One of the Magic Elixirs of William Lines and Carlos A. Gothong & Co.

The term “magic elixir” refers to a potion that gives one powers and in modern usage it refers to a sort of magic that was the reason for an entity to rise. In this article I am not referring to something illegal but to one of the reasons for the rise of two of the most storied shipping companies of the Philippines where in their peak were contending for the bragging rights of being the biggest shipping company in the country.

Historically, the Chinese mestizo shipping companies were not as blessed as the Spanish mestizo shipping companies which antedated them in the business. The latter not only had a head start but they also possessed powerful political connections and that was very important then in getting loans from the Philippine National Bank (PNB) which dominated commercial banking then as there was almost no other commercial bank big enough in that time able to finance acquisition of ships. It was also crucial in getting ships from the National Development Corporation and earlier in getting surplus ex-”FS” ships from the Rehabilitation Finance Commission that was awarded as war compensation by the US Government.

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A 1950 ad of William Lines (Credits to Phil. Herald and Gorio Belen)

Of the two companies, William Lines had an earlier start and it was also blessed by political connections – the founder of the company, William Chiongbian happened to be a powerful Congressman who in his run for the Senator missed by one just slot (and his brother was a Congressman too at the same time but in another province). Carlos A. Gothong & Co. had to start from the bottom as it began almost a decade later than William Lines in liner shipping. But later it was blessed by a good strategic relationship with Lu Do & Lu Ym, the biggest copra concern then when copra was skyrocketing to being the Number 1 cash commodity and export commodity of the country.

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The first liner of Gothong & Co. (Credits to Manila Bulletin and Gorio Belen)

In the national liner scene, after its restart right after the end of the Pacific War, the strongest after a generation were the shipping companies that had routes to Southern Mindanao. Left behind were the shipping companies that just concentrated in the Visayas routes like Southern Lines, General Shipping, Philippine President Lines/Philippine Pioneer Lines/Galaxy Lines and other smaller shipping companies to Eastern Visayas, Bicol and the near routes to Mindoro, northern Panay and Palawan. Actually, in my totem pole of national liner companies in 1972, the Top 5 — Compania Maritima, Gothong & Co., Aboitiz Shipping+PSNC, William Lines and Sweet Lines — all have routes to Southern Mindanao.

What made Southern Mindanao the “magic elixir” of William Lines and Gothong & Co. when the latter was not even a liner company in the latter half of the 1940’s and William Lines was behind many shipping companies that preceded them?

In business, there is nothing better barring the illegal than a customer base that simply keeps growing and growing. And that was what Mindanao then was to the shipping companies Southern Mindanao. Before the war the population of Southern Mindanao was small and was practically composed by natives. That was before the government encouraged and assisted the resettlement of people from other parts of the Philippines to resolve what was called then as the “population pressure” (rapidly growing population in an agricultural economy with not enough land anymore to be divided into the next generation and there were no contraceptives yet then and the average number of children was five).

Northern Mindanao after the war already had Visayan migrants as it was just near the Visayas and the Spaniards was able to establish a strong foothold there even in the 19th century. But Southern Mindanao almost had no transplanted population and it is this part of the Philippines that experienced the greatest population boom after the war with what was called by the Moro National Liberation Front as the “colonization” of Mindanao (well, even some politician used the word “colonization” before that became politically incorrect). Where before in the 1948 Census the transplanted population was just a minority in Mindanao, in the 1960 Census the natives suddenly realized they were already the new minority and in the 1970 Census they saw they were beginning to get marginalized (Sultans and Datus who were once Mayors were even beginning to lose the elections).

This population boom, the opening of land for cultivation and the consequent exploitation of the natural resources of Mindanao needed transport and it was not by air (and not by road definitely) but by ship. And by this all shipping companies that were plying the Southern Mindanao routes benefited a lot. Of course shipping companies serving Northern Mindanao also benefited but not to the same extent as the Southern Mindanao shipping companies. And anyway the shipping companies serving Southern Mindanao were the same shipping companies serving Northern Mindanao (with exception of Escano Lines which has also routes to Northern Mindanao but not Southern Mindanao) and so the benefit of those serving Southern Mindanao were double.

If we analyze the biggest shipping company then which was Compania Maritima, most of its ships were assigned to Southern Mindanao. That was also true for the liners of Gothong & Co. (this company has a lot of cargo-passenger ships then to gather the copra for Lu Do and Lu Ym) and William Lines (which assigned 3/4 of its ships in Southern Mindanao early and Gothong & Co. of to 80% in 1967).

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One will wonder how this small ex-“FS” ship sails all the way to Davao

Although William Lines started ahead of Gothong & Co., the latter vaulted ahead of the former in the 1960’s. I think the reason is William Lines relied too much and too long on the ex-”FS” ships and it was only in 1966 when they acquired other types. Meanwhile, Gothong & Co. acquired ships from Europe earlier and in greater numbers. That does not even include the Type “C1A” ships acquired by Gothong & Co. which were big ships and were really ocean-going plus a lot of small ships the likes of lengthened ex-”F” ships and a host of local-builds. In ports of call, Gothong & Co. simply had too many because of the need to gather the copra of Lu Do & Lu Ym which was exporting a lot (and which Gothong & Co. also carried).

For sure, Compania Maritima which was already the Number 1 right after the war also benefited from the growth of Mindanao. However, their subsequent collapse in 1984 at the height of the financial and economic crisis then besetting the country is of another matter. Sulpicio Lines, the biggest successor company of Gothong & Co. also benefited from Mindanao after their creation in 1972 so much so that later it became the biggest shipping company of the country in the 1980’s.

What happened then to the shipping companies started after the war that just concentrated on Visayan routes? Well, by the 1960’s Southern Lines and General Shipping were already gone from the local scene and a few year later Galaxy Lines, successor to Philippine President Lines, the local operation and Philippine Pioneer Lines was also gone. And the smaller shipping companies like Escano Lines, Bisaya Land Transport (this was also a shipping company) were just in the fringe and barely alive in the 1970’s like the shipping companies that just concentrated in Bicol, Samar and northern Panay. That was also the fate of the shipping companies that was concentrating in what is called MIMAROPA today. After the 1970’s practically only batels survived in the last area mentioned.

Meanwhile, Gothong & Co. threatened Compania Maritima for Number 1 before their break-up in 1972. Later with the downward spiral of Compania Maritima, Sulpicio Lines and William Lines battled for Number 1. And when Compania Maritima quit and Aboitiz Shipping Corporation also quit Mindanao, Sulpicio Lines (the biggest successor company of Gothong & Co.) and William Lines further benefited. Actually, no shipping company that did not serve Southern Mindanao ever became one the top shipping companies in the country (that was before a lot of liner companies were culled in the crisis of the 1980’s).

That was the importance of Southern Mindanao for the shipping companies of the country. William Lines and successor of Gothong & Co. Sulpicio Lines ended up the Top 2 in Philippine shipping. Know what? They were the only survivors of the Southern Mindanao routes after all the rest quit (of course, Aboitiz Shipping came back later and there were others in container shipping).

Now, there are no more liners to Southern Mindanao, funny. But, of course, that is another story. The magic elixir dried up?

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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.

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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.