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 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.