When the Filipina Princess of Sulpicio Lines, all of 180 meters length arrived in our shores in 1988 it was really a wow! moment. There has never been a liner really like her before and she beat the 4,000 plus gross tons ships, the biggest liners then by a wide mile by her 13,500 gross tonnage. In length she was about 50 meters longer than the previous record holder, the Dona Virginia of William Lines. And she was no slouch, not the slightest bit as she can sail at 26 knots full trot and thereby smashing to smithereens the old record of 20 knots variously run by Sweet Faith, Cebu City and Dona Virginia.
I mentioned Filipina Princess not because she was a 150-meter RORO liner but because I think she was one seminal reason why the greatest liner class appeared in Philippine waters and these were the 160-meter and over liners. To a sense the lesser class of 150-meter liners was a consolation class since 160-meter liners are rare and easier to procure were the 150-meter liners. The Filipina Princess “pushed the boundary” and combined with the reasons of pride, one-upmanship and bragging rights, the other shipping companies felt the pressure to match her. And soon shipping companies serving the Manila-Cebu route had the greatest of our liners in the 160-meter class and over.
One effect of that is the thought that 150-meter RORO liners are “fit” to serve the main secondary routes and ports like Iloilo, Cagayan de Oro, Zamboanga, General Santos City and Davao. And therein lies my question. This might have been true when we lacked liners in the second half of the 1980’s and first half of 1990’s. This was the time when demand and travel was going up since our economy was recovering from the greatest economic crisis since World War II. And this came from the deadly-for-shipping decade of the 1980’s (specifically its first half) when a lot of liner companies went under and we consequently lost a lot of liners. Add to that that the former backbone of our liner fleet, the ex-”FS” ships were going one by one to the breakers as they have already hit 40 years of service and were already clearly obsolete and having reliability problems already.
Our first response then was to acquire liners in the 100-meter and 110-meter class. Many of the latter actually were maxed in passenger capacity up to 2,000 persons and over and it can fill it then for simply there was really a lot of passengers as our liner companies and liners were practically halved if compared to the baseline year of 1980. So then getting 120-meter, 130-meter and 140-meter liners in the early 1990’s was understandable. The passenger capacity did not really increase by much in these liners but the available passenger areas definitely increased along with the amenities that soon they were marketing these as “floating hotels” and Aboitiz Shipping Corporation even have the position “Hotel Manager” aboard the ship, a professional one and not really a mariner. The “Hotel Manager” was in charge of all things related to serving passengers from the cabins to the bunks and “beddings” down to F&B (food and beverage) and the general cleanliness of the ship including the T&B (toilet and bath). Once upon a time that job when it was still simple was just handled by the ship Purser who also purchase the goods needed by the ship but when the “floating hotels” came that was centrally purchased already and needs of the ship was just replenished in port and decided by a shore-based shipping department which were not mariners in general. This time graduates of hotel and restaurant management were beginning to penetrate the liner industry and more and more passenger service were no longer the responsibility of what was derisively called as “mga tagamasahe ng bakal” (literally, “masseurs of steel”).
Hotel Manager’s office
A 135-meter or 140-meter ship was already capable of accommodating over 2,000 passengers plus about 100 TEUs of container vans. Wasn’t that enough as capacity for the secondary liner ports? Well, apparently the shipping companies did not think so. Not maybe out of capacity but out of speed. You see, in the main, the 130-meter and 140-meter liners were only capable of sustained cruising speeds here of 17.5 to 18 knots. In the main too, it was only the 150-meter, 20,000-horsepower liners which were capable of 20 knots sustained. That time with the fetish on speed when the fuel was not still that expensive (there was no 9-11 World Trade Tower attack yet which provoked the unending wars of the USA in the Middle East and Afghanistan which raised fuel prices), it is as if 20 knots is already de regueur on the primary and secondary routes. 130-meter and 140-meter liners (and some 120-meter liners too) generally has only 13,500 to 16,800 horsepower so they can’t really run at 20 knots. If there were 120-meter, 130-meter and 140-meter RORO liners also capable of 20 knots the reason is because they have engines of 20,000 horsepower too. Examples of these were the SuperFerry 1, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ezekiel Moreno, Princess of the Ocean and the Our Lady of Lipa. It is really the total horsepower that produces the speed.
Then from 1995, when the liberalization and ship importation program of President Fidel V. Ramos was already in full swing, a lot of 150-meter, 20,000-horsepower RORO liners and over came and it went on up to the next decade. And the tail end of this binge was the arrival of the four sister ships which became locally known as SuperFerry 20, SuperFerry 21, St. Michael The Archangel and St. Francis Xavier which were 150.9 meters in length and equipped with 25,200-horsepower engines and capable of cruising speeds of 20 knots here except for the St. Michael The Archangel. But were they really necessary?
St. Michael The Archangel by Jonathan Bordon
The answer might not lie in Sulpicio Lines. They acquired their last liner in 2004, the Princess of the Stars, the biggest-ever ferry to sail here but she was just a statement of the company that they want the biggest and the best liner for maybe the replacement Princess of the Universe to the lost Princess of the Orient was not good enough to be the absolute best, a distinction Sulpicio Lines really wants for themselves alone. Previous to this their last purchase was the Princess of New Unity in 1999. In this ship and the Princess of the Stars, Sulpicio Lines did not try to max the passenger capacity any longer and both were sub-2,000 passengers in capacity. It seems Sulpicio Lines read earlier than the other shipping companies the weakening of passenger demand with the coming of the budget airlines and intermodal buses. But they were strong in cargo which was really where the bulk of the income of the liner companies come from. Imagine a revenue of P17,000 from a 20-footer to Davao in 1995 when an Economy accommodation only gives them about P850 and they still have to provide three square meals a day for at least two-and-a-half days, bunks, hotel services and security to the passengers while they only have to lift and roll the container vans.
