The 130-meter Liner

From the start, I always had respect for the 130-meter liner class and maybe my close observation of the SuperFerry 5 which I sailed with many times influenced me. Of course, I have respect for ships of all classes and that is why I don’t gush for a particular class or even type. I always had the tendency to gauge the suitability and to what route the ship is being used. For me, being the biggest or the fastest is not the ultimate consideration. Those things are maybe just for the young anyway.

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SuperFerry 5 by Ramiro Aranda Jr.

A handful of liners that came to our seas exceeded 150 meters in length and some were even over 185 meters in length, the biggest that plied the Philippine seas. Those liners all had gross tonnages of over 10,000 except for the sister ships St. Joseph The Worker and St. Peter The Apostle of Negros Navigation whose gross tonnages were grossly under-declared. The liners over 10,000 gross tons are what were called “great liners” by Frank Heine and Frank Lose in their book, “The Great Liners of the World” and our liners officially over 10,000 tons were listed in that book.

Liners over 150 meters have engines whose horsepower total over 20,000 and for that it is capable of thrusting the ship to 20 knots or over but not much more. It’s design speed might have been slightly over 20 knots in Japan but here they generally just run at 20 knots (well, even a little less now). Very few ships sailed here at 21 knots and over and probably only two did regularly which were the Filipina Princess and the Princess of Paradise, both liners of of the famed and infamous Sulpicio Lines.

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A 157-meter liner (SuperFerry 19 by Aris Refugio)

I can understand 150-meter liners with 20-knot speed if:

  1. it is used in the strongest routes,

  2. it was still the height of passenger demand and that was the situation before the budget airlines and intermodal buses came in force.

The 150-meter liners of old (not the current liners of 2GO) normally had passenger capacities averaging 2,500 persons (with the liners 165 meters and over averaging nearly 3,000 passengers if the putative liners of Carlos A. Gothong Lines are excluded).

However, on a contrary note in passenger capacity, SuperFerry 5 and its sister ship SuperFerry 2 of Aboitiz Shipping had passenger capacities of nearly 2,400 persons average and even the comparable Princess of the Pacific of Sulpicio Lines had a passenger capacity of nearly 2,300. Yes, in maximization especially with four passenger decks the 130-meter liner can nearly match the 150-meter liners. However, they will not run at 20 knots but 17.5 to 18.5 knots is respectable and comparable to the fast cruiser liners that preceded them. In a Manila to Iloilo or a Manila to Cebu leg the difference in travel time is just two hours or less and it is only one hour if the liner can pass under the two Mactan bridges. And one or two hours is not much detectable by passengers especially if the liner departs late anyway.

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Princess of the Pacific by Britz Salih

In combined Manila to Visayas and Manila to Northern Mindanao routes with an intermediate port, both the 150-meter, 20-knot ship and the 130-meter, 18-knot liner can do two complete voyages in a week so there is no difference in their utilization. What the faster liner only adds is only in the number of port hours not sailing or the inter-port hours.. Well, the crew appreciate more port hours if they have a family or a girlfriend there. But then they might not be able to go down the ship earlier because the area they have to clean first is bigger.

But in fuel consumption the bigger and faster liner will consume significantly more fuel. Normally the 130-meter ship is equipped with engines of just 15,000 horsepower or a little more. Now, compare the thriftiness of those engines in fuel consumption compared to a liner with 20,000 or more horsepower.

Of course, in cargo the bigger liner will carry more while the 130-meter liner will just carry some 100 TEUs in container vans. But then I observed that even then the ship’s cargo will only be full one way or even not (not much load back to Manila because the provinces do not produce much and grains, copra and sugar are no longer carried by the liners of today unlike before). And the rise of intermodal shipping using the combinations of trucks and basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs chopped up the liner cargo even more. Now the liners of 2GO normally sails with less than a full cargo load and it even has to delay departures for a few hours so more cargo can be loaded.

In passengers the ships even two decades ago when demand was still at its peak only gets full at peak season anyway. In normal months the ship will then be carrying about 2/3 of its capacity. Now they are lucky to have half of their capacity full.

