The Battle for the Southern Mindanao Ports After The War And Before The Era of RORO Liners

Discussing this topic, the author wishes to clarify that the discussion will be limited to the period after World War II. There are not enough research materials yet before the war and in that earlier period Southern Mindanao was not yet that economically important to the country since the great wave of migration to the region only happened starting in the 1950’s and then peaking in the 1960’s and the 1970’s.

Talking of Southern Mindanao ports, these consisted mainly of Davao, General Santos (or Dadiangas) and Cotabato (which is actually Parang or Polloc port located in another town) and to some extent also Pagadian and Kabasalan in earlier times and also Mati and Bislig. Since ships generally used the western approach, inadvertently Zamboanga port will be included in this since all ships to Southern Mindanao port using the western approach will use that as an intermediate stop since it just lies along the route and it has a good passenger and cargo volume.

1955-apr-6-schedules

Gorio Belen research in the National Library

After World War II, shipping to Southern Mindanao boomed because it was the “new frontier” of the country. There was great migration by Christians from other parts of the country and this was encouraged and supported by the government to ease the “land pressure” in Luzon and Visayas which was the fuel then for the land unrest (read: Pambansang Kilusan ng Magbubukid, Sakdalista movement, Hukbalahap, etc.). The land of Mindanao was being opened through the building of roads and the bounty of the land and the forests were being exploited (without asking the say-so of the native peoples and that fueled the unrest of the latter decades; the Luzon land unrest was “solved” to be replaced by Mindanao unrest and war – what an irony and tragedy!). And so people and goods needed to be transported and in such a situation where “ships come where there is cargo” there was a battle for the Southern Mindanao ports among the local shipping companies. Davao was the primary route and port of Southern Mindanao and almost invariably the Davao ships will also drop anchor in Dadiangas (General Santos City).

At the outset, it was Compania Maritima which led the pack to Southern Mindanao after World War II as she was the biggest liner shipping company then with the most ships, half of which were big by local standards (that means a length of about 100 meters). The company possessed ex-“C1-M-AV1” surplus ships as compensation by the US Government for their ships lost during the war and also big cargo-passenger ships from Europe while the competition had no better than the small ex-“FS” ships from the US Army which have to seek shelter when the seas begin to roil.

1951-dec-18-compania-maritima

Gorio Belen research in the National Library

Among the Compania Maritima competitors to the Southern Mindanao ports in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s were Philippine Steam and Navigation Company (PSNC), Manila Steamship Company, De la Rama Steamship, William Lines Inc. and Escano Lines. Most of the liner shipping companies of the day then shirked from Southern Mindanao routes because it was taxing on the fleet as the ships needed two weeks for the entire voyage. So just to be able to offer a weekly schedule, two ships of the fleet must be devoted to a Southern Mindanao route.

It was Philippine Steam and Navigation Company (PSNC), being backed by Everett Steamship of the United States, which was more competitive against Compania Maritima as it also had ex-“C1-M-AV1” and ex-“Type N3” ships. PSNC was a venture between Everett Steamship and Aboitiz Shipping (and later with the end of “Parity Rights”, it passed on to the latter). Manila Steamship Co. was competitive, too since it also had a big fleet. However, this company quit shipping after the explosion and fire that hit their flagship “Mayon” in 1955. Meanwhile, De la Rama Steamship even quit earlier to concentrate on international shipping and being an agents after some local issues.

The year that Manila Steamship quit shipping, the new liner company Carlos A. Go Thong & Company joined the Southern Mindanao battle, too. In the mid-1950’s, with some shake-out in the shipping industry, there were less competitors and ships in this decade (because some really old ships have already quit along with some very small ones). It should be noted, however, that there were ocean-going liners that were originating from Southern Mindanao that goes to Manila first before proceeding to Japan and the USA. Some of those that provided that kind of service were Everett Steamship and Compania Maritima.

1963-4-29-everett-go-thong

Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In the 1960’s, passenger-cargo ships from Europe that were bigger than the ex-“FS” ships began to arrive in the Philippines and many of these were fielded to the Southern Mindanao routes. Among the users of that type were Go Thong and William Lines. Go Thong was also able to acquire the big World War II surplus “C1-A” ships like the “Manila Bay” and “Subic Bay”. Compania Maritima, however, bought brand-new liners and chartered big reparations cargo-passenger ships from the government-owned National Development Corporation (NDC) and so they held on to their lead in the Southern Mindanao routes in this decade. Meanwhile, Everett/PSNC was not far behind and they even used in Southern Mindanao their new liners from Japan, the “Elcano” and the “Legazpi”. Additionally, there was a new entrant in the late 1960’s, the ambitious Sweet Lines which was one of the beneficiaries of the quitting of General Shipping Company of local routes (the other was Aboitiz Shipping Corporation).

At the start of the 1970’s, Compania Maritima was still ruling the Southern Mindanao routes. But several very interesting developments happened in this decade. First, the big Go Thong/Universal Shipping which already exceeded Compania Maritima in size had broken into three shipping companies and Sulpicio Lines Incorporated, Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated and Lorenzo Shipping Corporation emerged (until 1979 the operation of the latter two were joint). In a few years time, however, Sulpicio Lines grew fast and proved to be a strong competitor. In this decade, it was already slowly becoming obvious that Compania Maritima was losing steam especially as they regularly lost ships in storms. William Lines then was in a race with Sulpicio Lines to dislodge Compania Maritima from its perch. Everett Steamship meanwhile bowed out because of the end of “Parity Rights” of the Americans (and thus they are no longer allowed to do business as a Philippine “national”) and PSNC (their partnership with the Aboitizes) was merged with Aboitiz Shipping Corporation and the latter became the surviving entity. But with no new ships, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation bowed out of Southern Mindanao liner service. However, the combined Lorenzo Shipping Corporation and Carlos A. Gothong Shipping Lines (CAGLI) and Sweet Lines Inc. were still competing heavily in the Southern Mindanao routes in the 1970’s.

Two very important developments happened before the end of the 1970’s. One, containerization began and this changed the game of shipping. Where before it was just practically the liners that carried the cargo, now the carriers split into two, the container ships and the liners. Subsequently, the passenger capacity of the liners grew as they no longer have to devote a lot of space for cargo. By this time, the massive migration of Christians to Southern Mindanao has also boomed its population and consequently more need to travel.

1979-nov-schedules

Gorio Belen research in the National Library

The second development was the introduction of fast cruiser liners that call on just one intermediate port (before a liner to Davao will usually call first in Cebu, Tagbilaran, a northern Mindanao port maybe, Zamboanga definitely and Dadiangas. So where before 10-knot ships like the ex-”FS” and ex-”C1-M-AV1” ships will take two weeks to complete an entire voyage and the faster ex-European passenger-cargo ships cycles every 10 or 11 days, the new fast cruisers complete the voyage in just a week. By my definition, fast cruisers of this period were the liners capable then of 18 knots. Usually, these were not converted cargo-passenger ships from other countries (these were fast cruisers even in Japan, usually). These were also luxury liners in the local parlance and one key feature of that is the availability of air-conditioning. With that truly luxurious suites and cabins became possible.

The fast “Dona Ana” (later “Dona Marilyn”) of Sulpicio Lines which came in 1976 tried to change the game by just having one intermediate port call, in Cebu. William Lines responded with the even faster cruiser “Manila City” (the second) in 1976 which only had Zamboanga as its intermediate port. With their speed and the use of just one intermediate port, the “Dona Ana” and “Manila City” was able maintain a weekly schedule. Although the luxurious flagship “Filipinas” of Compania Maritima was also fast at 17 knots, she dropped by many intermediate ports and so she cannot maintain a weekly sailing. Compania Maritima never dropped the old style of many intermediate ports.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

Gothong+Lorenzo was not able to respond well to this challenge (though they tried) as they had no true fast cruiser liners. So, they had to use two ships for a route to maintain a weekly sailing or three ships to maintain a cycle of every 10 days. Sweet Lines also tried but like Gothong+Lorenzo they also have no fast cruisers assigned to Southern Mindanao (they had two though in Cebu, the “Sweet Faith” and the “Sweet Home”). Compania Maritima and Sweet Lines were the users of three ships to the Davao route to be able to cycle a ship every 10 days. Aboitiz Shipping, meanwhile, with no new ships simply dropped out of liner shipping to Southern Mindanao and just concentrated on container shipping.

Although William Lines and Sulpicio Lines already had fast cruiser liners to Southern Mindanao they also still used their old passenger-cargo ships to the region in the late 1970’s in conjunction with their fast cruisers liners. So with them the passengers have a choice of the fast or the slow which was also less luxurious. Fares also differed, of course.

In the container segment of shipping, the battle was toe-to-toe. Aboitiz Shipping rolled out the Aboitiz Concarriers, William Lines had the Wilcons, Sulpicio Lines fielded the Sulcons (Sulpicio Container) and later Lorenzo Shipping sailed the Lorcons (Lorenzo Container). Many of the ships mentioned were once general cargo ships converted into container ships. [The later series Aboitiz container ships were named Superconcarriers and Megaconcarriers.] Lorenzo Shipping then split with Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and the latter then quit Southern Mindanao routes to concentrate on the Visayas-Mindanao routes. [Later, Lorenzo Shipping quit shipping altogether and sold out to the Magsaysay group before they were reborn as the Oceanic Container Lines.]

