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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RORO Cargo Ships and Vehicle Carriers Can Be Good ROPAX Liners

In shipping, wherever that be in the world, fuel consumption is a critical factor because it takes up 40% of the operational costs of the ship. Here it might even be higher as our ships are old and our mariner rates are so low and apprentices comprise about half of the crew and they are the ones that pay and not the shipping company. So when fuel prices went really high a decade ago even the Fast ROPAXes of Europe capable of 30 knots slowed down to save on fuel. High Speed Crafts (HSCs) suffered also, had to slow down too and some stopped sailing for they were simply unprofitable even at very high load factors.

We too had been victims of that fetish with speed that in the 1990’s and so, many liners capable of 20 knots, locally, came into the country. The list of this is long and I would list it: Filipina Princess, Princess of Paradise, Princess of the Stars, Princess of the Universe, Princess of the World, Princess of the Ocean and Princess of New Unity, all of Sulpicio Lines; SuperFerry 1 of Aboitiz Shipping; Mabuhay 1 and Mabuhay 3 of William Lines; Our Lady of Lipa, SuperFerry 12, SuperFerry 14, SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 of WG&A; SuperFerry 20 and SuperFerry 21 of Aboitiz Transport System; St. Francis of Assisi, St. Joseph The Worker, St. Peter The Apostle, Mary Queen of Peace, St. Ezekiel Moreno, St. Michael The Archangel and St. Francis Xavier of Negros Navigation. SuperFerry 16 then came back to become the St. Therese of the Child Jesus of 2GO. A total of 26 liners. Now isn’t that too many? And most are 150 meters in length or over and the average passenger capacity is over 2,000 with 3 even breaching the 3,000 mark.

I argue that most proved to be oversized.

That speed came from oversized engines, usually 20,000 horsepower and over which means more fuel consumption and I was not happy with that trend in speed and the trend of upsizing the ships because I know that in the past when liners became bigger than the ex-”FS” ship, many ports with previous connection to Manila were left out because the liners were already too big and their drafts too deep for the small and shallow ports. Then later, the fast cruisers became the new paradigm and more ports have to be left out because to shorten voyage duration the interports were reduced. Gone were the old routes which featured four, five or even six ports of call and with voyages lasting several days.

Those big, fast liners might have been okay when ship passengers were still overflowing when there were still no budget planes and intermodal buses as competition. But that was not okay for the passengers left behind in the abandoned ports. It just created a generation or two of passengers not catered to by ships and grew up not relying on them.

And in the end the liner companies paid dearly for that. Even with advertisements they can no longer be coaxed into riding ships (even if they are painted pink). And that became a disaster for liner shipping when passengers thinned. Too few port calls mean less passengers and cargo – when the ships were already big and guzzling fuel and heavily needing those. And that just helped sink the liner sector of our shipping which has not recovered until now.

I argue that for the passenger loads and cargo sizes now our liners sailing are simply too big and that is the reason why they can’t or won’t call in the smaller ports served by liners until the end of the millennium like Ormoc, Surigao, Tagbilaran, Dapitan and others. It should go down in size and maybe add ports of call and damn if transit times are longer. What is more important is that the ships become fuller so that it will be more profitable. Anyway, those who want fast travel will simply take the budget planes. But still there are still many people which prefer the ships to the planes.

Moreover, the remaining liners now have engines too big to be profitable on marginal routes and smaller ports. I think the engines also have to be downsized. If fuel prices go up once more the liners won’t be profitable again.

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Our Lady of Sacred Heart by Chief Ray Smith

In downsizing and saving on fuel, there is one type of ship that is actually fit for us. These are the former RORO Cargo ships and Vehicle Carriers and we have several  examples of that in the past. Actually for the same size and length, RORO Cargo ships have smaller engines than ships which were ROPAXes from the start. They were not really built for speed but for economy while having a decent speed. And moreover on RORO Cargo ships not much steel has to be added as additional decks.

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Our Lady of Medjugorje by Nat Pagayonan

In the past when liners were not that yet big and fast we had very successful liners whose origins were as former RORO Cargo Ships. I think the most famous of these were the sister ships Our Lady of Sacred Heart and the Our Lady of Medjugorje of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (CAGLI) which both came in 1990. Beautifully renovated, few suspected their true origins. Weighing the amenities of the ship, they were not inferior to liners of their size. And nor in speed although they have engine horsepowers less than the liners of their size.

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Butuan Bay 1 by Vinz Sanchez

It was the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines (when they split from WG&A) which brought in the next batch of RORO Cargo ships for conversion into liner ROPAXes when they acquired the Butuan Bay 1 and the Ozamis Bay 1 in the early 2000’s. But what puzzled me is they forgot how to convert them into beautiful ROPAXes like before and almost everybody that rode them said they were ugly. And that maybe helped doom the return of Gothong Lines into passenger shipping. When Butuan Bay 1 became the Trans-Asia 5 it became a beautiful ship with first-class interiors. Butuan Bay 1 should have been like that from the very start and if it were, the trajectory of Gothong Lines might have been different (of course they had other problems too).