Was the 150 meter liner a mistake? Well, if it was the matter of bragging rights then it might not be. No one wanted to be left behind in size and in speed. And besides Sulpicio Lines and William Lines had their own one-on-one-battle. But the era of 150 meter liners was just short with a window of only about a decade (while ship’s lives here is generally more than double of that). And when it was used on more minor routes I thought it was already a mistake because there is not enough cargo and passengers to sustain them there. And so as it grew older the 150-meter liners slowly became dinosaurs especially when liner passenger demand weakened. Of course now that was masked by withdrawals from routes (and lessening of frequencies) which means these liners are already too big for the average port of call.

That was what happened decades ago when the small ex-”FS” ships  and lengthened ex-“F” ships were no longer around. Many ports and towns lost their connection to Manila because the bigger liners that succeeded them were already too big for those ports plus the depths of the ship and the ports no longer matched.

St. Therese of Child Jesus

St. Therese of Child Jesus by Jonathan Gultiano

And that is why I wondered about the last liner purchases in the country. The ports got bigger than decades ago but there are less passengers now and so Aboitiz Transport System and 2GO just cut off the routes (and it was obvious they were not intent on going back to the more minor routes) because there is not enough cargo and passengers anymore for their 150-meter liners. That is why they left ports and cities like Surigao, Tagbilaran, Dapitan. Cotabato and many others. Well, on another note, they learned that they just needed 90- to 100-meter liners in their Palawan, Romblon and Capiz routes so they just dissolved Cebu Ferries and took its overnight ships and converted them.

I think the 130-meter liner was best for us in most of the main routes. Like what SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 5 and Princess of the Pacific have shown (and by Mabuhay 2 and Mabuhay 5, too, of William Lines, the latter SuperFerry 7 and SuperFerry 9, respectively) they can be modified to up four decks that will have a total of about 2,300 passengers average when demand was still strong. And when it weakened another cargo deck can be created. Or if it came when passenger demand was already falling the number of decks can be limited into three with the passenger capacity no longer in the 2,000 range. Well, later liners fielded in the 2000’s had the sense not to really pack it in.

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Two passenger decks converted into cargo deck (Photo by Mike Baylon)

Now, if only bragging rights did not come into the picture maybe the liner choices might have been more sane.

Adjusted for the weakening of liner shipping in this millennium, I think the biggest liners should just be in the 130 to 140-meter range with just 15,000 to 16000 horsepower and a cruising speed of 18 knots (well, the 150-meter, 22,000-horsepower liners of 2GO just average 19 knots now anyway). There is no more need for passenger capacities reaching 2,000 persons. If there is a mezzanine for cars it should just be retained instead of being converted into passenger accommodations as new cars or passenger vans destined for dealers south are important sources of revenue now for the liners. On more minor routes maybe we should even go back to the 100- to 110-meter liners of the past as augmentation for the 130- to 140-meter liners.

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San Lorenzo Ruiz with 1,426 pax capacity by Rodney Orca

Now that would be more sane.

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The Flagship and Great Liner Wars Going Into the Middle ’90s

If the deadly-for-shipping decade of the ’80s ended in 1990, in 1992 and more so in 1993 there was a palpable change of mood in the local shipping industry. There was optimism, a new outlook and the surviving shipping companies were raring to go instead of just trying to keep their heads above water. There was a new administration ruling in Malacanang under President Fidel V. Ramos which has called for shipping modernization (it was not just modernization but also to address our lack of ferries then). It rolled out incentives for shipping including a program to acquire new ships. The power crisis and the coup d’etat attempts against the previous administration were over and business was picking up. An uptick in business is also a call for shipping expansion, so it was thought then.

