A Good Ship That Was Not Able To Outrun A Typhoon

The FS-220, when she came to the Philippines in 1960 was among the last “FS” ships that arrived in the country. She was among the batch used by the US Navy after the war for resupply missions and released from service starting in 1959. For reasons that are not yet clear to me I do not know how the newly-established Philippine President Lines (PPL) was able to corner a big chunk of these last-released “FS” ships. And that batch was the envy of many and even abroad because the US Navy knows how to maintain its ships (and it has the budget) and compared to ex-”FS” ships already in the country which just sails and sails that last batch does not have worn engines yet.

The FS-220 was a ship built by Higgins Industries in New Orleans, USA which was the designer and builder of the famous Higgins boats. She measured 54.9 meters by 9.8 meters by 3.2 meters and originally had 573 tons in gross register tonnage. Like most other “FS” ships she was powered by two GM Cleveland engines with a total of 1,000 horsepower and her maximum speed was 12 knots.

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Photo credits: Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen

FS” ships transferred from the US Army (the operator in World War II) to the US Navy for postwar duty usually have alterations already to suit their mission. Many still undergo further conversions here to suit the local shipping needs and situation and that mainly consists of increasing the passenger capacity.

In the Philippine President Lines fleet, the FS-220 became known as the President Roxas. She was the first ship to carry this name in the fleet. She was also known now by the ID IMO 6117958. Upon conversion, she already had three passenger decks including the lowermost where cargo is also stowed. The first route of the President Roxas was Manila-Cebu-Iligan.

The Philippine President Lines did not last long in the inter-island route and when it concentrated on overseas shipping they established the subsidiary Philippine Pioneer Lines in 1963 to take over the inter-island operations and so the President Roxas went to Philippine Pioneer Lines. Her first route for this new company was the quaint Manila-Masbate-Bulan-Allen-Legaspi-Tabaco route. As such she became a Bicol specialist with a slight diversion to Samar. This was the period when sending a ship to Bicol still made sense.

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Photo credits: The Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

After two major accidents in 1966 which were the floundering of the Pioneer Cebu in a typhoon and the collision involving Pioneer Leyte which lead to her breaking up, Philippine Pioneer Lines ceased operation. In 1967, Galaxy Lines replaced her and the fleet of Philippine Pioneer Lines was transferred into the Galaxy fleet. The President Roxas became the Venus in the fleet of Galaxy Lines where ships were named after constellations.

She did not last long in Galaxy Lines, however, and was sold immediately sold to N&S Lines, Inc. Galaxy Lines no longer had Bicol routes while N&S Lines had Bicol and Samar routes and maybe the reason for the sale was to avoid taking out a ship in those routes. In N&S Lines, she did the Manila-Allen-Carangian (now known as San Jose)-Legaspi (now spelled as Legazpi)-Laoang route. Only the route to Tabaco port was the one practically dropped.

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Photo credits: Manila Times and Gorio Belen

Venus would hold for long that route and leaving Manila every Tuesday at 9pm. Slowly, she became a fixture in this route. In 1976, a new ship, the Queen of Samar of Newport Shipping Lines issued a challenge to her. There were other passenger-cargo ships to her route from Manila with slightly different ports of call but the ships of the New Shipping Lines were the most dangerous as the Queen of Samar was not the only ship that entered the Northern Samar and nearby routes. In fact, it totaled six. I really can’t understand what was the attraction of Northern Samar and the nearby ports to Newport Shipping Lines.

And then from that in just three years the bottom fell out for these routes because suddenly the San Bernardino Strait was connected by the RORO ship Cardinal I of Cardinal Shipping and suddenly buses and trucks from Manila started running to Samar directly. There was no longer any need to bring the cargo to North Harbor. Ditto for the passengers. Suddenly, the viability of the Samar routes began to evaporate and what was just propping it up was the intermediate route to Masbate.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

Though the Manila ships began to evaporate too in the routes passing through San Bernardino Strait especially those that had concentration to Bicol, the Venus was one of the most resilient and she outlasted practically every other passenger-cargo ship in the Northern Samar routes when to think buses and trucks were already arriving daily there. Maybe there were passengers which still prefer the ship or might have been too attached to them.

Nearing her 40th year of life, Venus was sailing from Samar to Manila. There was a Category 5 super-typhoon then approaching the Philippines from the east and its central pressure was 880 millibars which is even lower than Typhoon “Yolanda”’s 890 millibars (the lower the number the stronger is the typhoon). There was also a typhoon that was developing in South China See at the same time. Maybe Venus thought that by sailing she will be putting distance from the stronger typhoon and might have underestimated or failed to notice the storm in South China Sea which was just a tropical depression when she sailed. It seems Venus also failed to understand well the effects on the sea of a Sibuyan Sea. The two typhoons were actually interacting and in fact the stronger typhoon was sucking the weaker one. Venus might have failed to understand well the risks when she embarked on her final voyage.

It was in Sibuyan Sea when Venus finally discovered the sea was roiling and the winds were unforgiving. The ex-”FS” ships were particularly vulnerable to typhoons and that was why her old captains here were masters of finding the coves and inlets where they can hide or shelter the ship when the weather acts up.

It seems Venus tried to hightail it to a port or was desperately trying to find shelter (as she already diverted from her route if gauged from where she perished). However, in Tayabas Bay it seems Venus was not able to weather the wind and the waves and floundered on October 28, 1984 (in Tayabas Bay the winds then will be hitting her broadside at port). There was no trace of the ship after the typhoon and 36 people perished with her, unfortunately.