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Ozamis Bay 1 by Mike Baylon

It was the Asian Marine Transport Corporation or AMTC that next brought RORO Cargo ships here for conversion into RORO liners. In their Super Shuttle RORO series, they started with the first three converted in to ROPAXes and these were the small Super Shuttle RORO 1, Super Shuttle RORO 2 and Super Shuttle RORO 3. However, the conversions were also not done well and were not worthy of the beautiful small liners of the past. Were they scrimping too like the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines? Or were they thinking more of the cargo than the passenger revenue?

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Super Shuttle RORO 1 by Fr. Bar Fabella

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Super Shuttle RORO 2 by Nowell Alcancia

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Super Shuttle RORO 3 by Mike Baylon

The next batch of Super Shuttle ROROs which were former RORO Cargo ships or variants from the Super Shuttle RORO 7 to Super Shuttle RORO 12 were all big, all former RORO Cargo ships but all were no longer converted in ROPAXes because maybe the first three of AMTC were not particularly successful. I was able to board all of them and their interiors were all good. The cabins for the vehicle drivers were still in good condition and being used along with ships’ drawing rooms and the good, functional galleys. Some even have gyms. Actually what was only needed is to maybe convert the top deck or another deck into good passenger accommodations. Our shipbuilders were good at that in the 1950’s and 1960’s when refrigerated cargo or cargo-passenger ships from Europe were converted into liners for Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines aside from Compania Maritima.

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Super Shuttle RORO 7 by James Gabriel Verallo

The Super Shuttle RORO 7 and Super Shuttle RORO 8 were the two AMTC ships that were intriguing for me. At 145 and 146 meters length the size is good especially since this is a tall ship with at least 4 RORO decks. The original top sustained speeds are 17 and 17.5 knots from only 6,900 and 7,800 horsepower which is even less than the horsepowers of the Our Lady of Sacred Heart and the Our Lady of Medjugorje which both had top sustained speeds of 17 knots when new and did 16 knots here even with additional metal and age. If 16 knots can be coaxed from the small engines of the two AMTC ships then it might have been enough especially if compared to the speeds the former Cebu Ferries series converted liners are doing now. It will have a good container load with a decent passenger size if one deck is converted into passenger accommodations and the cabins for drivers are used for passengers here. I was hoping AMTC will go in that direction but they did not. It turned out AMTC was no longer interested in liner shipping and was more interested in container shipping and especially the loading of brand-new vehicles destined for car dealers in the south.

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Super Shuttle RORO 8 by Aris Refugio

A design speed or original top sustained speed of 15 or 16 knots might not do because converted here with additional metal and with age already they will probably just run at 13 or 14 knots and that is slow for a liner. 15 knots locally is still acceptable but 16 knots is better as proven by the Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje. But then on the other hand the last time the former Cebu Ferry 2 ran as a liner to Cebu from Manila she was just being made to run at 14 to 15 knots. Does it mean that speed is already acceptable? That will mean a 28 or 29 hour run to Cebu versus the 22 hours of the big liners. But then passing through interports will mask that. Just feed the passengers well. And I always wondered why liners to Cebu don’t pass Roxas City anymore when it is just on the way. Of course the big ones can’t. At least 2GO tried Romblon port with the St. Anthony de Padua (the former Cebu Ferry 2) the last time around. But then maybe small liners shouldn’t be doing the Cebu route.

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St. Anthony of Padua by Mike Baylon

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St. Ignatius of Loyola by Mike Baylon

It was Aboitiz Transport System which next brought in RORO Cargo ships for conversion into ROPAXes with their Cebu Ferry 2 and Cebu Ferry 3. Originally these two ships were refitted to be overnight ferries but later when they were transferred out of their Cebu base they were refitted again to become liners. The two are known now as St. Anthony of Padua and St. Ignatius of Loyola under 2GO. Aside from the two, there are other RORO Cargo ships which were converted into ROPAXes but they were not liners but overnight ships. Among these are the Graceful Stars and Oroquieta Stars of Roble Shipping.

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The future Trans-Asia (1) by Mike Baylon

I think there are many RORO Cargo ships around that are about 120-130 meters in length that have a design speed of 18 or 19 knots which can still run here at 16.5 to 17.5 knots and they might just be perfect. I don’t know if that is the case of the Warrior Spirit which recently arrived to become the third Trans-Asia (1) of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. This might be good as a test case. The length of 126.2 meters is perfect and the design speed is 19 knots from twin engines is also perfect. Trans-Asia Shipping Lines has a good record in conversion. But then she will just be an overnight ship but a big one at that. But the coming Panglao Bay 1 of Carlos A. Gothong Lines might not prove to be a test case as she will not be converted to ROPAX, per report.

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Panglao Bay 1 by Mark Ocul

Trying these former RORO Cargo ships for conversion into ROPAXes might be a safe bet. These RORO Cargo ships might be low-risk in acquisition as their purchases might just be above breaker prices. So if it does not make money the worth of metal as scrap might still pay for the acquisition price. In the future Trans-Asia (1) they are even cutting off metal so windows can be made. That is different from the experience of the Cebu Ferries ships were a lot of metal has to be added because decks have to built.

I think it is good time to try acquiring RORO Cargo ships as our future liners. They might turn out to be good bets and worthwhile liners a la Our Lady of Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Medjugorje.