When Liners Were Still Small and Short-legged

After World War II and for a generation after, the Philippines had so many small and short-legged liners. This was dictated by the situation that when the United States replaced our merchant fleet that was destroyed in World War II as was their promise (since they requisitioned our passenger ships then and the others were ordered destroyed to prevent falling into enemy hands), the replacement they gave were mainly small ships that were not even ferries in the first place. Because of that we had very few big liners in the first two decades after the war. The bulk of our liner fleet then consisted of the small ex-”FS” cargo ships of World War II and the many and even smaller ex-”F” cargo ships, many of which were lengthened like the ex-”FS” ships to increase passenger and cargo capacity. Aside from those two types we also had a few ex-”Y” ships, former tankers which were a little smaller than but related to the ex-”FS” ships plus some “liners” converted from minesweepers and PT boats (can you imagine that?). Conversion to ferries of those were the shipping thing after the war much like the conversion of former Army jeeps of the US Army into the “jeepneys” which became a Filipino thing.

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An example of a converted ex-“FS” ship.  Credits to Gorio Belen and Evening News

The term “liners” here is liberally used to describe the multi-day ships then which had more or less definite schedules for departures of arrivals (they were never very prompt then for various reason but they have published estimated times of departures and arrivals). In general, being small they are of no match in terms of accommodations, comfort and amenities to the liners of the past two or three decades and almost all of them did not possess air-conditioning and some are practically single-class ships and just divided into upper deck and lower deck. Thus, they were really different from the luxury liners we take for granted now.

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A converted and lengthened ex-“F” ship. Credits to Manila Bulletin and Gorio Belen

Being small and doing long routes, the small liners had many intermediate ports of call and there were several reasons for that. One is more ports of call means more passengers and cargo and during that time the country’s population was just a fifth of today’s. Another reason is a lot of localities and islands need connections to the national center which is Manila when during that time our road system was still primitive. And another reason is these ships when built were never meant to carry about three hundred passengers and that meant food, water and other provisions can run out and so the ship must be replenished along the way especially since refrigeration of the ships was limited. This was the time when a rule was instituted that passengers must come to port four hours before departure time (and then suffer more wait if the cargo handling is not yet finished – there are important shippers who with one call can make the ship wait for his last-minute cargo). A reason for that rule is the need to make a head count of passengers and add some figure as allowance and from that calculate the provisions that must be carried by the ship. There was even a running joke that the chandler (the supplier) will only then order how many hogs and chicken must be slaughtered.

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Not an ex-“FS” ship but of the same size. Credits to The Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen.

A characteristic these small liners is the paucity of refrigeration. If there is such the capacity was not really meant for the number of passengers already being carried as a passenger-cargo ship because the ship was just a freight ship during the war with a limited number of crew. As such ice chests had to be employed so that the loaded food provisions will not spoil. But then the ship was not really big for all the supplies needed and revenue cargo is the priority in the holds and in the other cargo areas. Water is an important provision that must also be considered since not only the drinking needs of the passengers must be taken into account.

The longest single legs of these ships were from Manila to Cebu, Manila to Tacloban and Manila to Dumaguete, all of which were just short of 400 nautical miles. With a speed averaging 10 knots that meant a travel time of over one-and-a-half days which means five meals have to be served to the passengers. That transit time does not even include additional time in dodging bad weather and in hiding in coves and letting the storm pass if it is strong. But from Cebu, Tacloban or Dumaguete, these liners are still bound for Northern Mindanao or Southern Mindanao and if the final destination is Davao, it is not even half of the way yet. In fuel, however, it might not have been that much of a concern for these ships were capable of crossing long distances in the Pacific Ocean during the war (but with refueling at sea of course).

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A former minesweepers. Still on the way to Surigao and Davao before the accident. Credits to The Philippines Herald and Gorio Belen.

One advantage of being short-legged is the vessels have to call on a lot of ports along their routes. So in that time a lot of small and minor ports are being served and have connections to Manila, the national port. But maybe one had not heard now of Pulanduta port or Gigantes, Looc, Ibajay, Sangi, Anakan, Victoria, Nato, Angas, Tandoc, Mercedes, Larap, Bacuit, Araceli, Caruray, Casiguran, Carangian, Cabalian, Calubian, Kabasalan, Kolambugan, Sipalay,et cetera, when before they had connections to Manila. Aside from those ports mentioned, the liners then will also drop anchors in the various Mindoro ports, in several Panay ports, a few ports in Romblon province , in Marinduque ports, in Masbate ports too on the way to ports in the east or ports farther down south including ports of Mindanao, the so-called “Land of Promise” then to entice people to move there (but it was disaster for the natives and the Muslims as they lost their ancestral lands).