1978-compania-maritima

Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In passenger liners, William Lines and Sulpicio Lines continued to battle in the Southern Mindanao ports in the 1980’s using fast cruiser liners. Sulpicio Lines had the edge as they had more fast cruiser liners [William Lines still had to make do with their graying former European passenger-cargo ships]. For a while until they quit in 1984, Compania Maritima was battling Sulpicio Lines more than toe-to-toe. After all, Southern Mindanao was the area of concentration of Compania Maritima and in Davao they even have their own port, the MINTERBRO port. Compania Maritima concentrated their best liners, the “Filipinas”, “Visayas” and “Mindanao” plus their passenger-cargo ships “Leyte Gulf” and “Dadiangas” in the General Santos/Davao route before the company’s life expired. While the three were battling, the other liner companies were not able to respond except for Sea Transport Co. and Solid Shipping Lines which were not operating passenger liners. One independent liner company, the Northern Lines Inc. which had routes to Southern Mindanao also quit at about the same time of Compania Maritima at the height of the political and financial crisis leading to the mid-1980’s.

Before the era of RORO liners, there were already more container ships to Southern Mindanao than passenger liners. That how strong was the growth of that new paradigm. This new dominant paradigm even forced the fast cruisers to carry container vans atop their cargo holds as that was already the demand of the shippers and traders.

In the 1980’s before the advent of RORO liners starting in 1983 there were actually only a few fast cruiser liners doing the Southern Mindanao routes. Among those was the “Dona Ana”, the pioneer fast cruiser of Sulpicio Lines to Davao. This ship was later pulled out to replace “Don Sulpicio” in the Manila-Cebu route as the ship caught fire and she was renamed to “Dona Marilyn”. However, the fast cruisers “Don Enrique” (the later “Davao Princess” and “Iloilo Princess” and “Don Eusebio” (the later “Dipolog Princess”) alternated in the Manila-Cebu-Davao route. In 1981, when the “Philippine Princess” came, “Dona Marilyn” was reassigned to the Cotabato route. She was the first fast cruiser liner in that route.

Don Sulpicio, Dona Ana and Don Ricardo

Photo by Jon Uy Saulog

On another noteworthy trivia and clarification, Sulpicio Lines also fielded the third “Don Carlos” in the General Santos route in 1977. This ferry was a former vehicle carrier in Japan and so she had a cargo deck and a ramp. However, she was not used as a RORO ship. The ramps were just used to ease the loading of livestock from Gensan. This city sends a lot of those live commodities to Manila. She was actually a “WOWO” ship (Walk on, Walk Off). However, she also takes in heavy equipment and trucks bound for Gensan dealers. So technically “Don Carlos” was the first RORO to Southern Mindanao. But she did not use container vans.

For William Lines, the second “Manila City” (the first “Manila City” was an ex-”FS” ship) was their only fast cruiser to Southern Mindanao for a long time in this decade. Most of the passenger ships they were using in the region were former European passenger-cargo ships like what Sweet Lines were using (the company was also using the “Sweet Grace” to Southern Mindanao which was a brand-new liner in 1968 but was not that fast). Approaching the end of the decade only three national shipping companies were left sailing liners to Southern Mindanao – Sulpicio Lines, William Lines and Sweet Lines. One of the reasons for that was the crisis spawned by the Aquino assassination halved the number of liner companies in the Philippines. It was not because the traffic to Southern Mindanao dropped considerably. In container shipping to Southern Mindanao before the RORO liners came there were six players – Aboitiz Shipping Corporation, William Lines, Sulpicio Lines, Lorenzo Shipping Corporation, Sea Transport Company and Solid Shipping Lines.

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MV Don Carlos (Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In 1983, a new paradigm arrived in the Southern Mindanao routes and it ushered a new era. These are the RORO (or ROPAX) liners which were even bigger and just as fast as the fast cruiser liners. And they can carry more container vans than the fast cruisers. Later, RORO liners were even faster as they can already sail at 20 knots. Can anyone hazard a guess which was the first RORO liner of Southern Mindanao?

I will discuss the era of RORO liners in Southern Mindanao in a subsequent article (as I do not want this article to be too long and unwieldy). With that, it will be a discussion of the recent history of the Southern Mindanao routes and liners.

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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.