romblon.

On February 16, 1991, the MV Manila City was on drydock in Cebu Shipyard Engineering Works (CSEW) in Mactan island. While in a graving dock and hot works were being done on the ship by a sub-contractor, the ship caught fire. The next day the ship sank and was declared beyond economic salvage and repair. The vessel was insured was P45,000.000 (in 1991 currency). She was broken on January 1992.

The MV Manila City was replaced initially by the MV Zamboanga City, a RORO liner, in her route. In 1992, her replacement vessel, the MV Maynilad which was a much bigger vessel came. However, this ship, though beautiful and well-appointed was a disappointment in speed since she can only do 15 knots when new which was significantly below the speed of the vessel she replaced. She can also do the route in also one weak, though.

The MV Manila City was a good ship. It is just too bad she did not last long like her contemporaries in the Southern Mindanao route.

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The Battle for the Southern Mindanao Ports After The War And Before The Era of RORO Liners

Discussing this topic, the author wishes to clarify that the discussion will be limited to the period after World War II. There are not enough research materials yet before the war and in that earlier period Southern Mindanao was not yet that economically important to the country since the great wave of migration to the region only happened starting in the 1950’s and then peaking in the 1960’s and the 1970’s.

Talking of Southern Mindanao ports, these consisted mainly of Davao, General Santos (or Dadiangas) and Cotabato (which is actually Parang or Polloc port located in another town) and to some extent also Pagadian and Kabasalan in earlier times and also Mati and Bislig. Since ships generally used the western approach, inadvertently Zamboanga port will be included in this since all ships to Southern Mindanao port using the western approach will use that as an intermediate stop since it just lies along the route and it has a good passenger and cargo volume.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

After World War II, shipping to Southern Mindanao boomed because it was the “new frontier” of the country. There was great migration by Christians from other parts of the country and this was encouraged and supported by the government to ease the “land pressure” in Luzon and Visayas which was the fuel then for the land unrest (read: Pambansang Kilusan ng Magbubukid, Sakdalista movement, Hukbalahap, etc.). The land of Mindanao was being opened through the building of roads and the bounty of the land and the forests were being exploited (without asking the say-so of the native peoples and that fueled the unrest of the latter decades; the Luzon land unrest was “solved” to be replaced by Mindanao unrest and war – what an irony and tragedy!). And so people and goods needed to be transported and in such a situation where “ships come where there is cargo” there was a battle for the Southern Mindanao ports among the local shipping companies. Davao was the primary route and port of Southern Mindanao and almost invariably the Davao ships will also drop anchor in Dadiangas (General Santos City).

At the outset, it was Compania Maritima which led the pack to Southern Mindanao after World War II as she was the biggest liner shipping company then with the most ships, half of which were big by local standards (that means a length of about 100 meters). The company possessed ex-“C1-M-AV1” surplus ships as compensation by the US Government for their ships lost during the war and also big cargo-passenger ships from Europe while the competition had no better than the small ex-“FS” ships from the US Army which have to seek shelter when the seas begin to roil.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

Among the Compania Maritima competitors to the Southern Mindanao ports in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s were Philippine Steam and Navigation Company (PSNC), Manila Steamship Company, De la Rama Steamship, William Lines Inc. and Escano Lines. Most of the liner shipping companies of the day then shirked from Southern Mindanao routes because it was taxing on the fleet as the ships needed two weeks for the entire voyage. So just to be able to offer a weekly schedule, two ships of the fleet must be devoted to a Southern Mindanao route.

It was Philippine Steam and Navigation Company (PSNC), being backed by Everett Steamship of the United States, which was more competitive against Compania Maritima as it also had ex-“C1-M-AV1” and ex-“Type N3” ships. PSNC was a venture between Everett Steamship and Aboitiz Shipping (and later with the end of “Parity Rights”, it passed on to the latter). Manila Steamship Co. was competitive, too since it also had a big fleet. However, this company quit shipping after the explosion and fire that hit their flagship “Mayon” in 1955. Meanwhile, De la Rama Steamship even quit earlier to concentrate on international shipping and being an agents after some local issues.