In the longest route to Davao these small liners will pass by Cebu, Tagbilaran, Dumaguete and Zamboanga ports before heading to Celebes Sea for Cotabato, Dadiangas or Davao. These might even drop by Iligan, Ozamis or Pulauan first. Using the eastern seaboard of Mindanao the liner could have already dropped anchor in Masbate, Catbalogan, Tacloban, Surigao and maybe even Mati or Bislig. Some will pass by Iloilo or Pulupandan ports and Cagayan de Misamis or Iligan ports before going to Southern Mindanao while still passing through some other ports along the way. That was one reason why Surigao was a very important port as it was a critical stop-over then (the next leg if Mati is still a long way to go and especially if it is direct Davao). When to think Surigao was very far from the size of Zamboanga City. That city also functioned as a critical stop-over like Dumaguete. In the longest route then to Davao the most number of interports called before Davao in a route was ten. It will then take over a week before the liner reach Davao and one week was the usual transit time to Davao.

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Not and ex-“FS” ship but of the same size. Credits to Evening News and Gorio Belen

If one had the inclination these long voyages with many stop-overs also afford “free tourism” since the liner will be spending many hours on the intermediate port because of the slow cargo handling then and there will be time to roam the port city (that was what my late father used to do then). The stops then were really long compared to now as the cargo was not yet containerized and only a single boom handles all the loading and unloading aside of course from the backs of the porters. On the other hand for those prone to seasickness these long voyages are simply torture especially if during the monsoons when the weather is acting up. Summer travel doesn’t afford relief, however, as there is no air-conditioning on board, in the main.

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As can be gleaned from the photo there is no air-conditioned section. An ex-“FS” ship. Credits to Gorio Belen and the newspaper.

In those days the position of the Purser was important for he decides what supplies must be purchased along the way and by how much and he has the authority how much will be charged for the cargo loaded along the way. This is the reason why this position is filled by trusted men of the shipping owner. Nowadays, liners with their available big cargo space including refrigerated container vans and freezers plus big pantries is just basically loaded now in Manila and Cebu and if there is a local purchase then it must probably just fish or some vegetables which are cheaper than in the provinces than Manila or Cebu. With strong communication, too, now the tendency is to centralize everything unlike before (there is now what is called as the “commissary”) and so the Purser of the liner, if it still exist is no longer as important as before.

There were really a lot of these small and short-legged ferries then. The biggest reason is when there were no container ships yet these passenger-cargo ships were the main carriers of cargo then, too. So, all in all, some 60 converted ex-”FS” ships sailed our seas and approximately the same number of ex-”F” ships were also sailing. Plus there maybe two dozen small ships of the other types as liners too. So the small liners of the past might be some 140 ships in total or maybe the number will even reach 150 liners. Some of those, however, were primarily used only in the regional routes. But isn’t that number amazing?

But 25 years or a generation after these small liners came and dominated the local waters the fast cruiser liners began arriving in force and it was a paradigm-changing arrival. The main selling point of these fast cruiser liners was their speed. To maximize that selling point and the utilization of the ships that meant reducing travel time to Davao to three days which means a lot of interports had to be stricken off from the routes. Being bigger too that meant the small and shallow ports (and most of which still featured wooden wharves) can no longer be served by them. And so these small ports along the way lost their connection to Manila like the ports I listed earlier which people might no longer know now but had connections to Manila before when the liners were still small and short-legged.

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A fast cruiser liner but the interports are not shortened yet. Credits to Evening News and Gorio Belen.

And then in less than a decade’s time after the fast cruiser liners began arriving another paradigm-changing shift happened in local shipping when the first local container ships appeared in our waters. These container ships have a faster turn-around time than the small and short-legged liners because like the fast cruiser liners these just called on a few interports and sometimes there is even none. With the safety and security offered by the container vans and faster cargo handling soon the death knell to the old small and short-legged liners was sounded and in a few years they were practically gone from our waters.

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The first container ship in local waters. Credits to Times Journal and Gorio Belen.

But if there was a sector that lost with all these advances in speed and size it has to be the small and shallow ports along the way which lost their Manila connection. Some retained their Manila connection for a time but declined in importance like Romblon, Masbate, Catbalogan, Tacloban, Surigao, Tagbilaran and Pulupandan. Those that lost their Manila connection just look and wave at the ships passing their place. As replacement, regional and sub-regional ports had to be developed like Batangas, Lucena, Pilar, Matnog and later the intermodal system linking the islands had to develop, too.