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I remember that 1992 and 1993 were signal years for Philippine shipping. That was when great liners (Frank Heine and Frank Lose defined this as liners of over 10,000 gross tons) started arriving in local shores and the flagship wars of the local shipping companies began in earnest. It took the competitors of Sulpicio Lines four or five years before they were able to respond to the knock-out punch delivered by Sulpicio Lines in 1988 when they acquired the trio of Filipina Princess, Cotabato Princess and Nasipit Princess. William Lines, then the closest competitor of Sulpicio Lines for the bragging rights of which is Numero Uno rolled out the splendid-looking with impressive interiors, the tall Maynilad in 1992. However, she had an Achilles heel which cannot be remedied – she severely lacked speed, a requirement for great liners and she was just in the 140-meter class, no matter how much superstructure they tried to build into her.

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Maynilad by Britz Salih

Aboitiz Shipping Corporation fielded the SuperFerry 2 in 1992. She was much like in the interiors and size of the SuperFerry 1 at being in the 130-meter class also but her passenger capacity was maxed. However, she was not in the 20-knot class unlike the SuperFerry 1 and Filipina Princess. Twenty knots was already the speed considered necessary then for great liners locally, if they wanted bragging rights. Negros Navigation fielded the San Paolo in 1992 and the Princess of Negros, their new flagship, in 1993. But both were just in the 110-meter class and their speeds were just about equal to SuperFerry 2 at most. Aboitiz Shipping Corporation also fielded the SuperFerry 3 in 1993 but she was also in the 110-meter class like the San Paolo and the Princess of Negros. Moreover, her speed was a little inferior to the two.

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Mabuhay 1 by Britz Salih

In 1993, William Lines and Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) showed two great liners that were a direct challenge to Sulpicio Lines. William Lines fielded the great Mabuhay 1 which was also in the 180-meter class like the Filipina Princess but was more modern-looking. The Our Lady of Akita of Gothong Lines was not as sleek-looking but she was also big being in the 160-meter class. When the two arrived, it was only Filipina Princess which was breaching the 150-meter mark among local liners in length.

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Our Lady of Akita by Britz Salih

News of incoming liners to the Philippines usually become rumors in Japan shipping circles even before the ships prepare to leave Japan waters and that could even be months in advance. After all, it is just a small, close-knit circle and news of a newbuilding of a ship that will replace a sailing one on the same route are also known by the time the keels are laid. And that is about half a year or more before they are even delivered. So speculations are always rife as to where the ships that will be replaced will be headed (in terms of country) and who is the agent and the buyer.

In Japan, a company bet big on the “Highways of the Sea”, the big, fast overnight ROROs which connected the northern and southern parts of Japan to its central part and metropolises. The Terukuni group and its shipping company Nihon Kosoku Ferry built the all-big (only one is less than 180-meters length in a series of seven) Sun Flower series of luxury liners successively between 1972 and 1974. Not only all were grand but all were very well-appointed and tops in comfort. Like floating “hotels of the sea”, they were the Japan equivalent of the legendary Stena series of luxury ferries in Sweden and in Europe.

Terukuni and its shipping company did not earn money from the series and became financially distressed and so changes in the ownership structure came about. Even so, the Sun Flower series became highly regarded. At times, the more important thing was the impact, the lasting impression and the regard created in the public’s mind. The Sun Flower series was well-remembered in Japan to almost the equivalent to being able to lay down a template.

The Philippines was lucky we had Japan connections and so a few of these great and grand liners of Japan came to our shores. Some will notice that the great liners that came later like SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21 (the two were also Sun Flowers) and St. Michael The Archangel and St. Francis Xavier (which are sister ships of the first pair) are no longer as luxurious. Tastes and conditions have changed. In the 1990’s, the new “Highways of the Sea” were just functional ferries and no longer offered First Class. They might rival their 1970’s predecessors in size and speed but they were no match in the arena of appointments and luxury.

Two of these 1970’s beautiful Sun Flower ships came at the same year in the Philippines – amazingly to compete with each other! Sun Flower 5 came to William Lines and became her Mabuhay 1, the progenitor of the highest class of William Lines liners. At 185 meters, she was of the same size as the former reigning queen of Philippine shipping, the Filipina Princess of Sulpicio Lines. But Mabuhay 1 was more-modern looking and she had better appointments. Both were 20-knot class in speed but Filipina Princess was still speedier. After all, she still has an edge of nearly 6,000 horsepower in power output.