The year that Manila Steamship quit shipping, the new liner company Carlos A. Go Thong & Company joined the Southern Mindanao battle, too. In the mid-1950’s, with some shake-out in the shipping industry, there were less competitors and ships in this decade (because some really old ships have already quit along with some very small ones). It should be noted, however, that there were ocean-going liners that were originating from Southern Mindanao that goes to Manila first before proceeding to Japan and the USA. Some of those that provided that kind of service were Everett Steamship and Compania Maritima.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In the 1960’s, passenger-cargo ships from Europe that were bigger than the ex-“FS” ships began to arrive in the Philippines and many of these were fielded to the Southern Mindanao routes. Among the users of that type were Go Thong and William Lines. Go Thong was also able to acquire the big World War II surplus “C1-A” ships like the “Manila Bay” and “Subic Bay”. Compania Maritima, however, bought brand-new liners and chartered big reparations cargo-passenger ships from the government-owned National Development Corporation (NDC) and so they held on to their lead in the Southern Mindanao routes in this decade. Meanwhile, Everett/PSNC was not far behind and they even used in Southern Mindanao their new liners from Japan, the “Elcano” and the “Legazpi”. Additionally, there was a new entrant in the late 1960’s, the ambitious Sweet Lines which was one of the beneficiaries of the quitting of General Shipping Company of local routes (the other was Aboitiz Shipping Corporation).

At the start of the 1970’s, Compania Maritima was still ruling the Southern Mindanao routes. But several very interesting developments happened in this decade. First, the big Go Thong/Universal Shipping which already exceeded Compania Maritima in size had broken into three shipping companies and Sulpicio Lines Incorporated, Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated and Lorenzo Shipping Corporation emerged (until 1979 the operation of the latter two were joint). In a few years time, however, Sulpicio Lines grew fast and proved to be a strong competitor. In this decade, it was already slowly becoming obvious that Compania Maritima was losing steam especially as they regularly lost ships in storms. William Lines then was in a race with Sulpicio Lines to dislodge Compania Maritima from its perch. Everett Steamship meanwhile bowed out because of the end of “Parity Rights” of the Americans (and thus they are no longer allowed to do business as a Philippine “national”) and PSNC (their partnership with the Aboitizes) was merged with Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and the latter became the surviving entity. But with no new ships, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation bowed out of Southern Mindanao liner service. However, the combined Lorenzo Shipping Corporation and Carlos A. Gothong Shipping Lines (CAGLI) and Sweet Lines Inc. were still competing heavily in the Southern Mindanao routes in the 1970’s.

Two very important developments happened before the end of the 1970’s. One, containerization began and this changed the game of shipping. Where before it was just practically the liners that carried the cargo, now the carriers split into two, the container ships and the liners. Subsequently, the passenger capacity of the liners grew as they no longer have to devote a lot of space for cargo. By this time, the massive migration of Christians to Southern Mindanao has also boomed its population and consequently more need to travel.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

The second development was the introduction of fast cruiser liners that call on just one intermediate port (before a liner to Davao will usually call first in Cebu, Tagbilaran, a northern Mindanao port maybe, Zamboanga definitely and Dadiangas. So where before 10-knot ships like the ex-”FS” and ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships will take two weeks to complete an entire voyage and the faster ex-European passenger-cargo ships cycles every 10 or 11 days, the new fast cruisers complete the voyage in just a week. By my definition, fast cruisers of this period were the liners capable then of 18 knots. Usually, these were not converted cargo-passenger ships from other countries (these were fast cruisers even in Japan, usually). These were also luxury liners in the local parlance and one key feature of that is the availability of air-conditioning. With that truly luxurious suites and cabins became possible.

The fast “Dona Ana” (later “Dona Marilyn”) of Sulpicio Lines which came in 1976 tried to change the game by just having one intermediate port call, in Cebu. William Lines responded with the even faster cruiser “Manila City” (the second) in 1976 which only had Zamboanga as its intermediate port. With their speed and the use of just one intermediate port, the “Dona Ana” and “Manila City” was able maintain a weekly schedule. Although the luxurious flagship “Filipinas” of Compania Maritima was also fast at 17 knots, she dropped by many intermediate ports and so she cannot maintain a weekly sailing. Compania Maritima never dropped the old style of many intermediate ports.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

Gothong+Lorenzo was not able to respond well to this challenge (though they tried) as they had no true fast cruiser liners. So, they had to use two ships for a route to maintain a weekly sailing or three ships to maintain a cycle of every 10 days. Sweet Lines also tried but like Gothong+Lorenzo they also have no fast cruisers assigned to Southern Mindanao (they had two though in Cebu, the “Sweet Faith” and the “Sweet Home”). Compania Maritima and Sweet Lines were the users of three ships to the Davao route to be able to cycle a ship every 10 days. Aboitiz Shipping, meanwhile, with no new ships simply dropped out of liner shipping to Southern Mindanao and just concentrated on container shipping.