But as a whole our number of regularly-scheduled ships dropped in number because the ships got bigger and the faster ships had more total voyages in a year. Actually, even the first generation container ships were bigger than the small and short-legged liners. Now their equivalent in size are just the bigger among our intermodal short-distance ferry-ROROs which connect our near islands and is the carrier of the intermodal trucks and buses like those which cross from Batangas to Mindoro, those which cross from Mindoro to Panay, those which link the eastern seaboard of the country, those which link Bicol, Masbate and Cebu and those which link the different Visayan islands, etc.

Now only a few will remember our small and short-legged liners which dominated our seas in the first 25 years or so after the end of World War II when our merchant fleet was born again. None of it exists now even as a museum piece.

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The Early Years of William Lines

Among the major liner companies, I found William Lines Incorporated striking in some ways. First, in their early days they were very loyal to the former “FS” ships as in they were operating no other type in their first 20 years. Others like Bisaya Land Transport was also like that but they were not a major liner company. Some other majors that initially had a pure ex-”FS” fleet like the General Shipping Company acquired other types earlier than William Lines.

M.V. Don Victoriano (unverified)

The unlengthened Don Victoriano (Photo credits: Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen)

Yet, even though they just have a pure ex-”FS” fleet which were small and slow ships that looked vulnerable, William Lines stressed the southern Mindanao routes (Dadiangas and Davao) that needed two ships alternating just to maintain one weekly schedule as a voyage takes nearly two weeks to complete. This is the second striking characteristic I noticed in their history, the stress in southern Mindanao. In fact, because of the weight demanded on a fleet by the southern Mindanao route most of our liner companies then did not enter the southern Mindanao route.

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The lengthened ex-“FS” ship Elena (Gorio Belen research in Nat’l Library)

Only three others aside from William Lines did Southern Mindanao routes. Three other companies did this route for decades — Compania Maritima, Philippine Steam and Navigation Company (PSNC) and Carlos A. Go Thong & Company. The first two were big companies in those days. Manila Steamship Company (Elizalde y Compania) also did the southern Mindanao route before they quit shipping in 1955. It was also a big company. De la Rama Steamship also sailed southern Mindanao routes before they quit local shipping in the early 1950’s.

William Lines started shipping sometime at the tail end of 1945. Everyone knows the company is named after the founder William Chiongbian. And the first ship of the company, the Don Victoriano was named after the father of William Chiongbian. Subsequently, in its first decade, the ships of William Lines were named after his sons and daughters. Jimenez, Misamis Occidental is the place of origin of William Lines.

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Photo credits: Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen

Actually, William Chiongbian did not start from zero. His father already had trading ships before World War II in support of their copra business. That was normal then before the war. Others that made it big in shipping after World War II had similar origins like Carlos Go Thong and Aboitiz (but the latter was already big even before the war).

The route system then of William Lines was very simple. 6 ships in 3 pairs will do a thrice a week Manila-Cebu-Tagbilaran-Dumaguete-Zamboanga-Davao voyages leaving Manila on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The rest of the fleet will do a once or twice a week sailing to Panguil Bay (Iligan and Ozamis plus Dumaguete) via Cebu. Was there a route system more simple than that?

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From the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

It might be simple but actually William Lines was a beneficiary to the growth of traffic to southern Mindanao with the opening of the island to exploitation and colonization by Christians from the rest of the country. The routes to that part of the country were those that grew consistently over the years because of the big increase in population brought about by migration of people. With that came goods and produce that need to be transported.

Actually except for Manila Steamship which quit shipping early after the shock of losing their flagship Mayon to fire and explosion in 1955, all those that stayed in the southern Mindanao route lived long (the Compania Maritima quitting was another story). Many that did short routes from Manila even had shorter life spans like Southern Lines, General Shipping Company and Madrigal Shipping. The southern Mindanao area with its continuously growing production and trade buoyed the shipping companies that stayed there.

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From the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

The other ships of William Lines in this period were Elena (which later became Virginia VI and Don Jose I), Elizabeth, Edward, Albert (which also became known as Iloilo City), Victor, Henry I and Grace I (which also became the first Manily City). All including the Don Victoriano (which became the second Elena) had their hulls subsequently lengthened to increase capacity. That was needed for the growing traffic and cargo in the routes of William Lines.