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Princess of the Orient by Britz Salih

But Sulpicio Lines was not to be denied. The biggest of the Sun Flower series which was the Sun Flower 11 came to Sulpicio Lines and became the Princess of the Orient in 1993. This ship had that distinctive two funnels in one line in the center of the ship, a feature not present in the other Sun Flowers. She was also in the 195-meter class. As such, she will hold the title of being the biggest liner in the Philippines at that time. However, she might have been bigger and taller but she cannot do 20 knots unlike the Mabuhay 1. [As a footnote to this class, another one of the Sun Flowers came in 1999, a true sister of Mabuhay 1. That was the Princess of New Unity of Sulpicio Lines which was the Sun Flower 8 in Japan].

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Princess of Paradise by Aris Refugio

And it was not only the Princess of the Orient that came for Sulpicio Lines in 1993. That year she also acquired the big, fast, tall and well-appointed Princess of Paradise from China (but she was originally sailing in Japan). With her fielding, she will be the next holder of the title “Speed Queen” among the liners, the successor to the Filipina Princess in this category.

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St. Francis of Assisi (saved from the net by ‘rrd80’)

The Princess of Paradise was also in the 160-meter class like the Our Lady of Akita but the former was more modern-looking. The two will battle not only in the Cagayan de Oro route and also the Cebu and Nasipit routes. Meanwhile, the Mabuhay 1 and Princess of the Orient will battle in the premier Cebu route (with Filipina Princess still calling in Cebu on the way to Davao). Mabuhay 1 will also show her colors once a week in Iloilo. It is to this challenge to their home port that Negros Navigation responded in 1994 with the equally-impressive and fast St. Francis of Assisi, their next flagship. She was not that big at 140-meter class but she can also do 20 knots and she was very well-appointed, too.

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Princess of the Pacific by Britz Salih

The third ship that came to Sulpicio Lines in 1993 for its wars for the Number 1 position among our shipping companies was the Princess of the Pacific. She was made tall but she was only 137 meters in length, about the length of the new Aboitiz liners. She had the same speed of 18.5 knots like the Princess of the Orient (and better than SuperFerry 2) but she was not that well-appointed. She also docked in Iloilo on her way to Zamboanga and General Santos City. It seems that like in 1988, to fend off competition Sulpicio Lines acquires a bunch of impressive, new liners.

When Mabuhay 1 came to take over flagship duties for William Lines in the premier route to Cebu, in a short time their former flagship Sugbu previously holding that route quietly disappeared. She headed to Singapore for reincarnation as the third ship of the Mabuhay series in 1994, the Mabuhay 3. When she came back, few were able to recognize her as she was lengthened and the superstructure changed and with modifications she was now capable of 20 knots.

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Mabuhay 3 as Super by Vincent Paul Sanchez

Suddenly, in 1993 we truly had great liners in size and in appointments. They all breached 160 meters in length and they were all in the 10,000-gross ton class. In amenities, luxury and passenger service they were a step ahead of the previous big liners. With their more modern design, even the great Filipina Princess suddenly looked old (but not in speed!).

In this year, we were beginning to reach the pinnacle of local passenger liner shipping. More liners will then come together with a “Great Merger” that produced WG&A. From a lack of bottoms at the start of 1990, it seemed to me that before the decade was out we already had a surplus of liners. This can be shown when older liners especially the cruiser liners were sent to the breakers. Some, however, were acquired by regional shipping companies like the Sampaguita Shipping of Zamboanga. This was also apparent in sending old RORO liners to the overnight routes of Cebu Ferries Corporation.

It was not a one-alley fight, however. Intermodal buses were beginning to muscle in especially in the eastern seaboard and a new budget airline, the Cebu Pacific Air was born. On the cargo side, forwarding and trucking companies were mushrooming powered by the arrival of fast surplus trucks in the Subic free port. And this included the wing van trucks which will soon be the bane of the container vans.

From the pinnacle, where is one headed especially if blind to parallel competition?