Negros Navigation’s purchase of 150-meter RORO liners also did not last long because they soon found themselves with more ships than routes and passengers. It was actually WG&A and later Aboitiz Transport System which purchased many 150-meter (and over) RORO liners. It is from them that one will think that liners below 150 meters are already passe but it seemed they never knew that.
SuperFerry 15 by ‘superferry crew’
In the early 2000’s Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) also felt passenger demand on liners were already weakening. That is why with the acquisition of the SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 they did not try anymore to max the passenger capacity and instead they let it that TEU capacity is high with the creation of two-level wagon decks as they called them. Aboitiz Transport System was then stressing express cargo and it was the SuperFerry liners that can fill that role and not their container ships which can sail at barely over half the speed of the SuperFerries. Their system was so good that forwarder companies like LBC was using their container vans to move parcels and cargo that were declared as “air cargo” and charged as such (well, they also roll express vans – trucks that roll in the road, that is). With their reliance on SuperFerries, WG&A, the predecessor company of ATS did not invest anymore in newer container ships. What it did was actually to sell their better container ships and so the SuperRORO series of container ships became history.
So WG&A and Aboitiz Transport System (successor company to WG&A) continued to acquire 150-meter RORO liners when ship passenger ridership was already weakening. They might have reason — the express container van trade. But mind you, the freight rates of WG&A and Aboitiz Transport System was actually higher than competition for they can promise shorter delivery time and short enough for forwarder companies with express parcel services to use and deceive customers. It were no longer the passengers the reason for this but the cargo.
When Aboitiz Transport System opportunistically sold SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17 and SuperFerry 18 when ship prices were high suddenly, Aboitiz Transport System then had to charter container ships (which can’t run 20 knots) and converted three of their other liners to have two wagon decks, the SuperFerry 2, SuperFerry 9 and SuperFerry 12 and so their passenger capacities were also halved (actually more than halved) along with the passenger amenities and space. By this time Negros Navigation was into a court-administered recovery program and just running a few liners after their bout of illiquidity and soon Sulpicio Lines was practically out of passenger shipping along with the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI), MBRS Lines and Moreta Shipping. Aboitiz Transport System had the narrowing (not wide) liner shipping industry practically for themselves except for some resistance from Negros Navigation.
St. Francis Xavier by John Carlos Cabanillas
Now 2GO, the merger of ATS and Negros Navigation which happened when the latter bought out the former, operates an all-150 meter and 160-meter liner fleet after they sold their older liners (and there is no other liner company left). All can sail at 20 knots or close to 20 knots if needed except one plus the former Cebu Ferries overnight ships which are just used on short routes. Even with passenger capacity of just over 1,000 on the average most of the time they can’t fully fill up these 150-meter liners and nor in cargo as their second wagon decks are practically empty most times except for a few sedans.
If they operate these 150-meter liners on smaller cities and ports it will result in operational losses and that is the reason why they pulled out of lesser ports like Surigao, Tagbilaran, Dapitan, etc. The 150-meter liners were too big for them and they can’t assign the former Cebu Ferries vessels there because they are too small, the distances are too great and they lack the speed of liners and are better suited to the routes they are currently assigned to. That is the disadvantage of 2GO not having liners in intermediate range like the 120- or 130-meter liners before. And that is the misfortune of passengers and shippers in the lesser cities and ports. They now have to have alternate ways to travel or ship and they were given free by ATS and 2GO to the budget airlines and intermodal buses and trucks. Otherwise, some became passengers of the overnight ships and the short-distance ROROs for a connecting voyage to Cebu.
I wonder why 2GO kept on insisting on 150-meter liners with two cargo decks which they can’t fill. They are basically paying the penalty of the 25,000 horsepower of these ships when they can’t also fill the passenger bunks. 2GO can’t even cite the speed of these ships now because their voyages are almost always late in departures as they give priority to cargo and their cargo handling in port is no longer as fast as before and they are a little fond of midnight cargo handling where operations are more dangerous and slower.
Panglao Bay 1 by Mark Ocul
Can’t they see that their 150-meter liners with such gross horsepowers are passe already? Those are no longer fit for the times, in my eyes. Moving 1,000 plus passengers can be done by lesser liners as shown before with maybe just half of the 25,000 horsepowers of the 150-meter liners. With more modern transmission, 10,000 horsepower engines will already do now and its speeds will just equal the 18 knots these 150-meter liners are doing now. In my mind, the Panglao Bay 1 and Dapitan Bay 1, new Cargo RORO ships of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. would have been fit if employed by 2GO and modified like the coming third Trans-Asia (1) of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, Inc.
I just hope the coming new management of 2GO (I can’t discuss any other liner company as they are the only surviving now) will focus well on their liner need and come up with better-fitting liners and with a mix that will make them cover more ports and routes and in a more efficient manner.