Although William Lines and Sulpicio Lines already had fast cruiser liners to Southern Mindanao they also still used their old passenger-cargo ships to the region in the late 1970’s in conjunction with their fast cruisers liners. So with them the passengers have a choice of the fast or the slow which was also less luxurious. Fares also differed, of course.

In the container segment of shipping, the battle was toe-to-toe. Aboitiz Shipping rolled out the Aboitiz Concarriers, William Lines had the Wilcons, Sulpicio Lines fielded the Sulcons (Sulpicio Container) and later Lorenzo Shipping sailed the Lorcons (Lorenzo Container). Many of the ships mentioned were once general cargo ships converted into container ships. [The later series Aboitiz container ships were named Superconcarriers and Megaconcarriers.] Lorenzo Shipping then split with Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and the latter then quit Southern Mindanao routes to concentrate on the Visayas-Mindanao routes. [Later, Lorenzo Shipping quit shipping altogether and sold out to the Magsaysay group before they were reborn as the Oceanic Container Lines.]

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In passenger liners, William Lines and Sulpicio Lines continued to battle in the Southern Mindanao ports in the 1980’s using fast cruiser liners. Sulpicio Lines had the edge as they had more fast cruiser liners [William Lines still had to make do with their graying former European passenger-cargo ships]. For a while until they quit in 1984, Compania Maritima was battling Sulpicio Lines more than toe-to-toe. After all, Southern Mindanao was the area of concentration of Compania Maritima and in Davao they even have their own port, the MINTERBRO port. Compania Maritima concentrated their best liners, the “Filipinas”, “Visayas” and “Mindanao” plus their passenger-cargo ships “Leyte Gulf” and “Dadiangas” in the General Santos/Davao route before the company’s life expired. While the three were battling, the other liner companies were not able to respond except for Sea Transport Co. and Solid Shipping Lines which were not operating passenger liners. One independent liner company, the Northern Lines Inc. which had routes to Southern Mindanao also quit at about the same time of Compania Maritima at the height of the political and financial crisis leading to the mid-1980’s.

Before the era of RORO liners, there were already more container ships to Southern Mindanao than passenger liners. That how strong was the growth of that new paradigm. This new dominant paradigm even forced the fast cruisers to carry container vans atop their cargo holds as that was already the demand of the shippers and traders.

In the 1980’s before the advent of RORO liners starting in 1983 there were actually only a few fast cruiser liners doing the Southern Mindanao routes. Among those was the “Dona Ana”, the pioneer fast cruiser of Sulpicio Lines to Davao. This ship was later pulled out to replace “Don Sulpicio” in the Manila-Cebu route as the ship caught fire and she was renamed to “Dona Marilyn”. However, the fast cruisers “Don Enrique” (the later “Davao Princess” and “Iloilo Princess” and “Don Eusebio” (the later “Dipolog Princess”) alternated in the Manila-Cebu-Davao route. In 1981, when the “Philippine Princess” came, “Dona Marilyn” was reassigned to the Cotabato route. She was the first fast cruiser liner in that route.

Don Sulpicio, Dona Ana and Don Ricardo

Photo by Jon Uy Saulog

On another noteworthy trivia and clarification, Sulpicio Lines also fielded the third “Don Carlos” in the General Santos route in 1977. This ferry was a former vehicle carrier in Japan and so she had a cargo deck and a ramp. However, she was not used as a RORO ship. The ramps were just used to ease the loading of livestock from Gensan. This city sends a lot of those live commodities to Manila. She was actually a “WOWO” ship (Walk on, Walk Off). However, she also takes in heavy equipment and trucks bound for Gensan dealers. So technically “Don Carlos” was the first RORO to Southern Mindanao. But she did not use container vans.

