Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated Is Still Fighting Back

When the original shipping company Carlos A. Gothong & Company broke up in 1972, one of the successor companies was Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated (CAGLI or Gothong Lines) owned by the scions of the founder Don Carlos A. Gothong. It was eclipsed early by Sulpicio Lines Incorporated which was owned by the once operations manager of the mother company. And then its operation and fleet even got smaller in 1980 when Lorenzo Shipping Corporation of Lorenzo Go and two other siblings went their separate way (this company was later sold to the Magsaysay Shipping Group but later the scions of Lorenzo Go founded the Oceanic Container Lines Incorporated which now has the biggest number of container ships in the country which has the “Ocean” series).

Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. again became a significant national liner company in the 1990’s when again they built a fleet of liners starting in 1986 and more significantly in 1987 when they acquired the sister ships Our Lady of Fatima and the Our Lady of Lourdes. The sister ships Sto. Nino de Cebu (the later Our Lady of Medjugorje) and the beautiful Our Lady of Sacred Heart, both acquired in 1990 cemented their national liner position and the big liner Our Lady of Akita, acquired in 1993 declared their intention to play in the big leagues.

The rising company got absorbed when they acquiesced to the creation of big merged shipping company WG & A (which stood for William, Gothong and Aboitiz) in late 1995 and that included their small fleet of RORO Cargo ships and also their Visayas-Mindanao overnight ferries. In this merged company their main representative to the Board of Directors was Bob Gothong who was close to the Aboitizes and not the eldest Bowen Gothong.

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Butuan Bay 1 by Vinz Sanchez

While Bob Gothong never veered from the Aboitiz orbit (take note it was Aboitiz Jebsens which was in charge of the operations fleet maintenance of WG & A), the other siblings of Bob Gothong were not satisfied with the state of things in the merged company and in 2001 they asked out and the process of divestment began. Even before the divestment was completed the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated already had the Butuan Bay 1 ready to sail the Manila-Cebu-Nasipit route which was considered lucky for them and where they were very strong in cargo historically. Instead of being paid in ships, the Gothong siblings were paid in cash (while Bob Gothong remained with WG&A) and for this to happen a lot of WG&A ships, both ROPAX and container ships had to be sold to China ship breakers for cash.

With the proceeds in the divestment that did not include Bob Gothong, the Gothong siblings led by Bowen Gothong acquired the big Manila Bay 1 and Subic Bay 1 in 2003 and 2004, respectively which were as big as their old Our Lady of Akita which burned in 2000 as the SuperFerry 6. The two was followed by the Ozamis Bay 1, also in 2004 and by the Cagayan Bay 1, the sister ship of SuperFerry 2 and SuperFerry 5, in 2007. At its peak the revived Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated had a total of 5 ROPAXes (RORO-Passenger ships) plus a valuable wharf in the new reclaimed land in Mandaue adjacent the Cebu International Port or Cebu Pier 6. But though they had five ferries, the revived CAGLI was only able to regain a limited presence in the Visayas-Mindanao routes which were once dominated by them together with the Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Incorporated.

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The revived Gothong Lines did not prove to be very successful. When they re-entered liner shipping, many passengers were already leaving the liners and they were going to the budget airlines and the intermodal buses using short-distance ferry-ROROs. Cargo was also shifting too to the intermodal system because of the high container rates and the hassles of hauling container vans to the Port of Manila from road congestion to criminality and to the rampant mulcting of the so-called “authorities”. In those years it seemed there was a surplus of bottoms which meant excess ships, a possible result of liberalization and incentives programs of President Fidel V. Ramos.

Gothong Lines then became notorious for late departures and arrivals because they gave preference to cargo which earns more than carrying passengers and they were actually never strong in the passenger department. Repeated complaints led the maritime authority MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) to suspend their permit to carry passengers. With that happening Gothong Lines simply converted their ROPAXes into RORO Cargo ships just carrying container vans and vehicles.

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With weakness in this business too, soon Cagayan Bay 1 and Ozamis Bay 1 soon found themselves laid up in the Gothong wharf in Mandaue and Butuan Bay 1 was sold after an engine explosion and it became the Trans-Asia 5 of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Incorporated (TASLI). So in the recent years it was only Manila Bay 1 and Subic Bay 1 which were sailing for Gothong Lines and it seemed the two was enough for their limited cargo and routes. However, as RORO Cargo ships they were inefficient because of their big engines. But even then Gothong Lines were offering discounts and cheap rates in general which only showed how overpriced are container rates in the country. Recently, Cagayan Bay 1 and Ozamis Bay 1 were sold to the breakers but their hulls are still in the Gothong wharf in Mandaue as of the writing of this article.

Many speculated what will happen next to Gothong Lines with two inefficient and obsolescent ships and some were even asking if they will soon cease operations as their two ships were already clearly old and might even be too big for their routes. For me, I always look at their wharf which they retained and I know it is very valuable in terms of market value. Actually, the container shipping company established by their brother Bob Gothong, the Gothong Southern Shipping Lines Incorporated (GSSLI) does not even have an equivalent although it is the more progressive and booming company.

