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 MV Nikki (a.k.a. MV Lady of All Nations)

When the deadly-for-shipping decade of the 1980’s ended (technically, it ended only at the end of 1990), we still had a few former FS ships sailing. Maybe it was because we really lacked ships them and getting loans was really difficult and interest rates were very high. Maybe, the penchant of Filipinos to squeeze the last ounce of life from mechanical things was also a factor. We are also sentimental in letting go of things that have served us for so long.

One of the last former FS ships still sailing then was the MV Edward of William Lines. The ship was running the short Manila-Tilik (Lubang Island) and Manila-San Jose (Occidental Mindoro) routes. She is running this route but at times it is another former FS ship, the MV Don Jose I, which is in that route. However, it is the MV Edward which is remembered more in the big town of San Jose. She was actually the last on the route, too. This route is a steel-hulled ferry monopoly at that time by William Lines Inc. after other liner companies withdrew or were gone from shipping. They were also able to block the entry of a new competitor. Beside the steel-hulled ferry there were also wooden motor boats (the batel) plying the route but they concentrated on cargo and do not have very regular schedules (it will depend on how full they were and also on the weather).

In 1992, with the coming of the new administration of President Fidel V. Ramos and his call for shipping modernization, there seems to be a sudden realization by the shipping companies still sailing former FS ships that they finally have to go. There were just a few former FS ships still sailing then and their lives were prolonged by retiring other FS ships and cannibalizing them for parts. Their ranks was also further diminished by the very strong Typhoon “Mike” (Typhoon “Ruping”) that visited Cebu in November 1990 which was very deadly for Cebu shipping.

Instead of acquiring a new ship for the Manila-Tilik and Manila-San Jose routes, William Lines instead decided to withdraw from the route. But, instead of holding on to their residual rights on the route, William Lines instead welcomed and helped a successor in the person of Dr. Segundo Moreno who was previously not in shipping. Dr. Moreno established the shipping company Moreta Shipping Lines and he purchased the MV Ariake Maru No. 6 from Japan. With this changeover, San Jose and Tilik was able to re-establish their regular connection to Manila. This was important as they were dependent on the national capital for manufactured goods and Divisoria and Navotas were the main markets for their agricultural and sea products.

Unlike the former FS ships, MV Ariake Maru No. 6 is a RORO (Roll-on, Roll Off) which means she can load vehicles. Even when used in break-bulk cargo, her main use, a RORO is easier to load and unload and forklifts ease the operation especially in handling heavier cargo. It also means a RORO is less dependent for the services of manual laborers, the porters. MV Ariake Maru No. 6 was actually not bigger than the former FS ship she was replacing but a RORO has a taller cargo deck.

MV Ariake Maru No. 6 has the permanent ID IMO 7632307. She was built by Hayashikane Shipbuilding & Engineering Company in their Nagasaki shipyard in Japan in 1977 for Ariake Ferry. She measured 54.0 meters by 12.8 meters with a Gross Tonnage (GT) of 695, which are all about the same as an FS ship. However, her DWT (Deadweight Tonnage) of 284 tons was way less than the 711 tons of MV Edward, a lengthened FS ship measuring 62.9 meters by 9.8 meters. She was equipped with two Niigata diesel engines with a total of 2,400 horsepower. Her original top speed in Japan was 13.5 knots.

Arriving for Moreta Shipping Lines, she was renamed the MV Nikki and she was converted into an overnight ferry equipped with bunks with a local passenger capacity of 440. She was two-class ship: an airconditioned Tourist with free linen and pillow and a better toilet and bath and an open-air Economy with no free “beddings” (linen). She was considered by her passengers to be more comfortable than the former FS ships she was replacing. As to speed, she was not faster than the former FS ships which only had less than ½ of her engine power at 1,000 horsepower.

Maybe her lack of speed was due to what I heard that she has a spoon hull. That means the design of her hull is similar to a bathtub. Maybe in Japan she was only used for very short-distance routes where the shape of the hull will not matter. Incidentally, this hull is similar to the hull of the barges and LCTs. Assigned to the 120-nautical mile Manila-San Jose route she can’t meet the promised 12-hour sailing time especially when swells are around. Two years after fielding, she settled on a 14-hour sailing time for her route. So sailing at 6pm means a stomach already looking for food once one disembarks.

In Moreta Shipping Lines, the Tilik and San Jose routes destinations were also split into separate routes. However, when the MV Kimelody Cristy arrived for Moreta Shipping Lines in 1994, MV Nikki became a dedicated Tilik (Lubang) ship. There her lack of speed did not matter as Lubang island is just a short distance from Manila. A 10pm departure to that port is already assured of a dawn arrival. 