For William Lines, the second “Manila City” (the first “Manila City” was an ex-”FS” ship) was their only fast cruiser to Southern Mindanao for a long time in this decade. Most of the passenger ships they were using in the region were former European passenger-cargo ships like what Sweet Lines were using (the company was also using the “Sweet Grace” to Southern Mindanao which was a brand-new liner in 1968 but was not that fast). Approaching the end of the decade only three national shipping companies were left sailing liners to Southern Mindanao – Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines. One of the reasons for that was the crisis spawned by the Aquino assassination halved the number of liner companies in the Philippines. It was not because the traffic to Southern Mindanao dropped considerably. In container shipping to Southern Mindanao before the RORO liners came there were six players – Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, William Lines, Sulpicio Lines, Lorenzo Shipping Corporation, Sea Transport Company and Solid Shipping Lines.

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MV Don Carlos (Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In 1983, a new paradigm arrived in the Southern Mindanao routes and it ushered a new era. These are the RORO (or ROPAX) liners which were even bigger and just as fast as the fast cruiser liners. And they can carry more container vans than the fast cruisers. Later, RORO liners were even faster as they can already sail at 20 knots. Can anyone hazard a guess which was the first RORO liner of Southern Mindanao?

I will discuss the era of RORO liners in Southern Mindanao in a subsequent article (as I do not want this article to be too long and unwieldy). With that, it will be a discussion of the recent history of the Southern Mindanao routes and liners.

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).

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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.

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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.

The Start and Impact of Containerization on Local Shipping

Containerization or the use of container vans to transport goods began in the Philippines in 1976, a decade after containerization began to take hold internationally. The new method was started by Aboitiz Shipping Corporation when they converted their 1,992-gross ton general cargo ship “P. Aboitiz” into a container carrier. This was followed by the conversion of their general cargo ship “Sipalay” in 1978. These first two container ships had limited capacity in terms of TEU (Twenty Foot Equivalent Unit) which is the common measure of container capacity that can be carried by container ships but it more than showed the direction of cargo loading in the future. And it also showed that general cargo ships can be converted container carriers.

By 1978 and 1979, containerization was already in full swing in the Philippines when major competitor shipping companies William Lines Inc., Sulpicio Lines Inc. and Lorenzo Shipping Company also embraced the new paradigm and competed. This new wave was also joined at the same time by two other small and new shipping companies, the Sea Transport Company and Solid Shipping Lines. Except for these two, our pioneers in container shipping were passenger liner (which means there are fixed schedules and routes) shipping companies.

The leading liner shipping company then which was Compania Maritima declined to follow suit into containerization along with Gothong Lines while the others like Sweet Lines, Negros Navigation and Hijos de F. Escano followed a little later in the early 1980’s. Gothong Lines, however, was into small ROROs early and these can also load container vans. Sweet Lines later founded a separate cargo-container company, the Central Shipping Company.

Like Compania Maritima, Madrigal Shipping, another old shipping company also did not follow into containerization. The smaller passenger liner companies also did not or were not capable into going to containerization. Among them were Galaxy Lines, N & S Lines, Northern Lines, Bisayan Land Transport, Newport Shipping, Cardinal Shipping, Dacema Lines, Rodrigueza Shipping, etc. Soon all of them were gone from Philippine waters and one reason was that they failed to adapt to the new paradigm and shippers were already demanding for container vans.

Before the advent of container vans, dry cargo were handled bulk or break-bulk. Bulk is when the whole ship is loaded with grains or copra. But bulk shipment is not possible in the passenger-cargo ships then as major parts of the ship is devoted to passengers and its requirements. Along with passengers, the passenger-cargo ships then carried various merchandise as in finished goods from the city like canned goods, “sin” products and construction materials. On the return trip, it would carry farm products like copra, abaca, rice, corn or dried fish. Since it was mixed, it was called break-bulk. It was mainly handled by cargo booms and porters and stowed in the ships’ cargo holds. Since it was mixed and has no containers aside from boxes the handling was long and tedious and it was vulnerable to pilferage and damage by handling and by the weather.

With the coming of container vans the weaknesses of the old way of loading that led to damage and pilferage were minimized by a big degree. Actually, the arranging of the goods was even passed on to the shipper or trader and all the container shipping company had to do was haul aboard the container. The new system needed much less labor (who can be balky at times and disputes with them can lead to delays or intentional damage) than before and the loading is faster because containers can simply be stacked one atop the other. This was difficult with breakbulk because of possible contamination and because the cargo had no containers it was difficulty to simply stack them and this even led to lost cargo spaces.

One initial result of containerization was the need for dedicated container ships as the passenger-cargo ships of that era, the cruisers were not meant for the loading of container vans (although they can carry a few and loaded LOLO). Since our local volume was low, our shipping companies preferred not to order purpose-built container ships. Instead, the discovered path was just to convert general cargo ships into container ships. The needed conversion was actually minimal and since these ships were already equipped with cargo booms then it was easier for everything. Only, the booms needed to be more stout as in it has to have more lifting capacity because of the added weight of the steel of the container van. Container vans were handled LOLO or Lift-On, Lift Off.

With the coming of ROROs with its ramps and car decks starting in 1980, cargo handling became easier. Break-bulk cargo especially the heavier ones can now be handled by the forklifts and transferred to the car decks (which then became cargo decks also but not as cargo holds). Shipping companies have used forklifts before but mainly just in the ports. Now, the first ROROs also carried forklifts in the car decks and the stowing of container vans in the car decks of the ROROs began. These were mainly XEUs (Ten-Foot container vans) which can easily be handled by medium-sized forklifts. Still many of cargoes in the first ROROs were break-bulk.

Some liners of the 1980’s had cargo booms at the front of the ship while having RORO ramps at the stern like the “Zamboanga City” and the “Dona Virginia” of William Lines. It carried container vans at the front of the ship and those were handled LOLO while at the stern they loaded container vans. Actually, some big cruiser liners of the late 1970’s can carry container vans on their upper decks at the stern like the “Don Enrique” and “Don Eusebio” of Sulpicio Lines, the “Cagayan de Oro City” of William Lines and the “Don Claudio” of Negros Navigation”. It was handled LOLO by the cargo booms of those ships.

At the tail end of the 1970’s and at the start of the 1980’s what was prominent was the race of the leading liner shipping companies to acquire general cargo ships and convert it to container ships. Aboitiz Shipping Company was the early leader and they fielded thirteen container ships between 1976 and 1989. Their series was called the “Aboitiz Concarrier” and latter additions were called the “Aboitiz Superconcarrier” and “Aboitiz Megaconcarrier”. William Lines rolled out in the same period eight container ship plus two Cargo RORO ships which can also carry passengers. They named their series as the “Wilcon”. Sulpicio Lines was not to be outdone and they fielded fourteen and these were dubbed as “Sulpicio Container” or “Sulcon”.

In the same period, Lorenzo Shipping, a former major, also rolled out eleven container ship in a series called “Lorenzo Container” or “Lorcon”. Some of these were former general cargo ships of theirs. Sea Transport Company were also able to field eight with place name of their ports of call followed by “Transport” like “Davao Transport”. None of the other liner shipping companies which followed into containerization like Sweet Lines and Negros Navigation had half a dozen container ships. Instead, they began relying on their new RORO ship acquisitions but that was also done by Sulpicio Lines, William Lines, Aboitiz Shipping and Gothong Lines.

The main effect of the rush to acquire container ships was the slowing down of the acquisition of passenger ships. Actually, this might even had an effect on their purchase of RORO passenger OR ROPAX ships. With the collapse of many shipping companies in the crisis decade of the 1980’s, this resulted in a lack of passenger ships at the end of that decade. But there were many container ships as in about sixty and that fleet pushed many shipping companies in the cargo trade out of business in the 1980’s. Two main factors pushed them into the precipice – the economic crisis which made it hard to acquire ships and the loss of patronage because the paradigm in cargo handling had changed. Break-bulk was now already marginalized and frowned upon. Shippers and traders have had enough of pilferage and goods damaged in transit.

With marginalization, the other cargo liner companies had more difficulty filling up their cargo holds. Voyages became fewer and sailing times ballooned. They became dead duck for the container vans loaded into the fast RORO liners which had fixed schedules. Soon they were on the way out or they had to move to tramper shipping where there are no fixed routes and schedules. During this period cargo liners were even included in the schedule boards of the passenger liners. Their only deficit compared to passenger liners was as cargo ships they had less speed. And since cargo is handled LOLO they also spent more time in the ports.

Now, long-distance break-bulk shipping is almost gone. It is only lively now in the regional routes like the routes originating from Cebu and Zamboanga. In many cases, places and routes they have already evolved into intermodal shipping – the use of trucks which are loaded into short-distance ROROs. In this mode the trucks are the new “containers” or “vessels”. Since that is in competition with container shipping, it is now container shipping which is beginning to be marginalized by the intermodal truck especially if it is supported by the cheap Cargo RORO LCT.

Things change. Always.