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Panglao Bay 1

Recently, two RORO Cargo ships arrived in the Gothong wharf one after another and they were still relatively new by Philippine standards. These are the Panglao Bay 1 and the Dapitan Bay 1 and from the look of things they are the replacements of Subic Bay 1 and Manila Bay 1. Actually, some three months ago as of the writing of this article, the Subic Bay 1 was already pulled by tugs and it seems here destination is a ship breaker somewhere in South Asia. That happened when the Panglao Bay 1 was already sailing for them. It is speculated that the Manila Bay 1 will be disposed of when Dapitan Bay 1 will already be sailing. In reality, it is possible she already has a buyer now.

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The Panglao Bay 1 was built in 1995 and her external dimensions are 128 meters by 22 meters with a Gross Tonnage (GT) of 5,930 in cubic volume and a cargo capacity of 4,946 tons in Deadweight Tonnage (DWT). Meanwhile, the Dapitan Bay 1 is officially a Vehicle Carrier and was built in 1992 and has the external dimensions 145 meters by 21 meters and has a cubic volume of 7,073 tons in GT and a DWT of 4,485 tons. This ship has different specifications depending on the maritime database. Whatever, these two ships are already the ships of Gothong Lines for the future and they look like worthy replacements for the Subic Bay 1 and Manila Bay 1 though they are a little smaller (but the engines are smaller too which is a plus). But then Gothong Lines might have already studied their cargo capacity needs and concluded that the sizes of the two fits them just right.

And so Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. is still fighting back. That is good news as they are the bearer of one of the most storied names in Philippine shipping history.

The Smallest and Last Japan “Cruiseferry” To Come To The Philippines

In the late 1960’s, the “Bypasses of the Sea” came into existence in Japan. These were long-distance ROROs (actually ROPAXes) meant to bypass the crowded roads of Japan which was experiencing a sustained economic boom then in what was called the “Japan Miracle” which brought the former war-defeated and occupied country into the forefront of the ranks of nations (Number 2 in fact later). These “Bypasses of the Sea” were workmanlike and were primarily geared to the trucks and its crews and also to passengers in average comfort. Some of these ROROs actually came to the Philippines when they were retired in Japan like the Filipina Princess, the Princess of Paradise, the Princess of the World, the Manila Bay 1, the Subic Bay 1 and the Mary Queen of Peace.

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Photo by Wakanatsu

In the next decade, aside from the “Bypasses of the Sea”, a new class of ROROs came into existence in Japan. These were bigger and much more comfortable with hotel-like facilities. These were later dubbed as “cruiseferries”, a portmanteau. These were like cruise ships in comfort and service but as the same time these were still “Bypasses of the Sea”. As “cruiseferries”, these were more geared to attract passengers but these still had the car decks for the trucks and sedans. The “cruiseferries” being faster that most ROROs can travel more distances and longer routes and can cover most of their routes in a night or so, in great comfort. “Sanfurawaa” or the series of Sunflower ships were the leader in this new class and three of their ships eventually went to the Philippines after their retirement. They were known as Princess of the Orient, Mabuhay 1 and Princess of Unity in our waters.

The “cruiseferry” class did not last long, however. In the 1980’s, Japan were no longer building them as passengers were already preferring other modes of transport like the budget planes and the now-ubiquitous “Bullet” trains. The Japan shipping companies scaled back in comfort and began dedicating two decks of the ship to rolling cargo. However, there was still enough comfort for those who seek them although it was no longer as opulent as the “cruiseferries”. Dormitories and second-class cabins were the dominant passenger classes now. These class of ships were called the “carferries” and some of these also reached the Philippines when they were retired in Japan. They were known here as the SuperFerry 12, SuperFerry 15, SuperFerry 16, SuperFerry 17, SuperFerry 18, SuperFerry 20, SuperFerry 21, Princess of the Universe, St. Michael The Archangel and St. Francis Xavier.

There are also other Japan companies which ventured into “cruiseferries”. One of these is the Sanpo Kaiun K.K. which is just a small company. It acquired the White Sanpo 2 in 1981 and she was relatively big compared to their previous ships. This ship was well-appointed it qualified into a “cruiseferry” class albeit a little smaller than the other Japan “cruiseferries”. Her route was Kobe-Imabari-Matsuyama. The year she was acquired, Japan shipping companies were still acquiring “cruiseferries”. It will be just be a little later that the “cruiseferries” will be supplanted by the “carferries”.

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Photo by Britz Salih

In 2000, White Sanpo 2 came to the Philippines after 19 years of service in Japan and she became the SuperFerry 14 of William, Gothong and Aboitiz or WG&A. This was the first ferry not originally ordered by the partners which means it was already the merged company which acquired her. She was also the last Japan “cruiseferry” that came here. Passengers were asking why the later big ferries from Japan were no longer as luxurious. The reason was it was already “carferries” that were coming and no longer “cruiseferries”. Actually, the presence of two car decks is the giveaway the ship that came is a “carferry”.