On a note, the Lorenzo Container VIII of Lorenzo Shipping Corporation was another ship that floundered in that twin interacting storm. This even bigger ship sank on the same day as Venus north of Abra de Ilog, Occidental Mindoro, in a sea which is even farther than the stronger typhoon (which was incidentally named also as Typhoon “Reming” like the deadliest storm to visit Bicol in the recent decades).

The sinking of Venus even had repercussions in our place. When about to ride a ship, my earthbound relatives would remind me of her fate (you know the oldies then!). The floundering in another typhoon of the Dona Marilyn in a nearby sea, the Samar Sea, four years later in 1988 did not help either.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

The Venus served the same route for 17 years. That was long by any local measure. It took two typhoons to end her memorable career. Small shipping companies really take hard a sinking and coupled with weakening routes and the general crisis of that era, the Ninoy post-assassination years, N&S Lines, her company also went under.

After the sinking of Venus, the routes to Northern Samar from Manila also died. In the 1990’s MBRS Lines from Romblon tried to revive it. But there was really no way to defeat the new paradigm, the intermodal system. And so it died again. Finally.

The Brief Career of Philippine President Lines (PPL) In The Inter-island Trade

Philippine President Lines. What a grandiose name! Obviously it took off from the American President Lines (APL) whose ships were named after the American Presidents. Similarly, Philippine President Lines (PPL) also named their ships after Philippine Presidents but not all (one reason is we don’t have many Presidents being a young republic). PPL was not as old as American President Lines being established only in the late 1950’s.

Philippine President Lines is an unusual shipping company in the Philippines because it took off and expanded so fast that in so short a time as in less than a decade it was already the biggest shipping company in the country. In the process, it even exceeded the venerable Compania Maritima or CM (and its subsidiary Maritime Company of the Philippines in the overseas trade) in the combined local and foreign trade (later, it was matched by Galleon Shipping Corporation, another company that also grew up very fast).

Philippine President Lines started in the local routes but they gave it up to a subsidiary after just four years and then concentrated on the foreign trade. Along the way, PPL acquired many ocean-going ships which sailed routes to the Far East, Japan and the US West Coast. In the process, the names of the ships of Philippine President Lines changed from “President” to “Liberty” to “Lucky”. Philippine President Lines died as a shipping company when their ships were already named “Lucky”. The company is still alive but its business now are by being ship agents and by engaging in ship manning.

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Photo credits: Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

The first ship of Philippine President Lines was the FS-223 which was acquired from the US. By 1960, their inter-island passenger fleet was already set. The company was fortunate in this period because it was able to acquire former “AKL” ships which were already being disposed then by the US Navy. “AKL” ships were former “FS” ships that were retained by the US after the war for use of the US Navy in supplying out of the way small posts especially in the Pacific Ocean. “AKL” ships were supposedly better than its ex-”FS” sisters.

Philippine President Lines acquired their first ship in 1959 and this became the President Magsaysay in their fleet. In 1960, PPL acquired the former FS-220, also from the US and this became the first President Roxas. In 1960, too, their first “AKL” ship came, the former AKL-5 which became the President Quirino. In the same year, they also acquired the passenger-cargo ship Sirius from North Camarines Lumber Company which was not only involved in the logging and lumber business but also in shipping. This was the former FS-265 of the US Army.

In the same year 1960, Philippine President Lines also made a grand acquisition when then were able to acquire a former seaplane tender, the Onslow (AVP-48) which they then converted into a luxury liner with airconditioning and named as the President Quezon. The conversion took a year but when she was fielded she became the fastest liner in the Philippines at 18 knots, beating the old record-holder, the Don Julio of Southern Lines which was formerly a Ledesma Lines ship. In the same year, they were able to acquire another passenger-cargo ship which was named the Lake Taal which was not big enough to carry the name of a President.

In 1961, two former AKL ships from the US Navy reinforced their fleet. The AKL-1 and AKL-2 came which became the President Laurel and the President Osmena in their fleet, respectively. The two ships were the former FS-175 and FS-309 of the US Army (the US Army and not the US Navy operated the “FS” ships in the war). These former “FS” ships were all powered by versions of the 1,000-hp GM Cleveland engines which gave a maximum speed of 12 knots except for the President Laurel that was powered by an 800-hp Enterprise engine which was only capable of 10.5 knots.

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Photo credits: The Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen

The early routes of Philippine President Lines stressed Bicol ports and routes, three out of their five, in fact, in 1960. That was welcome development in the region because that time the Madrigal Shipping routes to Bicol were already flagging. The PPL’s Bicol route even reached Larap and J. Panganiban of Camarines Norte, the farthest Bicol ports from Manila and the diminutive Lake Taal was used in those ports as well as in the ancient port of Tandoc in Caramoan Peninsula.

By 1963, however, the inter-island operation of PPL were transferred to a subsidiary, the Philippine Pioneer Lines. Initially, the word “President” was dropped from the names of the ships but later the word “Pioneer” headed the name of the ships. Like the President Quezon which became Quezon became the Pioneer Iloilo. The number of ships increased but the routes to Bicol declined. Philippine Pioneer Lines then began to stress Cebu like most other shipping companies. Maybe they realized the traffic to Bicol ports was not really that much commensurate.

The significant addition to the Philippine Pioneer Lines fleet was the acquisition of the former Don Julio of Southern Lines which became the Pioneer Leyte in the Philippine Pioneer Lines fleet. Because of this, Philippine Pioneer Lines possessed the two fastest liners in the Philippine seas then.

This is the short tale of the inter-island career of Philippine President Lines. Its successor, the Philippine Pioneer Lines and its further successor, Galaxy Lines deserve a separate article maybe. Abangan!

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Photo credit: Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen