The Last Stand of Compania Maritima

In the postwar years, Compania Maritima stressed routes going to southern and western Mindanao (because ships going to southern Mindanao dock in Zamboanga first). It was easy for them since they had liners bigger than former “FS” ships, a luxury not available to their competitors and they had more ships (which is needed since the route were long and takes time to come back). That period Compania Maritima was the biggest shipping company in the Philippines and half of their fleet were big ships. In terms of big ships, they then had the most in the country.

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Photo credits: Manila Chronicle and Gorio Belen

Most ships running the southern Mindanao routes were former “FS” ships which were once small cargo ships of the US Army in World War II. In those routes, Compania Maritima were using former passenger-cargo ships from Europe and there was a whale of a difference between those and the former “FS” ships. The extra space and speed matters a lot and smaller ships were simply more bouncy in inclement weather or when the monsoons are blowing hard.

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Their competitors William Lines and Go Thong were just using former “FS” ships in the route and in the case of the latter it was even using lengthened ex-”F” ships. PSNC (Philippine Steam and Navigation Co.) meanwhile has mixed ex-”FS” and ex-C1-M-AV1” ships in the southern Mindanao routes. In 1955, when Everett Steamship’s duo of brand-new luxury liners which were sister ships arrived, the Legazpi and the Elcano, PSNC withdrew the former “C1-M-AV1” ships in the Davao route (Everett SS was then operating through PSNC in partnership with Aboitiz Shipping Corporation).

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A former ex-“C1-M-AV1” ship (Photo credits: Phil. Herald and Gorio Belen)

Compania Maritima was dominant in the southern Mindanao routes because their ships were simply bigger, better and faster. Their only worthy competition were the Legazpi and Elcano but still their ships which were former European passenger-cargo ships were bigger than those and has more cargo capacity, an important feature then since more cargo meant more revenue.

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(Photo credits: Phil. Herald and Gorio Belen)

In those routes to the south, Compania Maritima followed what was in vogue or normal then, that is the ships pass so many intermediate ports (as in up to six) and Cebu or Iloilo will be one of them. The ships will then dock in other Visayan ports like Tagbilaran, Dumaguete or Pulupandan or northern Mindanao ports like Cagayan de Oro, Iligan or Ozamis, among others. In the early ’70’s, Sweet Lines pioneered the route through the eastern seaboard of Mindanao. But just the same their ships docked first in Visayas ports.

That was the reason why ships then took nearly two weeks to complete a voyage and two ships had to alternate in serving a route to southern Mindanao so a weekly schedule can be maintained. Most had Davao as end port and some had Gensan as end port. Those still going to Davao usually docked also in Gensan (it was called Dadiangas then). A few ships had Cotabato as the end port (it was actually the Polloc port in Parang, Cotabato).

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MV Dona Ana (Wikimedia Commons)

However, in 1976, the new paradigm, that of fast cruiser liners came also to Mindanao. Bringers of it were Sulpicio Lines with the Dona Ana and William Lines with the Manila City. These fast ships only took three days to Davao compared to the six days of the liners before. These new ships only had one intermediate stop, Cebu for Sulpicio Lines and Zamboanga for William Lines. Fast cruisers of that era meant a ship can do 18 knots sustained. These fast cruisers had prompt departures and usually they will arrive at the posted ETA.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

Aside from the Dona Ana, Sulpicio Lines also introduced small passenger-cargo ships with direct Davao sailings and these ships only took five days for the voyage. In 1978, Sulpicio Lines introduced the fast cruiser liners Don Enrique and Don Eusebio to Southern Mindanao routes. Even with these fieldings, Sulpicio Lines and William Lines maintained their old ships with multiple intermediate ports which took six days and with two ships alternating. But passengers who can’t afford or who don’t want to take the plane suddenly has a faster and more luxurious passage. These moves of Sulpicio Lines and William Lines put a lot of pressure on the other operators.

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Photo credit: Gorio Belen

These new liners of Sulpicio Lines and William Lines, being fast and taking fewer days forced changes in the sailings of the other companies. Sweet Lines then assigned three ships rotating to the Davao route and by using the shorter eastern seaboard route and with just one intermediate port was capable of reaching Davao in 4 days. Sweet Lines cannot match Sulpicio Lines and William Lines because they have no fast cruiser liners (they will try to match in 1983 when they acquired the fast RORO liner Sweet RORO 2).

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Photo credit: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

The combined Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) and Lorenzo Shipping Company tried a new tack. They simply dropped passenger service to Davao and offered direct cargo sailings (hence, their ships can almost match the sailing times of the Sulpicio and William fast cruisers). Aboitiz Shipping Corporation meanwhile had already dropped Davao and Gensan even before and their ships were sailing up to Pagadian only (which they will also relinquish and abandon southern Mindanao). The other liner companies were not involved in this battle like Escano Lines, Negros Navigation and the minor liner companies because they had no southern Mindanao nor western Mindanao routes even before.

Compania Maritima which like the others used doubling of ships to Davao or Gensan also used the approach of Sweet Lines, that is to triple the ships in a Davao route so their sailings time will be reduced to four days. Their ships are faster than Sweet Lines’ but although they pruned the number of intermediate port they really can’t bring it down to just one port (so they are not faster to Davao than Sweet Lines). By this time Compania Maritima was already using their best and fastest ships to the Davao route and their next echelon of ships were also doing the other southern Mindanao routes. With this tactic Compania Maritima had a very thin coverage of their old northern Mindanao and Eastern Visayas routes.

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The Compania Maritima flagship (Photo credits: Evening News and Gorio Belen)

If Compania Maritima thought they can hold fort with this tactic they were sadly mistaken. In 1978, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation boldly came back to the southern Mindanao routes with its container ships, a new paradigm in Philippine shipping and they were offering direct sailings which means no intermediate ports. With that they can offer a faster (than Compania Maritima and Sweet Lines) and more secure shipping of goods with less damage. William Lines and Sulpicio Lines, not to be outdone, matched this new offering of Aboitiz Shipping Corporation the next year and this was followed soon by Lorenzo Shipping Corporation. Not to be left out was the new Sea Transport Company, a pure cargo company which offered direct container services to southern Mindanao even ahead of the national liner majors.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

As mentioned before, Sweet Lines also followed suit with a fast service to Davao with the Sweet RORO 2 in 1983. If Compania Maritima was also strong in Cebu cargo before, by this period the national liner majors also had direct and dedicated container ship sailings to Cebu. Cargo is actually the bread and butter of shipping and since Compania Maritima never invested in container ships in due time they were already badly outgunned. Their competition already had fast cruiser liners and it had containers ships too, both new paradigms that Compania Maritima never possessed and they were still stuck to the old cruisers and old way of sailing.

I don’t know if Compania Maritima ever thought of getting aboard the new paradigms. Whatever, events soon decided things for them. President Marcos’ grip on power was loosening, his health was deteriorating and soon Ninoy Aquino was gunned down in the airport in his return in 1983. Political crisis and financial crisis were soon raging in the land, the peso was sinking very fast and production and trade suffered. Even prime companies were tottering on the edge then because of crushing debt loads when lending from the banks was nearly impossible. In this period, even the local operations of the major car assemblers collapsed – Toyota, Ford, General Motors. Other big companies were closing shop too.

The next year Compania Maritima’s answer to the crisis became known to all. They simply ceased operations too like the motoring majors and soon their dual-citizen owners were on their way back to Spain. Compania Maritima’s ships were laid up but soon they were sold to the breakers one by one. By 1988, none of Compania Maritima’s ships were still existing.

And that was how the old and long No.1 in Philippine shipping ended its life.

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Compania Maritima building in Cebu

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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.

The Sweet Lines Ships That Went to Viva Shipping Lines

Sweet Lines was a Central Visayas shipping company of Bohol origin so Bol-anons were rightly proud of her. It also had a cargo liner company (which means fixed routes and schedules) named Central Shipping Company aside from cargo ships too in the Sweet Lines fleet. Sweet Lines started from Visayas-Mindanao routes till they graduated to liner shipping. They were able to do that by acquiring half of the fleet and franchises of the General Shipping Company which moved out of passenger liner shipping in the middle of the 1960’s. From such move, Sweet Lines was able to get routes and ships to Manila.

For a generation Sweet Lines did well in liner shipping. They had all the trappings and signs then of a successful liner company including Japanese agents and big liners. One thing that distinguishes them from competition was that they have a strong Visayas-Mindanao shipping then, as a result of their origins (long before Lite Ferries they dominated Bohol routes). In this regard, they were comparable to Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) after the complete split of the original Go Thong shipping company when Lorenzo Shipping Company parted ways with them. However, Sweet Lines was stronger than them and they had true national presence while CAGLI didn’t have that after 1978 since it was Lorenzo Shipping Company which held the Southern Mindanao routes after their final split. Besides, Sweet Lines had its own cargo shipping company which even dabbled in Asian routes for a while. In passenger shipping, they were even ahead of Aboitiz Shipping Company but the latter had a strong cargo and containerized operation which was ahead of Sweet Lines and Central Shipping.

It seems Sweet Lines did not survive well the crisis decade of the 1980’s. I am one of those which did not foresee their fall. There were some distant nasty rumors then but I found it hard to believe as there are always unfounded rumors in shipping. But then they did not acquire great liners at the start of the 1990’s when even Aboitiz Shipping Company (which had a reputation before of not buying decent liners) also bought theirs when the new administration in Malacanang of President Fidel Ramos laid out incentives for shipping purchase and modernization. That was only then when I began to have the feeling they were sliding, a feeling I got before when the old liner shipping company Escano Lines went out of passenger shipping.

When I was in Mindoro I tend to watch liners passing by. That was my pastime and it was really such a great sight and pleasure for a ship lover. There, I already noticed the liners of Sweet Lines were already being outgunned by the new and newer great liners of the competition. The passing Sweet Lines vessels were generally older, smaller and slower compared to the competition and I was not the only one who noticed that.

Sometime in 1994 I heard from dock hands in Mindoro that the brown ships of Sweet Lines seem not to be passing by. On that place, we actually didn’t know the reason why. Cebu is far from Mindoro, there is no connection between the two places as the Cebu ships just pass by without calling. Later, we heard the news that Sweet Lines stopped sailing but it was more of an unconfirmed news. A few speculated they might have just dropped their Manila route.

One day, I think it was in the month of September, I arrived nighttime in Batangas port. I noticed three brown ships tied at the far end of the quay. I asked what ships were they (it was actually dark – Batangas port was not yet developed then). The porter told me those were Sweet Lines ships sold to the Viva Shipping Lines (VSL). We were hurrying as the last bus going to Manila at 11pm is leaving so I just thought I will see them again when I come back to Batangas.

At that time, Viva Shipping Lines was the dominant shipping company of Southern Tagalog (there was no separate region of MIMAROPA yet). It had two sister legal-fiction companies, the Sto. Domingo Shipping Company and DR Shipping Company. Together, all three operated over thirty vessels including wooden motor boats called the “batel” in that area. They were so dominant the other shipping companies feared them. Below-the-belt and bullying tactics were routinely ascribed to them also. As to financial muscle, nobody doubted they were capable of buying three moderately-sized second-hand ferries.

Actually, the three vessels from Sweet Lines fit exactly the ship size needed by Viva Shipping Lines. The three vessels were also badly needed and in fact after they were fielded Southern Tagalog routes still lacked ships. That was how deep were our shortage of bottoms then in the short-distance routes when the new short-distance RORO mode was already beginning to fly. This shortage was actually the result of the calamitous decade of the 1980’s for shipping when we lost so many shipping companies, so many ships including the retirement of the former “FS” ships.

The Viva Shipping Lines had two base ports – Batangas and Lucena – and they had routes to various ports of Mindoro, the Romblon islands, Marinduque and even far-off Masbate. Their wooden motor boats (the batel) also had routes to the various island-towns in the Sibuyan Sea and to Occidental Mindoro. They also had semi-scheduled routes to Burias island and to various ports in the the southern coast of Bicol from Bondoc Peninsula in Quezon province. From Bondoc Peninsula their motor boats ranged up to Marinduque and Lucena. The origin of Viva Shipping Lines was actually Bondoc Peninsula, specifically Villa Reyes in San Narciso, Quezon.

Later, I was asked in Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS) what happened to the ships sold by Sweet Lines to Batangas and what happened to them. This got me interested again in the three brown ships I saw in Batangas and to which I have sailed with the the subsequent years.

The three ships were of moderate size in the Sweet Lines fleet but in Viva Shipping they were already among the largest. The three were the Sweet Pride, the last ship ever acquired by Sweet Lines, in 1991; the Sweet Pearl, acquired in 1989; the Sweet Marine, acquired in 1988. They became the Viva Penafrancia 5, the Viva Penafrancia 3 and the Viva Penafrancia 8, respectively. Later, the Viva Penafrancia 5 and Viva Penafrancia 8 became very well known in Batangas and Calapan.

Sweet Pride was originally the Seikan Maru No. 5 of Higashi Nippon Ferry in Japan. She was built by Taguma Zosen in Innoshima, Japan in 1968 with the ID IMO 6908254. She measured 68.0 meters x 14.2 meters and 1,500gt with 2 x 1,300hp Daihatsu engines and 15.5 knots in speed. As Viva Penafrancia 5, she had a sitting passenger capacity of 900.

Sweet Pearl was originally the Ashizuri of Sukomo Kanko Kisen KK in Japan. She was built Usuki Tekkosho in Usuki, Japan in 1971 with the ID IMO 7126009. She measured 69.7 meters x 13.6 meters and 1,275gt with 2 x 2,000hp Niigata engines and 16 knots in speed. As Viva Penafrancia 3, she had a sitting passenger capacity of 802.

Sweet Marine was originally the Taikan Maru No. 3, also of Higashi Nippon Ferry in Japan. She was built by Shimoda Dockyard Company in Shimoda, Japan in 1968 with the ID IMO 6829197. She measured 60.0 meters x 12.8 meters and 913gt with 2 x 750hp Daihatsu engines and only 11 knots in speed. As Viva Penafrancia 8, she had a sitting passenger capacity of 762. This ferry was the sister ship of Asia Brunei (now Grand Unity of Navios Lines and formerly Blue Water Princess 2 of Blue Magic Ferries), Asia Indonesia (now Grand Venture 1 of Navios Lines) and Filipinas Dapitan of Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. I just wonder if in Batangas they realize that the ships of Navios Lines were sister ships of a ferry they once knew as Viva Penafrancia 3.

In the Sweet Lines fleet, the three were overnight ferry-ROROs and they were relatively big for that role in those days. In Viva Shipping Lines the three were converted to and became workhorses in the short-distance ferry routes of the company. In general, the three were not used for the overnight routes of Viva Shipping Lines.

The Viva Penafrancia 5, Viva Penafrancia 3 and Viva Penafrancia 8 all had successful careers in Viva Shipping Lines. Moreover, the three also became tools in the shipping wars for the continued dominance of Viva Shipping Lines in Southern Tagalog. When the three came for the company in 1994, Viva Shipping Lines still had complete dominance in the region. That was the time there was still lack of bottoms in the Southern Tagalog routes.

However, before the end of the last millennium there were already so many ferries in Batangas. Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) was growing fast along with the new entrant Starlite Ferries Inc. There was also a slew of smaller shipping companies trying their luck in the area. The overcrowding was also exacerbated by the fast arrivals in the area of the High Speed Crafts (HSCs), both the catamaran and the fastcraft type and they had their own wars too. The area soon degenerated in a dog-eat-dog world or as the Tagalogs would say, “Matira ang matibay”.

As they said, no thing lasts forever. And events revealed that it was Viva Shipping Line which was “hindi matibay” (but of course, “patron saints” have their darlings too). In the early 2000’s, Viva Shipping Lines hit rock, so to say and they were in trouble. Maybe aside from “patron saints”, passenger resentments might have also tipped the scales. They gradually quit sailing and as they did that they left their ships in anchorage in Batangas Bay, in Lucena (they have a shipyard there) and in their original base of San Narciso, Quezon. They then put up their ships for sale.

In 2003, Viva Penafrancia 8 was sold to a Ernesto V. Mercado, a ship breaker followed by Viva Penafrancia 3, also to the same breaker in 2004. Meanwhile, Viva Penafrancia 5, the most regarded of the three was laid up in Elfa Shipyard in Navotas, Metro Manila. She might not be there now and she might have gone to the shipping heavens, too.

And that was the career of the three Sweet Lines ships that went to Viva Shipping Lines. They all died before their time not because they were not good. It was their companies that was not good enough for them.

Note: There was another Sweet Lines ship that went to Viva Shipping Lines in 1988, the second and Japan-built Sweet Faith, the ex-Hakodate Maru No. 11. She became the San Lorenzo Ruiz in Sto. Domingo Shipping Company. This transfer had no connection with the collapse of Sweet Lines, Inc.