The SuperFerry 14 was not really as small ship since her length was 155 meters which is nearly 5 meters longer than the sister ships SuperFerry 20, SuperFerry 21, St. Michael The Archangel and St. Francis Xavier and the sister ships St. Peter The Apostle and St. Joseph The Worker and she was just two meter shorter than SuperFerry 8. However if compared to the SuperFerry 6, SuperFerry 10, SuperFerry 12, the Princess of the Universe, the Princess of Paradise, the Princess of the World, the Princess of New Unity, the Mary Queen of Peace, the Manila Bay 1 and the Subic Bay 1 (and of course the earlier Filipina Princess) she would look “small”. It was simply the time that our shipping companies were acquiring bigger and bigger liners and with large passenger capacities too. During that period, liners of 3,000-passenger capacity were already becoming the norm.

The White Sanpo 2 or SuperFerry 14 was actually 155.6 meters by 23.6 meters in dimension with a depth of 13.0 meters. Her gross tonnage (GT) was 10,181 meters in Japan and 10,192 meters in the Philippines. The reason for the almost identical GT was her superstructure here was no longer modified and no decks were added. She was one of the early big liners here where the superstructure was left untouched and the passenger capacity was not maximized. Others like her in this treatment were the Mabuhay 1 or SuperFerry 10 and the Princess of New Unity. For her bigness, SuperFerry 14 only had a passenger capacity of 1,757. Other liners of her length and in her time had passenger capacities of well over 2,000 persons. Her net tonnage (NT) was 4,957.

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The ship with the green sundeck is SuperFerry 14 (copyrights are in the photo)

The White Sanpo 2, the future SuperFerry 14 was built by Hayashikane Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Ltd. in their Shimonoseki yard in Japan in 1981. She has three passenger decks and a single car deck which was accessible by ramps at the bow and the stern. Her design and lines were pretty much traditional of her period. The ship has a semi-bulbous stem and a transom stern and powered by two main engines, all of which were standard in the design of her era. Her permanent ID was IMO 8004210.

Her speed was also par for the course for the big liners then of 150 meters length in the Philippines except for those that didn’t look sleek enough (like the Manila Bay 1 and SuperFerry 6 which looked fat and were not capable of 20 knots here). Since her design speed in Japan was 21 knots, she was still capable of 20 knots here especially since not much metal was added because no decks were added to her. That speed came from a pair of SEMT-Pielstick engines that developed 23,400 horsepower.

As a former “cruiseferry”, SuperFerry 14 had luxurious interiors and accommodations many of which were simply carried over from her Japan features. Since WG&A had many good ships already in the Cebu and Iloilo routes, she was then used by the company to compete with the Negros Navigation ships in the Manila-Bacolod-Cagayan de Oro route. Bacolod was once closed to other shipping companies except for Negros Navigation since they operate privately the only suitable port for big liners then, the Banago port. With the opening of the BREDCO port, WG&A challenged in the Manila-Bacolod-Cagayan de Oro route and SuperFerry 14 was more than a match to the Mary The Queen and the St. Joseph The Worker of NENACO in the Cagayan de Oro route.

First Try

A drawing by Ken Ledesma

The SuperFerry 14 did not sail long, however. On the night of February 27, 2004, a bomb exploded in a Tourist section on a lower deck of the ship an hour and a half after leaving Manila North Harbor when the ship was at the mouth of Manila Bay. The explosion triggered a fire which soon engulfed the whole ship. The firefighting crew of the ship was overwhelmed and the rescue was chaotic. Some passengers simply jumped into the dark sea and some were feared drowned in the aftermath. To think, it was even fortunate that the incident happened in waters near where rescue ships can reach the ship fast.

Rescuers including tugs and a helicopter tried to douse the fire consuming the ship and eventually the fire was controlled. The ship was towed to Bataan even while burning as capsizing will mean a greater loss. On shore, the vessel capsized but she was righted and search and rescue operations continued. With the vessel afloat, rescuers were able to comb the ship and probers investigated the cause of the fire. There was really a blast site that looked like it came from a bomb. The claims of the crew of a bomb exploding was validated.

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Photo from http://www.infolagoon.com

Although the Abu Sayyaf Group immediately claimed responsibility for the firebombing, the government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo initially dismissed a terrorist attack and instead blamed it on some sort of an accident (the government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had the habit of denying terrorist attacks until conclusively proven). But later when suspects from the Rajah Solaiman Movement affiliated with the Abu Sayyaf were captured and admitted what happened to SuperFerry 14, the government changed tune and admitted that what brought the ferry down was really a bomb placed inside a TV set.

Whatever and later, the estimate was some 63 people died and about 53 were missing in the incident for a total body count of about 116. That figure does not include the wounded. Some of the casualties were bright students from an elite school, the MSU-IIT-IDS of Iligan City in Lanao and that included the second-ranking student of the graduating class (she was later given a posthumous joint Salutatorian award by the school).

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Photo from The 4Freedoms Library

SuperFerry 14 never sailed again as her condition is BER (Beyond Economic Repair). In databases, she is marked as CTL (Complete Total Loss). There were pictures of her where the fire was even consuming the bridge of the ship. Besides, passengers don’t want to ride a ship where there was a lot of dead in a previous accident.

A very fine ship but SuperFerry 14 was really unfortunate.