Moreta Shipping Lines and MV Nikki did good sailing for about a decade or so. But in due time, their Mindoro routes were slowly taken over by the intermodal trucks and buses that was using the short Batangas-Abra de Ilog (Occidental Mindoro) route. As always, the advantage of the intermodal were 24-hour departures and direct delivery to the particular towns or barrios. With such changes, Moreta Lines had to develop other routes and they tried the Panay island routes abandoned by WG&A. But soon, they found out there was nothing much left there and the intermodal was already ascendant there, too.

The staple route of Manila-Tilik by MV Nikki was affected in another way. Slowly, the motor banca to Lubang from Nasugbu in Batangas became a competitor. With a combined bus and banca, daytime trips became possible with direct disembarkation (unlike the RORO which only dock in Tilik port). The syndrome was much like how the motor banca drove out the RORO in Puerto Galera. Tilik port is not located in either town of Lubang or Looc and the local road was not good either.

By the last half of the 2010’s, the ships of Moreta Lines were barely sailing. At times, only one of their three ferries might be sailing. Reading the writing on the wall, they started cargo shipping in 2009. Not long after, they decided to get out of passenger shipping altogether, sold their passenger ships and used the proceeds to acquire more cargo ships. They then became a pure cargo shipping line (this trying to survive as a shipping line was one characteristic missing in their benefactor William Lines Inc. which decided to go down quietly).

MV Nikki came to Medallion Transport in 2012 which was soon followed by the MV Love-1 of Moreta Shipping Lines also. The two ships were used by Medallion Transport to develop new Medallion routes between Cebu and Leyte together with two other ships (always less one because one is used in Masbate). In Medallion Transport, the MV Nikki was renamed to MV Lady of All Nations and she was used to grab traffic from a competitor in the Cebu-Bato route. Medallion Transport was already sailing this route before but they were just shoehorning short-distance ferries in this overnight route (it has also day trip on the reverse). With the fielding of MV Lady of All Nations, Medallion Transport finally had a true overnight ship in this route, their pioneer route to Cebu from their original home port of Bato, Leyte.

MV Lady of All Nations is still the Medallion Transport mainstay in the Cebu-Bato route. The competition is suffering because it is using single-class cruisers (admittedly, they are faster, however). Meanwhile, Medallion Transport retrofitted MV Lady of All Nations to have Cabin class and Deluxe class (which approximates the Suite class). So, she is now a four-class ship. Five, if the Sitting Economy, a Cebu-Leyte and Cebu-Bohol fixture is included. Her fares starts at P245 per person which is very cheap for a 55-nautical mile distance. Actually, the Cebu-Bato route is known for having the cheapest fares between Cebu and Leyte. The Tourist fare of Ormoc will actually be already Cabin class in MV Lady of All Nations.

In her last drydock in 2014, two years after coming to Medallion Transport, the MV Lady of All Nations spent some time in Star Marine Shipyard in the shipyard row of Cebu in Tayud off Cansaga Bay and the one nearest to the Cansaga bridge. I heard included in the works done in her were upgrading in the engines. It seems it showed as after the drydocking, the MV Lady of All Nations became a faster ship.

She does two departures in a day and this means much more revenues for a medium-distance regional ferry. As such, she approximates in the a day a sailing distance from Cebu to the likes of Surigao, Dapitan, Dipolog, Iloilo, Masbate, Calbayog or Catbalogan. At nighttime, she leaves Cebu for Bato arriving there at dawn. She leaves at mid-morning in Bato to arrive in Cebu at mid-afternoon. She is the favorite there since she a bigger and more comfortable ship than her competition.

It seems it will be a long time before the competition will come out with a ship that will displace her in the Cebu-Bato route. Her main competition are actually the slightly better ships to Hilongos, another port north of Bato and on a parallel competing route to Cebu-Bato route. Maybe that was the reason why Cabin and Deluxe were added to her since the ships in Hilongos have Cabins and Suites. However, with slightly lower fares and the advantage of a shorter distance to the Southern Leyte towns, she has competitive advantages of her own. And with the short distance to Leyte her speed is not that much of an issue and being nearer to the farther destination then that cancels out the speed disadvantage (but this is not applicable to a very slow ship of a competitor in the Hilongos route, a cousin of theirs).

Acquiring her seems to be a genius stroke for Medallion Transport. She is a definite asset for the company. What a definite change of fortune by being a castaway in another route that lost (well, that is also true for MV Lady of Love – an advanced preview)!

Photo Credit: James Gabriel Verallo