Within its first two decades, in 1961, William Lines also purchased the Kolambugan of Escano Lines. It was used to open a Cagayan de Oro route for the company and she was fittingly renamed as the Misamis Oriental. From Cagayan de Oro the ship also called in Iligan and Ozamis. Also acquired that year was the Davao of A. Matute which became the Davao City in the fleet of William Lines.

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From the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

That same year the FS-272 of Philippine Steam and Navigation Company was also acquired and this became the Don Jose in their fleet. In 1963, the President Quezon of Philippine President Lines was also acquired and the ship became the Dona Maria in the fleet. At its peak the William Lines passenger fleet consisted of 11 former “FS” ships. However, I am not sure if the latter additions were all lengthened.

In 1966, William Lines acquired their first liners that were not former “FS” ships when they also began acquiring big former passenger-cargo ships from Europe like Go Thong and Compania Maritima. That was the new paradigm then and they were able to latch into it. It was a response to the growing need for additional bottoms when surplus ships were not yet available from Japan in great numbers.

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From the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

That was the early history of William Lines, the tale of their first 20 years in shipping. Their growth into first rank will come after their first two decades until for a brief period they might have been Number 1 in local passenger shipping.

By the way, they had no ship losses in their first two decades. And that was pretty remarkable given the rate of liner losses over the decades and even in the modern era.

Maybe somebody should do a study what was their safety secret then.

Notes:

The usual length of an unmodified ex-”FS” ship is 53.9 meters with a breadth of 9.8 meters and a depth of 3.2 meters. The Gross Register Tonnage (GRT), a measure of the ship’s volume is usually 560 tons.

The Length, Depth and GRT of the lengthened ex-”FS” ships of William Lines (the Breadths do not change):

Don Victoriano (the second Elena)

62.4m

4.3m

694 tons

Elena (the first)

66.9m

4.3m

694 tons

Elizabeth

66.1m

4.3m

657 tons

Edward

67.3m

4.3m

651 tons

Albert

67.1m

4.3m

648 tons

Victor

62.6m

4.3m

699 tons

Henry I

67.0m

4.3m

648 tons

Grace I

66.3m

4.3m

652 tons

Davao City

67.8m

4.3m

691 tons

Misamis Oriental

68.2m

4.3m

673 tons

Dona Jose (the second Dona Maria)

67.2m

4.3m

699 tons

M/V ST. JOAN OF ARC

M/V St. Joan of Arc ©Mark Ocul

With the great decline of the liner industry in the Philippines (from about 60 in 1998 to only about eight sailing at the start of 2015) almost nobody notices that the M/V St. Joan of Arc, the former SuperFerry 5, is now the eldest liner in the Philippines both in date of construction and in the number of years in service which is now 20.  Long for sale and laid up (or more precisely anchored offshore) many times, she claimed this record maybe because of good luck on her part and bad luck on the part of her fleet mates.  It was obvious then that 2GO was gearing to retain her sister St. Thomas Aquinas, the former SuperFerry 2, as shown by her refurbishing and increased speed of 19 knots, which was even better that when she first came here in 1992, as compared to SuperFerry 5’s 17 knots. However, she went down after a collision with Sulpicio Express Siete in Mactan Channel in August of 2013. After that M/V St. Gregory the Great, the former SuperFerry 20, grounded in a reef near Guimaras and sustained damage that was considered beyond economic repair (BER). With no spare ships it looks like JOA, as she is known in abbreviation, might sail on for a while.

St. Joan of Arc is actually a liner (a multi-day ship) but she also belongs to that class of ship which landlubbers (including landlubber officials) call as “overaged” which at even with the most generous allowance means ferries over 40 years old. 40 years marks a special milestone in ships because in the decades past this should be the age when ships are already conking out and ready to die due to metal fatigue and unreliability. But many seriously underestimated the ships, the ability of her caretakers and the availability of surplus and CNC-milled parts. It might look funny to some but we now have a collection of about 100 ferries that are over 40 years old and that number does not include the cargo ships!

St. Joan of Arc was built by Onomishi Zosen in Onomichi, Japan for Meimon Car Ferry. She was completed in May 1973 and was christened the Ferry Hakozaki. She is one of three sister ships built in that shipyard and the other two were Ferry Sumiyoshi which became the St. Thomas Aquinas and Golden Okinawa which became the Cagayan Bay 1 of Gothong Shipping Corp. Her over-all length (LOA) was 138.6 meters and she had a breadth of 22.2 meters and a GT (Gross Tonnage) of 7,287. She was powered by two Mitsubishi-MAN diesel engines developing 15,200 horsepower that gave her an original speed of 19-19.5 knots.

M/V Superferry 5 ©Douglas Adona

She was renamed as the Ferry Cosmo in 1992 and in 1994 she came to Aboitiz Shipping Corp. to become the SuperFerry 5. In the country her GT rose to 11,638 although her superstructure did not change much. Her NT (Net Tonnage) also rose to 6,466 and her passenger capacity was bumped to 2,332.  She started sailing at the start of 1995 and she was inaugurated before her fourth voyage with then Aboitiz endorser Sharon Cuneta in attendance. She then sailed the Manila-Iligan route for Aboitiz Shipping via Cebu. Her service speed then was 17.5-18  knots but it was known she can run faster than that. She can pass underneath the Mactan bridges as one of her features was a folding stern mast.

In 1996 she was overtaken by the merger of William Lines Inc., Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and Aboitiz Shipping Corp. which created the William, Gothong and Aboitiz Corp. (WG&A). She retained her old name and initially even her Iligan route. One positive change, though, is the conversion from paid meals into free meals as before the merger there was no free food in Aboitiz Shipping Corp. (the operation was cafeteria-type). Initially right after the merger it was still paid meals but passenger protest was fierce and very vocal especially from William and Gothong regulars and so WG&A instituted the traditional free meal system.

M/V Superferry 5 cafeteria ©Wakanatsu

Cleanliness, order and snappy service were the hallmarks of the ship from the very start. Unlike other ferries then when it was an effort to call service personnel, in SuperFerry 5 there will be always someone on duty and on call in every accommodation and cabins have their own telephones should a service crew is needed. And every so often a cleaner will appear even if the accommodations were not dirty. Right after someone used the bathroom or the toilet a utility person will appear, check it up and even wipe the mirror and basin. Cleaning and mopping of the restaurant was also a constant chore especially since it is open 18 hours and it also serves as the main lounge. Maintenance crew will also immediately retouch any surface that showed rust. Everything was spic and span then. There were even premium features like a first-class paid restaurant and the famed “Gloria Maris” chain operated it. This was also the dining room of the first class passengers. There was also a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor but unfortunately both services did not last long for lack of patronage.

M/V Superferry 5 Dining Room ©Wakanatsu

Not long after, WG&A “rationalized” routes which meant culling of ships and maximizing sailing time with few in-port hours and she was paired with SuperFerry 2 and SuperFerry 9 to run routes that were not in a weekly or twice-weekly cycle. Afterwards, like in the rest of the WG&A fleet she was assigned different routes that were changing all too often for effective monitoring.

Less than a decade after the “Great Merger”, CAGLI and William Lines decided to opt out of the merger. WG&A subsequently was renamed as the Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). SuperFerry 5, however retained her name but was not treated the same. Slowly, she lost favor as ATS preferred the ferries they converted into twin cargo decks like the SuperFerry 12, SuperFerry 9, SuperFerry 2 and later the SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21. ATS lacked cargo ships then and they reasoned a twin cargo deck ship will work just as fine but not really because when a ROPAX route is dropped, the cargo service also disappears.

M/V Superferry 5 ©Mark Ocul

After several years, the merger of Negros Navigation and Aboitiz Transport System finally happened after fits and starts. SuperFerry 5 was then renamed the St. Joan of Arc but again she was not in favor and was put up for sale. Especially after the grounding in Coron, Palawan she was mainly unused as the Negros Navigation ships were favored over her like the repair of the then sickly already St. Joseph the Worker and sister St. Peter the Apostle and the continued use of the slow and smoky San Paolo.

With the sale of St. Rita de Casia, the former SuperFerry 1, she is now the only ferry in 2GO that do not have twin cargo decks. So in fact, although she is the smallest now in the fleet she ironically has the biggest passenger capacity. But since liner patronage has already weakened a lot that is no longer a factor as there is no way now her full passenger capacity can be utilized.

With the mantra of “finding the right size”, a euphemism for culling of the fleet I doubt if St. Joan of Arc still has a clear future with 2GO especially with her advanced age and in the light that the long sailing hours of liners is not kind to elderly engines. She might still shoulder on but the “Grim Reaper of Ships” could just be around the corner now especially since her owner company is not exactly fond of old ships and will cull ships even without replacement. So to those who can, my advice is better sail with her now while she is still around as her time remaining might not last long.

M/V St. Joan of Arc ©Tristan Fil Lirasan